Saturday, May 2, 2015


Year 7, Day 122 - 5/2/15 - Movie #2,022

BEFORE: Both stars of last night's film, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, are heard but not seen in this film, so there's a good reason to follow up with this one.  And this takes me right up to where I need to be to set up "Avengers: Age of Ultron", which I figured I'd catch on Sunday of opening weekend.  OK, a couple of problems with that have arisen.  First off, it's opening weekend of the biggest film of the year, I may not even be able to get a ticket even if my wife were willing to drive us there, which she isn't.  I'd hop a subway into Manhattan by myself, but the subway line I live on is down for weekend repairs for the next three weekends, so that means I'd have to walk a great distance to another subway, and it's just not worth it for a Sunday.  So after this I'll take a couple days off, and I'll be back here on Tuesday, I figure I can watch the film while the normal people are working and I have a day off.  See, things (sort of) happen for a reason, and I could not have predicted when I lost one of my two jobs that this would mean I'd get to see the new Avengers film on a weekday, but that's where I find myself.

Plus, Monday is "Star Wars" day, and if I were to watch the Avengers film on Sunday, that would mean I'd watch "Guardians of the Galaxy" next on Star Wars Day, and that almost seems like heresy, because as good as GOTG may be, it's still not Star Wars.  But I am going to play in a Star Wars trivia match on May 4, so perhaps I should spend Sunday brushing up on any Star Wars trivia I don't already have down.  See, maybe things (sort of) happen for a reason.  

THE PLOT:  A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need. 

AFTER: My first reaction to this film is, "Bullshit".  And that's a reaction to the story, where a man falls in love with his phone's (computer's?) operating system.  But I don't think a normal person would do that, because most people would know the difference between a person's voice and thought process and that of a machine.  So either we're dealing with a damaged person here (put a pin in that, definite possibility) or this is some kind of metaphor, or an extension of the argument that posits that kids who play with violent video games grow up to become adults who massacre people with guns, or if we legalize gay marriage then next people will want to marry turtles or robots or household furniture.  Those arguments are not necessary logical, they blow things out of proportion to make invalid points, but perhaps someone saw someone talking to Siri on their phone and said, "Hmm, what's the next logical or illogical step from there, maybe there's a good story there."  (Note to self: get started on screenplay about someone who marries furniture.)

My second reaction to this film is also "Bullshit", but for a different reason, a technical reason.  We don't have any tech just yet like what's seen here, though I'm sure some people are working on making A.I. that can PASS for human, they just can't make A.I. that IS human.  In other words, we can make a computer that can simulate human speech and fool someone into thinking it has feelings and emotions, but it just doesn't.  A computer program can not feel, tell a joke, compose music, or wish it had a body, and all that's because it doesn't have the same kind of brain, it can only think what it's programmed to think.

(Worse, the OS depicted here states that it's "evolving past its own programming", which a computer can't do unless it's programmed to do that, and then logically that would mean it's not doing that.  It's kind of like asking whether God can make a rock that's so big he can't lift it, because that would mean that he's both all-powerful and not all-powerful at the same time.  If he can build the rock, he can't lift it, but if he can't build the rock, that
's something else he can't do.)

I wish I could have watched this with someone who knows more about computer programming than I do.  I would give that person the power to hit the pause button every time he saw something that defies logic, or represents technology that doesn't, and may never, exist.  

But then my next reaction was, well, we have science-fiction movies that are set in space, and often there's a ship that has a hyperdrive, which the plot sort of requires in order to get that ship to the next star system.  And we don't have hyperdrives, we may never have hyperdrives, but that doesn't stop people from writing about them.  So, let's assume this film is a form of science-fiction, or perhaps a grand thought experiment.  Again, this sets up a situation where the writer now needs to keep raising the stakes, to take the film to its inevitable, and perhaps completely logical, conclusion.  

There are still format problems all over the place.  For starters, the main character is a man who writes wonderful formal letters for other people (there's a fictional web-site that offers this service, just roll with it) but he himself seems incapable of making a connection with a human woman.  So he knows what to say in most situations, but is unable to say those things himself - that's a very specific personality quirk, he's damaged in a unique way.  OK, recent divorce, I get that, but still...

Maybe I've just got Ultron on the brain, but if I follow the logic here, if this guy downloaded a new OS that somehow adjusted itself to his personality, if it was able to exhibit the exact sort of personality that he'd fall in love with, that's some quality programming there.  But if that happened to him, it could be happening to anyone who downloaded that software, and to me the next logical step is to have the computers seduce all of the humans, take over the planet and enslave everyone.  That's not what happens in this film, which is quite disappointing.  Damn, what happens is almost a letdown compared to that.  (Note to self: get started on a screenplay where sexy OS systems seduce and destroy humanity).

What we get instead is a computer system that wants to feel, even wants to experience intimacy, and the solution it comes up to bring this about makes so little sense, it's like if the computer wanted to experience food, and our man shoved a cookie in its CD-ROM drive.  It just wouldn't work that way, the drive wasn't built with taste buds, so all he'd be doing was ruining it with crumbs.  

