Saturday, March 25, 2017

Now You See Me 2

Year 9, Day 84 - 3/25/17 - Movie #2,578

BEFORE: It's the end of Michael Caine week, and he's going to serve as my link back to modern films, a time machine of sorts that gets me back from the 1960's.  This would be a great time to follow up with the new film "Going in Style", which shares at least 2 actors with tonight's film, only that film doesn't get released until April 7.  Don't worry, I've got other plans.

I've also got plans to attend a Craft Beer event later today, so I've got to get all of my thoughts down right away, so I don't lose track of them.

THE PLOT: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

AFTER: This is how far we've come since 1967 - "Billion Dollar Brain" focused on a super-computer that took up several rooms, and was designed to enable a billionaire to defeat Communism.  In 2016, the "MacGuffin" of this film was a tiny computer chip that can "hack" into any system, create a backdoor that would enable a billionaire to spy on everyone.  In both cases, I'm willing to bet that the technology in question is purely fictional, really just reflecting the zeitgeist of the times, a reflection of the audience's perceived fears.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's catch up with the Four Horsemen (though I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, in case anyone out there didn't watch "Now You See Me" Part 1.  Go and do that now if you want, I'll wait.).  At the end of the first film, the Horsemen pulled a disappearing act, and at the same time, the identity of their mysterious benefactor, the "Fifth Horseman" was revealed.  And perhaps it came as a bit of a shock, but then, that's what the ending of magic tricks are supposed to be like.  So when this sequel starts, the audience in the real world has something of an advantage over the audience in the movie - we know that the Horseman who appeared to die is really alive, and we know who the Fifth Horseman is.

But there's an open slot on the team, since Isla Fisher wasn't asked back, or perhaps was busy, or turned the job down, who knows.  So what a surprise, a new token female shows up and wants to join the team, just as the other team members start to receive mysterious messages that inform them that it's time to come out of hiding, and resume their work exposing shady corporate weasels.  Their first target is a telecommunications giant who's planning to download everyone's private data from their hot new trendy Octa-phones.

But the hackers get hacked, the tricksters get tricked, the players get played.  Someone's got a better combination of science and showmanship, and happens to be targeting the same target, so the Horsemen have to check their situation, regroup and decide if they want to work for their new benefactor, and align with his agenda.  But with the resources of the world's oldest (and best?) magic shop, can they find out who the man behind the curtain is, and turn the tables to get out of their current situation?  And can they finally connect with the mysterious order of magic known as "The Eye", if it even exists?

Because of the set-up, where the first job goes sideways, and then the successive jobs don't really turn out to be what they seem, there's this overall feeling that nothing ever really comes to fruition in this film, it's a giant mess of frustration that doesn't seem to follow the rules of magic - set-up expectations, distract the audience, and then complete the. trick in a surprising way.  Where's the damn "prestige"?

And I've got the same major problems with a magic trick-based movie that I had with "Now You See Me", which is that most often, movie magic is used to make the tricks look better, to make impossible things appear to take place.  I maintain that to be really impressive, the filmmakers should have been limited to illusions that could happen in the real world, because to do otherwise is a form of cheating.  Take for example, a case where a Horseman throws a deck of cards into the air, and as the cards cascade down and cover him, he somehow vanishes.   There's probably a way to do this in the real world, but deep down, you just know that the director probably cheated, and used movie special effects, because it was easier.  Some may argue that makes a better movie, but one can also say that it sullies things quite a bit.

NITPICK POINT: Just like a magician, a movie sometimes needs to telegraph its moves.  How subtly this is done is what separates good tricks from bad tricks.  Early in the film, we're shown the Horseman practicing card throwing, so you have to know that this is going to be important.  And sure enough, there's a long sequence where card throwing is very important - but we were told earlier that there's only ONE Horseman who's very good at it, and then when the story needs them to be, suddenly they're ALL good at it?  Shenanigans.  Also, the act of card throwing is based on all playing cards having a consistent, identical weight and thus knowing all the aerodynamics involved.  If one were to, for example, stick something on the back of that card, and if that object had any significant mass whatsoever, then the aerodynamics would be off, and anyone's skill with card throwing would not work so well.  Throwing the card by the old rules would probably be impossible, and it would fly off to one side, or straight to the floor.  But thanks to movie magic, the card here still works exactly as it needs to, to advance the story.

