Saturday, January 10, 2015

Never Say Never Again

Year 7, Day 10 - 1/10/15 - Movie #1,910

BEFORE: Before I get to the film, it's time for Part 47 of my multi-part rant against the cable company, who for legal reasons I'll call "TimeMorons/WarnerJerkWeasels".  Hey, it's not slander if it's true.  You may recall last August that one of my DVRs went loco and deleted all of my programs, and although I got some satisfaction after swapping it out for a new device, a week's worth of television was lost forever, because there's simply NO WAY that the company allows you to download shows off of a corrupted drive to another drive.  The technology to download files from one drive to another simply does not exist in their universe, even though that's what every other hard drive in the world allows.  

This time I was swapping out an old modem, because our internet connection at home has been spotty, and while getting the new one at the walk-in service center (because there's one near my office, and it's much faster than waiting for a technician to never show up at the house) the representative of TimeMorons/WarnerJerkWeasels tried to sell me on the concept of "bundling" services, since he is essentially a corporate robot and this is what he is programmed to do.  I'm usually against such things, as any time a corporation offers to save me money, I start to smell their bullshit.  

But by combining my cable and internet services and adding a phone line to complete the bundle trifecta, the offer meant about an $80 savings on my bill.  Now that I'm only working part-time, I have to consider such things seriously.  Plus, with an emergency phone line available through the modem, this would mean I could drop our phone service from AT&T.  No one except telemarketers has called us on the land-line in months anyway, everyone just calls our cell phones.  (In fact, our outgoing answering-machine message somehow got mixed up with a telemarketer's pitch to save money on our electric bill, and we've never bothered to fix it.  I like the poetic justice that any telemarketer calling us has to also listen to someone's sales pitch.)  That's another $70 a month I could eliminate from my bills, so this bundling concept could save me $150 a month.  So, please, robot representative of a Moron/JerkWeasel conglomerate, please tell me more.  

I agreed to the bundling, packed up the new modem, and, flush with an extra theoretical $150 per month in my favor, went hog-wild and asked him to add the only premium channel that I wasn't already getting to my line-up, Epix, for an extra $5.  They're the only channel running "The Wolf of Wall Street", which I missed the last time they had a free preview weekend.  I went home and checked my cable box, no Epix yet, but I knew that any time there's a change made to the channel line-up, it gets implemented at 5 or 6 am, when most viewers, even slackers like me, are asleep.  

4 am the next morning, I checked my cable box and it was fine.  I woke up at 11 am to find I had the Epix channel, but my DVR also appeared to have recorded a bunch of children's shows that had aired in November and December, which was impossible.  Most of those shows I'd never heard of, and the DVR certainly wasn't programmed to record them.  They wouldn't even play back, and they weren't taking up space on the drive, they were somehow just phantoms of non-recorded shows from last month.  And the DVR also chose to delete shows that I HAD recorded, possibly to make room for all this non-existent children's programming.  

Well, I was livid, but after deleting the phantom shows, the DVR seemed to be working more or less normally.  I lost three episodes each of "Jeopardy!", "The Daily Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman", but at least some of that was available on demand.  Plus I had my new channel, so I gave the box one last chance to work correctly, and on Friday morning, the same thing happened - kids' shows were recorded, and my Thursday night shows were deleted.  It's as if adding a channel got my DVR's programming swapped with someone else's.  

So Friday morning I went back to the Morons/Jerkweasels service center, DVR in hand (somehow I avoided smashing it with a sledgehammer to make my point) to explain the problem, and I was beyond angry.  Yeah, I caused a scene - all the money I pay this company every month to provide service, and they can't give me a device that will record my shows, save them for me to watch, and then delete them, in that order.  Brainless Robot Representative #2 offered me a brand new DVR, "guaranteed" to work, the new models apparently came out in September (of course, because my last DVR problem happened in August, when I was also given a new DVR "guaranteed" to work right.)  

I'm going to simplify the story a little bit here, because there were other tangential problems that occurred, like the bundling hadn't happened right, and there were a number of robot representative body orifices that I may have threatened to shove my DVR down (or up) - it doesn't matter.  The point is that for the next half-hour, I was "that guy" - the disgruntled customer making a scene.  And the robot had to call over another robot to assist me, and that guy said something like, "Sir, you have to believe that we're giving you the best possible equipment, and that it will work properly."

