Saturday, April 30, 2016

Club Paradise

Year 8, Day 121 - 4/30/16 - Movie #2,321

BEFORE: It's been a good month, I think I covered some material that I really have been itching to get to, like "The Martian", "Ant-Man", "Whiplash" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings".  Plus I restructured my watchlist to not only get to the more important films earlier, but made it more accessible to films in current release, like "Batman v Superman" and "Nerdland", that's a huge deal if I can find a way to maintain that.  It's more tricky to keep track of upcoming releases, but it seems to pay off.  

I did a 9-film Robin Williams tribute last year, but obviously I missed a few, since I didn't wait for the third "Night at the Museum" film, and a few others rolled in as well, including "A Merry Friggin' Christmas".  So I was going to save this one for Christmastime so that I had something to link with, but the re-ordering of the list moved it up, along with tomorrow's film.  I'll worry about Christmas films when the time comes, I guess.  Robin Williams AND Andrea Martin carry over from "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb", I can't ignore that.

THE PLOT:  A Chicago firefighter who becomes injured on the job uses his disability money to retire and live the good life in a small Caribbean island called Saint Nicholas.  

AFTER: A lot of great comedy talent shows up here, mined from the casts of both "SCTV" and "SNL", but most often it seems like they just weren't given anything to do.  Falling back on slapstick comedy bits like a shower that won't work, then sprays with the force a fire-hose, or situations like two nebbishy guys who have trouble scoring with women, these are classic comedy tropes, just transported to a beach setting.  But together they don't seem to add up to much.  

The beginning is mainly about Robin Williams' character adjusting to island life, learning to open coconuts with an axe and developing a tan, and the end part gets into some socio-economic stuff as a bunch of greedy developers try to shut down the indepedent resort when they can't buy it, leading to an open rebellion among the staff and the island populace.   But the middle part just goes nowhere, in fact since it doesn't know what to do with most of the characters they're essentially written out, some get lost in the jungle and one gets lost at sea.   It's symbolic in several ways, since the plot seems to get lost along with them.  

Most likely these actors jumped at a chance to make this film since it meant working in the Caribbean, after a number of years doing comedy in Canada, it probably seemed like a fantastic opportunity.  Who wouldn't go film something in Jamaica, with airfare and all expenses paid by the studio?  The only downside would be having to listen to a lot of reggae music and maybe deal with some spicy food. 

Which sort of explains why the ending of the film feels so thrown together or tacked on, the actors and crew just really wanted to get to their vacation time. 

Also starring Peter O'Toole (last seen in "The Stunt Man"), Jimmy Cliff, Rick Moranis (last seen in "Honey I Blew Up the Kid"), Eugene Levy (last seen in "The Man"), Twiggy, Joanna Cassidy (last seen in "Under Fire"), Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Flaherty, Steven Kampmann, Robin Duke, Mary Gross, Bruce McGill (last seen in "Into the Night").

RATING: 3 out of 10 beach chairs

Friday, April 29, 2016

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Year 8, Day 120 - 4/29/16 - Movie #2,320

BEFORE: I've had a pretty good run in the last week, not too many new films on cable, so I've stuck to my "Watch two, add one" schedule, and the watchlist is down to 135 films.  If I can get it down to 130, that will be equal to the lowest point it's ever been, and then I can finally start to make some progress for the year. But the new month might bring a whole new crop of films, so I could hit 130 and that might be a plateau for a while, you never know.  Still, 180 slots left in 2016, and 135 films on the list, I'm still feeling optimistic about finishing. 

Ben Kingsley carries over from "Exodus: Gods and Kings", last night he was fighting an Egyptian pharoah, and tonight he's playing one.  A living wax figure of one, anyway.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (Movie #1,065)

THE PLOTLarry spans the globe, uniting favorite and new characters while embarking on an epic quest to save the magic before it is gone forever.

AFTER: OK, I admit it, I was wrong - I just read my review of the previous film in this series, and I predicted that the next chapter would be set at the Louvre in Paris.  I guess that would have been too high-concept or arty or inaccessible to kids.  But I don't know much about what collections are stored at the British Museum, at least with the Smithsonian I had a little clearer idea about what to expect.  Screw it, nobody in the U.S. probably knows what's in the British Museum, so the writers probably had the opportunity here to do whatever they wanted.  

