Saturday, January 24, 2015

Moonrise Kingdom

Year 7, Day 24 - 1/24/15 - Movie #1,924

BEFORE: Frances McDormand completes a hat-trick tonight, and look who's back, Edward Norton, as promised.   I realize that my subject matters this month have been all over the place, but that's Year 7 for you.  I think I've succeeded, though, in crossing some important films off the watchlist.

THE PLOT: A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out to find them.

AFTER: I don't know Wes Anderson personally, but I get the feeling from watching his movies that he somehow lives in a photograph of an elaborate birdhouse, or perhaps in a hipster bar that's decorated to look like a thrift store.  And for the record, I don't recommend that anyone out there watch two Wes Anderson films within a 7-day period, or else they may be rushed to the hospital after being exposed to too much quirkiness, a condition I'll call "too-quirk-ulocis".  Remember, I'm a professional, and I've spent my time building up my tolerance.

The "young lovers" here are, what, 12 years old?  13?  It's a good thing that this film has got charm to spare, because with kids of that age in love, it could have easily veered into downright ickiness.  The scene on the beach, with the underwear-clad kids embracing and kissing, seemed a bit questionable.  Maybe I'm projecting, because except for one experimentation at age 6, I didn't get my first real kiss until age 20.  My grandmother always told me to wait until I was done with school first, and the general consensus from the opposite sex sure made it seem like that wasn't going to be a problem.  (missed it by a month, Grams...)

It's a bit of a regret, because if I knew then what I knew now - I sort of regarded the girls in high-school as an alien species, when it turns out that if you talk to them like humans, you greatly improve your chances of making a connection.  I'm sure there were some screwed-up, complicated or misunderstood girls in high-school that could have accelerated my timetable if I'd only played along sooner.  But anyway...

Like "Grand Budapest Hotel", this made me nostalgic for a time period that I never experienced, this time it's New England in 1965 - a time when boys went to scout camps, learned survival skills and built treehouses, while girls wore berets, short pink dresses and knee socks.  Again, kids today may still do some or all of these things, but this represents a sort of heyday.  People wrote letters, painted landscapes, and listened to LP records that explained the different instruments in the orchestra.  

But since "Birdman" got me thinking about acting styles, after this I'm left with this question - why are most kids such horrible actors?  Kids love to pretend, kids make great liars, but why do so many people cringe when forced to watch an elementary school play?  At least half the kids in this film were just incapable of speaking lines in a believable way.  Either they mumble, or stumble on the words, or just couldn't summon the proper emotion to make me forget they were acting - and the best acting is 100% invisible.  Either these kids got bad advice how to act, which put them in a complicated head space that they can't get out of, or they just don't understand how to BE, instead of act.  Look, just say the line as if you're a kid talking to another kid, and (here's the key) you want your words to be understood by that kid.  That's all.  If you think too much about it, you're just going to get in your own way.

I'm going to give this a rating just above "Grand Budapest Hotel" because it's that much more charming, plus there were no elaborate, unnecessary framing devices - see, Wes, you can just START the story in 1965, it doesn't need to be set up.  And I liked the subtle use of foreshadowing, like making "Noah's Ark" references early in the film, and then following that up with a big storm later on.

Also starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis (last seen in "RED 2"), Edward Norton (last seen in "Primal Fear"), Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Larry Pine (all last seen in "Grand Budapest Hotel").  

RATING: 8 out of 10 merit badges

Friday, January 23, 2015

Laurel Canyon

Year 7, Day 23 - 1/23/15 - Movie #1,923

BEFORE: Frances McDormand carries over from "Primal Fear", and will carry over tomorrow as well.  I couldn't find a link to this film without breaking up the Edward Norton chain, those are the breaks.  

THE PLOT:  When an uptight young man and his fiancee move into his libertine mother's house, the resulting clash of life attitudes shakes everyone up.

AFTER: I think I might have sped through this one before, because it's sort of familiar, but not in the way that I remember all the plot points, which would have been a fair indication that I've watched it before, all the way through.  Nothing felt memorable, so it's sort of a toss-up, perhaps I watched it but didn't remember anything about it (which does happen from time to time) or I skimmed through it because I was looking for a particular scene, or perhaps I started watching it once and lost interest.

