Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Specialist

Year 9, Day 7 - 1/7/17 - Movie #2,507

BEFORE: I could have followed the Melanie Griffith link and watched "The Bonfire of the Vanities", but that wouldn't have gotten me where I need to be at the end of January - at least, I don't think it would have.  I've chosen to follow the James Woods link, as he carries over from "Night Moves", because I know for sure that this chain gets me there, I've worked it out, mostly.  And this keeps me in the action genre, which is where I've spent most of 2017's first week.  I've also had actors in each film that were Carrie Fisher-adjacent at some point, and that holds true tonight as well, even if those actors only play "Thug #1" and "Punk #3" in tonight's film.


THE PLOT: A woman entices a bomb expert she's involved with into destroying the mafia that killed her family.

AFTER: When it comes to action films, they seem to work best when the characters have clear motivations.  Like in those "Expendables" films, they've usually got a mission - infiltrate, take down (or blow up, whichever) and then GTFO. The motivations for all of the main characters in "The Specialist" are murky at best.  Stallone's character, Ray Quick, is probably the easiest to understand - a former bomb expert who resigned from the CIA and now works as a freelance hit man.  

But his ex-partner, Ned Trent, is harder to get a read on, because he's working for this crime organization, but he's also working with the bomb squad.  I couldn't tell if he was a cop, a mobster or both, or if he was just somehow playing all these angles at once.  The plot summary on Wiki says he's not a cop, but was placed on the bomb squad by the mob - sure, because I'm sure mobsters get to hire and fire at police stations all the time.  WTF? 

The woman, May, who hires Ray to kill mobsters is even harder to understand - she wants to kill the men who killed her family, but she seems to be partying with them and seducing them, in order to get close enough to kill them.  OK, that's a crazy plan, but maybe it could work - but if it does, then why does she also need Ray to blow them up?  Or if she hires Ray, then why does she need to keep trying to get close to one of the men?  

Ah, but there is a twist - unfortunately that twist gives her a background and a plan that's even stupider than the first one.  And Ned's OK with using May to get Ray to attack the mob, or so it seems, provided that he only blow up the guys ahead of him, so he can advance up the chain?  Wait, is that what's going on?  Now I'm not sure.  These two characters, their motivations seem to be all over the place.  May wants Ray to kill mobsters, but she's also the bait to catch Ray in a trap?  Or did I misread the situation?  

Worst of all, after sleeping with Ray, she leaves him a note that reads "I'm not the type of woman you can trust."  OK, should he trust her when she tells him that she's untrustworthy?  It's kind of like when a piece of paper reads "The statement on the other side of the paper is true" and you turn it over to read "The statement on the other side of the paper is false."  Or if the guy in charge of the equipment on New Year's Eve can't get the ball to drop, and then his boss tells him the next day that he really messed up and "dropped the ball", only he didn't. 

I guess I shouldn't expect much from a film that only seems interested in using enough story to get to the next explosion, or one that features Rod Steiger as a mob kingpin with an even worse Hispanic accent than the one Al Pacino used in "Scarface".  This film felt like a covert mission gone wrong - poorly planned, and poorly executed.  Explosions are thrilling, I'll grant that, but there's not much else going on.

Also starring Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Escape Plan"), Sharon Stone (last seen in "He Said, She Said"), Rod Steiger (last seen in "Doctor Zhivago"), Eric Roberts (last seen in "Inherent Vice"), Mario Ernesto Sanchez, Sergio DorĂ© Jr., Chase Randolph, Jeana Bell. 

RATING: 3 out of 10 shaped charges

Friday, January 6, 2017

Night Moves

Year 9, Day 6- 1/6/17 - Movie #2,506

BEFORE: It's the time of the year when I anxiously await the February "31 Days of Oscar" schedule from Turner Classic Movies - what's going to be the theme this year?  Will they be organizing the films by year, location, or (please please please...) will they be linking actors from film to film, like I always try to do?  Well, I checked their web-site and downloaded the schedule, only to find that this year, the Oscar-nominated films will be shown alphabetically, starting with "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" on Feb. 1, and ending with "Z" on March 3.  How boring is that?  There's no elegance, no art to it, they're just screening movies A to Z.  Whatever clever person over there used to put the schedule together must have gotten sacked.  I mean, I'll still go through the list, cross out what I've seen, and maybe I'll pick up a film or two, but my heart's just not in it, if this is how they're going to organize their films.  

I mean, I'm similarly going through all my cassette tapes, and replacing them all with either digital music files or (if it's cheaper) CDs from Amazon that I can rip onto iTunes.  And I'm going alphabetically, I just took care of The Byrds, The Carpenters and The Cars - so I'll be at this for a while.  I've re-discovered a lot of old Badfinger and Cars songs that I forgot about, and I'm using the alphabet to keep myself motivated (Cheap Trick is next...) but I just don't see the point of watching movies alphabetically, that's not even OCD, it's just madness.  

Maybe it's just as well, because I've got a list of about 22 films that I'm itching to add to the list - these are either films I want to watch in January, like "The Hateful Eight" or "The Big Short", or they're films that will help my linking work out in February.  But I'm resisting the urge to add one more often than every other day, because I've got to work to make the list smaller, not bigger.  We're 6 days in to 2017, and my watchlist is down from 145 to 142.  This is the compromise I've made with myself, the list grows 2 films smaller, then 1 film bigger.  So I'm still adding films, but progress is also being made toward completion. 

However, TCM is also running some Cary Grant films on January 18, and a tribute to Debbie Reynolds on January 27.  Getting invested in either of those could set me back substantially. 

