Saturday, February 7, 2015

About a Boy

Year 7, Day 38 - 2/7/15 - Movie #1,938

BEFORE: Finishing off the Hugh Grant portion of the romance chain - for a while there he was the go-to guy for romantic comedies, but I think he sort of aged out of the program, leaving him with roles in films like, well, whatever "Cloud Atlas" was.  

THE PLOT: A cynical, immature young man is taught how to act like a grown-up by a little boy.

AFTER: Like "Notting Hill", I'm going to classify this one as slightly above average, in this case because it ended up being about so much more than a straight, simple Hollywood romance.  It's about a boy trying to fit in at school, even though he's got a mother who seems to have gone out of her way to raise him in a different manner than most boys.  Trust me on this, when I say this tends to produce kids who grow up to think for themselves, provided they can survive until high school ends.  My mother similarly knew nothing about helping her son fit in, and the goal of school is fitting in, or at least not calling to much attention to yourself.  By dressing me the way she did in grade school, my mom pretty much threw me to the wolves - she understood nothing about how cruel other kids could be. 

Marcus, the kid portrayed here is somewhat lucky (even though he'll eventually grow up to be covered in blue fur in the X-Men films...) because he does have a male figure that he chooses to bond with, someone who understands the importance of conforming to social norms by wearing the proper sneakers and being at least aware of current popular music.  Unfortunately that man is a professional slacker, living off the royalties of the Christmas song his father wrote, and only interested in dating single mothers because they're so desperate and eager to please.  

To do this, he first pretends he has a two-year-old son, who's conveniently never around.  Once busted, he resorts to another pretense, letting women believe that Marcus is his son, and of course further deception leads to further complications.  I can see why NBC turned this premise into a sitcom, because there do seem to be a lot of opportunities, people believing what they want to believe, leaping to conclusions for comic effect and all that.  

Plus, it goes beyond the average romance film by not falling into the trap of assuming that there's one perfect person for everyone.  There are enough characters and dating possibilities here to suggest that a person could make a go of it with one of several different partners, which again creates more possible plot directions, and doesn't sugar-coat things.  This also acknowledges the more modern type of relationships we tend to see these days, where people have kids with one partner but live with another, or are single parents trying to make things work, etc.  Plus, people here aren't always storybook perfect, they suffer from depression or lack of ambition or inability to fit in, which feels more real in the end.

Also starring Toni Collette (last seen in "Velvet Goldmine"), Nicholas Hoult (last seen in "Warm Bodies"), Rachel Weisz (last seen in "The Bourne Legacy"), Sharon Small, Victoria Smurfit. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 episodes of "Countdown"

Friday, February 6, 2015

Two Weeks Notice

Year 7, Day 37 - 2/6/15 - Movie #1,937

BEFORE: The romance chain is like winter weather - it's sometimes hard to get through, and some days it's particularly nasty, but in a few weeks things should clear up considerably.  Hugh Grant carries over from "Notting Hill". 

THE PLOT: A lawyer decides that she's used too much like a nanny by her boss, so she walks out on him.

AFTER: You might expect me to harp on proper grammar, and point out that the title of this film should be "Two Weeks' Notice", with proper apostrophe placement, but I'm not sure about that.  When you quit a job, you give two weeks OF notice, and possibly the OF is just silent when you shorten the phrase.  Pure grammarians would add the apostrophe, because of phrases like "one year's time" - but I have to live in the real world and make some allowances.

My wife and I went to Coney Island last Memorial Day, and I noticed a building that was apart from the others with scaffolding around it.  It looked ornate, like an old-timey theater or meeting hall, and I wondered what it was.  Well, that building is front and center in this film, playing the part of a Coney Island Community Center.  Here is how the building looked in May 2014:

The proper name of the building is the Childs Restaurant Building,  and it was built in 1923.  It was a restaurant with nautical decorations of Poseidon and sailing ships until 1952, when it became a candy factory - candies like Peeps were made there for 50 years until the building was abandoned in 2002, right about the time they made this film.  It was designated as a landmark in 2003, but it wasn't until 2013 that plans were announced to turn the building into the Seaside Community Center, which sounds a lot like the use suggested by this film a decade before.  So I guess life ultimately imitates art. 