Same problem with the rain seen in one of the later tricks, which appears to stop in place at a Horseman's command, and then rise up toward the sky.  Because there was a trick in the magic shop that telegraphed this scene, we know this was supposedly done with strobe lights.  But NITPICK POINT #2, this strobe trick works in the real world with a constant stream of water, and raindrops don't fall in constant streams, they're random - so strobe lights couldn't make raindrops appear to stand still.  Again, movie magic trumps real magic, and makes the impossible possible.  Plus, even if the rain was appearing to freeze in place or move up, it would still really be falling down, and wouldn't the audience still be getting wet?  The trick just wouldn't work. EDIT:  The explanation on IMDB says that perhaps rain machines were used, for constant streams of water, but that still doesn't make the trick work for the other reasons.

I have to apologize, because it seems to be a bit of a spoiler that Michael Caine appears here, but he was in the first one, and nearly the whole cast from the first one came back.  Plus, anyone can see from the listings on IMDB that he will make an appearance, as I did.  But there are more surprises to come, and in a similar fashion to the first film, finding out who's been pulling all the strings may want to you to go back to the beginning and watch again, with that knowledge in mind.  Well played.

But, sorry, NITPICK POINT #3, in this film the FBI goes to London to track the Four Horseman.  Last time I checked, the "F" in FBI stood for "Federal", not international.  Would the FBI even have jurisdiction there?  I doubt it.  Plus, they use a van that says "FBI" right on the side (and it's not even part of a fake sign that reads "Flowers By Irene"...), so how did they get their van across the ocean?

Also starring Jesse Eisenberg (last seen in "American Ultra"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "Foxcatcher"), Woody Harrelson (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Dave Franco (last seen in "22 Jump Street"), Daniel Radcliffe (last seen in "Victor Frankenstein"), Lizzy Caplan (last seen in "The Night Before"), Morgan Freeman (last seen in "Ted 2"), Sanaa Lathan (last seen in "Contagion"), David Warshofksy (last seen in "Taken 3"), Jay Chou (last seen in "The Green Hornet"), Tsai Chin, Richard Laing, Henry Lloyd-Hughes (last seen in "Anna Karenina"), Ben Lamb.

RATING: 6 out of 10 hypnotic suggestions

Friday, March 24, 2017

Billion Dollar Brain

Year 9, Day 83 - 3/24/17 - Movie #2,577

BEFORE: Well, the office move is over.  It was sheer hell, and I found myself at one point facing down a number of large, burly Russian movers who didn't want to work past 5 pm, and I had to convince them to not take 3/4 of our office furniture to Brooklyn and charge my boss 3 days of storage before they could deliver it all back to Manhattan on the following Monday - while simultaneously bribing the super of the new building to keep the freight elevator in operation for an extra two hours, so that the movers could finish loading everything in, once I convinced them to follow-through and complete the job.  Then I had to furiously get a few hundred boxes up onto shelves, so that there would be room to finish loading in all of the furniture.  I'm exhausted, sore and extremely upset, and convinced that I'm generally overworked, underpaid and severely under-appreciated.  And I couldn't get to sleep until about 5 am, due to a combination of excess adrenaline, caffeine and white-hot rage.  All of those chemicals and emotions had to wear off before I could keep my eyes closed.  So that happened.  Great for staying up to watch a movie, but terrible for my overall stress levels and mental health.

But some good news, I did get my watchlist back down to 133 films - I was very good over the past week and I only added one film for every two that I watched.  Maybe I should try to keep that going, and get it down to 130.  We'll see - there are a lot of films that I want to add right now.  Tonight Michael Caine carries over again, for the third of three spy films focusing on Agent Harry Palmer.

THE PLOT: A former British spy stumbles into a plot to overthrow Communism with the help of a supercomputer.  But who is working for whom?

AFTER: OK, so the 2nd film in this series was probably the best one, I'll allow no arguments on this point.  Because this one got extremely silly - it was directed by Ken Russell, famous for directing other abstract pieces like "Tommy" and "Altered States", and I'm not sure that his sensibility easily lent itself to the spy genre.

