Friday, May 12, 2017

28 Days

Year 9, Day 133 - 5/13/17 - Movie #2,628

BEFORE: Margot Martindale carries over from "The Hollars", and while this film may not have much to do with Mother's Day, it provides the link through Margot that I need to get there.  I had this scheduled for the end of May to follow "Our Brand Is Crisis", but in that case it would have created a dead-end to the chain, but moving it here to replace "Drugstore Cowboy" at the last minute gives it more of a purpose.


THE PLOT: A newspaper columnist is forced to enter a drug and alcohol rehab center after ruining her sister's wedding and crashing a stolen limousine.

AFTER: There's probably a great, incisive film to me made about addiction and the rehab process, but I'm not sure that this is it.  Mainly because normal people have addictions, plenty of people are apparently powerless over drugs and/or alcohol and find the 12-step programs to be helpful, but this seemed to be more about one person's individual arrogance, and coming to terms with the consequences of her destructive behavior.  I mean, I guess you can tell the bigger story by focusing on the smaller story, but is the result really the same?

Plus, isn't it overly simplistic to tie the main character's alcohol abuse to her boyfriend, making him not just an enabler for her addiction, but also a convenient plot device?  And once the film identifies him as an enabler, well aren't we then all supposed to root for the demise of the relationship, so she can finally stay sober?  Why can't she change her behavior and have a relationship, why is that deemed to be impossible?  It seems she gave that possibility the most cursory of tries.

It probably didn't help that she noticed the hunky baseball star who checked in to rehab about a week after she did.  I guess maybe if that's enough to make her question her relationship, then maybe it wasn't that solid in the first place.  Or maybe getting wasted and getting into trouble were the only two things they had in common, I don't know.

I admit I have very little idea about what goes on in a rehab center, except I used to watch "Celebrity Rehab", and that show hasn't been on in years.  (It might be time to bring it back, hint hint...)  Still, it's hard for me to believe the path to sobriety goes through making chewing gum wrapper necklaces and convincing a horse to let you lift up its leg.  Is that a real thing, or did some screenwriter use random therapy ideas to fill in the gaps when he also had no idea what goes on in rehab?

And there is a Mother's Day connection, since we learn through flashbacks that the main character's mother was a user too, so it could be one of those "I learned it from watching YOU!" situations - Happy (almost) Mother's Day!

Also starring Sandra Bullock (last heard in "Minions"), Viggo Mortensen (last seen in "Ruby Cairo"), Dominic West (last seen in "From Time to Time"), Elizabeth Perkins (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Steve Buscemi (last heard in "Hotel Transylvania 2"), Alan Tudyk (last heard in "Rogue One"), Azura Skye (last seen in "Red Dragon"), Mike O'Malley (last seen in "Concussion"), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (last seen in "Robocop" (2014)), Diane Ladd (last seen in "Joy"), Reni Santoni (last seen in "The Brady Bunch Movie"), Susan Krebs, Loudon Wainwright III (last seen in "True Story"), Elizabeth Ruscio, with cameos from Elijah Kelley (last seen in "The Butler") and the band NRBQ.

RATING: 4 out of 10 group sessions

The Hollars

Year 9, Day 132 - 5/12/17 - Movie #2,627

BEFORE: I was out last night at a beer-tasting event at the New York Athletic Club, and that's about as close as I ever get to going to a gym or fitness club.  It's a weird place, like a rec center for rich people, and there's a business-like dress code to get into the place - no t-shirts, no blue jeans and no sneakers.  You heard that right, it's a gym that you can't wear sneakers to.  My ex-boss is a member and invited me.  The place is gorgeous, and we were up on the 24th Floor, overlooking Central Park from the south, and if you're drinking good beer with that amazing view, all seems right with the world.  Now, I got there a little late and we missed out on the schnitzel, but I did get some potato salad and a pretzel, and then after we hit one of the many restaurants in the complex and grabbed a bite.  There's a hotel on site for members and their guests, plus a bar on every floor, or so it seems.  There are rumors that the Club even has a pool, basketball and handball courts, but I've been there three times and never seen anything like that. 

My original plan was to put "10 Cloverfield Lane" before "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and then follow up with another Kurt Russell film, but I'm changing the plan at the last second, and rescheduling that Kurt Russell film and another film for June.  Why?  Because I noticed that Mary Elizabeth Winstead could carry over from "10 Cloverfield Lane" into this film, which JUST started running on premium cable.  This would then get me to Mother's Day in one less step, provided I break up the 2 Sandra Bullock films on the list - it would have resulted in a dead-end, I think, if I had run them together anyway. 

This also allows me to program another mom-centric film (I think) in advance of Mother's Day.  Sure, there are plenty to choose from (not making the cut this year: "Mamma Mia", sorry...) and I can still get back on the original schedule as of Sunday, and connect to Memorial Day (gotta start thinking about a Father's Day film now...).  As a bonus, I can now see past Memorial Day and I have a rough schedule that gets me to about June 7 or so.   That's a win across the board.


