Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hope Springs

Year 7, Day 2 - 1/2/15 - Movie #1,902

BEFORE: With apologies to Colbert, tonight I'm going to play "Tip of the Hat / Wag of the Finger".  First off, a Tip of the Hat to Turner Classic Movies, who's kept me readily supplied with material all this time.  I merely have to say "Hey, maybe I should watch the Marx Brothers films" and only two months later, they run a marathon of 6 films, which gets me most of the way there.  Will they run "Duck Soup" some time in the next 3 months?  Probably, they're good like that.  And the choice of Cary Grant as the December Star of the Month shows that they've got great taste, and someone over there in programming clearly thinks like I do - why watch 1 Cary Grant film when you can watch 20 or 30 of them in a row, and gain further insight into what his acting was all about?

But tonight I also send out a Wag of My Finger - to Turner Classic Movies, for slowing me down and making it impossible to make any progress in shrinking my list.  Adding 6 films a day to the list when I can only watch one in that timeframe is not helpful, especially when their "31 Days of Oscar" marathon is coming up in February, and always features stuff I need.  They're also starting to run films written by Neil Simon on Friday nights, which means I can grab the original "Out of Towners" with Jack Lemmon, and if I'm getting that one, I might as well also check out "The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue". Heck, if they're running the original "Heartbreak Kid" and "Goodbye Girl" films that could make a good pairing, and hey, I didn't know Simon also wrote "The Cheap Detective", which I accidentally caught some of two months ago, and it looked very funny.

At least now I'm not buried in incoming Cary Grant films any more - wait, who's the featured Star of the Month for January?  Robert Redford?  God damn it.  That'll be another 6 films right there, I know it....

Meryl Streep carries over from "Into the Woods".

THE PLOT: After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.

AFTER:  This is the year that I have to make some terrible decisions, if I'm going to wrap this process up in a definitive way.  What happens when a film falls into more than one category, where does it go in the chain?  I usually put relationship films in February, so is this a relationship film or a Meryl Streep film?  Since I happened to have one extra relationship-y film, my choice this time was easy, but tougher choices lay on the horizon.  Is "Charade" a Cary Grant film or an Audrey Hepburn film?  Do I need to move my Hepburn films next to my Cary Grant chain so it counts as both?

I had another Tommy Lee Jones film on the list, and I had to separate this one from it when I flipped part of the list around.  I can already see a lot of this happening, by programming thematically one Bruce Willis film has been separated from the rest, and ditto for a loose Harrison Ford film, which is sure to drive me crazy.  Now that some madness has been injected into the method, I won't rest easy until I know that as many of the remaining films link to each other as possible.

Anyway, let's get this over with.  They really should have put a warning on this film - if they can have warnings that kids shouldn't watch movies with adult material, they should also have a different warning for adults that a film's going to feature old people talking about sex and worse, maybe doing it.   Rated "M" for "Mature Sex".  Yeah, I get it, more Americans are living into their golden years, they have rights too, they lead active lives - but I shouldn't have to watch them do it.  What if I was trying to eat or something?

I favor the portrayal of the husband as an aging curmudgeon - I look forward to my 50's so I can act curmudgeonly too, finally with good reason.  But it's sad that this film has to fall back on so many tropes that should be seen as outdated by now.  Men are bullies, women are doormats.  Women are more likely to talk about their feelings, while men pretend they don't have any.  Men take their wives for granted, while women cook eggs and bacon every morning.  Men have orgasms, and women don't even think to ask for them.  Give me a break.  Of course this couple needs therapy, because they're fabricated to be blank test subjects straight out of a self-help book.

And since they have no therapists in their hometown (which is, where, exactly?) they have to fly to Maine (to one of those quaint towns where everyone seems to know each other's business) and spend thousands on an encounter weekend just to create an environment where they can talk about their sex lives.  (Again, eww...)  This leads to a lot of therapist-speak, like having to break the relationship before it can be fixed, tearing down the walls so we can rebuild them with trust, blah blah blah.  If you came here looking for some hot Meryl Streep action, boy did you come to the wrong place.  And why were you looking for that in the first place?  Let's discuss that.

Look, I figured some things out when I was a kid.  My grandparents slept in separate rooms, but even though the relationship wasn't working on one level, they stayed together, so you just have to wonder if that was only natural, for them.  You can't paint every relationship with the same brush, each one finds it own rhythm, or it doesn't and it ceases to exist.  And I don't know what's weirder, learning that my grandparents didn't sleep together, or knowing that my parents still do.  Yeah.

I'm sure therapy/counseling helps a lot of people, but in my experience, it contributed toward ending a marriage rather than saving it.  Sure, there were other factors involved, and in the end we were happier (first more miserable, though) but it's just too simple to show only the breakthroughs and benefits.  The reality is that therapy has its complex ups and downs, just like anything else.  And if someone's needs aren't being met, they shouldn't need a medical professional in the room to be able to express themselves.  Why wasn't the husband's bullying nature and outdated 1950's outlook addressed by the therapy?  That to me seemed like the larger issue.