Any of those are possible, because in (re-?)watching it in real time for perhaps the first time, I just felt there wasn't much THERE there.  In setting up this whole blogging/movie-watching process, I wonder if I should have perhaps organized things differently, like maybe I'd get more insight by watching a particular director's work in sequence, rather than linking films that share actors.  The director of this film, Lisa Cholodenko, also directed "The Kids Are All Right" a few years later, and perhaps if you watch this one and then that one, you can see that she may have learned a few things in between about telling a more engaging story.  

Everyone's messed up in their own way, I get that.  Maybe it's a California thing, or a lesbian/bisexual thing, or it's just that "train in the distance" thing again.  Everybody wants something better, something more, and they trip over themselves or other people on the way to getting it.  Here we have a man who's a medical resident with a beautiful girlfriend, but somehow it's not enough, he flirts with a fellow resident that he carpools with.  His girlfriend's working on her dissertation, a bookworm who eventually wants to be a social butterfly herself and flirts with whoever's around.  

The problems are caused by sharing a house with the man's mother, a record producer who comes from the era of free love, drugs and wild times.  There's a band, fronted by her latest boyfriend, who's always hanging around the house because they're trying to finish an album.  Personality clashes between the uptight younger people and the free-spirited older people are inevitable, and eventually the younger people have to tell the older people to grow the heck up, or words to that effect.

Of course, it's hypocritical for a character to expect his lover to be faithful to him, when he was thinking of straying himself.  But I think calling a film a "character study" is just a euphemism for "we couldn't think of a proper ending".  What a cop-out.

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "The Machinist"), Kate Beckinsale (last seen in "Total Recall"), Alessandro Nivola (last seen in "American Hustle"), Natascha McElhone (last seen in "Solaris"), Rick Gonzalez, Melissa De Sousa.

RATING:  5 out of 10 bottles of Dom Perignon

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Primal Fear

Year 7, Day 22 - 1/22/15 - Movie #1,922

BEFORE: The 7th consecutive film with Edward Norton.  Ah, but it had to end some time.  Everything has to end - like today I'm home, and I should probably think about taking down the Christmas lights.

THE PLOT: An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.

AFTER: From a theater to a courtroom, which of course is another kind of stage, and from actors to lawyers, which of course is another kind of liar.  And this film freely admits that - one level it doesn't matter if the defendant is guilty, or if the lawyer knows that, it's the lawyer's job to introduce doubt or to prove that there is doubt, in order to force the prosecution to prove things without any doubt. 

Ah, but this also turned out to be a great choice to follow "Birdman", for reasons I can't get into, because that would be a spoiler.  And Ed Norton turned out to be the best actor in the film, again, for a reason I'd rather not spoil.  Let's just say that the film presented him with a unique acting challenge, and he pulled it off very well.  Once again, we see the difference in two acting styles, Norton again representing the "more is more" school, and Gere representing the "less is more" school.

As for the plot, there's some suggestion that there's a connection between the murder case and the lawyer's previous case, and he even asks his previous client for advice on what exactly the bishop was caught up in, but this wasn't explained very well, and it's quite unclear whether this connection was introduced to create doubt in court, or to create doubt and confusion for the audience.   It just seems like a huge coincidence to have a connection between the cases, similarly it's a huge coincidence to square off in court against one's ex-lover as opposing counsel.  I'm sure it's possible, just very unlikely.

It seems like a priest with a dark side might have still been something of a novel idea back in 1996.  It's almost a cliche now because so many instances have been in the news since then.  In the end, it's too bad that Norton's altar boy character here couldn't have tried to kill his priest character from "Keeping the Faith"...

NITPICK POINT: The attorney states that he can't change a plea in the middle of a trial.  But I've seen this happen on "Law & Order" all the time.  Someone just says, "Your honor, at this time we'd like to remove our plea of <> and enter a plea of <>.  See how easy that was?

