Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Swan Princess

Year 7, Day 234 - 8/22/15 - Movie #2,128

BEFORE: I've got the same linking problem again today, things very nearly came to a dead end again, but I still have an out - John Cleese carries over from "A Liar's Autobiography", but I have to move from adult-themed animation to more kiddie-oriented fare.  I think it's fairly obvious that I was hoping for more films with Benedict Cumberbatch, like "The Imitation Game" or even "The Penguins of Madagascar", which would have been a perfect lead-in to this (mostly) bird-oriented animation chain.  But those films aren't available to me yet, so I had to devise another path out from those "Hobbit" films.

THE PLOT: A power hungry sorcerer transforms a princess into a swan by day in this tale of everlasting love.

AFTER: This film represents an attempt made in 1994 to "Disney-fy" a classic story, the ballet "Swan Lake".  It got buried at the box office by Disney's re-release of "The Lion King", so either Disney perceived this film as a financial threat, or just wanted to take out some revenge on any animators who jumped ship to work for another company.  Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong.  They killed almost every Don Bluth film by programming against them, and I was ready to believe that this was a Bluth film too, because some of the palace soldiers look suspiciously like Dirk from the "Dragon's Lair" videogame - and Bluth had a reputation for having too many cartoon animals in a human-based story, which also happens here. 

The problem was, by the time that other companies got their act together duplicating Disney films, the House of Mouse had already moved on to the next level, having released "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin" and "Lion King", while this most resembles a combination of "Cinderella" and the Disney film I'll get to tomorrow.  

It's a valiant effort to make the plot of "Swan Lake" accessible for kids, but I think there's only so much that you can do - doing a side-by-side of the two plots, it's clear they felt that they had to go with the alternate ending, because the original one just won't make the kids feel happy - and thus begins the process of forcing every story to end with "happily ever after", which comforts kids in the short term, but does nothing to prepare them for the real world.  

They also had to monkey a lot with the introductory story - in the ballet, Odette is the queen swan who transforms into a human girl, and here she's a human girl, raised to marry Derek, who gets turned into a swan and has to find her way back to human.  The spell is overly complicated as well, it seems like she's a swan most of the time, except she's a woman when the moon sets, or the sun goes behind a cloud, and gets alternate Thursdays off, or something.  A lot of the details were missing, and the villain's motivations were really confusing.  Plus, a NITPICK POINT: the moon doesn't always appear at night, or rise and fall at regular daily times, though for convenience's sake, the fairy-tale moon seems to always shine at night, as if it's always opposite the sun, and both orbit the earth.  

Like, why does the villain need to marry the princess to get the kingdom?  If he's such a powerful sorcerer, why can't he just take what he wants?  Why go through such a convoluted spell turning her into a swan just to get her consent - there must be a better strategy to get what he wants.  Same goes for the deception at the ball, transforming the hag to look like Odette, just to get the Prince to swear a vow to her.  It's that old bugaboo about how the devil has to trick people to signing things away voluntarily, so in the end you question just how powerful the devil really is.  

If anything, evil Count Rothbard resembles a Bond villain here, in that he'll lock someone up in a castle but then leave and conveniently not notice that there's a hole in the wall that could enable a rescue attempt.  It was also very odd that Rothbard's singing voice didn't match his speaking voice at all - I can understand that not every actor is a singer, but if you're going to have two people playing the same character, their voices have to at least be close.  Rothbard's song, "No More Mr. Nice Guy" is probably the highlight of this film, it's the closest they come to matching the madcap, irreverent tone seen in films like "Aladdin".

There are many other things that sort of get glossed over, like story shortcuts - why does Odette miss Derek, but not her father or anyone else?  What leads Derek to believe that Odette is alive, when everyone else believes she's dead?  And why does he think that practicing hunting is going to help bring her back?  I could go on and on...

Also starring the voices of Jack Palance (last seen in "Treasure Island"), Howard McGillin, Michelle Nicastro, Sandy Duncan, Steven Wright (last seen in "Speechless"), Steve Vinovich, Mark Harelik (last seen in "42"), Dakin Matthews, Joel McKinnon Miller. 

RATING: 3 out of 10 summer visits

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Liar's Autobiography

Year 7, Day 233 - 8/21/15 - Movie #2,127

BEFORE: Surprisingly, the third "Hobbit" film was very nearly a dead end for me.  Even with a cast of 13 dwarves, 5 elves, 3 wizards, 1 dragon, and thousands of orcs, it shared NO actors with anything else on my list, until this film fell into my possession.  I've got no more Martin Freeman films, no more Ian McKellen films, no Cate Blanchett films, nothing with Orlando Bloom or even Hugo Weaving.  So, on to the 2nd tier - Stephen Fry carries over from both "Hobbit" films, providing the voice of Oscar Wilde in this animated film.