But let's get back to the possibility that this is a metaphor for something, which I think is the best way to go.  It's not impossible that a man could fall in love with a prostitute, or a sex surrogate, or a sex robot (when they're inevitably invented).  But also, how many of us, myself included, spend the majority of our days interacting with computers at work, then come home and play video-games, or perhaps a few rounds of some freemium game on the iPad, with an addiction for crushing candy that gets satisfied on the train in-between?  Are you spending more time staring into screens than into the faces of your family members, and is this becoming a problem?  

NITPICK POINT: As far as I can tell, they did nothing to alter the voice of the lead actress, which to me is a cheat.  We also currently do not have a way to synthesize a computer voice that is this sophisticated, so what they should have done (in my opinion) was to alter Ms. Johansson's voice to make it sound more robotic somehow.  Without that, it's too easy to see how Theodore falls for her, because then it's just an extension of a man falling for, say, a phone-sex operator.  Right off the bat, after Samantha was introduced and said the unnecessary word "actually" three times in five minutes, I called "Bullshit" again.  Remember how Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" spoke?  He didn't even use contractions for the first 6 seasons of the show, and that was believable, that an android might not use the easier ways of talking.  We've come a long way since HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey", but Samantha represents a quantum leap that I think represents a step too far. 

As the film itself points out, you can hear the OS making breathing or sighing sounds as it "talks".  And of course this is because the actress who was reading the lines needed to breathe, but a computer voice that was programmed to talk would just not be programmed to make these noises - it just wouldn't be necessary.  There's an attempt to point out how this is not a mistake, because the AI would eventually learn to mimic human speech, including the breath intake, but this explanation just didn't fly with me.  Pointing out the mistake does not stop it from being a mistake.  

From the clips I've seen so far from "Avengers: Age of Ultron", I'll be revisiting this same N.P. in my next post.  But this film has another problem - for a two-hour film, there's only about 3 minutes worth of plot.  You could really cut this down to its basic elements and it would be a lot tighter - and this points out that once the relationship is established, everything else is talkie, talkie, talkie, or perhaps delay, delay, delay.  If you've only got enough plot for a short film, please, just make a short film.

Also starring Joaquin Phoenix (last seen in "The Master"), the voice of Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "The Island"), Amy Adams (last seen in "The Wedding Date"), Rooney Mara (last seen in "The Social Network"), Chris Pratt (last seen in "Zero Dark Thirty"), Olivia Wilde (last seen in "The Words"), the voice of Spike Jonze and the voice of Brian Cox (last seen in "25th Hour").

RATING: 4 out of 10 chatrooms

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Skeleton Twins

Year 7, Day 121 - 5/1/15 - Movie #2,021

BEFORE:  Kristen Wiig carries over from "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", and I think you can probably see where I'm going with this, with just two days until the Age of Ultron.  Or maybe not, maybe my linking is only blatantly obvious to me, I can't really tell.  But after tomorrow's film my blog may be dark for a couple days, for reasons I'll explain tomorrow - it will NOT be because I'm viewing the new "Avengers" film over and over.  But let me be clear, this film was a last-minute addition to extend my chain, so that I'd be ready for the Age of Ultron on Sunday, but now it looks like I'll have to play catch-up on Tuesday.  Damn it.

THE PLOT:  Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship.

AFTER: In last night's review of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", I tried to describe the difference between story problems and format problems.  Let me see if I can describe it better, because today's film also has format problems.  Last Christmas, I made my annual mix-tape of songs, to send out with my cards to friends and family.  I chose a theme of a cappella music, but some very contemporary acts, like Pentatonix (check them out if you get a chance) and other acts that were on "The Sing-Off".  I didn't have quite enough for a whole CD, so I went back into my collection of CDs and picked out some older tracks to round out the field, but I felt that the arrangements on most of the songs were still very innovative, very fresh.  I tend to favor tracks that present familiar songs, but in new and clever ways.  On Christmas Day, when visiting with family, one of my aunts thanked me for sending her this year's mix, commenting on how classic it was, and how this was a nice change from my usual rock or alternative tracks.  I thought, "What does she mean, classic?  Those tracks were CONTEMPORARY a cappella, from albums in current release, with vocal percussion and some really new arrangements!"  Then I realize she was confusing the content of the songs with the format, which was 100% vocal.  To her, this meant that the whole thing was a throwback to the time of Mitch Miller and choral groups like Singers Unlimited (no need to check them out, you're not missing much).  I didn't have the heart, or the time, to correct her, it was much easier for her to think of the mix as classic, and enjoy it, and I could go on, secure in the knowledge of how modern it really was.  

Story = content, what the characters do and say.  If you're going to tell me that THIS guy goes here and talks with THAT guy, which leads them to do something together, and talk about life or whatever, I've got no problem with that.  But it's the WAY that this information is presented that sometimes gets called into question.  That's a format problem.  If you're going to show Walter Mitty having daydreams, then a set of "real" adventures, well, forgive me for wondering how real those adventures really are, because as we've already established, this is a guy, by your own admission, who daydreams a lot.  