As for the film itself, it's also badly in need of some renovations.  I get that a romantic comedy needs to have a few reversals - "Notting Hill" and "Hope Floats" are two recent examples of sort of on-again, off-again developing relationships - but there are so many reversals in "Two Weeks Notice" that the plot ended up making very little sense.  For 90% of the film I wondered if I'd bungled things, and programmed a film that wasn't even a romance at all.  Really, the love angle comes in at the end, seemingly out of nowhere.

Let's start with a LegalAid lawyer doing pro bono work for the community, who then decides she can do more good by working for the same developer she's been fighting for years.  Huh?  This would be like joining the army to promote peace, or fighting against billboard sprawl by going to work for an advertising firm.  I mean, I could see it if she took the job as some kind of mole to destroy the company from within, but no, she wants to work for the evil developer to do good things - that makes no sense. 

Secondly, we've got the issue of her trying to quit said job - but she's locked in place by an ironclad contract that she HERSELF wrote.  Again, WTF?  If she wrote the contract, why is she unfamiliar with its terms?  She would know that it's ironclad, if in fact it is, or if it isn't, she would know how to get out of it.  Or she could file some kind of injunction that could nullify her contract - but no, her decision is to act like a terrible employee in the hopes of getting fired.  I can kind of see this, because you retain benefits if you're fired, but not if you quit - but this point isn't even mentioned, so it's just another reversal in a long string of ill-intentioned contradictory plot contrivances. 

Now we come to the character herself - she's a great lawyer, but a clumsy person?  So she's competent, but also bumbling?   Smart at corporate law but terrible at romance?  She gorges on Chinese food under stress, but never seems to gain an ounce?  Things just aren't adding up here.  It seems that women haven't really made much progress if strong female characters also have to have all these flaws built in to their personalities.  God forbid that a film portrays a woman who's good at her job and can also balance a positive relationship at the same time.

Finally, we've got the romance between the developer and his attorney - which doesn't seem like a great idea, considering the potential conflicts.  Maybe this is why it doesn't even seem like a romance for the first 99% of the film - it's more of a co-dependency.  She needs him to keep her employed, and to get this community work done (again, this is a real stretch, but let's assume...) and he needs her, well, for pretty much everything.  Most notably, he calls her out of a friend's wedding because he can't decide what suit to wear. 

This leads to a major NITPICK POINT: why did she leave that wedding?  If she knows his personality, that he's likely to call her for non-emergencies, why did she treat this call like an emergency?  Why did she even have her phone ON in the middle of a wedding?  And most glaringly, why couldn't she use THAT VERY PHONE to ask him what the emergency was, before ruining a ceremony as well as her relationship with said bride and groom?  Ridiculous.

This whole film had no structural support - should have been torn down and rebuilt from the ground up so it would make at least a little sense.  Plus I hate hate HATE that Joni Mitchell song, "Big Yellow Taxi" - points off for using it.  "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot..."  Well, you know what?  The world needs parking lots, too, so get down off your high horse and shut up.

Also starring Sandra Bullock (last seen in "Hope Floats"), Alicia Witt (last seen in "88 Minutes"), Robert Klein (last seen in "Reign Over Me"), Dana Ivey (last seen in "The Kid"), Heather Burns, David Haig, with cameos from Mike Piazza, Donald Trump, Norah Jones.

RATING: 3 out of 10 wrecking balls

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Notting Hill

Year 7, Day 36 - 2/5/15 - Movie #1,936

BEFORE: And sometimes, it is just as easy as letting Julia Roberts carry over from one romance film to the next.  But this will also kick off the Hugh Grant portion of the proceedings, and we'll have to catch up with Ms. Roberts again later in the month.

THE PLOT: The life of a simple bookshop owner changes when he meets the most famous film star in the world.

AFTER: Finally, a romance film that I can classify as slightly above average - in which we learn that British people are weird, but Welsh people are weirder, celebrities can fall in love with regular humans, and press junkets are pretty much the worst thing in the world.