THE PLOT: An animated, factually incorrect biography of Graham Chapman, one of the founding members of the comedy group Monty Python.

AFTER: Really, this is my sneaky way of getting some Monty Python into my watchlist - I'd seen just about every Python film out there before starting this process, and they're not really making more films together as a group, so this is as close as I can get.  Chapman recorded himself reading his autobiography aloud before he died, because it's much more difficult to do that sort of thing after, and a production company made this film to go with the audio tracks, with many voices provided by nearly all of the other members of the troupe.  

Whether the film is 100% accurate about Chapman's life is not really the point - no one remembers their past accurately, anyway, and Chapman's no longer around to confirm or deny anything, so it's more of a challenge to capture his spirit rather than quibble over this minor detail or that.  

It's great to see that not even death is taken seriously by the Pythons - I remember a few years ago they gathered for a round of publicity appearances connected with a documentary series about them, and they'd taken to appearing on stage with an urn that supposedly contained Chapman's ashes, and eventually someone would trip and knock the urn over and spread the ashes all over, making a huge mess.  

Obviously, I'm a huge fan of these 6 guys, in and out of the Monty Python group, and I've had the pleasure of meeting three of them over the years at various book signings in Manhattan (Gilliam, Cleese and Palin), but I never met Chapman.  Chapman was the only "out" member of the group, he was gay way back in the 1960's, before it was acceptable, and then passed away in 1989, before it became fashionable.  One can only hope that he really enjoyed himself in the span in-between.

At a time when the stereotype was that gay people were not capable of forming commitments, which honestly is regarded as just so silly these days, Chapman had a long-term partner, David Sherlock, and together they adopted a troubled teen as their son - and this was in 1971, way before most gay people had the legal rights to do things like that.  But then Chapman started giving interviews during which he referred to sex as "something very fun for two or more people to do, provided they are both clean, and it doesn't lead to procreation" the gay rights groups probably said something along the lines of "Thanks very much, but please stop helping us." 

Chapman did speak about his relationships with women, some of which were sexual, but when he took stock of the number of people in public that he was attracted to, he felt it was somewhere around 70% men and 30% women.  Most people of any orientation just aren't that self-aware, so kudos to Graham for figuring himself out.  Even to this day, people who are bi-sexual are fairly misunderstood, even among gay people who wish that they'd just make up their minds already and get off the damn fence.  

The 1970's were truly a different time - and in some ways it seems like it was a more liberating time, there was more acceptance, but in some ways it also seems like there was more ignorance.  I mean, think about New York or London in the swinging 70's, before AIDS, before herpes - places like that, it was like anything goes, right?  But there was so much people didn't understand about what it meant to be gay, or what it meant to feel like a woman in a man's body, or a man who wants to wear a dress, they were just lumped together as deviants, or called "poofs" (Chapman's word, not mine).  Chapman even threw himself a "coming-out" party, only to have one or two of the other Pythons try to convince him that he was mistaken about himself, that he didn't "fit the profile".  

Now, the film itself has some rather adult moments, which I know freaks out some people, who think that all animation should be made for kids 13 and under, and there's simply no place for sex in a cartoon.  Bollocks, pure bollocks.  I've spent two decades working for an animator who draws sex scenes all the time, and even though it's sometimes a tough sell in America, his films do just fine in other countries, where they don't have the same hang-ups.  Think about Japanese animation, with all their tentacle porn and characters who change genders back and forth - they're light-years ahead of us on the adult animation front.  

Besides, would you rather have your kid looking at cartoon breasts, or the real thing?  They've got to grow up and get used to them sooner or later, and women in Europe walk around topless all the time, and kids there eventually get used to seeing that, and then it's no big deal.  I think in our repressed American society we try to shield kids from seeing nudity, and this creates teens who become sexually desperate, and they can't wait to become sexually active at any cost, usually before they're ready.  Or we create a generation of repressed, overly horny men who become dangerous and possibly abusive - if only they'd been eased into sexual maturity, like through animation, so they wouldn't go crazy upon turning 16, or led to feel like their sexual desires were dirty or somehow wrong.

