Saturday, March 30, 2019

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Year 11, Day 88 - 3/29/19 - Movie #3,186

BEFORE: TV's been pretty dead this week, what with some big basketball tournament going on that I couldn't care less about.  Sorry, my bracket is filled with movies, and they aren't going to watch themselves.  But I've had time to start catching up on "True Detective", the third season (following the second season that sucked big time, and the first season that was amazing).  It's only 8 episodes, so I can knock off one just about every night, instead of binging straight through, and still get it all done in just over a week.  The third season at least seems like a return to form, more like Season 1 than Season 2, but there's that old bugaboo again - do you just do what worked before again, or take a chance and do something new, which could also alienate the fans from before?  (See also: "Super Troopers 2")

But "True Detective" is probably the opposite of tonight's film, even though both might involve people being killed out in the woods.  One's a serious HBO drama, and the other looks more like a comedy (?). To give you an idea about how long this film's been on my watchlist, I spotted it on Netflix when I first started taking Netflix seriously - that was probably around July 4 in 2017.  But it was so hard to link to, or so low-priority for me, that it eventually scrolled OFF of Netflix (I think the average term there is 2 years) in Dec. 2018, but thanks to my new linking system, I finally found a way to link to it, by putting it between two other films with Tyler Labine, who carries over from "Super Troopers 2".

So, OF COURSE by the time I found a way to link to it, it was gone from Netflix.  So I resigned myself to renting it from iTunes for $3.99 when it finally rose to the top of the list.  But then at the start of March I read one of those posts on-line about "everything coming to Netflix in March", and I couldn't believe my luck, this film was coming BACK to Netflix, almost exactly on the day I needed to watch it.  OK, maybe I tweaked the schedule a little bit then, but it lines up perfectly now, so I can watch this film for free (OK, maybe not FREE, but at no additional cost) before it disappears again.

THE PLOT: Affable hillbillies Tucker and Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin with they are mistaken for murderers by a group of preppy college students.

AFTER: Thank God, this was a total spoof of slasher films, not a slasher film itself, not really.  Not one that could be taken seriously, anyway.  It's all based on comic misunderstanding, because a bunch of entitled college students going camping have probably seen too many horror films, they mistake a couple of innocent locals who just want to fix up their new vacation cabin for murderers - after all, they have chainsaws (to clear brush) and a wood-chipper (to chop it up) and they're big, dumb and talk funny.  Plus, admit it, they might look a little creepy, but only an elitist upper-class person would automatically assume that people who live in the woods are automatically serial killers and chain-saw massacrers.

That's really the only thing the film gets wrong, because the college kids today are so P.C. that you'd think that they'd be hyper-aware of class-based stereotypes and take great care to not use them.  But since this is a comedy, you kind of have to allow them to be dumb, because that creates the comic misunderstandings.  And when Tucker & Dale save a pretty girl from drowning, and take her back to their cabin to recover, her friends naturally assume (having seen "Friday the 13th", "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and of course probably "Deliverance") that they've taken her to be a prisoner, sex slave or worse.

The preppy kids plan an attack on the cabin, but it does not go well.  They end up being very bad with weapons, or just generally clumsy, and several of them meet bad ends just by improperly handling guns or spears, or missing their targets, or just tripping and dying.  The sequence sort of reminds me of the X-Force attack in "Deadpool 2", only this film did it first.  Things spiral out of control like a cartoon version of Murphy's Law where everything that can go wrong does, provided that it also happens at a time that is also funny or ironic.

Meanwhile, from the hillbillies' perspective, it appears to them that a bunch of kids ran on to their property just to commit suicide.  What other explanation could there be?  But just try telling that to the sheriff when you're holding half of a college student and several more bodies are lying around. Though the number of comic mishaps starts to stretch the bounds of believability, eventually it starts to seem like maybe there's just something in the air or the water that's causing all the chaos.  Eventually we learn why one of the teens has a particular hatred for hillbillies, and the whole story sort of gets flipped on its ear with regards to who's really represented by the evil mentioned in the title.

So it's clever, I've never seen another film like this, I don't think there could BE another film like this, unless you go back to some low-budget slasher film like "Student Bodies", and this is still probably better than that was.  And the two leads are likable enough to carry the film, despite the fact that they can only toggle between dumb, naive and weary over why college students want to kill them.

