Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Weather Man

Year 11, Day 215 - 8/3/19 - Movie #3,313

BEFORE: Another Cage movie that managed to fall through the cracks over the years - it seems I find a couple of these every year.  This one gets me within spitting distance of my 10-day tour through British history, even if I still haven't landed on a name for that section of the chain.  Britfest 2019?  The David De-Cameron?  All This and World War Too?  Still working on it....

Nicolas Cage carries over from "It Could Happen to You".

THE PLOT: A Chicago weather man, separated from his wife and children, debates whether professional and personal success are mutually exclusive.

AFTER: It's a bit hard to say when Nicolas Cage made the turn, from playing sympathetic characters (usually the central figure of a movie) to unsympathetic ones.  For the last few years, he's played a bunch of semi-background characters, often people who mentor the central character, like in "Snowden" and "Kick-Ass", or someone who's not really a hero figure at all, like in "Joe" or "Dying of the Light".  Maybe this film was some kind of pivot point, because here he's the central character, but sort of an anti-hero, somebody who wants everybody to feel sympathetic for him, but as an audience member, it's really challenging to find that emotion.  Do you know what I mean?  The kind of person who thinks he's a nice guy, and deserves more, but ends up blaming everyone else for his misfortunes, instead of taking a long, hard look at himself and finding his own faults.

There is a certain down-side to fame, even the questionable level of fame attained by local news anchors and weathermen.  Do weathermen really have fans, people who want their autographs?  I don't know of anyone who collects such things, because really, what do they do?  If it wasn't THIS guy bringing us the weather, it would be another guy or gal with a precipitation-related pun in their name, right?  Like Storm Fields or Amy Freeze - but the only thing I ask out of a weather person is that they NOT be annoying, which apparently is a tough ask.  It seems that lately there's been a push to hire more weather people that look more like a cross-section of America, and I'm not sure that's a step up.  I've got nothing against plus-sized women, but we've got a female meteorologist in NYC who blocks out half the map, and that's just not practical.

But it's tough to be a Chicago weatherman, no doubt, especially if people are blaming you for the bad weather (do they think the weatherman CAUSES bad weather?) and are constantly throwing sodas, slurpees and shakes at Dave Spritz, out of frustration stemming from his forecasts.  (Dave mistakenly thinks that people are jealous of his high-paying, high-profile job, but I think an easier answer is that Chicago residents just hate weather.). Weather is by nature impossible to predict, yet still we expect a certain class of people to take their best guesses day after day, and refuse to acknowledge that hey, at least someone tried.  And the effect on Cage's character here is that he keeps absorbing the blame, and not fighting back, thus becoming the city's doormat.

The domino effect that this has had on his family is that he's divorced and an absent father, and it's a point in his son and daughter's lives where he really could be making an impact.  However, it's been so long since he's been an active dad that he doesn't really seem to know what he's doing, and at that point it's easier for him to do more harm than good.  As a result (?) of him not being there, his teen son is in rehab and has no idea that his adult counselor is putting the moves on him, while his pre-teen daughter is overweight and buying cigarettes, and is unaware that her classmates are teasing her for the way she dresses.  The sole voice of wisdom is Dave's father, who's got good advice but is dealing with his own medical problems, plus he's an author who peaked way too early and has been resting on his Pulitzer and Book Awards for much too long.

Dave absorbs all of these problems, plus the constant barrage of fast food from angry Chicagoans, but a doormat personality isn't very interesting to build a film around, plus it's probably only a matter of time before he hulks out and explodes in a fit of rage - and that would be one of the better scenarios that could result.  The producers of "Hello America" have placed him on the short list of candidates for a national morning talk-show weatherman gig, so he's got to find a way to hold it together until that decision is made, plus with all the sadness going on around him, he's somehow got to muster up the strength to pick up the phone when they call.

The film would like us to believe that by taking archery lessons (he bought them for his daughter, but she lost interest as soon as she realized that practice and discipline would be required) Dave is able to gain focus, sort out his hang-ups and come to terms with his situation in life, but that's a little too pat, too simplistic for a complex world.  The same result could be achieved by just not being an asshole to everyone any more, to treat people in a way he would like to be treated.  See, no bows and arrows required - plus NITPICK POINT, I'm pretty sure it's illegal to walk around any big city with a hunting bow like that.

So, the pieces didn't really come together for me here, and it's a bit hard to find some universal truth as a take-away, all I have to offer is the song it reminded me of, which is Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance", especially these lyrics:

"What is the point of this story / What information pertains
The thought that life could be better / Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains."

But just maybe, there's a line in the film that sums up the cinematic moral quandaries of the last week.  Dave remembers his father telling him that "the hardest thing to do and the right thing to do are often the same thing." And in a week where burying a dead hooker in the desert outside Vegas, pushing a button to kill someone, buying a pair of shoes for an Israeli politician and NOT telling a waitress about that winning lottery ticket were portrayed as the easier things, I'm inclined to agree.

Also starring Michael Caine (last seen in "Quincy"), Hope Davis (last seen in "Rebel in the Rye"), Nicholas Hoult (ditto), Gemmenne de la Pena (last seen in "Erin Brockovich"), Michael Rispoli (last seen in "Rounders"), Gil Bellows (last seen in "Kill the Messenger"), Judith McConnell, Tom Skilling, Peter Grosz (last seen in "Rough Night"), Stephen Hilger, Bryant Gumbel (last seen in "The Hard Way"), Anne Marie Howard, Dan Flannery, Poorna Jagannathan (last seen in "Thanks for Sharing"), with cameos from Cristina Ferrare, Ed McMahon (last seen in "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind"), Wolfgang Puck (last heard in "The Smurfs").