Also starring Richard Gere (last seen in "Internal Affairs"), Laura Linney (last seen in "Love Actually"), Andre Braugher (last seen in "Striking Distance"), John Mahoney (ditto), Alfre Woodard (last heard in "Dinosaur"), Frances McDormand (last heard in "Madagascar 3"), Maura Tierney (last seen in "Welcome to Mooseport"), Terry O'Quinn, Stephen Bauer, Joe Spano. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 objections

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Year 7, Day 21 - 1/21/15 - Movie #1,921

BEFORE: The next best film to watch, for linking purposes, would be "Moonrise Kingdom", since that's another Wes Anderson film and shares about 8 actors with "The Grand Budapest Hotel".  And I tried again and again to put them next to each other, I really did.  I need to link to Bruce Willis later this week, so I'll get to the other Wes Anderson film in a couple days.

But the reason for putting this one here is that it seems to be all about the creative process, and I'm tying that in with finally getting some work done on my own screenplay.  I've been working toward this ever since one of my two jobs went away - the holidays are over now, and I've got no more excuses.  I went in to do the year-end accounting and wrap things up, and my old boss asked me how the writing was going.  When I said I hadn't been able to find the time, because of so many distractions at home, he said I could come in and write at my old office.  I initially said no, but after thinking about it, I realized it might be the only way I could get some writing in.  If I make the trip in to the city and don't write, I'll feel like I've wasted the day, so there's my motivation, hopefully.  

Plus, when someone offers you free office space, a desk and a computer to use, why not take it?  I can get any food delivered via Seamless, there are plenty of places to get beverages and Tums (which every writer needs, right?) and I can always run an errand or two as needed if I need a break.  So I went in yesterday and got about 15 pages written, which is 15 more pages than I've been able to write in the last 18 months.  So I might as well make this part of a weekly Tuesday routine, until further notice.

THE PLOT: A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
AFTER: Watching "Birdman" was my reward to myself after finally getting some writing done, and I don't think I could have chosen a more appropriate film, because it's all about motivation, what drives actors, and by extension all creative types, to strive, move forward and seek new challenges.  In that way creative people are like sharks, if they don't keep swimming forward, they'll die.  Or become irrelevant, which is worse.  

This is NOT, however, a superhero film.  It's a film about someone having been in a superhero film, and by this film's own rules (as seen prominently in a note on a dressing room mirror), if it's about the thing, then it is NOT the thing itself.  It's an acknowledgement that actors live in a post-Dark Knight, post-Avengers world, and there's been a shift in the way that stories are told.  If you haven't been in a superhero film by now, you may have missed the boat.  But ironically, many of the people who have been in the big movie franchises have struggled to get OUT of them.

And when you're dealing with creative types, and the moving forward process, you realize that no one is usually content - film actors want to be stage actors, stage actors want to be on TV, and morons want to be on reality shows.  As Paul Simon sang, "Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance" and later in the same song, "The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains."  

But singers, like actors and writers, are basically liars.  Well, they lie so that they can expose a greater truth, I suppose.  Or evoke an emotion that supports that truth.  The reason I'm glad I started writing today is because I was slowly becoming something worse than a liar, and that's a fraud.  How long can you walk around saying you're working on something, when you haven't touched it in 18 months? 

Anway, back to actors - there are essentially two types, which are represented here by the two male leads, played by Michael Keaton and this week's featured actor, Edward Norton.  One school of acting is the "pretending" school, which again is a form of lying, and it involves memorizing lines, thinking about the ways a character would react to things IF he was real, and then trying to support that with the proper facial expression, or a well-timed tear, you get the idea.  But because this style of acting is easier to see through, especially if it's not done well, a lot of actors follow the "less is more" philosophy.  Rather than produce the wrong expression, or the wrong emotion, they feel it's better to produce none at all, and let their clothing, or the make-up or hair, make a point. 

The other school is the "method" school, which states that the best way to portray a character is to go out and do the things that character is supposed to do - learn to play guitar, build a log cabin by hand, lose 100 pounds, sleep with the leading lady.  Because this tends to produce a very real experience, and the emotions that go with them, it's often confused with the "more is more" philosophy.  Hey, if you play a marathon runner and you run a real marathon, you can act as exhausted as you want, as far as I'm concerned.  But collapsing as you cross the finish line and requiring hospitalization is not recommended. 

