Saturday, September 13, 2014

American Hustle

Year 6, Day 256 - 9/13/14 - Movie #1,847

BEFORE: My week of lies and deception has led me here, to a film all about that, and the end of the Bradley Cooper chain.  Seems like the chains are getting shorter and shorter these days, but that's bound to happen as the films left on the list become more and more random.  Actually there are 4 actors carrying over from "Silver Linings Playbook", two with major roles tonight and two with minor ones, so, really you should have seen this one coming.  Same director as an added bonus.

THE PLOT:  A con man, along with his seductive partner, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

AFTER: I'll be heading back to Atlantic City in a couple weeks - those casinos still owe me $80 from the last trip, and if I can't get it in cash, I'll take it in food from the buffets.  I've been there twice before, it seems I've always known it as a gambling mecca.  That's why I was so surprised to learn that gambling has only been legal in New Jersey since the mid-1970's - I've been around longer than legal gambling in Atlantic City?  I'm absolutely shocked.  Of course, illegal gambling has been taking place there since forever, or at least the 1920's.  

I also had no idea that the development of Atlantic City casinos was tied to the Abscam scandal of the 1970's.  Corrupt politicians in New Jersey (there's another shocker...) were doing whatever they could to get in on the action, including taking bribes from undercover FBI agents, thinking that the money was coming from an Arab sheik, and promising to fast-track the sheik's immigration process through special legislation, in order to make his investments in A.C. legal.  Yeah, but making him a citizen wouldn't have made the bribes legal - is that what the politicians thought?  

I sort of remember reading about Abscam when I was a kid.  I didn't really understand why someone was impersonating an Arab, or what crime was being committed.  I still don't fully understand it, because some would say that giving a politician money in exchange for him promising to do something that doesn't really need to be done might constitute entrapment, while others would say that you've got him dead to rights as soon as he picks up that briefcase.  

I liked the plot in this one, and the characters (except for the fact that Bale seemed to be playing much the same character that Tom Cruise did in "Tropic Thunder") and the way it got rightly treated as a "heist" film instead of, say, a political one.  But, there really was no need to start the film with a scene from the middle, and then jump back to when the main character was a kid to give us his complete back-story, and (eventually) catch up to where we started, just to play out that whole scene AGAIN.  I penalize for unnecessary time-jumping, don't you know.  

Really, the whole FILM is a flashback, to the time of discos and turntables.  And the fashion!  Velvet suits, plunging necklines, tight curls and nail polish - and that's just the men!  The women looked even better!  

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "Velvet Goldmine"), Jennifer Lawrence (also carrying over from "Silver Linings Playbook"), Robert De Niro (ditto), Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, Elisabeth Rohm, Jack Huston, Paul Herman (yep, another carry-over from "Silver Linings Playbook").  

RATING: 7 out of 10 microwave ovens

Friday, September 12, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook

Year 6, Day 255 - 9/12/14 - Movie #1,846

BEFORE: The Bradley Cooper chain rolls on.  This is one of those films that simply everyone was talking about last year, and I admit sometimes the more I hear about a film, the more likely I am to add it to the list.  However, that sometimes is a double-edge sword, because if I hear too MUCH about a film, then when it finally makes it to the top of the list, I know so many details that watching it almost becomes an afterthought.  This is what happened with "Gravity", for example.

THE PLOT:  After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

AFTER: Yeah, I'm kind of torn on this one, and I'm not sure I can adequately say why.  Clearly this struck a chord with audiences because of its portrayal of mental health issues (my theory is that everyone's a little bit crazy) or maybe because it showcases an underdog character who's trying to deal with a failed marriage.  God knows a lot of people have been through that, myself included.  

It seems inspirational in that we all encounter times in our life when things don't go so well, either on the job front or in relationships, and it's important for people to remember that hope springs eternal.  There can always be a new job or a new relationship on the horizon, if we just set out to look for it.  (Funny thing about the horizon, though, it's always far off - if you carry the metaphor to the extreme, you will never actually reach the horizon...)  

It also comes down to whether you're the sort of person who sees the proverbial glass as "half full" or "half empty"..  Me, I tend to see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be.  Plus I want to know who the heck's been drinking from my glass?  