Also carrying over from "Super Troopers 2" is an unusual location, both films have scenes set in an old sawmill, and both films have a character tied to a board heading toward one of those big old-time rotating saw-blades, which really is a trope that goes back to the days of early silent film serials.

Also starring Alan Tudyk (last seen in "Deadpool 2"), Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss (last seen in "The Big Year"), Chelan Simmons, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren, Christie Laing, Travis Nelson, Alex Arsenault, Adam Beauchesne, Joseph Allan Sutherland, Karen Reigh, Tye Evans.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bee stings

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Super Troopers 2

Year 11, Day 87 - 3/28/19 - Movie #3,185

BEFORE: I could easily have programmed "First Man" next (I could have watched an Academy screener) with Jason Clarke carrying over - and that would have the added benefit of remaining on topic, since "Chappaquiddick" referenced the moon landing quite a bit, and took place at the same time.  Perhaps that's a lost opportunity, I just didn't think of it - but I've already worked out my linking from now until mid-July, and if I follow the track I've created, I know that I'm going to get to "Avengers: Endgame" and two other Marvel movies on time, so I'm inclined to stick with that.  If I switched it up now, I'm just not sure - or I'd have to sit down and re-work the whole thing just to hit the same benchmarks.  There's a part right after "X-Men: Dark Phoenix" where I have an option to slip "First Man" into the mix, I'll have to think about it first though.

So as planned, Jim Gaffigan carries over from "Chappaquiddick".

THE PLOT: When a border dispute arises between the U.S. and Canada, the Super Troopers are tasked with establishing a Highway Patrol station in the disputed area.

AFTER: It's not hard for me to rank the films of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard.  Tied for first are their 2001 film "Super Troopers" and their 2006 drinking comedy "Beerfest", two classics I can watch in full just about every time they air, and I hope I never get tired of them.  I know every line backwards and forwards, because I've seen them nearly as many times as the original "Star Wars" trilogy, I'll bet. Next on the list, in 3rd and 4th positions are "Club Dread" and "The Slammin' Salmon", but what I learned with that last one (their only film released after I started this project) is that comedies such as this are better watched when I'm not by myself, because laughter is somewhat contagious - so for this sequel I had to wait for some extra time on the weekend, so my wife had some time to join me.  She's also a fan of the original "Troopers", and also found "Slammin' Salmon" funnier than I did at first.  Oh, and way, way down on the bottom of the Broken Lizard pile is their remake/reboot of "The Dukes of Hazzard".

This sequel was mostly funded by a IndieGoGo campaign, which is a great way of proving that there's an audience excitedly waiting for something - but what's weird is that we're picking up the story of these 5 Vermont troopers about 17 years after the last film, meanwhile the closing credits for "Beerfest" teased the sequel to THAT film, "Potfest", and so where is that movie?  Pot's become legal in several states since then, so why not move forward with that story?  Maybe there are still legal or moral issues over showing people smoking a lot of cannabis in a competition?

But the tricky thing about doing ANY sequel to a classic film, especially one with such a cult following as "Super Troopers", is making sure that it pays respect to the original, while also breaking some new ground.  It's the "Empire Strikes Back" conundrum - the film has to be set in the same universe as the original, but it has to have some new characters and new situations, in order to appeal to new fans, and not just the ones who would be happy with a re-tread.  So when this film starts, they had to explain why the Troopers aren't local cops any more, what they've been doing instead for the last few years, and also engineer a way to get them back out on the road, pulling over speeders.  And hopefully both of those transitions will feel very natural.  But beware, these comedy improv guys still have a few tricks up their sleeves - I've seen false endings before, but never a "false beginning".

So a fishing trip set up by their old boss, Captain O'Hagen, turns out to be a secret mission to police this section of Canada that's about to be turned over to the U.S. in a border dispute, and they've got to work with a trio of Mounties to insure that the transition goes smoothly. Something tells me this could never happen, because you'd probably start a riot if you told a few thousand Canadians living just over the border that they were now U.S. citizens.  I think you'd see a mass exodus, because wouldn't all those people want to keep their free healthcare?  And the people just over the border, didn't they move up there after the 2016 election, just to get away from Trump?  But I guess this is part of the story, because of course the transition is not easy, due to the massive cultural differences between Americans and Canadians.