Really?  I HAVE to believe that?  I gave it to this guy good - "No, as a matter of fact, I DON'T have to believe that.  Don't even TRY to tell me what I HAVE to believe.  Because I believe that every piece of equipment this office has ever given me is a piece of crap.  I also believe that everyone here is completely incompetent.  And I believe that this DVR will work properly for 6 months and then go crazy, because every DVR you've given me has done exactly that.  THAT'S what I choose to believe."  

I hope there's security footage somewhere of me unloading on these robot representatives, I really do.  This company needs a wake-up call.  They've got thousands of DVRs out in the field, and every 6 months they download new software to the boxes, under cover of night, without checking to make sure that the software is compatible with all of the hardware.  This leads to weird glitches, like deleting all of the recorded shows from the drive when a customer does something simple, like adding a new premium channel. 

On the way out, I noticed the Moron/JerkWeasel Corporation is now offering home security and fire protection services.  Now, why would ANYONE trust the safety of their home to a company that can't build a DVR that works properly, or deliver a consistent internet signal?  What could possibly lead  customers to think they'll offer a burglar or fire alarm that does a proper job?  No, thanks!  I already live in constant fear my recorded shows will vanish, which is why I'm always dubbing them to safe, reliable videotape.  Call me old-fashioned, but it works, and I get to see my shows on my own time this way.

Sean Connery carries over from "Medicine Man", getting younger once again (53).

THE PLOT:  A SPECTRE agent has stolen two American nuclear warheads, and James Bond must find their targets before they are detonated.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Thunderball" (Movie #1,447), "Skyfall" (Movie #1,464)

AFTER: I covered most of the James Bond series in June of 2012 - and this one is sort of the "red-headed step-child" in the franchise.  In fact, it's technically not part of the MGM franchise at all (plus I didn't have a copy of it to watch then, I had to wait an extra year for some channel to run it.).  It was made by a different production company than the others, leading to a number of lawsuits and arguments over who owns the rights to what.  This WB film was released in 1983, just 4 months after "Octopussy", so there was sort of a "Battle of the Bonds" that year.  Roger Moore was the official James Bond, but no one knew if audiences were more eager to see Connery get back into character.  

Of course, this raises questions about who "owns" anything.  Some things are copyrightable, some are not.  You can't copyright a title, for example - if I wanted to make a film about tornado chasers and call it "Gone With the Wind", that's legal.  So there are always ways around the rules, and once you get a judge involved, all bets are off.  In this case the co-writer and producer of "Thunderball" won the right to re-make that film, so a Bond film could be made by another company, as long as it was essentially a re-tread of "Thunderball".  They fiddled with a couple character names, and undid some of the changes made for the first movie, but it's got the same DNA.  

This film's producer was Jack Schwartzman, (father of Jason) and his wife, Talia Shire Schwartzman, is listed as a production consultant.  Much speculation has also been made about her brother's (Francis Ford Coppola) contributions to the script.  And it was the only Bond film directed by an American, Irvin Kershner, who also directed "The Empire Strikes Back".  

Unfortunately, this ends up being more proof that the 1980's were, at heart, a very silly decade.  The Bond (and Bond villain) gadgets used here are much siller than usual.  The laser-watch and exploding pen are fairly standard, but remote-control sharks?  That's the sort of thing that the Austin Powers movies made fun of.  "Entrapment" got around the retinal-scan thing with goggles, someone here uses an entire fake eye.  In his head.  Yep.  Silliest of all, though, is an attempt to cash in on these new-fangled arcade games that the kids are playing by having Bond face off against his foe by playing a game that's a weird combination of Risk, Tempest, and that old-time arcade game that gives you an electric-shock and judges your manliness by how long you can hold on without letting go.  

When I watched the other Bond films, I agonized over the viewing order.  I wondered if I should just start with "Dr. No" and move through the whole franchise chronologically, or go in the order Ian Fleming wrote the stories, or attempt to work out some chronology that would make more sense.  I opted to start with Daniel Craig in the origin story "Casino Royale", then watch "Quantum of Solace", then go back to "Dr. No" and proceed forward, ending with "Skyfall".  This naturally led to a lot of story confusion, characters changing their look, and going from being dead to alive and all that, but really there was no good way to do it.  I satisfied myself by linking from a Daniel Craig film before the beginning and to another Daniel Craig film after the end.  (This keeps the OCD beast in my brain at bay.)

