Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A to Z 2015 - Hollywood Minute "Albatross"

One of Tim's favorite movies is Hollywood Minute.  In a different era it would have the same reputation as When Harry Met Sally..., acknowledged as one of the great romantic films of our time, a definitive statement on the vagaries of love and fate.  Except it isn't, which makes it all the easier for Tim to view it as a personal treasure.  He's made little secret of the fact that he loves Hollywood Minute in part because of lead actress Zola, who infuriates Tim by the end of the movie because her character ends up rejecting the one played by Joe, although it's not really rejection so much as realizing that they weren't meant for each other.  (Rest assured, Tim couldn't really hate Zola.)  Except Hollywood Minute is so important in both their careers, they maintain an association that for Tim is easy to drag into the world of fantasy, where that happy ending really did occur.

And so he envisions their careers as a form of destiny leading to that moment where the distinction of fantasy no longer applies.  Because everything points back to Hollywood Minute, and not so much how it ends but where it leads.

Joe's first big success was Albatross, in which he was not the star but the up-and-coming young star intended to shine in a supporting role.  All that maddening calculation that went into engineering his breakthrough kind of backfires, because even though it's a hit, no one associates it as his hit.  To remember that he was in it at all is to realize that Joe was not considered important enough to play the lead.  Besides, he dies well before the end of the movie.  Bummer.  On to the next one, right?  

It's always been a favorite of Tim's.  He was a fan of Joe before Albatross, and after Hollywood Minute he had all the more reason to keep the rest of Joe's movies in mind when he wanted to watch something, but it's one he doesn't have to force himself to watch for the sake of watching, which he has to admit isn't always the case.

Fantasy status of Joe and Zola in relation to Albatross: Neutral.  Or maybe, it's what caught Zola's eye, too?  So not neutral.  Getting ready... 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

#798. 2015 A-to-Z Challenge

Next week the next A-to-Z Challenge begins.  I first participated in 2012, and I owe whatever audience I've had in the ensuing years to that month.  I intend to take part for the fourth consecutive time.  Apparently I missed the theme reveal, though I do have one.

The thing is, I don't know whether I'll be able to complete it.  The past two Decembers I've given updates on my mother's battle with cancer.  Suffice to say, that battle appears about ready to conclude.  Her worsening condition is the reason why I've drastically reduced my blogging over the course of the last year.

Right now, I'm considering writing at least part of the Challenge in advance.  I've preferred in the past to leave each day to the day itself, although I cheated last year except in the actual production of the crappy comic strips I foisted on readers.

Or, I may not do anything at all.  We'll see.  But now you'll know.  The biggest change is that my half-hearted efforts to read along with other participants and/or offer comments, which has always been the heart of this community, may suffer most of all.  And I know how important it is to everyone else that they know they're being heard, because I know how directly they make it known when they haven't heard back.  (Yeah, I'm giving you all a guilt trip in the midst of making me sound sympathetic.  I'm just that awesome.)  My visitors tend to go away when I go away, too.  Don't try and pretend otherwise, yo.

I just thought I'd give you an explanation.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#797. Box Office 2014

1. American Sniper ($344 mil)
Late entry became a huge hit.  Good movie, too.

2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 ($337 mil)
Third of four movies in the trilogy had the year's box office crown until it was taken away.  It's maybe time to think about telling a final book's story in one movie.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy ($333 mil)
Obviously American Sniper was a big surprise success, but this one might still be considered bigger.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($259 mil)
Arguably made Cap relevant.

5. The LEGO Movie ($257 mil)
Honestly, the fact that they made a watchable movie at all was another big surprise from the year.  Are you catching on to the fact that 2014 was basically one surprise after another yet?

6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($254 mil)
Surely a respectable total for the conclusion to a movie experience everyone demanded up until the first entry was actually released.  As opposed to the Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games model, Jackson's complete reworking of a single book is ultimately more justifiable creatively, although popularly a much harder sell.

7. Transformers: Age of Extinction ($245 mil)
Two former franchise titans in a row falling on much smaller totals.  It's okay.  Explosions still happen randomly, yo.

8. Maleficent ($241 mil)
Two big hits with female leads in 2014 should hopefully continue to shape the future of movies in a more equal direction.