At this point in Harry Palmer's story arc, he's resigned from British Intelligence and has opened up his own private detective agency - but just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.  Why didn't they just hire him on a freelance basis?  Instead he catches his old spy boss breaking in to his P.I. office, and then later gets a phone call from a computerized voice that gives him a mission, telling him where to go to obtain a thermos that needs to be flown by hand to Helsinki.  But right off, it's a big NITPICK POINT - if he turned down the job offer from MI-5, why would he fly to Finland at the urging of a computer?  There were so many unanswered questions - who was calling, what was in the package, how much was he being paid? - that it would have been the simplest thing in the world to just not follow the computer's instructions.

But let's assume that he followed the instructions out of morbid curiosity, or the remainder of his sense of patriotic duty, or maybe he was still feeling the effects of that mind control seen in "The Ipcress File".  I didn't check - did the computer use his trigger code?  But the trip leads him to his old friend, Leo - it seems like Harry Palmer always has an old friend that turns up in once of these stories.  Leo's part of this weird paramilitary organization that's trying to take down Communist Russia, and to do this, the agents all take missions from a super-computer - the "billion dollar brain" of the title.

And let's talk about that computer for a second - which apparently can take all the current events of the world into consideration (if you put in enough punchcards) and then compute where exactly all of this organization's agents should be sent, and who they should kill there, in order to take down the Soviets.  But we used to have an expression, back in the early days of computer programming - it was "Garbage in, garbage out" or GIGO.  This means that any computer is only as good as the information that you put into it, and if the data is faulty, then anything the computer comes up with should be held suspect as well.  We see this when Leo's character is altering the data, in order to produce the results that he wants, rather than the correct projections based on the true events of the day.

So it's no big surprise when this Texas oil tycoon, General Midwinter, is seen to have a faulty plan for taking down Russia - first off, he wants to start some kind of rebellion in Latvia, and from everything I know about Latvia (one of my bosses is from there) that's just not going to work.  Latvia's independent now, but back then it was one of the Baltic states that was under Soviet control - they were a repressed republic, kind of like how Ukraine is now.  So I fail to see how a rebellion in a small Soviet-controlled state is going to take down the entire Russian government, unless this is some kind of variation on the "domino effect" from Southeast Asia.  Maybe as Latvia goes, so goes the whole U.S.S.R.?   That seems unlikely.

NITPICK POINT #2: I'm not even sure you can attack Latvia from Finland, there's a little problem in the way, and it's called Estonia.  Also, if you're going to attack with snowmobiles and tanker trucks, and go all "Ice Road Truckers" maybe it's not the best idea to do this right before the spring thaw.  But what do I know?

Also starring Karl Malden (last seen in "The Cincinnati Kid"), Ed Begley (last seen in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"), Oskar Homolka (also carrying over from "Funeral in Berlin"), Guy Doleman (ditto), Francoise Dorléac, Vladek Sheybal (last seen in "From Russia With Love"), Milo Sperber (last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me"), with cameos from Donald Sutherland (last seen in "The Trouble With Spies"), George Roubicek (also last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me").

RATING: 3 out of 10 square dancers

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Funeral in Berlin

Year 9, Day 82 - 3/23/17 - Movie #2,576

BEFORE: Yesterday was packing day, one of the animation studios I work for is moving to a new office three blocks north that's smaller and cheaper.  The lease is up after nine years in one location - and though I've moved this office three times over the years, I'm nine years older than I was the last time. Heck, last time my boss wanted to move to a cheaper place, I threatened to quit rather than move to a three-floor walk-up in Soho.  But that time we stayed in place - this time, we're out the door.  Thankfully real movers are coming later today, so I may not have to lift a lot of heavy furniture.

Which is good, because a few hours of packing today (plus fighting with the phone/internet company over the time it will take to move our service) wore me out - I had to take a nap after dinner, just to have enough strength to stay up a few more hours and watch this movie.  Now I've got to hurry and get to bed early (3 am for me is early) so I'll have some energy for helping out with the move, at least a little bit.

Michael Caine carries over for film #4 this week, the first sequel to "The Ipcress File", based on the novels of Len Deighton.