The comedy here comes from the "Fawlty Towers" school of British comedy, proving that John Cleese is in fact the master of this genre.  For those not in the know, or who haven't seen "A Fish Called Wanda", another great example of the genre, the rules of comedy dictate that when British people find themselves in the most embarrassing situations, they cannot admit fault, no matter what the cost.  Cleese played Basil Fawlty, a hotel manager who refused to show any sign of weakness in front of his guests or employees - so if he drove across town to pick up a roast duck, for example, (after his drunken chef proved incapable of cooking one) he'd rush the duck into the dining room, spectacularly lift the cloche in front of the guests, only to find - well, not a roast duck, for sure.  But whatever was there, he'd have to act like it was meant to be there, because to admit any mistake on his part would be distinctly un-British.  

There's a British parlor game depicted here, when there's only one brownie left at dessert, and each person at the dinner party tries to detail how dreadful their life is, and the winner (loser?) gets the brownie.  The famous actress makes a valiant attempt to make her charmed life seem dreadful - she had to get facial surgery, her looks will eventually fade, Hollywood will soon stop hiring her due to her age - but it's to no avail.  The other partygoers refuse to acknowledge that her life could possibly be miserable.  By the same token, I refuse to feel sorry for a celebrity, or even a caricature of one, who can't seem to find true love and only has fame and fortune to console her. 

While I agree that paparazzi and the whole TMZ culture is comprised of lowlife scum, individuals who struggle to become famous have no right to complain about their lack of private life after they succeed.  If you can't handle the publicity machine, or the fact that those pictures you posed for years ago have resurfaced, then maybe fame isn't your cup of tea.  Cash your $15 million check, and go open a bakery or something.  

The "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy..." line got really overplayed in its day, just like "You had me at hello..." from "Jerry McGuire" or "I wish I knew how to quit you..." from "Brokeback Mountain".  But it's not even the best romantic line in the film - that comes later, during the press conference, when Anna's asked how long she's planning to stay in the U.K.  But somehow the earlier line got all the attention. 

Also starring Hugh Grant (last seen in "Cloud Atlas"), Rhys Ifans (last seen in "The Shipping News"), Hugh Bonneville (last seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies"), Gina McKee, Emma Chambers, Tim McInnerny (last seen in "Johnny English Reborn"), James Dreyfus, with cameos from Alec Baldwin (last seen in "Blue Jasmine"), Emily Mortimer (last seen in "The Kid"), Mischa Barton, Matthew Modine (last seen in "Pacific Heights").

RATING: 6 out of 10 guinea fowl

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Something to Talk About

Year 7, Day 35 - 2/4/15 - Movie #1,935

BEFORE: You see, I'm now reaping the rewards of re-organizing my proposed February line-up.  Because Gena Rowlands carries over from "Hope Floats", and I've managed to put two films with very similar plotlines back-to-back, and this allows for greater compare/contrast possibilities, at least in theory.

THE PLOT: A woman's world is rocked when she discovers her husband is cheating on her.

AFTER: It's not just me, right?  This is essentially the same film as "Hope Floats", though perhaps with a different resolution.  Husband cheats on wife, wife separates from husband and moves in with parents to raise her precocious daughter.  Oh, sure, there are a few subtle differences - like "Hope Floats" is set in Texas, and this one's set in...Georgia, is it?  And in "Hope Floats" the central character is a photographer, and here she manages a stable of show-jumping horses.  But the key, relationship-driven plot points are more or less the same.  

According to this film, when a woman catches her husband cheating, should she:
a) ignore the situation, because you know, that's just how men are
b) violently throw him out of the house
c) try to poison him
d) turn the town's gossip mill against him to shame him into begging for forgiveness
e) open an honest dialogue with him, rationally discuss their future or the possibility of reconciliation, to determine if legal action is required

Trick question, it's all of the above, except for "e" - because how cinematic would THAT be?  Seriously, though, I'm paying close attention this week to the way that spouses argue in films, because that's very relevant to the screenplay I'm writing - yeah, I've been there.  I'd like to say that when I went through a divorce I took the high road via option "e", but it was a very emotional thing.  I remember a lot of slammed doors, non-constructive fighting, name-calling even, plus some couples therapy.  

I believe that if you're in a marriage, you should work to save it, fight to save it - but at some point, like after a year or two of fighting, I wondered what I was really fighting for.  It turned out I was fighting to save something that no longer existed, at least not in the form that I had come to recognize.  Sure, there was a chance that I could keep hanging on to it in some new form, but considering the circumstances and the attractions to other people involved, it would have been some form of open marriage, and that's not really a marriage at all, when you get right down to it - so I stopped fighting for it. 