RATING: 4 out of 10 drafts of a terrible novel

Friday, August 2, 2019

It Could Happen to You

Year 11, Day 214 - 8/2/19 - Movie #3,312

BEFORE: This is another classic example of a film that came out years ago (1994) and somehow slipped through the cracks for me - probably several times.  For whatever reason, I didn't watch this when it came out, maybe I was busy, and then just never made it a priority over the years.  Probably it's a case where I can envision where the whole story's going to go after the first 5 minutes, but we'll see.

Ann Dowd carries over from "Norman".

THE PLOT: A police officer offers to share his lottery ticket with a waitress in lieu of a tip.

AFTER: Well, clearly the loose theme for this week is something about doing the "right thing", whatever that seems to be at the moment.  Is it the right thing to push a button and kill somebody if that grants you one million dollars?  Is it the right thing to lie in court about an interracial relationship if you feel your life is in danger?  Is it the right thing to borrow your sister's shoes without telling her, or buy a pair of shoes for an Israeli politician?  What are the implications of these things, a few days or a few weeks later?  And tonight - if you can't leave a tip for a waitress, is it OK to say you'll split your lottery winnings with her?  What then happens if you win the jackpot?

I'll admit it's another good hook, it's not as good as the one in "The Box", but it's fascinating enough to lead to another full set of questions.  For honest cop Charlie Lang, who prides himself in being fair and honest, that means he's got to split the winnings with her, even though that puts him on the outs with his wife, who's got dollar signs in her eyes, but of course down the road you can figure that there's probably some karmic silver lining for doing the right thing.

In many ways this is a film from a simpler time, a New York before the internet, when people still got their information from newspapers like The New York Post (the lower-class New Yorkers, anyway) and reporters still felt it was newsworthy if the Lotto jackpot was over $60 million - these days, the PowerBall's got to be up past $200 million for the news to even mention it at all.  (Also, back then you could still smoke in a restaurant or drink beer in public and the government wasn't trying to legislate away your sugary soda or snacks with trans-fats.)

There's some confusion here about just how the lottery works - when it's revealed that the winning numbers were also picked by a 9-member bowling league, there's a dispute over whether that means each member gets a share of the jackpot, when it should have been blatantly obvious that they only had ONE winning ticket, so they all split ONE share, duh.  I think the movie eventually made this clear, but I'm not 100% sure.  For the money won by the cop and his wife, splitting the money with the waitress (who just HAPPENED to file for bankruptcy the same day she was offered half of the ticket) means they only get half of $4 million, or $2 million.  Wait, how did we get from $64 million down to $4 million?  Was there one other winner, eight other winners or sixteen other winners?

And there's not one mention of taxes at any time, which is a huge NITPICK POINT for me.  We all know that the jackpot amount is deceptive, because it's before taxes - and since winning an amount like this automatically puts someone into the 50% tax bracket, I think it's customary for them to take the taxes out before-hand, because if they don't, and someone then spends the WHOLE jackpot right off, they'll be left at tax time in a worse financial situation than they were in before.  Remember a few years back, when Oprah was giving out cars to her (carefully selected) studio audience members, or ABC had that show (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) where they found deserving families and built a new, mansion-sized house for them?  Well, those things ended up causing more problems than they solved, because the recipients had to pay taxes on the cars (legally, they were regarded as income) or super-huge real estate taxes on those new houses, which some families couldn't afford to do.  "Hey, congratulations, here's your new dream house, built to accommodate your five adopted special-needs kids, and you'll probably have to sell the house just to pay the tax bill you're going to get in six months."  Considering how unskilled the volunteer builders were, the recipients were probably better off getting rid of it.

So if the cop shares his lottery winnings with the waitress, who gets the tax bill?  Does the lottery office recognize them both as co-owners of the ticket, and splits their part of the jackpot, and withholds tax in both of their names, or can the payment and tax liability be made only in one name? And a $4 million dollar payout is already $2 million after you take out the taxes, and then are they splitting the gross, or the net?  Because now we're down to just $1 million for the cop and his wife, and $1 million for the waitress, and while that's still nothing to sneeze at, it's not much compared to the $64 million jackpot, is it?  Even though this is $1 million in 1994 dollars - I think these days if somebody won a million, that would be great for a few years, but you just can't live the rest of your life on a cool million any more.  Not in New York City, anyway.  In Queens, it might last a little longer than in Manhattan, but still, don't go nuts and quit your job or anything.

But we learn that what defines a "good person" here is how they act when they suddenly have money - Lang's wife wants to renovate and redecorate the whole house, and then go on party cruises with other millionaires (I think the weekly "Millionaire Cruise around Manhattan" stopped selling tickets back in 2003, too many Trump-like people were falsifying their assets just to get a veal dinner and some cocktails...) while Yvonne buys the diner she was working in and maintains a table for anyone who walks in off the street but can't afford a meal.  She and Charlie also go roller-blading and decide to hand out subway tokens (remember those?) to strangers, so there's a tip-off that they're somehow meant to be together, even though Charlie's married and she probably still hasn't gotten around to getting divorced.  (Stanley Tucci is criminally under-used here as the deadbeat actor husband who ran up her credit card bill before splitting, and comes back to hit her up for money to start his own theater troupe.)