THE PLOT: A British agent is sent to Berlin to receive a Communist defector, but the true situation turns out to be rather more complicated.

AFTER: Perhaps I was a bit too quick to judge the "Harry Palmer" series, because the second film is a fair sight better than the first one.  Gone is the silly mind-control stuff, and we're back to the basics of the intelligence game - the good guys (U.S. & Britain) vs. the dirty, dirty Commies.  And there was no better setting in 1966 for a film like this than Berlin, which was divided by a giant wall into East Berlin and West Berlin (with sectors controlled by the U.S., Britain and France).  This film places Harry in East Berlin, though, where he comes up against Communists and ex-Nazis with Israeli Intelligence thrown in for good measure.

It's funny, I already watched one film this year that started with someone escaping over the Berlin Wall (that was "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") now here's one that was really made when that was a thing, and features no less than three crossing attempts.  There's one at the start of the film, and two later on - not all of them are successful, and one of them's even a much rarer West-to-East crossing.  Harry, of course, gets to pass through "Checkpoint Charlie", because he's a spy, and he's got forged papers that prove he's an underwear salesman.

See, right there, that's what makes Harry Palmer different from James Bond.  Bond wouldn't pretend to be a mild-mannered underwear salesman, because he just wouldn't need to, and you wouldn't believe that anyway.  He just walks around saying "Bond, James Bond..." and doesn't even use an alias - and if he did, you just know it would be something hella-cool, while Harry Palmer has to pretend to be Edward Dorf, because that alias is just awkward enough to be believable.

There are some Bond-like names in this film, however.  Agent Johnny Vulkan is one, and Harry gets picked up by a hot woman named Samantha Steel.  But he figures she must have targeted him, because who hits on an average-looking guy with glasses named Edward Dorf?  Ah, Harry, if only you had a little more self-esteem, you could be playing euchre with some super-villain trying to take over the world with laser-powered submarines, with Pussy Galore at your side.  And you'd be driving an Aston Martin instead of hitting up your boss for an 800-pound loan to lease a car.  But then, you wouldn't be you, would you?

Palmer is sent to Berlin to meet with Col. Stok, who seemingly intends to defect - but Harry's insolent nature makes him question everything, including why a high-ranking Communist who's got everything would want to trade it all for a little house in the English countryside, where he can tend weeds in a garden like Harry's boss.  Something doesn't add up, but Harry's willing to go along with the charade until he can find out what Stok's real game is, and then decide whether or not he wants to play it.

There's more to the story, but some of the twists are quite good and I wouldn't want to spoil them.  You may recognize the actor who plays Kreutzman, the "fixer" who arranges these innovative border crossings, he also played the evil Slugworth in the original "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" movie.  If you grew up when I did, this haunting figure who wanted to get his hands on an everlasting gobstopper was total nightmare fuel - fear not, the actor died back in 1994, he can't hurt you any more.

I'm starting to like Harry Palmer now, because he's so talk-backy with his bosses, especially when he doesn't like his assignment, or thinks it's a load of B.S., which it probably is.  After all, nothing in the spy game is what it seems to be, right?  And what does he get for almost getting his head blown off?  A steady paycheck and barely a "Thank you" from his boss - see, he's the international spy who's just like you and me!

Also starring Paul Hubschmid, Oskar Homolka (last seen in "A Farewell to Arms"), Eva Renzi, Guy Doleman (also carrying over from "The Ipcress File"), Thomas Holtzmann, Günter Meisner (last seen in "Ruby Cairo"), Hugh Burden, Heinz Schubert, Wolfgang Völz, Rainer Brandt, David Glover (also carrying over from "The Ipcress File"), Freda Bamford (ditto), Rachel Gurney, John Abineri, Marthe Keller.

RATING: 6 out of 10 nightclub transvestites

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Ipcress File

Year 9, Day 81 - 3/22/17 - Movie #2,575

BEFORE: It's time for a TV update, because taking a week off from movies, coupled with the fact that many of my favorite shows seem to be not returning until April (I guess nobody wants to compete with that March Madness basketball...) I've made great strides toward catching up.  I'm current on all talk shows, comedy news shows, "Survivor" and cooking competitions (except for "Chopped", but that's a special case), and for my second tier of shows that I store on VHS, like "Bizarre Foods", "Bar Rescue", "Face Off" and Fox's Sunday animation line-up, I'm only two months behind.  I still haven't started season 5 of "Mad Men", but that's because AMC on Demand hasn't run it yet, they've been running "Best of" collections instead, so I can't move forward on that for now.  Maybe I can manage to finish the run of that show before summer.