9. X-Men: Days of the Future Past ($233 mil)
About on par with series best (X-Men: The Last Stand, believe it or not).

10. Big Hero 6 ($221 mil)
Who's gonna pretend that anyone cares about this one for any reason other than Baymax?

12. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($202 mil) Say goodbye, autonomy...
15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($191 mil) Megan Fox is totally the reason this succeeded.
16. Interstellar ($188 mil) Nolan's thunder has fallen, but he can still pack them in.
18. Gone Girl ($167 mil) A solid hit that in the pre-franchise era would certainly have been in the top ten.
19. Divergent ($150 mil) The just-released sequel will boost the series to greater awareness.
21. Ride Along ($134 mil) Kevin Hart's biggest hit of the year.
24. Lucy ($126 mil) Scarlett Johannson is a lot less naked in this movie than her other 2014 release, but she's also a lot smarter.
25. The Fault in Our Stars ($124 mil) Shailene Woodley is less divergent in this one, but is also in far greater mortal peril.
26. Unbroken ($115 mil) Angelina Jolie curses the North Koreans, Clint Eastwood, but still smiles her way to the bank.
27. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb ($112 mil) The last time wide audiences saw Robin Williams.
29. 300: Rise of an Empire ($106 mil) Honestly, chalk this one up to Eva Green.
32. Noah ($101 mil) Russell Crowe's biggest headlining act in years.
33. Edge of Tomorrow ($100 mil) Tom Cruise has probably lost the struggle for mainstream credibility at this point, but he can still pack them in.  And actually, a lot of people credited Emily Blunt as the real reason this movie was surprisingly better than they thought it'd be.
36. The Imitation Game ($90 mil) Benedict Cumberbatch is officially a box office draw.  Or it's Keira Knightley's biggest hit in years.
37. Dumb and Dumber To ($86 mil) Jim Carrey stepped so far away from hit movies in recent years, it's not surprising that he finally made his second sequel.
38. Annie ($85 mil) Have you seriously still not seen Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild?
39. Fury ($85 mil) He proved himself to be a brilliant directer with End of Watch but was completely dismissed with Sabotage, so the success here must have been gratifying for David Ayer.  Probably didn't hurt to have Brad Pitt aboard.
40. Tammy ($84 mil) Melissa McCarthy's hot streak cooled, but at least her passion project was still a hit.
42. The Other Woman ($83 mil) Totally a hit because of Kate Upton.
45. The Monuments Men ($78 mil) This highly unusual WWII movie will probably have viewers debating it for years.
46. Hercules ($72 mil) Dwayne Johnson basically apologizes for The Scorpion King.
50. Exodus: Gods and Kings ($65 mil) Ridley Scott returns to historical epics.
54. Planes: Fire & Rescue ($59 mil) My nephews are obsessed.
55. The Grand Budapest Hotel ($59 mil) Still haven't seen it.  But this will change.
62. Muppets Most Wanted ($51 mil) Well, slightly less wanted than the last one.
65. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit ($50 mil) Honestly, the marketers dropped the ball, considering this came out not long after Tom Clancy's death.
66. If I Stay ($50 mil) Chloe Grace Moretz is not going anywhere.  She's, yes, here to stay.
73. The Giver ($45 mil) Still haven't read the book.  Still haven't seen the movie.
74. St. Vincent ($44 mil) Bill Murray.  That is, St. Bill.
76. A Million Ways to Die in the West ($43 mil) I still want to see this.
78. Birdman ($42 mil) Would have been awesome to see huge support for this one.
85. The Theory of Everything ($35 mil) ...except how to make Stephen Hawking a box office smash.
89. Nightcrawler ($32 mil) Jake Gyllanhaal might not always have hit movies, but he always leaves his audience intrigued.
93. Deliver Us From Evil ($30 mil) Considering what he's done lately, this is actually a huge hit for Eric Bana.
100. Boyhood ($25 mil) In twelve years, this movie will be more popular than American Sniper.
107. Brick Mansions ($20 mil) Posthumous bid on the part of Paul Walker to be taken seriously as an actor.
113. A Most Wanted Man ($17 mil) I'll see this at some point.
123. Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ($13 mil) Loved it.
125. Whiplash ($13 mil) In which J.K. Simmons is finally acknowledged to be awesome.
126. Winter's Tale ($12 mil) In which Colin Farrell and crew are once again awesome.
127. Foxcatcher ($12 mil) In which Steve Carell does Despicable Me in live action.  And is far less cuddly.
128. Belle ($10 mil) In which Gugu Mbatha-Raw is once again awesome.
129. The Drop ($10 mil) In which Tom Hardy is raw.
131. Magic in the Moonlight ($10 mil) In which Woody Allen is once again in relative obscurity.
137. Inherent Vice ($8 mil) Thomas Pynchon be box office magic, yo.
141. The Interview ($6 mil) North Koreans call this the feel-good movie of the year.  Right?
143. A Most Violent Year ($5 mil) In which Jessica Chastain is once again awesome.
145. The Skeleton Twins ($5 mil) In which Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are once again awesome.
147. Snowpiercer ($4 mil) Chris Evans had a much smaller hit with this one, but about the same amount of favorable buzz.
152. Mr. Turner ($3 mil) Hey, would Timothy Spall make a better friend than pet rat?
156. Wish I Was Here ($3 mil) Actually, I'm sure Zach Braff wished it had earned a lot more.
161. Veronica Mars ($3 mil) And Kickstarter's chances of funding the next blockbuster are...
162. Before I Go To Sleep ($3 mil) I will see this.
198. Locke ($1 mil) Great, great movie.
199. Gimme Shelter ($1 mil) Vanessa Hudgens may yet be taken seriously.
200. Force Majeure ($1 mil) The French!  The French!
205. Hector and the Search for Happiness ($1 mil) I will see this, too.
224. Life Itself ($800 thou) The movie about Roger Ebert.
243. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby ($500 thou) Jessica Chastain is even more awesome here.
249. Dom Hemingway ($500 thou) In which critics love Jude Law.
304. The Zero Theorem ($200 thou) Seriously awesome.
329. Horns ($100 thou) Joe Hill has a long way to go before he's as popular as his dad.
351. Knights of Badassdom ($100 thou) Definitely need to see this.