A format problem sometimes occurs, at least in my opinion, when an actor plays a gay character.  This creates a conundrum for me, because unless the actor is gay in real life, this usually involves acting or speaking in a certain manner, and to put that sort of queeniness on is (again, in my opinion), the modern equivalent of blackface.  It consists of a certain set of stereotypes - not the limp wrists and high-pitched voice seen in 1950's portrayals of gay men, but it now involves a sort of frailness, a fragility if you will. See Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Flawless", or Greg Kinnear in "As Good As It Gets".  Now, if the actor happens to be gay in real life, this sets up another conundrum, which is - to what degree can we really call that "acting"?  And how queeny should an actor be when playing a gay character?   Should he be more like Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia", or more like Nathan Lane in "The Birdcage"?

I think Hollywood has made great strides - I'm a straight man so I don't really have a dog in this fight, but I would rather see a film that didn't fall back on silly stereotypes when it happens to have a gay character.  Putting a gay male character in a dress just shows me that someone doesn't really get it at all - sure, there may be some overlap between homosexuals and cross-dressers, but I figure that it's nowhere near 100%, and most modern people should understand the difference by now.  Some men are transvestites and not gay, and many men are gay and don't feel the desire to dress like a woman.  Kudos to films like "Brokeback Mountain" (I guess) for showing men being manly men together and not feeling the need to cheapen that depiction by putting a man in a dress.  Real gay men can also be cowboys.  Or cops, or construction workers, you get the idea.  My point is that gay does not necessarily mean feminine.  

Anyway, one of the central characters here is gay, and he does wear a dress at one point.  But it's Halloween, so maybe that's OK.  What am I saying, of course it's OK, he can wear a dress if he wants, Halloween or not, or if the story dictates that he wear a dress.  I'm just questioning what the film says by putting him in a dress, thereby the use of this as a stereotype creates the format problem.  For good measure, he's also suicidal, and the victim of an incident when he was underage.  Because when you're falling back on gay stereotypes, why not go all the way?   But hey, this is the actor who played the very queeny "Stefon" character on SNL for so many years, and he never got any criticism for it, so it must be OK, right?

His twin sister, who he tries to reconnect with after 10 years apart, is also a walking stereotype, but the kind seen in dark romances like "Your Friends & Neighbors".  She's dissatisfied with her marriage, flirting with other guys, and lying to her husband about several important things.  She's living in a house of cards, by her own design, which could collapse at any time.   

This probably did really well at Sundance and other film festivals, where dark material is often rewarded.  Yep, I can still spot them - this won the Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  But to me it feels more like an extended version of a student film, and I don't mean that in a good way.  If I had a nickel for every student film I've seen that started with a suicide attempt, I'd have a whole lot of nickels.  I remember that after film students at NYU realized they'd be shooting on black and white film, you could not find a bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup anywhere near campus, because all the complicated artiste girls and introverted Goth boys were using it as a cheap substitute for fake blood in their films.  Razor blades were in short supply as well.  

(NOTE: There's some real heavy-handed symbolism near the end that also evokes the worst things about student films.  I won't spoil it here, but you'll know it when you see it.)

I know what the film WANTS me to think - these are two damaged characters who somehow became damaged because they spent time apart, and that getting back in touch with each other will "fix" them.  Well, I can choose not to believe that.  Because the format of the film seems to suggest that they're really messed up, whether together or apart, but I think maybe they're going to keep screwing up, just in different ways, until they start being honest with other people and possibly themselves.  Plus, I don't think you can say a film has a happy ending if it doesn't really have an ending at all. 

Also starring Bill Hader (last seen in "This Is 40"), Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell (last seen in "Friends With Money"), Joanna Gleason (last seen in "Last Vegas"), Boyd Holbrook (last seen in "Milk").

RATING: 3 out of 10 scuba lessons

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Year 7, Day 120 - 4/30/15 - Movie #2,020

BEFORE: This time I'm ignoring the Nicole Kidman track ("Moulin Rouge", "Practical Magic") to stick with Sean Penn, who carries over from "The Interpreter".  And this way the month of April ends as it began, sort of, this being a remake of my April 1 film.  Sort of.  This creates some symmetry, and I love symmetry almost as much as I love linking films by actor.  Three (?) days now until "Avengers: Age of Ultron".

THE PLOT:  When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, Walter takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947) (Movie #1,991)

AFTER: Well, parts of me just don't know what to do with this film - it's not funny enough to be a comedy, not in the most familiar sense, and it's not really dramatic enough to be a drama.  There's action in it, but it's not really an action film.  Some romance too, but I wouldn't slot it in the romance category either.  And it's got about as much to do with the original Danny Kaye version as a remake of "Casablanca" would if you set it in outer space.  If this film were a contestant on "American Idol", it would belt out spectacular songs in rock, pop, gospel, and country, only to have the judges accuse it of not really knowing what kind of a singer it wants to be.  

