Saturday, June 6, 2015

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Year 7, Day 157 - 6/6/15 - Movie #2,056

BEFORE: I'm up in Massachusetts for my annual trip to the Newport Chowderfest, an event which unfortunately suffered a dip in quality (or was it quantity?) last year.  This year they moved it to a new location, at Fort Adams State Park, however our fears were founded, as once again the number of participating restaurants was less than the year before - so my interest in next year's event is now in question.

Jeff Bridges carries over from "Starman", for the last time.  Any guesses who'll be carrying over into tomorrow's film?

THE PLOT:  With the help of an irreverent young sidekick, a bank robber gets his old gang back together to organize a daring new heist.

AFTER: A good follow-up to "Starman", because they're both road films in a way - Starman had to get from Wisconsin to Arizona, and here the two title characters have to drive up to Montana to find the money stolen from a robbery years ago.  Only one problem - the place where the money is hidden, well, it ain't there no more.  

Lightfoot (the "new kid" in the gang) has a simple solution - just repeat the original heist, only this time, don't hide the money.  Like the characters in this film, I can't decide if that's the best idea ever, or the stupidest.  Because the company that got ripped off before will never see it coming again - or will they?  

While planning the 2nd robbery, to raise funds for supplies, the gang members need to take on various odd jobs - which raises a bit of a question, namely if they could raise money that way, why not just keep doing that?  Because nothing's faster than bank robbery, I guess.  

This is sort of a riff on "Bonnie and Clyde", only without a woman in the gang, it's more like "Clyde and Clyde" - it took a while for the pieces to come together, but in the end, I'll allow it.  There were still some questionable items, like why did that guy have a raccoon in his car?  And even more weird things in the trunk...

Also starring Clint Eastwood (last seen in "Play Misty For Me"), George Kennedy (last seen in "Charade"), Geoffrey Lewis (last seen in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Catherine Bach, with cameos from Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, Dub Taylor. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 ice cream trucks

Friday, June 5, 2015


Year 7, Day 156 - 6/5/15 - Movie #2,055

BEFORE: Yesterday I checked my watchlist against a revised list of "The 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", something I haven't done in about three years, just to see how much progress I've made.  The writers of this book series update the list every year, and I found an accessible IMDB list of the 2014 edition's films.  Lots of changes in the last 3 years, which was bad news for recent hits like "The King's Speech", "Bridesmaids", "True Grit" and "The Descendents", and also "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Inglourious Bastards" are now conspicuously absent.  Alfred Hitchcock's legacy suffered with the removal of three films, "Sabotage", "Spellbound" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) - and Scorcese didn't fare well either, with both "Casino" and "The Departed" falling off.  But as if to prove my recent point about non-linear messes, "Jacob's Ladder" and "Naked Lunch" are no longer on the list, so I feel justified in trashing them.

This is all backwards progress for me, but the good news is that classics like "Wall Street", "Field of Dreams" and "Robocop" are now on the list, and "Boogie Nights" has been restored, after apparently falling out of favor a few years ago.  That, along with the addition of recent films like "Lincoln", "Gravity", "Life of Pi", "American Hustle" and "Django Unchained", gives me a boost back up to 369 films viewed, but I'm still down overall from where I was before.  Since there are a lot of foreign films that I'm not likely to view on the list, like "Farewell My Concubine" and "Cinema Paradiso", it's going to be hard for me to get to a nice round number like 400.  I've only got copies of 12 other films on the list, some classic films like "Harold & Maude", "The Thing" and "The Exorcist", and more recent films like "The Artist", "Nebraska" and "12 Years a Slave".  "The Wolf of Wall Street" is also now on the list of must-sees, but something tells me it's not going to be there for long.

Now, it's back to the films of 1984, with Jeff Bridges carrying over from "Against All Odds".  I've got a number of alien/body takeover films coming up, so I wondered if I should put them together or include them in the Halloween films, but I can't resist dropping this otherwise unlinkable film right between two other Jeff Bridges movies.

THE PLOT: An alien takes the form of a young widow's husband and asks her to drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona. The government tries to stop them.

AFTER: Just as the date of the release of "Arlington Road" was the key to understanding it with regards to terrorism, the release date of this film is also key - one year after "E.T." took the country by storm.  If you took the concept behind "E.T.", added in the quest/road trip element of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and filtered it through the relationship seen in  "Mork & Mindy" (woman frets wihile humanoid alien misunderstands human society), you'd have "Starman".  