Meanwhile, Michael Caine week rolls on, to the first of three films starring secret agent Harry Palmer.   TCM ran these a few months back, which really helped me round out this chain.

THE PLOT: A counter-espionage agent in London deals with bureaucracy while investigating the kidnapping and brainwashing of British scientists.

AFTER: Well, if Alfie was an anti-hero, then Harry Palmer is sort of the "anti-Bond".  Imagine if Bond had to deal with some of the more tedious aspects of intelligence work, like getting his LP-10 forms filed after each case, or making sure that his license to kill got renewed every few years, and the form filed in triplicate with the appropriate fee paid, after standing in line for a few hours.  And despite what you might have seen in the "Austin Powers" films, here the scene in 1965 London isn't very colorful and swinging at all, in fact every day seems rather gray and dull.

The plot here is a bit of a snooze, it seems that a larger-than-normal number of British scientists have retired early or defected to the "other side" (that was Russia back then, I know, it's hard to imagine...) but when the latest scientist, Radcliffe, just plain disappears from a train (guess they finally got to watch Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" over in Russia...) then it's clear that something else is going on.  So Harry Palmer is transferred from one intelligence division over to another to help find Radcliffe.

Of all the agents on the case, Palmer succeeds in locating the suspected kidnapper, probably because he's willing to think outside the box, and instead of just visiting the man's usual haunts, he calls in a favor from a friend at Scotland Yard and traces the man's assistant through his parking tickets.  It's the kind of un-exciting surveillance trick that probably pays off more than you think in the real world.  Today, of course, it's probably easier to track a suspect's credit card purchases and EZ Pass scans, but back then, I guess you worked with what you had.

A hunch leads to Palmer calling in a raid on a warehouse leads to the discovery of a fragment of an audiotape with the word "Ipcress" on it, and this apparently significant clue is then brought back to the office and placed in a file folder - that's the Ipcress file of the title.  And presumable this file was then stored in the Ipcress File Cabinet, and eventually thrown out into the Ipcress Circular File (that's office-speak for "wastebasket").

This leads to a discovery of a stress-torture plot, and a watered-down version of the mind control seen in films like "The Manchurian Candidate" - maybe this should have been called "The Manchester Candidate", but I don't know enough about the U.K. to even know if they were anywhere near Manchester.  But exactly who's involved in this brainwashing scheme, and exactly how deep does the conspiracy go?  The answers are...moderately interesting.

But I guess that maybe means this is exactly where I should be, as this is the kind of significant, but not terribly exciting, spy film that one might watch after many more prominent ones - if James Bond was covered in Year 5 of the project, this seems about right for Year 9.

Also starring Nigel Green, Guy Doleman (last seen in "Dial M for Murder"), Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson (last seen in "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962)), Aubrey Richards, Frank Gatliff, Thomas Baptiste, Oliver MacGreevy, Freda Bamford, David Glover, Stanley Meadows, Anthony Blackshaw, Barry Raymond.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cans of mushrooms

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sweet Liberty

Year 9, Day 80 - 3/21/17 - Movie #2,574

BEFORE: This is the first of about 8 or 10 films that I recently rescued from the "Unlinkables" pile, thanks to my recent linking rampage and subsequent re-organization of the watchlist.  It would have been great to save this for some patriotic time like July 4, but if I don't watch it now, between two other Michael Caine films, I don't know if I'll have another chance to link to it, so it's got to get watched now.

It's pretty slick, I know - in just a few simple steps I went from the Fred Astaire chain to Michael Caine week, and those aren't even two actors that I associate with each other, nor have they ever starred in a film together, I think.  Yep, I'm right, according to the Oracle of Bacon there's no direct link, I'd have to go through Liz Taylor or Robert Wagner or Burgess Meredith, but instead I accomplished that with two Audrey Hepburn movies.