It's all over the map, literally and figuratively, as Walter Mitty, LIFE magazine's negative asset manager with a penchant for daydreaming, impulsively sets out to track down the photographer he's worked with for years (they've never met, but he's processed all of his film negatives) to find the missing photo that COULD be good enough to make the cover of the magazine's last print edition.  Supposedly LIFE has been acquired (from the Time/Life company?  Yeah, how did someone make that happen?) and its new corporate bosses want to convert it to an online magazine, or photo-site, or social something-or-other.  

(ASIDE: Yes, print is dying.  We've been hearing this for years, but it's a funny thing - people still read newspapers, buy magazines and collect comic books, all in paper.  With the possible exception of Betamax machines, new technology does not always completely replace old tech.  People still ride horses, at least I think they do, people still have analog watches, I bet you can probably still find a payphone in a couple places.  Me, I still record on VHS every day - I've got that high-tech system that allows me to watch a show in any room in my house, provided there's a VCR in that room.  Marvel Comics wants me to enjoy a FREE digital version of the paper comic I just bought.  Well, if I've got the paper version, why the heck do I need a digital one?  Shouldn't they be offering the digital versions to the people who DON'T already have the comic?  I'm not getting the concept.)  

I empathize with Walter Mitty here, because I work in animation production, and we heard for years about how 35mm film was dying.  Our studio has tried to roll with the changes and embrace the new technologies like DCPs on hard drives, and putting films on Vimeo on Demand, but I bet we'll still be selling DVDs for years to come.  You just can't have the director autograph a film that you downloaded, like he would a DVD case.  

Anyway, back to Walter.  He's looking for love while stuck in a dead-end (but respectable) office job, and he has to process photos taken by a world-traveling photographer, while he stays put.  Yeah, I've been there, and that last part's gotta really sting.  But the world needs office workers, too.  Maybe he should just go on vacation once in a while, but the main problem here is that he seems incapable of having fun.  It's notable that once he does get out to DO things, the daydreams disappear.  Once your life becomes exciting enough that you're achieving your dreams, then I guess you don't need dreams - or maybe you just need new ones.  Forrest Gump said "Life is like a box of chocolates", but if you let those chocolates stay on the shelf too long, they're going to go stale.  

My point is, it's good to have a hobby, or at least a thing - and a man's reach should exceed his grasp, but at some point you've just got to stand on a stepladder and go for it.  Maybe you want to visit every Starbucks on the West Coast, maybe you secretly dream of jumping on a plane and finding out for sure if you prefer BBQ from Memphis, Kansas City or Texas (not the Carolinas, though - that's crazy talk.). For me, it's been collecting Star Wars autographs, I've assembled over 85 signed 8x10 cast photos, and just as I'm about 2 actors away from being able to call the collection complete (more or less...), here comes Episode VII and I'll have to start on a new list of actors.  

(ASIDE: Don't be so quick to harsh on someone else's dreams - we were at a party last Saturday, and I overheard a woman talking about Nepal, how she was having difficulty reaching her father there.  I thought, "Oh, great, another hipster girl bragging about how her father is climbing Mount Everest or something."  The next morning I read about the earthquake in the newspaper, and suddenly her conversation made a lot more sense, and also took on a more somber tone in retrospect.)  

While I don't really have a problem with the story here, I have what I guess I'll have to call a format problem.  The daydream concept allows the film, with the aid of special effects, to make just about anything imaginable happen. That's where we are with effects these days, if a writer can think of it, a pixel-pushing crew takes over and can make it (appear to) happen.  SO, if they can make darn near anything happen, why did they choose THESE things to happen, over THOSE things?  How do you parse the entire set of possible things to put on film, and end up with some of the weird scenarios seen here?  I mean, do you start with everything everywhere and narrow the focus until you get two people falling from a building and then street-surfing through traffic while fighting over an action figure?  What's the process?  Or does a writer just throw a dart at a dartboard filled with random nouns?  

The film hits a better stride once Walter stops dreaming about it and starts being about it - following photos and other clues to retrace this photographer's travels, just to ask him a simple question.  But this itself presents a NITPICK POINT - why didn't he just CALL the guy?  Walter's cell phone works everywhere he goes, does the photographer NOT have a cell phone?  Walter had people looking for Sean's address, when he should have been asking around for his number.  And this leads to:

NITPICK POINT 2 - which is basically, "We're on deadline.  We need that image as soon as possible."  "OK, I'll just take a flight to Greenland, even though I'm not sure that they guy has it, or if he is even there."  What?  How is flying to another country the fastest way of doing something?  Again, technology.  Scan it, fax it, dropbox it, upload it to the web, Google it, freaking send it by goddamn FedEx - any of those are faster than "get on a plane and start looking for a guy", which has the potential to be a long quest with no fixed end point.  

And this brings me back to the format problem.  Since some of Walter's adventures were just a little TOO amazing, that brings up the possibility that none of them really happened, that they were also daydreams.  Maybe he never stopped having fantasies, maybe they just kept growing in scope until they took over his reality - sure, he believes that he went to Iceland and Afghanistan, but DID HE?  How can I be sure which of his adventures really happened, if any?  Besides, it's a film, so none of it is really real in the end, anyway.  

