Saturday, May 11, 2019

The End of the Tour

Year 11, Day 130 - 5/10/19 - Movie #3,228

BEFORE: Finally, I'm back to Netflix for a couple of films that haven't yet scrolled off the service.  Buying the ones that have disappeared on iTunes is starting to cost me some serious money.  Ron Livingston carries over from "Drinking Buddies".

THE PLOT: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace's groundbreaking epic novel "Infinite Jest".

AFTER: Well, it turns out I was at a real disadvantage here, because I've never read "Infinite Jest" - I've heard things about it, but as it is I don't have much time for books, unless they're of the comic variety, or they continue the story of "Star Wars" before, after and between the movies.  You try watching a new movie every day for 10 months out of the year, and see how much free time that leaves you for books, assuming you also have to hold down a job.

This film is based on David Lipsky's book, which was titled "Although Of Course You End Up Being Yourself", which is therefore a book by a writer about the interview that led to the magazine article, which he also wrote, and that interview was one writer asking another writer about, mostly, writing.  The whole thing's like a Russian nesting doll of self-serving introspection, like "Inception" if it were a book that got turned into a film, and that film was all about what a great book it was based on.  Or maybe it's more like "Adaptation" in that sense, that it's so hyper self-aware about itself that it threatens to implode under its own po-mo ironic nature.

And throughout it all, the subject matter of the book itself is barely discussed, or if the interviewer and interviewee did discuss it, it was between the moments shown in this film.  I don't know anything more about "Infinite Jest" than I did before, which is to say that it's over 1,000 pages long, got great reviews, and the character inside deals with addiction.  Wiki calls it an "encyclopedic novel" with an "experimental narrative structure".  Well, now I REALLY don't want to read it, I get enough experimental narrative structure through all these movies that are either 80% flashback or toggle between three timelines in the hope that one will somehow give insight into the other. (It does happen sometimes, but it's rare.)

So I really have to just treat this as any film about someone who suddenly becomes famous, and then gets interviewed about said fame.  And why consent to an interview?  To become more famous, of course.  Publicity is a beast that feeds on itself, and then grows exponentially, this is true for actors, directors, musicians and writers.  The vast majority of people in all of those professions work for many years in relative obscurity, while watching a select few gain overnight recognition through some weird combination of talent, luck and maybe the help of someone in a position of power.  I have mostly experience dealing with film directors and animators, and I can give you a long list of people who I knew in film school or worked with in some capacity who are successful film directors now (and the funny thing is, I've watched several films this year where I happen to know the director, like "Destroyer" and "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse".  I don't begrudge them their successes, because their paths are different than mine, and I'm guessing they all probably worked very hard to get where they are, which only barely seems worth it to me, in some ways.

You can't help but think about it, when you're in the room with a director (or actor, or musician) that you admire.  If you don't immediately gush with praise, then you're probably playing it cool, thinking about how that would be completely the wrong thing to do, and even if it were appropriate, they've probably heard it all before.  That's part of the interplay here between Lipsky and Wallace, they probably shouldn't have sent a struggling author to interview him, because that sense of respect mixed with intimidation and awe is always going to be lurking there, right under the surface.  They should have sent a reporter who wasn't also an aspiring author in order to get a story with a more neutral viewpoint.

Instead the movie damns Wallace with faint praise throughout, but that's neither here nor there.  The point was to chronicle the five days these two men spent together, as Wallace traveled to the last stop on his book tour, which happened to be Minneapolis.  Thank God we didn't see the whole book tour here, that would have been a bit too much like "Green Book" - here we don't have two different people learning to work together on tour, but we do have almost the same person twice - two neurotic authors - who instead find ways to get on each other's nerves as they travel to Minnesota and back.  As quickly as they found common ground and forged a friendship, it nearly fell apart just as quickly once it seemed like Lipsky was hitting on Wallace's ex-girlfriend.

Is it comforting to believe that the authors, filmmakers and musicians who DO hit it big are probably all just as neurotic, if not moreso, than the ones that don't become famous?  There's that extra level of pressure added with the need to perform just as well as before, to get another hit book or hit album to market and go on another book tour, another press junket to promote it?  The fame machine is like a fast-moving carousel, and once you step on it, you've got to keep going around on it, even if it makes you sick, because it's not going to stop, so getting off of it is bound to be quite painful.

In the end, this film was just way too talky-talky for me, with barely anything happening.  Also it commits the cardinal sin of starting with the most important news being delivered in 2008, and then flashing back to the interview scenes 12 years earlier, so that most of the film is a flashback within a flashback.

Also starring Jason Segel (last seen in "Sex Tape"), Jesse Eisenberg (last seen in "The Emperor's Club"), Joan Cusack (last seen in "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping"), Mamie Gummer (last seen in "Ricki and the Flash"), Mickey Sumner (last seen in "Frances Ha"), Anna Chlumsky, Becky Ann Baker (last seen in "Nights in Rodanthe"), with archive footage of John Michael Higgins (last seen in "Pitch Perfect 3"), Christian Slater (last seen in "Bobby") and John Travolta (last seen in "Savages").