So Caine carries over from "Alfie" and I've got 4 more of his films on tap.

THE PLOT: An author who was written a scholarly book on the Revolutionary War and sold the film rights has his life disrupted by the arrival of the film crew, and also becomes infatuated with the movie's female lead.  He is also fighting with his crazy mother and his girlfriend is talking about commitment.

AFTER:  This film has large similarities to "State and Main", written and directed by David Mamet.  I would seriously say there's a potential lawsuit - both stories are about big Hollywood productions taking place in small, colonial towns, and in both cases the central figure's a writer who flirts with the star actress and is in a love triangle with the plain, hometown girl who's a better match for him.  Meanwhile the lead actor is a horndog who's sleeping with a local woman, the director's a dictator, and the writer goes on to have a crisis of conscience that mirrors the one seen in the film.

Of course, there are differences - in "State and Main" the writer is part of the Hollywood production, and in this film he's a local author.  But there's another writer character who IS part of the Hollywood crew.  And in "Sweet Liberty" the lead male actor is American, here he's British.  But once you get past the Revolutionary War tie-in, it's plain to see that both films are using the same playbook - directors are dicks, actors sleep around, writers are conflicted and angst-y.

But here come my complaints - first of all, the relationship between the author and his co-college professor girlfriend is just all over the place.  I mean, there's no rhyme or reason to it - they've both been married before, so maybe that's why neither one is keen on getting married, but neither is against marriage in a consistent way.  He wants her to move in, she doesn't want to, but then later he accuses her of being manipulative and trying to angle for marriage.  But then SHE turns this back on HIM, saying that this accusation is a reflection of his own fears.  Wait, what?  At this point I couldn't tell which one of them was for marriage and which was against - and you really kind of need that disagreement in order to have a conflict, because otherwise they're both working toward marriage or they're both fine without it, and then there's no drama for them that brings about their attraction to other people.

Secondly, and this is a major NITPICK POINT, I think - it's too much of a coincidence for the Hollywood film crew to come to the SAME town where the author teaches, in order to make the film.  If it's a large, open field you're looking for to host the battle scenes, well, you can find that just about anywhere.  "Hey, how about that grassy field about two hours north of Hollywood?  We'd save thousands on airfare."  "Nah, let's bring everyone across the country so we can shoot in the same town where the author lives..."  I'm just not buying that.  The primary decision in choosing a location would be how a place looks on camera, not the proximity to the original author of the work.

Another NITPICK POINT - would Hollywood really try to turn a Revolutionary War story into a teen-friendly comedy?  Because "The Patriot" with Mel Gibson was such a laugh riot...  The closest movies I can think of that tried to find humor in history would be things like "Almost Heroes" or "Wagons East" and those weren't exactly box office successes.  For the most part, adding comedy to history would be like putting chocolate sauce on an onion.  Maybe something like "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" would count, but that just can't be taken seriously.

Then there are all these threads that never really come together, or add very much to the picture overall.  The author's mother is very old, and has some form of dementia that causes her to think her food is being poisoned and that the Devil lives in her kitchen.  She also thinks that her old boyfriend (from what, like the 1930's) is going to come back for her someday - even when the author tracks him down, it's a tangential plot point that goes absolutely nowhere.   The lead actor being able to fly a helicopter, the side-trip to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park, these are all just time-killers that don't come close to circling back to any larger points.

It's probably worse that the film itself feels the need to mansplain everything to us, including the entire filmmaking process.  Wait, you mean that screenwriters are often instructed to change things when they adapt a book into a movie?  And movies that show historical events are often not accurate?  And writers, actors and actresses sometimes have input that directors don't like or feel free to ignore? We KNOW all of these things, and characters such as Alda's writer who don't seem to understand them just end up looking stupid.

Furthermore, the film states that the director has the final say over what the movie's going to end up looking like, and then can't help but contradict this idea.  The simple truth is that anyone who disagrees with the director of a film can be fired, replaced or barred from the set.  The author may have "consultation rights" as depicted here, but the director can just later ignore the points he raises, as also depicted here.  But continuing to undermine the authority of a film's director just doesn't lead to any good end, and certainly won't have comic consequences such as these.