I don't have much experience with bipolar people - but I know what it feels like to manufacture cause and effect relationships in life.  If I search for a new job, I will find one - but only if I wear my lucky tie to the interview, or something like that.  I don't have the kind of OCD that makes me turn light switches on and off multiple times, but I've got the kind that makes me want to alphabetize and organize things the way I like them.  Fortunately, this can be overcome with plain, old-fashioned laziness.  Sure, I want to have my comic books in order, the compulsion is always there, but damn, that involves a lot of lifting of very heavy boxes.  Maybe tomorrow...or the day after that, and so on.

The main character here gets it in his head that if he can perform well at the dance competition, he can get his wife back.  But dude, why would you WANT her back?  This is the strange mindset of someone who got cheated on - the conflict comes when he wants his old life back, he wants things to be the way they used to be, and at the same time, he's blind to the fact that maybe things were never that good to begin with.  But he's got to realize this on his own terms before he can move on.

There's an obvious connection made to the lunacy of sports fans here, who believe that if they wear their lucky shirt, or watch the game in the exact same chair or with the exact same people they were with the last time, their team will win again.  I think every sports fan HAS to know, deep down, that their actions or attitudes have no bearing on the results of the game - yet somehow watching a football game in the U.S. has become an activity, instead of what it really is, which is a "passivity".  Or a non-activity, whichever term you prefer.  Why do so many people shout at the TV during sporting events?  They know the team can't hear them, right?  

So we have this sort of mass hysteria, and it's not just in this country, I'm including soccer fans into the mix too - it's this weird competition where people need to prove they are bigger fans of THEIR team than other people are of another team.  People, the competition is on the field, not in the parking lot or your living room.

To me this is putting the cart before the horse - a team needs to accomplish something first before I will pay attention, otherwise I'm wasting my time and just setting myself up for the heartbreak of failure.  Red Sox, Mets, Patriots - I'm not watching any games until they make the playoffs.  It's just a time-saver.  People who attend every game, follow all the stats, play in fantasy leagues - need to have their heads examined.

Also starring Jennifer Lawrence (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Robert De Niro (last seen in "New Year's Eve"), Jacki Weaver (last seen in "The Five-Year Engagement"), Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles (last seen in "O"), Dash Mihok (last seen in "The Thin Red Line").

RATING:  5 out of 10 crabby snacks

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Words

Year 6, Day 254 - 9/11/14 - Movie #1,845

BEFORE:  Bradley Cooper carries over from "The Hangover Part III", and have you spotted this week's unintentional running theme yet?  It's all about secrets, lies and deception.  First we had the Princeton admissions officer's secret shame, then the lies about personal finances the couple told each other in "This Is 40", and the deception of the fake family ruse in "We're the Millers".  The third "Hangover" film had some deceptive elements in its story, and also managed to deceive audiences into thinking the franchise still had some life in it.  Tonight's film seals the deal, with a writer committing plagiarism.

THE PLOT: A writer at the peak of his literary success discovers the steep price he must pay for stealing another man's work.

AFTER: There's a point late in this film where a character yells "Bullshit!" and it was well-timed, for I had just finished saying that aloud three times, in relation to this film's plot.  I have to call shenanigans because it turns out that I have just two rules of screenwriting, and this film violates both of them.  

Rule #1: Show, don't tell.  Film is a visual medium, and any time things get too talky-talky, you should start to question if there's a better way to film it.  Sure, talking reveals character's thoughts, and people have to talk to each other, just as they do in the real world.  But talking can't advance a plot forward the way that actions can, so if given the choice between showing a character doing something and having a character talk about doing that thing, the first option is most often the better choice.  

The codicil to this rule is that people want to see a story happen, they don't want to see a story being written.  Stories about writers don't interest me because of the inevitable scenes of writers writing, or hammering away at a typewriter or keyboard, which by its technical definition is an action, but on screen might as well be inaction.  Even worse are shots of writers TRYING to write, which means that action-wise, they're doing absolutely nothing.  So if I see one more story about a writer with writer's block, I may throw up.  I don't know why writers find writers with writer's block so fascinating to write about.  Wait, yes I do - it's because they don't have any other ideas themselves.  

(And the codicil to this codicil is: avoid the cliché of a writer's pages flying all over the place, and him losing everything, because that's his only copy.  We have computers now, and some even make automatic back-ups, so as a plot device, this should be dispensed with.  Any writer who types with an old manual typewriter because it's hip or retro or whatever deserves to lose his manuscript if he creates it in a manner that isn't backed up.  There is a writer losing his manuscript in "The Words", but at least this takes place before computers were invented, and at least it just gets misplaced, without the pages flying everywhere.)