Today, Kenneth Mars carries over from "The Parallax View(I could have dropped in another film with Kenneth Mars, which is the animated film "Thumbelina", but I felt it was really off-topic) and I've circled back to Gene Hackman, as promised.  Dropping in 2 more Warren Beatty films in between Hackman films is the kind of thing that's going to extend my January chain right up to the start of February, if my plans go well.  


THE PLOT: Los Angeles private detective Harry Moseby is hired by a client to find her runaway teenage daughter and he stumbles upon a case of murder and artifact smuggling.

AFTER: First off, don't go into this one expecting to hear the Bob Seger song of the same name - it's just not here.  It turns out that song was released in 1976, and this film was released in 1975.  It's a damn shame, it might have worked well here.

Secondly, be sure to stick with this one, even during the down time.  It's a really slow build, and I fell asleep after about an hour - if I had given up and not rewinded back, I would have missed EVERYTHING.  So drink some caffeine if you have to (though I'm building up quite a tolerance to Diet Mountain Dew, it turns out - I'm going to have to get off of caffeine for at least a week if I want it to be effective again)

What starts out as a simple missing-persons case turns out to be anything (and everything but), but damn if it doesn't take its own sweet time doing so.  Maybe if our schlubby protagonist wasn't so distracted by his wife stepping out with another man (and not the gay one who works in the antique shop with her, either...) then he might get some investigating done.  But since he isn't the type of detective that asks a lot of direct questions, who's to blame when he doesn't get a lot of straight answers?  So it took a long time for me to realize what, exactly, was happening.  And it's more than an actress's daughter who sets out to have sex with all of her mother's ex-boyfriends (aka the Carrie Fisher biopic...) 

There's a point at which Hackman's character is reviewing the endgame of a famous chess tournament, and it's a checkmate that one opponent allegedly never saw coming - but it involves the chess piece with the weirdest move - "Knight Moves", get it?  Don't worry if you missed it, the film plays it twice just to drive the point home.  I guess that's supposed to be symbolic, like that chess player, Harry Moseby never sees the final play, until it's too late.

What's the connection between the world of Hollywood stuntmen, deep-sea diving in the Florida keys, and a smuggling operation out of Mexico?  And can Harry Moseby afford to take the time away from patching his marriage back together to find out?  My mind's going to file this one away with those other 1960's-1970's semi-loser detective films, like "Marlowe" and "Harper".  But a good mystery shouldn't also leave its audience wondering about exactly what had been going on.

Also starring Gene Hackman (last seen in "The Conversation"), Susan Clark (last seen in "Airport 1975"), Jennifer Warren (last seen in "Slap Shot"), Melanie Griffith (last seen in "Nobody's Fool"), Harris Yulin (last seen in "Narrow Margin"), James Woods (last seen in "Play It to the Bone"), Edward Binns, John Crawford, Janet Ward, Anthony Costello, with cameos from Dennis Dugan (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Max Gail (last seen in "42"). 

RATING: 4 out of 10 answering machine messages 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Parallax View

Year 9, Day 5 - 1/15/17 - Movie #2,505 

BEFORE: Let me try to forget that "Ishtar" ever happened.  I mean, I can't really do that, it's a matter of public record now, plus it's part of my count.  I can't just have a hole in the numbers, a blank space on a page, and anyway that would throw off my numbering for the month, and then for the year.  So let's treat "Ishtar" like one of those cold, dark, post-solstice winter days - you almost can't stand how depressing it is that the sun goes down around 4 pm, or that's what it feels like anyway, plus you feel the cold down deep in your bones, but then you realize that it's going to start getting dark a little later each day, so eventually we'll climb out of this, and even though we haven't hit the worst of winter weather yet, at least we know that in just a few months there will be more light and it will start to get warm again.  So let's just keep going, shoulder on and things have just got to get better, because they can't get much worse. 

Warren Beatty carries over again tonight - TCM had him hosting their screening of "Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds" last night, referring to him as a "Quadruple Threat" (that's someone who was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Actor and Writing for the same film), then I'll have to follow another link, but at least I can circle back and cross off another Gene Hackman film tomorrow.


THE PLOT: An ambitious reporter gets into trouble while investigating a senator's assassination, which leads to a conspiracy involving a multinational corporation.  

AFTER: Being a story that involves a mysterious espionage organization, the tendency here is to connect this films to such classics as "North by Northwest" and "The Manchurian Candidate" - and I'm not saying such connections would be wrong, but both of those films were released before the Kennedy assassination (and later in that decade, the shootings of RFK and MLK).  So this film clearly also shows the echoes of the JFK conspiracy, right or wrong.  Perhaps it's prominent in my brain because I recently watched the episode of "Mad Men" that centered on Kennedy's shooting, and the events that followed soon after, with Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald in public, and that event was accidentally broadcast on live TV.  There were probably some kids watching, and that does affect young minds - how do you explain something like that to kids? 

But like "The Conversation", there's probably a fair amount of influence here from the whole Watergate thing too.  Conspiracy films were a big deal in the 1970's, like "Three Days of the Condor" was another one, leading up to "All the President's Men", which came from the same director as tonight's films.   You really can pick up on the vibe that the American people just didn't trust the govmint in those days.  And since this film popped up on the Encore channel last fall (and will be airing again on Encore Classic this coming Saturday, Jan. 7, so you can play along with me at home...) it makes me feel like someone thinks we're heading into a new era of presidential mistrust.  (Gee, I wonder why...)

