Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ensign Pulver

Year 6, Day 269 - 9/26/14 - Movie #1,860

BEFORE:  This is the sequel to "Mister Roberts", though it was released 9 years later and had different actors playing the key roles.  Linking actors from "Mister Roberts" would be possible, if only I could think of a film that starred both Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (last seen in "California Suite").  Damn, if only...

THE PLOT: Life becomes so harried after Ensign Pulver's prank, he and the Captain are swept off deck during a storm, ending up on a tropical island with a group of shipwrecked nurses and dancing natives.

AFTER: For any people who complain about rotating casts, with different actors playing Batman or the Hulk, the trend goes back far past James Bond, at least as far back as Ensign Pulver.  Before that, it would have been unthinkable for someone else to play Chaplin's Little Tramp character, or for more than one actor to play the Thin Man.  The word "reboot" didn't even exist in the 1950's or 1960's.  

But, to make a sequel to "Mister Roberts", a film in which Henry Fonda had to play a character 30 years younger than his own age, most of the principals had similarly become too old to reprise their roles.  That's what you risk when you wait so long to make a sequel.  No doubt this presented a number of challenges to both the filmmakers and the audience - who can do a young Jack Lemmon?  Is Walter Matthau an appropriate subsitute for William Powell?  How did Captain Morton gain 300 pounds and become a foot taller since the last picture?  

And so began Hollywood's new motto: "Just roll with it." or was it "Fuck it, no one's going to care."?  If the old cast's not available, we can just re-cast the roles, right?  And then George Lazenby takes over for Sean Connery, Mark Ruffalo becomes the Hulk, and Ben Affleck gets cast as Batman.  Now you know who to blame.  

Putting continuity aside, this film also gives some insights into where the writers for the "M*A*S*H" TV show got some of their ideas.  Oh, I figure I watched every episode of that show at one time or another while growing up, and though it was groundbreaking TV (only that show and "Hogan's Heroes" ever successfully blended war and comedy) and it's not too hard to draw a connection between the fate of Mister Roberts and that of a particular colonel from the 4077th.  For that matter, "M*A*S*H" did the "surgery by radio proxy" bit years later and taught Americans how to do a tracheotomy with a jackknife and a ballpoint pen, and that traces back to Ensign Pulver doing an appendectomy with help from Doc over the radio.

For that matter, Hawkeye Pierce's still is a descendant of the Reluctant's "Jungle Juice" (an alcoholic brew with racist overtones, nice...), and the way that the main characters constantly defied authority (represented by Frank Burns and other characters) traces back here, also the constant pranking and the objectification of nurses as well.  

Sure, Korea was a different war.  And perhaps by 1964 audiences longed for the relative simplicity of World War II.  But this film carries a similar tone of familial camaraderie among military men who also want to buck authority while carrying out their orders.  

Also starring Robert Walker, Jr. (last seen in "Easy Rider"), Burl Ives (last seen in "East of Eden"), Tommy Sands, Millie Perkins, Kay Medford, Larry Hagman (last seen in "Nixon"), Peter Marshall, Jack Nicholson (last seen in "The Raven"), with cameos from Richard "Hymie" Gautier, George "Goober" Lindsay, James Coco (last seen in "The Muppets Take Manhattan", James Farentino.

RATING: 4 out of 10 pin-up girls

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mister Roberts

Year 6, Day 268 - 9/25/14 - Movie #1,859

BEFORE: Well, this was supposed to be my first day working on my screenplay.  My first day in exile, so to speak, spending time at home while I figure out another way to get back into the game.  Really I'm still working three days a week, so I need to develop a new routine at home on the other days that gets me caught up on TV, gets some chores done around the house, gets my comic book collection organized and my screenplay written.  Also I think I'd like to get out and take a walk once in a while, maybe have lunch at a local Spanish restaurant or something.  Today, however, I slept in, logged in some comics, dubbed some cartoons to DVD and generally frittered my time, so I'm not off to a great start.

Linking from "Volunteers", John Candy was also in "JFK" with Jack Lemmon (last seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance").  I don't know why I don't end up using "JFK" as a connection more often - it's got an eclectic set of actors in the cast, you'd think it would come in handy in linking emergencies.

THE PLOT:  Comedy-drama about life on a not particularly important ship of the US Navy during WW2.

AFTER: This is another film that was quite obviously based on a stage play.  You can tell from the fact that there is much more talking than doing - conveniently the characters are set on a navy supply boat that is removed from the main action of the war.  Also much of the talking takes place in the main character's cabin, which would be quite easy to replicate on stage.  I'd gather with a few other sets, like one for the main deck and perhaps another for a Pacific island, the whole thing's mostly taken care of. 