Source: Box Office Mojo

Monday, March 16, 2015

#796. Hart's War

Being a fan of Colin Farrell, I tend to watch his movies with a tad more devotion than, oh, I'm not really sure who his fans are.  Every time I expect one of his movies to be a broad success, it doesn't happen.  I honestly thought Winter's Tale would be a hit last year.  I expected people to become fans after Saving Mr. Banks.  To speak only of the recent past.

Last night I watched 2002's Hart's War again.  This was Farrell's second major American release and his third after a breakthrough performance in Tigerland, which like the Jesse James film, American Outlaws, that followed featured him in full loose-cannon mode.  Hart's War was a departure, as was Minority Report, the one that came next.  These were movies that focused on a more subdued Farrell.  At the start of his career, every name director wanted to work with Farrell, and he was expected to become a big star.  Except audiences never warmed to him, and critics found it about as easy as everyone else.  He had a rare moment, in full Irish mode, when he won a Golden Globe for In Bruges, but then everyone forgot about him again.  

I've always found that impossible.  I have my favorite Colin Farrell movies, but Hart's War has never really been one of them.  That doesn't mean it's easy to forget.  In fact, it can be downright infuriating.  He's so subdued in it, you'd hardly know he's the lead.  Top-billed but in fact supporting player Bruce Willis had by that point in his career become well-known for subdued performances after a frenzied early popularity in action roles, which he works to perfect effect again.  Third lead Terrence Howard may actually be the best way to sell Hart's War to skeptics.  Like Farrell, Howard has had a tough time of keeping audiences engaged.  Luckily he's done the trick again with the surprise breakout hit Empire on TV.  He's at his best here.

The basic plot of the movie goes like this: Farrell is an officer in the fringes of the European theater during WWII thanks to the fact that his father is a United States senator.  On a lark he acts as a driver for a comrade, but ends up falling into the clutches of the Nazis, and is sent to a prison camp, where Bruce Willis is commanding officer of those being held there.  Early on the drama concerns whether or not Farrell broke down during interrogation and gave the enemy information.  Yet it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on than meets the eye.

I think the main thing that doomed Hart's War was its ambition.  The more expansive view of the film is that it is in fact a moral indictment of America.  In that sense it may actually be more relevant now than thirteen years ago.  Although clearly understood to be an army following the wishes of a monster today, Nazis at that time were perhaps better understood merely to be German, the soldiers of the opposing side.  Putting aside how many Americans actually agreed with the idea of eugenics, and how incredibly reluctant the country was to enter the war (and how today we view service in WWII as evidence of the so-called Greatest Generation, as close to a true golden age the country has ever seen), Hart's War is a study of ambiguity.  The enemy actually has more respect than many of America's own countrymen.

This is to say, blacks.  The prison camp has Americans separated from Russians by a barb wire-tipped fence.  Willis does his best to stay out of trouble, but tries to insist the harsh treatment the Russians receive is something Americans wouldn't being doing.  The camp commandant, the fourth lead, a chillingly calm individual who may be the most civilized of the lot, engages in a mental standoff with Willis through the film.  In many ways, Hart's War is a post-Western, not only in spirit but in depicting its time period as such, the end of an old world once and for all, when it became far harder to hide somewhere in the wilderness to escape your problems.  This prison camp is in the wilderness, a fact emphasized in the dramatic pullout shot at the end of the film, when it is finally seen outside the bleak landscape of winter.