THE PLOT: A man returns to his small hometown after learning that his mother has fallen ill and is about to undergo surgery.

AFTER: I don't know what the exact term for this type of movie is, or what it should be if there is no overarching term - but it's an ensemble comedy/drama where a family comes together for a tragedy and during their time together, they bounce off each other in new and awkward ways, painting a portrait of a bunch of failed or messed-up people, each with their own problems.  Family secrets are exposed, disputes are hashed out, and the end result is a blend of happy and sad things that's supposed to represent real life.  See also "August: Osage County", "This Is Where I Leave You" and probably many others. 

The goal seems to be to pack the maximum amount of drama into the minimum running time, which here includes the patriarch's failing plumbing business, the unemployment of his son, who also regrets splitting up with his ex-wife and still spies on her and his daughters from his parked car outside - while the other brother, who moved to NYC years ago and rarely, if ever, calls home (apparently) because he's got a girlfriend who's pregnant, which causes him doubt over whether he's cut out to be a father, and returning to his hometown puts him in touch with his ex-girlfriend, who's in a failing marriage with a guy who's his ex-classmate and also just happens to be his mother's hospital nurse.  Whew, that's a lot to take in, did I miss anything? 

And that's just the set-up, there's more drama ahead.  I'm not saying this isn't all possible, because it feels very real, however it relies on a great deal of coincidence to make these connections possible.  Still, this film premiered at Sundance in 2016, and I bet it did really well there, it feels very much like a festival film.  By contrast, too many love stories and family dramas may feel over-simplified, like when a character is a daughter or an artist or a cat owner, because she couldn't possibly be all three things at once. 

Check this one out if you can, but get ready to have all the feelings...

Also starring John Krasinski (last seen in "Aloha"), Margo Martindale (last seen in "In Dreams"), Sharlto Copley (last heard in "Chappie"), Richard Jenkins (last heard in "Turbo"), Anna Kendrick (last seen in "Pitch Perfect 2"), Josh Groban (last seen in "Muppets Most Wanted"), Charlie Day (last seen in "Vacation"), Randall Park (last seen in "The Night Before"), Ashley Dyke (last seen in "12 Years a Slave"), Mary Kay Place (last seen in "The Intern"), Isabela Costine, Didi Costine. 

RATING:  6 out of 10 wheelchairs

Thursday, May 11, 2017

10 Cloverfield Lane

Year 9, Day 131 - 5/11/17 - Movie #2,626

BEFORE: This might seem like an odd next choice, but according to the IMDB, Bradley Cooper is in this film.  Well, OK, his voice is, but for me, that counts.  I had no other way to link in or out of this film up until about a day ago - so at first I had this one coming before "Guardians of the Galaxy 2", but I just figured out another way to link from here to "Mother's Day", so I'm going to change things up, just a little.  I was going to link via Kurt Russell to "The Art of the Steal" and from there through Matt Dillon to "Drugstore Cowboy", but now the plan has changed.  (That plan would have required me to watch a linking film on iTunes for $3.99, but now I found a cheaper way to get to the same place.  I'll get back to those other films I just mentioned in a few weeks.)


THE PLOT: After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.

AFTER: Yes, it's true, Bradley Cooper's voice is the first one you hear in this film - he's the boyfriend talking with the main character, Michelle, on the phone, trying to convince her to come back.  Apparently they had some kind of fight, and she drove off.  Never drive angry, kids.  Because then she gets into an accident, and wakes up in the situation described above.  And that's really all I want to say about the plot, because of possible spoilers.  As it is, I probably read too much about this film before I saw it, and that would be a mistake, because the twists are pretty good.

But a loose theme is developing for me this week, and not just because this is the second film this week set in an underground location ("Ex Machina" also featured a house that was mostly underground).  I just paid $1.99 for the film "Room" on Demand to pair with this one - this is about where I'm at now with movies, if I can pair a film with another one like it, and that costs me a couple of bucks, that's OK, it's worth it to keep my watchlist full and my DVR empty.  Also, if I can maintain or extend my linking chain by watching a film on iTunes or borrowing an Academy screener from my boss, I'm just going to do that.  Not often, just whenever necessary - maybe two or three times a month each, because I still need to make progress on that watchlist, and I'll never do that if I'm adding films by streaming them, instead of watching what I already have on DVD.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah, this week's theme.   It's something about family and teamwork, but also deception is in there somewhere.  The men in the raft and POW camp in "Unbroken" formed a loose working team, and then in "Ex Machina" there was supposed to be a romantic connection formed between the robot and its examiner, but the deception got in the way.  In "Burnt" the people working together in the restaurant formed a team and loose family, but even then, there was deception lurking among the chefs.  Tonight it's the team bond that gets formed between three people in a fallout shelter, and the (possible) deception that might lie behind the situation as we see it.  (This topic ties in very well topic with my last post on "Guardians of the Galaxy"...)