But the title character longs to see action before the war is over, which almost seems counter-intuitive.  Noble, yes, patriotic, sure - but perhaps ill-advised.  He's constantly putting in for a transfer week after week, and those transfers get denied week after week by the ship's captain, who has a long list of arbitrary and demanding rules for the way that the ship needs to be run - so Mister Roberts rebels in the only ways he can, by disobeying the captain's orders to keep the fresh fruit on board and messing with the captain's prize palm tree. 

In a sense, this is sort of like a low-rent version of "Mutiny on the Bounty".  As second in command of the vessel, Mister Roberts is caught between the captain's outrageous orders, and looking out for the condition and rights of the crewmen under him.  Such is the quandary of being middle management.

Before starting this movie project, I never made a connection before between a naval vessel's crew and a film production crew, but they do have a lot in common.  A film's director is like the captain of a ship, and the producers and assistant director are like the senior crewmen and the first mate.  Then there are lots of minor seamen and production staff who bounce around doing various jobs.  (Another similarity - both will drink whatever alcohol you put in front of them, or barring that, they will make their own.)

I can't help but see my own job situation reflected in Mister Roberts.  I feel like I've mastered the job that I have, but I also feel that I've been at it for much too long.  I could jump ship, but what does that make me - a deserter?  I can put in for a transfer to see more action somewhere else, but that represents an uncertain future.  I could find out that I'm not qualified for another job, so perhaps it's best to stay where I am.  Still, no risk, no reward, and Roberts points out that the unseen enemy in war is boredom, which eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible form of suicide.

Also starring Henry Fonda (last seen in "The Wrong Man"), James Cagney (last seen in "The Public Enemy"), William Powell (last seen in "How to Marry a Millionaire"), Ward Bond (last seen in "It Happened One Night"), Harey Carey Jr., Patrick Wayne, with a cameo from Martin Milner (last seen in "Dial M for Murder").

RATING: 4 out of 10 binoculars

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Year 6, Day 267 - 9/24/14 - Movie #1,858

BEFORE: OK, so tonight's slot was supposed to be for "All Is Lost", because I thought that tied in with "Captain Phillips" and set up a week of films about boats, but it turned out there was no way to link to Robert Redford from yesterday's film, and no way to link out of it to Thursday's film, and I decided to take that as a sign.  I've now pushed that film off until Year 7, and I'm dropping this film in as a substitute.  The actor linking is preserved, with Tom Hanks carrying over from "Captain Phillips", and the theme gets more focused - last night's film had the U.S. Navy in it, tonight's film features the Peace Corps, and then Thursday I'll be back dealing with the Navy again.

THE PLOT: Lawrence is a rich kid with a bad accent and a large debt. After his father refuses to help him out, Lawrence escapes his angry debtors by jumping on a Peace Corps flight to Southeast Asia.

AFTER: The film opens with the words of John F. Kennedy, part of the "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech.  Since it's set in 1962 the JFK connections seem natural, but I wonder how much of Hank's character was based on JFK himself.  Kennedy established the Peace Corps and obviously never served in it, but still...  

Had I watched this back in 1985 (and I'm not 100% sure I didn't, but if I did, I didn't remember a thing...) then I would not have picked up on the references to "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", or perhaps even "Apocalypse Now", by extension.  With a couple nods to "Casablanca" as well, it almost feels like this is a spoof film that maybe wasn't blatant enough.  There are also a few movie in-jokes, like the characters being able to read the translation subtitles on the screen, so I also wonder if this could have been more like "Airplane!" or "Hot Shots" if they had put in some more jokes.  As it stands, it's a bit difficult to know whether to take this film at face value or not. 

So as a result it ends up feeling really disjointed, or perhaps poorly planned.  The building of a bridge in Thailand is pitched as a good thing, until it's not, and the Peace Corps leader isn't really who he said he was, and the drug lord kidnaps people but doesn't harm them (because that's what drug lords do), and by the end I'm wondering if the whole affair isn't a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960's - which is to say that it's a big, confusing mess.

NITPICK POINT: Hanks' character drives to the airport and gets right out on the tarmac, without dealing with any airport security?  Then he gets aboard a flight to Thailand just by switching nametags with someone?  Good thing nobody checked passengers' passports for international flights back then.  Oh, wait, they did.

Also starring Rita Wilson (last seen in "Larry Crowne"), John Candy (last seen in "Wagons East"), Tim Thomerson (last seen in "Some Kind of Hero"), Gedde Watanabe (last seen in "Parental Guidance"), George Plimpton (last seen in "Nixon"), Xander Berkeley, Ernest Harada, Clyde Kusatsu (last seen in "Bird on a Wire"), with a cameo from Allan Arbus.