It turns out that time spent apart can really crystallize a situation - but it could go either way. It could make one or both people realize that they want to get back together, or it could make one or both people realize that they'd rather be apart.  If both agree on this point, then the next move is clear, but if one wants to separate and one wants to get back together, they're still at an impasse.  In this film the time apart does bring about one of the two outcomes, but again, your mileage may vary.

Also starring Julia Roberts (last seen in "August: Osage County"), Dennis Quaid (last seen in "The Words"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "The Paper"), Kyra Sedgwick, Brett Cullen, Muse Watson, Haley Aull, with an uncredited cameo by David Huddleston (last seen in "Smokey and the Bandit II").

RATING: 5 out of 10 cookbook recipes

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hope Floats

Year 7, Day 34 - 2/3/15 - Movie #1,934

BEFORE: OK, I tore apart the whole February line-up and put it back together again, I went deep catalog into the cast lists, and found some links among B-level actors, character actors and even some cameos (I assume) to tie everything together in a different order.  I had to give up a few things, like having the word "heart" in the title of the film that I'll watch on Feb. 14, but such is life.  

It looks like I fell into a trap when I put all the Julia Roberts films together - that's just not going to allow everything to link to everything else.  I had to divest myself of that notion, too, to get it done.  That seems to be a common occurence this year, I watched all the Bruce Willis films on the list together, except for one, and all of the Edward Norton films together, except for one.

Tonight's selection was a no-brainer, though - Mae Whitman played Meg Ryan's younger daughter in "When a Man Loves a Woman", and carries over to play Sandra Bullock's daughter in tonight's film.

THE PLOT:  Birdee Calvert must choose between her morals and her heart after her husband divorces her and a charming young man, who her daughter disapproves of, comes back into her life.

AFTER: There's a spoof of the "Star Wars: Episode VII" trailer going around, showing what that film might look like if Wes Anderson were directing it.  This film is sort of like what a Hollywood romance film might look like if Wes Anderson directed it, and was asked to turn down the quirk about 50%.  By that I mean there's a lot of odd things here, like taxidermy and a kid who dressed in all sorts of elaborate costumes - one day he's a frog, the next he's Charlie Chaplin.  Oh, sure, like a 7-year old kid has any idea who Chaplin was.  

The pacing's kind of off with this one, though, because we all know where it's going to end up (just look at the poster), and it takes a loooong time getting there.  And along the way there's confusion at every turn, mostly because all of the different characters are at odds with each other, because they all want different things and they're not honest with each other (or themselves) about what those things are. So confusion abounds.  

Plus, the film repeats the exact same scenario about a dozen times (or at least it seems like it) - the main character encounters someone she knew in high-school, there's shock, surprise, "Oh, my God, you're back in town!" followed by either cattiness or...actually, just cattiness.  This process wore thin after the third occurrence, but then kept happening again and again.  We get it, she's back in town.  If people hate her for coming back and still being attractive, well, then maybe she should have been nicer to them
20 years ago.  Really, that's the lesson here?  Beautiful people should have been nicer to the plain folk?

More therapeutic yelling tonight when her husband finally shows up in town, only it's not for a reconciliation - he's already moved on.  Yeah, it sucks when people separate, and I agree that no man should have an affair with his wife's best friend, but if he's moved on, he's moved on.  You can't unring that bell, so even though there's anger, what does it accomplish?  She can be mad about her situation, but should he have stayed in a loveless marriage (from his side, anyway) just because she hadn't been brought up to speed?    

The rest just seemed designed to create some of the most heart-breaking scenarios possible in a film.  Yeah, into each life a little rain must fall, but this represents a series of downpours.  If that's your thing, more power to you, I guess.

NITPICK POINT: The main character works in a photo lab, and the fickle machine visibly fails during the printing of pictures, but unless another mistake was made in developing the negatives, they could have just re-printed the photos from the undamaged negs.  It's odd that no one thought to do that.