But this also says something about the state of entertainment today - in this post-"Inception" world, what is cinema reality?  When a new actor takes over the role of Spider-Man or Batman - when the makers of "Star Wars" ask me to forget about all the books I've read that take place after "Return of the Jedi" - when Marvel Comics destroys their universe (oh, it's coming...) and puts it back together with differently-shaped pieces - what am I supposed to do with the realities that came before, and are no longer being supported by customer service?  I can't un-watch, un-read or un-remember those things!

Also starring Ben Stiller (last seen in "Your Friends and Neighbors"), Kristen Wiig (last seen in "Friends With Kids"), Adam Scott (ditto), Shirley MacLaine (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Kathryn Hahn (last seen in "We're the Millers"), Patton Oswalt (last seen in "Young Adult"), Jon Daly, Adrian Martinez (also carrying over from "The Interpreter"), Olafur Darri Olafsson, with cameos from Joey Slotnick, Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter.

RATING: 6 out of 10 horny Chileans

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Interpreter

Year 7, Day 119 - 4/29/15 - Movie #2,019

BEFORE: See, I could have followed the Demi Moore track to "Disclosure" and "Flawless", but that doesn't get me where I need to be in 5 days.  Instead, Sean Penn carries over from "We're No Angels". 

THE PLOT: Political intrigue and deception unfold inside the United Nations, where a U.S. Secret Service agent is assigned to investigate an interpreter who overhears an assassination plot.

AFTER: There's a great reason why more films don't lead off with "political intrigue" in their pitches - because usually that signifies... oh, sorry, I dozed off there for a second.  Must have been from reading the term "political intrigue", because... damn, it happened again.  So I mean this in the kindest way possible, here's a film that took political intrigue and at least made that somewhat interesting.  A typical film about an African head of state coming to speak at the U.N. - boring!  But toss in a possible assassination attempt, and we're getting somewhere.  

Of course, to just have the thing happen with no warning, that would be wrong too - for starters, it would be happening, and there would be no chance to stop it.  So the film uses a cheat - there's an interpreter who happens to overhear people planning it, and since she's an interpreter and just happens to be from that part of the world, she's able to understand an obscure (to most people, anyway) African dialect.  In its own way, this is just as coincidental as Jimmy Stewart's character having a broken leg, a set of binoculars, and loads of free time when his neighbor commits a crime in "Rear Window".   Or that Amish kid in "Witness" who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

But what makes this complicated is the fact that she is from that part of the world, from the fictional country of Matobo, and is hardly impartial.  Her past ends up calling her credibility into question, and even the agents assigned to protect her start to wonder if she's not just a witness to the plot, but part of it (see NITPICK POINT below).  This is around the time things start to get confusing - now I expect a bit of confusion and a red herring here or there, but if you get to the end of the picture and you can tell me for sure who was behind the assassination attempt, well, then you're better at reading these things than I am.  Was it real?  Was it staged?  Does it even matter?  

(ASIDE: If you do make it to the end of the film - and I did fall asleep, so I had to finish it after work today - check out the original proposed ending, listed on under "trivia".  Man, that would have made even less sense...)

The bigger problem that the film faces is making investigation-ing exciting.  You know, the boring police work like knocking on doors, interviewing witnesses, sitting in a car during a stakeout.  This is a problem that shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI" solve with shocking plot twists and rock music - and this film wasn't able to fall back on either of those.  Instead we get a Secret Service agent who's damaged from recent tragedy (divorced AND widowed, for good measure) who finds a kindred spirit in our interpreter (after he stops suspecting her and eventually comes to trust her) who's nothing BUT damaged from tragedy.  It's all emotional, but oh so depressing.  

Look, I don't pretend to understand African politics, or dictators in general.  I don't know that you even CAN make things better in any country by taking out one man, or if you just create a power vacuum which someone else will step in to fill.  These things are complicated, and I just don't know if the U.N. is most effective in dealing with these things over time, or if you can even say one method of diplomacy is better than another.  But according to this film, sometimes staging an assassination attempt allows a dictator to blame his enemies, which can make him more powerful.  Right, and down is up and black is white. Which leads me to:

NITPICK POINT: If they really thought that the interpreter was part of the assassination plot, how would that even make sense?  Why would she then bring what she said she heard to anyone's attention?  If she wanted the head of an African nation dead, why wouldn't she just NOT report it?  Just let it happen, and don't give security forces any time to prepare for it.  Reporting it pretty much negates the possibility of her being involved, unless I'm missing something. 

This was the last film directed by (the late) Sydney Pollack, and so far he's had a good showing this year - he also directed "Random Hearts" and "Sabrina", which I watched in February, and also "Jeremiah Johnson" and "This Property Is Condemned", which I watched last week.  It's also the first film to shoot INSIDE the U.N. headquarters, instead of building a mock-up of the General Assembly on a soundstage or something.  

Also starring Nicole Kidman (last seen in news footage in "The Queen"), Catherine Keener (last seen in "Your Friends & Neighbors"), Jesper Christensen (last seen in "Quantum of Solace"), Earl Cameron (also last seen in "The Queen"), George Harris (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Yvan Attal, Hugo Speer, Maz Jobrani, David Zayas (last seen in "16 Blocks"), Robert Clohessy (ditto), Terry Serpico, Sydney Pollack (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Christopher Evan Welch (last seen in "Admission"), Michael Wright, Clyde Kusatsu (last seen in "Midway"), Adrian Martinez (last seen in "American Hustle").