There was a real-life incident that this was based on, however many details of the story were changed in order to turn it into a movie - in real life both the cop and the waitress were happily married to other people, and stayed that way after splitting the lottery winnings.  Also this took place in a pizza place in Yonkers, not a diner in Queens.  Also, in that case the waitress and cop chose the numbers together, which is a sticking point in the court case seen in the movie - since those were technically the wife's regular numbers, only the cop made a mistake and picked one number wrong, which turned out to be the right move.  I'd hate to be on that jury, this is really a thorny legal issue.

But I think this is another case where this was a great IDEA for a movie, but then once the money is divided, they really had no place to go except to highlight the differences between the cop and his wife, while forcing a romance story on to the cop and waitress.  It's extremely unlikely that they both would show up at the SAME expensive hotel on the same night, especially considering how many hotels there are in New York City - N.P. #3.  And while I'm at it, Charlie takes a bunch of kids from Woodside, Queens out for a day at Yankee Stadium - but why not Shea Stadium?  Statistically they were much more likely to be Mets fans if they lived in that neighborhood.  Maybe the Mets were playing that day, but then why not take them to a real game?  Or was Yankee Stadium the only place that the film crew could arrange to shoot in?  N.P. #4.

Also starring Nicolas Cage (last heard in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"), Bridget Fonda (last seen in "Doc Hollywood"), Rosie Perez (last seen in "Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall"), Wendell Pierce (last seen in "I Think I Love My Wife"), Isaac Hayes (last seen in "Shaft"), Stanley Tucci (last seen in "The Core"), Richard Jenkins (ditto), Victor Rojas, Seymour Cassel (last seen in "The Crew"), J.E. Freeman, Red Buttons (last seen in "The Story of Us"), Charles Busch, Beatrice Winde, Willie Colon, Frank Pellegrino (last seen in "Angie"), Ginny Yang, Lim Kay Tong, Merwin Goldsmith, Ranjit Chowhdry, with cameos from Vincent Pastore (last seen in "Riding in Cars With Boys"), Emily Deschanel (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Peter Jacobson (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Jack Cafferty and archive footage of Annie Potts (last seen in "Ghostbusters").

RATING: 5 out of 10 macadamia nuts

Thursday, August 1, 2019


Year 11, Day 213 - 8/1/19 - Movie #3,311

BEFORE: It's August 1, and the summer is still heating up - I'm kicking off another jam-packed full month, but there are really only two full months left in the year for me, then a couple of partials.  October won't be full since my horror chain isn't large enough to cover a full month, plus I'm planning a vacation for 8 days.  Then November and December are going to be nearly empty, provided I stick to my packed summer/fall schedule.  That's fine by me, more time to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and also start planning my year-end wrap-up post and my schedule for Movie Year 12.

Dan Stevens carries over from "Marshall", which is a funny coincidence because I'm also watching him in "Legion" season 3 right now.  I managed to catch up and watch the most recent episode last night, only to find out that he was barely in it.  Jeez, it's not like he's the star of the show or anything like that.

THE PLOT: Norman Oppenheimer is a small time operator who befriends a young politician at a low point in his life.  Three years later, when the politician becomes an influential world leader, Norman's life dramatically changes for better and worse.

AFTER: I get the feeling that this film really flew under the radar - sort of like the nuclear submarine metaphor used in the film for a type of business mogul, only less deadly and less successful.  Perhaps there was a problem in finding a title that would grab people's attention - "Norman" is about the least exciting title I can imagine, it's even worse than "Marshall".  (They could have titled yesterday's film "Thurgood", but that's not as catchy and a bit TOO unique of a name.  "Marshall" works better, but even then, it's still pretty blah.)  For a while this film was going by the title: "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer", but I guess that wasn't drawing audiences in either, since it's too long and seems even more boring somehow, plus who the hell knows what a "fixer" is, anyway?  During the development stage, this film was called "Oppenheimer Strategies", and that's also a whole lot of nope, that title won't put asses in the seats either, plus they could get a legal threat from the Oppenheimer Funds, which is a real-life investment firm.

I watched the whole film, and I still couldn't tell you exactly what a "fixer" does - it seems like he makes deals with people so that those people can make deals with each other, or something like that. In the early stages of the film he befriends an Israeli politician, the Deputy Minister of Energy or something like that, and he tries to set him up with some high-level investment or energy contacts he has in New York, but he's unable to bring him to a dinner that he wasn't really invited to in the first place.  For every occasion, Norman seems to have a relevant contact, or his wife used to babysit for someone when they were small, or it's something of a, "Hey, you really should meet so-and-so, would you like me to arrange that?" which neatly doesn't reveal if he actually knows so-and-so at all.

But during the initial contact, Norman ends up buying an expensive pair of shoes for this deputy minister, and it's possible that this little fact could be important later on.  And this minister goes on to become the Prime Minister of Israel, and even though Norman re-connects with him at a public function, the PM's handlers make it their job to keep Norman away from him in the future.  Even the Prime Minister's wife points out that the friendship is one of convenience, it works for both parties provided that they both get something out of it, and though the friendship with Norman makes him happy, perspective dictates that the relationship is nothing more than the means to an end, though what that end is may not be very clear.