RATING: 3 out of 10 bags of marshmallows

Friday, May 10, 2019

Drinking Buddies

Year 11, Day 129 - 5/9/19 - Movie #3,227

BEFORE: It seems like maybe this film really belongs in a February chain, but since I'm working on a perfect year, some allowances have to be made.  I'm sure there will still be plenty of film romances to watch when next February rolls around, and I can't really exclude all films with any love or relationship issues in them, because what would that leave me with?  Plus I did watch a couple of films in March & April that could have counted as horror films, so really, this year, all bets are off. Heck, for that matter you could count "Green Book" as a Christmas movie, because the concert tour ends on Christmas Eve - only I didn't KNOW that when I scheduled it for May, so there you go.

Jake Johnson carries over from "Tag", and another one of these actors is going to get me all the way to Mother's Day.

THE PLOT: Luke and Kate are co-workers at a brewery who spend their nights drinking and flirting heavily.  One weekend away with their significant others proves who really belongs together and who doesn't.

AFTER: Ah, now we're getting to a subject that I know well - and by that I mean craft beer, not just the fragile nature of relationships.  If anything I wish there could have been a bit more in this film about running a small brewery, not just the drinking and the camaraderie between the employees there.  Like what beers does this brewery put out, what are the flavors, what's the ABV, what are the CLEVER NAMES of the brews, for Cripes sake?  I've lived in this world, gone to many of the big beer craft beer festivals in NYC, often drinking more than my share, and attended many beer dinners at semi-fancy restaurants - that's a prix fixe dinner where four courses of food are paired with beers from specific breweries, which is really a promotional opportunity for the brewery to pitch sample glasses of their beers to the elite drinkers in that region.  For a long while I was a fixture at these events, so at two or three restaurants that did this regularly, I knew all the staff and they knew me, plus I became acquainted with several of the distributors from breweries all over.  The beer dinner trend seems to have died down, but I wish they'd bring it back.  If the distributors were pouring at a beer festival and recognized me, I might get a little larger pour in my tasting glass.

But I'm digressing - the focus in this film is really on relationships, and while Kate is in a committed relationship, that doesn't prevent her from flirting with her friend Luke, who works at the brewery. (Again, though, I would have loved to know more about Luke from a brewer's perspective, what makes him a good brewer, is it his palate, his knowledge of hops or flavoring ingredients?  Does he specialize in making pilsners or stouts, or ales with fruity flavors?  Is he good at coming up with punny names for the brewery's special brews?  What makes him tick?)  And if Kate's flirty with Luke during the workday, imagine what happens when they go out drinking after work?  What could possibly go wrong when alcohol is involved and everyone's resistance is lowered?  Where social lubricants are concerned, as my drinking buddies used to say about beer festivals, if you can't make friends at one of them, there's something seriously the f*ck wrong with you.

Anyway, at an anniversary event for the Chicago brewery in question, Kate brings her boyfriend and Luke brings his girlfriend.  The foursome connects, and they plan a vacation together in Michigan, I assume in the Upper Peninsula, though this isn't explicitly stated.  Now I've seen a lot of relationship-based films, so for a while it seemed like they were working on a simple couple-swap here, but what happens on the trip ends up to be a bit more complicated than that.  (Besides, it's probably been done many times, going back to the days of Shakespeare, even.)  Of course Kate's attracted to Luke, and vice versa, but sometimes people have potential romantic partners in their life where they never, ever act on those feelings, that's very possible.  Sometimes you have people in your life that you know you HAVE to keep at arm's length, because you don't want to screw up the real relationship you have with one person, just for the potential relationship you could have with someone else.  Because you know as soon as you give up what you have, you'll probably screw things up with the new person, and be left with no relationship at all.

Then again, I don't know you, maybe you're a serial monogamist, the type of person who's always trading up, ditching the relationship you have on a whim just to explore something with someone new.  That's another way to live, I guess, not the way I've chosen for myself - I've only burned my relationship to the ground when I had no other alternative, when the only way to go forward seemed to be to get out at great cost, to go through the pain because it was the one way to ultimately feel better.  No judgments, if you're the kind of person who can balance two or three relationships at a time that's very forward-thinking of you, but there's so much more potential for things to get complicated.  But I don't know where you find the time, because even keeping one solid relationship going strong requires some effort, two or three just seems exhausting.

For any relationship or friendship to work, there have to be boundaries, and that's what Luke and Kate have to learn. But even that knowledge comes at a personal cost, it seems. So, what can we learn here?  How about "never date your work friends" or "don't drink so much with your platonic friends" and maybe "never help your friends move" while we're at it?  Umm, unless you're going to need their help moving your own stuff soon, but come on, you know they're not going to show up in return, right?  Everyone should just hire professional movers, just to be on the safe side.  If you can't afford professional movers, then don't move, stay where you are, or just leave your stuff behind and get new stuff later.