Also starring Sandra Bullock (last seen in "Gravity"), Harry Connick Jr. (last seen in "Memphis Belle"), Gena Rowlands (last seen in "Another Woman"), Michael Paré (last seen in "The Philadelphia Experiment"), Cameron Finlay, Connie Ray, with cameos from Bill Cobbs, Kathy Najimy (last seen in "The Hard Way"), Rosanna Arquette (last seen in "The Whole Nine Yards").

RATING: 5 out of 10 scary stuffed cats

Monday, February 2, 2015

When a Man Loves a Woman

Year 7, Day 33 - 2/2/15 - Movie #1,933

BEFORE: Well, this is embarrassing - just two days into the February romance chain, and I don't have a direct link to connect Film #1 and Film #2.  What the hell?  I think because I planned the order months ago, then flipped the order around, (Bruce Willis was the original lead-OUT for February...) my guess is that I failed to connect all of the films, I must have given up at some point.  Or perhaps I had some linking in mind and forgot to check it out.

Indirect link?  Sure, no problem - Bruce Willis was also in "Ocean's Twelve", playing himself, with Andy Garcia (last seen in "Twisted").  But that's just not good enough - you expect better.  You DESERVE better.  I'm looking at my February watchlist now and I'm wondering how many other gaps there are between films.  Could I find more links if I just went deeper into the cast lists?  I'm thinking I could.

So, tonight's film is set, and tomorrow's film logically connects from there - but what about after that?  Do I have the other 25 films in the proper order?  Am I willing to tear down the proposed plan and rebuild it, brick by brick, movie by movie, until I'm sure that it all connects together in a logical way?  I'm going to take the next two days and really look at the plan.  

I can also take the opportunity to make a last-minute substitution - there's one film I got from TCM's recent tribute to Neil Simon that counts as a romance film, and this gives me the opportunity to give it a slot here, and maybe move a film that might be difficult to link to a bit further down the chain.  That could help me out in the long run, and allow me to sleep at night.  Hey, I can't call myself a compulsive organizer unless I live up to that name.

THE PLOT:  An airline pilot and his wife are forced to face the consequences of her alcoholism when her addiction threatens her life and their daughter's safety.

AFTER: Honestly, I was a little unsure about including this one in the romance chain to begin with - is it a film about a relationship, or a film about alcoholism?  Turns out, it's both.  It's a complex relationship when one person drinks and the other person is - well, not really an enabler, he's more like a guy who wants to help her, but that's part of the problem.  As long as she can rely on him to make things better, then she's not making things better herself, and she's not becoming a stronger person.  As they say, she's got to bottom out before she can climb out of the hole she's in, and people pretending that everything's going to be OK just isn't helping.

And she comes back from rehab clean - OK, so she's not drinking, but she's smoking cigarettes again.  Is that better?  Or is that just trading alcohol addiction for nicotine addiction?  Look, I don't know much about A.A. but if you believe the movies and TV shows, a lot of smoking and drinking coffee takes place at the meetings.  So, congratulations, you kicked drinking, but now you're addicted to two other things.  Make that three if you count the meetings themselves. 

It took me a while to figure out that the husband wasn't the biological father of both girls - I think he was the father of the younger girl, and the stepfather of the older girl.  Points for not making this fact blatantly obvious, but points off for being obtuse.  There must have been a way to subtly point out this fact, which come to think of it, is sort of what they did - you had to infer it from the dialogue.

I'm accepting the fact that this ended up next to "The Story of Us" because they both have the same story arc - things seem fine between two people, but they're not, and then there's therapy/rehab, and things have to get worse before they get better.   That's how it goes in Hollywood - people separate and get back together, it's always darkest before the dawn.  I'm not saying that doesn't happen in the real world, I'm just betting it's a lot less common.

But before we get there, things are going to get screamy - lots of grown-ups fighting in yesterday's film, too.  I promise we'll get to a better, more romantic mindset before Valentine's Day - but I have a feeling it will be a slow build.

Also starring Meg Ryan (last seen in "Courage Under Fire"), Ellen Burstyn (last seen in "Same Time, Next Year"), Lauren Tom, Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "25th Hour"), Tina Majorino (last seen in "Waterworld"), Mae Whitman (last seen in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), LaTanya Richardson, with cameos from Al Franken, Ellen Geer.