Either way, you've got to deal with that voice in your head, the representation of your own self-doubt.  I know it well, because it's the thing that often gets in my way.  "I don't need to start writing today, do I?  Wouldn't I rather just go for a walk and have lunch?  Even if I did write something, it would probably be shitty anyway, so why bother?"  Keaton's character here is constantly fighting with this inner voice, the one that's telling him about all the mistakes he's making, and is continuing to make, that his enterprise in adapting and starring in a Raymond Carver play is a huge waste of time.  Sometimes that voice is represented by the Birdman character he once played, but the thing I really found confusing here is that at the start of the film Birdman represented self-doubt, but near the end of the film Birdman sort of represented acceptance and freedom.  I'm not sure where and why the change occurred. 

The best part, and it's a small but meaningful part in the film, is when he takes a theater critic to task, after she's vowed to give his play a terrible review and force it to close, even though she hasn't seen it yet.  She can't stand the thought of a "Hollywood" actor coming to Broadway and having the conceit to put on a stage play.  (Gee, Orson Welles did it...)  It's perhaps appropriate that someone criticize a critic for being critical, but on the other hand, what did you expect?  That's what they do, they criticize.  It's right there in their name.  

This is why I've said, again and again, that I am not a critic, or even a reviewer, which sounds slightly better.  Most critics are just that, they label and compare, and they're not DOERS.  I'll make an exception for the late Roger Ebert, because he wrote a few screenplays, so he earned the right to talk about the mechanics of what makes a good or bad story.  But most just reduce a film or a play to a series of things they liked and things they didn't like, and you can't really hold anyone accountable for that, any more than you can say someone's wrong for liking the color blue and hating pink.  

On the other hand, I just watch a film and then say what's on my mind, whether it's directly related to the film or not.  I can go off on wild tangents, and I'm not beholden to anyone to like a certain thing or think a certain way.  If I don't like the mechanics of the way something was written or filmed, I have that right because I've been in filmmaking, in one way or another, for 25 years - I can say, "Well, I wouldn't have done it THAT way," even if the truth is that I probably wouldn't ever have gotten around to doing that at all.  

My boss was eligible for two Oscar nominations this month (I take credit only for filling out all the necessary paperwork), one for an animated short and one for an animated feature.  He didn't get either, but it's understandable because his work is usually under the radar or considered outside the mainstream.  When the noms don't come through, his attitude is "Well, this film was better because it had more heart", or "That film had a better story than mine."  This used to confuse me, because if he knew which films were more likely to get nominated by the Academy, why couldn't he just make a film like THAT, just to get a nomination.  Ah, but then he would be playing their game instead of his own, he'd be making the films that he thinks people want him to make, rather than the films he really wants to make, or the films that he thinks people NEED to see.  If you're just in the game to get accolades or fame, then maybe you're not an artist, you're a whore.

I want to take a minute to admire the technical aspect of this film - it gives off the appearance of being filmed in one long take (OK, maybe two or three) but since I know the mechanics of it, I know that's impossible.  I think I caught a couple of the transitions, sneakily done, but others just made me go "WHOA" as they demonstrated camera shots or angles that as far as I knew, seemed completely impossible.  The St. James theater is an unexpected star here, as the cameraman follows people in and around its corridors and backstage rooms, up into the rafters and sometimes out its doors and into the streets.  And because of the long takes, the actors had to memorize very long sections of the script, and hit very precise marks - hmm, that sounds almost like a stage production.

ASIDE: If you watch the ending of "Peggy Sue Got Married", there's a scene in a hospital room with a very large mirror.  The camera pulls back from the scene, and is somehow not reflected in that mirror.  As a teen I watched this scene, again and again, until I figured out how they shot this.  The mirror was really a hole in the wall (or a pane of clear glass) and on the other side was another room, with the same furniture and actors who closely resembled Nicolas Cage, Kathleen Turner and Helen Hunt, dressed the same, but staged in reverse, to appear as the mirror image.  Their movements didn't exactly match the actors in the main room, which is how I figured it out.  There are a couple of shots like this in "Birdman", where somehow the camera is not reflected in a dressing-room mirror, and in such close quarters, that should be impossible.  I don't think they used the same trick as in "Peggy Sue" - these days tech people have probably figured out how to digitally remove the camera from the final image.