Between this film and "Reds", it almost feels like I'm trying to make up for not watching a lot of political films last year, during the election season.  But the politics of the 1970's were very different from today's - for starters, people back then were worried about what dirty tricks were going on behind the scenes, and right now I think many people are concerned that our new President may follow through and do some of the things he promised to.  Heaven help us - but I still hold out hope that Trump's election was just part of a longer con, a master plan so he can revive his failing brands like Trump Steaks, Trump Air and Trump vodka once his term is over.  (And I'm OK with that - if Sammy Hagar can have his own brand of tequila, certainly an ex-President can have his own vodka.  I bet Bill Clinton's just sorry he never thought to open up his own chain of Bubba's Burger joints after leaving office.)  I'd be happily counting down the days to impeachment, if Trump hadn't shrewdly picked someone even more deplorable than himself as his V.P., so there's no motivation to even get him removed from office.  He kind of won that round, damn it.  Assassination's not an option, either, for the same reason. 

So, would you rather have a secret cabal corporation like Parallax controlling the U.S. election, or Russian hackers?  Which is worse, in the long run?
At least this film is full of fun cameos, especially if you're a fan of 1970's and 80's TV - hey, that guy was the heart surgeon on "St. Elsewhere", and the voice of KITT on "Knight Rider"!  And didn't that guy play the neighbor, Wilson, on "Home Improvement"? And that guy played Jock Ewing on "Dallas"!  And of course, THAT guy played Franz Liebkind in the original version of "The Producers" and the Inspector in "Young Frankenstein"...

NITPICK POINT: Beatty's character is made to watch a training film, a montage of sorts that's designed to turn him into an assassin (umm, I guess?) - it's kind of a reverse "Clockwork Orange" situation, the montage is full of patriotic clips and words like "mother" and "father" that gradually turns more sinister (umm, I guess?).  But what the heck was an image from a comic book, specifically the cover of Thor Annual 4, from 1974, doing there - I'm just not sure, and they cut back to it again and again.  Was it just supposed to represent a "hero" figure, or was it symbolic of something else, and if so, why not use an image of Captain America, not an Asgardian god, which would make the patriotic point much better?

Also starring Paula Prentiss (last seen in "Catch-22"), William Daniels (last seen in "Reds"), Hume Cronyn (last seen in "Lifeboat"), Walter McGinn (last seen in "Three Days of the Condor"), Kelly Thordsen, Earl Hindman, Bill McKinney, William Joyce, Jim Davis, Kenneth Mars (last seen in "For Keeps?"), Chuck Waters, Edward Winter, with a cameo from Anthony Zerbe (last seen in "True Crime").  

RATING: 4 out of 10 personality profile questions

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ishtar

Year 9, Day 4 - 1/4/17 - Movie #2,504

BEFORE: It occurs to me that even with 2,500 films viewed over the course of the project, I haven't watched that many films starring Warren Beatty.  Before last night, I believe it was only 4 - "Bugsy", "Bulworth", "Heaven Can Wait", and "Splendor in the Grass".  But it's not really my fault, he's one of those people who is super-famous, yet somehow has only been in a handful of films over the years - I keep trying to come up with a term for such an actor, but I can't seem to coin one.  If you discount TV shows, Beatty only has 23 films listed on his IMDB page - some of which are extremely high-profile, of course, like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Dick Tracy", but for some actors, it seems somehow like less is more, almost like they're respected for making as few great films as possible.

Well, I'm adding three Warren Beatty films to my list this week, so the stats are ever-changing.  However, this one was famous for the wrong reasons, for being a film that was universally hated - but it couldn't really be THAT bad, could it? 


THE PLOT: Two terrible lounge singers get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime.

AFTER: I stand corrected, the movie could be, and is, that bad.  It's not that I'm mad at you, "Ishtar", I'm just disappointed.  You wanted so badly to be a throwback to those old comedies like "Lost in a Harem", or the "Road to" films, where two comedians like Abbott and Costello, or Hope and Crosby", would find themselves in a foreign land, and it seems like comedy would naturally ensue, there would be hijinks with an attractive foreign woman or two, and the surly Arab leader would end up losing his kingdom in a game of chance, or something, and the world order would be restored.

But this was just a lame idea from the start - like one of those SNL skits where some writer thinks it would be hi-LAR-ious to act out a bad cable access show, or a game show that doesn't go as planned, or any talk show where the whole bit is that the hosts have annoying accents.  Comedy has to GO somewhere (and I don't mean to a foreign country), the plot of even a comedy sketch has to have a destination in mind, or else it just circles around and eventually stops, without ending.  But hey, SNL, keep doing what you do, you're about to set a record for a comedy show, 20 years without using punchlines.  

So we have Warren and Dustin as Lyle and Chuck, or I guess it's "Rogers and Clarke", and they want to be like Simon & Garfunkel, but the problem seems to be, they have no songwriting talent.  This point is driven home, again and again, with one of their terrible creations after another.  My point is, bad is not funny, bad is just bad, especially if it's not clever.  (A Weird Al parody is usually quite clever, and thus we forgive any "badness", intentional or not, because the guy's just so damn smart.)  These songs are bad songs, presented as bad songs, so how can I possibly take them as anything but bad?  

An agent convinces them to do cover songs instead, and this then becomes a contrivance that allows them to be booked in a club in either Honduras or Morocco, and they choose the latter.  But first they have to travel through the fictional country of Ishtar, and that's where things continue to go wronger. A mysterious woman borrows Chuck's passport, which is a huge NITPICK POINT right off, because how is she going to use that?  She's neither a man, or an American, or capable of being Chuck Clarke in any way, so why is this even a plot point? 