You might ask, "Where does this film fit in the chronology?" which ends up being one of those unanswerable koans, like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"  This film doesn't fit anywhere in the chronology, because it's not supposed to, any more than the Daniel Craig films fit with the Connery or Moore or Brosnan films, because the franchise got re-booted.  This film features an older, retired Bond, who gets dragged back into service because, umm, OK let's just say that no one else was available, maybe everyone was on holiday or there was a gas leak or something, leading to a secret agent shortage.  This film takes place during "story time", which means that all issues of when or why get tabled, and you should just sit back and try to enjoy the story.  

For example, Ernst Blofeld is back as the head of SPECTRE, despite a Blofeld-like villain being killed quite dramatically by Roger Moore's Bond at the start of "For Your Eyes Only".  And that Bond was (probably) younger than this Bond, so either he didn't really die, or the timeline's out of whack, or Bond faces another villain here with the same exact name.  Again, try not to worry too much about this.  But the next Bond film was recently announced, and its title is "Spectre".  Will we see Blofeld again?  Who knows?  (Count on it...)

Bond sleeps with beautiful women (4, but who's counting?), Bond tracks down the missing warheads, Bond rides a motorcycle and fights a bunch of enemy agents.  Stuff blows up, SPECTRE is defeated, and the world order is restored.  If you're looking for things to make more sense than that, you're probably watching the wrong film.

Also starring Kim Basinger (last seen in "8 Mile"), Klaus Maria Brandauer (last seen in "Out of Africa"), Max von Sydow (last seen in "Shutter Island"), Bernie Casey, Edward Fox (last seen in "Force 10 From Navarone"), Pamela Salem, Alec McOwen, and a cameo by Rowan Atkinson (last seen in "Love Actually").

RATING: 4 out of 10 dry martinis

Friday, January 9, 2015

Medicine Man

Year 7, Day 9 - 1/9/15 - Movie #1,909

BEFORE: The result of flipping a large part of my list around, since I apparently had blocks of films arranged chronologically, is that I now get to watch certain stars get younger as I dive backwards into their filmographies.  I watched Catherine Zeta-Jones get younger over three films, now it's Sean Connery's turn.  He was 70 when "Entrapment" was released, and 62 when tonight's film came out.  Tomorrow he'll be younger still, like Benjamin Button. 

THE PLOT:  An eccentric scientist working for a large drug company is working on a research project in the Amazon jungle.  When his new research assistant turns out to be a "mere woman," he rejects her help.

AFTER: Last night I discussed the "quaint" notion of the Y2K bug - there was another notion that was spread around in the 1990's, and that was that something in the Amazon rainforest contained the cure for cancer.  Probably someone said at one point that a plant or animal there COULD supply a cure, and then the next person repeated this, only without the word COULD.  

It's funny how some of these activist messages take on a life of their own - like I remember in the 1980's and 90's we were supposed to speak out against Apartheid, rock stars weren't supposed to play Sun City, and we had to get used to the fact that some people were both here and queer.  You think the recent boycotts against Chick-Fil-A, Target and Hobby Lobby are a big deal?  Back in the day, we couldn't order from Domino's Pizza because the company supposedly was anti-abortion, we couldn't drink Coors beer because they were "anti-gay", we couldn't wear Nike sneakers because of unfair global labor conditions, and we certainly couldn't eat at McDonald's because they were "destroying the rain forests".  I was never sure if it was because they supported tearing down the forests to make more cattle land, or if it was because they were still using styrofoam, which wasn't recyclable.  (Look, there were many good reasons to not eat at McDonald's, you could probably come up with 5 or 6 before you even got to the styrofoam...)

I always argued with my college roommates, saying that it did no good to boycott Mickey D's (or whoever...) unless you also TOLD someone at the company why you weren't eating there.  They had no figures available on how much business they COULD be doing if twenty-somethings weren't eating there.  But time moves on, and after you spend some time enacting social change, you might find that your own personal boycott only lasts until they bring back the McRib sandwich.  That's only natural.  

But I digress.  My point is that when someone tells you something's wrong with the world, you need to consider the source.  If someone tells you that the rainforest could hold the cancer cure, think about who benefits from that rumor spreading around.  Could be it was started by someone who just wanted to raise awareness and stop deforestation, and it's not based on any medical or scientific research at all.  Anyway, I suspect that the statement is based on faulty logic.  True, there are many species of plants and animals in the rainforest that have not been catalogued.  But just because you WANT one of them to contain a cancer cure, that doesn't mean that one of them WILL.  