Rule #2: Avoid excessive flashbacks and other non-linear storytelling.  "The Words" starts in one place, then flashes back five years, then catches up with where it started and we have to see some scenes for a second time.  That's wrong, try again.  Worse than that, the place it starts is actually the story-within-the-story, and it's a story being told by one author about another author, who steals his story from a THIRD author.  

So let's see if I've got this straight: Author #1 writes a book about Author #2, who copied a story from Author #3, and this whole thing was written by a screenwriter - I'd love to hear that pitch, this is some "Inception"-level style of storytelling.  When we see author #3's flashback, that's a story within a story within a story.  And that flashback is about HIM writing a story.  

Funny thing, though, about that "best-selling" story within the story's story - we never get to read it, or even hear it.  It's SO built-up that nothing anyone writes could possibly live up to the hype.  Oh, we get to see people's reactions to it, how it elicits great emotion from everyone who reads it.  I'm reminded of Monty Python's sketch about "The World's Funniest Joke", which is so funny that everyone who hears it laughs themselves to death.  The sketch never reveals the actual joke, because it can't - it doesn't exist.  Instead we just see people reading the joke, doubling over with laughter, and then dying.  (See also: the mysterious contents of the glowing briefcase in "Pulp Fiction")

Another example of bullshit is Author #2 visiting Author #3, prepared to pay him money for his story or atone for his sin of plagiarism somehow, not because it's the right thing to do, but because he doesn't want to get sued, and he doesn't want his new lifestyle and status to go away.  When the author refuses his payoff and sends the author packing, here's the bullshit part: at no time did the plagiarist ask him to sign a release - that's the only way anyone avoids lawsuits these days!  

I'm sending out releases now at work - to people who worked on the animated feature "Cheatin'", which state that the work they did on the film was a for-hire project, and they pre-waive any claims to its ownership.  This seems a bit unnecessary, because I have all of their timesheets and paystubs, so as employees it would seem like a for-hire situation is implicit, but we live in a litigious society, and these releases are the sort of thing that a potential distributor would want to see. 

So, I'm forced to declare a NITPICK POINT - when the author found the story, why did he just assume there would be no repercussions from copying it?  Why didn't he make any attempt to track down the author, or find out if the author was dead or alive?  (For that matter, why didn't the original author sign his work, or check with the train's lost and found department?)  Why didn't he at least change the names of the characters so he could state that the stories were merely similar?  And how did he know that the manuscript had never been published before - did he somehow check every book ever made?

There's a warning in here for me as well - what if I write my story about my circle of friends from years ago and one of them tries to sue me?  I'm going to chance the names, of course, but is that enough?  Am I going to need to get signed releases from all of them, even the ones I don't like or have lost touch with?  Then again, I was there, so I'd just be telling MY story as I see it.

Anyway, it turns out that Hemingway's wife once lost some of his early stories in a similar fashion, and they were never recovered.  So even the one bit of action seen here in the story-within-a-story is itself plagiarized from real life events, so that's either ironic, or one final bit of bullshit.

Also starring Dennis Quaid (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Jeremy Irons (last seen in "The Merchant of Venice"), Zoe Saldana (last seen in "The Terminal"), Olivia Wilde (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), with cameos from Michael McKean (last seen in "Whatever Works"), J.K. Simmons (last seen in "Hidalgo"), Ron Rifkin, Zeljko Ivanek (last seen in "Argo").

RATING: 3 out of 10 ivy plants

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hangover Part III

Year 6, Day 253 - 9/10/14 - Movie #1,844

BEFORE: I've got a good run of films this week from 2012 and 2013.  And Ed Helms carries over from "We're The Millers", into the OTHER film from 2013 that's about people traveling down to Mexico for illicit reasons.  Let's just acknowledge right now that Bradley Cooper's had a pretty good run during the last couple of years.

THE PLOT:  When one of their own is kidnapped by an angry gangster, the Wolf Pack must track down Mr. Chow, who has escaped from prison and is on the lam.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hangover Part II" (Movie 1,285)

AFTER: Well, really society is to blame for this one.  The audience obviously came out in droves to support "The Hangover" Parts 1 + 2, so completing the trilogy probably seemed like a no-brainer.  Yes, I can confirm no brains were used in the decision-making process while producing this film.