Also starring Alan Alda (last seen in "What Women Want"), Michelle Pfeiffer (last seen in "The Story of Us"), Bob Hoskins (last seen in "Enemy at the Gates"), Lise Hilboldt, Lillian Gish (last seen in "The Night of the Hunter"), Saul Rubinek (last seen in "Against All Odds"), Lois Chiles (last seen in "The Great Gatsby" (1974)), Linda Thorson, Leo Burmester, Timothy Carhart, Dann Florek (last seen in "The Flintstones"), John C. McGinley (last heard in "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies"), Lynne Thigpen (last seen in "The Warriors").

RATING: 4 out of 10 cannon blasts

Monday, March 20, 2017

Alfie (1966)

Year 9, Day 79 - 3/20/17 - Movie #2,573

BEFORE: I got inspired by last night's film about those road-trips in France, and today I started planning my annual San Diego Comic-Con trip for real, locking down both my flight (non-stop, that's how I roll) and my AirBnb reservation.  Only a newbie still books hotels for Comic-Con - they're crowded with loud, rowdy (shudder) other people.  Don't they know they can get a private room in someone else's apartment for a fair price that's just a 20-minute trolley ride from the convention center?  I mean, come on, get with the program...after a day in a convention center full of nerds, why would I want to spend the night in a hotel, surrounded by more of them?

Eleanor Bron carries over from "Two For the Road", where she played the American girlfriend, and tonight she plays Alfie's doctor.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Alfie" (2004) (Movie #2,339)

THE PLOT: An unrepentant ladies' man gradually begins to understand the consequences of his lifestyle.

AFTER: This January 1, I implemented a new rule, that will allow me to link directly between two movies that feature the same character, even if played by different actors.  Had that rule been in place last year, I could have linked between the two "Alfie" movies, but it wasn't, so I didn't.  I still got there anyway, and now I've got 5 more Michael Caine films to follow this one.  I love actors like Caine, or, say, Donald Sutherland, who have had such long careers that I can use them to link between movies from the 1960's (hard to believe, but this film is now FIFTY years old...) and more current ones.  Yes, I'm headed back to the present, but I just need to make a few more stops first.

But my timing couldn't be better, when you think about it - even if this is the last official film in my romance chain for this year.  For one thing, I started it way back in the last days of February with a few films about infidelity - "Dirty Grandpa" and "Sleeping With Other People", and now I'm ending it with two films on a similar topic.  Plus, today is the first day of spring, and that famous saying is that spring is when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love.

But Alfie's more of a "love 'em and leave 'em" type, and I'm not exactly sure why that makes him someone to build a film around.  Is he a hero?  An anti-hero?  A terrible role model?  A moral lesson?  I'm left wondering what purpose the story of Alfie serves.  Since he seems to believe that all women are put on earth for his pleasure, his attitude seems antiquated at best.  But again, this was 50 years ago, and I'd like to think that as a society we've moved well beyond what Alfie represents.

Even when his regular "bird" gets no monthly visit from her "old friend" (that means she's pregnant) Alfie has a definite limit regarding how far he can mature.  He certainly can't consider marriage, and even though he's there for the baby's delivery (OK, not really there, he showed up the next day...) he can't wait to find an excuse to leave his girl and not come back.  It seems he'd rather watch her new husband raise his son than step up and do the right thing himself.

To be fair, Alfie's got a good thing going, meeting up with various married women and getting the car windows all steamed up - another woman takes care of his corns, as long as he takes care of her in return, and he's running a number of profitable scams while working as a chauffeur.  But it's only the pleasurable part of relationships that he's accustomed to, he always manages to avoid the pain and commitment.  Finally the tables are turned on him when he realizes that one of his older women has another man younger than him, and therefore he's no longer as young as he used to be.  Perhaps that's the "empathy" that Hepburn's character was talking about in "Funny Face"?

The famous song asks "What's it all about, Alfie?" and I'm not sure that by the end I was any closer to finding an answer, because the final message is a bit unclear, and the symbolism of the stray dog was maybe a bit too on-the-nose.