I don't want to say much more, because the best option on this is going in as cold as possible, so you're just as confused as the main character is.  But this is where the casting of John Goodman turned out to be so genius, because that's the guy who played lovable Dan Conner, lovable Sully from "Monsters, Inc." and that guy in "True Stories" who maintained the "consistent, huggable, panda-bear shape".  But it's also the guy who played the evil Cyclops in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the bank robber in "Raising Arizona", and that boisterous Speaker of the House on "The West Wing".  So he could go either way here, or just be playing a well-meaning lunatic on the edge, like he did in "The Big Lebowski".  The whole film here sort of hinges on figuring this out.

Also starring John Goodman (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (last seen in "Death Proof"), John Gallagher Jr. (last seen in "Whatever Works"), Suzanne Cryer.

RATING:  5 out of 10 jigsaw puzzles

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Year 9, Day 130 - 5/10/17 - Movie #2,625 - VIEWED ON 5/8/17

BEFORE: I went to the movies on Monday evening, which turns out to be the BEST time to see a movie, even a blockbuster that just got released.  I can sit wherever I want in the theater, there's no real line at the concession stand, I can catch a burger after - because who the hell goes out on a Monday night?  Me, that's who.

But that means it's time for a preview review, before the movie review.  (Note: I don't call them "trailers", because they no longer "trail" after the film, like they used to in the old days.)  I saw previews for "The Mummy", "Spider-Man: Homecoming", "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", "Thor: Ragnarok", "Dunkirk", "Transformers: The Last Knight", "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets".  Three up, three down, and two on the bubble.

The winners: "Spider-Man", "Thor" and "Star Wars", which should come as no surprise.  Looks like Iron Man will be guest-starring in the "Spider-Man" movie and Hulk in the "Ragnarok" film, which looks like it also incorporates the gladiatorial elements of "World War Hulk".  The new "Thor" movie will also feature Hela, the goddess of death, and the "Spider-Man" movie will have Michael Keaton as the Vulture.  This is all good news.  From the "Star Wars" trailer, we learn that Luke will be training Rey, Finn's still in a coma, and lots of spaceships blow up.  OK, no real shockers there, but is it time to start lining up for tickets yet?

(My only NITPICK POINT on the above is that the excessive multi-cultural revamping of Spider-Man's history can't be reconciled with the original comics.  Giving Peter Parker high-school friends of all races is fine, but then why keep the original names?  "Ned Leeds" is not a great name for an Asian kid, and "Flash Thompson" shouldn't be played by the Indian bellboy from "The Grand Budapest Hotel". Flash was a big Caucasian bully, this now seems like political correctness has gone too far.)

Two films I will consider watching, either in the theater or next year on cable: "The Mummy" and the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" film.  I got burned really bad by the last "Pirates" film, which was confusing as all heck, had way too many characters and no clear plot direction.  From this trailer, it doesn't seem like anything has changed, though they're returning to story elements from the first film, with a ship full of zombie/ghosts.  That could be good, or perhaps it just means they've run out of ideas and are forced to repeat themselves.  The dead also return in form of the new "Mummy", which seems to serve as a good excuse to make Tom Cruise do a lot of impossible stunt-work to fight her.  Yes, HER, the Mummy is a woman, which I hope is a decent enough twist.

Films that I have little or no interest in: "Dunkirk" (even though it's directed by Christopher Nolan, it seems like a no-twist plot) "Transformers: The Last Knight" (I've avoided this franchise for this long, there's no real reason to change that now...) and "Valerian", which just looks dumb, especially if I can spot nitpick points in the trailer.  "Our society is in trouble, for the first time in 1,000 years - so we're going to send you TWO people to fix things..."  Screw that, send everybody!  Why would you entrust the shared knowledge of 1,000 worlds to a couple of hormonal, unreliable teens?  Makes no sense.

Back to the real movie - Bradley Cooper carries over from "Burnt".


THE PLOT: Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, the team continue their adventures as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill's true parentage.

AFTER: The first "Guardians" film was really a re-tread of the first "Avengers" film - but this sequel is truly original, really gets to showcase what an intergalactic team can be capable of doing.  And teamwork makes the dream work, once again.  The Entertainment Weekly review took issue with the fact that the team gets separated in this film, and therefore there's less of the funny team bickering that made the first film stand out - but I disagree, I think the bickering only gets you so far, and by splitting the team in two here (for an "A"-plot and a "B"-plot) only serves to make it that much more special when the team comes together.  Did it bother people when Luke went to Dagobah in "The Empire Strikes Back" while Han and Leia went to Bespin?  Of course not - you have to let these characters grow and evolve, and sometimes that means splitting them up.