This film is also about acknowledging the world we live in - yesterday, after watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel", I was bemoaning the loss of a bygone, more civilized era.  And this is the flip-side of that.  We live in a post-Facebook, post-Twitter world, where not only is everyone a critic, but they also have places to do that.  How many views or likes something got is often more important than whether something is "good" or "important", if those words even still apply.  Who cares if you're an actor, isn't it more important to be a celebrity?  Why don't you have more followers?  Because I'm not a cult leader, that's why.  If you're coming to me for advice or insight, man, you must be in trouble.  

There's that voice of self-doubt again, but you know what?  After I wrote for a few hours today, revising my treatment and then composing 15 pages of actual dialogue, my head felt kind of emptied out, and the inner voice was quiet.  And that's how you beat it back. 

Oh, yeah, the rating.  I had high hopes for this one, I thought maybe it would be a really bold, innovative think-piece, but it's also pretty obtuse and occasionally confusing.  Maybe over time I'll regard it the way I do "Brazil", because in some ways it reminds me of that film, but it just didn't bowl me over the way an actual superhero film tends to do.  I gotta be me and speak my truth.

Also starring Michael Keaton (last seen in "The Paper"), Emma Stone (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), Zach Galifianakis (last seen in "The Hangover Part III"), Naomi Watts (last seen in "The Impossible"), Amy Ryan (last seen in "Win Win"), Andrea Riseborough, with cameos from Bill Camp (last seen in "Rounders"), Jackie Hoffman.

RATING: 7 out of 10 previews

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Year 7, Day 20 - 1/20/15 - Movie #1,920

BEFORE: The Ed Norton chain is half over (already?) and you probably could have guessed, I was building up to this.  I fell hard for "The Darjeeling Limited" a few years ago, and that prompted me to seek out "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic" and pretty much position myself to accept whatever Wes Anderson wants to throw my way.  So to say I've been anticipating this one would be a bit of an understatement.

THE PLOT:  The adventures of a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars and the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

AFTER:  I really want to like this film, so let me get my main complaint out of the way right off.  We all have certain things that drive us crazy - for some people it's nails on a chalkboard, for others it's people eating on the subway or saying the word "actually" three times in a single sentence.  One of my bugaboos with relation to films is an inability to tell a narrative in a linear, straightforward fashion.  In this film, this is manifested in an inhuman, almost "Inception" level of unnecessary framing devices. 

The film opens on a young girl (we presume in the present day) who's offering a tribute to a bust of an author, and holding a book which he wrote.  We see the (presumed dead) author's photo, and this dissolves to footage of the author talking, in the year 1985.  From there we dissolve to the voice of the author as a younger man, presumably this is the tale told in the book from the author's point of view, let's say it takes place some time in the late 1960's.  And in this story the author meets an older man, who tells him HIS story, which is the story of the Budapest Hotel, and is set in 1935.  At this point we're FOUR levels deep into a story within a story, and nothing of note has even happened yet.  

It's like a series of Russian nesting dolls, but only the one in the center even has anything painted on it.  The others just seem like something designed to frustrate you or waste your time.  There IS a good, juicy, entertaining story at the heart of this film, but why is it buried under so many clunky layers?  I honestly cannot think of one good reason the film couldn't have started in 1968, with the young author meeting the older man and asking him to tell his story.  

SIDE NITPICK: As a result of all this unnecessary time-framing, the aspect ratio of the film jumped around a lot as well.  The size of the black bars on the sides of the frame changes quite a bit in the first reel.  I now realize that each different framing represents a different time period, but while viewing, this was very disconcerting and annoying.  