I've finally had some success in cracking into the "mumblecore" movement, after years of only hearing about it - earlier this year I watched "Frances Ha" and that was my first "official" mumblecore film, I think, but I'd been making inroads into the genre by focusing on films directed by Noah Baumbach like "The Squid and the Whale" and "Kicking & Screaming", only to find out that Baumbach is only considered sort of mumblecore-adjacent, I guess maybe he's considered too successful, and therefore not "arty" enough?  Anyway, the director of "Drinking Buddies" is Joe Swanberg, and Wikipedia says he's definitely mumblecore, he directed "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and helped launch the careers of Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham and the Duplass Brothers.  That's so indie... But with my luck, I bet "Drinking Buddies" represents his first film outside of mumblecore, like this was probably his attempt to go mainstream, with known actors.  True mumblecore remains elusive - I'll have to catch up with it later, like all the Ingmar Bergman films that are on my (way)back burner.

But all of the dialogue here was improvised, and usually I hate that technique - probably because not all actors are very good at improvising dialogue.  The fact that I didn't notice any problems here means that these actors are quite good at it.  Still, I admit that about 15 minutes in to the film, I had to double check the IMDB to make sure I hadn't seen this one before (if I sign in and see that a film is rated, that for sure means I've seen it in the last 11 years).  Something about it felt quite familiar, but it just might be similar to other films, like maybe "Extract" or "Sleeping With Other People".

Also starring Olivia Wilde (last seen in "Alpha Dog"), Anna Kendrick (last seen in "Pitch Perfect 3"), Ron Livingston (last seen in "The 5th Wave"), Jason Sudeikis (last seen in "Kodachrome"), Ti West, Mike Brune, Frank V. Ross and a cameo from director Joe Swanberg.

RATING: 6 out of 10 pint glasses

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Year 11, Day 128 - 5/8/19 - Movie #3,226

BEFORE: I've got to zag a little bit here, to a film that was nominated for zero Oscars, but does have someone from "Avengers: Endgame" in it, just like "Green Book" did.  I'm still seeing the cast of that superhero film everywhere I look, I think I must have moved every film connected to "Endgame" up toward the top of the list to take advantage of all the linking choices.  If I couldn't see the "Avengers" film when I did, at least I would have had other chances, it could have slipped right in here between "Green Book" and "Tag", for example.  But that's going to be expected with a cast of hundreds.  Now I know I can link all the way to "Spider-Man: Far From Home", it's almost time for me to start working out how I'm going to get from that film in mid-July to August or September, because that could affect my May and June chains, there might be films I want to add or films that I need to take away because I need to make certain connections in July or August.

Sebastian Maniscalco carries over from "Green Book".

THE PLOT: A small group of former classmates organize an elaborate annual game of tag that requires some to travel all over the country.

AFTER: I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I got here, since I did begin 2019 with the movie "Game Night", about a group of adults playing competitive board games, and things spiraling out of control to an illogical conclusion.  This is along the same lines, with a group of men in their late 30's (?) continuing to play the same competitive game that they played as kids, only things get really out of hand for the one month each year that they've designated as their play time.

Though it's based on a real-life group of friends that did continue to play Tag into adulthood, I'm sure the film took some creative license here, because in the real world people can't just ignore their jobs for a month or fly across the country on a whim (especially with last-minute airfares being what they are...) just to keep the game going.  OK, maybe a guy without a family could schedule his 2-week vacation for May, but a whole month?  To play TAG? No way, that guy is so fired.  The five friends have had various levels of success in their lives, one of them is an insurance company CEO and on the other extreme, another is a recently-divorced stoner.

One player, Jerry, has apparently never been tagged, never spent any time as "It".  Presumably, all of the others have had their moments of shame, because whoever was last tagged on May 31 must remain "It" for the next 11 months, thereby bringing shame to his reputation and his family name.  Or it would, if the game of Tag meant anything in the long run.  But the four non-Jerrys decide to team up to finally tag him, because for once, they know exactly where he's going to be, at his own wedding.

Now, playing this game as a group of adults means that certain "amendments" had to be agreed upon - there are no immediate tag-backs, meaning when tagged, you can't just tag the other person right back, because that would create a potentially non-ending loop, and decrease the involvement of the other players.  Makes sense.  But until now, all family functions, even funerals, have been fair game for tagging, if they occur during the month of May.  Jerry's future bride wants the perfect wedding, though, so the amendment is made that the wedding ceremony, reception and related functions are off-limits.  (That doesn't mean he can't be tagged on the way TO these functions...)

But while the four non-Jerry's are able to use deception, like disguises and prank calls, Jerry's playing at a whole different level.  He's got ninja-like skills, CIA-level fighting abilities (he's some kind of gym owner/personal trainer) and a seemingly unlimited bank account.  Basically, Jeremy Renner's playing a mix of Hawkeye from the Avengers and his characters from "The Bourne Legacy" or the "Mission: Impossible" films.  So good casting there.

But these actors are all older than late 30's, and it shows.  Ed Helms is 45, but somehow he looks like the oldest in the bunch, even though he's not.  Renner is 47, but looks much younger, same goes for Jon Hamm.  Jake Johnson is 40, and Hannibal Buress is 36, the only one in the group playing close to the characters' ages. I wanted to believe that Nora Dunn wasn't old enough to play Ed Helms' mother, but I stand corrected, that is mathematically possible, if her character had a child in her early 20's.
(EDIT: I think the math is off because the players say they've been playing tag for "thirty years", but if they started in 1983, then that's really 36 years.  So if they were 9 years old at the time, they should all be 45 now. So only one actor is playing a character vastly different from his own age.)