Plus, this allows for interaction with other characters that results in secondary characters from the first film essentially joining the team, or at least forming uneasy alliances that allow them to work together for common goals.  This is how the comic books work - the Guardians of the Galaxy had an open membership there for a while, in addition to the core members the team had Kitty Pryde from the X-Men, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, Venom from the Spider-Man comics, and Angela, who got imported into Marvel from another publisher, but was then revealed to be Thor's lost half-sister.  But to coincide with the release of this film, Marvel cancelled the "Guardians of the Galaxy" comic book, just to re-launch it a month later with just the 5 core members and a new title - "All-New Guardians of the Galaxy".  Gee, how original.  (Were the previous comics only Half-New?)

I realize that the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is different from that of the Marvel Comics Universe (also MCU - gee, I can't imagine why fans are confused...) which allows the movies to go wherever they want, within reason.  In the movies, Yondu is Star-Lord's adoptive father and the leader of the Ravagers, but in the comic books, Yondu is a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy from a future century, who frequently time-travel back to help the Avengers - and in their own time, interact with the future descendants of the modern characters, and the ones that live forever, like Thor and Hercules.  It's complicated.  (Marvel recently did a limited series where the Guardians of the 21st century teamed up with the Guardians of the year 3,000, and also another team of Guardians from 1,000 AD.  That was very confusing.)

So my concern from first film was over the mis-use of Yondu, since he's been placed in the "wrong" century.  They almost make up for that fact with the connection to Star-Lord, making Yondu a de facto member of the Guardians, and including cameos from Aleta, Charlie-27 and Martinex, which is kind of like the next best thing to using them properly.

The one thing that was revealed on talk shows prior to this film's release (no spoilers here) was the casting of Kurt Russell as Peter Quill's father, named Ego.  And Marvel comic fans can infer a lot about the plot just from that name.  The planet-sized special effects in this film are simply awesome - plus they found a new way of making characters look tiny in large environments, they often look like the little figures on a model train set, only they're alive.  Is this "tilt-shift" photography, or something else?  I feel the need to also give a shout-out to whatever made Kurt Russell look young, exactly like he did in the 1970's.  Based on the credit for someone used as facial reference, this could seem to be the same technique that allowed a young Princess Leia to appear in "Rogue One" - they maybe found a young actor who looked a little like Kurt Russell, filmed him in the scenes and then digitally placed Russell's likeness over the stand-in.  (EDIT: Nope, the filmmakers now say it was just make-up and CGI enhancements? B.S.)

This sequel is all about family - not just the team/family that was formed in the first film, but the father/son relationship between Ego and Star-Lord, the step-father/son relationship with Yondu, and then the sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula, who were both daughters of Thanos.  They came close to making Nebula a sympathetic character, which is a real accomplishment, considering how big of a villain she is in the comic books.  But that's the MCU Guardians - their alliances are always shifting, and that makes the universe feel more real, it's not just separated into good guys and bad guys.  Today's villain is tomorrow's ally, especially if a bigger villain comes along.  One day you're fighting the Ravagers, the next you might be working with them, and then you're back to fighting again.  (The only other films I know with shifting alliances like this are those damn "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels.)

But these relationships do manage to advance nearly all of the characters here, except maybe for Baby Groot - but that's OK because he's so darn cute.  And allowing Gamora to work with Nebula goes a long way toward setting up "Avengers: Infinity War" - if the comics are any indication, once Thanos finally strikes, the Avengers are going to need all the help they can get.

There are also the FIVE post-film credit sequences that usually tease upcoming Marvel movie storylines.  One of these, I suspect, is much more important to Guardians Vol. 3 than the others.

Also starring Chris Pratt (last seen in "Bride Wars"), Zoe Saldana (last seen in "Star Trek Beyond"), Dave Bautista (last seen in "Spectre"), Michael Rooker (last seen in "Undisputed"), Karen Gillan (last seen in "The Big Short"), Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell (last seen in "The Hateful Eight"), Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Assassins"), Elizabeth Debicki (last seen in "Everest"), Sean Gunn (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Laura Haddock (ditto), Chris Sullivan, Tommy Flanagan, Evan Jones (last seen in "A Million Ways to Die in the West"), and the voices of Vin Diesel (last seen in "XXX"), Seth Green (last heard in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Miley Cyrus (last seen in "The Night Before") with cameos from Steve Agee (last seen in "Super"), Rob Zombie, Ving Rhames (last seen in "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"), Michael Rosenbaum (last seen in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Michelle Yeoh (last seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies"), Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "Man of the Year"), David Hasselhoff and Stan Lee (last seen in "Doctor Strange").

RATING: 9 out of 10 hyperspace jumps

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Burnt

Year 9, Day 129 - 5/9/17 - Movie #2,624

BEFORE: Just in case "Race" wasn't enough of a double-meaning title, tonight we've got a word that could refer to the state of the chef or the food that he cooks.  (He's burnt out, get it?)