There, now that's out of the way, we can begin.  Ed Norton is just a supporting player here, but it's interesting to note that Ed Norton WEEK seems to have found its own secondary theme - that of crime and punishment.  We had a drug dealer going to prison in "25th Hour", people cheating at poker and paying the price in "Rounders", and holy men being tempted and punishing themselves (and the audience) in "Keeping the Faith".  Tonight the crime wheel lands on possible murder and/or art thievery, depending on your point of view, and punishment since the concierge does spend some time in prison.  

But that's not really what this film is about, now is it?  It's too simple, it would be like saying "Amadeus" is about a composer, or "Gone With the Wind" is about a plantation.  It's about a time period, a lost era - a place and time I'm suddenly nostalgic for, even though it may never have existed at all.  It's about rich, quirky people and the strange habits they have, like wearing purple topcoats with tails, riding in trains with sleeper cars, eating elaborate pastries and soaking in Turkish baths.  Riding the funicular to the top of the mountain in order to take tea with the dowager countess.  Taking a cable car up to the observatory, or lighting a candle in the sanctuary.  

Oh, sure, some people somewhere may still do some of these things, but you get my drift.  How many people take the time these days to REALLY look at art in a gallery, instead of scanning Facebook for videos of precocious toddlers or celebrity nipslips?  To go to a restaurant and order a full tasting menu, including duck AND rabbit, instead of just grabbing 2 slices of 99-cent pizza and a can of Coke?  When I stay at a hotel, I feel lucky if my floor has both an ice dispenser AND a soda machine.  

I know our modern age has many things going for it - computers, advanced medicine, all the entertainment and information we could hope for, and then some, but part of me longs for the trappings of a grand society that, sadly, no longer exists.  A time when people gave each other tulips and wrote "thank you" notes. We've got luxury to spare sometimes, but do we really appreciate it what it once meant?

Man, I love quirky movies, like "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski", but this film may have a little too much quirk for me.  I think this is sort of getting too close to hipster quirk.

Also starring Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "Wrath of the Titans"), F. Murray Abraham (last seen in "Muppets From Space"), Adrien Brody (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Willem Dafoe (last seen in "American Dreamz"), Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), Harvey Keitel (last seen in "U-571"), Jude Law (last seen in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"), Tilda Swinton (last seen in "The Beach"), Tony Revolori, Mathieu Amalric, Saorsie Ronan, with cameos from Bill Murray (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Jason Schwartzman (last seen in "Saving Mr. Banks"), Owen Wilson (also last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"), Lea Seydoux (ditto), Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens.

RATING: 7 out of 10 military checkpoints

Monday, January 19, 2015


Year 7, Day 19 - 1/19/15 - Movie #1,919

BEFORE:  Now it's Ed Norton's turn to get progressively younger, as tonight I've set the Wayback Machine for 1998.  Ah, remember a simpler time, just before the end of the last century?  Since I flipped a big part of my list around, it's sort of turned into the "Benjamin Button" year, with regards to each actor's career.  "Primal Fear" will take me back another two years, but I've got to make a stop in the present day first.

You see the sort of dilemma I face, though, right?  Most people would classify this as a Matt Damon film, so I had to make a choice - does it belong here, or with the other Matt Damon films?  Do I use this opportunity to link to more Damon films, or do I stay the course?  Well, I think my choice is clear.  No more second-guessing the route I've chosen.   The Matt Damon chain provides a link (I hope) later this year between the McConnaughey films and the Clooney films.

It's a holiday today, and TCM's running "Glory" and a Sidney Poitier marathon.  Hollywood would probably prefer I go out to the theater and watch "Selma", but I've got other plans for a trip to the movies tomorrow.  Jeez, I watched a Spike Lee film this weekend, isn't that enough?

THE PLOT: A young man is a reformed gambler who must return to playing big stakes poker to help a friend pay off loan sharks.

AFTER: When I watch a film about people playing poker, I get the same sort of feeling that I get from watching a boxing film.  Namely, I wish I knew more about poker, and boxing for that matter.  Sometimes the film explains the activity, sometimes it doesn't - I think the better ones do.  I've been to Atlantic City twice in the last year, and I don't play the table games, I stick to the slot machines (and the buffets).  I think I understand blackjack, but craps and poker, fuggeddabout it.  