But this puts Chuck in touch with the CIA, and they want him to do something, which is very unclear, and the CIA agent makes Chuck think that Lyle is in league with the Arab woman to do something that is even more unclear, and it eventually results in the two being lost in the desert and exposing the CIA, in a way that was completely unclear.  I know I fell asleep at some point, which certainly didn't help me understand what was going on, but there just wasn't anything here that was even trying to hold my attention.  

NITPICK POINT #2: There was zero reason for the film to start where it does, and then flashing back to show us how Rogers and Clarke met.  We gain no extra knowledge from this tampering with the time-stream, it would have been just as easy to start with their meeting, and proceed onward from there.  I can't understand why some writers and directors love unnecessary flashbacks. 

Overall, it just feels like a comedy where someone forgot that there should be jokes.  OK, so now I've watched both "Hudson Hawk" and this film, but I absolutely refuse to watch "Shanghai Surprise".  

Also starring Dustin Hoffman (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 3"), Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin (last seen in "Catch-22"), Jack Weston (last seen in "The Cincinnati Kid"), Carol Kane (last seen in "Joe Versus the Volcano"), Tess Harper (last seen in "Crimes of the Heart"), David Margulies, Aharon Apalé, Fred Melamed (last seen in "The Pick-up Artist"), Matt Frewer (last seen in "Pixels"), Alex Hyde-White, Bill Bailey, Christine Rose.

RATING: 2 out of 10 camel sellers

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reds

Year 9, Day 3 - 1/3/17 - Movie #2,503

BEFORE: As I continue reading Carrie Fisher's tell-all book "The Princess Diarist" (it's a quick read, probably two days' time, or a couple of subway trips between Queens and Brooklyn) the connections keep coming, in a year that I dedicated to her a couple of days ago.  Teri Garr from "The Black Stallion Returns" was her co-star in a film called "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video", then of course yesterday's film had Harrison Ford in a small role, and tonight it's Warren Beatty, the star of "Shampoo", which was Carrie's first film.  I'm not sure how much longer I can keep that streak going, but Carrie did work as a script doctor for many films, often anonymously, so who knows how many other films she has a connection to?  

Gene Hackman, meanwhile, carries over from "The Conversation".  And I've somehow also gotten myself in sync with cable programming, which ran "The Conversation" about a day after I watched it, and now I see that "Reds" will be airing on TCM tomorrow (1/4).  Of course, I taped it off TCM months ago, I think they were running a bunch of Warren Beatty-themed films, because I also got "Shampoo" and the political-themed film which I'll watch in 2 days.  I wondered why TCM would run the film again so soon, and not even on a day like May 1 (May Day, or International Workers' Day) or even March 8 (the day the Russian revolution began).  But both TCM and I happened to program the film for the first week of January, I guess because it's a New Year, and we're coming up on the big 100th anniversary of this historical event - March 8, 1917.  

NOTE: In Russia, it's known as the February Revolution, but it began on our March 8.  Russia was still using the Julian calendar at the time, they had not yet made the switch to the Gregorian calendar. Russia didn't change to the new calendar until 1918, after the October Revolution, and what a confusing time it must have been in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when some countries still hadn't made the switch, so I don't know how anyone made travel plans back then - these days we're used to a time-change of just a few hours when we travel, but back then you could go to another country, and it would be a completely different day, or even month, when you arrived!  The U.K. and America had dealt with this issue by skipping 10 days in 1752, but Russia didn't get with the program for 150 more years?  



THE PLOT: A radical American journalist becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and hopes to bring its spirit and idealism to the United States. 

AFTER: So it seems like I've set myself on a study of politics (or is it civics?  I'm never really sure) in these early days of 2017.  First there was the study of arab culture, and the question over who owns the stolen horse in "The Black Stallion Returns".  Then I debated the issues surrounding surveillance issues in "The Conversation", and now it's a full-on examination of the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union. I'm going to stop here and start looking up some things on Wikipedia, because whenever I start trying to discern the differences between Communists, Soviets, and Bolsheviks, my eyes start to glaze over and my mind begins to wander.

OK, some background - World War I, rapid industrialization of Russia, economic collapse, creation of the new social proletariat class.  Got it.  High war casualties, combined with lack of enthusiasm for the Tsar, combined with mass poverty creates a powder-keg situation.  Rallies, strikes, riots.  Then it seems like there were TWO governments after the Tsar was deposed, a provisional government of leftists, chaired by a liberal aristocrat, and a Soviet (council) of Worker's Deputies, called the Petrograd Soviet (ah, so THAT'S where that word comes from.)  Alexander Kerensky, one of the Soviets, eventually took leadership of the Provisional Government, but this was before Lenin entered the scene with his Bolshevik Party, who were Marxists that had split off from the Labor Party in 1903.  ("Bolshevik" comes from "Bolshinstvo", which means "majority")

So in the October Revolution (which again, probably took place in our November) the Bolsheviks took over from the Provisional Government, which led to the creation of the Soviet Union.  (And if "Soviet" means "council", then that was a unification of the various councils, right?)  And the Bolsheviks re-named themselves as the Russian Communist Party in 1918, after they'd taken control of the country.  Whew, that was confusing as hell, but I think ultimately necessary for me to break down and get straight.

The reason this is so hard for me (I think in senior year of high-school, I took "Art History" as a class instead of what was called "Western Civilization", which sounds like it would have covered this somewhat.  So I've been falling back on the fact that I grew up during the Cold War, and thus I've only thought of the Soviet Union one way, the 1970's/1980's way, when they were regarded by the U.S. as the "Evil Empire".  When in fact, there have been a number of changes over the years in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and they're actually more like frenemies, over enough time, if you step back far enough to get a good look.