That, and why the wife was trying to kill her husband slowly with all the cholesterol from the eggs and bacon every morning.  Forget Viagra, this guy needs some Plavix.  Did the therapist even check to see if these old-timers were even healthy enough to have sex?  That seems like a glaring, ill-advised course of action.

Also starring Tommy Lee Jones (last seen in "Coal Miner's Daughter"), Steve Carell (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), Jean Smart, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, with cameos from Elisabeth Shue (last seen in "Cocktail"), Mimi Rogers (last seen in "Lost in Space").

RATING: 3 out of 10 bananas

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Into the Woods

Year 7, Day 1 - 1/1/15 - Movie #1,901

BEFORE: Well, I made it through Christmas, somehow.  (I probably say that every year...)  I took my usual day to walk around New York, which I've taken to calling "Festivus", but it's really just an excuse to take photos, shop the outdoor holiday markets, think about gift ideas, and put myself in a proper, Christmas-y mood.  Then my BFF Andy came to town, and we did something very touristy, namely go to see a taping of "Late Show with David Letterman" - but this was no ordinary show, it was the show that passes for their annual Christmas extravaganza, with Jay Thomas throwing a football at a meatball atop a tree, and Darlene Love performing her signature song, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)".  Like Andy, I was just as fascinated with the choreography of musicians, singers, producers and crew involved in the SET-UP for the song as I was for the song itself.  You can hear Andy's review of the complicated proceedings here:

Then came the office Christmas party, and the following week was Christmas itself.  We drove up to Massachusetts on Christmas Eve (which involved a stop at Foxwoods Casino, since we've determined that their buffet constitutes the best food close to Route I-95) and then there were three days of eating, drinking and gift-exchanging.  I think once you outgrow the Santa/Rudolph stories, and if you start to seriously doubt the Jesus/Nativity mythology, then all that you're left with at Christmastime is family, food and fun, which is all still good.  I still cling to the music, and in fact got some great reviews for the mix CD I sent out with my Christmas cards this year - I went with an a cappella theme, and figured that might turn a few people off, but you can't please everyone all the time, so screw it.  One of my aunts praised me for sending out a disc of "traditional music", but I think she confused the medium with the style - although the disc was 100% choral, with no electric guitars or anything, many of the a cappella arrangements (and a few of the songs) I felt were quite modern, but I didn't have the heart or the time to correct her and explain why she was off-base.

As I write this, it's really a couple of days before January 1, but since we've already purchased our movie tickets for New Year's Day, I feel confident that this will be the first film of the year.  And as we find ourselves at the end of one year and the beginning of another, it's only natural to think about endings and beginnings.  Which people fell off my radar this year?  How many years did I have that job until just recently?  How many famous people died this year?  It's only because we live life in a linear fashion that we tend to focus on the endings of things - because we're less frequently aware of what's ahead, or how important the things that just began might turn out to be.  So it's only human to take count, to tally what I did in the last year, I just happen to take that process to the extreme, plus I'm keenly aware of what I plan to accomplish in the year to come, at least with regards to cinema.

But, why am I starting HERE, of all places, with a film that's recently released in theaters, when there are so many (185) older films still on the list?  Two reasons, which are of course related:

I don't have a deceased person I admire to dedicate this year to, which in essence is a good thing.  I don't feel strongly enough about Mickey Rooney, Robin Williams, James Garner et. al. to give them a shout-out here (though I will get to a Robin Williams chain, probably late in 2015) and besides, my wife has complained that I have not given her a proper dedication as of yet.  I told her this was because she is very much alive, and to dedicate to her would break tradition, but still she persists.  So, this year of bloggery is dedicated to my wife, for putting up with my shenanigans, which include, but are not limited to, discussing movies with her at great length, obsessing over watching films in the proper order, and falling asleep in random places around the house while viewing films.

This leads to the second reason, namely that she has been waiting to see the Hollywood version "Into the Woods", in fact it was difficult to convince her to wait until New Year's Day and to not spend part of Christmas Day at the cineplex.  She's graciously agreed to wait an extra week to view the film with me on my first available movie day of 2015.  (We also listened to the soundtrack of a production of Sondheim's play that was broadcast on TV years ago in the car on the drive home from Christmas in Massachusetts - so although that contained some spoilers for me, it also helped prepare me for the twists and turns in this film's plot.)  Hey, two years ago I led off with an equally-anticipated (by her) film, "Les Miserables", and that worked out pretty well.