And if you want to stop deforestation or you feel that the rainforest is a resource we can't afford to lose, then by all means, say exactly that.  Don't use all of the cancer patients or potential cancer patients in the world just to leverage my sympathy and support.  We're coming off of a season where people, for some unfathomable reason, want to put trees in their houses and decorate them, even in the middle of a big city.  Dirty, pitch-dripping, needle-dropping trees are trucked in from upstate and plopped into people's living rooms, I just don't get it.  And when I see them not selling in a vacant lot, or piled up on the sidewalk after the holiday's over, it seems quite sad.  But then I remember that trees are a renewable resource, and most of these pines were probably grown on tree farms just for this purpose.  And we now have mulching programs, so it's not as wasteful as it used to be.  The companies that make paper products, and Christmas trees, eventually realize that it does them no good to use up all the trees.  

Look through your spam mail folder these days, and along with news of male enhancement drugs and offers from Nigerian princes, you'll probably see a few messages about the powers of the Acai berry, or other natural wonders containing anti-oxidants or cancer-fighting drugs.  Again, consider the source.  A typical example is the graviola, a "legendary healing tree" from the Amazon rainforest.  (I got this from, where I check out all my urban legends.)  Allegedly the National Cancer Institute first realized the "anti-cancer activity" of graviola leaves in 1976, and later studies found that chemicals in them were effective in destroying cells that had survived chemotherapy treatments.  Great news, except that as a natural product, the chemicals couldn't be patented, and therefore the big pharmaceutical companies couldn't profit from it, and were unable to synthesize the chemicals so that they could be patented.

Is this true?  Damned if I know - it probably just makes a good, ironic (and therefore truth-ish) story.  It's so easy to assume that a corporation won't do the right thing unless it can also turn a profit.  But this does tie in with tonight's film, in which a scientist is trying to determine what it is about a particular plant that makes it so effective against tumors.  Now it makes more sense, because if he can isolate the right chemical, the company he works for can synthesize it, and therefore patent and market it. 

Putting that aside, why does Hollywood feel the need to turn every film into a romance?  Why can't a film just be about scientists in the jungle who are looking for a cure, and who maintain their professionalism the whole time, and manage to keep their personal feelings out of things?  I resent the implication that people aren't going to watch a movie unless there's a romantic relationship in it somewhere.

Also starring Lorraine Bracco, Jose Wilker.

RATING: 4 out of 10 ziplines

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Year 7, Day 8 - 1/8/15 - Movie #1,908

BEFORE: Catherine Zeta-Jones pulls off a three-peat of her own, carrying over from "The Legend of Zorro".  This sets up some Sean Connery films, and this is pretty much the way January's going to go, with each actor settling in for three or four films, then handing off to another in a cascading chain.  (Yeah, I had a lot of time in November to set this up...)  How long can I keep this up?  Probably only the next 100 films or so.  OK, 200, tops.

THE PLOT: An insurance agent is sent by her employer to track down and help capture an art thief.

AFTER: Back in the early days of cinema, characters tended to be just one thing.  Take Sam Spade, he was a detective, and that's all.  That's all he ever was, that's all he'll ever be, because that was all the films needed him to be.  Jimmy Stewart's character in "Rear Window" was a photographer, that's all we needed to know about him, and that was all the background needed for him when he started spying on his neighbors.

Things got a little more interesting in the 1970's and 80's, when action films discovered that characters could start out as one thing, then end up as something else.  "Jaws" gave us a sheriff who became a shark hunter, "Star Wars" presented a farmboy who became a Jedi Knight, and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" showed that an archaeologist could also become a superhero of sorts.

Television sort of picked up on that trend, and I don't just mean sitcoms where a doctor is also a family man, I mean shows like "Murder, She Wrote", where a mystery writer also manages to solve crimes in the real world.  What you see now in a lot of TV shows are characters who are two contrasting things - like a criminologist who's also a serial killer ("Dexter") or a soldier who's also a terrorist ("Homeland").
I don't watch those shows, but I read a lot about them.  This eventually leads to shows about women who make cupcakes but are somehow very skinny, or physicists who are socially inept yet somehow are able to be friends with each other and date pretty girls.

