Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dangerous Minds

Year 7, Day 31 - 1/31/15 - Movie #1,931

BEFORE: This is how January ends, with Michelle Pfeiffer carrying over from "Tequila Sunrise" to set up the February chain.  Normally I'd put a film about troubled high-school kids in September, but since I'm having a clearance sale, plus who knows what I'll be watching come September, it ends up here as essential bridging material.  

I watched some significant films in January, including one Best Picture winner and two of this year's hopefuls, but made little progress on the size of the watchlist.  I had 194 films on the list on January 1, and at month's end there were still 193.  At this rate I'll finish the project in...hold on now, divide by 12, carry the 1...crap, another 16 years.  I was hampered by adding a bunch of Robert Redford and Jack Lemmon films, plus the newer films that the premium channels tend to run at the start of the year.   Still, I've got to find a way to stop adding so many films and getting the list under control.

THE PLOT:  An ex-Marine turned teacher struggles to connect with her students in an inner city school.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Lean on Me" (Movie #264), "Stand and Deliver" (Movie #265)

AFTER: All I can say is, thank God that inner city kids finally learned to read and appreciate poetry - glad to see that everyone's got their priorities in order.  That's a valuable skill that's sure to help them later in life.  I don't see what's "dangerous" about their minds, though - is this a reference to the Alexander Pope quote "A little learning is a dangerous thing"?  Meaning that a small amount of knowledge can mislead people into thinking that they know more than they really do.

Films about teachers and inner-city youth were big in the late 1980's, and this one from 1995 seemed almost like an afterthought.  Most of these films about classroom drama, including "Dead Poets Society", are the worst violators of the "Show, don't tell" rule.  They literally have all the excitement of a parent/teacher conference.  Witness the thrilling action as an instructor agonizes over a lesson plan!  Maybe I've just watched so many action films this week that it makes a one-room drama look boring by comparison - I mean, nothing even blew up in this film!

Most people probably forgot this was turned into an ABC show that ran for 17 episodes back in 1996-97, and starred Annie Potts.  I'm sure that probably answered all the lingering questions left from the film, like "How did she trick or bribe the students into learning after she ran out of Bob Dylan songs?"

Also starring Courtney B. Vance (last seen in "The Last Supper"), George Dzundza (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), Robin Bartlett, Wade Dominguez, Renoly Santiago, Lorraine Toussaint, with a cameo from John Neville (last seen in "The X-Files").

RATING: 3 out of 10 candy bars

Friday, January 30, 2015

Tequila Sunrise

Year 7, Day 30 - 1/30/15 - Movie #1,930

BEFORE: Yep, now it's Michelle Pfeiffer's turn to carry over from "Into the Night", and she'll hang around to kick off February's romance chain.  And now that I flopped her part of the chain around to link with the Bruce Willis chain, her films are in the right order, so unlike most other of this month's stars, I'm watching her get a little older each night, instead of younger.  That's OK, she wears it well.  

THE PLOT: Mac Mckussic is an unlikely drug dealer who wants to go straight. His old and best friend Nick Frescia is now a cop who is assigned to investigate and bring him to justice.

AFTER: It's another overly-complicated action film tonight, another one with too many factions after the same thing.  For the fourth night in a row, local and federal law enforcement are working at cross purposes - that's too weird to be a coincidence.  I have a feeling that screenwriters somehow think that the more players there are in the game, the more the audience will think the film is complex.  Instead I just see a bunch of cops and agents who seem too incompetent or self-serving to work together.  

Everybody wants something, that's the first lesson in Scriptwriting 101.  Identify what the person wants, you give them motivation and gain insight into their character.  Perhaps it's only by putting 4 films in a row where it's so blatant, that everyone is reduced to a simple want, whether it's for the evidence, the gems, or the briefcase full of money, that I've suddenly noticed how utterly simplistic most action films are.  