But at least this gives our heroes a chance to try and discredit the Mounties, by putting on the RCMP uniforms and pulling variations on their old traffic-stop routines from the first film.  This was a great way to repeat the old jokes, but also put a new spin on them.  And because these five guys are essentially proud, petty fuck-ups, they manage to get into more trouble, no matter what they do.  The first film also featured them tracking down a smuggling ring (after partaking quite liberally of the herbal evidence, and watching Saudi Arabian "Johnny Chimpo" cartoons while high...) and that plot sort of comes back, too, only it now involves prescription drugs, like steroids, opioids and female hormone pills.

In fact there are like a thousand in-jokes for fans who have seen both films, that's undoubtedly the best way to go, because you're not going to know what "Team Ramrod" refers to or how the troopers lost their jobs in the first place (the first time, anyway - footage from the 2nd time they lost their jobs is shown in a mid-credits scene).  Just to be sure, I watched this film a SECOND time today, and it does hold up the second time, although it felt like it all went by extremely quickly.  That's what I get for watching the same film twice in two weeks, I guess.  But I'm having a pretty good week, lots of "7s" lately.

Also starring Jay Chandrasekhar (last seen in "I Love You, Man"), Paul Soter (last seen in "The Slammin' Salmon"), Steve Lemme (ditto), Kevin Heffernan (ditto), Erik Stolhanske (last seen in "The Sweetest Thing"), Brian Cox (last seen in "Forsaken"), Rob Lowe (last seen in "Sex Tape"), Emmanuelle Chriqui (last seen in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"), Tyler Labine (last seen in "Rapture-Palooza"), Hayes MacArthur (last seen in "She's Out of My League"), Will Sasso (last seen in "Happy Gilmore"), Lynda Carter (last seen in "Sky High"), Marisa Coughlan, Clifton Collins Jr. (last seen in "Brothers"), Paul Walter Hauser (last seen in "I, Tonya"), Jimmy Tatro, with cameos from Seann William Scott (last seen in "Goon: Last of the Enforcers"), Damon Wayans Jr. (last seen in "How to Be Single"), Bruce McCulloch (last seen in "Superstar"), Fred Savage (last seen in "Welcome to Mooseport").

RATING: 7 out of 10 liters of cola

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Year 11, Day 86 - 3/27/19 - Movie #3,184

BEFORE: I'm sticking with Netflix tonight, I'm determined to get my watchlist there under 100 films, no matter what.  That means I should try to stay up a little later and clear a comedy special every night after a movie, as long as I'm already signed in there.  Progress is being made, but it's slow going.  Clancy Brown carries over from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs".

I think tonight's film sort of completes a trilogy that I started in 2017 with two other films about the Kennedy brothers.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Jackie" (Movie #2,637), "Bobby" (Movie #2,666)

THE PLOT: Depicting Ted Kennedy's involvement in the fatal 1969 car accident that claimed the life of a young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne.

AFTER: Last month I was discussing the fact that 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the famous Woodstock music festival, but it's also the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and an event with ran concurrently with that, the Chappaquiddick scandal.  I was busy being a toddler in 1969, so I have no memory of the moon landing or other events of the day and my knowledge of the facts concerning what happened in Chappaquiddick is all based on rumor and hearsay.  But for many years after that I lived in Massachusetts with Ted Kennedy as my senator, and I recall it being brought up again and again when he unsuccessfully ran for President in 1980.  Looking back on it, it seems weird that there was any Democratic candidate other than the incumbent, President Carter.  How was that allowed - was Carter really THAT unpopular?  But eventually Teddy gave it up to Jimmy, and the election continued...only there was also an independent candidate that year, John Anderson.  It's very possible that Kennedy and Anderson diverted enough votes from Carter to make Reagan the winner.

But enough re-hashing the past, let's get back to the Chappaquiddick event in 1969.  For many years I've just naturally assumed that there was a romantic relationship between Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.  I'm not sure why, because it's not like politicians are known for cheating on their wives or anything like that...  But according to this film, it's nothing like that - it's just that Teddy and his cousin liked to have a bunch of women to drink with after they competed in this annual boat race, and all these women formerly worked as secretaries for his brother, Bobby.  Sure, a house on Martha's Vineyard filled with alcohol, loud music and a bunch of ex-secretaries looking to get ahead in the political world.  I'm sure that absolutely everything was above board and nothing illicit took place there.  So let's move on.