Howard's best scene comes when he makes it obvious how German prisoners of war in the States receive far more dignity than natives, which is to say blacks, such as himself.  His whole presence is filled with outrage, but he tries his best to conduct himself with more tact than those around him, who are all tip-toeing around how they have been cheating on their acknowledgment of basic humanity.  Everyone wants to get some advantage.  Farrell is paralyzed by his awareness of privilege, until he realizes that Howard deserves legal defense after being framed for murder.  Suddenly he has no privilege except what's given him.

And everyone has something to hide, too.  Willis has been building a tunnel so that a munitions plant that has been mislabeled and thus overlooked by his superiors can be eliminated.  He allows the whole sequence of events to unfold in order to buy himself time.  By the time Farrell shares Howard's outrage, it seems too late for Willis to care about Howard's plight anymore than the jaded commandant.  This is a movie that allows us to see a Nazi as something other than a Nazi, which is not to say in a positive light, but at least as a man whose motives, although as twisted as everyone else's, can sometimes be trusted.  He is not just a Nazi.  This is another thing Farrell realizes, another thing that makes his path so difficult to walk.  Tellingly, Farrell's character is early given damaged feet that must be looked after by a series of benefactors.  

(Hey, this might be a good chance to plug another Farrell movie, The Way Back, in which he's once again a rogue.  A Russian, by the way.)

I don't think Hart's War is as bold as it could have been, but it is infinitely compelling.  And yes, hard to forget, even as Farrell recedes into the background, as he sometimes does, allowing the movie around him to breathe, as it were.  If he's your reason to watch, initially, like me, I guess the disappointment that has always greeted it probably is warranted.  Yet it's also the first time Farrell finds a new way to present himself.  He's a unique chameleon.  Most of the time an actor thinks this means putting on an accent or some cosmetic alteration.  Farrell has consistently demonstrated an ability to change personalities entirely.  Yet there's always that uncertainty about him.  Maybe that's the problem audiences have with him, and maybe his breakout with have to be in something as obvious as a spy thriller, not as a novice (he did that in The Recruit) but as an experienced agent (to date, Miami Vice comes closest).  The more years he has on him the better, then.  Which means the best is yet to come.

In the meantime, revisiting his older material remains a satisfying past-time.  Especially when it's something like Hart's War.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

#795. Mock Squid Soup: Superman Returns

via Flaming Skull
for Mock Squid Soup
I don't really get why audiences find Superman so hard to love these days.

Everyone hotly anticipated Man of Steel two years ago, and loved everything about it, until they saw the film itself.  This was what happened to Superman Returns in 2006 as well.  It figures that I love both of them.

Bryan Singer had been known as the director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies.  While Suspects gave him considerable film geek cred, it was, particularly, in X2: X-Men United where he gave superheroes an entirely new level of social commentary, marrying the outsider status of mutants with the ongoing struggle for the LGBT community to find acceptance.

The year prior to Superman Returns' release, Christopher Nolan had just delivered the first installment of his Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins.  Marvel was still a few years away from launching its hugely successful Avengers franchise.  Audiences were still hot for Sam Raimi's popular Spider-Man movies, which helped set the stage by proving how dynamic superheroes could look in the modern era.

Perhaps "playful" is the more optimum descriptor.  Superman hadn't been on the big screen since 1986 (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), although many viewers considered the climactic duel between Neo and Agent Smith in 2003's The Matrix Revolutions to be what it would be like to see the Man of Steel in a real cinematic fight.  Superman Returns didn't have anything like that, and it wasn't playful, either.

More like contemplative.  Now, I personally love contemplative.  The more contemplative the better.  My favorites movies are always like that: Alexander, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, even The Truman Show.  One of the things Singer clearly set out to do was update the classic Christopher Reeve version of Superman that for a decade had completely defined superheroes at the movies.  Superman Returns was billed as a sequel twenty years in the making.  Except, of course, it had an entirely new cast.

The only link was archival material featuring the late Marlon Brando, who had been featured in 1978's Superman as Clark Kent's Kryptonian father, Jor-El.  He'd been meant to reprise the role in Superman II, which in 2006 Richard Donner was finally able to present a facsimile of his own vision using a combination of test footage and computer trickery to round out an experience his successor, Richard Lester, had dramatically altered in the original release.  Lester heavily favored comedy, an approach that broadly defined the next two releases in the series.  Finally, Singer would bring back the idea of reverence for the material.