What I've trained myself to do at the slots is to walk away from a machine whenever I'm up.  I could be up a quarter from where I started, I could be up $5, but it doesn't matter.  If I'm up, I cash out from that machine, because I've determined that's the hardest thing to do when gambling - walking away.  Because the machine may pay out a little, to make you THINK it's about to pay out a lot, but it's more likely that the opposite is true.  That little win is probably all that machine is going to give me, so I pocket the ticket with the profit, and start the next machine with a fresh $20.  If a machine isn't paying out, I'll let that whole $20 go down to nothing, and then I've still got the winning tickets in my pocket.  Sometimes for the whole day I'm up, sometimes I'm down (either way, it's off to the buffet...) but the one thing I didn't do was stake my wins, however small, by leaving them in the machine.  

Poker's a different game, obvi, in that you have to leave your winnings on the table, and everyone can see how you're doing by the size of your stack of chips.  (I don't really understand poker chips, either - if you have to buy them with money, and then at the end, you cash your chips in for money, why not just play with money?)  But at times, the main character here, Mike, faces the same dilemma, knowing when to walk away from the table.  Should he take his small win and head home, or keep playing to try and turn the small win into a larger win, risking it all?  I think you can probably guess where this is headed.  

Mike's a "straight" player, meaning that he relies on the science of putting together winning hands, combined with what he knows about human nature - the ways people act when they have a great hand, and the ways people act when they have a terrible hand.  Bluffing means that you should act elated when you have a terrible hand, and you should act disappointed when you have a great hand.  But didn't people figure out a long time ago that bluffing is a thing?  So, wouldn't a double-bluff be acting elated when you really have a good hand?  Does it eventually become like that scene from "The Princess Bride" when the guy's trying to figure out which glass has the poison in it?  

Movies like this, however, would have you believe that this problem is solved by the "tells" - the nervous or unconscious movements that people make when they're bluffing, allegedly turning them into open books, if you know what to look for.  Under this set of, I'm assuming fictional, circumstances, knowing someone's tell is a shortcut to bankrupting them, and conversely, not having a readable tell of one's own is a similar road to victory.  

But I just know there has to be more to it that the movie doesn't talk about.  What about the science of probability?  What about when you need a certain card to complete a hand, and you know the chances are (roughly) 1 in 13 to get it?  What about calculating the chances of completing a straight against, umm, not doing that?  

Norton's character, Worm, is a different kind of player - the kind that manipulates the deal to get what he wants.  Sleight of hand, card tricks, you know, cheating.  But it's got to be cheating that doesn't look like cheating, and again, I wish a film could somehow get into the mechanics of all that, rather than just taking it as a given.  But it ends up just being a sort of con game, manipulating the events so that two players, allegedly strangers, are sitting at the same table and one is feeding the best cards to the other. 

It's perhaps a little too convenient for the film to come full circle the way it does, for Mike to have to pass the same people on the way up, so to speak, as he did on the way down.  But that's Hollywood - there could be 1,000 people playing poker in underground NYC clubs, but the dramatic situation demands that someone end up face to face with an old nemesis.  But if I've got a NITPICK POINT, it's regarding a certain character's ties to the mob.  Given this information, and the fact that we know that being indebted to a mobster is a bad thing, why would someone expect such a man to suddenly have respect for fair play, and stake his life on that man's ability to admit defeat gracefully?  

Also starring Matt Damon (last seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), Gretchen Mol (last seen in "The Notorious Bettie Page"), John Malkovich (last seen in "RED 2"), Martin Landau (last seen in "North By Northwest"), John Turturro (last heard in "Summer of Sam"), Famke Janssen (last seen in "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters"), Michael Rispoli (last seen in "Snake Eyes"), Melina Kanakaredes (last seen in "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), with cameos from Lenny Clarke, Goran Visnjic, Tom Aldredge, Josh Mostel, Lenny Venito.