Stuck neatly between Phases 2 and 3 is a film like "Entrapment" - where the lead female is a security consultant for an insurance company, and is also training to be an art thief herself.  Now, is she pretending to be an art thief in order to track down and entrap another thief, or is she pretending to be work for the insurance company in order to gain information to be a better thief?   No spoilers here, you'll have to watch the film to find out.  However, setting up a character as two opposing things should not be presented in place of character development - contrast does not equal change.

The insurance expert/budding thief gains the trust of the more experienced, older thief by helping him steal one object, then convinces him there's a bigger score to be had on the eve of the Millennium - Dec. 31, 1999.  Technically, the new millennium didn't begin until one year later - Jan. 1, 2001 - but remember there was that big fear that the world's computers would all crash on Jan. 1, 2000 because nobody thought to program computers to flip to a new thousands digit, since we only had 999 years to prepare for that.  (OK, since computers were invented, we only had about 50 years.)

It seems so quaint now, right?  The theory that if the computers glitched, we'd all somehow be living out of cardboard boxes within weeks of Y2K, roasting rats over a trash can fire, after our bottled water and canned spam ran out.  And to this film's credit, it didn't rely on the Y2K glitch to power its storyline, just the FEAR of the Y2K glitch, assuming that a major global banking corporation would shut down its systems for testing right after midnight on December 31.  But then, the only thing the thieves could think to do was the same "steal a lot of half-pennies" idea seen in "Superman III" and "Office Space".  What a shame.

NITPICK POINT: Since everyone somehow seems to think that the world revolves around New York City, they tend to forget that when the ball drops in Times Square, it's already been January 1 in Asia and Europe for some time.  While the heist here is set in Malaysia, which may be in one of the first time zones to experience the new year, it just wouldn't be celebrated at the same time around the globe.  This is why the U.S. was able to breathe easy during Y2K, because the clock and calendars changed over in Australia and Asia with no reported problems.  (Except for the remote parts of Asia where it was still, like, 1800 or so.)

There's other silly stuff here too, of course, but a lot of it is standard fare for heist films.  Like there's the natural assumption that any set of laser-beams (you know, those "electric eye" thingies) which are designed to cover a particular room completely can be outwitted if someone could just twist or gyrate or tumble their body through the room in a specific fashion.  I think that this was just an excuse to put Ms. Zeta-Jones in a tight catsuit and make her bend over and stretch her body around the room - not that I'm complaining, mind you.  And the other methods for countering pressure switches, retinal scans and keypad codes were even more ludicrous.

But hey, if you like seeing a 70-year old man romancing a 30-year old woman, maybe this is the film for you.

Also starring Sean Connery (last seen in "Marnie"), Ving Rhames (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), Will Patton (last seen in "A Mighty Heart"), Maury Chaykin (last seen in "A Life Less Ordinary").

RATING: 5 out of 10 mailing tubes

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Legend of Zorro

Year 7, Day 7 - 1/7/15 - Movie #1,907

BEFORE: Well, considering that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins from "RED 2" had co-starred in the film "The Mask of Zorro", this seems like an appropriate follow-up.  But Hopkins is not seen in this sequel, so just Zeta-Jones carries over.

THE PLOT:  Despite trying to keep his swashbuckling to a minimum, a threat to California's pending statehood causes the adventure-loving Alejandro de la Vega -- and his wife, Elena -- to take action.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Mask of Zorro" (Movie #1,236)

AFTER: Like the Lone Ranger, Zorro had his day, sort of the original superhero from back before there were superheroes.  But it seems that day is done, and the studios can stop trying to make Zorro happen.  It's not going to happen.  Besides, we have Batman now, we don't need Zorro any more.

This is set around the time when California had recently stopped being part of Mexico, and was close to becoming a U.S. state.  But by coming in to the U.S. as a Free State and not a Slave State, that apparently was a big concern, touching off a little thing called the Civil War, maybe you've heard of it.  There's some stuff here about voter suppression where Hispanics are concerned, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But the rest of the film concerns some kind of takeover plot, that seems to be related to buying up land and figuring out where the railroads are going to go (I'm not sure, it was all pretty nebulous and confusing here.)  Problem is, I've seen this plot before, in films like "The Wild Wild West" and last year's Lone Ranger film too.  And Zorro's wife is enlisted to start seducing this French (?) count who seems to be behind it all - assuming I'm correct about what "it" is, and I'm just not sure.