We know that Ted Kennedy was driving away from the party with Mary Jo as a passenger.  Given what we generally know about Teddy, and though he denied it later, I think it's safe to say that the Senator's driving was probably impaired by alcohol.  Now, if this took place in the 2000's, then it would make sense for the more sober person to be driving, again I'm guessing this would have been Mary Jo.  But since this was 1969, it was a different time, and whenever two people were in a car, and one was male and one was female, the male would be driving.  Don't get mad at me, I think it was a law or something at the time, and I didn't make the laws.  That's just the way it was - I think women at the time had a reputation for being too emotional to drive, but I think in the mid-1970's someone had a class-action suit against the Massachusetts government, so they had to start giving licenses to women.

My point is that Kennedy handing over the keys to his own car to a woman, even if she were an excellent driver and not impaired in any way, that would have been unthinkable.  Males, especially Kennedy males, had big egos and they felt more comfortable in control of the car than riding as a passenger.  (Plus, just look what happened to his brother Jack that time he rode in the back seat through downtown Dallas...too soon?)  So all that - alcohol, male ego, losing the boat race, trying to impress a girl, whatever other pressures Ted Kennedy was under at the time - that all led to the car going right off the bridge and ending up flipped over in the water.  What happened after that got debated for years, like how did Teddy get out of the car and Mary Jo, not so much?  Did he jump out in mid-air, was he thrown from the car, or once underwater did he somehow open the door, leave the car and then SHUT IT BEHIND HIM?  This has to be the exact moment in history where chivalry died.

His story, once filtered through the P.R. wonks hired by his father, and in written statements to the press and a televised appeal to the public, managed to change again and again over time.  Did he dive down repeatedly to try to open the door of the car and rescue Mary Jo?  Or did he imagine himself doing that so many times that it became believable to himself and others?  Did his cousin and his friend (who happened to be the U.S. District Attorney for Massachusetts) paddle him back to Edgartown in a rowboat, or did he swim across the channel from the smaller island?  After initially failing to report the accident, at what point did he change his mind and determine that he needed to get out ahead of the story?  After realizing that his driver's license was "probably expired" what steps were taken to have someone at the DMV make him a new, backdated one?

And then there's the big one, with a scandal looming, was the better move to resign or to own up to his faults, deny any criminal wrongdoing (except for leaving the scene of an accident) and try to continue on?  Obviously there was great pressure to follow in his brother's footsteps somehow, but this film makes it clear that even Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, didn't believe that could ever happen - and that was his opinion BEFORE the accident and the scandal.

A note about Joseph P. Kennedy - that's a tough role for an actor to play, an older man of some importance who's been disabled by a stroke.  On the other hand, maybe it's a breeze of a role, like when Eddie Redmayne won an OSCAR for playing Stephen Hawking, and mainly just sitting still in a chair for most of the film.  (Yeah, I'm still calling B.S. on that award from the 2014 Oscars.)  Maybe after that happened, actors started seeking out roles where they could play paralyzed men who can't even speak, because they just have to show up, sit still for a while and then cash their check.  But damn, to cast a great actor like Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy, what a horrible waste of a man's talent.

Much has been written over the years about the "Kennedy Curse", where SO many family members have had tragic accidents or been in ill health - now, while it's easy to imagine patterns of tragedy, I say that we must keep in mind that some form of tragedy happens to us all.  As I said last night, I dare you to try to name one person in history whose story ends well.  Now the Kennedy family was quite large, as any good Catholic Massachusetts family might be, so if you think about it, more family members, more tragedy - it's just simple math.  The Kennedy list ranges from Joe Kennedy Jr.'s death by plane crash in 1944, JFK's and RFK's assassinations, all the way through JFK Jr.'s death in a plane crash in 1999.  Some include Jackie Kennedy's death, but come on, she was going to die at SOME point, she was a heavy smoker.  Some lists also include the murder charge against Michael Skakel (RFK's nephew) and the rape charge against William Kennedy Smith, but I'm thinking those were more-or-less self-inflicted.  (If you don't want to be charged with major crimes, maybe don't commit any.)

So, a lot has changed in our country in the last 50 years - for starters, if there was a looming political scandal, politicians often (not always, but work with me here...) felt the need to apologize, own up to their faults, and occasionally even resign.  Under the current administration, where it feels like there's a new scandal every WEEK, if not every day, as you can see, nobody in the last two years has owned up to ANYTHING, unless there's a court order or an indictment forcing that to happen.  The days of the Kennedys (and later, Watergate) are apparently over, and all bets are off, and the President even bragged about being able to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and SHOOT someone, and not be charged with a crime or scandalized in any way.  Stop the world, I want to get off.