The kind of deals that Norman arranges are fairly foggy ones, but since he's always asking people what they need or where they'd like to be, the chances are good that if he keeps asking around and making contacts, he might be able to put something together.  His rabbi needs to raise $14 million to buy the building that the synagogue is in, and while this seems like a lot of money, it's chump change for a couple of the big investors that Norman happens to know.  Norman might see several different ways to raise this money legitimately, and maybe even a few that aren't so solid, so he goes ahead and tells the congregation that an anonymous donor will match the money that they raise, up to $7 million.  So, now they only have to raise half the money, which is only half as difficult, but Norman fails to mention that the anonymous donor he found isn't all that real just yet.

Meanwhile Norman sits on a plane next to someone who happens to work for the Israeli justice department, and he can't resist making conversation with her, trying to find out if they know people in common, and asking her if there's anybody he can put her in contact with to help her out.  He also details his entire business model for her, and then can't figure out why, a few weeks later, a scandal breaks and the Israeli Prime Minister is being accused of taking bribes from an unnamed American businessman.  Norman might be able to see how deals come together, but the audience gets a glimpse at how the whole operation could easily unravel, even if he can't.

During some of the many cell phone conversations seen in this film, there's a sort of a split-screen effect used, it's been around for years, where they divide the screen right down the middle and we get to see both people talking on the phone call at the same time.  The only difference here is that there's no sharp line, the two shots are sort of blended together almost seamlessly, organically, and the dividing point could be a corner between two walls, or a mirror, or the back wall of a fountain.  It's quite interesting, unfortunately it might be the most interesting thing about the film, unless you're like super into Israeli politics or deals about deals.

Also starring Richard Gere (last seen in "Movie 43"), Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen (last seen in "Kill the Messenger"), Steve Buscemi (last seen in "The Grifters"), Josh Charles (last seen in "Adult Beginners"), Charlotte Gainsbourg (last seen in "The Snowman"), Ann Dowd (last seen in "Captain Fantastic"), Hank Azaria (last seen in "Lovelace"), Harris Yulin (last seen in "The Place Beyond the Pines"), Isaach de Bankole (last seen in "Black Panther'), Yehuda Almagor, Neta Riskin, Doval'e Glickman, Tali Sharon, Miranda Bailey (last seen in "Time Out of Mind"), D.C. Anderson, Scott Shepherd (last seen in "The Family Fang"), Justin Hagan, Michael Kostroff (last seen in "Molly's Game"), Andrew Ross Sorkin

RATING: 5 out of 10 business cards (do people still use those?)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


Year 11, Day 212 - 7/31/19 - Movie #3,310

BEFORE: It's the last day of July, so here's a breakdown of what I watched this month, and how I watched it:

12 Movies watched on Cable (saved to DVD): Serial Mom, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Camelot, The Nun's Story, Knights of the Round Table, Paris When It Sizzles, The Children's Hour, In Her Shoes, Very Bad Things, The Box, Marshall
5 Movies watched on Cable (not saved): The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief, October Sky
2 Watched on Netflix: Get Me Roger Stone, Enemy
1 Watched on Academy screeners: Life, Animated
2 watched on iTunes: The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line
3 watched on Amazon Prime: Fahrenheit 11/9, Trespassing Bergman, The Lost City of Z
4 watched on Hulu: Life Itself, Gilbert, Love Gilda, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
2 watched on YouTube: Client 9, The Last Laugh
1 Watched in Theaters: Spider-Man: Far From Home
32 Total in July

Wow, cable is really making a comeback - 17 out of 32, that's more than half!  HBO really came through for me in the second half of documentary month, providing 5 docs that I really wanted to see, and they all linked neatly together, with some help from the other platforms.  Netflix might have had a better showing in July, if they had held on to some documentaries like "The Last Laugh" and "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" - see what you get when you drop films before I've had a chance to watch them?  You're only encouraging my use of Hulu, since they tend to pick up some of what Netflix drops.  (Speaking of which, it's time for me to follow that monthly clickbait link and find out "What's coming to Netflix in August, and what's leaving..."

Only 1 movie seen on the big screen this month?  I've got to get out more (actually, I did, but I'm saving those reviews for needed links in September and October...) and I've really cut down on screeners, because even easier than carrying home a disc from the office is finding that film on Hulu or Amazon Prime, two platforms that are seeing more and more traffic from me, now that I can watch them both through the PlayStation.

The good news is that it's been weeks since I've seen a film that's excessively flashback-y - though I've probably just jinxed myself for August by pointing that out.  John Magaro carries over from "The Box", where he played "weird student/cater-waiter", and this is an actor that looked very familiar to me, at least until I determined I was confusing him with Michael Angarano, from the cable show "I'm Dying Up Here".  I've seen John Magaro in everything from "Not Fade Away" to "The Finest Hours", but I still confused the two actors, they do look a lot alike.  Maybe it's because I saw Michael Angarano a couple months ago in "The Stanford Prison Experiment".

THE PLOT: The story of Thurgood Marshall, the crusading lawyer who would become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, as he battles through one of his career-defining cases.