The ending is overly hokey and sentimental, which seemed really out of place for a comedy.  There was no need to attach a "moral" to the non-resolution.  This game doesn't have to mean anything, it just has to be fun.  The group believes that people don't stop playing because they grow old, but they grow old because they stop playing.  OK, but you don't have to grow old to grow up, something these people clearly forgot to do.

Also starring Ed Helms (last seen in "Chappaquiddick", Jeremy Renner (last seen in "Avengers: Endgame"), Jon Hamm (last seen in "We Were Soldiers"), Jake Johnson (last heard in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"), Hannibal Buress (last seen in "The Disaster Artist"), Annabelle Wallis (last seen in "The Mummy"), Isla Fisher (last seen in "I Heart Huckabees"), Rashida Jones (last seen in "Quincy"), Leslie Bibb (last seen in "Trick 'r Treat"), Steve Berg, Nora Dunn (last seen in "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio"), Thomas Middleditch (last seen in "Kong: Skull Island"), Jaren Lewison, Maxwell Ross, Elijah Marcano, Kevin Moody, Xavion Shelton, Kella Raines, Braxton Bjerken, Brayden Benson, Braxton Alexander, Tyler Crumley, Legend Williams, Th'Yana Star, Al Mitchell, with cameos from Brian Dennehy (last seen in "The Big Year"), Lil Rel Howery (last seen in "Get Out"), Carrie Brownstein (last seen in "Carol").

RATING: 6 out of 10 powdered donuts

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Green Book

Year 11, Day 127 - 5/7/19 - Movie #3,225

BEFORE: See, I told you that I'd circle back to Mahershala Ali, for the other film that he won the Best Supporting Oscar for.  I watched "Moonlight" almost two weeks ago, so look at all the extra films I was able to fit in between!  Keeping track of all the credits from hundreds of films is a huge job, but knowing when NOT to watch all the movies with a certain actor in them, and saving one for a crucial linking opportunity later on is something of an art form.  I just have to look at the big picture, and realize that not every connection needs to be made, I've learned to ignore some of them because they don't take me exactly where I want to go, or in some cases, they get me there TOO soon, and I feel like I'm not supposed to be THERE yet.  Having holidays or key release dates for the current year gives me something akin to a road map, telling me where I have to be on certain dates of the year - much, like, say, the itinerary of a traveling musician on a multi-city tour.

But there's a film running on cable now, called "The Glass Castle", and I've realized too late that it stars both Naomi Watts and a couple of the kids from "Captain Fantastic", so it could have easily fit into my chain - and it's also about some form of alternative parenting.  But then if I included that one I guess my count would be off again, and I wouldn't hit Mother's Day properly without cutting something else, so perhaps it's for the best.  I'll have to circle back around to that one somehow.

Viggo Mortensen carries over again from "Captain Fantastic".  An Oscar winner takes precedence over a film that wasn't even nominated for anything...

THE PLOT: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

AFTER: This is the film that drove Spike Lee crazy when it won the Best Picture Oscar a couple of months ago - Spike described this film as little more than an updated "Driving Miss Daisy", with the roles reversed.  But I think that description really belittles this film, it sells the intent hear VERY short.  From Mr. Lee's point of view, one might draw the conclusion that very little progress has been made since "Driving Miss Daisy" was awarded the Best Picture Oscar for 1989.

But the key thing to remember here is that the roles ARE reversed.  No matter how you slice it, that's progress, right?  The black character is BEING driven around, and the white character is the driver.  Instead of focusing on the perceived lack of progress, why not celebrate the fact that some progress has been made?  What does Spike want, a story where the black character owns a fleet of limousines, or all of the concert venues?  That wouldn't be realistic for a story set in 1962.  Sorry, but the President was a white man back then, as were most people in positions of power, and like it or not, racist laws were still being practiced down South.

So a screenwriter has to work within a certain set of story constructs, and those will be dictated by the reality of the year in which the movie is set.  Plus, this is based on a true story, so assuming that the film stays close to the proven facts of that story, that becomes partially criticism-proof, right?  The only question then becomes whether the story is worth telling, whether it has something to say, and I believe that it is and it does.

That being said, it's an obvious formula being used here, to show two people who are very different, who are at opposite ends of some spectrum, or don't see eye-to-eye at first.  Over time spent together working together toward a common goal, they achieve some form of understanding, or something akin to a friendship.  The road-trip format is just an ideal way to force two people with contrasting ideologies together, to create a limited amount of time together when their goals coincide.  Pianist Don Shirley booked a concert tour across the South to challenge people's perceptions of race, and in a way to challenge himself as well.