Like "This Is 40", this film also features toxic characters who manage to screw up every situation they touch, but at least here that's used for maximum comic effect.  When you see these four guys set out on a road trip, you just KNOW something (everything) is about to go horribly wrong, because that's what worked twice before.  

This time the minor villain character from the previous films, Mr. Chow, takes center stage as the main adversary, and another gangster/thief/drug mogul is added to the mix as well.  So there are elements here of a classic "heist" film, and those almost always appeal to me, while still retaining the feel of the first two films.  And really, the first "Hangover" set the new standard in modern filmmaking for one of these filled-to-the-brim random subplot comedies.  Throw in a baby, or a monkey, an exotic setting like Las Vegas or Thailand, some drugs, alcohol, prostitutes and a celebrity or two.  It's almost like Hollywood producers started playing "Mad Libs" a few years ago to come up with their plots, or there's a giant wheel of plot elements somewhere that studio executives spin as needed. 

I kind of wish that it wasn't always the SAME member of the Wolf Pack who ends up missing or kidnapped.  There are FOUR main characters, so either this guy just has the worst luck of the bunch, or we have to acknowledge that it's the names of the other three guys on the marquee that are putting asses in the seats. 

I think it's acceptable to expect diminishing returns with every sequel film in a series - however, if you feel that this film didn't go far enough with its outrageous ideas, then just keep watching for an additional scene during the credits.  However, if you're quite satisfied with the film up until that point, then just don't watch the credits, because then you might feel like they've taken things a bit too far.   However, no matter how you slice it, the film is forced to go to more outlandish lengths each time it needs its characters to wake up in a hotel room, surrounded by strange animals and sex toys, with no memory of what's taken place the night before.  You'd think some of these characters would eventually learn their lesson, but I could say the same thing about the moviegoing audience.

Also starring Bradley Cooper (last seen in "Limitless"), Zach Galifianakis (last seen in "The Campaign"), Justin Bartha (last seen in "The Hangover Part II"), Ken Jeong (last seen in "Zookeeper"), John Goodman (last heard in "Monsters University"), with cameos from Melissa McCarthy (last seen in "This Is 40"), Jeffrey Tambor (last seen in "Pollock"), Heather Graham (last seen in "Lost in Space"), Mike Epps.

RATING: 5 out of 10 hotel sheets

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We're the Millers

Year 6, Day 252 - 9/9/14 - Movie #1,843

BEFORE: OK, that's enough about Paul Rudd.  Though one of the premium channels is re-running "Wet Hot American Summer" this week, and that's one of those films that if I catch it close to the beginning, I might as well stick around and watch the rest of the film, because whatever I had planned for the afternoon couldn't possibly be better than re-watching such a funny, self-aware film.  And this is where I was planning to link to the Bradley Cooper chain, since both Rudd and Cooper appeared in that film before they were super-famous.  But then this film came along, so Bradley's got to wait another day.  Instead, Paul Rudd links to Jennifer Aniston (last seen in "Just Go With It") through "Wanderlust".

THE PLOT: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

AFTER: It's a little refreshing, after watching a screamy film about a "realistic" family, to follow up with a film about a fake family.  And it's an original concept, I'll give it that.  Wait, Jennifer Aniston was in that OTHER film about pretending to be a family, so it appears she's cornered the market on that.  But that pretense was about Adam Sandler getting with a hot girl, so the goals are different.

Not many complaints tonight, and surprisingly, no Nitpick Points.  It's a mostly funny film if you can get past the wild premise.  And it doesn't get bogged down in the usual "road trip" clichés and problems.   Though I have to wonder how long this film was in production - since it was released in 2013 and both Colorado and Washington state made recreational marijuana use legal in 2012. At some point it would make less sense to drive an RV down to Mexico as it would to drive it to one of those states.  Actually, I think the road trip seen here starts in Denver, which doesn't appear to make sense at first, unless you posit that perhaps the drug lord needs a ton of pot in Colorado to take advantage of its new legal status.

You know that some people take their RV culture very seriously when you read the "Goofs" section of this film's IMDB page.  People who can identify different models of motor homes on sight have pointed out that the one seen here wouldn't have windows that roll down, or wouldn't make the sound of air brakes when it comes to a stop.  Some allowances need to be made for movie-making, and some people need to get out more.  Umm, make that less.