AFTER: I'm a little bit split on this one, because on one hand, this is a biopic about a very important and revered American figure, Thurgood Marshall, a champion of civil rights who argued many of them before the Supreme Court before he was given the honor of serving on the court himself.  And this is based on a true story, one of his early cases, Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, a high-profile well-publicized case that not only created sensationalist headlines, but also struck a blow for proper legal representation for African-Americans and symbolized a victory for the NAACP in that sense.

And I don't quite understand the sudden fascination Hollywood has with Supreme Court justices (oh, yeah, wait, maybe I sort of do...) because last year saw the release of "On the Basis of Sex", which I think also served as a similar sort of "origin story" for Ruth Bader-Ginsburg.  But that should be regarded as a good thing, that teens are learning about real American heroes who championed equality and spoke out against racism and sexism, right?

But then, on the other hand, there's that little part of me that wonders if a landmark court case like this, something that's so intertwined with the civil rights movement and represents a watershed moment in U.S. history should be presented in what, essentially, can be regarded as the "Law & Order" format.  Maybe I shouldn't have watched an episode of "Special Victims Unit" right before watching this movie, but it was the season finale from two months ago, and I wanted to get to it before I heard any spoilers.  I couldn't help but notice the similarities to a typical episode - have a bit about the lawyer's (or cop's) personal life, then get into the case, someone falsely accused, or so we're led to believe.  But wait!  Don't forget the "Law & Order" twist!  Halfway through the episode, there's always an eye-opening revelation that turns the whole case on its ear, and it seems that nothing is actually what it appeared to be at the start of the show!  Black is white, up is down, and the defendant hasn't been telling the whole truth!  Damn, this changes everything!

I'm kidding, of course, but only slightly.  There is something that Thurgood Marshall figures out, and it does put an entirely new spin on the case, but that's the thing that also cracks it open and reveals the real truth, and also manages to give the jury something akin to reasonable doubt.  Which neatly contradicts the unreasonable racism of the prosecuting attorney and the judge - in Bridgeport, Connecticut, no less.  And here I thought that the New England states were more enlightened, and weren't full of the racism usually seen down at that time down in the Southern states.  The judge portrayed here won't admit Marshall to the bar for the case, though he will allow him to sit with the defendant's attorney during the trial - provided that he remain silent.  The symbolism here is unmistakable - while the judge is forced to admit that this black man has a law degree, he won't allow his voice to be heard.  And so this leads to a lot of written-down notes about legal points, which isn't exactly very cinematic.

You have to wonder why the screenwriter chose THIS case, and not the more famous Brown v. Board of Education.  Is it because the rape case is more lurid, more intriguing than segregation, or did some studio ask for a script that was more like "To Kill a Mockingbird", only with an upbeat ending?   Were they saving Marshall's more famous case for a sequel that may now never happen?

But, honestly, this could be a TV series, with Marshall traveling from city to city, defending one falsely-accused person of color after another each week, and then getting back on the train to another case in another town, on behalf of the NAACP.  And then for sweeps week, one of his cases goes all the way to the Supreme Court - and if it catches on and goes for five seasons, and works its way through Marshall's entire case history, the show ends with Thurgood Marshall being called up to serve as a justice himself.  Somebody get me Netflix on the phone, I've got a pitch meeting to make.

I wonder if Josh Gad is ever going to be able to climb out of the "pudgy but well-meaning loser sidekick" box.  It's not looking good if he keeps taking roles like this one.

Also starring Chadwick Boseman (last seen in "Avengers: Endgame"), Josh Gad (last seen in "Thanks for Sharing"), Kate Hudson (last seen in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days"), Dan Stevens (last seen in "Beauty and the Beast"), James Cromwell (last seen in "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"), Sterling K. Brown (last seen in "Black Panther"), Keesha Sharp, Rover Guenveur Smith (last seen in "The Birth of a Nation"), Ahna O'Reilly (last seen in "I Am Michael"), Jeremy Bobb (last seen in "Going in Style"), Derrick Baskin, Jeffrey DeMunn (last seen in "Adult Beginners") Andra Day, Sophia Bush (last heard in "Incredibles 2"), Jussie Smollett (last seen in "Alien: Covenant"), Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, Barrett Doss, Zanete Shadwick, Brendan Burke (last seen in "The Post"), Marina Squerciati (last seen in "Frances Ha"), Daniel Stewart Sherman, Mark St. Cyr.

RATING: 6 out of 10 objections (overruled)

The Box

Year 11, Day 211 - 7/30/19 - Movie #3,309

Well, I just somehow managed to delete my review of "The Box", so it looks like I'm going to have to re-create it.  I don't usually keep back-ups, so I'll have to rely on my memory.

Cameron Diaz carries over again from "Very Bad Things", and I'll follow a new link tomorrow, I just hope that actor has prominent roles in this film and the next one...

THE PLOT: A small box appears on the doorstep of a married couple, who learn that opening it will grant them a million dollars, and kill someone they don't know.

AFTER: This film has one of the best opening hooks that I've ever encountered - a couple finds a box on their doorstep, with no markings or labeling.  Inside is a device with a large button, and no instructions. But when they're visited by a mysterious stranger, he explains that they've got 24 hours to decide whether to push the button, and if they press it, the stranger (who happens to be missing part of his face, for some reason...) will return with a million dollars, tax-free (this usually means "unreported" or "illegal", since there's no legal way to earn a million without taxes) and also, someone, somewhere, will die.  It's someone they don't know, but they'll still be responsible for that death.  And if they don't push the button, the man will return and take the button back, to deliver it to someone else and make the same offer.