RATING: 3 out of 10 poker hands

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Captain Phillips

Year 6, Day 266 - 9/23/14 - Movie #1,857

BEFORE: Back home from Atlantic City, and it's a little weird getting used to not eating at a buffet twice a day.  I didn't win on the slots, or I should say I had a few small wins that were overshadowed by bigger losses.  The slots just weren't paying out, and we guessed that this was due to the extremely tight margins the casinos are working with.  Several A.C. casinos have closed in the past few months, and unless something changes, the trend may continue.  It just seems to be a city in decline, with its business affected by the opening of other casinos in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.  Hey, we did what we could, gambling in 5 casinos and eating at 3 buffets.

Tom Hanks carries over from "Saving Mr. Banks", and this was supposed to be a chain all about boats and going to sea, but already I'm having trouble linking to tomorrow's film.  To me, this is sometimes a sign that I'm on the wrong track or I've made a bad choice, so I've got to think about this before I get too far into the chain.  I don't want to tear down my plan for the last 43 films of the year, but I don't want to break the chain either.

THE PLOT: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

AFTER: This was a really gripping story of a real hijacking incident, and I'm not surprised at all that it came from the same director as "United 93".  It's fairly easy to draw a connection between the hijacked planes on 9/11 and a hijacked cargo ship.  

And along the same lines as the passengers and crew on that airplane taking down the terrorists, the main character played by Tom Hanks also acts in ways that are noble, putting himself in jeopardy in ways small and large in order to secure the lives of his crewmen.  This includes dealing with the hijackers at gunpoint while most of the crew stays hidden, offering them the money from the ship's safe, and eventually winding up in a lifeboat with them as a hostage.  

It's gripping, it's thrilling and it's shocking at times, but I'm not sure how entertaining it ends up being.  It's not really a film I'd seek out for escapism, or something I'd favor over a sci-fi film or a superhero film.  But I'm watching it because it seemed important, it got 6 Oscar nominations (but none for Hanks or the director, hmm...) 

Don't have much else to add tonight, I'm a bit stumped by this one.  Perhaps my mind is somewhere else these days, it's tough for me to concentrate on an entire film, let alone review it.

Also starring Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey. Yul Vazquez, Angus MacInnes (last seen in "Force 10 from Navarone").

RATING: 5 out of 10 fire hoses

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Year 6, Day 265 - 9/22/14 - Movie #1,856

BEFORE: I'm watching just one movie while we're in Atlantic City for a 2-day getaway, I think I can make up the difference later on in the week.  Colin Farrell carries over again from "Alexander", and this is a late addition to the list, because I had one movie chain that ended with Colin Farrell, and another topic that started with Tom Hanks, and wouldn't you know, along came this one to help bridge the gap. 

THE PLOT: Author P.L. Travers reflects on her childhood after reluctantly meeting with Walt Disney, who seeks to adapt her Mary Poppins books for the big screen.

AFTER: Well, this has been a big year for behind-the-scenes films about the processes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and musicians galore.  I'll try to tie them all together in my year-end wrap-up.  Now a film that takes a look at Walt Disney, and how he set out to literape (sorry, adapt) classic stories like "Mary Poppins" in order to make more money (sorry, entertain children everywhere).  This supports what I've been saying about the man for years, turning Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" into "Disney's The Jungle Book", and Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" into "Disney's Alice in Wonderland", and that's just two examples of a long ongoing pattern.  

The advantage Walt Disney had over Kipling, and Carroll, and the Brothers Grimm was that he was alive and those authors, not so much.  (Even after Walt himself died, his company carried on the proud tradition by turning stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Victor Hugo and Edgar Rice Burroughs into "Disney's The Little Mermaid", "Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Disney's Tarzan".  You just have to know there's a room somewhere where the Disney thinktank wears dark robes and meets around a stone slab as they determine which author's work will next be absorbed into the Disney Borg Collective, right?  And "Frozen" is just the latest example.  

Walt almost made a fatal mistake with "Mary Poppins", and that was not waiting for the book's author, P.L. Travers, to either die or not renew her copyright.  That meant he had to get her to sign a contract giving him the movie rights - and before she did that, she wanted to make sure that Disney would do a faithful adaptation.  So she went to Hollywood, suspicious as hell, to meet the screenwriters and composers that were working on the adaptation, and to hold Mr. Disney to his word.  She apparently made things very difficult for them and it took a long time for her to approve any of their work.  (I think P.L. Travers is my new favorite person.)

And she was 100% right to do so.  So what if she thought everyone in Hollywood was a giant jerkweasel?  She's entitled to her opinion, especially because... well, first off because they're all giant jerkweasels.  She thought that Disney was looking for the next money-making brick in his entertainment empire, and that's exactly what he was doing.  Why has Disney Corp. purchased the Muppets, Marvel Comics and Star Wars in more recent years?  Because those franchises make money.  If you think the company measures its success in the amount of smiles it brings to young children, wake up and smell the stock reports. 