Wait, reverence for superheroes?  In a way, I think this has always been a problem for audiences.  Anytime superheroes are taken too seriously, they shy away.  Superman tends to bring this side out in filmmakers, a character so emblematic of the whole genre that even when Richard Pryor is hijacking the story, Reeve still spends all his time in dire problems of his own (literally battling himself in Superman III).

The idea of updating Reeve's Superman was in some respects something that Singer used mostly as a nod to his predecessors.  Superman Returns is very much its own statement on the character.  Tellingly, Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for an article suggesting, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."

Lois herself, as embodied by Kate Bosworth rather than Margot Kidder, looks years younger, as does Brandon Routh's Superman.  According to the story, Superman has been gone five years.  If the leads look this young after five years, how much younger five years earlier?  Arguably the real connection to previous continuity is the presence of Jason, the son Lois had with Superman, presumably after their tryst in Superman II.  It's also the meditative representation of the saying Brando's Jor-El imparts on his own son, and which Superman later whispers to Jason: "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son."

Hey, and by the way, what does that even mean?  It may be the key to the whole movie.  The story of Superman is really about about loss and what can still be gained.  Jor-El saved his son from the destruction of Krypton, and of course Earth becomes a welcoming new home.  Unless you're Lex Luthor.  Kevin Spacey's version is brilliant.  Everything I always wished Gene Hackman's would be.  Menacing, still bothered by lesser minds around him.  Spacey's is very much a counterpart to his hated opposite number, wondering where his inheritance has gone.  Everything's displaced in Superman Returns, looking for realignment, just as Superman's story has been about all along.  Looking for acceptance.  Not being an alien.  Except with Superman, who as the ultimate superhero seems to have gotten that acceptance without much difficulty.  To find the alienation again, Singer takes everything away.  And gives him a son. 

 In a broad sense, you can probably figure out how one generation leads to the next, growing into and passing on responsibility.  In the case of Superman, it's trickier.  Lois struggles to admit it, but she was devastated when Superman left, all the moreso because of what he left behind.  Jason seems like such a frail boy, but during the course of the movie, he begins to exhibit his own great abilities.  Like Superman, and certainly Singer's Superman, the mild manners usually ascribed to Clark Kent are held as part of Superman's nature, a humbleness and protective instinct that belies someone who otherwise is completely vulnerable.  And it's telling that the only fight Superman gets into in the movie, he gets his (pardon my Kryptonian) ass kicked.  This is a vulnerable Superman indeed.

And I think audiences hate seeing that.  The consistent criticism against Superman in the modern age is that he's too powerful to be truly relatable, and yet for two movies now, he's been both powerful and relatable, someone just trying to fit in, find acceptance.  In a weird sense, Singer played that hand so overtly with mutants, that when he did it again with Superman, it seemed out of place, and even when it was done deliberately, in Man of Steel, suddenly, because everyone now had adjusted to superheroes as fish out of water, they wanted that archetype, Superman, to be the one superhero who was totally adjusted, who was everything every situation needed him to be.

To be a paragon.  That's Superman, right?  

Singer's Superman has a streamlined physique, a swimmer's body contrasted with his well-documented savior complex.  He's posed so often in the movie, whether with his arms stretched out or placing the globe of the Daily Planet safely down, the idea of the character becomes a challenge all over again: we're asked to consider him as more an idea than action hero.  He's only just recovered from a terrible beating and near-drowning when he realizes he still needs to save the day, and after that, crashes down to Earth and needs rescuing from ordinary paramedics.  

Anyway, I can't watch this movie without being impressed.  Christopher Reeve was Superman for an entire generation.  I don't know that Brandon Routh ever had a shot at replicating that.  But his Superman is one that yearns.  Much like all of us.  He might fly around in a red cape, but at heart he contemplates his place in the world.  He lost one he never even knew, and confirmed for himself as no longer existing.  He comes back home, and wonders if that term is still appropriate.  Superman Returns concludes with the idea, as Jor-El originally suggested, that the hero in question will always have another chance.  Maybe it's disconcerting to even think of Superman himself admitting to audiences that no matter how iconic he is, the story isn't really about him.  It's about fathers and sons, parents and offspring, one generation to the next, embracing the great and mundane challenges of life.  It's not about what Superman can do, but who he is.  And what he is.  He is not alone.  And there's still plenty to learn.  His son will help him with that.



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