First off, WTF?  Is this just some kind of personality test, or one of those thought experiments?  They can't detect any transmitter, any way that a signal can't be sent from the device, let alone a lethal one, so they're not sure whether to take the mysterious stranger at his word.  Can they live with the guilt, knowing they had a hand in killing someone, or do they really need the money so bad that this becomes someone else's problem?  This reminds me of my ex-sister-in-law, who took some weird delight in asking me how much I would charge to build a deck in her backyard, or if I would ride on a moped to Staten Island wearing an orange tuxedo for, say, $100,000 in cash.  And if I said no, would I do it for $200,000?  $500,000?  She'd keep going until she found my price, and I developed a weird fear that someday she'd win the lottery, and I'd have to complete a variety of strange tasks.

Next question, what year is this set?  They don't really say at first, but they're talking about a Mars landing and specifically mentioning the Viking craft, which launched in 1975.  And there's a message on TV from President Ford, before cutting back to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson - so that would seem to back up the mid 1970's theory.  And then once you start looking at the car models and the clothing, that would seem to be a good guess.  But why set the story then?  There might be some kind of insight in the opening quote, that any technology that hasn't been understood yet is going to appear to people as some kind of magic.

Saw the end credit for "Darko Productions", and that prompted me to check out the director - yes, it's from Richard Kelly, who also directed "Donnie Darko", and that makes some kind of sense, because that film also has a very confusing, creepy, unexplained events sort of vibe to it - and there's at least one actor in common.  In fact this was based on a short story that got turned into a "Twilight Zone" episode back in 1986, so this all seems to make some kind of sense, from the "making of" perspective.

The problem then becomes, however, how do you craft a story that matches the intensity of that story hook?  I don't think it's possible, and what follows after the first half hour just descends into a kind of weirdness, where the answered questions only lead to more questions that don't have answers.  I don't want to give away too much here, because some things may be open to interpretation, and others maybe can't be explained at all.  Just from a framework kind of perspective, the latter part of the film couldn't possibly live up to the promise of the first part.

Set in Virginia, but parts were filmed in Massachusetts, some in towns that I know, like Medfield and Waltham, but also in towns I don't know, like Ipswich and Winthrop.  And then of course some parts were shot in the city of Boston, that big library scene could only have been shot in the Boston Public Library's beautiful reading room, a place that my BFF Andy knows very well.  But not like this - there's a very creepy shot when all the cult members (if that's what they were) seated in that room all turned around and stood up in sequence.

Without giving anything away, the things that we do find out about the man never really add up to anything - how does he have so many people working for him?  Is he working with the government, or does he represent some kind of higher power?  Even learning that he was once struck by lightning doesn't give us much insight, considering all the weirdness that follows.  Essentially, we learn that God does not play dice with the universe, but it seems he does play a version of "Let's Make a Deal". I guess that's one way of looking at things, in the end...

Also starring James Marsden (last seen in "27 Dresses"), Frank Langella (last seen in "Captain Fantastic", James Rebhorn (last seen in "Far From Heaven"), Holmes Osborne (last seen in "Rules Don't Apply"), Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs (last seen in "Don't Think Twice"), Celia Weston (last seen in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days"), Deborah Rush (last seen in "You've Got Mail"), Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Kevin Robertson, Michelle Durrett, Ian Kahn, John Magaro (last seen in "War Machine"), Basil Hoffman (last seen in "Hail, Caesar!"),  Ryan Woodle, Andrew Levitas, Frank Ridley, Bill Buell, with archive footage of William Conrad (last heard in "Hudson Hawk"), Linda Lavin (last seen in "The Intern").

RATING: 5 out of 10 nosebleeds

Monday, July 29, 2019

Very Bad Things

Year 11, Day 210 - 7/29/19 - Movie #3,308

BEFORE: Not much going on - another weekend where it was too hot to leave the house.  We toyed with the idea of driving upstate to find a county fair, but when the time comes, we're just not motivated to drive two hours up to Orange County.  Maybe next weekend.

Cameron Diaz carries over from "In Her Shoes".

THE PLOT: A prostitute is killed during a bachelor party and the attendees turn on each other as the wedding approaches.

AFTER: I want to be helpful here, so if you've never seen this film, I recommend that you not bother, it's not worth your time.  I'm now wishing I could get my time spent watching this BACK, but I've already made the sacrifice so there's not much I can do, just try to spare other people from making the same mistake as I did.  There are no new ideas in Hollywood, and just as "Frankenstein" and "My Fair Lady" are essentially the same story, Hollywood later told a very similar story in the film "Rough Night", only they gender-swapped everything to create a story of a wild bachelorette party with a dead MALE stripper, instead of a bachelor party with a dead female stripper.  Umm, we've come a long way since 1998, I guess?

And wow, Christian Slater was really typecast there for a while as the fun-loving psychotic character - this is really the same character he played in "Heathers", released 10 years before.  In both cases one accidental death needs covering up, and the quickest, most efficient and also WRONGest way to cover it up is with another death, either intentional or not.  And then another, and then another - was Slater just the go-to actor for the character who's at the middle of all this, that you eventually figure out might just be a person who enjoys killing, and doesn't have his head screwed on right?  But from what I remember about "Heathers", it all built to an illogical but still satisfying conclusion, and here it just feels like the screenwriters kept painting themselves into a smaller and smaller corner, with no idea about how they were going to write their way out of it.  Eventually it feels like they just threw their hands up in the air and gave up.