Also starring Jason Clarke (last seen in "Everest"), Kate Mara (last seen in "Fantastic Four"), Ed Helms (last seen in "A Futile and Stupid Gesture"), Bruce Dern (last seen in "The 'Burbs"), Jim Gaffigan (last seen in "Chuck"), Taylor Nichols (last seen in "Boiler Room"), Olivia Thirlby (last seen in "Dredd"), Lexie Roth, John Fiore, Vince Tycer, Andria Blackman, Tamara Hickey, Alison Wachtler, Victor Warren, Donald Watson, Matthew Lawler, Angela Hope Smith, Brad Wheelwright, David De Beck, Patrick Sheehan, Charlotte Anne Dore, Tim Jackson, with archive footage of John F. Kennedy (last seen in "The Doors: When You're Strange") and Neil Armstrong.

RATING: 5 out of 10 cue cards

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Year 11, Day 85 - 3/26/19 - Movie #3,183

BEFORE: Liam Neeson carries over from "The Commuter", and after this I won't see him again until the second week of June, a few days after "X-Men: Dark Phoenix" when I'll need a link to this year's documentary chain.  It seems like a long ways off, that's about 75 films from now - and in a way it is, but it could also feel like that time passes quite quickly, if the movies are good.  But as I get better at this linking thing, I often see the benefits of watching all the films on my list with one actor, except for one.  That is to say, I can clear all the James Franco or Nicole Kidman films, but there could be one that forms an important link between two other films, and it might have to live away from the rest of that herd.

Hell, there are probably a million different ways to link between these films, but I'm really looking for the path that pleases me most, or maybe the one that forms a chain that lasts all year long - hey, a guy can dream, right?

THE PLOT: Six tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.

AFTER: Some of my most favorite films from over the years have come from the Coen Brothers, like "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski", then of course there's "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou", and maybe a little bit further down on my list there are spots for "No Country For Old Men", "Burn After Reading" and "The Man Who Wasn't There", and then WAY WAY down on the list of films to not miss are things like "Barton Fink", "The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty".  In other words, when I hear they've got a new film out, I make plans to see it, but over the last few years, their output has been rather hit-or-miss with me, like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Hail, Caesar!" barely moved the needle for me.

But I'd still like to be able to say, at some point, that I've seen every film that they've had a hand in, whether that's from writing, directing and producing, or some combination of those.  Like I watched "Suburbicon" and "Bridge of Spies" even though they wrote them, but didn't direct.  And I'll still have to get to films like "A Serious Man", "Romance & Cigarettes" and "Gambit" if I want to be a completist.  But I think I've done pretty well for myself if those are the only omissions on my list.  "A Serious Man" is on my Netflix list, but I haven't been able to link to it yet.  I think I've been confusing it with the Colin Firth film "A Single Man" though.

Anyway, a few people whose opinions I usually admire said that they liked "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", so that, coupled with the Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, prompted me to move it up sooner on my schedule.  And it certainly didn't hurt that the cast list is quite large, and it turned out to be easy to link to - though I suppose if it didn't fit HERE, I would have caught up with it at the end of March when I've planned to clear the James Franco category yet again.

There are six short stories here in this compilation, and only one of them managed to feel like it ran too long - so for five out of six to not wear out their welcomes, that's a pretty good return.  I felt that the segment with the wagon train really captured the spirit of the long, slow, migration across America - it was, generally speaking, that boring.  And that miserable.  But when you put all of the stories together, and appreciate the fact that not all of them end well - OK, very few of them end well - what we get in summary is a complex portrait of the American West as a harsh, brutal, unforgiving chapter in history.  And I believe that's accurate, this is a point that was made by other films like "The Hateful Eight" and "A Million Ways to Die in the West", only in vastly different ways.

And maybe it's the fact that we just filed our tax return over the weekend, but if there's a common thread running through the six segments, a larger point to be made about our country, it's that nothing comes without a price, and whatever good things you have in your life, like money or fame or power or the promise of a relationship, bear in mind that those things can be taken from you with little or no notice.  Always, always, someone somewhere is conspiring to separate you from your money or your position - and I don't mean the immigrants coming to "take your jobs", because I'm betting the jobs they're coming for aren't the ones that you want to hang on to - no, I mean there are people in power who don't want you to be happy or well-off, or even alive at the end of the day.