I don't mean to belittle it, they were clearly trying to do a lot here with few resources, but the special effects are laughable by today's standards - the alien consciousness (or whatever it is) clones a woman's dead husband from a convenient hair sample in a scrapbook, and then grows from a baby on the living room floor to an adult in nothing flat, while home movies of the husband are conveniently playing on a screen, so he can quickly learn to mimic his speech.  

He also gains a quick knowledge of human firearms, which is great, because how else could he call "Shotgun!" on the road trip that he quickly plans.  He's got to get from Wisconsin to Arizona in three days, half-kidnapping the widow in her also-convenient dead husband's Mustang.  So, yeah, there's a big buy-in here because this guy figures things out so fast - but hey, maybe he studied on the long trip.  We did send that record into space a few years before with greetings in 47 languages, and the specs for how to build a record player.  

What's weird if that aliens do ever find that record on our Voyager spacecraft and come to Earth, they'll probably wonder why we don't listen to records any more - we'll be invaded by hipster aliens asking us to take them to the nearest record store so they can get the new album from Ambrosia or the Little River Band. There's a movie coming out later this summer, "Pixels", that's based on a similar concept, that we sent information about society out into space, and the aliens invade with ships based on 1970's video-game designs. That's fine, I suppose, but I think the record only had like, human language and whale-song on it, and not Pac-Man footage.

Anyway, the Starman has to get to Arizona for some reason, and the U.S. Military and a guy from S.E.T.I. is also tracking him, because they see him as a threat.  But why would he destroy a civilization that can produce chocolate malteds and Dutch apple pie?  That would be very short-sighted. 

This film was directed by John Carpenter, who also directed the 1982 version of "The Thing", which I'm saving for Halloween.  He reportedly modeled the structure of this film after classic road movies like "The 39 Steps" and "It Happened One Night".  And as the Starman flips channels in a motel, he watches a little bit of "From Here to Eternity", which had its beach scene ripped off for the poster for "Against All Odds", last night's film.  It's all connected, man...

Also starring Karen Allen (last seen in "The Perfect Storm"), Charles Martin Smith (last seen in "Speechless"), Richard Jaeckel (last seen in "The Dirty Dozen"), with cameos from Dirk Blocker, M.C. Gainey, Mickey Jones.

RATING: 4 out of 10 truck stops

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Against All Odds

Year 7, Day 155 - 6/4/15 - Movie #2,054

BEFORE:  Jeff Bridges carries over from "Arlington Road", and I've set the Wayback Machine for 1984 tonight.  I was busy being a 15 year old that summer, and I never got around to watching this one.  But I never would have appreciated it at the time, I'm thinking.

THE PLOT: A gangster hires an ex-football player to find his girlfriend. When he finds her, they fall in love, and the twists start to appear.

AFTER: Yeah, as a teen this would not have been my cup of tea.  Hell, I'm not even sure it's my cup of tea now that I'm an adult.  It's just a basic romance film, the scenery's kind of nice, since most of it is set on the Yucatan peninsula, and also the resort island of Cozumel in Mexico.  I was there as part of a honeymoon cruise, I remember riding in a bumpy jeep driven by another couple to a beach where we ate fish tacos.  The locals all drove used Volkswagens, because the replacement parts were so easy to get.  The scenery there is quite nice, and I think that's the only time I've been to Mexico - most years I just get really close by visiting San Diego.  

All I really knew about this film before tonight was the theme song, which was a blockbuster hit for Phil Collins back in 1984.  Those were the days when you could just shoot the singer in front of a basic microphone on a sparse set, throw in a bunch of clips from the movie the song appeared in, and call it a day.  In this case, I bet they took all the key moments from the film and put them in the video, creating a stronger narrative than the film itself has.  

The plot concerns a football player cut from the L.A. Outlaws, who takes a job tracking down a friend's girlfriend, who coincidentally is the daughter of the football team's owner.  He finds her pretty quickly, because the search, consisting of him showing her picture to everyone in Cozumel, isn't very cinematic.  But when he falls for her and they make love on beaches and ancient ruins, ah, that's a different story.  

There are hints of blackmail, betting scandals (Against All "Odds", I see what you did there...), and some kind of shady land deal, but nothing concrete really came together in the end, if you ask me.  Two people from different worlds have a romance in a vacation paradise, and then eventually the real world intrudes, making it difficult for them to continue their relationship.