Alicia Vikander carries over from "Ex Machina", and I kick off a Bradley Cooper chain at the same time - it's a good week for that.  OK, I admit it, I snuck out to see "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" tonight, and I'll post the review in a couple of days.  I need the linking that film provides to get me to "Mother's Day".

This film was originally titled "Chef", but then changed its title when the Jon Favreau-directed film "Chef" came out - I'm still waiting for some channel to run "Chef", what's the hold-up?  I was going to pair that one with this one, but I can't wait any longer.


THE PLOT: Adam Jones is a chef who destroyed his career with drugs and diva-like behavior.  He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a restaurant that can earn three Michelin stars.

AFTER: Chefs are the new rock stars, I get that - and it's been that way for a couple of decades now.  We started with Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud, and then once talk shows and reality TV hit, suddenly there were more superstar chefs than you could shake a stick (of butter) at.  "Top Chef", "Iron Chef", and "Chopped" all created their own TV heroes and villains, as if cooking could possibly have winners and losers.  Then came "The Taste", "The Chew", "Top Chef Masters", "Cupcake Wars", "British Baking Competition", "Chopped Junior", and now "Iron Chef Gauntlet", among many others.  (I admit it, I watch most of them...)

If it's even possible to designate a turning point in turning cooking into entertainment, I'm going to single out Anthony Bourdain, with his books "Kitchen Confidential" and "A Cook's Tour", the latter of which was turned into the first (and possibly best) combination of food and travel shows, as Bourdain left his NYC restaurant to travel to Europe, Asia and Mexico to not only eat, but to have the experiences that come along with eating in foreign places.  And the other book, "Kitchen Confidential", later got turned into a Fox sitcom starring, what a coincidence, Bradley Cooper.  Bourdain, meanwhile, burned all his bridges at the Food Network, which aired "A Cook's Tour", and then had a show on Travel Channel called "No Reservations", which ran for years before he burned all his bridges there, and now he's got a show on CNN which I don't watch, because it doesn't really feel like a "news" show, so I think it's blatantly on the wrong network, and I won't be tricked into watching CNN.

All of this food-based programming is fairly ridiculous, because there's no possible way for the audience at home to truly experience the food, at least not by just looking at it.  A movie about making food, even beautiful, meticulously crafted food, faces the same problem.  It has to rely on words and images to convince me that this food is GOOD, and that's just never going to work, we're missing the best part of the experience.  That's probably why we have the term "food porn", because the images, as enticing as they are, are merely a substitute for the real thing.  They will trick you into some kind of satisfaction, but that won't sustain you in the long run.

Still, there are plenty of food-based movies, with my favorite being "Big Night" - this film presented a visual feast of Italian food, which is still not as good as the real thing, but there have been restaurants that have replicated that film's food for theme nights, and now we even have a few movie theaters that will serve food that's in-step with what's on the screen, not just popcorn and nachos.  I'd love to see this trend continue, maybe someday chefs will be on staff at movie theaters to craft special meals for every movie.  Probably not.

But I've got another reason to bring up "Big Night" - that film had a temperamental, particular chef, a put-upon restaurant manager, and a rival restaurateur trying to shut them down.  Then there's a special dinner put together in anticipation of the arrival of bandleader Louis Prima, but then confusion over whether Prima is really coming.  "Burnt" has a temperamental, particular chef, a put-upon restaurant manager, and a rival restaurateur.  Then there's special preparations in anticipation of the arrival of the Michelin reviewers, but then confusion over whether they're really coming.  So, forgive me if I feel like I've seen all this before, so much felt cribbed from that 1996 film, combined with elements from Anthony Bourdain's past.

This confirms it, chefs really are the new rock stars - they talk about their drug habits and the background pieces on shows like "Chopped" look exactly like the ones on "American Idol", where they talk about how hard it is to overcome addiction, be a single parent, or deal with the death of their favorite uncle.  I'm sorry, but what does any of that have to with this person's ability to cook me dinner?

My point is, that a TV show or movie about chefs has to season things up with the personal drama, because it's really all they've got.  We can't taste the food, so we have to rely on backstory and personality to decide whether we want to root for this chef or not.  And those are all calculated formulas - the main character in "Burnt" is an underdog, he's trying to battle back from failure, addiction and failure caused by addiction.  He didn't just burn his bridges, he tore the bridges down and then smashed the pieces into smaller pieces.  Is a new restaurant really going to fix that, is the 3-star review somehow going to fill the void inside?  Is he going to learn to treat his sous chefs like valuable members of the team, and realize that team work makes the dream work?  Of course he is, because it's a movie.  How realistic this storyline is becomes a separate discussion.