At least in "Tequila Sunrise", the different players want different things.  This guy wants the drug deal to take place, this guy wants to stop it, this guy wants to be free and clear of the whole thing.  But they keep pulling him back in, damn it!  Oh, and everybody wants to be with Michelle Pfeiffer, but that's fairly understandable.  What are the odds against two friends ending up on different sides of the law, and both falling in love with the same woman at the same time!  In real life, the odds would be astronomically against this happening, but in a Hollywood film, it's even money.  

I also wonder to what extent screenwriters rely on shoot-outs to wrap up loose ends.  I have a feeling their mantra is "When in doubt, shoot it out."  Any characters that they don't know what to do with can be dispatched easy-peasy, and if there's any leftover drugs or money lying around, a convenient explosion or two will take care of that.  Anyone who makes it out alive gets to enjoy a happy ending.  Well, an ending, at least. 

What a disappointment to NOT find the Eagles song of the same name anywhere in this film.  I mean, they didn't HAVE to use it, but why not?  I'm guessing they came up with the title, assuming the band would be on board, and then either they couldn't afford the rights, or the songwriter wouldn't sign off.  Maybe this was made during one of those periods when the band members were fighting, and they disagreed with each other just on principle.  

I've had just about enough of action movies for a while - too many in a row and the whole genre seems formulaic, to say the least.  Plus I've seen more criminal henchmen this week than on an episode of the 1960's "Batman" show.  Time to change things up and get off this track.

Also starring Mel Gibson (last seen in "Payback"), Kurt Russell (last seen in "Tombstone"), Raul Julia (last seen in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), J.T. Walsh (last seen in "Outbreak"), Arliss Howard (last seen in "Natural Born Killers"), Arye Gross, Ann Magnuson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 saxophone solos

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Into the Night

Year 7, Day 29 - 1/29/15 - Movie #1,929

BEFORE: I had this programmed for the last day in January, since I thought the title would close out the month properly - I started the month with "Into the Woods", I figured I'd end it with "Into the Night" for a bit of symmetry.  But then I realized that I didn't have a direct link between the Bruce Willis chain and the Michelle Pfeiffer chain, only an indirect one - the film I'll be watching on Feb. 1 to start the romance chain, as it turns out.  

So I scanned the cast lists for this week's films one more time, hoping for someone I didn't notice at first that appeared in two films - and there he was, Bruce McGill, who carries over from "The Last Boy Scout".  I switched Thursday's film with Saturday's, and the chain is unbroken.

THE PLOT:  A middle class man with a boring job, a case of insomnia and an unfaithful wife goes out for a drive and finds himself at LA airport, where he encounters a beautiful young woman on the run from criminals.

AFTER:  Yep, I inadvertently programmed the same film three nights in a row.  Not the exact same film, mind you, but when you break movies down by their core plots, you realize there are only so many working formulas, and one of them is "everybody wants that thing".  "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", "The Maltese Falcon" - of course the concept takes many forms, but the inner skeleton is the same.  In "Hostage" everybody needed that information, in "The Last Boy Scout" it was the evidence, and tonight it's gems.  

Throw in a boy-meets-girl plot and a look at the nighttime underworld of L.A., and you've got "Into the Night".  The villains here are well-dressed Iranians, because this was made at a time after the hostage crisis, before anyone knew who this Al Qaeda guy was.  And by the end of the film the cops are involved, plus federal agents, immigration, and who knows how many other parties, leading to a somewhat confusing climax, after which it seems like even the writers gave up.  When the response to "Hey, where did this bag of money come from?" is "You know, it's best not to ask questions like that..." it's awfully convenient, bordering on downright lazy.  

There are films with more cameos, sure, like "Around the World in 80 Days" or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", but not many.  But this film's cast list reads like a "Who's Who" of 1980's Hollywood.  The film's director, John Landis, appears as one of the Iranian gunmen, and it looks like all of his DGA buddies came along for the ride.  I met Landis a couple years ago at Comic-Con, but I forgot to ask him about "Babs".  