I'm also amazed by how often the cast of "The State" keeps popping up.  I got to watch them perform in their fledgling appearances, live in the NYU dining hall, and now I wish I'd gotten to know some of them better. It's amazing how ingrained they've become into the fabric of movies & TV.  Two of them appear here, the two that will be headlining network sitcoms this fall.  But since Thomas Lennon is as well known for his writing as he is for his acting, this gives me hope that I can buckle down and get a movie written.

Also starring Jason Sudeikis (last seen in "The Campaign"), Emma Roberts (last seen in "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), Ed Helms (last heard in "The Lorax"), Will Poulter, Nick Offerman (last seen in "All Good Things"), Kathryn Hahn (last seen in "Revolutionary Road"), Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Molly Quinn, Mark L. Young, with cameos from Luis Guzman (last seen in "The Hard Way"), Thomas Lennon (last seen in "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas"), Ken Marino (last seen in "Wanderlust"), Scott Adsit, Ben Folds.

RATING: 6 out of 10 YouTube videos

Monday, September 8, 2014

This Is 40

Year 6, Day 251 - 9/8/14 - Movie #1,842

BEFORE: Already I'm starting to change my routine, and I'm not even officially under-employed yet.  You see, for the last 16 years I've kept my eyes open for interesting animated commercials while watching TV at home, so that I could dub them to VHS and then 3/4" and add them to a library at work, where we've been tracking the commercial animation market, and keeping tabs on what the competition's been doing.  This was the first weekend in years where I didn't have to do that (barring holidays and vacations), so I had actual free time.  (Plus I started to transition from watching a whole bunch of TV I don't care about, like sports, to watching only TV I want to watch, which still feels like an odd concept.)  

So we went out to that chain restaurant that's currently advertising "All You Can Eat Ribs", because I figured I've got that kind of time now.  But here's how they get you: the first plate of ribs, no problem, but that second plate of ribs has fewer ribs, and a greater ratio of french fries to fill you up.  My third plate of ribs took much longer (I think they were hoping I'd get frustrated and leave) and when it did arrive, yep, fewer ribs and even more fries.  I wanted to stay there for two more rounds of ribs, just to really stick it to them and get our money's worth, but at some point I can't make my wife sit there any longer while I test how many ribs I can eat.  Yep, I'm an adult.

Linking from "Admission", Paul Rudd carries over for his third appearance this week.

THE PLOT:  Pete and Debbie are both about to turn 40, their kids hate each other, both of their businesses are failing, they're on the verge of losing their house, and their relationship is threatening to fall apart.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Knocked Up" (Movie #835)

AFTER:  This sort-of sequel to "Knocked Up" features many of the same characters - in fact two background characters from that film are given their own story here, and at least three minor characters appear as inhabitants of the Apatow-verse so we can check in on them. 

I don't know where this trend started, but it seem like movies today have to fill up every minute of screen time with random characters and events.  Sort of the opposite of "My Dinner with Andre", which was all talk, no action.  There's some talk in "This is 40" (OK, mostly yelling) but there's also a ton of random action, so the film ends up feeling like it's firing in many different directions at once, rather than being focused on a coherent linear series of events.   Sometimes more is more, but sometimes less is also better.  

First off, way too many characters doing way too many things.  The trainer, the record company employees, the store employees, the best friend, the other best friend,

When this film was over, I watched a bit of the classic film "The Great Escape", one of my favorite war/prison films. That's a different genre of film, of course, but it's a great example of how you can have many different characters, each with their own storyline, but working toward one main purpose, escaping the prison camp. (Another one of my favorite films has been running lately - "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World".  Same concept - you've got many characters with different storylines running concurrently, but they're all working toward the same goal, getting the hidden money).

Here we've got the relationship between a husband and wife, we've got them trying to raise two daughters properly (whatever THAT means), we've got a strained relationship with one father, another father who's constantly borrowing money, we've got one failed business, another troubled business, troubles at school, troubles in the bedroom - enough, already.  I thought people went to the movies to forget about their problems, now here they all are, up on the screen.  And this movie ran for more than two hours, it definitely could have used some trimming to give it some more of a focus.

I took great interest in the relationship aspect of the film, because that's the kind of film I want to write, at the core of my proposed story is a relationship that gradually falls apart - so there has to be a break-up scene, and there may have to be shouting in it, but I think perhaps also there should be some quiet resignation.  My experience has been that once people get past the yelling stage, there's a less loud acceptance stage, where someone realizes the relationship just wasn't meant to be, and walking away is probably the only chance to find happiness again someday.  