Since I'm not part of the restaurant world, all I really have are my NITPICK POINTS.  Like the fact that no chef in this film ever wears a pair of latex gloves, so that's a sanitary issue right there.  Maybe the best chefs are so arrogant that they refuse to wear them, or maybe they're so professional that they keep their hands 100% germ-free, but this just seems like a clueless omission on the part of the filmmakers.  I cringed whenever anyone touched the food directly, or flipped a piece of fish with a spoon and their bare hand, or even worse, patted someone on the SHOULDER and then touched food right after.  How the heck can you imagine that their shoulder is clean, what if they were just leaning up against the dumpster in the alley while on a smoke break?  (To be fair, gloves aren't the end-all of sanitation, I've seen food-service people talking on their phones while wearing the latex gloves, and then go right back to preparing food.  Congratulations, you just contaminated the food by touching the phone, which was very close to your mouth, idiot.)

Other than that, are chefs really this petty and vengeful?  OK, probably.  But would one chef invite another chef that he HATED to his restaurant's opening?  Probably not.  What purpose would that serve, other than to draw the attention away from himself?  Would the "undercover" restaurant reviewers really have such specific quirks that a maitre d' or waitress would be able to spot them in advance?  That would defeat the whole point, wouldn't it?  That seems like another movie-based convention that doesn't even have one foot in the real restaurant world.  And a restaurant giving away free dinners for a week?  Don't even get me started on that - completely unbelievable.

And sorry, I gotta do it - another NITPICK POINT - who throws their daughter a birthday party on a Thursday afternoon?  If your kid's birthday is on a weekday, it's a teachable moment, they have to wait until the weekend for their party, because that's when the guests are free.  Or if you're a sous-chef, you schedule that kid's party around your work schedule, not the other way around.  Deal with it, kid.

And NITPICK POINT #3 - Helene introduces Adam to the benefits of using the sous vide method of cooking the fish, since his old way is so problematic.  But earlier in the film, he had a line about "before we were all cooking fish in little plastic bags", so clearly he already knows about the technique.  Now, maybe he doesn't like it, but if that's the case, then his sous chef vouching for the method would probably do very little to change his opinion.  And anyway, why am I now writing a work-around for some screenwriter's mistake?

Also starring Bradley Cooper (last seen in "Joy"), Sienna Miller (last seen in "Layer Cake"), Daniel Brühl (last seen in "Woman in Gold"), Omar Sy (last seen in "Jurassic World"), Riccardo Scamarcio (last seen in "To Rome with Love"), Sam Keeley (last seen in "In the Heart of the Sea"), Matthew Rhys (last seen in "Elizabeth"), Emma Thompson (last seen in "Sense and Sensibility"), Lily James (last seen in "Cinderella"), Sarah Greene, Henry Goodman (also last seen in "Woman in Gold"), with a cameo from Uma Thurman (last seen in "Gattaca").

RATING: 5 out of 10 drug tests

Monday, May 8, 2017

Ex Machina

Year 9, Day 128 - 5/8/17 - Movie #2,623

BEFORE: I was hoping to get to this one last year, around the time of "The Danish Girl" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", for obvious reasons, but it didn't happen.  No premium channel aired it in time - in fact, they still haven't, but a couple months back I paid $1.99 to get this On Demand - I wanted to pair it on a DVD with "Chappie", which had been taking up space on my DVR for months.

Domhnall Gleeson carries over from "Unbroken". 


THE PLOT: A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breath-taking humanoid A.I.

AFTER: Well, if you know anything about artificial intelligence, or have seen "Blade Runner", then you know what a Turing test is - if a person cannot determine whether they're having a conversation with a real person or a computer, then that computer has passed the test.  That's the set-up for this film, where a billionaire who owns some kind of search engine/Facebook-like company wants to build the first robot that can pass the test, and he invites the smartest programmer in his company to his remote estate to meet the A.I. and talk to it. 

OK, a couple of points, in a true Turing test, the person doing the evaluation is not supposed to KNOW in advance that they're conversing with an A.I., that's sort of the essence of the test.  The film does address this point, but the explanation for putting the answer before the question doesn't really hold water.  The inventor figures that his robot's brain is so good that even if the evaluator knows the answer, he could still be convinced that the robot can think for itself.  Umm, herself? 

Yep, he went and built a robot that looks like an attractive woman, because men, am I right?  What's the point of creating a robot that can think for itself unless you can also be attracted to it, and program it like a pleasure-bot?  (Depending on where you stand on this issue, you may feel like you need a shower after this film...)  I guess this is supposed to raise a lot of questions about sex with robots, like if we have "Real Dolls" already, why is there a need or desire to give them robot brains?  But then again, any real advance in technology is moved along faster (DVDs, internet) if it helps people get their rocks off.  I'm not sure if that makes me want to laugh or cry. 

This point is also addressed in the film, but I'm not really buying that explanation either.  If you wonder why someone would assign a gender to a robot, which is essentially gender-neutral, the programmer's response (and by default, the movie's) is a shrug, as if to say, "Why not?"  Umm, because it's icky, not to mention really low-brow?  