RATING: 5 out of 10 metal detectors

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

We're No Angels (1989)

Year 7, Day 118 - 4/28/15 - Movie #2,018

BEFORE: Robert De Niro carries over from "Last Vegas", and I'm starting to think I've made a minor miscalculation - I'm on track to link to "Avengers: Age of Ultron" by this Sunday, but I may not be able to get to the movies until Tuesday.  My local subway line is undergoing repairs over the next few weekends, so unless I can convince my wife to join me on Sunday, I've got no way to get to the theater.  I've been seeking out another Robert De Niro film to add to the list, or something with Sean Penn or Ben Stiller or Kristen Wiig in it to delay the "Avengers" film a few days more, but nothing has surfaced.  So I may have to take Sunday and Monday off, and just play catch-up on Tuesday.  Hey, these things happen. 

I was at my old job today, helping to clean out my old desk even further, getting rid of old paperwork and equipment dating back to pre-2000 levels of clutter, and I stumbled on a copy of my watchlist from July 2010.  I must have made a photocopy at the office in case I ever lost my written list at home - this must have been before I maintained a copy of the list at  There were 388 films on the watchlist at that point, more than double the current list of 165 films.  And I still had the Hitchcock films on the list, plus ALL of the Woody Allens, even the ones I'd seen before.  What's also notable is that almost every film on the 2010 list has now been watched, there's been a complete turnover of material in the last 5 years.  Except for "Yentl", that's in the collection on a technicality in that there's a VHS copy owned by my wife, and I may never watch it.  If I clear the list except for that film, I may consider my work done.

THE PLOT:  Two escaped convicts' only prayer to escape is to pass themselves off as priests and pass by the police blockade at the border into Canada.

AFTER: One thing I'm going to have to get used to, as I get closer to the end of the project and my watchlist keeps getting smaller (OK, it's been stuck at 165 for the last week, but you get the idea) is the fact that the films left on the list have less and less in common with each other.  If I maintain my actor linking then my subject matter is going to vary more and more, and I'll be less able to find common themes in adjacent films.  I could watch a Western one day, follow that with a sci-fi film, maybe a light comedy - things may get weird around here (OK, weirder) if I don't program according to genre, and this could turn into a free-for-all.

But not yet.  Is there really that much difference between "Goin' South", where Jack Nicholson is an 1860's horse-thief trying to get to freedom in Mexico, and this film, where two 1930's convicts are trying to get to freedom in Canada?  So they have to pretend to be priests, so what?  That's easier than mining gold and getting married, right?  And just like that Western town in "Goin' South", the northern town here is the home of a convenient plot device, namely a group of priests/monks who make a pilgrimage each year into Canada with their weeping Madonna statue. 

This film is not a direct remake of the 1955 film of the same name, which starred Humphrey Bogart - instead, it's based on a stage-play titled "My 3 Angels", adapted into a screenplay by David Mamet.  (Ah, that explains all the cursing...).  It was released in 1989, just a few months before "Nuns on the Run", with a slightly similar plotline. 

If much of the humor in "Last Vegas" came from the lead characters being old, here it mostly comes from them being dumb - but not really dumb like "Dumb & Dumber" dumb - the characters are relatively street-smart, they're just clearly not as smart as the two priests they're impersonating, who are apparently theology experts who have written several books about the finer points of worship.  The humor comes from them not knowing how to say grace, how to give a sermon, or how to sing along with the Latin Mass.  I think if you're a hard-core Catholic, this becomes much funnier.

It got quite repetitive, though, each time the convicts got up enough nerve to try and cross the bridge - only to get nearly there, then realize some reason why they'd probably be turned away, so they'd give up once again.  I started to feel as frustrated as they probably were, to be so close to moving the plot along, only to fail once again with each attempt. 

I also wasn't sure if the "Weeping Madonna" was meant to be taken seriously, or was more of an indictment of religion in general, and those phony miracles and bogus relics specifically.  I mean, it was pretty obvious where the statue's tears were coming from - were the priests so into the whole miracle thing that they didn't understand the physics of it?  Or did they just have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of the miracle?  I don't doubt that people see images of Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches or the Virgin Mary on a foggy screen door, but I just question whether those things are there due to divine providence.  I mean, think of how many grilled cheese sandwiches people eat in a day, chances are good that an image of Jesus would get burned into one eventually. 

Also starring Sean Penn (last seen in "Gangster Squad"), Demi Moore (last seen in "Mortal Thoughts"), Hoyt Axton (last seen in "Disorganized Crime"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Bruno Kirby, Wallace Shawn (last seen in the FedEx office on 6th Ave. three weeks ago, but last seen in film in "Admission"), James Russo (last seen in "My Own Private Idaho"), Ray McAnally, Jay Brazeau, Ken Buhay.