Also starring Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Michelle Pfeiffer (last seen in "Up Close and Personal"), Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"), David Bowie (last seen in "The Prestige"), Richard Farnsworth, Jake Steinfeld, Kathryn Harrold, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, Carl Perkins, Vera Miles, John Landis, Irene Papas, with cameos from David Cronenberg, Rick Baker, Paul Bartel, Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Demme, Clu Gulager.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Elvis posters

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Last Boy Scout

Year 7, Day 28 - 1/28/15 - Movie #1,928

BEFORE: I swear I had this programmed for later in the year, then as you may recall a large portion of my watchlist got turned around to accommodate "Into the Woods", and as a result of that I'm watching a football-themed action movie this week to wrap up the Bruce Willis.  I'm being told there's some kind of important game taking place in a few days - these things often have a funny way of working out.

THE PLOT:  A down and out cynical detective teams up with a down and out ex-quarterback to try and solve a murder.

AFTER: ANOTHER burned-out detective?  Oh, wait, this time Bruce Willis is a burned-out, former Secret Service agent.  That's completely different.  He only became a P.I. after that.  Once again, Willis' burnout is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is the only person who can see the big picture. 

Sometimes, you find a film that ends up seeming 20 years ahead of its time.  Like the way "2001: A Space Odyssey", released in 1968, depicted people using laptop computers and Skype - sorry, making video phone calls.  The film was so prescient in its depiction of technology that they were able to make the sequel film, "2010", in 1984 without missing much of a beat.  Or the way that they're getting around now to making the hoverboards and self-tying sneakers seen in "Back to the Future II" (right on schedule, oddly enough...)

Another case in point is "The Last Boy Scout".   With relation to (relatively) current news stories, this film features the following:

1) NFL players being kicked out of the league for drug use, and also using handguns.  Just a few years ago, it would have been strange to find out that an NFL player was in trouble for something that DIDN'T involve drugs or guns.  But back in 1991, this was relatively unheard of, I think.  Now, the NFL player depicted here happens to be carrying a gun on the field, in the middle of a game (!!), but still.  (Please, nobody tell the Patriots that this is an option, or we'll be sorting out GunGate after the Super Bowl is over.)  You'd think that there would be some way to prevent guns from getting into the stadium or the locker room, and you'd be wrong (apparently).  How many yards is your team penalized if you shoot another player, I wonder?

2) A racist team owner with a secret black girlfriend.  Admittedly, the character here is in the NFL, not the NBA, but he's still very reminiscent of Donald Sterling.  And if he were any more of a cartoon, he'd be the Rich Texan from "The Simpsons", because we all know that team owners are super rich, and therefore evil, and would take over the country if you let them, right?  

3) Bad guys (admittedly home-grown criminals, not foreign terrorists) are seen attempting to blow up a football stadium.  Again, this is from 1991, before 9/11, before even the first attack on the World Trade Center, I think.  Yet this is now a major concern at every sporting event, right?  If not, it should be.  What's more representative of the American way of life than our idiotic pastimes?  

4) Friday Night Football.  I'm no sports expert, but this is a relatively new thing, no?  Or am I thinking of Thursday Night Football?  I'm sure that back in 1991 there were only Saturday, Sunday and Monday games.   Wait, let me check Wikipedia - there are Friday night games now, but only late in the season, so as not to conflict with college or high school games.  Ah, Friday Night Lights, got it.

Still, given all that, the story is mostly a mess.  There's a complex plot involving a senator who has a history with Willis' character, and this somehow involves a Senate committee on legalized gambling, which isn't even a thing in real life, right?  I mean, no one could have predicted we'd live in a world where the Tea Party took over and dismantled the Federal goverment and shifted 99% of these sort of decisions on to the individual states.  (that happened, right?)

Also starring Damon Wayans (last seen in "Colors"), Halle Berry (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Noble Willingham (last seen in "Guarding Tess"), Chelsea Field (last seen in "The Birds II: Land's End"), Taylor Negron, Bruce McGill (last seen in "Cliffhanger"), Chelcie Ross, Kim Coates (also carrying over from "Hostage"), Danielle Harris, Billy Blanks, with cameos from Bill Medley, Eddie Griffin, Dick Butkus, Lynn Swann.