The concept is that the magic tablet that allows the wax figures, dinosaur skeletons and statues to come to life (even though some were never alive to begin with) is deteriorating, causing a disturbance at a fund-raising event, and the only "people" who might know how to fix it are the Egyptian boy pharaoh's parents, who are at the British Museum.  I know, wax figures don't usually have children or form family bonds, but try not to think too much about that.  So Larry the security guard finally lets his boss in on the secret about how the museum comes to life at night, in order to arrange a trip to London.  And nearly all of the main characters tag along for the ride - so, nobody noticed 6 extra life-size figures inside the crate?  That seems a bit unlikely.  

So Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, Dexter the monkey, the tiny cowboy and the tiny Roman centurion, plus a caveman, run around a slightly different museum, chasing Lancelot and being chased by another dinosaur skeleton - it certainly feels like a retread, there's not much new ground broken here.  When there are no more problems to solve and no more plot twists, and even the characters themselves are tired of being alive - it's true, they're practically begging to die by the end - then you know that a film franchise has probably run its course.  Hey, they had some fun, and I guess they got a lot of kids interested in museums again - though those kids probably wonder why the movie's exhibits are so much more exciting.  

I've got a similar NITPICK POINT to the one I had for "Battle of the Smithsonian" - in the entire British Museum, which I imagine to be a large building, there's only ONE security guard at night? 
Also starring Ben Stiller (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Robin Williams (last seen in "The Best of Times"), Owen Wilson (last seen in "Inherent Vice"), Steve Coogan (last heard in "Despicable Me 2"), Ricky Gervais (last seen in "Muppets Most Wanted"), Rebel Wilson (last heard in "Ice Age: Continental Drift"), Dan Stevens (last seen in "The Fifth Estate"), Skyler Gisondo (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), Rami Malek, Mizuo Peck (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Patrick Gallagher (ditto) with cameos from Dick Van Dyke (last seen in "Cold Turkey"), Mickey Rooney (last seen in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), Bill Cobbs (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Andrea Martin (last seen in "Girl Most Likely"), Rachael Harris (last seen in "They Came Together"), Matt Frewer, Hugh Jackman (last seen in "Prisoners"), Alice Eve (last seen in "Men in Black 3")

RATING: 5 out of 10 constellations   

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Year 8, Day 119 - 4/28/16 - Movie #2,319

BEFORE: Well, this one was originally programmed for the first day of Passover, but then I added a few films so that I could get the right film to land on Mother's Day.  But Passover is still going on, I think there are two more days, so I can get this one in under the wire. 

It helps when I can identify certain films, like "The Martian" or "Fantastic Four" as nexus films, meaning I can link in several different directions after watching them, or plus in a small module of three or four films if I need to extend a particular section.  Now I've got a long chain set for the next three months, and I don't think I'll have another nexus film for a long time, and that will probably be "Captain America: Civil War".  I can go just about anywhere from there, and at that time I'll probably have to review what's left on the list to make the most inclusive decision.  

Tonight, Ewen Bremner carries over from "Snowpiercer", and I move from a film set in the future, starring the previous Human Torch, to a film set in the ancient past, starring the previous Batman. 

THE PLOT:  The defiant leader Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

AFTER:  I've got a lot to say tonight, because this is a new take on the Moses story - to understand it I think you have to throw out a lot of what you might "know" from the movie "The Ten Commandments", or even from "The Prince of Egypt", and keep an open mind.  It's partially the presence of the ex-Batman, and partially the portrayal of Moses and the plagues that leads me to this conclusion: this is a superhero movie.  Moses might not have worn a cape or had x-ray vision, but the Bible suggests that God spoke to him, and that he possessed certain powers (parting of the Red Sea, changing a staff into a snake and back) so, there you go.  Maybe he wasn't the first superhero in literature, for that you have to go back to Hercules and other Greek myths, but even if God worked through Moses, his actions still saved a bunch of Israelites, so they're essentially super-heroic.

Therefore, this is a superhero reboot film, just like "Fantastic Four" or "Batman v Superman".  Now don't freak out, because even a Bible story can be seen as a reboot, despite what some Biblical scholars say.  Bear in mind, it was hundreds of years before any Bible story was written down, and they were no doubt based on oral histories, which are notoriously unreliable.  Who's to say each generation didn't pad the story a little bit, or make some changes in order to attract new followers, or take advantage of current trends?  Certain we know that Christianity absorbed a lot of originally pagan traditions, like Halloween and Christmas, to make itself more attractive to newcomers from other faiths.  The simple fact is that stories change over time, whether you want them to or not, whether you care to admit it or not, and you can't prove these events by saying, "Because the Bible says so!" because that's circular reasoning.  