It turns out this is really a remake of the 1947 film "Out of the Past", with a number of plot details changed.  That film starred Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, and was also about a man hired to find another man's girlfriend, who'd run off to Acapulco with $40,000.  The film's poster also seems to be a rip-off of the famous beach scene in "From Here to Eternity", so nearly everything here feels borrowed or lifted from someplace else - turns out you really can't re-create the film noir style in sunny Mexico in 1984.

Also starring Rachel Ward, James Woods (last seen in "Cat's Eye"), Alex Karras, Dorian Harewood (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Saul Rubinek (last seen in "Dick"), Swoosie Kurtz (last seen in "Slap Shot"), Richard Widmark (last seen in "Murder on the Orient Express"), Jane Greer, plus Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and "Tundra the Wonder Dog".  

RATING: 3 out of 10 tackling dummies

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Arlington Road

Year 7, Day 154 - 6/3/15 - Movie #2,053

BEFORE: You guessed it, Tim Robbins carries over this time, from "Jacob's Ladder".  And this will be the start of a 4-film chain with Jeff Bridges.  I can't help it, this is just how my brain wants to organize things.

THE PLOT: A college professor begins to suspect that his neighbor is a terrorist.

AFTER: So, it turns out that movies just can't win with me, I'm rather a tough critic.  If a film is all enigmatic and non-linear, like "Jacob's Ladder", I'll think "Why can't this film be more straight-forward and easy to understand?"  The very next day, when a film is a completely linear narrative, and essentially straight-forward, I'll think "Why can't this film be more symbolic and artistic?"  But to me, linear beats non-linear in the end, so this probably gets rated a bit higher than "Jacob's Ladder".  That goes against the conventional wisdom from most reviewers, but I stand by it. 

As the plotline says, this film is about a professor who teaches a course about terrorism, who starts to suspect his neighbor - but is it possible that he knows a bit too much about the subject?  When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.  So he's got this internal debate about whether he's reading the situation correctly, or chasing shadows. 

The FBI won't investigate this guy, or even tap his phones without probable cause.  Ha ha, that's almost funny considering what we now know about the ramifications of the Patriot Act.  Were we ever so naive to think that the FBI and NSA weren't tapping our phone conversations?  Or does 9/11 represent that much of a sea change, that before that day we couldn't imagine such a thing taking place, and afterwards, it just became par for the course?  

The timing of the film's release is significant, of course - 1999.  That's after the Oklahoma City bombing (referred to obliquely here, but with the city changed to St. Louis and the perpetrator's name changed as well) but before the World Trade Center.  So the events depicted here reflect the view and definition of terrorism at the time, which is that our borders were safe, but homegrown nutcases were still a problem.  

I'm seeing similarities to "The Life of David Gale", but I can't really go into detail without spoiling both plots.  I'll just say that they both touch on ways that the media tend to latch on to one narrative after some kind of incident, and this can affect the facts of the case, as most people see them.  If you stretch your imagination, it's easy to see how innocent men could be held accountable or found guilty in the court of public opinion, thanks to the media passing judgment before all of the facts are in.  Read up on Richard Jewell, who was a security guard at the time of the Atlanta bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics.  He was the man who found the bomb and was initially declared a hero, but after one newspaper revealed that the FBI was treating him as a possible suspect, the media focused on him and profiled him as a criminal, and it took months for him to be cleared.  

(There are similarities to another film with Jeff Bridges, "Blown Away", but I've already seen that one, I like it a lot.)

But anyway, back to the film - this one kept me guessing, and if I can say that about a film after I've watched over 2,000 films nearly in a row, I think that says a lot.

Also starring Jeff Bridges (last seen in "R.I.P.D."), Joan Cusack (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Hope Davis (last seen in "Hearts in Atlantis"), Robert Gossett, Mason Gamble, Spencer Treat Clark,

RATING: 6 out of 10 background checks

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Jacob's Ladder

Year 7, Day 153 - 6/2/15 - Movie #2,052

BEFORE: This time Matt Craven carries over from "The Life of David Gale", and I seem to have hit this run of "challenging" pictures, things on the dark side.  I've got some lighter fare scheduled later in the month, like a run of Jack Lemmon, but it's going to take a few weeks to get there. 

THE PLOT:  Mourning his dead child, a haunted Vietnam war veteran attempts to discover his past while suffering from a severe case of dissociation. To do so, he must decipher reality and life from his own dreams, delusion, and perception of death.

AFTER: This is one of those "What's really happening here?" films, and generally regarded as a masterpiece.  But I've seen films before that have tried to land in the same pocket, but failed outright.  Think "Angel Heart", "What Dreams May Come" or "Naked Lunch" - what separates this film from them?  When you set something in the dreamscape, or in the limbo between this world and the next, but it's not an outright horror film, I think you have to walk a very fine line.  