RATING: 6 out of 10 Bicycle decks

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Keeping the Faith

Year 7, Day 18 - 1/18/15 - Movie #1,918

BEFORE: Edward Norton directed this film about a love triangle of sorts, so I'd be remiss if I didn't include it in this week's programming, rather than in the February romance chain.  And since this is the only Sabbath within Norton-thon, this is where it goes.  

THE PLOT:  Two friends, a priest and a rabbi, fall in love with the same woman they knew in their youth, but the religious position of both men denies them romance.

AFTER: This is an OK story, but it's a case of moving at a snail's pace towards a conclusion that may seem logical in some sense, but then when you arrive, you tell yourself that there MUST have been a quicker way to go.  It's the BQE of movies.  I think it set up a problem, and then got so caught up in its own rules, that it was tough to figure a way out of its own situation.  THIS person can't tell THAT person a certain piece of information, but yet that's really the only thing that's going to advance the plot.  

Maybe this is somewhat common, maybe people fall into relationships that they're just not comfortable talking about.  You can't tell your parents or you can't tell your best friend who you're sleeping next to, for whatever reason, religious or racial or orientation, so it's just sort of hanging there like some unspoken thing.  But that's really a rift in the relationship, and things can't move forward (or the movie can't reach a conclusion) until someone starts the conversation.  

The problematic rules here are: the rabbi can't tell the priest that he's sleeping with their childhood friend, because that would be a betrayal of their friendship.  And he can't tell his congregation, because she's not Jewish.  And the priest can't talk about his feelings for her, because that would be a betrayal of his vows.  The problem is, these plot roadblocks are not necessarily put there for the right reasons - it's like the highway is shut down for construction and traffic can't move forward, but it's a weekend and the road crew isn't working.  So you wonder why someone didn't take the roadblocks down to let traffic through, even if it's just for the day.  

As it turns out, rabbis CAN get married.  By logical extension, this means they can date.  I don't have much experience with the Judaism, but I always thought this (and the Christian religions with married ministers) was the smarter way to go.  It's more realistic, and once you acknowledge that Judaism's been around a lot longer than Catholicism, it starts to seem like a smarter set of rules to impose on religious leaders.  Look what happened to a few bad apples in the Catholic priesthood, somehow twisted into pedophiles - the rules may work for some, but clearly not for all.  

And here's the big, sick joke of it all - requiring priests to be celibate (which, again, over time, often proves to not be feasible) is a relatively recent religious construct.  Today people believe, perhaps mistakenly, that celibacy is somehow an offshoot of holiness, that denying someone carnal pleasures makes them closer to God.  This is not only a leap in logic, it's a corruption of the original intent of the Catholic faith.  Jesus said to his disciples (the closest things to priests at the time) "Be fruitful and multiply."  Not "get out there and recruit", but multiply.  Walk the land, spread the word, but also prosper and have children.  

The concept worked, Christianity caught on, and then perhaps worked a bit too well, because in Medieval times, the church became one of the biggest land-owners in Europe, and then land seemed to be the thing that everyone was running out of.  And if priests had children, those children expected to inherit land, and the churches didn't want to give any of it up, because you couldn't make more of it.  So the simplest solution, long-term, was to deny priests the right to procreate.  Thus the vow of celibacy was created - not a vow to God, but a vow to the real-estate interests of the Church.  After a few hundred years of watching priests denied pleasure, people got it in their heads that to be celibate was to be holier, closer to God, and it's all based on a fallacy.  

What else got corrupted over the centuries?  Are there other clerical errors (pardon the pun) that we should know about?  What about those books that never made it into the Bible?  Damn editors...  Who proofread this thing?   Did someone accidentally write "chastity" instead of "charity"?  That's some typo...  

Also starring Ben Stiller (last heard in "Madagascar 3"), Jenna Elfman (last seen in "Can't Hardly Wait"), Anne Bancroft (last seen in "How to Make an American Quilt"), Eli Wallach (last seen in "How to Steal a Million"), Ron Rifkin (last seen in "The Words"), Holland Taylor (last seen in "Alice"), Rena Sofer, Lisa Edelstein, with cameos from Milos Forman, Ken Leung, Susie Essman, David Wain.

RATING: 4 out of 10 karaoke machines