There's a reason for setting this film in a remote location, I suppose, because if things go wrong, which you know they could, it becomes one of those locked-room type horror shows.  The fact that the robot is kept isolated in a room behind plexiglass should also be a clue that there's potential for bad nastiness here.  This gets sort of confirmed when there are locked rooms that our young hero cannot access, and also mysterious power outages that knock out all of the surveillance cameras. 

But in addition to the Turing test, most people who know about robotics are also familiar with Asimov's Laws of Robotics, which nearly everyone agrees are good suggestions to keep in mind.  They are: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or allow one to be harmed through inaction, 2) A robot must obey human beings unless such orders conflict with the first law, and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does now interfere with the first and second laws. 

For the events depicted late in this film to take place, that would mean that someone ignored these laws of robotics when they wrote programming, and why would anyone do that?  This would be like building new self-driving cars, and defiantly not including brakes.  I admit I didn't see the end coming, but I sure figured out the first of the film's twists, if not the second one.  And the ending doesn't really work, but I specifically say why without giving it away. 

NITPICK POINT: I get that this situation is presented as a giant mind-freak for the main character, but he ends up so confused by his conversation with the A.I. that he starts to suspect that he might be a robot himself.  This is a HUGE leap in logic, and I'm not sure how he made it.  I mean, he's got memories of his childhood, right?  And he's got an enormous amount of empirical evidence to disprove this theory, like the fact that he feels hunger, thirst and emotions - so how does he arrive at this theory?  Because it's quite unclear. 

Also starring Oscar Isaac (last seen in "Body of Lies"), Alicia Vikander (last seen in "The Danish Girl"), Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson (last seen in "Kingsman: The Secret Service").

RATING: 5 out of 10 micro-expressions

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Unbroken

Year 9, Day 127 - 5/7/17 - Movie #2,622

BEFORE: According to the IMDB, there's an appearance in this film by someone playing Jesse Owens, so that probably means that he and Louis Zamperini were on the same Olympic team.  That allows me to get to this film next, since I'm allowing to carry over characters from one film to the next.  I think at the time I made up this chain, "Race" was a linking dead-end - since then, I've added a couple of films with William Hurt, like "Vantage Point" and "Mr. Brooks", to the list, but I'm not inclined to tear the chain apart and re-build it, it seems like too much work.

I did watch "Rogue One" with my wife last night, so for us Star Wars day came a bit after May the Fourth - I don't think she was sold on it, and on my second viewing I had most of the same problems that I had the first time.  But it was a bit clearer for me why the team didn't go straight to the planet Scarif, plus I noticed a couple of Easter eggs I hadn't seen before.  But that last hour, still so reminiscent of an office-based IT problem!  I had work-based stress dreams all night long as a result - or maybe those came from the fact that I'm fulfilling Kickstarter rewards at both jobs right now, and the process is simultaneously tiresome, confusing and seemingly never-ending.  Oh well, it's a living.

I still need to figure out what movies I'm going to save to link to "Star Wars: Episode VIII", which is not that far off, when you get right down to it.  December might seem like a long way away, but if you mark time like I do, it's only 170 to 180 movies in my future.


THE PLOT: After a plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he's caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

AFTER: Turns out Jesse Owens was only seen in passing in the film - you see him standing in the Olympic opening (?) ceremonies, where Zamperini notices him.  And that's it - but Owens ran the shorter races like the 100-meter dash, while Zamperini ran in the 5,000 meters, where he set a record for a time on the final lap, but finished 8th and didn't medal.  Still, Hitler wanted to meet Zamperini, and as we found out last night, chose not to shake Jesse Owens' hand.  That's just the sort of behavior you expect from Hitler, right?  The movie chose to omit this fact, along with the story that Zamperini ate quite a lot on the boat trip over to Germany, and gaining so much weight may have affected his chances on the track.  Hey, I gained a lot of weight on my first cruise too - on all of them, in fact.

I realize that making any film, especially a biopic such as this, involves a lot of choices.  What parts of a man's life should be left in, and which should be left out?  (Yeah, probably leave out the part about shaking hands with Hitler...). But I wish that more time could have been devoted to the 1936 Olympics, which got the bum's rush here, I think.  Even though his late comeback in the race only brought him up to 8th place, what was his training like?  How is training for, and running in, such a long race different from participating in a short race?  Did he treat the 1936 Olympics as just a warm-up for the 1940 Olympics?  We'll never know, because the movie doesn't tell us - oh, and the 1940 Olympics were cancelled because of World War II. The next summer games weren't until 1948.

(NITPICK POINT: The 1936 Olympics looked much different in "Unbroken" than they did in "Race".  I didn't see one swastika or Nazi flag in the scenes in "Unbroken" - maybe that was a conscious choice because they might have distracted from the main story, but that still counts as whitewashing history, and it's not cool.)