We've got a situation now in NYC where there are "topless" women walking around Times Square, posing with tourists among the various superheroes and Sesame St. characters - and the Daily News headline read, "Topless women defile Times Square".  Believe me, if you knew Times Square during the 1970's or 1980's, you'd have seen a lot more than just a couple of titties.  But right there, they used the word "defile", which clearly shows a bias against the beautiful female form - why not "Topless women ENHANCE Times Square" or "Topless women BRIGHTEN UP Times Square"?  Why does the news always have to be so damn negative?  

Plus, a few points: A) These women are NOT topless, they're wearing body paint.  From a very basic technical point of view, there is a layer of paint on top of their breasts, so they are not exposing themselves.  B) Even if they WERE topless, which they are not, women do have a legal right to go topless in public in NYC - this was established years ago by activists who pointed out that if a man can walk around without a shirt, then legally, so can a woman.  C) If anyone is breaking the law in Times Square, it's people dressed like Batman or Elmo who are not paying anything to DC Comics/Time Warner or Children's Television Workshop for the legal right to dress as those characters.  In fact, the "topless" women have even more of a right to be posing with tourists for tips, because they're not violating any copyrights, they're simply being their own attractive (presumably) selves.  D) If you make topless women posing for tips illegal, you HAVE to also make walking around as Batman or Elmo posing for tips illegal too - you can't mandate what constitutes street art, and what doesn't - it's completely subjective. 

I just don't want to live in a world where we make naked women illegal - I can't even imagine it.  If you don't want your kids to see naked boobies, maybe don't bring them to Times Square?  Plus, you can't keep sheltering them!  Would you rather your son sees his first pair of naked breasts in a magazine, or out in the open streets, where he can be allowed to feel that it's maybe OK to look at some tits?  He's got to be allowed to experience these things as part of his maturation process, or the first pair of tits he sees will be on the dead hooker that he has to carve up.  Your call.  (That's what Freud believed, anyway...)

Anyway, see this film, unless you're a prude or a prick who can't condone images of gay sex.  Because after a while, nearly everything becomes a metaphor for gay sex.  I was telling someone the other day about those old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercials from the 1970's where one person would be walking down the street eating a chocolate bar, and another person would be walking down the street with an open jar of peanut butter (because that's what you did back then, I guess) and they'd bump into each other on the corner, with the bar of chocolate ending up in the jar of peanut butter, and I guess maybe I wasn't describing it very well, because it started to sound a little sexual and maybe a bit perverse.  Hey, you got your "chocolate bar" in my "jar of peanut butter"!  (See what I mean?) But hey, that's how candy bars were created, and maybe how love connections were made.

It's a bit disjointed because the style of animation changes every four or five minutes, but that's probably a necessity of the process.  It takes much too long to make a complete animated feature in just one style (trust me on this one) so the trend now is to make these feature-length "mash-ups" where different animators handle small segments, and they all get edited together.  There's a feature based on Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" out in theaters right now, made by the same principle, with 6 or 7 different animators who each supplied segments that were 5 or 6 minutes long.  

It's great to hear the classic Monty Python song "Sit on My Face" again, but, really, they overused it. It's heard in this film about 6 or 7 times, and thus loses its shock value and most of its effectiveness.

Also starring the voices of Graham Chapman, John Cleese (last heard in "The Big Year"), Terry Jones, Michael Palin (last heard in "Arthur Christmas"), Terry Gilliam (last seen in "George Harrison: Living in the Material World"), Carol Cleveland, Cameron Diaz (last seen in "My Best Friend's Wedding"), Lloyd Kaufman, with cameos from Eric Idle, David Frost.

RATING: 5 out of 10 wrestling moves

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Year 7, Day 232 - 8/20/15 - Movie #2,126

BEFORE:  This one's a no-brainer, since nearly the entire cast carries over from the 2nd film in the I finish off one of the biggest non-Star Wars sci-fi/fantasy franchises.  I also may have picked up a second job, working part-time for a long-time friend who's also an animator, so I can go back up to a five-day work schedule again.  Plus I bought $60 worth of comic books for $20, thanks to a gift card I won playing trivia on Monday and my store credit kicking in - so that's a pretty good day all around, from a geek's point of view.

THE PLOT: Bilbo and company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the Lonely Mountain from falling into the hands of a rising darkness. 

AFTER: Much of the online Haterade directed at this film seems to come from the Tolkien purists, people who can't see the need to give a wood-elf a name, or to turn that elf female in order to set up a love triangle.  Transferring any work from book to screen is going to involve changes, some necessary and some not, but that all falls under the purview of the director, who may see opportunities to make things more cinematic.  

