Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Big Picture

Year 8, Day 72 - 3/12/16 - Movie #2,273

BEFORE: Character actor J.T. Walsh carries over from "Narrow Margin", and this is one of those films that I feel I simply MUST have seen before, no?  If I try to think about the plot, I can't remember one single thing about it, so perhaps not.  This came out in 1989, a year I had a lot going on, graduating from film school myself and trying to find a job, so maybe I was too busy.  Maybe the storyline just hit too close to home, and I avoided it on principle.  Either way, the quickest way to resolve this is to watch it (again?) for the first time, and get it off the list to be certain about it. 

THE PLOT:  Film school grad Nick Chapman thought his career was made after his award winning short film, but discovered Hollywood wasn't as easy as it seems.

AFTER: Sure, this is about a young filmmaker - but the medium doesn't matter.  The medium is not the message, the message is the message.  This could be about a painter or a sculptor or a writer - in fact writing is seen as part of the process here, my least favorite Hollywood trope is seen here, with a writer typing "Fade in" (at least it's on a computer screen this time, not an old-timey typewriter) and then staring at the blank screen.  Let me explain why this is unrealistic - people tend not to start the writing process before they even have a germ of an idea, this would be like getting in your car and starting to drive before you know where you're going.  Or turning on the stove before you know what you're going to cook for dinner.  It makes much more sense to wait until you at least have the makings of an outline before you even turn the computer on (or load the paper into the typewriter, if you live in the 1950's or yearn to be an anachronism).  

From what I remember about the days after graduating from film school - and this was 27 years ago for me, there was much uncertainty.  Making my own films was the least of my concerns, I had to find a job, and figure out a way to stay in NYC, because moving back home after graduation would have implied failure.  So the film does accurately portray this, as Nick is forced to take menial delivery jobs, or work in the exciting new field of telemarketing, just to stay afloat.  I worked for a summer as a movie theater usher, tearing tickets and sweeping up trash, because it meant working nights and weekends, leaving my days free for job-hunting.  Just the other day I had to describe this process in a pre-internet world, before you could e-mail a resumé or post your work experience on LinkedIn, and that meant going door-to-door to all the production companies in the city and dropping off a paper resumé.  Which never led to a job offer anyway, but at least you were getting your name out there.  

Another thing the film gets right is acknowledging that the system doesn't work, you can't work your way up the production chain, you're better off if you go out and do something crazy on your own that gets a lot of attention - here it's a music video for "The PEZ People" that's so outside of the box that it goes straight to the top of the MTV rotation (remember when MTV played music videos?  Nah, me neither.)  Today the same principle applies, only amplified - if you can get something going on your YouTube channel where you get like a billion hits, or come up with the next cinnamon challenge or Ice Bucket nonsense, you can get a lot of attention really fast, and maybe turn that into a deal of some kind.  But back then, we didn't have Ce-Web-rities, we barely even had a Web.  

Now, that said, this film is self-reflexive as hell - while Nick is trying to pitch a simple love-triangle story to the studios, he also accidentally falls into a love triangle of his own, and yet he doesn't see the connection.  He ends up putting his own long-term relationship in jeopardy after getting enamored of the sexier young starlet, and even though he doesn't sleep with her, he clearly wanted to, which is just as bad in the end.  So a love triangle may be the mainstay of film plots, but by contrast they can't survive in the "real" world, because the structure can't maintain itself, one of the legs of the triangle (which really should be called a "V" instead of a triangle, unless somebody swings both ways) will no doubt break before too long.  

They also pull a lot of these "fantasy" sequences, most notably when Nick is pitching his idea, and we see the film-within-the-film - whenever the executives make a suggestion - like make the characters younger, make the film in color, try to add some lesbians - we see the fantasy world change to represent the project's new form.  And before long, his sensitive portrayal of a love triangle between three older people has morphed into a teen jiggle comedy called "Beach Nuts".  It's a funny gag, it just doesn't really happen that way, does it?  

In fact, there are a few "film-within-a-film" sequences, some of which land, and some don't.  Sometimes these are shots aimed at particular targets, like the pretentious "arty" complicated feminist, or the kid who's so well-connected he somehow got Hollywood stars to be in his student film, but sometimes they're just out-of-place failed jokes, like "Abe and the Babe", a buddy comedy where Abe Lincoln and Babe Ruth are friends.  Even if those men lived at the same time, which they didn't, it feels like a skit that wouldn't make the cut at SNL.  Sometimes these fantasy sequences are spoofs of film-noir detective films or "It's a Wonderful Life", but frankly these are a little hit-or-miss also.  