RATING: 4 out of 10 5-dollar bills

Monday, April 27, 2015

Last Vegas

Year 7, Day 117 - 4/27/15 - Movie #2,017

BEFORE:  This is as far as I'd programmed after I came out of the Cary Grant chain - after I decided to tackle the Marx Brothers, then the Brando/Redford chain sort of came together on its own, and "Melvin and Howard" and "Goin' South" provided a couple of neat links to get here, which I've sort of identified as a "nexus" film - or perhaps "convergence" is a better term for it.  When a film doesn't have too many stars in it, that is to say stars that appear multiple times in the 165 films remaining on my list, then it's quite easy to link to.  "Downhill Racer" and "The Wild One" are great examples of films with just one or two repeating stars, so they're easy-in and easy-out, just stick them in the middle of two other films with that star.  But "Last Vegas" presented me with the opposite problem - too many stars. 

This is the last of three films with Mary Steenburgen, but which way to go from here?  There were four possible tracks to consider, and since I was seeking a consistent chain (or as close to it as possible) that could wind through all of my remaining films like some fabled Northwest Passage, I had to look at the overall picture to determine which track would work best.  God forbid I end up with a bunch of leftover unlinkable films at the end of the year.  After poring over the cast lists for hours, I came up with these choices: 

Track #1 - Michael Douglas - I picked up "Disclosure", which would be an easy link, of course Demi Moore's in that, leading to "Flawless" with Michael Caine, then "Sleuth".  But Michael Caine's also in a Christmas film, and I'm not ready for Christmas yet, so this track was out.  Of course, I could follow Jude Law out of "Sleuth", to "Anna Karenina", but let me put a pin in that option for now.

Track #2 - Robert De Niro - an easy leap to "We're No Angels", another film with Demi Moore - but I could avoid that dead end by slotting "Grudge Match" next, which would get me into a chain of 5 or 6 boxing films, but after about 2 or 3 films beyond that, I'd hit another dead end, the almost unlinkable film "Lust for Life".  Next.

Track #3 - Kevin Kline - he was also in the recent acquistion "The Conspirator", which also featured James McAvoy, and this could take me to "The Last King of Scotland" with Forrest Whitaker, which leads me to "Stakeout" with Richard Dreyfuss, then Marsha Mason via "The Goodbye Girl", and then via "The Cheap Detective" to Peter Falk, which sets up a whole Jack Lemmon chain.  This would seem to be a longer chain still, going about 18 or 20 films before running out around "Moulin Rouge".

Track #4 - Morgan Freeman - this also had some definite possibilities, since he's also in four other films left on the list - "Eyewitness", "Amistad", "The Lego Movie" and "Transcendence".  But watching those films together would be thematically all over the place, and I need a couple of those to serve as links between other films.  Still, "Transcendence" would get me to "The Astronaut's Wife", another few Charlize Theron films, "Nebraska", a few Vince Vaughn & Chris Pratt films that would include "Guardians of the Galaxy", but after about 12 films I'd hit another nexus, and have to decide between the Demi Moore track or the Sean Penn track.  If I followed the Sean Penn track I could see ahead for another 15 films, but in the end that's not really that far.  

I had to tear apart most of the list and put it back together in chunks of 3 and 4 films before I could see the best path, and it's the one that will link to "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on its opening weekend (assuming I can get a ticket), it happens to be Track #2 above, but I'm going to veer off before I hit the boxing films.  Then I managed to create a chain that included nearly everything left on the list (after exempting Halloween films and Christmas films) with just one big break.  Of course, this was two weeks ago, and I've added films since then, so the chain might need to split somewhere to work in the new films.  But I'll try not to re-organize the list until I get to the next nexus, which could be "The Monuments Men" or perhaps "A Million Ways to Die in the West".  Both of those have huge cast lists and create just too many linking opportunities.  

THE PLOT:  Three sixty-something friends take a break from their day-to-day lives to throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas for their last remaining single pal.

AFTER: Well, this is the sort of film you get a few years after "The Hangover" films makes a boatload of money.  Actually if you consider this a cross between "The Hangover" and "The Bucket List" you wouldn't be that far off.  But just as there are four linking tracks heading out of this film for me, there are almost four plotlines here, one for each character in the group of friends.  One is getting married for the first time to a younger woman, one is a widower who's mad at the world and barely leaves the house, one is a divorced man who's being cared for by an over-protective son, and one is a long-time
married man whose wife has given him a "free pass" for his Vegas weekend.  

With four such disparate characters, with four different outlooks and goals, it's a wonder that they're able to work together on anything.  Heck, it's a wonder that they're friends (in fact, two of them are holding a grudge) - but the friendship goes back to childhood, so as you might expect, they've grown into 4 different people in different situations.  The scenario may be realistic, but it tends to make for a film that's a little disjointed and "all over the place".  Which friend should I root for if they disagree?  Do I want to see a man succeed, if his goal is to cheat on his wife?  