In turn, Frank (aka "Tony Lip") is challenged, because he's spent his life in the Bronx, surrounded by a close-knit Italian family and community, and racist attitudes and behaviors were still around back then.  He might have known a few black people, but not many, and he probably didn't have any black friends.  But if anything, the portrayal of an Italian community in (mostly liberal) New York that was still partially racist on a day-to-day basis, that itself constitutes a set of stereotypes, that Italians would walk around saying "eggplants" as a derogatory term for African-American people, would not consider drinking out of the same glass as a black person, etc.

Don Shirley is portrayed here as a man stuck between two worlds, estranged from his family and not in touch with his heritage, so not black enough to live comfortably in some situations, and not fitting in very well in the white world either.  He doesn't like to eat fried chicken, and though he knows who Little Richard and Aretha Franklin are, he's not familiar with any of their music.  If this seems hard for Frank to believe, one could imagine that the audience could have the same problem - his character is not a walking stereotype, somehow it's the exact opposite of one.

If anything, there are more ITALIAN stereotypes on display in this film than African-American ones. Which, along with Irish and Russian stereotypes, is one of the few racial portrayals that films can still get away with.  You probably know what I'm talking about here - all Italian people know somebody in organized crime, they all have big families, they always eat fish on Christmas Eve.  These things may be true very often, but they're also stereotypes, aka narrative shortcuts. Thank God Frank never says, "fugeddahbout it!" in this film, at least I think he does, but he says, "Don't worry about it!" which is awful close.

Also, Frank is ALWAYS eating in this film - that's another Italian stereotype, right?  It's a wonder that Dr. Shirley made all of his concert dates when Frank would stop so often for food.  Like, he's excited about getting Kentucky Fried Chicken when IN Kentucky - Umm, he knows it's not any fresher there, right?  Does he think that all the KFC sold around the country comes from Kentucky?  Right, Italians are low class and dumb, another stereotype.  See what I mean?

Speaking of the itinerary, does it make sense to go from Indiana all the way east to Georgia and then back toward the midwest for Little Rock and Baton Rouge?  I've got to call a NITPICK POINT on this one, because any concert tour has to make sense from a driving perspective, and Don Shirley seemed to be a smart man, so he wouldn't have booked himself into a bunch of venues that would mean going all criss-cross across the South and then doubling back over the same territory.

If you're wondering, the title refers to a real green-colored tourist book, one that was designed to help black people find the best hotels and restaurants to patronize that would accept them, also which ones were integrated and which ones were whites-only.  Because after you create organized religion and organized crime, why not have organized racism?

I've still only seen half of the 2018 films nominated for Best Picture, 4 out of 8.  I still have to see "Roma", "The Favourite", "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "BlacKkKlansman" - but of the films I have seen so far, I think "Black Panther" is out in front with a score of 8, then comes "A Star Is Born" with a 7, and "Vice" got a 6.  So I guess I would have voted for "Black Panther", I doubt that Spike Lee's film is going to out-score that one.

Speaking of Spike Lee (again), I just KNEW he wouldn't be able to graciously accept his Oscar, and that would be the end of it.  He finally won an Oscar this year for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the smart move would have been to just be happy with that and move on - but he just couldn't do it.  So naturally if he complains about "Green Book" winning when his film was also nominated for Best Picture, that just looks like sour grapes, like he feels that HIS film about race should have won instead.  Based on his films, though, where race is concerned he tends to use a sledgehammer when a lighter touch would usually be preferable.  Remember in "Do the Right Thing" when he just instructed actors to stare right into the camera and use every racial epithet they could think of for black people, white people and Asians?  Here I thought that over the years he might learn that a more subtle approach might be beneficial, and now I'm betting that he hasn't changed a bit.

Also starring Mahershala Ali (last seen in "Moonlight"), Linda Cardellini (last seen in "Avengers: Endgame"), Sebastian Maniscalco (last seen in "The House"), Dimiter D. Marinov (last seen in "Triple 9"), Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne (last seen in "The Gift"), Iqbal Theba, Joe Cortese (last seen in "Rules Don't Apply"), Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis (last seen in "I Saw the Light"), Don Stark (last seen in "Hello, My Name Is Doris"), Anthony Mangano (last seen in "The Dictator"), Randal Gonzalez, Tom Virtue (last seen in "Live by Night"), Brian Distance, Dennis W. Hall, Brian Stepanek, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Ninja Devoe, with a cameo from the real Frank Vallelonga.

RATING: 6 out of 10 folded pizzas

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Captain Fantastic

Year 11, Day 126 - 5/6/19 - Movie #3,224

BEFORE: I'm sort of counting down to Mother's Day now, but in a roundabout way - yesterday's film was about a teen mother dying at the start of the film, leaving a midwife to deal with the baby, and tonight I'm on similar territory, with a mother who's barely in the film, and the family that has to deal with her absence.  I don't think there's any more maternal stuff until Sunday, the next five films are just a chain of randoms that's going to get me there, but you never know.

Viggo Mortensen carries over from "Eastern Promises".

THE PLOT: In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.

AFTER: Really, this is about a family of six kids that has been raised quite unconventionally - the film would choose that we not see living out in the woods as "worse" or even "better" than living as part of society, it's just different.  Which of course, it is, but the question then arises over why this is taking place. The family's mantras are "Power to the People!" and "Stick it to the Man!" so that suggests that they're leftovers from the hippie movement or the 1970's protestor movement.