The first segment, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", demonstrates this with the tale of a singing gunslinger.  Even though he's quick on the draw, and quick with a song, the minute he goes to a new town and is regarded as a stranger, his life is on the line.  And his reputation and talent only mean so much, when it only takes ONE of his many challengers to be quicker on the draw.  In the 2nd segment, "Near Algodones", a bank robber with a pistol learns that he's no match for a bank teller with a shotgun and some armor made from pots and pans.  And he might cheat the hangman's noose once, based on an unlikely series of events, but how long before his luck runs out?  In the third segment, "Meal Ticket", a man with no arms and legs is driven across the West by his manager in a converted stagecoach, and in every town they stop and put on a show, where he recites Shakespeare and the Gettysburg Address for spare change.  But the manager finds that taking care of a handicapped man is such an enormous task that he starts to consider alternative acts, and that's not good news for the performer.

In the fourth story, "All Gold Canyon", a prospector spends weeks digging test holes near a river, searching for a rich underground vein of gold.  But in the thrill of the hunt, he lets his guard down at the wrong moment, putting his weeks of work in jeopardy.  The fifth story, "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is the wagon train story, where a young woman headed for Oregon has to deal with more and more hardships along the way, and she's not even sure about the opportunity waiting for her at the end of the journey, so an unexpected offer from one of the wagon train leaders seems like the best way out of her predicament.  And in the final story, "The Mortal Remains", five people on a stagecoach have a conversation that leads down some dark paths, when two of the passengers are revealed to be bounty hunters transporting a deceased corpse to their destination.

The last story reminded me of a sort of Old West "Twilight Zone" episode - because there's two ways to take it.  Either the two men are indeed bounty hunters and just very, very creepy, or possibly everyone on the stagecoach is dead, and traveling to an other-worldly destination.  So many of the things said by the passengers have two meanings, so one possible interpretation is that they're all being transported to the great beyond, having been harvested by the "reapers", as the bounty hunters call themselves.  Sure, it's grim, but every story here has some touch of grim irony to it.  And really, in the end, whose story ends well?  Come on, give me one example.  Just sayin'.

I've got a NITPICK POINT about animals that appear to be able to do mathematical calcuations, but I think you can probably guess where I'm going with that one.  It's always, always some kind of parlor trick or mechanical subterfuge.  Even that chicken in Chinatown that appeared to play tic-tac-toe.  You know that wasn't for real, right?

Also starring Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in "Holes"), David Krumholtz (last seen in "A Futile and Stupid Gesture"), Clancy Brown (last seen in "Stronger"), Willie Watson, E.E. Bell, Tom Proctor (last seen in "Wilson"), Danny McCarthy, James Franco (last seen in "Nights in Rodanthe"), Stephen Root (last seen in "Hello, My Name is Doris"), Ralph Ineson (last seen in "Ready Player One"), Jesse Luken, Michael Cullen, Harry Melling (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"), Paul Rae, Tom Waits (last seen in "Keith Richards: Under the Influence"), Sam Dillon (last seen in "Boyhood"), Zoe Kazan (last seen in "The Big Sick"), Bill Heck, Grainger Hines (last seen in "The Family Fang"), Jefferson Mays (last seen in "I Am Michael"), Eric Petersen, Ethan Dubin, Tyne Daly (also last seen in "Hello, My Name Is Doris"), Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "Assassin's Creed"), Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek (last seen in "The Singing Detective"), Chelcie Ross (last seen in "Novocaine"), Jackamoe Buzzell.

RATING: 7 out of 10 yoked oxen

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Commuter

Year 11, Day 84 - 3/25/19 - Movie #3,182

BEFORE: Since I can't wait for the sequel "Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon", I had to find another way to link out of a movie with very little star power - but Andy Nyman carries over to today's film, he may have a minor role but even those count.  I can't even watch all my Liam Neeson films here, two will have to do, because I need the film "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House" to serve as my lead-in to a documentary chain in June.  Oh, yeah, this year's documentary chain is going to focus on mainly politics and celebrity.  For politics, I've got no shortage of material, with portraits of everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Ed Koch to Roger Stone, and then for celebrity I've got docs about Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Michael Jackson and even Fred Rogers - so there's all that to look forward to in just a few months.