The rest of it was pretty hard to understand, too.  Why was it so important to Zorro's wife that he stop being Zorro?  Was it just the danger, or did she disagree with his politics?  Why did the Pinkerton guys need to use HER, couldn't they have just used another beautiful woman? 

NITPICK POINT: So Zorro's own kid didn't recognize him, despite being up close in conversation with him?  Think about your own father - if your dad was in front of you wearing a simple piece of cloth covering only half of his face, I bet you'd still know who he was. 

Also starring Antonio Banderas (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), Rufus Sewell (last seen in "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter"), Julio Oscar Mechoso, Michael Emerson, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso,

RATING: 3 out of 10 fireworks

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Year 7, Day 6 - 1/6/15 - Movie #1,906

BEFORE: Helen Mirren carries over from "The Queen" - and this is the first of 6 or 7 "secret agent" films for January, unfortunately they won't be all lined up in a row, but what can I do?  I'm at the point where I can either link by actors or go thematically, but I just can't do both.

THE PLOT: Retired C.I.A. agent Frank Moses reunites his unlikely team of elite operatives for a global quest to track down a missing portable nuclear device.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "RED" (Movie #1,148)

AFTER: This goes to support what I was saying the other day about franchises - in the case of action franchises, it seems like each film in a series needs to top the one before it, and the easiest way to do that is to keep adding characters.  "Lethal Weapon" added Rene Russo, Jet Li and even Chris Rock as it went along, and there are so many characters in "The Expendables" now that I think some of them are starting to live up to that title.

"RED 2" attempts to top the interplay of "RED" by adding an old love interest/Russian spy, a doddering British spy who may not be as clueless as he seems, and an Asian martial-arts expert who's out for revenge against the main characters.  Our heroes need to track down a WMD that got lost in Russia, so naturally they steal a plane and head straight to...Paris?  OK, there's a reason for that, but once it's dealt with, it's straight on to London.  But then, right after that, it's on to Russia, right?

Honestly, I couldn't keep track of all the flying around.  By the time they got to the Iranian Embassy, I couldn't even tell you what country that embassy was in.  Look, it doesn't really matter, because these are professionals who know exactly what they're doing, even if they don't always know where they're going.  If you want to see some cool stunts, and watch some stuff blow up, and laugh at John Malkovich wearing silly costumes, then you've come to the right place.

And this is just a lot more FUN than those "Expendables" movies.  Geez, Stallone takes himself so seriously in those films (or maybe he just can't move his facial muscles any more to smile, I'm not sure...) that all the fun gets sucked right out of them.  If you want fun and wisecracks in your action film, you've got to get Bruce Willis.  I felt more strongly that the people making this film enjoyed what they were doing - not that it's whimsical as such, but everyone seemed to be having a good time, even when getting shot at.

Who cares if people think that RED stands for "Really Elderly Dudes" instead of "Retired, Extremely Dangerous"?  They can keep making these for as long as they want, as far as I'm concerned.

Also starring Bruce Willis (last seen in "The Expendables 2"), John Malkovich (last seen in "Warm Bodies"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World"), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last seen in "The Terminal"), Mary-Louise Parker (last seen in "R.I.P.D."), Brian Cox (last seen in "Match Point"), Byung-Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, David Thewlis (last seen in "The New World"), Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick "Biggs" Hagon (last seen in "Me and Orson Welles"), with a cameo from Titus Welliver (last seen in "Argo")

RATING: 6 out of 10 bottles of wine

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Queen

Year 7, Day 5 - 1/5/15 - Movie #1,905

BEFORE: OK, so I ran out of Meryl Streep films, and I didn't think I had a direct link from "The Iron Lady". I put these two films next two each other thematically, without regard for sharing actors - I thought I'd have to rely on the fact that Jim Broadbent was also in the film "Inkheart" with Helen Mirren (last heard in "Monsters University").  But then in scrolling through the cast lists, I found an actor who was in both "The Iron Lady" and tonight's film, and his name is Roger Allam.  Saved again.

THE PLOT:  After the death of Princess Diana, HM Queen Elizabeth II struggles with her reaction to a sequence of events nobody could have predicted.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The King's Speech" (Movie #1,119)

AFTER: Now, see, this is a proper way to structure a biopic.  Instead of jumbling up the important moments of Queen Elizabeth's life, or over-using the flashback technique, the film chooses a very important week in the subject's history and narrows its focus.  The film can then relate its subject to other time periods by making references to Winston Churchill, King George, etc. and we can extrapolate everything we need to know about the Queen by learning about her personality in a time of crisis.