RATING:  4 out of 10 hidden vodka bottles

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Story of Us

Year 7, Day 32 - 2/1/15 - Movie #1,932

BEFORE: It's Super Bowl Sunday - it's the first time in 20 years that I don't have to track the game-day commercials for my job, so of course I have to watch the game because the Patriots are playing. But it's also February 1, which means it's time to start my annual romance chain. Considering the track record that the NFL has had of late, plus the common conception that domestic violence increases on Super Bowl day, this seems a bit like watching a Christmas film in the summertime - but hey, I don't make the calendar.

Last year I didn't have enough romance films to fill up February, but I was able to make do by starting the Woody Allen chain, and most of his early films were relationship-y enough to help make the quota.  This year I think I had a bit too many, so I knocked off a few in January, like "Hope Springs" and "Keeping the Faith", and I'll probably have a couple left over, but those will link to films later this year, hopefully.   So it's a solid 28 (OK, 29) films that are totally (OK, mostly) about all facets of love and romance, the good and the bad, the ups and downs of it all.

Michelle Pfeiffer carries over from "Dangerous Minds" as planned, but after this, things get a little hazy.  It's pretty obvious that I meant for the Bruce Willis chain to lead into this, and added the other Pfeiffer films to fill up January.  But I think this was at the tail end of my original chain, and then I flipped things around.  So I forgot what the lead-out was from this film, or if there ever was one - maybe I meant to come up with one later.  I'll deal with that tomorrow.

THE PLOT: Ben and Katie Jordan are a married couple who go through hard times in fifteen years of marriage.

AFTER: Well, at least I'm starting with a film about the ups AND downs.  There are references here to the "peaks and valleys" of relationships, as a couple finds themselves stuck in a valley, without the will to climb out, so they decide to separate.  If you trace it back, it seems like the problems might have started when Katie accused Ben of having an affair, and even when he said he was just talking to another woman, that was bad enough, like an emotional affair.  

Wait, that can't be right - there are so many flashbacks in this film that it's hard to get the timeline in order, and you know how much that bothers me.  I must have gotten it wrong, because that would mean that a woman reacted irrationally to an innocent situation, made a false accusation, and that's just crazy talk, right?  I mean, that could never happen.  Women are, of course, extremely rational creatures and not driven by their emotions at all.  

The biggest problem this couple faces, once they agree to separate, seems to be how to tell the kids.  No discussion of legal matters, no dispute over who owns the record collection or who's going to keep living in the house, so that all seems a bit too easy.  Plus the kids are away at camp while Mom & Dad sort this all out, so that's pretty convenient, too.  Almost like the screenwriter couldn't bear to think of parents fighting in front of their kids, yet we all know that probably happens in some marriages. 

The excessive flashbackery gets really bad at the end - to the point where I thought maybe the characters had become un-stuck in time like Billy Pilgrim in "Slaughterhouse Five" and were living their lives non-linearly.  This is a clear case where someone probably wrote the story in a linear way and then realized how depressing it was to watch two people slowly separate, so they had to mix it up - "Hey, remember that time we went to Italy?"  But putting scenes of happier times in between scenes where the couple is living apart just makes the story seem bi-polar. 

Also, there's no explanation as to how they manage to get out of the valley, what motivates them to eventually climb the next peak together.  Using their history as a rationale to continue on together isn't really enough, because that's just inertia.  There should have been some change represented here, either a change in someone's attitude or a change in situation that prompted reconciliation, or else they're likely to find themselves back in the same place again, having the same arguments.  "I want to stay with you because we've been together so long."  Nope, not enough, not for a movie, anyway. 

In the end, it might seem like they've spun on a dime and made an emotional decision about their marriage, rather than a logical one.  But it only seems that way because that's what happens.  And the ending suggests that women are only motivated by their emotions, and not logic, which as I said before, is quite ridiculous.

Also starring Bruce Willis (last seen in "The Last Boy Scout"), Rob Reiner (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Rita Wilson (last seen in "Volunteers"), Tim Matheson (last seen in "Divorce American Style"), Paul Reiser (last seen in "Funny People"), Julie Hagerty, with cameos from Betty White, Red Buttons, Tom Poston, Jayne Meadows, Ken Lerner, Albert Hague.

RATING: 4 out of 10 crossword puzzles