In my case children were not part of the picture (thank God), but there was yelling, and then there was a more business-like attitude that took over.  It went something like, "I'm going to go stay at my parent's house for a week, which should give you time enough to move your things somewhere else, and we'll meet up in a few months to see if we want to either get back together, or sign some papers."
Everyone's situation is different, of course.  

The couple portrayed in this film alternates between working together and feeling stuck with each other.  They're growing together and pulling apart at the same time.  That should be an interesting combination, and perhaps it rings true, but it also makes for a confusing film, because everyone's motivations are always changing.  He wants her to be happy, but he also wants time for himself, and he needs time to work on his business, but he also needs to carve out time to be with his family.  

Then we've got the failing businesses - the husband runs a fledgling record label that seems only able to sign "retro" acts like Graham Parker, so it's failing miserably, trying to sell vinyl albums in a world of digital downloads.  Actually I think the problem wasn't being digital, it was finding Graham Parker fans who knew what a digital download is.  I couldn't name you one song by this artist, and I find it refreshing and unusual that he was willing to allow a movie to play with his dinosaur-like image in this way.  I'm also interested in using a band from the 80's as a focal point in my screenplay, and this fills me with hope.  

But there's an appalling lack of communication here between the characters, most notably between the husband and the wife.  You would like to think that over the years, communication would get better between two people, but this film demonstrates that this is not always the case.  He feels unable to talk to her about their financial problems, as well as other things, and she's hiding a pretty important piece of information herself.  It's only when they have a third party to focus their hatred on that they even come together at all, and I don't think that's the most positive way of going about things.  

The end result is, no two characters are ever working toward the same goal, and that's very frustrating indeed.  OK, maybe you can say that everyone just wants to be happy, or is at least willing to settle for "making it through another day", but does that necessarily mean that everyone is going to be at cross purposes with everyone else at every single moment?  No wonder they all yell at each other, because they can't even agree on what it means to be happy.  Having sex makes them happy, until it's revealed to be complicated and frustrating also.  Having a party makes them happy, until they end up arguing with both of their fathers.  Same deal with work - for both of them it had to be fulfilling at some point, until it got frustrating or they found a way to mess it all up.  

I understand you've got to have some conflict if you're going to have a storyline.  But this is much too much, there's conflict in every single aspect of this couple's lives, and they prove time and time again that they are either unable to navigate through it, or handle it in any constructive way.  So I'm forced to conclude that these people are toxic, in that they are magnets for trouble, all the while going about their daily lives with blinders on, refusing to acknowledge that if they're not part of the solution, then they're part of (or perhaps the entirety of) the problem.  Again, maybe this is the larger point that's being made here, but I'm not sure how constructive that point ended up being. 

NITPICK POINT: Both husband and wife are having financial problems - yet for her birthday they drive off to an expensive-looking resort, and there's a montage of them ordering from room service, again and again and again.  Then for HIS birthday, just a week or so later, they throw a big party where they pay for all the catering, outdoor tables & chairs, wine and beer, etc.  Are they both so clueless that they're willing to celebrate their way into the poor house?  How long can they continue to spend money that they don't have?  Or is part of the reason that they're having financial problems due to the fact that neither one knows how to live on a budget?  

Worst of all, this is one of many plot threads that never gets resolved.  Does the guy's record company ever have a success?  Can Graham Parker have another hit record?  Do they ever do anything to get back the money the store lost?  Does that bill for the spa weekend finally come due, and does the couple have to sell one of their cars to pay for it?  I guess we'll never know. 

Which then sort of raises the question - if you're going to end your movie in a seemingly random place, without resolving anything, why couldn't you have just done that 20 minutes earlier?

Also starring Leslie Mann (last heard in "Rio"), Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Robert Smigel (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), Annie Mumolo, Megan Fox (last seen in "Jonah Hex"), Albert Brooks (last seen in "Private Benjamin"), John Lithgow (last seen in "Cliffhanger"), Charlene Yi, Jason Segel (last seen in "Can't Hardly Wait"), Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Lena Dunham, Graham Parker (as himself), with cameos from Michael Ian Black (last seen in "Wanderlust"), Dan Bakkedahl, Tatum O'Neal, Melissa McCarthy, (last seen in "Identity Thief"), Billie Joe Armstrong, Ryan Adams, Bill Hader (last heard in "Monsters University").