Instead, I look to a 2006 documentary series that ran on the History Channel, called "The Exodus Decoded", which I watched at the time and found enormously fascinating.  The series came from filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron, and while parts of it have since been debunked or disproven, at least someone set out to try and prove whether the events mentioned in the Bible COULD have taken place, and if so, when and how.  This series ruffled a lot of feathers, but again, if you don't have an open mind, just consider that you weren't there in ancient Egypt, I wasn't there, your priest or rabbi wasn't there, so in the end, all that we have is a story, and a little science, plus what we choose to believe. 

Here are the major plot points of the traditional Moses story, as I understand it:  1) Moses was found as a baby, adopted and raised as one of the Pharaoh's sons, but was really one of the Israelites.  2) God spoke to Moses, and was told to free said Israelites from slavery.  3) There were 10 plagues that befell Egypt, in retaliation for the Pharaoh not letting the Israelites go, and 4) The Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to escape, and then drowned the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  Agreed?  Now, let's examine them one at a time.  

1) Moses was found as a baby, (supposedly during a purge of infants, after a prediction that a baby would grow up to lead the Israelites) in a basket, floating down the Nile.  This is suspect to me only because stories like this appear often in literature, about the hero who rises from humble beginnings, and sometimes these backstories get written after the fact.  Think about the sword in the stone that justifies King Arthur ruling Britain - if he truly was the heir of Uther, why did he have to prove it by pulling out the sword?  Moses in a basket also sort of reminds me of Superman in his rocket, leaving Krypton.  And I remember that John Byrne, after writing "Man of Steel", the 1986 reboot of Superman's origin, later said that he wished he hadn't started with the rocket on page one, which would have allowed the reader to find out that Superman was an alien at the same time he did, which was when he was a teen.  The reveal would have then been more powerful.  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" similarly does not start with Moses as a baby, we first see him as the adult adopted son of Pharaoh Seti.  This is smart, because if Moses does not know his heritage, he acts a certain way, but is always aware on some level that treating the Israeli slaves poorly is not right.  Part of him wants to be a hero, but he doesn't have the power or motivation to act on their behalf.  Ah, but then when he finds out his true nature, suddenly he has the motivation.  And from a storytelling standpoint, the reveal is now a twist, and carries much more impact.

However, it also leads me to wonder - what if it weren't true?  What if the Israelites just took advantage of the fact that Seti had an adopted son?  Telling Moses that he was Israeli would immediately give them an insider in the government that would empathize with them fight for their rights.  I'm just putting that out there. 

2) God speaks to Moses.  In the Bible this is through a burning bush (conveniently, no one else is around, I bet) but in this film, God appears as a small boy with advice for Moses on what to do.  This will probably drive the Bible scholars crazy, but it's a convention that was used by Scorsese in "The Last Temptation of Christ", so there's a precedent.  But who's to say what another man sees in a vision?  "Exodus: Gods and Kings" makes note of Moses suffering a head injury, so now we also have to entertain the possibility that Moses was crazy.  

The Bible also makes reference to Aaron, however, saying that he spoke for Moses.  I guess maybe Moses wasn't a very good public speaker?  Maybe he got nervous in front of crowds?  This part of the story also seems a little suspect to me, as if rumors started swirling about the visions that Moses had, and then Aaron issued a press release, assuming that Yahweh was speaking to him, and the whole thing got out of hand.  

3) The 10 plagues of Egypt.  Now, this is where I start to quote from "The Exodus Decoded", which put forth possible scientific explanations for them, such as a volcanic eruption at Santorini, and a related earthquake in the Nile delta.  There are also real cases where water has turned red, either due to the presence of toxic fresh water algae, which turns red when it dies, or drought conditions that could cause the spread of certain bacteria that thrive in stagnant water.  From there, it's a possible chain reaction because if the water is toxic, then the frogs would all leave the water, so there's plague #2.  And then if the frogs leave the river, then the flies they normally eat would flourish, so there's plague #3.  The flies would thrive on the dead fish and frogs, and spread disease to the cattle, and boils to people, so there's plagues #5 and 6.  The volcanic eruption could possibly explain the hail and fire of plague #7, and a cloud of ash could cause the darkness of plague #9.  That leaves just the locusts, but those tend to come around every once in a while anyway, like cicadas, right?  