Now, in order to watch this film on January 1, I had to (once again) turn my list on its ear to maintain the chain of actor linkage.  The original plan was to start the year with "Wings of Desire", figuring that I ended the year 2014 with demons ("This Is the End"), thus I could start the next year with angels.  (The third, less-important reason for starting here is that over the Thanksgiving/Christmas break, I re-watched all of the Woody Allen films I'd seen before, the ones that weren't part of my chain in February through April of 2014, 14 films ranging from "Annie Hall" to "Small Time Crooks".  So, for me there was even less of a reason for Movie #1,900 to topically link to Movie #1,901.  But, as an added bonus just for me, Seth Rogen from "This Is the End" was also in "Paul" with Sigourney Weaver, who made a brief appearance in "Annie Hall" - then "Small Time Crooks" featured Tracey Ullman, who appears in "Into the Woods".  So I think I maintained a behind-the-scenes actor linking during the off-season.)

Heck, it's a new year so we'll start a new topic - even though I'd already worked out a pretty good chain that included nearly every film on my list.  So, I picked a point in my list that was another film with Meryl Streep in it, about 90 films deep, and then reversed the order of films 1 through 90, checking for ways to work in those last five un-linkable films along the way.

As a result, I've now got a January that's tight, tight, tight - 31 films in a row with overlapping stars, and I think only one point with indirect linkage.  This will lead nicely into the February romance chain, and even puts a film with the word "heart" in the title on Valentine's Day - I can live with that.  And February is also shaping up to be a thing of beauty with regards to actors carrying over to successive films, almost 28 times in a row.

March is now going to host a bunch of classic films, with a chain mostly consisting of films with Laurence Olivier, Mae West and Cary Grant.  Cary Grant was TCM's Featured Actor of the Month for December, and if there's any one reason why my list has ballooned back up from 147 to 185, that's it.  A month ago I had just 3 Cary Grant films on my list, and now there are 19.  Damn you, Turner Classic Movies, isn't it enough that I add a bunch of films every February from your "31 Days of Oscar" marathon?  I guess it's a good follow-up, since last year I watched 5 Cary Grant films (4 directed by Hitchcock) and there were still so many more good ones to find.  (EDIT: The number's gone up again, since TCM is running 6 Marx Brothers films today, and I promised I'd give the Marx Brothers a fair shake once I got through the Chaplin chain. So the watchlist is now at 193.)

Once I hit mid-April, I'll probably have to review what's left and move it all around again, anyway.  If my linking ends at any point, which I believe it will, my current plan is to watch some documentaries while I re-adjust the list to accommodate any new arrivals, then finish strong with a renewed, linked list. 

But perhaps by then my list will be smaller, assuming I can stop adding to it, and I don't go see too many films in the theater.  I can see some, though - there are spaces for 2 in January, and then I'll be looking to figure out how to work in "Avengers 2: Age of Ultron" in May, and I've just got to leave room at the end of the year for "Star Wars: Episode 7".  A list of 185 films means that I can't really add a film to the list for every one I watch, not if I still want to have a chance of wrapping things up this year.  I think I can add one for every TWO that I watch, assuming that the result brings the total up to 300 for the year.  (There must be a mathematical way to determine this, but it eludes me at the moment.  185 + 90 = 275, which brings me close, but that's not exactly how this works.  While I watch those 90 films it would mean adding an extra 45, then another 22, and 11 and so on.)

THE PLOT:  A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Tangled" (Movie #1,034), "Jack the Giant Slayer" (Movie #1,621)

AFTER: In the end, what do Christmas, fairy tales and movie franchises have in common?  They are all stories that are both never-ending, and constantly changing.  In the case of the Biblical Christmas, that's due to the fact that various popes and liturgical institutions, along with a few botched translations, have changed the content over time.  Same with the Santa/Rudolph story - it's the same every year, right?  Except the Santa story from, say, 100 years ago seems quite different from the one we have now - these days the simple toymaker has a rocket sled and probably uses drone cameras to see you when you're sleeping.  Someone should really investigate that guy. 

Movie franchises stay alive by falling into one of two categories - either they're made modular or never-ending, so future films can always be tacked on to the front or back of the others ("Star Wars", "Lord of the Rings", "Night at the Museum", "The Fast and the Furious") or else they just get remade or rebooted every decade or so with different actors ("Godzilla", "Dracula", "The Bad News Bears").  If you liked the old versions better, tough luck, because it's a new generation now, and they tend to like their movies a different way.

Which brings us to fairy tales - again, these have been around seemingly forever, but they also tend to change over time.  I haven't watch the updated versions of "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty" that were released in the last few years (though this would have been an excellent place to drop them in...) but I have a feeling that they bear little resemblance to the Disney versions of the 1930's and 1940's.  That's all OK, because those homogenized Disney versions probably had very little in common with the original Grimm fairy tales, which were, umm, more than a bit grim.  The TV shows "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time" have also seized on this trend of re-adding the dark material, so that's probably why "Into the Woods" is finally seeing release now as a film instead of a stage production.