RATING: 5 out of 10 episodes of "Lost"

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Year 6, Day 250 - 9/7/14 - Movie #1,841

BEFORE: Wallace Shawn carries over from "My Dinner With Andre", completing a hat trick.  Movie Year #6 is now 80% done, and the schedule for the last 60 films of the year is now set in stone with the addition of two missing Stephen King films to the horror chain.  Encore channel is running King-based films all month, which helps me out.  So two classic films get bumped into next year, and I closed up the gap they left all nice and tidy.

THE PLOT:  A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

AFTER: I'm a little torn on this one because it feels like a smart comedy, and I tend to like smart comedies over dumb ones (like, say, "Clueless" or "Dumb & Dumber"), but this one ended up firing in a few different directions at once, and I also get the feeling that if I start listing nitpick points, the whole thing's going to unravel.  Let me say right off that I like the title, and the fact that it has a double meaning - it's not just about admission to college, the lead character has to make an admission about her past.  

Now, it's based on an incredible set of coincidences - the guy who's leading the alternative high-school in New Hampshire just happens to be based right near where the female lead grew up, and he just happened to have dated her roommate, who just happened to tell him about her secret pregnancy, and even though he's traveled all over the world and done many things and had his own distractions in life, he just happened to remember her name and situation all these years.  The fact that he's encountered an adopted teen that's attending his school is another huge coincidence, and the fact that the kid seems smart enough to go to Princeton is another, and her working in the Princeton admissions office is another - you see what I mean?  That's at least 7 huge coincidences coming together, just in the set-up. 

If you can take all that in, however, then we come to the romance part.  It's hard to tell where this film lands on the battle of the sexes, though, because so few characters seem to be able to make a relationship work.  People break up, people get together for one-night stands, people have kids out of wedlock - OK, maybe it's an accurate reflection of what really goes down these days, maybe not, but in a movie I think people tend to want simpler portrayals of relationships.  There's a way to write a break-up scene, for example, and this just doesn't cut it.  

However, the developing relationship between the admissions officer and the high-school teacher is fairly well written - here we something akin to the "rule of opposites" displayed in "My Dinner With Andre".  One person has been at the same job for 16 years, the other's been all over the world working for various charitable causes.  One is more corporate and tightly-wound in her thinking, the other one is free-wheeling and loose in his.  One gave her child up for adoption, the other one adopted a son.  And they frequently disagree the whole time that they may be falling for each other.  This feels like it sort of rings true, it's a complex version of "opposites attract", and it's worth taking note of if you're about to write a screenplay about complex relationships.     

The film then tries to give us a look inside the complex process of college admissions, and even though we're told all along that kids are more than their grades and their essays, and the admissions committee is going to take their extra-curricular activities and personalities into account, it then turns out that the process is exactly as draconian and brutally simple as one might think.  WTF?  The technique of having the teens appear in the room seems innovative, but then using post effects to have trap doors open under them when they're rejected just drives home the severeness of the process.  Couldn't the same effect have been achieved by putting a photo of the applicant up on a bulletin board, or using a PowerPoint presentation?  It's an odd place to use visual effects in a film, that's all.  

I felt all along that what was taking place constituted a HUGE conflict of interest.  If the admissions counselor truly believed that this teenager could be her son, she should have immediately stopped working on his file.  Or taken the time to be 100% certain about his lineage, because then she would know whether what she was doing was wrong or not.  I then reasoned out that there was only one way her story could go, and I was right - I'm not sure if this means I'm getting better at figuring out plots, or the movie just painted itself into a corner with only one way out.  

And all along, I got the feeling that the movie was trying to display "heart", but just didn't quite know how to do that.  From this I deduce that writing films about relationships might be harder to do than most writers realize.

NITPICK POINT: Princeton is in New Jersey, and the alt high-school was in New Hampshire.  Characters moved between these two locales in this film like it was no big deal, but that's probably a 5 or 6-hour car trip.  To people in California it probably doesn't look like much of a distance on the map, but it is.

Also starring Tina Fey (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Paul Rudd (last seen in "Clueless"), Michael Sheen (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Gloria Reuben (last seen in "Lincoln"), Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Christopher Evan Welch (last seen in "The Master"), Travaris Spears, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa.

RATING: 5 out of 10 lawn jockeys