As this film reminds us, there was a time when many Americans supported the Russian Revolution, even though the U.S. and the Russian Empire were allies in World War I.  But hey, the American Revolution worked out for us in the end, and we supported the French Revolution, so revolution's a good thing, right?  But then, something happened in the U.S. and the Communist Party was forced underground in the 1920's.  So, umm, yeah, congratulations on your revolution, good luck running your new country, see ya later, gotta go.

But by the time World War II rolled around, the U.S. was allied again with the Soviets, was this just because the Nazis were so, so much worse?  Then this was followed by the second "Red Scare" in the 1950's, the McCarthy hearings and so forth, so once again "communism" and "socialism" were dirty words in America - which is all very confusing to me, because we're supposed to be the country of free speech and free thought, but this doesn't seem to apply to thoughts that are against capitalism.  What gives?  We still see echoes of this today, where free speech rules don't seem to apply to anyone who might be a radical Muslim, for example.  Or anyone who wants to talk about birth control, abortion, gun control, or other controversial topics.

Then there was the Cold War, the era I was raised in, where the godless Communists were over in Russia, starving while standing in lines for bread and toilet paper, or eating small children, as we were led to believe, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall, (Hurray! We, umm, won or something!) and that led to "glasnost" and "perestroika" and a new era of (I'm going to say...) democracy (?) in the Soviet Union.  In fact, it wasn't even the Soviet Union any more, it was suddenly back to "Russia" and we also had to learn the names of new countries like Ukraine and Belarus and Uzbeki-bekistan.  I'm working part-time for an animator who was born in Latvia, so I hear about this time period a lot, from her point of view.  We're both children of the Cold War, but from different sides of the Iron Curtain, and now we have to deal with the rise of New Fascism (aka the alt-right) in the U.S.

But my point is, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia/USSR is a long and complicated one, which over time has come to resemble an on-again/off-again relationship between two lovers - with, of course, long periods where the two lovers aren't speaking or even in touch with each other.  So maybe this whole thing between Trump and Putin is just another way of the lovers coming together again, like when someone re-marries their ex-wife.  But unlike the glasnost era of the 1980's, when it seemed like Russia was changing to make the relationship better, it now feels like America is the one who has to make the compromises for the relationship to work - like we had to elect a dictator, someone that Russia wants to get into bed with, and we had to start listening to complaints from parts of the electorate (the red states) that the majority of the people (in the blue states) don't usually like to hear, or even acknowledge.  Tough times, to be sure - and with Russia now being blamed for hacking the election, it makes me wonder if this relationship can be saved, or even if it should be.  Can't we just go back to hating Russia again?  It would be so much easier.

But anyway, let me get back to "Reds", a film which is over three hours long, and in my opinion, didn't need to be.  I don't care if someone is Jesus Christ or Albert Einstein, or the most interesting man or woman in the world, we've all collectively agreed that films work best when they're two hours long, or maybe a little over, with exceptions being made for the sinking of the Titanic or anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's why I've never watched the film "Malcolm X" - it's over three hours long.  I realize a man can live for 40, 50, 70 years, but there's got to be a way to skip over some parts, and get that guy's story down to 2:05.  OK, 2:15 maximum.

So, is the story of journalist John Reed interesting enough to keep me entertained for three hours and 15 minutes?  Hell, no.  Even though he serves as our entry point into understanding very complex Russian politics (I get it, if you can't depict the big, show the little), my limit turned out to be at the 2 hour and 15 minute mark, when I fell asleep.  I woke up briefly and tried to rewind back to where I left off, but then fell asleep again rather quickly.  I had to finish the last hour of the film this morning, before heading off to work.  And ultimately, the payoff just wasn't there.

The story of John Reed is also the story of Louise Bryant, his girlfriend/wife/co-journalist who went from socialite to Socialist, and believed in things like feminism (this was before women could vote in the U.S.) and free love (this was decades before the 1960s).  And much like the U.S. and Russia, they had this on-again/off-again relationship that went on for many years, in several different forms.  Or am I perhaps reading too much into things, and finding symbolism that wasn't meant to be there?  Plus I'm confused why these characters weren't aware of their own hypocrisies, like championing "free love" but then being possessive and jealous when it came right down to it, also acting all "modern" like they didn't need to get married, then getting married.  OK, people are complex, they change over time, but it still seems like the ideals got thrown out the window.  I guess it's like being champions of socialism and the working class, while having both a fancy home upstate AND a beach house.  (And WHY did they want to go and live in Russia, exactly?)

Now, let's discuss the "witnesses", these were people in their 90's who had first-hand knowledge of the life and times of John Reed, some who knew him and Louise Bryant personally.  On one hand, it's very important to include their testimonies, because it's one more way the film strives for accuracy and insight into their very real lives.  But on the other hand, it's one more thing that makes the film much too long, and I couldn't help but feel that there were times it was used as a sort of narrative cheat, as something to cut to any time the story was perceived as starting to drag, or to offer insight on some factoid that maybe wasn't filmed properly or at all.  Who can say?  I'd have to watch a cut of the film without the witness interviews to be sure.  This format, however, has now been copied by reality shows like "Survivor" and "Chopped", where participants talk straight to the camera and are told to describe what the TV viewers just saw in the present tense, even though it's clear that the interview took place hours or even days later, and should rightfully refer to those events in the past tense.