What I mean to say is, if there's one mistake in a film, like a jump-cut or an unexplained time shift, or maybe a character who died in reel 2 is seen walking around in the background in reel 4, that's just a "goof" - it gets listed in a section on IMDB, and everyone just shrugs and moves on with their lives.  If a film is riddled with things that don't make sense, sometimes it gets classified as a masterpiece.  I just want to know where the breaking point is, that's all.  We can't always discern the director's intent, right?  So is it possible that just through lack of follow-through, a plethora of continuity errors, someone could end up generating a work of art?  

Obviously, I don't think that's what's happening here.  But I do think there are both kinds of mistakes here, both intentional and unintentional, like the fact that some of the action is set in December in New York (one character mentions that Thanksgiving was a month ago), yet nobody is wearing a heavy jacket, the weather doesn't seem very cold, and everything is shot in sunlight with warm tones.  Is this a continuity error, or is it meant to imply that everything is really a fever dream, or that the main character is in hell (or at least in heck, where it's theoretically warm)?  

We're also presented with sequences set in Vietnam, and a V.A. hospital - two places that can be categorized as hell on earth, further breaking down the barriers between reality and nightmare.  (Some people might add the NYC subway scenes, or perhaps the chiropractic sessions as hellish scenarios, but to each his own, I guess.)  But then there is so much time-shifting, or perhaps reality-shifting, that I was reminded of "Slaughterhouse Five", the Vonnegut story where a man gets unstuck in time and jumps around within his own life.  

I think it's up to the individual viewer to decide if the "explanation" at the end justifies all that has come before - for me, it really didn't.  How am I supposed to discern the difference between a filmmaker being artsy and oblique in his attempt to peer behind the veil of consciousness, and someone who made a disjointed film that spiraled out of his control during production, and he hastily tried to fix it with by saying it's all a metaphor for things we don't understand?  The web says this has become a "cult classic", but that's a double-edged sword, I think.  "Donnie Darko" is a cult classic, but so is "Naked Lunch".  

Also starring Tim Robbins (last seen in "Cadillac Man"), Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello (last seen in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"), Pruitt Taylor Vince, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames (last seen in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"), Patricia Kalember, Macaulay Culkin, with cameos from Jason Alexander (last seen in "The Paper"), S. Epatha Merkerson (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Kyle Gass, Lewis Black, Becky Ann Baker (last seen in "The Night Listener"), 

RATING: 5 out of 10 baseball cards

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Life of David Gale

Year 7, Day 152 - 6/1/15 - Movie #2,051

BEFORE: Kevin Spacey pulls his own hat trick tonight and carries over from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil".  And like last night's film, he plays a character accused of murder. 

THE PLOT: A man against capital punishment is accused of murdering a fellow activist and is sent to death row.

AFTER: I kind of ruined this one for myself, and it has everything to do with the way I burn DVDs for my collection.  I simply have to make sure that the film copied well on to the disc, that there were no cable signal interruptions or emergency broadcast warnings that interfered with the dub, and that means sometimes I see something near the end of a film that reveals too much.  I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to spoilers. 

The film is largely a treatise against capital punishment, giving voice to the movement that states that if even one innocent man is put to death by mistake, the whole system would be proven wrong.  I think, however, that there were much easier ways to make that point.  For example, if you could find just one instance in the real world where you could prove that happened, and make a documentary about that, it would accomplish the same thing more strongly and more elegantly.

Instead, I'm left feeling manipulated by a fictional narrative, which has to contort itself, pretzel-like, around the facts of a man's life to bring about a similar result.  And just like with "Prime", a series of improbable events have to all occur in chain-like fashion, and three improbable events together often adds up to highly improbable, which is dangerously close to impossible.

There's also the way in which information is revealed here - it's not like "Memento", where there's a valid reason for information coming to light in bits and pieces, being connected to an investigation.  Here it's quite arbitrary, there are three days worth of interviews with the title character, and when the filmmakers feel that the audience has learned enough backstory, well, that's the end of that day.  It's not really a coincidence where the story breaks are, which itself is another form of manipulation.  We're only supposed to know certain things at certain times, and the end of each day's session ensures that. 

I can't say any more without giving away the whole plot here, which I'm averse to doing.