RATING: 3 out of 10 signed trading cards

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Year 7, Day 27 - 1/27/15 - Movie #1,927

BEFORE: SNOW DAY! I left work early yesterday (after arriving late in the morning, so that's a win-win) and was home by 5:30 in preparation for the killer snow-pocalypse we were supposed to receive, which all the weather-people on every channel were telling us was going to be in the 20 to 30-inch range, so we'd better stock up on bread and eggs and get ready to hunker down for the duration.  As of this morning, NYC had been just absolutely whelmed, dusted with a whopping 7 inches of terribly fluffy snow, so great work on the forecasting there.  I wasn't scheduled to work today anyway, but my nascent writing career is going to take a hit - I'll see if I can pick that up next Tuesday.

Bruce Willis carries over from "16 Blocks", playing another burned-out cop who has to save the day, a signature role he created in the "Die Hard" series.

THE PLOT:  A failed police negotiator turned small town cop must save the lives of a family held hostage, which draws him into a much more dangerous situation.

AFTER: Allusions to "Die Hard" are obvious here (you could say it's just "Die Hard" in a family's home instead of a skyscraper) but also to the classic "Midnight Run".  If "16 Blocks" picked up on the "transport the witness across x distance so he can testify" plotline, then this one makes reference to Charles Grodin's mob accountant character.  The owner of the home in question has a similar job, keeping track of shady bank accounts and passwords for...well, someone, it doesn't really matter who, because legit businessmen wouldn't need such a guy in the first place.  All you need to know is that these criminals seem to have better funding than local law officials in the presumably fictional town of Bristo Camino, CA.  

This is where Willis' character, Jeff Talley, finds himself, after working in L.A. as a police negotiator - yeah, it didn't end well.  Being the chief of police in Ventura County should be a cakewalk by comparison, but this sleepy bedroom community descends into chaos when some car thieves try to up their game to home invasion, and pick the house of the aforementioned shady accountant. 

While I'm alluding to other films, I might as well reference "Panic Room" for the way the house is protected by cameras and other gadgets, and "Home Alone" for the traps that the accountant's son is able to set up, in a house with more ducts and crawlspaces than the ship seen in "Alien".  Just like in "Grand Budapest Hotel", the real estate is the unexpected star here - from the minute we first see the house, it's a stand-out, located directly in front of a large rock formation, conveniently allowing for no back-door escapes.  I can't see why someone would put a house exactly THERE, unless they were amateur rock-climbers who have a secret desire to die by landing face-up on their own roof.  Or perhaps the giant rock formation is artificial, which means this guy's even richer than we think.  Either way, it's weird. 

To say the plot is overly complicated is a bit of an understatement - you've got the police, sheriff's department, the home invaders, and the mystery criminals, each with their own agenda and ways of doing things, several of which are unpredictable.  And of course, there's only one guy who can see the whole picture and navigate through everyone's shifting demands and procedures to try and save the trapped family, and ultimately his own.

Also starring Kevin Pollak (last seen in "Ricochet"), Serena Scott Thomas (last seen in "The World Is Not Enough"), Ben Foster (last seen in "Phone Booth"), Jonathan Tucker, Kim Coates (last seen in "The Island"), Michelle Horn, Jimmy Bennett, Rumer Willis, Tina Lifford, Marshall Allman, Robert Knepper.

RATING: 4 out of 10 ski masks

Monday, January 26, 2015

16 Blocks

Year 7, Day 26 - 1/26/15 - Movie #1,926

BEFORE: Winding down the January programming, getting ready for February's romance-themed films.  "Moonrise Kingdom" was a nice precursor, but first I've got one more week of action-ey films.  Bruce Willis will help kick off the romance chain, but first he carries over from "The Kid".

THE PLOT: An aging cop is assigned the ordinary task of escorting a fast-talking witness from police custody to a courthouse. There are however forces at work trying to stop prevent them from making it.