Comparisons to the "Star Wars" franchise were inevitable, I suppose, since both series started with episodes 4, 5 and 6 and then went back in time to reveal episodes 1, 2, and 3.  And in both cases there was a need in episode 3 to get every character (among those that survived, that is) where they needed to be in for episode 4, where they'd presumably just stand in one place and twiddle their thumbs for 15 years waiting for the events in question to unfold.  

I didn't recall much about the Battle of Five Armies from Tolkien's novel, and that's because not much happened in the book after they dealt with Smaug, other than divvying of treasure and making plans to return to the Shire to wait for Frodo (and an oak tree) to mature.  Said battle was only 1/2 of one chapter in Tolkien's book, and Peter Jackson expanded that out to HALF of this film.  Why?  Because wars look great on film, that's why.  

Debate also rages online about the identity of the five armies, since in the book it was elves, dwarves, men of Lakewood, orcs and wargs.  In this film the orcs ride on wargs, and wargs don't talk, so they can't qualify as a separate army - so it's elves, dwarves, men of Lakewood, orcs and... wait, do the eagles count?  Because if the eagles count as an army on the good side, then you've got to count the bats as an army on the bad side, right?  So that's 6?  And there are two armies of orcs, so should we count them twice?  

Regardless of all that, it's an epic visual battle.  This makes up for most of the film being dragon-less, there's WAY more Smaug in the 2nd film than the 3rd film.  So to make up for the fact that this film is batting clean-up, now it really makes sense to have given a few orcs names and personal vendettas against Thorin Oakenshield, because here's where all that pays off.  Again, it's a case where small details become turning points, small turning points become epic moments of great change.  Each little battle between THIS dwarf and THAT orc becomes super-important, but who's to say it shouldn't be that way?  Maybe Tolkien tossed away a great opportunity by just saying "Oh, yeah, and then the battle happened.  That guy died somewhere along the way."  Why aren't we harping on J.R.R. for not giving us a proper play-by-play?  

Before that, there's a bit about "dragon sickness" that seems to have pissed a few people off as well.  There are two ways to look at it - maybe the treasure that a dragon slept on and under for hundreds of years really does get tainted, and makes people act all crazy, or maybe dwarves are just inclined to get greedy when surrounded by extreme amounts of shiny things, and "dragon sickness" is just a euphemism, because calling out a whole group of people for acting a certain way seems a bit like Middle Earth racism.  

It's also the shortest of Peter Jackson's 6 Middle Earth films, clocking in at just 2 hours and 24 minutes. I'm sure there will be a longer version released on DVD, but it does suggest that he exercised at least a little restraint here.  Can't he even get credit for that?

Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Sylvester McCoy, Richard Armitrage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, John Bell, Mikael Persbrandt (all last seen in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"), Hugo Weaving (last seen in "Cloud Atlas"), Christopher Lee (last seen in "Hamlet"), Ian Holm (last seen in "A Life Less Ordinary"), Billy Connolly (last seen in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events").

RATING: 8 out of 10 were-worms

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Year 7, Day 231 - 8/19/15 - Movie #2,125

BEFORE: I know that Benedict Cumberbatch provided the voice of the dragon Smaug in this film, so that allows him to carry over from "The Fifth Estate" and lets me FINALLY get to this film.  It's been over a year and a half since I watched the first "Hobbit" film - that's the chance you take when you rely on the linking the way I do.  It took me so long to get here that HBO is now running the THIRD film, but at least that will enable me to watch this one and that one back to back.

THE PLOT:  The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (Movie #1,622)

AFTER: Well, I have to say this worked out rather well.  When I watched the first "Hobbit" film, it was right after "Jack, the Giant-Slayer", and there was a thematic connection with giants in both films.  The second Hobbit film features beasties like spiders and bears, and I watched spiders last week in "Microcosmos" and bears in "Bears" and "Grizzly Man".  Barring the Cumberbatch connection, that's about an appropriate lead-in as I could hope for.

My review of the first "Hobbit" film was a little love/hate, where I operated as both a huge fan and a huge nitpicker, and that will probably be the tone of today's review also.  Let's start with another unnecessary framing sequence, one that details how Gandalf met Thorin Oakenshield and formed an alliance, one night in a pub in Bree.  Well, the first Hobbit film left off with the Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf within sight of the Lonely Mountain, so why can't we just pick up the story there?  Why do we need to go BACK and show how these two met, it simply adds nothing to the story.  Who cares? 