If you think about it, it's only the most extreme right- or left-wingers that are likely to go out and live in the woods, like a horrible camping trip that never ends.  On one end of the spectrum you've got the green hippie naturalists, who grow their own toilet paper and are totally plant-diet and are off the grid to try to reduce their own carbon footprint, and way on the other side, you've got the doomsday preppers who are stockpiling weapons in case of nuclear war, the zombie apocalypse or another black President.  One group thinks urban society is completely corrupt and morally bankrupt, while the other group thinks terrorists could overthrow society and bomb us back to the Stone Age - it probably makes for some heated conversations in the trailer park, that's all I'm saying.

The family here is much more in the first theological camp - through they're not all vegan, they hunt deer and other wild game, plus they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday instead of Christmas, so clearly the issue is with the corrupt nature of society, parents who believe they can do a better job educating their children than the school system can - and I'm not saying they're wrong - but are those kids vaccinated?  The plan to live off the grid works fine until somebody needs medical attention, and that turns out to be the mother here.  Various references are made to her condition, something about seratonin and her brain not making the right electrical impulses, which makes me wonder if that's all just a euphemism for something.

Ben is left to break the news to their six (!!) kids and to maintain their rigorous physical training and reading schedule.  It's clear that their parents set out to mold individuals (with unique first names) and wanted to make sure that their kids didn't just learn about history and government, but also understood it, and there's a wide void between those two things for most teens.  Also, no video games, no soda, no processed food, and a determination to answer all of their children's questions about life, even the awkward ones.  It's noble, but it could create teens that are hyper-aware of the world, yet unable to function socially within it.  The oldest son, Bodevan, is intelligent enough to get into an Ivy League college, but collapses when given the opportunity to talk to a pretty girl.

Naturally there are going to be problems when Ben takes the 6 kids on the road to attend their mother's funeral, a place that they've been expressly told to stay away from.  The problem is, staying away doesn't seem possible for a man who's been bucking the system for so long - plus the whole casket and church service thing is in direct conflict with what his wife's burial wishes were.  So the funeral visit becomes both a way to "stick it to the man" and also a "rescue mission" that puts this family up against their mother's parents.  Who seem like generally nice people, they also seem to have the kids' best interests at heart, only their way of demonstrating this is to get a lot of lawyers involved to sue for custodial rights, so the kids can be raised indoors.  They mean well, but it's very possible that the kids have been away from society too long, that they can't be integrated.

It's a NITPICK POINT to me that the family stops at a roadside diner and the father claims that "there's no actual food on the menu".  OK, I'll give you the fact that hot dogs are completely synthetic (yet delicious), but what's his problem with pancakes and bacon?  That's like nature's perfect food, right?  And you can totally eat pancakes when you're camping.  I mean, sorry that they're not made with stone-ground oat flour or quinoa or something, and that the bacon comes from a farm-raised pig and not a deer found by the side of the road, but if you've got a problem with pancakes and maple syrup, then I've got a problem with you.  That's real food, no matter how you look at it.

But it is true that burial of a human is an incredible waste of space, and so our whole view on death and remembrance really needs to be examined with an eye toward changing it.  It's something like 36 cubic feet that gets taken up by a gravesite, and then that land can never be used for anything else, at least not for a hundred years or so?  Cremation's not much better, because it's a waste of energy to burn up a body and then an urn with the ashes still might want to be stored somewhere and take up space.  Spreading the ashes?  Forget about it, that's an environmental hazard in some way, I'm sure.  The latest techniques that really need to be considered are the freezing technique - not cryogenics, that's a storage nightmare, too - but a new process where a body is put in liquid nitrogen, then vibrated into little tiny bits.  After they remove any metals from dental implants and such, the remaining dust can be placed in a biodegradable casket, which gets placed in topsoil and then fully decomposes in 6-12 months.  "Promession", that's the name of this process.

There's another process that takes cremated bodies and turns them into diamond-like gems, I think that sounds rather nifty.  People can now turn their pet's ashes into unique diamonds in different colors, which is a way to cheer up grieving pet owners, make something beautiful out of their ashes, and end up with something to wear or display.  Well, it's an idea, anyway - I might consider becoming a gem someday if I die.  That's probably preferable to what takes place in this film, even if it leads to a tender family moment.

Like it or hate it, at least this film is very thought-provoking about the best way to raise children.  Obviously everyone thinks they're doing well but secretly wonders if they're really screwing up their kids, right?  I don't know enough to say what's right and what's wrong, but at least there's a different point of view reflected here, an admission that there's not ONE single way of doing it.

Also starring George MacKay (last seen in "Peter Pan"), Frank Langella (last seen in "Dracula"), Steve Zahn (last seen in "You've Got Mail"), Kathryn Hahn (last heard in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"), Ann Dowd (last seen in "Collateral Beauty"), Missi Pyle (last seen in "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"), Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton (last seen in "It"), Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell (last seen in "All the Money in the World"), Trin Miller, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty (last seen in "The Watch").