AFTER: The problem with an actor giving a character a prominent accent is that he then must maintain it for the entire film, and if that accent is designed to be annoying, then that's two strikes right there.  When this is done by Mos Def, an actor of no fixed ability that I don't happen to care for, the problem is compounded.  Three strikes, you're out.  Making a character talk in an Urkel-like fashion makes sense if that character is supposed to be a super-nerd, but if he's a petty street criminal, it doesn't make much sense.  

The premise here is that a burned-out detective who's essentially given up on his career and his life is assigned the relatively simple task of getting this criminal to court to testify, a mere 16 blocks from the holding cell to the courtroom, but a world away if you have to deal with NYC traffic.  Am I right, people?  Seriously, there's a lot more to the story than the initial delivery job, and it involves the detective's back-story and a whole bunch of corrupt cops who have, shall we say, different plans for the witness.  

My main NITPICK POINT is that getting a witness from the jail to the courtroom is probably not the job for a cop, especially considering the type of evidence this guy represents.  Wouldn't this be the job of a corrections officer, rather than a detective or a cop?   We're told that the guy who was supposed to do this job got stuck in traffic, and if you consider there's probably allowances for this in the D.O.C., I'm guessing they'd just use a back-up prison vehicle rather than shift it back to the precinct.  But I don't work in that world, so it's just idle speculation on my part.  Also, a corrections officer would probably use an official prison transport, rather than a detective's car, which isn't set up for this sort of thing. 

Then again, if you've ever tried to navigate the streets of Chinatown in NYC, north of the courthouse area on Centre St., it's probably quicker to walk the 16 blocks, as long as you don't take the path shown in this film, through various basements, rooftops, and back alleys.  Actually, I'm trying to figure out what the 16 blocks are, and I may know a little too much about NYC geography to do this.  I can't find any prisons that are 16 blocks away from the Centre St. courthouse, so maybe the witness was in a holding cell at a NYC precinct, but none of them seem to be 16 blocks away, either.  Are we talking about 16 blocks as the crow flies, or are we talking about 10 blocks west and then 6 blocks south, or something?  

I know they passed Canal St. because of the subway, and at one point they were shown on Mulberry and Broome.  Perhaps they started at the 7th precinct on Pitt + Broome, but that's a few more than 16 blocks to Centre St.  Forget it, I've spent too much time on this already.  Anyway, they shot a lot of this in Toronto, so the geography's probably all screwed up.

There's some clever stuff here, but in general the premise is pretty outlandish.  I mean, we know now that NYC cops have the utmost respect for all people, and treat people of all races exactly the same, right? 

Also starring Mos Def (last seen in "The Hard Way"), David Morse (last seen in "World War Z"), Jenna Stern, Casey Sander, David Zayas.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Chinese laundrys

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Kid (2000)

Year 7, Day 25 - 1/25/15 - Movie #1,925

BEFORE: Since I went out to see movies twice this month, I've seen a few trailers lately, and most of those upcoming movies look pretty horrible.  When we saw "Into the Woods" we saw previews for "Cinderella" (clever tie-in, but ho-hum), "Jupiter Ascending" (looked like stupid Y/A mixed with sci-fi), "Paul Blart; Mall Cop 2" (why, dear God, WHY?) and "Pitch Perfect 2" (OK, I'll consider seeing that one...).  When I saw "Birdman" last week, things looked even bleaker - I saw the trailers for "Run All Night" (with Liam Neeson, looked just like "Taken 4"), "Danny Collins" (Al Pacino playing a washed-up Barry Manilow-ish singer?), "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (which seems rather unnecessary) and "A Little Chaos", about, I swear, some woman who was the landscaper at Versailles for King Louis XIV.  

And you wonder why I prefer to stay home and watch old movies on TCM?  Why don't I ever get to see trailers for good movies, like "Avengers: Age of Ultron"?  Also, remember when there was some connection between the movie you were there to see, and the trailers they'd show you?  These days, there doesn't seem to be any order to the system at all.  