Next debate, the addition of the elves Legolas and Tauriel as (nearly) active members of the party.  I can see how this sets up the Legolas + Gimli connection for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (everyone knows that Gloin is Gimli's father, right?) and it's nice to see some gender equality with a female elf who's just as good with a bow and arrow as Legolas is, but in the end, how necessary are they?  Can Peter Jackson genuinely prove that they help advance the plot, or are they just story extenders?  Because on the one hand, Tauriel's addition leads to the unlikely, unholy possible romance between a dwarf and an elf, but on the other hand, their addition brings about one of the best action sequences in the movie, when the dwarves are riding barrels down the river, surrounded by orcs.  Seriously, Legolas like rides on top of two guys HEADS while he spears multiple orcs with the same arrow, then jumps on shore and he's like EVERYWHERE at once taking down other orcs, while the dwarves chop down a log full of orcs over the river by passing a hatchet back to the next barrels in line, with each dwarf taking a swing in turn.  It's totally awesome, and I could watch that sequence over and over - words can't possibly describe.  

If you're a Tolkien purist, you can get mad about additions and changes that Jackson made - but really, there's no point.  Jackson has the type of creative control over cinematic Middle Earth that George Lucas used to have over the Star Wars universe, or that Joss Whedon now has over the Avengers universe.  In the end you just sort of have to surrender yourself to it, like a small child in the back seat of a car, and essentially say, "Well, Daddy's driving..." and even though you're groggy and you don't know where exactly you are, you feel secure, knowing you're ultimately going to get home OK.

The only other beefs come as a result of this "prequelitis", having turned the shortest Tolkien book into three movies instead of one, thanks to some sort of Middle-Earth equivalent of Hamburger Helper.  As a result, every little detail becomes a plot point, every plot point becomes a major sequence, every sequence from the book becomes, like one-third of a film.  Seriously, every time a character DROPS something (no lie) it becomes a thing, an issue, a turning point.  Enough already, it was just a dwarf dropping a tobacco pouch, who cares?  

But honestly, the action sequences are SO well done, I almost don't care.  I'm thinking specifically of Smaug, who pretty much steals the movie after being introduced.  A talking, thinking giant dragon who lives in a hollow mountain full of treasure?  Damn, I'm sold.  And then the fight between the dwarves and Smaug, so well-planned, so well-executed, I don't even care if it was in the book or not.  I don't care that a 2 hour 40 min. film only covers SIX chapters from Tolkien's book.  OK, I guess I kind of do, but really, you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound on these films.  I think we all know where I stand. 

Also starring Martin Freeman (last seen in "The World's End"), Ian McKellen (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Orlando Bloom (last seen in "Troy"), Evangeline Lilly (last seen in "Real Steel"), Lee Pace (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Luke Evans (last seen in "Immortals"), Stephen Fry (last seen in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"), Ryan Gage (last seen in "Judge Dredd"), Sylvester McCoy (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Richard Armitrage (ditto), Ken Stott (ditto), Graham McTavish (ditto), William Kircher (ditto), Stephen Hunter (ditto), Dean O'Gorman (ditto), Aidan Turner (ditto), John Callen (ditto), Peter Hambleton (ditto), Jed Brophy (ditto), Mark Hadlow (ditto), Adam Brown (ditto), James Nesbitt (last seen in "Match Point") with cameos from Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Monuments Men"), Stephen Colbert, Peter Jackson.

RATING: 8 out of 10 dwarf furnaces

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Fifth Estate

Year 7, Day 230 - 8/18/15 - Movie #2,124

BEFORE: Coming out of the documentary chain, back into narrative films, and this Assange guy got name-checked during "Citizenfour", so I feel justified that I'm staying on theme with this one.  Again, I'm falling back on the fact that I've been kind of busy over the last couple of years, so it's a good time to catch up on this whole Wikileaks news story.  What was the deal with that, again?

Barack Obama made an appearance in "Citizenfour", and he's on the IMDB list for this one, too - so linking is back on, and archive footage of real people counts. 

THE PLOT: A dramatic thriller that reveals the quest to expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned an Internet upstart into the 21st century's most fiercely debated organization.

AFTER: We've definitely entered a new era, one where the existence of the internet has killed movies, more or less, and I'm not even talking about piracy.  I'm talking about a time where it's acceptable for the "action" in a film to take place mostly in cyberspace.  But it's not that cool cyberspace that we all saw in "The Matrix", it's just a place where people post documents and then other people read them.  It's like "Facebook: the Movie" even though I realize it's probably a bit more relevant than that.  (NOTE: I'm not on Facebook, though I have to spend time there for work reasons - from what I can tell, simply everyone is convinced their child is special or attractive, and they simply can't all be right.)  