And since my wife was very familiar with the stage production, and not everything from that 3-hour play could fit into a 2-hour movie, naturally she felt like a few things were missing.  Two male characters, the Narrator and the Baker's father, had their roles reduced to almost nothing, and any comedy bits associated with them had to be discarded as well.  So if you're a big Sondheim fan, seeing this film may either please or displease you, in the end it's your call.  I was similarly bothered when the movie "The Time-Traveler's Wife" reduced a minor (but significant) character to almost nothing, so I understand the frustration.

You should also probably avoid this movie if you don't like seeing all the fairy-tale characters messed with in one film.  I sort of equate this with the "Avengers" movie, since Marvel had made movies starring Hulk, Thor, and Captain America and then threw them all together - so this is like the fairy-tale Avengers, uniting Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack (of "and the Beanstalk" fame), plus throwing in the baker (and his wife) and stranding them together on Gilligan's Island.  No, wait, that's not right.  And arguing about the characters or story here would be like complaining that Ant-Man and Wasp weren't shown as founding members in the "Avengers" film - again, stories change over time, new writers take over and do things the way they want, if you're a fan of comic books or fairy tales, you've just got to learn to roll with it.

Also, please avoid dragging kids to this film if you're looking for the next "Frozen".  It's just not that kind of movie.  We saw a fair amount of kids in the theater today, and I wonder how a fairy-tale story with some majorly adult themes messed with their heads.  Yes, that too is sort of a throwback to the fairy tales of old, because in the end anything like Rapunzel or Little Red Riding Hood is really about the sexual awakening of young girls, if you want to take it that way.  You can depict the Big Bad Wolf as just a wolf, or you can make him into a lecherous pervy pedophile if you choose.

That being said, this is all very clever, making me wonder about the process, someone chose THESE fairy-tale characters and not THOSE, perhaps they saw what was common to all of their stories, and wondered what would happen if they all went on their various quests into the same woods on the same day, and how they'd all react to each other.  And then once that writer started, he realized that this one could be that one's neighbor, this one could be related to that one, and so on.  And by having two princes instead of one, there could be one suitor for Cinderella and one for Rapunzel, neatly done.  In the end I'm just as fascinated with the process of creating this story as I am with the end result.

In another nod to stagecraft, there are clearly two acts here as well, one where the characters are introduced and drawn together, and the other where their plans start to fall apart and their true natures revealed.  Stop and think about Cinderella for a moment - why was she so eager to get to the ball, and then so eager to run away?  And if Jack climbed the beanstalk, stole the gold and slew the giant, does that really sound so heroic in the end?  Seems more like a dick move, right?  This is the sort of thing that gets explored here.

I was picking the story apart as the characters' quests kept intersecting, as they bounced off of each other in various new ways, and I was looking for loose ends, pieces that didn't fit.  Nope, they're not really there.  Sondheim (or Lapine, or whoever) was always one step ahead, they'd already considered every little detail, robbing me of nitpick points, but making for a very tight tale.  Still, I can see how some people might not like the second half as much, because they might still be clinging to the idea that a writer should get to the "Happily Ever After" part and then stop, but this one keeps on going.

Which I take as a big positive - seeing what comes after "Happily Ever After" is somewhat innovative, as stories go.  What happens when you get the thing (or person) you wished for, and then realize that you're not as satisfied as you thought you'd be?  Characters are flawed, people make mistakes, and those goal posts keep on moving, don't they?  You can be disappointed in others, or your own flaws, but you've still got to get up the next day and try again.  That's a fairly adult notion appearing in a children's story.  Before "Into the Woods", we saw a trailer for the upcoming "Cinderella" film, and it looks like a live-action clone of Disney's famous animated version - but I'm willing to bet it's all sizzle and no steak, and the last thing it will do is try to make people think.

"Into the Woods" will at least make you think about the nature of stories, the futility of wish fulfillment, and the character of, umm, characters, and therefore by extension what it means to be human.  And even if you don't pick up on all that, there are a lot of clever rhymes in the songs.  I think this is a game-changer for fairy tales, in much the same way that "The Princess Bride" was years ago.

Starring Meryl Streep (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Anna Kendrick (last seen in "Rapture-Palooza"), Johnny Depp (last seen in "The Lone Ranger"), James Corden (last seen in "The Three Musketeers"), Emily Blunt (last seen in "Looper"), Chris Pine (last seen in "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), Daniel Huttlestone (last seen in "Les Miserables"), Christine Baranski (last seen in "Welcome to Mooseport"), Tracey Ullman, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Simon Russell Beale, Frances de la Tour.

RATING: 8 out of 10 lentils