Now, here's where my thinking starts to differ from the Bible.  Everyone sort of assumes that Moses went to the Pharaoh and said, "Let my people go, or else the river will run red, then there will be flies, then frogs, then disease, etc."  But what if Moses hadn't been so specific?  What if he just said, "Let my people go, or a lot of bad, nasty stuff is going to happen!"  And then when bad stuff started to happen, Moses could say, "See? I told you so."  The Bible doesn't give any exact timeline for these events, so what if these plagues took place over the course of a year, or a number of years?  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" has the balls to say, "What if Moses didn't call his shot at all?"  There's no scene in which Moses threatens Ramses with plagues, or any specific repercussions at all, but when they start to happen, it's the easiest thing to say, after the fact, "Look, God is angry!" and thus plant the suggestion of cause and effect.  Slaves are being tortured, God's upset, he sent you some plagues, and there will probably be more if we don't get what we want.  Subversive, I know, but much, much easier to believe.  

And this leads me to plague #10, the killing of the first-born.  Here's where "The Exodus Decoded" had another theory about an underground earthquake releasing carbon dioxide, which could have spread through an Egyptian city late at night, staying close to the ground.  But you'd have to believe that the first-born children slept on the ground floor, in the alleged "position of honor", while the other family members slept on the roof, and there's little evidence to support this.  Other people have theorized that after the other plagues, food was scarce, and the first-born children were the first to receive food, which might have been contaminated.  Again, who's to say?  

But what if, after witnessing 9 plagues across the land, without understanding the science behind them, and the Israelites putting forth the notion that they were occuring because God was upset, those Egyptians started to believe, and would have done ANYTHING to appease God, including slaughtering their own children?  This would explain why the Israelite children were not affected, while the cattle and other animals were.  Now, just because this is theoretically possible, that doesn't make it true, not by a longshot.  But it is easier for me to believe, and once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, could be true.   

This film goes out of its way to show us that the Egyptian method of predicting things was notoriously unreliable, since they believed in reading entrails for omens.  If they believed that, they could have fallen for just about any system that seemed more reliable, even if it suggestions made after the fact.  It's worth noting that if you wait for things to happen, and then take advantage of them by assigning some perceived meaning, you can "prove" just about anything.  Think of the way that religious nuts today claimed that damage from hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy was caused by people in New Orleand and New York living lives full of sin and gay sex.  To them, it was simple cause and effect, they just thought up the reasoning for it later on, and it couldn't exactly be disproved.

4) The parting of the Red Sea.  (Or, the "Reed Sea", if you believe "The Exodus Decoded", which would have been a smaller, more shallow marshy area, and much more likely to abate and allow passage than the much larger Red Sea...)  If you believe the film "The Ten Commandments", this is another of Moses' magic powers, that he waved his staff and the waters parted, and two giant walls of water stood motionless on either side, allowing for passage in-between.  "The Exodus Decoded" again raised the possibility of a volcanic eruption or earthquake causing a tsunami, and a giant wave like that is usually preceded by an extremely low tide.  Hmm.... but again, just because it's possible, that doesn't mean it happened that way.  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" doesn't fall back on Moses parting the waters with his staff, but instead he leads the Israelites all the way to the Red Sea, and then doesn't know what to do next.  Again, the Bible doesn't give an exact timetable for these events - maybe they got to the sea and spent a few months there, trying to build rafts or think up another way across.  But the film seems to show a meteor falling to Earth, which is another thing that theoretically could cause a tsunami, which again, could be preceded by a very low tide.  

Still, I don't think that any of the more rational scientific theories take anything away from the story.
If you believe in volcanoes or earthquakes or meteors occuring at just the right time, or at nearly the right time, then those are incredible coincidences, one could easily see the work of a divine hand in that timing.  And even to this day, what do we call weather phenomena that we can't predict, like tornadoes and brushfires?  From a legal standpoint, they're thought of as "acts of God".  So at some point, nature is God, especially if you believe in creationism.  

So, I liked a lot of the elements of this film, and the way it didn't fall back on the assumed conventions about the Moses story, but instead tried to forge a new path and say, "but what if it happened THIS way?"  And really, it's just the latest attempt to modify a story that's probably been modified many, many, times over the centuries, growing in magnitude every time it was retold.  (Still, it's got to be tough to swim against the tide of so many devout, close-minded Christians, who are all SURE that it happened the way they heard it, "because the Bible says so".)  

Is this a perfect film?  No, not at all.  It really drags in the middle, and I had a tough time understanding what many of the characters were saying.  But it takes stones to tackle a well-known religious story like this and search for some possible explanations for the "magical" elements of it.  The director is supposedly an atheist, so that explains a lot, but also calls into question why an atheist would want to make the film in the first place.  And hey, if you think the book is better, as always, you're entitled to your opinion.