Here's what used to be exciting about movies - secret agents struggling to get files on to a hard drive, and then delivering that drive in spectacular fashion, via a car chase with lots of explosions or something, back to the embassy in the nick of time.  Here's what's not exciting about today's movies: pages and pages of documents opening on a screen, pressing buttons on a keyboard so that files will be uploaded on a server, the excitement of refreshing a browser, or watching completion bars fill rapidly.  Ooooooh - it's like someone turned my office computer into a thriller!  But it gets worse - watching people agonize over moral decisions regarding redacting classified information is just not cinematic enough.  Please, for the love of God, more show and less tell!  

Journalists, government officials, hackers all swarming around, trying to convince me that what I'm watching is important - maybe it is, but if so, then you shouldn't have to oversell it.  Lack of action in a film could possibly be overcome by great acting, but it was hard for me to determine what was acting and what was just an accent.  I do feel like I know more about Julian Assange than I did before, but he was still sort of presented as a mystery wrapped in an enigma outside a crunchy moral dilemma center.  I get that he stands for getting information out, but does he ultimately want to save the world or watch it burn?  

I'm a little confused about why someone would start a web-site to protect whistle-blowers before he actually knew of any, why the process existed before there was a need for it - that would be a bit like building an 8-lane highway before someone invented cars.  Was it like that ballpark in "Field of Dreams", if you build it, they will come?

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (last seen in "August: Osage County"), Daniel Brühl (last seen in "Joyeux Noel"), David Thewlis (last seen in "RED 2"), Peter Capaldi (last seen in "World War Z"), Alicia Vikander, Laura Linney (last seen in "A Simple Twist of Fate"), Anthony Mackie (last seen in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), Stanley Tucci (last seen in "The Devil Wears Prada"), Alexander Siddig (last seen in "Syriana"), Carice Van Houten, with cameos from Hillary Clinton, Brian Williams, 

RATING: 4 out of 10 chat messages 

Monday, August 17, 2015


Year 7, Day 229 - 8/17/15 - Movie #2,123

BEFORE: The last day of my documentary chain - it's been a week and a half, and I feel like I learned a lot, so maybe I'll do this sort of thing again next year.  Honestly it's a relief to not have to link actors, and to schedule films thematically rather than both thematically AND via shared actors.  I think my linking's going to run out when I hit October anyway, so the pressure will be off then - next year (if I do another Big Year) I can just watch whatever I want, in whatever order I see fit. 

If I'm being honest, the hardest part about watching these docs was coming up with a fair rating - with narrative films, that's quite easy, I just ask myself, "How much did I enjoy this story?" and feel around for a number from 1 to 10.  But with the documentaries, what am I judging?  Am I deciding how I feel about the people being profiled, or the activity that they engage in, or the way in which the information was presented to me, or something else?  I mean, the events depicted in "Grizzly Man" really happened, and I was never meant to "enjoy" them, so my rating scale just isn't equipped to handle these films, I feel.

THE PLOT: A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.

AFTER: Ah, it would appear that I now owe Edward Snowden an apology.  Maybe even lunch the next time he's back in town - er, back in the U.S.  Here I lumped him in with liars, cheaters and crazy nutbags, and he doesn't seem to be anything like that.  The way this film portrays him, he seems more like the guy who works at Geek Squad who's happy to tell you, at length, why your internet password isn't strong enough.  

Here's where I think I went wrong - I tend to avoid real news outlets, except the Sunday NY Daily News, and I read that mostly for the TV listings.  Outside of that, calling that paper "news" is a bit like calling cotton candy food - technically correct, but no nutritional value.  So in the past few years, I've gotten most of my news from Stewart & Colbert, plus Letterman & Ferguson monologues and SNL's "Weekend Update".  By the time the news about Snowden had filtered down to those outlets, there was enough comedy attached that it didn't really qualify any more, and everyone was on to making fun of him living in the Moscow airport for a month.  Details of what he had done to be labelled a fugitive, and why he'd done it, seemed a bit tangential, and I didn't have time to research.  