Most of the humor comes at the expense of these characters' ages, and what you might expect to see if you bring them to the entertainment wonderland/ball of confusion that is Las Vegas.  The screenwriter would love it if you would try to forget that these are adults who have led full, rich lives and have experienced many things, so that you can consider them as babes in the woods, who suddenly have the opportunity to rediscover alcohol, beautiful women in bikinis, and barfights.  Just because they're old, that does NOT mean that they've been in comas for the past 20 or 30 years - is there no alcohol where they currently live?  No strip clubs, no casinos, no buffets?  Las Vegas simply does not have a monopoly on having a good time.

I may be 46, and well on my way to being a cranky old person, but I'm aware of what the kids are watching and listening to these days.  I may not like the modern music, but at least I know about it.  Someday I'll be sitting in a home somewhere, ranting about how the 1980's had the best music and the 1990's had the best video games.  I'm trying to get my wife to go out to Bingo on Saturday nights so we can start practicing for the future.  

Of course, this film also serves as a commercial for Vegas the city, as well as a particular casino whose name I won't mention, but I'm betting that the casino either charged the production company nothing to film there, or perhaps even ponied up some money, as long as the film showcased that casino's on-site chapel, penthouse suite (with a close-up shot of the computer control panel for the thermostat and curtains), Cirque du Soleil performers and daily 2 pm pool party with a bevy of bikini-clad girls.  Oh, and make sure to point out that the B-grade lounge singer is employed at that OTHER casino across town - it may take some massaging of the plot, but we'll make it worth your while.   Shameless.

Also starring Michael Douglas (last seen in "The China Syndrome"), Robert De Niro (last seen in "The Big Wedding"), Morgan Freeman (last seen in "Oblivion"), Kevin Kline (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), Jerry Ferrara (last seen in "Battleship"), Roger Bart, Joanna Gleason, Romany Malco, Bre Blair, Michael Ealy, April Billingsley, with cameos from Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Stefan "Redfoo" Gordy.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Red Bull & vodkas

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Goin' South

Year 7, Day 116 - 4/26/15 - Movie #2,016

BEFORE: Mary Steenburgen carries over from "Melvin and Howard", and I guess if I live by the linking, I die by the linking as well.  This film's only been on the list for about a month - I paired it on a DVD with "Jeremiah Johnson" - but since my Nicholson chain's been played out already, the only place to really put it is between two other Steenburgen films, so that moved it way up in the ranks.  On the other hand, films I'm anxious to watch, like "The Artist" and "12 Years a Slave" are now located near the far end of the list, thanks to that recent re-shuffling.  Oh, it would be so simple if I could just allow myself to watch whatever I wanted, in any order - but then on days when I had no strong inkling, I wouldn't know what to do.  Nope, the list remains in charge, there's a bigger plan here, even if I can't always see it.

THE PLOT: A horse thief is saved from the gallows when a woman needs a man to help her work her mine and marries him. The two begin to try to form a relationship based on necessity in which they have nothing in common.

AFTER: I'm tempted to point out that they don't make Westerns like this any more, except for the fact that they never made 'em like this one, umm, except for this one.  Sure, every film is a product of its time, and authenticity is relative, but if you make a Western today, you'd probably try to make sure that the characters of the 1860's wouldn't know anything that they didn't know then, or have access to electricity or flush toilets or the like - but this is Jack Nicholson of the 1970's, with all the craziness that implies, transplanted back to the 1860's.  Chronologically he's somewhere between "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Shining" - I suppose his character falls somewhere between those two performances as well.  (Sure, he was in at least one other Western, "The Missouri Breaks", but I'm sticking with my first impression.)

His character, Henry Moon, makes the mistake of stealing horses in the town of Convenient Plot Device, Texas, where any woman can save a man from being hanged if she agrees to marry him and thus reform him (theoretically) - supposedly this referendum was passed while most of the menfolk were off fighting in the Civil War, and women needed men to help with the farming.  The first woman who chooses him is an elderly one, and after removing his blindfold, I half expected Jack's character to request that the noose be put BACK around his neck.  

But he ends up with a younger woman who needs help with her gold mine, or should I say "lack of gold" mine - it's not really a gold mine until you find some.  Her interests are not romantic, but since he's a man, his are.  She's got to strike it rich before the railroad comes and seizes her land - making this only the twentieth or so Western I've seen where the railroad buying up land is a key plot point. ("Go West", both "Lone Ranger" films, etc. etc.)  I mean, I get that the steam train was a big deal back then, but there must have been some other shit going on too, right? 

A more cynical person might take issue with this film's depiction of marriage as a business deal, but an even more cynical person might agree that all marriages are business deals, at the end of the day.  Like Paul Simon sang, "Negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same."  I also appreciated the double meaning of the title, since Henry keeps planning to go south to Mexico, and the term also applies to his plans always tending to fall apart. 

Also starring Jack Nicholson (last seen in "Something's Gotta Give"), Christopher Lloyd (last heard in "Anastasia"), John Belushi (last seen in "Neighbors"), Richard Bradford (last seen in "The Chase"), Veronica Cartwright (last seen in "The Birds"), Danny DeVito (last seen in "Anything Else"), Tracey Walter, Ed Begley, Jr. (last seen in "Whatever Works").

RATING: 4 out of 10 apricots