NITPICK POINT: In this film, the river runs red with actual blood, resulting from a crocodile feeding frenzy.  But crocs (especially the enormous ones seen here) have been known to eat very rapidly, which wouldn't allow for a lot of blood to be spilled.  Plus, how many people would have to be eaten to turn the whole Nile river red?  I guess that algae and bacteria just aren't as cinematic as giant reptiles.  

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "Laurel Canyon"), Joel Edgerton (last seen in "The Thing"), Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Gandhi"), Sigourney Weaver (last seen in "Copycat"), John Turturro (last seen in "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"), Aaron Paul (last seen in "Mission: Impossible III"), Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Fitzgerald, Andrew Tarbet, Indira Varma, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass

RATING: 5 out of 10 chariots

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Year 8, Day 118 - 4/27/16 - Movie #2,318

BEFORE: Well, if "Whiplash" featured two actors from Marvel Comics movies, so does this one - Jamie Bell carries over from "Fantastic Four" where he played The Thing, and he co-stars with the man who used to play the Human Torch, before the last reboot.  That's an odd coincidence. 

THE PLOT:  Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.

AFTER: I wonder if the Republican Party funded this film - you know, the climate-change deniers.  "See, if we try to fix global warming, we'll accidentally cause global FREEZING!" and that'll be a perfect excuse for many people to just do nothing about the problem.  Me, I'm totally doing something about global warming - I made sure that I bought a house on top of a hill, so if things work out the way I think they will, someday I'll have beachfront property.  

But in this film, it's already too late to fix things, so they loaded up a train, Noah's Ark-style, with all of the resources they could gather, and set that train to run on a continual loop around the world - not a circular loop, that would be ridiculous, because the train can't ride over the oceans.  Come on, get serious.  The train does a loop around the Americas, then crosses over from Russia to Alaska and does a loop around Asia, Europe and Africa.  And the loop takes exactly one year to make, how about that for a coincidence? 

When the film starts, the train is in its 18th trip around the world, and people at the back of the train are starting to wonder what sort of things go on in the front of the train, and questioning what exactly is their role on the train, and what happens to the kids and old people who get "invited" to move up to the front.  (Whatever it is, it can't be good, right?)  Hey, why worry about it, just relax and hand me another protein bar, OK?  

It's hard to take this premise seriously, when you start to think about what track maintenance might be necessary to keep all of the train tracks in the WORLD free of snow, ice and other debris, and if everyone who's still alive is ON the train, that means that nobody is doing that.  A couple of times I think the train had to plow through a snowbank, but what about ice on the tracks?   What if an avalanche covered up a train tunnel with rocks or something?  Then once we get into simple facts about resources, the unwieldy size of this train and the amount of energy it would take to keep this thing constantly moving, it all seems rather impossible.  Did humanity manage to convert to solar or nuclear energy before causing the next Ice Age?  It's pretty unclear.  

And what, exactly, was the plan?  To get people to zone out on powerful hallucinogens and ride in small compartments that look like the drawers they keep bodies in at the coroner's office?  How long can those people last without food, or at least some kind of nutrition taken through an I.V.?  

But maybe we're not meant to take the concept seriously - perhaps it's just a metaphor for the one-percenters who ride up front, and what those people expect from the 99% of people in the rest of the train The class system on the train seems to be very specific too, there are the elites, the soldiers, the chefs and other domestic workers, and then "the rest".  I mean, I guess riding in steerage is better than freezing to death, but when you're viewed as a resource by the upper class, it's not by much.  

I guess it's fun to see the different train cars as the ragtag band of rebellious tail-riders works their way toward the front.  It must have been some set designer's dream (or perhaps a nightmare) to make every car different - this one's a garden, this one's an aquarium - and some are just very surreal, like a whole room full of roast chickens, it's like the Boston Market car.  
Also starring Chris Evans (last seen in "Ant-Man"), John Hurt (last seen in "Immortals"), Ed Harris (last heard in "Planes: Fire & Rescue"), Tilda Swinton (last seen in "Trainwreck"), Octavia Spencer (last seen in "Get On Up"), Ewen Bremner (last seen in "Judge Dredd"), Kang-ho Song, Ah-Sung Ko, Alison Pill (last seen in "To Rome With Love"), Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Tomas Lemarquis, Marcanthonee Reis.

RATING: 4 out of 10 hard-boiled eggs