And somehow in that process, I sort of glossed over the fact that the NSA is listening to every phone conversation we have, and reading every e-mail.  No, no, don't try to tell me that they're only using their search tools to identify potential terrorists, because that's some real "Minority Report" stuff, and we don't want to go down that road of arresting people who MIGHT be up to no good, and stopping them before they do it, which would be punishing people for having not done something yet, and that way lies madness.  

No, I'm talking about the fact that we're apparently living in a world where simply everything we do or say is being logged and recorded (duh, it's called Twitter and Facebook) and preserved and stored by the government.  Oh, sure, it's a complete violation of our personal privacy, but think of the upside - if you can't remember the name of that great hotel you stayed at on vacation last year, and you can't check your e-mail because of an accident with the server, the U.S. government's got you covered.  They've archived all of your old e-mails, just in case of an emergency like that.  Just fill out a Freedom of Information form, submit it at your local post office or DMV, and in just 27 short weeks, someone will contact you to deny everything.  Or, if your job's getting you down and you really need a break, just say the word "terrorist" into your cel phone, and a friendly bunch of G-Men will pull up to your door, and whisk you away to beautiful Guantanamo Bay.  Don't forget your swimsuit, you'll need it during the waterboarding.  

Anyway, back to Snowden, charged with two counts of espionage by the Feds, plus theft of government property for revealing that the NSA had the technical ability to spy on anyone, anywhere without consent, thanks to the Patriot Act and similar legislation.  Now, you may count Snowden as a hero, because the thing he revealed the government was doing was not only illegal, it was something they'd denied doing, again and again.  (Sounds like they took a page from Lance Armstrong's playbook...)  But that doesn't matter - because it turns out that revealing government secrets is STILL against the law, even if the public had a right or a need to know about this, and even if said secrets reveal massive malfeasance or impropriety.  Most people don't realize this about the Espionage Act, but way down the bottom of one of the riders, in a footnote, it clearly states that if someone being charged with espionage tries to defend themselves in court, they'll automatically lose.

I think the prior administration had already determined that most Americans were willing to give up some (SOME, not all...) of their privacy in exchange for better national security - but why is it an either/or proposition?  Why can't we have both national security AND personal privacy?  Because we're living in the internet age, that's why, so if you want to keep the ability to Google whatever you want (and you know you do, you sick bastards...) then maybe you've got to extend that same right to the federal government.  Only when they say they're going to "Google" you, it means they can run a check on your credit card and your subway transit card and your Kindle to see where you went last Thursday and whether your trip to the hardware store could have allowed you to purchase the materials to build a pipe bomb, which is just what we'd expect from someone who's reading "Catcher in the Rye", isn't it?  

Take Snowden, for example - just by looking him up on Wikipedia, I can learn that he lived in Hawaii, had a basic understanding of Mandarin Chinese, got a Master's degree from the University of Liverpool, worked for an animé company and studied "ethical hacking" in India.  See?  Definitely a commie hipster.  And then he was disappointed when Obama seemed to continue the hacking/spying policies, or at least didn't discontinue or discredit them - supposedly Obama had already ordered an investigation into whether the NSA was spying on regular Americans, or so he said.  Isn't that the kind of thing that people say, though, to disassociate themselves from actions that they know are wrong?  

And, there, finally I've got my connection to this week's Asshole Parade, only the Asshole in question is not Snowden, it's the NSA.  (Hope you're listening, guys!)  They claimed on June 27, 2013, that their surveillance on everyday Americans was quite necessary, and had in fact prevented 54 terrorist events from occuring.  Hmm, not bad, NSA, you could almost make a case for spying on everyone - but then on July 31 they said, "Did we say 54?  Sorry, we meant to say zero.  And that the surveillance was "close to vital" in identifying four men in San Diego who were trying to funnel money to Al Qaeda - a whopping $9,000 worth."  That's it, boys, kick 'em where it hurts.  Billions of American taxpayer dollars spent on spying on those same Americans to keep $9,000 out of the terrorists' pockets.  

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, if you know where to look for them.  Right now, I'm waiting for the fact that Bill Clinton encouraged Donald Trump to run for President to be revealed as one big Trump/Hillary conspiracy - because all Trump has to do is stay in the race long enough to not allow any of the other candidates to gain a loyal following, or run as a third party candidate to siphon off 4 or 5% of Rand Paul's (or Chris Christie's, or Lindsey Graham's, or Carly Fiorino's) votes, and then it's hello, Madame President.  Why isn't THAT bothering anyone yet?  