Plus, I learned more about British government in the first five minutes of this film than I did in the entirety of last night's film.  The prime minister is the elected head of the U.K. government, but upon his election he must present himself to the monarch, so that she can "invite" him to lead the country on her behalf.  A very polite people, those Brits - one wonders what she would do if he declined?

The time period chosen here includes the election of Tony Blair, the death of Princess Diana, and the Royal Family's reaction to this death, then the public's subsequent reaction to their reaction.  The Queen followed standard procedure, considering that Diana was no longer a member of the royal family when she died, and didn't authorize a state funeral, leaving such matters up to her family, the Spencers.  However, the public had different ideas about how Diana should have been regarded, and wondered why it seemed like the Queen wasn't giving her death the proper respect.

Proving that it's possible to be right in matters of protocol, but wrong in the eyes of the media and the public.  The press probably seized upon the resulting outcry, because it helped deflect any blame being cast at the media itself, for contributing to Diana's death and spreading gossip about her while she was alive.  Before anyone could start sharpening pitchforks or wondering why the monarchy still existed in the first place, Blair was able to convince Her Majesty that protocol should perhaps take a back seat to appeasing the populace by at least showing some signs of grief and making a public statement.

It's been a pretty dark year so far in 2015 - both tonight's film and "August: Osage County" center around funeral plans, and "Into the Woods" had some pretty dark moments, with a few characters not making it to the end of that film.  Let's hope for some lighter material coming up this week or next.

Also starring Michael Sheen (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), James Cromwell (last heard in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"), Alex Jennings (last seen in "Babel"), Sylvia Syms, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley, and (archive footage) cameos of Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Elton John, Nicole Kidman, and Tracey Ullman (last seen in "Into the Woods").

RATING: 5 out of 10 Corgis

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Iron Lady

Year 7, Day 4 - 1/4/15 - Movie #1,904

BEFORE: Meryl Streep completes a quatt-row (that's like a three-peat, only one higher) and I think there are no more films with her in them that I want to see, unless she makes another one before I finish.

Hmm, Streep has played three powerful women in the last four days, and one sheepish one.  Not sure what to make of that.

THE PLOT:  An elderly Margaret Thatcher talks to the imagined presence of her recently deceased husband as she struggles to come to terms with his death while scenes from her past life, from girlhood to British prime minister, intervene.

AFTER: I understand that it's tough to make an interesting biopic.  Sure, you can just start at the beginning of someone's life and move forward, but that doesn't really work because you probably want to get to the interesting parts a lot faster.  So writers and directors mess with the time-stream to make things more novel, or they start at the end and use a framing device, such as someone telling the story (like in "Amadeus") which results in a story that's very flashback-y, but hopefully more fast-paced and intriguing.

THIS film, on the other hand, chose to start at the end, but the framing device is Margaret Thatcher having flashes of memory, while she suffers from dementia.  That's a horrible idea.  Even if the flashbacks are more or less chronological, should we as an audience be relying on someone who's mentally slowly slipping away to remember everything correctly, or in the proper order?  How can we trust anything that we see as the truth?

I, for one, know very little about British politics - as an American, I'm not even sure I understand the difference between a president and a prime minister, or what a prime minister's role is in a royalty-based system of government.  And I know even less about what Thatcher accomplished, or failed to accomplish, during her time as Prime Minister.  So it's really a shame that this movie doesn't see fit to explain any of that, or even try to.  Instead it tries to get inside the head of one of the most powerful yet controversial political figures of the 20th century, which of course is impossible, so she still remains an enigma to me.

I know some people were upset when a Yank like Streep was cast to play Thatcher - I didn't really have any problem with her performance, I'm more upset over the fact that I didn't learn anything by watching this.  OK, so she was a conservative - what does that mean in the U.K.?  She apparently pushed for a flat tax, so I guess that explains why the lower classes (and several punk bands) despised her.  And she was a woman trying to succeed in a man's world, politics.  But she DID succeed, so therefore it was possible to do so, right?

But depicting her for so much of the movie as frail and feeble, having hallucinations of talking to her dead husband, and just getting continually lost in memories again and again, it makes me wonder if some writer or director got a thrill out of depicting her as weak, which I gather she wasn't during her political life.  I'm not sure showing her this way is either the equivalent of a cheap shot, or just a really ill-advised way to structure a biographical film.