Here's my final take-away on "Reds", based on what happened in the film and what I know about history.  Despite the American support for the Russian revolution, and numerous "red scares" in the U.S. over the years, I think Russian communism and American socialism are two very different animals.  For starters, Russian communism never really worked, especially since it always took place under totalitarian regimes, when theoretically everyone is supposed to be "equal" under socialism, and no one's supposed to be in charge.  In America, the right-wingers point to left-wing ideas and shout "Socialist!" as if that's a perverse word, and enough of an insult to win any argument - but should it really be that way?  In the U.S. we tend to associate socialism with Russia and treat those ideas as if they're the enemy, but that's like comparing apples and oranges.  The fact that John Reed went to Russia and found a different brand of socialism, and couldn't get that brand to catch on in the U.S. should be seen as confirmation of this.

Also starring Warren Beatty (last seen in "Splendor in the Grass"), Diane Keaton (last seen in "The Family Stone"), Jack Nicholson (last seen in "Heartburn"), Maureen Stapleton (ditto), Edward Herrmann (last seen in "The Lost Boys"), Paul Sorvino (last seen in "The Rocketeer"), Jerzy Kosinski, William Daniels (last seen in "Marlowe"), Jerry Hardin, Nicolas Coster (last seen in "The Big Fix"), M. Emmet Walsh (last seen in "Narrow Margin"), with cameos from Ian Wolfe (last seen in "You Can't Take It With You"), Max Wright (last seen in "Grumpier Old Men"), George Plimpton (last seen in "Edtv"), Shane Rimmer, Jack Kehoe (last seen in "Melvin and Howard"), Miriam Margolyes (last seen in "Yentl"), Richard LeParmentier (last seen in "Octopussy"), John Ratzenberger (last heard in "Inside Out"), Dolph Sweet.

RATING: 4 out of 10 interpreters

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Conversation

Year 9, Day 2 - 1/2/17 - Movie #2,502

BEFORE: I've had a day or two to live with the new chain, and now I'm thinking that I have really done the best I could, given what I had to work with.  If I pad January just a little bit (I do this by taking a look at the people I'm planning to use as links, like say, Brad Pitt, and then searching his name on my DVR to see what other films with him are available...) I think I can get the start of the romance chain just a bit closer to February 1.  And after double-checking my links, I found that two animated films I put next to each other don't really share an actor, this guy popped up on IMDB as being in "Sausage Party" because he received a "thanks" in the credits, that's a glitch I'll have to keep an eye on.  But no problem, I found another animated film that will bridge the gap, I think it's running Free on Demand now, but even if it isn't, I can probably watch it on Amazon for a couple bucks.  

So, with the addition of five films, all of which I was probably going to add at some point anyway, I've got my January line-up in place.   Thank God, because I'd already started the chain, it would have been terrible if I couldn't find the month-long chain that would get me close to Feb. 1.  And January's line-up is roughly comprised of the most important films on the list, or thereabouts, and some of the least urgent films have been moved down to the end, but if they turn out to be relevant in March, they can easily be moved back up.  Like if I go out to see "Logan" in March, it will make sense to move up those two films with Hugh Jackman in them, and also whatever they're linked to.  But since the list is ever-changing, I'll still have to re-assess things in late February.  Still, after setting aside the Sherlock Holmes films and the Halloween films, that only leaves about 60 films on my list currently unscheduled, arranged in little clusters of 2 to 5 films.  When I get some time, I can go through all of those, and make sure there are no little hidden connections that I'm currently unaware of.

And tonight the chain gets me to "The Conversation", which is on that list of "1,001 Movies To See Before You Die", and tomorrow's film is ALSO on that list.  After tomorrow, I'll have seen 396 films on that list, and I should make it to 400 by the end of February, that will be a real accomplishment!  

Today, two actors carry over from "The Black Stallion Returns", Allen Garfield and Teri Garr.  They were both also in "One From the Heart", and this all makes sense when you realize that all three films were produced by Francis Ford Coppola's studio, American Zoetrope, and that Coppola directed two of them.  It seems he had a stable of actors that he liked to work with, again and again.  My mistake, perhaps, was watching "One From the Heart" during last year's February chain, because it really screwed up the linking possibilities - but I think I've made up for that this week. 


THE PLOT: A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.

AFTER: So, it's generally regarded as a "classic" must-see film, but it's also very, very dated.  1974 was a long, long time ago, but in many ways, this film was well ahead of its time, even if the technology shown here seems incredibly crude, what with reel-to-reel tape recorders (kids, ask your parents.  OK, grandparents.) and shotgun mikes.  You may have to explain to millennials that this took place before there were surveillance cameras on every street corner, and on every computer, and inside that teddy bear.  

Of course, this film was made around the time of the Watergate scandal, when the U.S. President saw fit to secretly tape every single conversation he had in the Oval Office, and ALSO send someone to wire-tap the Democratic National Committee headquarters (is that what happened?  I was never really sure, as a kid.)  Thank God we're all beyond this, and our political parties no longer pull dirty tricks like planting recording devices, they just hack each other's e-mails and release them on WikiLeaks.  But I guess we all know now that the missing 18 minutes of Nixon's tapes are related to his actions in covering up the break-in, right?

At first, when we see Harry Caul in this film, we're not sure what his purpose is, in recording the conversation between two people in a public park.  But then, neither is he.  Is he working for the Feds? The IRS?  There's a lot of speculation, especially when their conversation seems so innocuous at first, discussing things like Christmas gifts, that homeless guy over there - ah, but they also make references to "walking in circles" and then there's that reference to meeting on Sunday at a hotel.  So, they're secret lovers, then?  Harry (and by extension, we, the audience) has a couple of different theories, but how can he really get to the bottom of things when his co-worker just won't stop distracting him?