Another thing that's come a long way since 1998 is Las Vegas, or so I hope.  We're planning a trip now to take place in October, and we haven't been there since 2003, it turns out.  We noticed in 2003 that the place had become a lot more family-friendly, thanks to places like the m&m Store, Hershey's World, a ton of fine dining restaurants and a whole lot more shopping.  Plus we went to Siegfried & Roy's zoo...sorry "secret garden"...where they believe in the superiority of the white tiger over all the other, non-Aryan tigers.  Anyway, it's not the hooker-prominent, showgirl-laden adult wonderland that it used to be - I'm sure there are still strip clubs there, but it's now a place you can go with your kids, you just have to put them to bed before hitting the casino.  We've seen the change happen with Atlantic City, too, a renewed emphasis on shopping malls, roller coasters, chain restaurants, and those cheezy wax figure museums or franchises like "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" outposts.

Anyway, the last I heard, prostitution was legal in Nevada in every place BUT Las Vegas, so go figure out that one.  I guess some screenwriter here didn't get the memo, or else he assumed that where there's a will (or a john) there's a way.  But it's a major problem that the kick-off point for all the action in the film is the assumption that it's so easy to go to Vegas, get a stripper and a pile of cocaine, and just start going hog wild.  Like this is the most normal thing to do - neither of my bachelor parties were anything close to this, I think for the first one I was bowling in Cleveland, and the second time around I just had a nice quiet dinner with my best man. I don't really remember the second one, but that's a good thing, since there were no strippers to pay off or bodies to clean up, right?

Naturally a couple of the bachelors here want to call the police, but one party member takes control of the conversation and explains why that would be the WORST thing to do - because then they'd ALL have to admit they were doing coke, and acting wild, and getting lap dances.  God forbid, no, it's much easier to chop up a body and bury it out in the desert - I'd like to see the stats on this, I for one would rather have to do the paperwork on an accidental death then use a shovel and dig a grave. But maybe that's just me.

Much like "1922", this film seems deeply derived from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", because it's guilt that drives the actions of the murderer(s) and causes things to spiral out of control.  But there are things portrayed in this movie that just seem to come from a place of callousness, like there's an overarching karmic force that wants everyone's story to end badly.  Why?  Were they horrible people to begin with?  Good people that did a bad thing, or is that not possible, does doing a bad thing automatically make them a bad person, by default?  And then, logically, they deserve to die?  That's not how the legal system works, and we'd like to think that's not how the ultimate judgment, the afterlife system, works either.

At least in the religious models of judgment, and in our penal system as well, there's a chance of redemption - but some writers and filmmakers decided that's too good for our central characters here, they will get no redemption, it's not an option that's on the table.  Whatever bad blood exists between two brothers, or two friends, or a bride and a groom, that's a fatal flaw, and unless it's discussed openly or hashed out in some fashion, it's going to fester and rot, and become fatal in some unexpected way.

I kept thinking there was going to be some kind of redemptive or even a fake-out ending.  Like all they had to do to negate all the bad nastiness and unredeemable behavior in this film was to add an ending that reveals this has all been a dream, or a story told by one person to another.  Just have Cameron Diaz saying to Jon Favreau something like, "...and THAT'S why I don't want you to go to Vegas for a bachelor party!"  See, all is forgiven, it never happened, but no, we can't be that lucky.  No redemption is going to come, people are doomed to die or be left crippled or stuck raising someone else's kids, and their life is going to become hell on earth.  Where have all the good times gone?

Also starring Jon Favreau (last seen in "Spider-Man: Far From Home"), Christian Slater (last seen in archive footage in "The End of the Tour"), Daniel Stern (last seen in "Game Over, Man!"), Jeremy Piven (last seen in "The Grifters"), Leland Orser (last seen in "Taken 3"), Jeanne Tripplehorn (last seen in "Swept Away"), Joey Zimmerman, Tyler Malinger, Kobe Tai, Russell B. McKenzie, Lawrence Pressman (last seen in "American Dreamz"), Bob Bancroft and a cameo from Peter Berg.

RATING: 2 out of 10 hazmat suits

Sunday, July 28, 2019

In Her Shoes

Year 11, Day 209 - 7/28/19 - Movie #3,307

BEFORE: This one's a bit of a leftover from the February romance chain, I couldn't work it in there this year - it could have gone next to "Rumor Has It..." but then I didn't have another film with Shirley MacLaine that would have fit there, and anyway, I followed a different path out of "Rumor Has It..." that got me to another romance film, and this didn't connect with anything else in that month.

Shirley MacLaine carries over from "The Children's Hour", and gets me from 1961 to 2005, back into the current millennium.

THE PLOT: Straight-laced Rose breaks off relations with her party girl sister, Maggie, over an indiscretion involving Rose's boyfriend.  The chilly atmosphere is broken with the arrival of Ella, the grandmother neither sister knew existed.