But this film is another case where a director had no choice but to make themselves part of the story, like Herzog had no other way to present the information seen in "Grizzly Man", but to introduce it with his own voiceover.  Director Laura Poitras faced a similar dilemma, and had to explain why a lot of the film takes place inside various hotels in different countries, and are really just people talking about what's taking place elsewhere.  She used several e-mails she got from Snowden to serve as a background for these meetings, but honestly, the only thing more boring than hearing someone talk about what we're about to see in a documentary is watching them type about it. 

Still, this won the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature - which leads me to wonder what the competition was.  "Finding Vivian Maier"?  "Last Days in Vietnam"?  "The Salt of the Earth"?  OK, now that makes sense - this category is a real snooze-fest, and I'd rather watch something about a current internet scandal than another film about Vietnam, or something depressing about starving people.  Still, I think Oscar voters might have a problem similar to mine - are they rewarding a film as "Best Documentary" because they think it has an important subject matter, or because they agree with its approach, or something else entirely?

Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill

RATING: 4 out of 10 requests for asylum

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Armstrong Lie

Year 7, Day 228 - 8/16/15 - Movie #2,122

BEFORE: I knew the moon landing was faked, I just knew it!  I'm sure that interviews with Neil Armstrong will set things right, once and for all.  Wait, this is about cycling?  Ah, it's a different Armstrong.  This guy should fit right in with this week's documentary Parade of Wankers - plus I have to admit that this is a topic I would like to know more about, even though it's a sport I don't follow.

THE PLOT: A documentary chronicling sports legend Lance Armstrong's improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace.

AFTER: Director Alex Gibney set out to make a film about Lance Armstrong's 2009 return to the Tour de France, after retiring four years earlier.  It was supposed to be called "The Road Back", but before the film could be completed, Armstrong had sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an interview in 2013, where he admitted on camera that he'd taken performance-enhancing drugs, and had been lying about this for years.  

No one felt more betrayed than Gibney, who had to change course and re-cut the film to mix the 2009 footage of Armstrong's training, and his thoughts on returning to the sport, with new interviews with his ex-teammates and colleagues, who were wondering what took so long for the truth to be revealed.  Even after admitting the use of steroids and other substances for years, Armstrong still claimed he ran a clean race in 2009 - despite being older and navigating some of France's hills better than he ever had.  Right.  Maybe he used so many substances in the past that his body was still filled with them.  

No one came under closer scrutiny, because of past allegations - so the true irony is that if Lance hadn't tried for a comeback, his past misdeeds might never have been revealed.  So it was pure ego, pure hubris, a desire to once again dominate the sport he'd walked away from that proved to be his downfall.

Honestly, I wasn't that surprised when the news broke in 2013 - we seem to live in an age of "win, at any cost".  Our culture has produced Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, a host of other MLB drug-users, and most recently, Tom Brady.  And while sports used to be a culture of "Train harder, play faster, win bigger", when an athlete gets caught in a scandal, this rapidly turns to "Lie harder, lie faster, lie bigger."   Armstrong was probably the best at lying, because he had the power and the money to silence just about anyone who hinted that his victories weren't clean.     

All things being equal, there was always something hinky about him winning 7 Tours in a row - sure, you could make a case that somehow, perhaps one guy had a natural ability, some technique that no one else could employ, a body with an unusual ability to not get tired or something, but it was like a magic trick.  Part of you wants to believe that a magician can levitate a girl, or make himself disappear, but deep down in your heart, you know he's probably using a mechanical platform or a trap door.  

And even after coming clean about not being clean, the public still got a bunch of excuses from Armstrong.  "Well, everyone was doing it!"  Nope, that doesn't make it right.  "Everyone got shorter penalties for testifying against me, so I was targeted."  Nope, that's not a valid excuse either.  Of course they're going to go after the guy who won the most, who got the most money in endorsements, who got the biggest bonuses from the sponsors.  "Come on, guys, let's not make a federal case out of this!"  Umm, since your team sponsor was the U.S. Postal Service, that's exactly what they had the right to do.

I've still got a lot of questions about the Tour de France - like if it's a team sport, how does one guy win?  But at least I understand the basics of this particular scandal now - and why there's no winner declared for the seven years where Armstrong had been declared the victor.  They can't just give the trophy to the guys who came in second, because they know they were probably doping too.  

And to think that he was venerated by so many people, so many cancer survivors and patients, and still he maintained his innocence with a web of lies.  This guy's in line for champion a-hole of the week, if you ask me.  

Starring Lance Armstrong, Frankie Andreu, George Hincapie, Johan Bruyneel.  

RATING: 5 out of 10 blood samples