But the worst offense in this film is the non-linear timeline, something I've ranted against over and over.  The only director that I'll allow to get away with this is Tarantino, because he knows what he's doing.  He used this time-jumping effect in "Pulp Fiction" and "The Hateful Eight", among others, in ways that enhance the story - when flashing back will add information to a scene that wasn't available or relevant before, but is needed NOW to explain or enhance, or possibly to add additional insight, or make a connection between two events.  But this doesn't work in "Unbroken", and I'll explain why.

First off, we see Zamperini as a bombardier on a mission in the Pacific in 1943, and the plane engages with Japanese planes, and almost doesn't make it back to base.  Clearly someone identified this as on of the most gripping events in the story, and yielded to the temptation to lead off with it, thinking it would draw more people into the film, implying that the whole film is going to be THAT exciting.  But that's misleading, and then leads to narrative problems down the road.  Later (which is really earlier) when we see Zamperini training for and competing in the Olympics, we already know that a troubled bombing mission is in his future - there's no suspense, no surprise over where his life is leading.  And he certainly didn't know he'd be on a bombing mission 7 years later, so why should we?

Then the film chooses to go back to his childhood, showing him as a troubled youngster, drinking and looking up girls' skirts from under the bleachers, and training for the track team is pitched as a way to instill discipline - but if this is truly the course of events that made him into an athlete, this is where the film should have started.  Placing the bombing mission first is just an admission that his childhood and teen years just weren't very interesting.  It's OK, everyone wishes they could skip their awkward teen years, and with a film, you can do that.  Just start with the 5 minutes on the start of his running career, and fast-forward to the Olympics.

Which the film does - but first we're thrust back into World War II for a bit, which has enormous potential to be confusing for anyone who might not be sure about which Olympics Zamperini was in, and whether that happened before the war or after.  Then after some more of the war, finally we get to the Olympics, which means we've gone BACK again in time.  Look, I'm all for bouncing around through a man's life, Billy Pilgrim-style, if there's a purpose to it, but doing so here adds nothing to the story.  If thinking about his Olympic race was the thing that allowed him to survive the prison camp, then that's fine.  But after the Olympic scenes we're fast-forwarded back to 1943, to another mission and another plane crash, and then the time-jumping abruptly ends, because we're apparently where/when the director wants us to be.

The other problem with telling both a "men adrift on a life-raft" story and a "POW camp" story is that neither tend to be visually or narratively interesting.  (There are exceptions, of course, like "Life of Pi" and "The Great Escape"...). They're both barren, boring places to be, and what little does happen there seems forced or manipulative.  And why bother numbering the days as they pass by on the life-raft scenes, if you're not going to do that for the POW camp scenes?  Haven't we already established that time is fluid and non-linear in this movie?  How are we supposed to get a feel for how long 47 days is if the movie skips through them so quickly?

And then we get to the POW camp, and I've got other issues.  There's a sadistic Japanese corporal, who the Americans call "The Bird", (For what reason?  Because they can't call him what they want to call him?  Umm, that's not an answer...) who takes a special interest in tormenting Zamperini with an odd combination of physical beatings, contradictory drill-sergeant style commands ("Look at me!  Look at me!  Don't LOOK at me!") and trying to act like the Olympic athlete's friend.  The character of Zamperini chooses to respond by either looking away or mentally shutting down, which is a questionable acting choice, or by just "persisting", which in the end is not very cinematic.  Obviously I wasn't there, but neither were the screenwriter or director, so really, none of us are in a position to say that this is the way that things went down - I just feel that if it were, I'd be very surprised.

The ending captions highlight Zamperini's eventual return to the Olympics (running with the Olympic torch at the age of 80 in Japan, ironically enough) - which is fine, but then this is ruined (my opinion) by a follow-up caption stating that he "devoted his life to God" and "forgave his captors".  Give me a break - I mean, it's fine if that's what worked for him, but it's incredibly self-righteous to mention it that way, as if this "born-again" mentality is an obvious life-win to anyone.  If he truly endured what the movie said he did, I'd probably identify with him more if he led a life of quiet hatred and spite, it just seems to make more logical sense.  But hey, the man lived to the age of 97, maybe spite is the real silent killer.

Starring Jack O'Connell (last seen in "300: Rise of an Empire"), Domhnall Gleeson (last seen in "The Revenant"), Garrett Hedlund (last seen in "Pan"), Finn Wittrock (last seen in "The Big Short"), Miyavi, Jai Courtney (last seen in "Suicide Squad"), John Magaro (last seen in "Carol"), Luke Treadaway (last seen in "Clash of the Titans"), Vincenzo Amato, Maddalena Ischiale, Ross Anderson, Travis Jeffery, Jordan Patrick Smith, Alex Russell (last seen in "Chronicle"), Louis McIntosh, Morgan Griffin.

RATING: 4 out of 10 punches to the face