RATING: 6 out of 10 boning knives

Monday, May 6, 2019

Eastern Promises

Year 11, Day 125 - 5/5/19 - Movie #3,223

BEFORE: I spend about half of my weekend watching TV - only half, because I also have to try to have something like a life outside of TV and movies.  So I'll go out to dinner with my wife, or we'll go out shopping like we did yesterday, or I'll try to get something done around the house - this weekend it involved replacing our outdoor grill cover, which was falling apart, with a new one that was in one solid piece.  Cleaning up the rest of the backyard, which is full of sticks and weeds, will have to wait for another day.

But when it comes to TV, there's simply too much of it on - I can't wait for the spring season finales of my shows so I can have a little bit more free time.  "Gotham" finally ended, for good this time I think, so did the Marvel show "The Gifted", so there's 2 hours a week I can get back, but my DVR is still filled up with the latest seasons of shows like "American Gods", "Barry", "Cloak and Dagger" and "The Orville" - plus I've got episodes of all my other shows, like "Law & Order: SVU", "The Simpsons", "Bob's Burgers", "Family Guy", "American Dad", "Little People, Big World", "Restaurant: Impossible", "Shark Tank", and "Bar Rescue" on tape dating back to mid-March.  Throw in "The Daily Show" and the 3 talk shows I try to stay current on, plus "Jeopardy!" and it's no wonder I feel like I can't catch up.  So when everything on this list goes on hiatus for the summer, I can finally make some progress.  I just hope there aren't too many good summer shows airing (I know "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is starting up again in a couple weeks) because I was planning to finally watch "Lost" this summer, and too many new shows will put an end to that plan.

In movies, Naomi Watts carries over from "The Sea of Trees".

THE PLOT: A Russian teenager living in London who dies during childbirth leaves clues in her journal that could tie her child to a rape involving a violent Russian mob family.

AFTER: Another TV show that I watch (one of the few shows that my wife and I will watch together) is called "The Great British Menu", which might be some kind of offshoot of "The Great British Baking Show", I'm not sure.  I caught much of the previous season with her, where chefs from around Britain competed to get their dishes on the menu for a banquet in honor of the heroes of the NHS, the National Health Service of the U.K.  (The next season features a banquet at Abbey Road Studios, so I'm looking forward to seeing Beatles-themed menu items, like maybe a Yellow Submarine Sandwich or an Octopus's Garden Salad.  That's what I'd serve, anyway...).

But the lead female character is a midwife in London, so she must work for the NHS.  I just hope she qualified for a ticket to that banquet.  She's of partial Russian descent, so she knows a bit about the world that this teen immigrant came from, before she was brought to the hospital about to give birth with complications.  But when the teen dies during childbirth, the midwife tries to track down where she came from and how she came to be where she was, and that puts her in contention with the Russian mob in London.  Of course, she doesn't know right away that they're mobsters, because the old man who owns the restaurant seems very nice, and just asks a lot of questions about the girl's journal, like where the midwife is keeping it, how many people live there, and how many people he'd have to kill to retrieve it.  Nope, nothing suspicious about that at all.

Meanwhile, the mobster's driver seems to be working his way up the crime chain by befriending the mobster's son, helping him dispose of the odd body or two here and there, and then explaining to his father why they had to go behind his back and kill this guy or that.  Because you don't just kill another mobster without repercussions, even if that guy was spreading truth about your sexual preferences or your drinking habits.  Everybody in the organization leaves a vacuum, and there are always two or three guys ready to fill every void.

But I'm honestly making this chain of events sound more exciting than the movie did - there's a scene in the film where the midwife is trying again and again to get her motorcycle started, and that's an apt metaphor for the first hour of this film.  It keeps trying to get into gear, but it just doesn't want to start, and then when it does start, it can't seem to build up any momentum.  With one exception - there's a fight in the bathhouse when the driver is misidentified as the mobster's son, and it's preferable that he gets taken out instead of the mobster's son, who would then get to live, I guess.  Only, NITPICK POINT, what was the plan after that, would the son have to disappear to maintain the illusion that he was killed in the bathhouse?  He couldn't ever be seen again, or continue his activity with the mob, or the Chechens would know that they killed the wrong guy, so this plan wouldn't even work.

The ensuing struggle in the bathhouse is an epic fight, and there's been an awful lot of male nudity already around here lately (like in "The Paperboy", "A Star is Born" and I think "Gerald's Game").  But the problem is, a fight like this would be only one of many exciting scenes in a film like "Mission: Impossible - Fallout", and here it's the only real action scene in the whole film.  Unless the goal here was to make life in the Russian mob look ultra-boring, the rest of the movie just feels flat when compared to this one big fight scene.

Last year I ended up watching a bunch of films set in the Middle East, but this year, Russia seems to have become a focal point.  Geez, first they hack our elections, and now they're taking over my blog.  Already in 2019 I watched "Red Sparrow", "The Death of Stalin" and this one, plus I know there will be more Russian stuff when I start my documentary chain in June...