In the meantime, Harry's got a girlfriend, who manages to hum the same exact song that he heard the woman in the park singing.  Wait, what does that mean?  Is she in on it?  How deep does the rabbit hole go?  And who's that guy over there cleaning the floor, is he really a janitor?  And so begins a long, slow descent into madness.  When Harry (and we the audience) finally learn what the purpose of the recording is, who the client is and what they're up to, that explains everything, right?  Or does it?  

There are later parts that are nearly David Lynchian, or perhaps Stanley Kubrickian - particularly the later scenes in the hotel, where we're not sure if what we're seeing is really taking place, or occuring just in Harry's mind, due to his guilty conscience.  I suppose this topic could be much debated, but I have a feeling that Coppola is much more literal than those other two directors, so if we see it, it's probably really happening.  Right?

NITPICK POINT: The film is set in San Francisco, but the opening scenes feature a "City of Paris" sign very prominently, along with a mime that's working the crowd.  For a while I thought part of the film was set in Paris, which didn't seem to make much sense, because why would an American be recording other Americans while in France?  All they needed to do was to change the sign, or eliminate the mime, or just include a shot of a famous San Francisco landmark, would that have been so hard?  It's called an "establishing shot" for a reason.  OK, so maybe it's on me, I didn't recognize Union Square in San Francisco, and I'm not aware that there used to be a store there called "City of Paris" (it's now a Neiman-Marcus).  Regardless of this, it's a confusing sign. 

NITPICK POINT #2 - We see Harry Caul synching up three reel-to-reel tape recorders.  Someone shouldn't do that manually, because there will ALWAYS be a different amount of time between him hearing the "beep" and pushing the Stop button.  This is best done by some electronic device that will stop all three tapes exactly on the beep.  Then we've got the problem of combining three different recordings of the same event, in order to make a complete "sound picture" of the people being tapped.  That seems at first like it would work, because more is better, right?  Ah, ah, not so fast - if one of those mikes dropped out, or was pointed temporarily in the wrong direction, it would have recorded some other thing, as in the "the wrong thing", and adding that track to the mix would only add more noise and confusion at that point.  In other words, if that track wasn't helpful for a while, it would only be hurtful to the overall soundscape.  And isolating a part of the track that was initially inaudible, using some other device to "enchance" or clear up the sound, I suspect is a bit of wishful movie magic.  If the sound's not there on the track, I don't see how it could be made to magically appear. 

Harrison Ford shows up about halfway through the film, and in another coincidence, I'm reading "The Princess Diarist" by Carrie Fisher, and I'm just now getting to the point where she describes her behind-the-scenes affair with Ford, in 1976 when filming the first "Star Wars" movie.  Salacious stuff to be sure, particularly because Ford was married and 13 years older (she was 19).  But I think she recounts the events well, especially when describing Harrison's natural expression as something akin to a scowl (the male equivalent of "resting bitch face") and the circumstances where he rescued her from a bunch of randy crewmen who had gotten her drunk at George Lucas' birthday party.  

Also starring Gene Hackman (last seen in "The Mexican"), John Cazale (last seen in "The Deer Hunter"), Frederic Forrest (last seen in "One From the Heart"), Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford (last seen in "K-19: The Widowmaker"), Elizabeth MacRae, Michael Higgins, Robert Duvall (last seen in "The Judge"), Robert Shields (he was a famous mime in the 1970's, yes, there once was such a thing...)

RATING: 5 out of 10 floorboards

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Black Stallion Returns

Year 9, Day 1 - 1/1/17 - Movie #2,501

BEFORE: The holidays are all about over-indulging, and for me New Year's Eve was all about binge-watching TV.  I'm almost halfway through "Mad Men", I was up to the Season 4 Christmas Party episode - I figured I should watch that before we get too far away from Christmas.  A lot of channels will run marathons on New Year's Eve, shows like "Downton Abbey" or "The Three Stooges", but I settled on a TBS show called "The Detour", since they were running all 10 episodes and it was easy to record them all.  After watching a few films last year featuring failed road trips, it made sense to watch a show about the ultimate failed road trip, as family relationships get tested, information is slowly revealed and each week, and things spiral out of control.  Plus there's a lot of raunchy humor - while I've held the line against putting advertising on this blog, if I did I'd put in a good word for "The Detour".  

But it's time for my annual memorial dedication, and this year there's been no shortage of famous people to choose from.  I know it seems like it's been a horrible year, and the first thing people point to is how many people from the world of entertainment and pop culture passed away, but the truth is, famous people are always dying, I think we just have more of them now because of the boom in pop culture that was the 1970's and 80's.  Still, what a list - EW ran tributes to Gene Wilder, Garry Shandling, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Alan Rickman, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, Glenn Frey, Muhammad Ali, Anton Yelchin, Garry Marshall, George Martin, Doris Roberts and Alan Thicke, (George Michael, Debbie Reynolds and William Christopher passed away after deadline) and then there are the big three, who I saw referred to online as Prince, the thin white Duke (Bowie) and the Princess. So it's showbiz royalty that's dying now - how could I dedicate this year to anyone but Carrie Fisher, my childhood crush?  Damn, this one hurts - but let's not forget Kenny Baker, the man inside the R2D2 suit, who was willing to do things that a robot couldn't (or wouldn't, those robots get uppity).  These two were also the start of my Star Wars autograph collection, the first year (or second?) year I went to San Diego Comic-Con, I met Kenny Baker in person, and also bought a Carrie Fisher autograph second-hand (with no COA, hey, I was a newbie) but a couple years later, Carrie was there in person, and I got to replace my first autograph with one that has a more personal message, plus I got a photo taken of us where we're cheek-to-cheek, it meant a lot to me.  So, with "Star Wars: Episode VIII" as the target for the end of 2017, this year goes out to Carrie and Kenny.  