Also starring Kate Winslet (last seen in "Revolutionary Road"), Laura Linney (last seen in "Primal Fear"), Gabriel Mann (last seen in "The Bourne Supremacy"), Matt Craven, Leon Rippy (also carrying over from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Rhona Mitra (last seen in "Stuck on You"), Melissa McCarthy (last seen in "The Kid"), Elizabeth Gast, Cleo King.

RATING: 4 out of 10 picket signs

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Year 7, Day 151 - 5/31/15 - Movie #2,050

BEFORE: I'm halfway through the year, with 150 films watched and 150 to go - however, there are still 154 films on the watchlist so I'm going to have to start trimming, without interrupting the chain.  Any film that doesn't link to another film may now find itself on the 2016 calendar.  Kevin Spacey carries over from "Henry & June", and I'm back on the crime beat.

THE PLOT: A visiting city reporter's assignment suddenly revolves around the murder trial of a local millionaire, whom he befriends.

AFTER: Moving from 1931 Paris to modern-day Savannah, Georgia, and things haven't changed all that much.  Both cities have a secret side to them, places where the rich people can indulge themselves and the old gender roles don't apply.  But perhaps this represents a sea change, because it's a film from 1997 that shows gay people as part of society, (even high society) and they're not the weirdest people in town.  I didn't read the book this was based on, but I'm going to check the Wikipedia page and the IMDB trivia to see where the movie and the book differ.

For example, there's a guy who walks an invisible dog, which is really just a leash with a wire in it, so it doesn't touch the ground.  Another guy takes flies (presumably dead ones, although perhaps in the film they just couldn't do this effect with live ones) and ties them to strings so they'll appear to fly around his body.  What's the point of doing this?  It's never really explained.  Does he want to create the visual appearance of someone who smells bad?   The same guy also carries around a vial of poison, and he keeps saying that one day he's going to pour it into the water supply of the town, but he never gets around to it.  What's worse, the fact that nobody in town takes him seriously or tries to stop him, or the fact that this is a plot thread that never goes anywhere?  It's brought back a second time during the trial, but nope, never goes anywhere that time either.  

(Ah, it seems like the film dropped some of the characters from the book, and condensed some of the others into composite characters.  Seems they managed to keep the personality quirks that were the most pointless.)  

There are a lot of loose threads here, plotwise - the voodoo woman in the cemetery is another great example of killing time, spinning wheels without a real destination.  She was supposed to put a curse on the district attorney, or something, but that never really happened.  Or did it?  Then she came back at the end because she felt that justice had not been served.  How seriously should I take this character, who claims to speak for the dead and have some kind of second-sight, but appears to talk in riddles or nonsense?  

All this makes the movie extra-long, at 2 1/2 hours - hey, did you know "Law & Order" can do a murder trial in an hour, and that's with commercials?  And I'm sure that the "SVU" series has covered gay and transgender issues more seriously and in much shorter time-frames as well.  I could deal with an extra-long film if it felt more worthwhile, if the pieces came together better and it all added up to something, but that just doesn't feel like the case here.

It looks like artists and writers are both recurring themes this year - I'll deal with this all in the wrap-up, but I can't help but notice that paintings and sculptures have popped up in "The Monuments Men", "Prime", and I've got more art stuff coming up.  Writers have been portrayed in this year's films like "Young Adult", "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "Something's Gotta Give", "Girl Most Likely", "Roman Holiday", "The Great Gatsby", "The Night Listener" and of course "Henry & June" - Hollywood just loves making movies about writers.  

But that fact that the main character is a writer raises some questions here - the accused killer invited the writer to Savannah in the first place, ostensibly to write an article about his infamous Christmas parties. He just happens to choose THAT night to shoot someone, knowing full well that the writer was in town?  It seems like a strange coincidence, or else he acted with premeditation, thinking about the inevitable book deal if he did something salacious enough.  I suppose that's debatable.

Also starring John Cusack (last seen in "The Butler"), Jude Law (last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Irma P. Hall (last seen in "Patch Adams"), Alison Eastwood, Jack Thompson (last seen in "The Great Gatsby"), Lady Chablis, Paul Hipp, Bob Gunton (also last seen in "Patch Adams"), Richard Herd, Kim Hunter (last seen in "A Streetcar Named Desire"), Geoffrey Lewis (last seen in "Heaven's Gate"), Leon Rippy, with cameos from Michael Rosenbaum, Patrika Darbo, Gary Anthony Williams, James Gandolfini (last seen in "Enough Said").

RATING: 5 out of 10 Johnny Mercer songs