Also starring Viggo Mortensen (last seen in "On the Road"), Vincent Cassel (last seen in "Jason Bourne"), Armin Mueller-Stahl (last seen in "The Peacemaker"), Sinead Cusack (last seen in "Wrath of the Titans"), Mina E. Mina, Jerzy Skolimowski, Donald Sumpter (last seen in "In the Heart of the Sea"), Raza Jaffrey, Josef Altin, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse (last seen in "Mother!"), Tereza Srbova, Tamer Hassan, Olegar Fedoro, Aleksandar Mikic and the voice of Tatiana Maslany (last seen in "Destroyer").

RATING: 4 out of 10 cases of black-market brandy

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Sea of Trees

Year 11, Day 124 - 5/4/19 - Movie #3,222

BEFORE: Today is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) and I wish I had time to mark the occasion, but I don't.  The best I could hope for is that someone in my movie today has some kind of connection to the Star Wars universe (unfortunately no, not that I'm aware of, anyway) so really the best I can do is keep TBS on in the background while I'm watching TV today, so in between shows I can catch some glimpses of my favorite saga.  Or I can keep the TV on while I sleep and absorb some of it subconsciously.  I'd love to re-watch "Solo: A Star Wars Story" but I can't, I don't have an extra two hours, not if I want to stay on schedule.  I'll just have to keep "Star Wars" in my heart until this become a more federally-recognized holiday.  (Special shout-out to Peter Mayhew, who passed away earlier this week - maybe the 2nd or third SW actor I met at San Diego Comic-Con, and the 3rd actor in my SW autograph collection.)

Matthew McConaughey carries over again from "White Boy Rick", and I haven't even cleared the McConaughey category, because of "The Dark Tower", but there's no time for that either - Mother's Day is coming up, and I'm on a tight schedule.

THE PLOT: A suicidal American befriends a Japanese man lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji and the two search for a way out.

AFTER: Here's a film that's on Netflix, and I managed to get around to watching it before it was removed from the service - one of life's little victories, I suppose.  Netflix sent me a notification on my phone that told me I was "great at finding movies".  Gee, thanks, Netflix, and you're super great at deleting them before I can watch them!

There is a real place nicknamed the "Suicide Forest", it's the Aokigahara Forest in Japan - those innovative Japanese have come up with so many modern conveniences, like vending machines that dispense fried chicken (and also used women's underwear) that it's probably no wonder that they found a way to make suicide more convenient - you just go HERE and hang yourself, or take some pills, don't worry about the mess, we'll clean it up.  Umm, congratulations, Japan?

We see Arthur Brennan as he's traveling to Japan, he's booked a one-way trip and has no luggage to check, which should have set off some alarm bells right there.  He's obviously planning short-term, so it's a wonder that the airline clerk doesn't say, "Suicide, right?"  It's like if you see someone in Home Depot buying zip ties, a Sawz-all, and a whole bunch of plastic sheeting while trying to look really casual - a cashier should probably call the cops, if they're paying attention.

The story of WHY Arthur Brennan is there in Suicide Forest is told gradually over the course of the film via flashbacks, and it's a little twisty, when we first see him with his wife they're fighting all the time, over his lack of ambition and her drinking, so it feels like maybe their relationship is circling the drain, but then things between them get worse, but also a little better.  Then something very bad but also extremely ironic happens, and I'm not sure if counts as a call-back to "The Sweet Hereafter", but it does kind of feel like it in a way.

But in the present timeline, Arthur notices a man stumbling through the forest who's in a bad way, he's bleeding and delirious and he can't find the trail to get out.  Arthur puts his own suicide on hold to help this other man, and this gives him a renewed purpose in life, to stay alive at least long enough to help out another person.  Over time he bonds with this Japanese man, who conveniently understands and speaks English, learns a little about what brought the other man to Suicide Forest, and also shares his story with him (and us).

There are many setbacks along the way, and at one point Arthur falls down a ravine, which called to mind "127 Hours".  But there were also implications that the forest is more than it seems to be, that it might be haunted with spirits, so in a way it also feels like maybe somebody told director Gus Van Sant that his films need to be a bit more like M. Night Shyamalan's or something.  Only the story resolution got very hokey in the end here.

Surprisingly, they didn't shoot this film in the real Aokigahara Forest, although some of the movie was filmed in Japan - but the forest seen here is really in Sutton, Massachusetts, a state-owned recreation area known (perhaps appropriately) as Purgatory Chasm.  I guess all forests look alike in the end, unless you're an expert on what trees and plants grow in Japan.  But the flashback scenes were set in Massachusetts (the delivery address on his wife's Amazon package reads Natick, MA) so they filmed those in Foxborough, a couple towns away from where I grew up.  I had an aunt that lived in Natick for a while, so I've spent time there, too.

Also starring Ken Watanabe (last heard in "Isle of Dogs"), Naomi Watts (last seen in "Vice"), Katie Aselton (last seen in "The Gift"), Jordan Gavaris, Anna Friedman, Richard Levine, Bruce Norris, Nada Despotovich, Christopher Tarjan, Charles Van Eman.

RATING: 4 out of 10 park rangers