THE PLOT: An insurance salesman/ex-cop is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

AFTER: It seems odd, I know, to follow-up an animated film about farm animals with an action-thriller about fighting criminals on a train - but believe it or not, the two films start off almost exactly the same way, with a montage of people going about their daily routines.  "Shaun the Sheep" showed the farmer, his dog, and the sheep waking up, brushing teeth, shaving, combing hair/fur, commuting through the pasture, and "The Commuter" has a montage of Liam Neeson's character and his family, you guessed it, waking up, brushing teeth, shaving, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and commuting to the train to NYC. I just never know when I'm going to hit one of these odd little coincidences.

But really, if "Non-Stop" was just "Taken" on a plane, then this is "Taken" on a train.  The "Taken" franchise was apparently so super-successful that Liam Neeson can just star in every possible iteration of a similar plot - to the point where his film "Cold Pursuit", released earlier this year, was referred to as "Taken" on a snow-plow.  Seriously?  And more to the point, am I going to find myself watching that next year when it hits premium cable?

But I think just lumping this film in with those other Liam Neeson action films does it something of a disservice, because this one turned out to be very twisty, in a good way, full of suspense and a good dose of "What is REALLY happening here?"  Neeson plays an ex-cop who's just been fired for no apparent reason from his job as an insurance salesman, and then when he's on the commuter train heading home (upstate NY again, Tarrytown this time) he's contacted by a mysterious stranger, sort of Hitchcock-style, telling him that he can earn some much-needed cash if he can use his investigative skills to find the ONE person on the train who "doesn't belong" and has something that "isn't theirs" stashed in their bag.  The only other clues he has are that the person goes by the nickname "Prynne" and is scheduled to get off the train at a particular stop.

At first, he's not keen to do someone else's dirty work - but then the mysterious handlers imply very strongly that his wife and kids are in danger.  So even though he's sure that whoever's hiring him is up to no good, what choice does he really have?  Even if this puts some stranger in danger, he can't risk the lives of his family members, so he's got to at least play along.  But any attempt to get a message to the police, even his close friend on the force, puts others in danger - so that means that there must be someone on the train who's in on it, and they're watching his every move, and reporting back to someone.

Conspiracies are everywhere, if you're looking for them, and nearly everyone is a suspect or is acting shady in some way.  Well, this is New York, so that tracks.  But somewhere among the regular, day-to-day heroes and criminals who commute to NYC is someone who's REALLY gone above and beyond to be really good, or possibly really bad.  Who can tell the difference any more?  And how is he supposed to narrow a trainload full of suspects down to just one?  This isn't "Murder on the Orient Express", after all, and the train's not stuck in a snowbank, it's constantly moving upstate at a good clip, and time is ticking away.

I've got to call a NITPICK POINT on the depiction of the Metro-North line - though it's called the fictional "Hudson North" here.  After leaving Grand Central Terminal, the commuter train makes two stops at what look like subway stations, before hitting the 125th St. stop.  I checked the map, Metro-North trains don't make any stops between GCT and 125th St., and they certainly don't stop at subway stations.  But the plot sort of necessitated a character getting on at one of these stops to tell the main character something.  But who would pay a Metro-North fare from midtown to 86th St., or even 125th St. and then get off, when a subway fare would be cheaper?

Another NITPICK POINT, when the train reaches its upstate destination, the NYPD cops are there to take control of the scene.  Right, the freakin' FBI stood down, and gave up control to LOCAL COPS?  Ones who were completely out of their jurisdiction?  I don't think so.

I've got one more N.P., but I can't really talk about it without giving away too much of the twists - let's just say that once you know everything, and you go back and think about what the original plan was to get someone from Point A to Point B, it makes no sense.  That's too bad, but I only realized it after the fact, it didn't detract from the movie during the movie.

Also starring Liam Neeson (last seen in "The Grey") Vera Farmiga (last seen in "The Judge"), Patrick Wilson (last seen in "Aquaman"), Jonathan Banks (last heard in "Incredibles 2"), Sam Neill (last seen in "Peter Rabbit"), Elizabeth McGovern (last seen in "Woman in Gold"), Killian Scott, Shazad Latif (last seen in "The Man Who Knew Infinity"), Clara Lago, Roland Moller (last seen in "Atomic Blonde"), Florence Pugh, Dean-Charles Chapman (last seen in "Before I Go to Sleep"), Ella-Rae Smith, Nila Aalia, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (last seen in "Justice League"), Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Damson Idris, Ben Caplan (last seen in "Leap Year"), Letitia Wright (last seen in "Ready Player One"), with a cameo from Pat Kiernan.