This is really the sort of narrative time-jumping that I'll only allow when a film is about time travel, and only then.

Also starring Jim Broadbent (last seen in "Cloud Atlas"), Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman (last seen in "Hyde Park on Hudson"), Harry Lloyd, Iain Glen, Amanda Root, John Sessions, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant.

RATING: 2 out of 10 car bombs

August: Osage County

Year 7, Day 3 - 1/3/15 - Movie #1,903

BEFORE: Meryl Streep carries over again - I've done Streep chains before, but I'm not done with her just yet.  This film just started airing on premium cable, and I was going to let it slide by, but I still had two holes in the January schedule, and the other could get filled by another trip to the theater.

THE PLOT: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in.

AFTER:  Three days into the new year, and a loose theme has already developed, that of family secrets.  "Into the Woods" had a couple of secrets about which character was related to which, and then "Hope Springs" delved into the sexual secrets that married people might keep from each other.  Tonight that theme gets expanded again, as a family gathers together and (eventually) their various secrets are exposed.

But the vehicle tonight through which those secrets come to light is not therapy, or the machinations of a witch - nope, it's good old-fashioned arguing.  The kind that only people who've grown up together, or spent too much time together can do.  Perhaps getting together with family over the holidays was a pleasant experience for you, and I hope it was, but once I reach my parents' house I can sort of feel a counter start, and with luck I can be out of there three days later before my patience counter expires.  Most times I'm not very lucky, but perhaps this is normal.

Parents have that way of reminiscing that also can get under your skin - "Hey, remember that time your leg fell asleep during the graduation ceremony, and when you stood up you fell over in front of your entire class?  What was the name of that girl you landed on?  Right, well, I saw her the other day at the supermarket, she's doing well."  Thanks so much for bringing up one of my more embarrassing moments...

This is a form of passive-aggressive behavior, you may also remember such hits as "How's the job hunt going?" or "So, are you seeing anyone?"  My wife sometimes points out her own passive-aggressive behavior, but she may not realize that I can handle it - I was practically RAISED passive-aggressive, as it was nearly a form of religion in my parents' house.  You just have to keep an eye on it, because it's easy for "So, what do you want for dinner?  We can have whatever you want..." to turn into "OK, we'll have what you want to eat AGAIN, like we've done every night for the last 2 weeks.  No, really, it's FINE!"  

What you have there is what I call "aggressive passive-aggressive", and tonight's film features a ton of it, when people aren't behaving just aggressively, that is.  My point is, there's a fine line.  The ultimate expression of A.P.A. behavior, of course, is suicide.  You just can't top that as an endgame.  Some say it's a cry for help, but I know different - it's a way of saying "In your face, family!"  Because you have to know that anyone who loves you is going to feel absolutely terrible after you're gone, and since they can't respond to what's happened, you've won - only you've also lost.

This movie is based on a stage-play, which is quite evident in the fact that most of the action takes place in one location, the family house.  (On the rare occasion when characters drive to other locations like fields, they're given nothing to do except run aimlessly, or stare into space.)  And then the first act involves the various characters arriving at the home, while in the second act they storm off in turn after arguments or revelations.  This unfortunately made the story feel only half-written, since we'll never know what happens to anyone after the playwright has given them their exit.  Nothing feels very resolved in the end - not that everything needs to be resolved, but a few things might be nice.

There's some interesting material about the differences between the generations - we still have an older generation that was raised by people who lived through the Depression, and that's a part of why they are the way they are.  And today's younger generation is perhaps correctly portrayed (through one character) as a bunch of spoiled, self-indulgent vegetarian hipsters.  But these are still stereotypes, and if you took these away, along with the other stereotypes about Southerners displayed here, I fear that the movie would simply cease to exist.

And if I wanted to witness a bunch of screwed-up, passive aggressive people, I'd probably spend more time with my own family.

Also starring Julia Roberts (last seen in "Everyone Says I Love You"), Ewan McGregor (last seen in "The Island"), Chris Cooper (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), Margo Martindale (last seen in "The Rocketeer"), Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney (last seen in "Zodiac"), Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch (last heard in "The Hobbit; An Unexpected Journey"), Juliette Lewis (last seen in "Husbands and Wives"), Abigail Breslin (last seen in "Ender's Game"), Misty Upham.

RATING: 4 out of 10 prescription bottles