Unlike my programming choices, of course - where Bruce Willis carries over from "Moonrise Kingdom" and settles in for a few days. 

THE PLOT:  An unhappy and disliked image consultant gets a second shot at life when an eight-year-old version of himself mysteriously appears.

AFTER:  This is also good timing, for a couple of reasons.  First off, time travel is hot again - I just finished reading the first book I've read in...well, a long time, and that was "How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe".  Without giving anything away, a man who fixes other people's time-travel mistakes gets into a loop of his own.  Also, I'm watching the new "12 Monkeys" series on Syfy, though I suspect that re-watching the Terry Gilliam film (which also starred Bruce Willis) would be faster, and ultimately more entertaining.  

And that's what we seem to be dealing with in "The Kid", time travel of a sort.  There is the possibility that the main character is just having a breakdown and imagining that his own 8-year-old self has shown up at his house, but since other people can also see and talk to the young boy, this has to be discounted in favor of some other explanation, which the film never really bothers to provide.   In a sense, this also ties in with "Birdman", which also depicted things that seemed to defy the laws of time and space, without explaining for certain if those events were imaginary, or meant to be taken literally.

The story of "The Kid" also calls to mind "A Christmas Carol", which if you think about it, was really the first appearance in literature of time travel - Scrooge is able to watch the events of his childhood unfold again, though he can't change anything.  Makes sense, you can't change the past, but you can change the future, which he goes on to do.  But Dickens couldn't have imagined a time machine, instead he created spirits to do the work - a true Deus Ex Machina if ever there was one. 

The Scrooge-analog image consultant seen in "The Kid" is somewhat humbuggish, but more like angry and dissatisfied with his own life, even if he's unaware about exactly what's wrong with it.  Only by interacting with his younger self - metaphorically getting in touch with his inner child - does he realize that he hasn't fulfilled the dreams he once had.  However, as one character notes, how many people really grow up to do the things they wanted to do when they were 8?  Isn't life just what happens to you while you're making other plans?  

The timing of the visitation coincides with older Russell's 40th birthday (aha, midlife crisis!), and younger Rusty's 8th.  At first older Russell assumes that he's supposed to help improve the younger version of himself, teaching him self-defense and self-confidence - hey, if you know where you're going to end up, it's a lot easier to get there - and anyway, if you can improve the young boy, theoretically you'll also improve the man.  But remember, you can't change the past, only the future, so eventually they realize that the reverse is probably more likely, the young boy is there to help improve the man who's lost his way.  

There are many reasons why this story doesn't work, why any time-travel story eventually doesn't work.  First off, time travel is not possible, I've come to accept that.  Except you can only travel forward into the future, and you can't control the speed.  So, hey, we're all time travelers of a sort, but what we really want is flexibility, and it just ain't gonna happen.  If time travel were ever invented, even far in the future, we'd have some kind of evidence of future people coming back, unless they're really crafty and they don't change anything.  Similarly, you can communicate with your future self - just leave yourself a bunch of notes, like I do - but you can't answer back.  

Even if you take the time travel as a given here, if little Rusty goes forward into his future and meets himself, old Russell would have all of his memories, so he'd remember traveling forward when he was a kid, and he wouldn't be so surprised when his younger self turns up one day.  He'd probably have the day marked on the calendar in anticipation, because would seem pretty significant.  And he'd already know what needed to be done to change his life around, because he would have been a witness to this information that was learned when he was a child visiting the future.  SO, it's all an impossible muddle.

I stand by what I said yesterday, though - most kids are terrible actors. 

Also starring Spencer Breslin (last seen in "The Cat in the Hat"), Emily Mortimer (last seen in "Shutter Island"), Lily Tomlin (last seen in "Admission"), Jean Smart (last seen in "Hope Springs"), Daniel Von Bargen (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), with cameos from Dana Ivey, Chi McBride (last seen in "The Terminal"), Melissa McCarthy (last seen in "The Hangover Part III"), Jeri Ryan, Matthew Perry.

RATING: 4 out of 10 boxing gloves