RATING: 7 out of 10 book reports

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Year 11, Day 83 - 3/24/19 - Movie #3,181

BEFORE: This film has been on my watchlist for a very long time - I'll bet there are only 4 or 5 films that have been on it longer.  Let's say 2 1/2 to 3 years for this one, but it feels much longer - whenever something is languishing down in the unlinkable section, that puts my mind to work on how to get there, someday, maybe, if possible.  It's not my fault, there were no "name actors" in this one, and it turns out there's not even any dialogue!

But in the end, I finally got there by waiting for another film from the same animation company - Aardman - and the same director/producer, Nick Park.  A director could easily tend to use the same voice actors again and again, and that's what happened here, Richard Webber (who also has directing and art department credits) carries over from "Early Man".  Nick Park also provided voices in both films, he did the voice of Hognob the pig in "Early Man" and some unspecified characters here.  Animators tend to use whoever is handy, a fact that has gotten me some acting roles.

But now, OF COURSE, as soon as I finally managed to get this one off my list, I see that there's a new "Shaun the Sheep" movie filming now, which is going to be released in late 2019 or early 2020.  Of course.  I guess if I didn't get to this one now, I could have gotten to it then.

THE PLOT: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, a mix-up with the Farmer, a trailer and a very steep hill leads them all to the Big City - and it's up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home.

AFTER: I've never watched the Shaun the Sheep TV series, but it's not hard to see the progression from the "Wallace & Gromit" series of films.  Shaun first appeared in the 1995 W & G film "A Close Shave", which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and that was back before Disney & Pixar figured out how to cheat and stack the deck so they win that award nearly every year.  The Farmer and his dog Bitzer are clear stand-ins for Wallace & Gromit - Bitzer is just a yellow Gromit with much smaller eyes, and the Farmer is really just Wallace with glasses and some bits of red hair on both sides.  It wouldn't make sense to have Wallace & Gromit running a farm, plus the voice actor (Peter Sallis) died in 2017, so I guess maybe at some point he couldn't do the voice any more.

In the end, this film had more in common with "Lucky Break" than I thought it would, because essentially it's a prison break movie, only the prison at the start is the farm and its daily routine.  Shaun comes up with a plan to distract the guard (Bitzer) and incapacitate the warden (Farmer) so the sheep can do whatever they want for a day.  Part of the plan involves getting all of the sheep to jump over a fence repeatedly, which naturally puts any person watching that in the mind of counting sheep, and thus they fall into a deep sleep.  Sure, it's a gag, but if this were anything close to true than every shepherd in the world would be narcileptic, and that can't possibly be right.

But Shaun never imagined that his plan would put the Farmer in a runaway trailer headed for the Big City.  And unstructured freedom on the farm sounds great, until it's feeding time.  Turns out that the sheep needed the farmer and his routine for something after all. (Listen up, kids, it's lesson time.).  So it's off to the city to track him down, even if he's got Movie Amnesia and doesn't recognize his own dog and sheep, and instead has stumbled into a high-fashion hair-styling job, thanks to his proficiency with the clippers.  At this point the city has become a prison of another sort, and another complicated prison break plan is needed to get the farmer out of his new life and back to his old one.

Oh, and there's Trumper, an animal control officer who favors fancy technology like a big clamp to pick up animals, and later a giant taser.  Since he catches Shaun at one point and puts him in a cell, I think I'm spot-on with noticing the prison break theme.  That's three escape plans in one film, if you stop and think about it.  There are gags here in the cells that directly reference films like "The Shawshank Redemption".  And Trumper takes Polaroids of the animals he catches, and posts them on the bulletin board like mug shots.

The best bits are probably the gags in the fancy restaurant, where the 8 sheep have disguised themselves as 4 humans (think two sheep standing on top of each other, wearing clothing) and as they sit at a table, none of them know how to act like humans ordering dinner.  A lot of great humor here, and someone really took the time to try to get inside the minds of animals, to imagine what an animal might do if it was trying to imitate human behavior.  We're rooting for the sheep at this point, but watching them fail again and again was quite hilarious.  Plus the experience of leaving home and looking for someone in a big city was so much more relatable than watching stupid cavemen play soccer.

Also starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili (last seen in "Notting Hill"), Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Simon Greenall (also carrying over from "Early Man"), Emma Tate, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Sean Connolly, Stanley Unwin, Andy Nyman, Jack Paulson.

RATING: 7 out of 10 double-decker buses