And when Travers proves to be a tough nut to crack, what did Disney do?  He got a crack team of detectives to research her childhood, and (presumably) a bunch of psycho-analysts to figure out that the Mary Poppins story is really code for how Travers wished her childhood WOULD have turned out, and somehow he gets all this done between the flight she leaves for London on, and the next possible flight out.  (I don't know if this was even possible in the early 1960's, before the internet.  But let's assume.)

The structure of "Saving Mr. Banks" interweaves scenes of the two weeks Travers spent at the Disney studios with scenes of her childhood in Australia, interacting with her no-nonsense mother and her very creative (but alcoholic) banker father.  There are obvious connections to the plotline of "Mary Poppins", since banking is involved in both, and then there are less obvious connections, like who does Mary Poppins represent?  

By rights I should have been annoyed by this, because there are so many flashbacks used here, but I'm going to make an exception tonight for two reasons: 1) both storylines seem to progress completely linearly, neither seems to be jumping about at random, and 2) the information learned from the flashbacks has a DIRECT influence on understanding why Travers is the way she is, and why she gradually comes to terms with getting into bed with the House of Mouse.  

However, I don't care how tough Walt Disney's childhood was, I refuse to feel any sympathy for him.  That's a cold, calculating businessman who lit his cigars with $100 bills, and that's back when C-notes had some actual value.  He apparently had his own daddy issues, just as Travers did - but you might as well ask me to feel sorry for Alexander the Great.  They both ran conquering empires, after all. 

Also starring Tom Hanks (last seen in "Cloud Atlas"), Emma Thompson (last seen in "The Remains of the Day"), Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Bradley Whitford (last seen in "Bicentennial Man"), B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman (last seen in "Bewitched"), Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths (last seen in "The Hard Word"), Annie Rose Buckley.  

RATING: 6 out of 10 stuffed animals

Monday, September 22, 2014


Year 6, Day 264 - 9/21/14 - Movie #1,855

BEFORE: Colin Farrell carries over from "Epic", into a film that actually IS an epic, and I've got time for one more film before we take off for Atlantic City for a couple of days.

THE PLOT: Alexander, the King of Macedonia and one of the greatest military leaders in the history of warfare, conquers much of the known world.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Troy" (Movie #1,588)

AFTER: Well, this was three hours spent getting to know Alexander "the Great", and I suspect know that such a nickname was self-imposed, and after all that time, what did I learn about him?  That he had daddy issues.  Oh, and mommy issues.  And a complicated relationship with his wife, which probably wasn't helped by the presence of his boyfriend. 

Yeah, things were different back in the day for the Greeks, and later the Macedonians.  Men got married and had kids, because if they didn't, then there wouldn't be any new Greeks or Macedonians. But the love between two men was considered more "pure", more true.  Women were second-class citizens, after all, certainly not the equal of men, so why should the love between a man and a woman be held in high regard?  People in the 20th century had to fight for gay rights and marriage equality, but back in the ancient world, it seems it wasn't even an issue.

This puts a different spin on Alexander's conquering of Persia, India, etc.  He seemed to like the pretty boys he found there as well, so one wonders if he wasn't always thinking there were even prettier boys over the next horizon.  Hindu culture has the hijras, which sort of function as a third gender, and some Eastern cultures have as many as five gender classes, so this film implies this was a new playground for Alexander. Oh, you thought he went there to conquer people and increase the size of the Macedonian Empire?  Is that what your history teacher told you?  That's adorable.

As always, I take off points for non-linear storytelling and excessive flashbacks.  Since Ptolemy is narrating Alexander's story in the past tense, most of the film is a flashback, and by jumping back to "9 years earlier", that puts a flashback inside a flashback.  Uh-uh, you shouldn't do that.  Even worse, cutting back to scenes that show Alexander butting heads with King Philip, and detailing how Philip met his end and Alexander took the throne don't add any insight to Alexander's conquering of Persia and India. Do they?  I didn't see any connection. 

Most Hollywood films follow a three-act structure - it should have been easy to break down Alexander's life into three sections: childhood, the middle part where he fights with Philip and takes the throne, and then all the conquering.  All the flashing back suggests that at least one of these segments was deemed to be not so interesting, and considering how it got mixed in with part 3, I'm guessing it was the middle part.  Add in all the cool battle scenes you want, it won't make up for the boring flashbacks.

Also starring Angelina Jolie (last seen in "A Mighty Heart"), Val Kilmer (last heard in "Planes"), Jared Leto (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Rosario Dawson (last seen in "Zookeeper"), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (last seen in "Velvet Goldmine"), Rory McCann, Gary Stretch, Ian Beattie, Neil Jackson, Jon Kavanagh, with cameos from Christopher Plummer (last seen in "The New World"), Brian Blessed (last heard in "The Pirates: Band of Misfits"), Tim Piggott-Smith (last seen in "The Remains of the Day")

RATING: 3 out of 10 battle elephants