Really, this is a film about a man learning to stand by his friends and give his relationship another chance, about finding balance between his professional life and his personal life, and that's why I say the medium doesn't matter - that's a good lesson for anyone in any line of work.  Clearly, someone just set the lesson in the world of filmmaking because that's the world that they knew.  Poking fun at studio executives feels a bit like picking low-hanging fruit though, and a few years later, "The Player" did a more scathing job while mining the same territory.  

The other lesson to be learned is that a career path, in any field, is hardly ever going to be as linear as one might think.  "Oh, I'll get out of film school, get a job as a director, become rich and famous" - are you even listening to yourself?  Would someone say, "Oh, I'll get out of law school, get a job as a lawyer..." or "I'll get out of medical school, get a job as a doctor" - there are many steps in-between in those cases, like paralegal or intern, and the film business works the same way.  I got out of film school and found work as a P.A., then a key P.A., then an office manager, then a production manager, producer and then back to office manager.  But along the way I've worked on nearly every aspect of production or administration, from typing screenplays and filing copyrights to navigating SAG rules and making payroll deposits, from designing web-sites to coordinating film festival traffic - to the point where I now juggle so many responsibilities on a daily basis that if I don't have a to-do list of 10 or 15 items, I feel like I'm falling behind. 

NITPICK POINT: Our young hero says, "OK, let's make a music video", then we see him shooting on film and editing on film - umm, he does realize that's not a "video", right?  And I worked on music videos back in 1989, believe me, nobody was shooting them on film.  (And it's not just because of the language - nobody called them "music films", see?)  By their very nature at the time, music videos had budget constraints, and if you shot on film there were film stock costs, lab costs, editing costs, etc. and most of these problems were negated by shooting and editing on video, as the name suggests.  So doing one for a band with ZERO budget, and no money of his own in his pocket, it's nice to think that our film school grad would be able to shoot on film, but it's just not likely that he'd be able to do so.   

The song from that video, however, "The Whites of Their Eyes", kind of feels like the lost "Spinal Tap" song, or is it just me?  Christopher Guest directed this film 5 years after he and Michael McKean were in "This Is Spinal Tap", and I want to say that mockumentary still hadn't become a huge cult classic by 1989, but I may be incorrect.  Anyway, the music video seems pretty crappy, but I think the song maybe deserves a second look.  Er, listen.  

Also starring Kevin Bacon (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Emily Longstreth (last seen in "Pretty in Pink"), Michael McKean (last seen in "True Crime"), Jennifer Jason Leigh (last seen in "In the Cut"), Teri Hatcher (last heard in "Planes: Fire & Rescue"), Martin Short (last seen in "Inherent Vice"), Dan Schneider, Jason Gould, Tracy Brooks Swope, Don Franklin, Fran Drescher (last seen in "Cadillac Man"), Kim Miyori, with cameos from Eddie Albert (last seen in "Every Girl Should Be Married"), June Lockhart, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Collins, John Cleese (last heard in "The Swan Princess"), Elliott Gould (last seen in "The Long Goodbye"), Gary Kroeger, Richard Belzer (last seen in "Fame").

RATING: 6 out of 10 shopping carts

Friday, March 11, 2016

Narrow Margin

Year 8, Day 71 - 3/11/16 - Movie #2,272

BEFORE: I was out last night with my BFF Andy, who visited NYC for a press thing, and we tried out a new BBQ restaurant - well, new to the Upper East Side, anyway.  I've been trying to visit this restaurant's East Village location since they were profiled on that BBQ show on the Food Network, but it took me so long to get around to it, they opened another location in the meantime.  Well, either one is just as good as the other, I figured, so I indulged in the most expensive item on the menu, a giant beef rib named after a brontosaurus.  And a half chicken.  And some sweet potatoes with pecans and maple syrup.  And some of Andy's beans with burnt ends, because he'd ordered a too-large portion.  Yeah, I was a happy camper after all that, plus I think I impressed the servers with the amount of food that I ordered and consumed.  Restaurant people really seem to like me when I order big.  

But I came home and tried to watch this movie, only to find a scratch on the DVD that prevented it from playing in my computer, except for the first 10 minutes.   I could have switched to the downstairs TV, but I didn't want to disturb my houseguest, so I had to play catch-up with this film on Friday night, rather than the intended Friday morning (post-midnight hours).  Which is only a problem since I intended to double-up this weekend, because my wife and I are taking a 2-day road trip on Sunday, so now I either have to skip catching up on TV this weekend, or watching a movie while on vacation.  Or I could fall behind, except I saw a neat potential tie-in to St. Patrick's Day, and I just established what will be Movie #2,300, so I don't want to skip a day OR a film.  