AFTER: I probably say this all the time, but this is a strange film - not strange in the way of some films, like when there's a giant unexplained spider in the cityscape or there's a weird man in a bunny costume who pops up in someone's bedroom at night, but strange because it's hard to pin down what genre this is supposed to fit in.  It's not funny enough to be a comedy, really, and there's not enough romance in it for it to be a romance film, there's plenty of drama but it doesn't really feel like it fully belongs in that section either.  Which could explain why it took me a long while to program it - like, it could have fit in February, but after watching it, I might have felt like that was a bit of a stretch.  I had it next to another film with Toni Collette, "Krampus", but that's a Christmas/horror film, and how do you transition from a film like this to a film like that?  So it's hardly unlinkable, but it just never felt like the right time to program it - but I've got to get it off the list, so screw it, it's going here.  It gets me to two more films with Cameron Diaz, and then the chain progresses from there.

But isn't real life a little like that, with ups and downs, comic elements and dramatic changes to personal situations, and some romance, too, if you're lucky?  OK, but we don't always expect movies to juggle all of those elements, like you might get two out of three with a romantic comedy, or a romantic drama, but when a film is right down the middle like this, it feels like neither fish nor foul, like it doesn't know what it wants to be in the end.  We sort of need a new category, called something like, "Whatever this film means to you, that's what it is."  And if you enjoyed this, you might also like "Cowboys & Aliens", because it's a Western/action/sci-fi film.

Let's stick with "family drama" because the story at the core of this film is about two sisters, Maggie is an attractive, free-spirited partier and Rose is a little older, a little frumpier and less outgoing, but on the other hand, she's got a solid law career and has her life in order.  But Maggie's lack of responsibility has repercussions, although she's not really one for understanding what repercussions are, it seems.  She sleeps with Rose's boyfriend, which seems terrible, but viewed from another angle, perhaps she did Rose a favor - I mean, it takes two to tango, and the boyfriend also slept with Maggie, so isn't it better to find out that he's that kind of guy before things get too serious?  Anyway, it was an office romance so it probably wouldn't have worked out anyway.

Maggie's not a very likable character, she can't hold down a job, she steals money from her family at every opportunity, and never apologizes for any of her mistakes or slip-ups.  There may be valid reasons for why she is the way she is, but they aren't discovered until much later in the picture, after a number of family secrets have been exposed and discussed.  It's too complicated to even break down here, but it sort of has to be to justify why these sisters haven't seen their grandmother since they were little girls.  And Maggie's kleptomania is unfortunate, but it's a plot justification that explains how she learns the existence of their grandmother, as she stumbles on correspondence from her when looking for money in her father's desk.

The goal is clear here, separate the two inseparable sisters to create some character development.  Even though the way she found the grandmother was very contrived, Maggie benefits from a little discipline and self-realization that only Grandma can dish out.  And being in a retirement community gives her the chance to bond with a blind hospital patient that just happens to be a retired English teacher, and she just happens to have dyslexia or something like it.  Again, very very contrived, and I find it really hard to believe that her being unable to hold down a job goes all the way back to a reading problem, and that this problem could go undiagnosed until she was in her what, mid-30's?  Dyslexia is a poor excuse for being an irresponsible screw-up for one's entire adult life.

Meanwhile, Rose learns to enjoy life a little more, without having to constantly think about and cover for her screw-up sister.  She takes a leave of absence, gets a part-time gig walking dogs, which seems like an odd choice for someone with a law degree, but hey, whatever, follow your bliss - and starts dating someone she knew from the law firm but didn't connect with on a business trip, because he came off as a bit forward and annoying.  But then they date and he orders for her at a sushi place, which first comes off as arrogant, because he's supposedly some kind of "expert food orderer", which I don't think is even a thing, but then she learns to appreciate the fact that he orders for her.  But no, come on, girl, you were right the first time.  In this day and age, what man still does this, especially for a woman he barely knows?  Hell, I've known my wife for 23 years, and I don't think I would order for her in a restaurant, she's perfectly capable of ordering her own meal.  It's not polite, it's just a bad leftover from a less enlightened time.  I might make a suggestion, like "Hey, why not see if you can order THIS steak with THAT topping that you like?" but to place her order with the waiter?  Uh-uh.  Like, only if she had to use the restroom or something.

Ugh, and the title is just horrible, because it's probably supposed to represent the sisters figuratively putting themselves in each other's shoes to see the other person's point of view, but then they HAD to have Maggie constantly borrowing/stealing Rose's shoes at the beginning, and then at the end one character gets married and wears her grandmother's shoes during the ceremony.  Gee, thanks for driving the point home and over-explaining the title, I never would have got it otherwise.  Does some screenwriter think we're that stupid?

Also starring Cameron Diaz (last seen in "What Happens in Vegas"), Toni Collette (last seen in "Shaft"), Ken Howard (last seen in "Joy"), Brooke Smith (last seen in "Fair Game"), Candice Azzara (last seen in "Catch Me If You Can"), Richard Burgi (last seen in "Fun with Dick and Jane"), Anson Mount (last seen in "Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden"), Mark Feuerstein (last seen in "Defiance"), Eric Balfour (last seen in "What Women Want"), Francine Beers (last seen in "Lucky You"), Jerry Adler (last seen in "A Most Violent Year"), Alan Blumenfeld (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Andy Powers, Ivana Milicevic (last seen in "Aloha"), Norman Lloyd (last seen in "Trainwreck"), Carlease Burke (last seen in "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"), Benton Jennings, Jackie Geary, Jennifer Weiner, with cameos from Mary-Pat Green (last seen in "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III"), Nicole Randall Johnson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Jamaican jerk dishes