Also starring Michael Caine (last seen in "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), Shelley Winters (last seen in "Harper"), Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher (last seen in "The Masque of the Red Death"), Shirley Anne Field, Vivien Merchant (last seen in "Frenzy"), Denholm Elliott (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Alfie Bass (last seen in "Stage Fright"), Murray Melvin (last seen in "Barry Lyndon"), Graham Stark, Sydney Tafler (last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me").

RATING: 5 out of 10 steak and kidney pies

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Two For the Road

Year 9, Day 78 - 3/19/17 - Movie #2,572

BEFORE: Audrey Hepburn carries over from "Funny Face", and if you allow the possibility that most of the Fred Astaire films concerned such topics as love and/or marriage, then my annual February romance-themed chain is still going on.  It's possible that it never stopped, but I can't really be sure.  Tonight's film continues the theme - perhaps I should have saved some of these films for next February, in case I'm still doing this next February, but there's no way to accurately predict that (but probably...).  I just got a bunch of Richard Burton relationship-themed films (some with Liz Taylor, some without) and if I can delay those until February 2018, combined with the other relationship films I didn't get to this year, that's about 10 films, but that number could easily grow between now and then to fill up a month.

THE PLOT: A couple in the south of France non-sequentially spin down the highways of infidelity in their troubled ten-year marriage.

AFTER: The key word in that plot line is probably "non-sequentially", and I admit I missed it when I programmed this one.  Yes, the scenes are all out of order here - well, not entirely, because each road-trip depicted plays out in order, but there are four (or is it five?) road trips combined here, and the focus toggles between all of them.  So this is the type of structure that I usually hate, where the director (Stanley Donen, carrying over from "Funny Face") just gives us all the pieces, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, as if to say, "Here, YOU put it all together..." when that, in my opinion, should be his job.

I had no idea that this technique was used as far back as 1967, I'm more familiar with it being used in more modern films, especially science-fiction ones, and also in comic books from the past few years. Ideally it should only be used to withhold specific information, so that when information from a past or future scene is juxtaposed with one from the present, it lends another meaning to it, or enables the viewer to gain further insight.  And that does happen here, but the technique is easily over-used, lending itself to an "everything at once" approach that is not only disconcerting, but forces the audience to spread attention so thin, we're everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

I'll admit that some of the juxtapositions are very clever, like showing a character jumping into bed in one timeline, and landing in a swimming pool in another.  Or cutting between a pair of cooked lobsters served on one holiday, and our central married couple getting sunburned on a different trip.  But by the end of the film the scenes become shorter and shorter, until most of them probably average only a few seconds, and by then they're so different regarding the state of the marriage and the emotions involved that any viewer is bound to feel a little bi-polar.  We're happy, we're sad, they're in love, they're fighting, they're falling in love, they're falling apart.  By the end, I really didn't know if I should be rooting for the couple to stay together, or if splitting up might have been the better course for them to take in the end.

Wikipedia did help clarify the number of road trips that are mixed together here - there's the one where Joanna and Mark meet, obviously, a second where they're traveling with Mark's old girlfriend from the U.S. and her husband, a third trip where they drive around in a finicky MG car, then meet a wealthy man who becomes Mark's client, a fourth trip where they're traveling with their young daughter, and then a fifth and possibly a sixth where their marriage is tested in a certain way.  Finally there's the most recent trip, apparently the framing sequence for everything else as they remember past trips - and where things are (finally, possibly) resolved - but should it be this much work for me to figure out what happens when?

And, the bigger question for me, was there any attempt made to tell this story sequentially, only to find that it didn't work, or was it always planned to constantly jump around in time?  I guess I should be complimenting the film on the fact that it doesn't shy away from any of the complex issues surrounding a particular marriage, good and bad, so it has all the feels, both high and low - but the format is so distracting that it's hard to keep it all straight.

Also starring Albert Finney (last seen in "The Bourne Legacy"), Eleanor Bron (last seen in "Hyde Park on Hudson"), William Daniels (last seen in "The Parallax View"), Claude Dauphin, Nadia Gray, Georges Descrieres, Jacqueline Bisset (last seen in "Bullitt"), Judy Cornwell, Gabrielle Middleton, Irene Hilda, Dominique Joos.

RATING: 4 out of 10 blueprints