With that decided, it was time to face the annual problem - where do I start?  How do I organize the 145 movies on the ever-changing list into a coherent chain?  I took a look at the 2017 release schedule, and it was only slightly helpful - with "Logan" coming out in March, maybe I'll hold back a couple of Hugh Jackman films, and Tom Hardy's rumored to have a role in "Star Wars", so maybe put his films on the back-burner - but that only told where NOT to start.  OK, I separated out the romance films for February, they seemed to mostly fall together into a chain, and then I saw how adding 4 or 5 films (ones that ALWAYS seem to be running on cable) it came together as a month of programming, and that gave me an potential ending point for January (actually, two, because I could always flip the February chain around...)  

Then I remembered how this "Black Stallion" sequel always drives me crazy when I re-organize the list, because it only connects to one other film.  But wait, wasn't I looking for a film that only connects to one film, for New Year's Day?  Since I don't require that the last film of one year connects to the first film of the next, it's a great way to get rid of a pesky, nearly unlinkable film.  But could I connect it to the starting point of February?  I spent a few hours the other night working out a potential chain, and eventually came up with something that was 27 films long - a bit shy of a full month, but I can always start the romance chain a couple days early, since it's too long anyway due to the Fred Astaire films.  While it's not the super-best chain, and I still need to determine what the impact will be on the rest of the year's films, any chain that gets me to "Suicide Squad", "The Hateful 8", "The Big Short", "Minions" and "Sausage Party" in the same month deserves serious consideration.  So that's the plan, since I don't have the energy to come up with something better, or the ability to determine what "better" even means in that context.


THE PLOT: A teenager loses his horse in Morocco and gets him back after various daredevil adventures.

AFTER: I watched the original "Black Stallion" film way back when I was a kid, I think my sister had read the book, so my mother dragged us to the movies to see it - but I waited 33 years to watch the sequel, because it didn't seem that important.  Funny, the actor playing Alec only aged a couple years, and here I am in my late forties, finally finding out what happened to him and the horse.  

It seems he couldn't be bothered to give the horse a name, he just calls it "Black".  Real inventive, kid. But the horse's original owners show up and call him "Shetan", and Alec learns a valuable lesson about how hanging out with a horse doesn't make him yours.  Conveniently, the old owners also state their names very clearly, so that Alec can track them down by traveling to Morocco.  

You have to remember, this was a different time - the first story was published in 1941, so let's say it was set in the late 1930's.  In those days, a young man could leave home on a quest and his mother wouldn't totally freak out, she would just say that he was "making his way in the world".  Plus, there was no way for a kid to call home, send a telegram or even write a postcard.  (Wait, that can't be right...)  Also, you could (apparently) fly to Morocco for free, just by hanging out at the airport and sneaking aboard the right plane.  Sure, you'd have to hide in the fuselage, and you wouldn't get served a meal, but by the time the airlines figure out you got a free ride, boom, you're already there.  These days, they're all just hung up on "security checks" and "having a ticket".  

But as you can tell, Alec's a resourceful teen, and when he makes it to Morocco (he probably beat the boat there by about a week, giving him plenty of time to get the lay of the land) he figures out that all he has to do to get help from the natives is say, "I want to be your guest", and any honorable Muslim man will then protect him.  I'm guessing this is Hollywood B.S., and by all rights, this infidel kid should have had his head chopped off, five times over. 

It's kind of tough to tell where the actual knowledge of Arabic culture ends, and the movie tropes kick in.  Sure, Arab-set films were trendy in 1983, following the 1981 release of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", but what did movie-goers really know about North African culture, besides the fact that people talk funny, wear turbans, and love to race horses across the desert?  It seems here that the whole of the Moroccan economy is equine-based, and whoever has the winning horse in the race gets all of the other horses, or something like that.  

Alec works his way into a caravan, by befriending a man named Raj, who's there to compete in that big horse race. (Gee, I wonder if that will be important later on...) And wouldn't you know, it, once Alec finds Shetan, he's the only one that is able to ride the horse, thanks to their bond from the first film.  So he's got to ride the horse AND win the race if he wants to have any chance of getting "his" horse back. All this culture (and Hollywood) seems to understand is winning - second place is the first loser, after all.  

That's not the message modern parents want to teach their kids - if he and Raj were such close friends, why didn't they join hands and finish the race in a tie?  That would have sent a message straight to the heart of this backward Arab culture, and everyone could have gotten what they wanted.  Why should one man's victory have to come at the expense of others?  This kid flies in from the U.S., he's a guest in their country, shouldn't he be more respectful of things he doesn't quite understand?  

Don't even get me started on casting American actors in Arab roles, or how much of a cheat it is to show a horse race in the desert, so the production didn't have to pay a lot of extras for a crowd scene at a racetrack.  In the long run, this is just your basic boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse story, but with the ending the way it is, you may wonder why he even bothered looking in the first place.  I'm surprised there wasn't a hokey ending narration saying something like, "He went looking for his horse.  What he found...was himself."

Starring Kelly Reno, Vincent Spano (last seen in "Alive"), Allen Garfield (last seen in "One From the Heart"), Teri Garr (ditto), Woody Strode, Ferdy Mayne, Jodi Thelen.  

RATING: 4 out of 10 unexplained amulets