The Watchlist is down to 140 films, for I think only the second time ever, but I've still got to get it down to 130 if I want to reach the point where I left off last November, before the list built back up at the end of the year.  That was the lowest point, and with two or three more weeks of effort, maybe I can get back to there.  It sounds crazy, but I don't know if I can finish this year, even with 228 more slots to watch 140 films.  

Gene Hackman carries over from "Under Suspicion".  

THE PLOT:  A Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney is sent to protect a woman who accidentally witnessed a Mafia murder.

AFTER: This seemed like a very basic thriller movie, but I have to question the entire premise - would an L.A. District Attorney really travel to Canada to find a witness?  He'd have no jurisdiction there, right?  And neither would the cop he traveled there with.  Other than that, I don't have many quibbles.  

It's not really a NITPICK POINT that the D.A. tracking this woman down causes her to be found by the mobsters, too, because the movie eventually does point this out.  He's a real bad-luck charm, if you ask me, because eventually the woman has to point out that her savior has actually put her in danger, repeatedly, even if he won't admit it.

Of course, I've developed an affinity for character actors, these are people who appeared in a LOT of films without ever really breaking big - there are three notable character actors here, two of whom share the same last name (but I believe they are unrelated). For all of the films they each appeared in, this was the only time they were in the same movie (however, they do not appear in any scenes together).  

Also starring Anne Archer (last seen in "Clear and Present Danger"), James Sikking, J.T. Walsh (last seen in "Tequila Sunrise"), M. Emmet Walsh (last seen in "Sunset"), Harris Yulin (last seen in "Murder at 1600"), Susan Hogan, J.A. Preston, Nigel Bennett.

RATING: 5 out of 10 trips to the cafe car

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Under Suspicion

Year 8, Day 70 - 3/10/16 - Movie #2,271

BEFORE: That's right, it's the fourth film in a row with Morgan Freeman in it.  Great, another thing I'll have to keep track of for the end-of-the-year wrap-up post. 

THE PLOT:  A lawyer is asked to come to the police station to clear up a few loose ends in his witness report of a foul murder. This will only take ten minutes, they say, but it turns out to be one loose end after another.

AFTER: This starts out as a simple interrogation drama, that kind of cat-and-mouse game between policeman and suspect...and (more or less) ends as a simple interrogation drama.  There's sort of a realization that there should be a twist somewhere 2/3 of the way through the film, as we've come to expect in movies such as this, only it's not really twist, it's more like someone saying, "Oh, OK, I guess THIS is the kind of movie we're making now."  And there's been quite enough of that around here lately, thank you very much, with films like "Mulholland Dr." telling the audience who its main characters are, only to change its mind 2/3 of the way through about what their names are, what they do, and, well, pretty much everything about them.  Same with "Lucy", it starts out being a story about a drug mule having a bad day, only to have the central character start solving the mysteries of the universe.  (Umm, I think?)

There are all kinds of accusations tossed or thrown at Hackman's character, Henry Hearst.  He may be a rich pillar of the community in Puerto Rico (note to nearly all of the actors in this film, it should be pronounced "PWER-toh", not "POR-to" Rico.)  but he also may be a child killer, rapist, pedophile pornographer, and worst of all, a lawyer.  But maybe his wife's really to blame, because she stopped sleeping with him several years ago, so what's a guy to do but check out porn on the internet.  (Hey, remember when someone was thought to be a pervert, just because they surfed the web?  And remember when people still called it "surfing the web"?)  

But there's an awful lot of waffling here, in an attempt to create some suspense.  Is he an evil pedophile rapist, or just a horny web-surfer?  Is he a fine upstanding member of the community, or a porn addict? Does he just like photography as a hobby, or is something darker going on?  Let's raise the questions, then just sort of stall for an hour or so while he gives a speech at a charity event - for hurricane relief, thank God it wasn't against childhood trauma or rape victims, that would have been too ironic. 

And placing the characters of the cop and the suspect INTO the flashbacks - making it look like they were originally there, even though they weren't - is a cute trick, but it's got no baseline in reality, and it even seems like an admission that if they DIDN'T do that, the film would be all talk and no action.

Also starring Gene Hackman (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Thomas Jane (last seen in "Original Sin"), Monica Bellucci, Miguel Angel Suarez.  

RATING: 5 out of 10 Christmas gifts