Monday, June 17, 2019

Summer School: 'Toy Story' (1995)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

With the current proliferation of computer-animated movies, it's easy to forget how revolutionary Pixar's Toy Story was when it was released in 1995. The idea of a full-length feature created entirely via CGI that could rival the hand-drawn animated movies from Disney was unimaginable just a few years earlier, and probably still unimaginable to many when Toy Story was released. From the perspective of 2019, Toy Story looks a bit unsophisticated, with animation less detailed and elaborate than in much lower-profile current CG-animated movies (and the human characters are stuck in the uncanny valley). But even if Pixar's animators didn't have as many strands of hair or facial details to work with, they still make every character distinctive and appealing, and it's a testament to the creativity of this movie that even as CGI technology has improved drastically, the core design of all these characters has remained the same.

The cutting-edge visuals wouldn't mean much without great characters and an engaging narrative, though, and while Toy Story may seem a little thematically slight compared to later Pixar movies (and to its own sequels), it's still consistently entertaining, with a lively story, clever dialogue and well-drawn characters who've deservedly become part of the Disney pantheon (now that Disney owns Pixar). Tom Hanks' cowboy toy Woody and Tim Allen's space-ranger toy Buzz Lightyear have such great chemistry that I had forgotten that the first movie was about a rivalry between the two, with Buzz as the fancy new toy that young Andy (John Morris) gets for his birthday. Woody is insecure and jealous that Buzz may become Andy's new favorite toy, while Buzz is oblivious to his existence as an action figure and believes that he's a real space explorer.

It's a simple, straightforward story that allows for simple, straightforward lessons about believing in yourself and embracing differences, and celebrates the power of friendship (as expressed in Randy Newman's theme song "You've Got a Friend in Me," easily one of the best songs in Disney animated cinema). Woody and Buzz are both a bit self-centered and inconsiderate, which gets them into increasingly desperate situations as Andy's family prepares to move into a new house and the toys need to ensure that they aren't left behind. But the main characters are never unpleasant or irritating, and their screw-ups come from places of wanting to do better and be better, so they are always likable. The supporting characters are charming and funny, with great voice work all around (it's no wonder that Toy Story 4 plans to use archival recordings of Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, since he seems irreplaceable).

The idea of toys that come to life when kids aren't around is such a strong hook that this movie doesn't need much else. Woody and Buzz's odyssey away from Andy's house drags at times, and its outcome is of course predetermined, but exploring the secret world of toys is the real appeal here. There's genuine creepiness among the cobbled-together toys of neighborhood bully Sid, and there's a sense of wonder to the whole new universe of toys at the kid-friendly arcade Pizza Planet. Toy Story only scratches the surface of a world with endless possibilities. It's a sweet, low-key beginning to a sweeping saga.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Style Strike' (1979)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I've written about numerous martial arts movies over the course of this project, and they've almost all been terrible: cheap-looking, poorly written, incomprehensibly plotted, broadly acted and completely lacking in suspense or excitement. Probably that's a byproduct of the kinds of movies that end up being retitled for home video with the number 13 in them; most of the horror movies I've written about suffer from the same problems. But since I have a general aversion to martial arts movies, I probably have less patience for these shoddy examples than I do for the many, many terrible horror movies I've seen over the years. I tend to tune out during even the most elegantly staged fight scenes, which I find inherently repetitive and dull. That's not to say that I've never enjoyed a martial arts movie, but it's often other elements (plot, character, set and costume design, cinematography) that draw me in.

All of which is to say that 1979's 13 Style Strike (also known as Eighth Wonder of Kung Fu) is very bad, and not just because it's a cheap martial arts movie. The plot is more or less incomprehensible, the characters are difficult to tell apart, the editing is choppy, and the fight scenes are sloppily staged, with punches and kicks that often land only vaguely near their targets. Some of the flaws can be blamed on the English-language version available to watch on Amazon Prime, which in addition to its laughable dubbing may have been edited for the American market (it runs just 76 minutes) and had its sound effects added or changed (the entire soundtrack, not just the dialogue, sounds like it was overdubbed). Amazon's video was clearly copied directly from VHS (including multiple tracking problems, which are always hilarious to see on streaming video), and no one's bothered to restore this poorly made obscurity.

I've thus far avoided recounting the plot, because I'm not quite sure I know what it is. There's a kung-fu school in what characters keep referring to as Shanghai, even though the movie is from Taiwan. A couple of white American businessmen have imported an American martial-arts champion to fight against Chinese kung-fu masters for some reason. There are references to the combination between Western and Eastern styles (maybe 13 of them?), and in an early scene, one of the kung-fu champions fights an American boxer, complete with boxing gloves. I'm tempted to credit this movie with inventing mixed martial arts, but that would imply that I understood what was happening.

There's also a rivalry between local kung-fu masters, one of whom is also a crime lord, maybe. There's a kung-fu champion taking the fall for an accidental killing by his brother (or student?), getting sent to jail, breaking out of jail, becoming a kung-fu clown (?), and then triumphantly returning to take on the American challenger. I guess this guy is the hero of the movie, although he doesn't really seem any more important than any of the other characters, whose relationships to each other are always unclear, until the movie gets close to its climax. There are a handful of cool moments in a late-film fight sequence at a construction site, but otherwise the action is listless, and since it's hard to figure out what the characters are fighting for and why, there's very little rooting interest in these anonymous ciphers. This certainly isn't a kung-fu movie for anyone but the most dedicated schlock fans.

Summer School: 'Shaft' (2000)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When John Singleton died a few months ago, not many tributes mentioned his 2000 reboot of the Shaft series starring Samuel L. Jackson as the title character. And it's not hard to see why, since Singleton's Shaft doesn't have the social conscience or personal vision of movies like Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice or Baby Boy, and it's not a big blockbuster product like 2 Fast 2 Furious. It's sort of a transitional piece for Singleton, mixing in the social realism and political commentary of his early work with the glossy action he shifted to later in his career. Those two elements don't always fit together neatly, but in that sense, this movie is just carrying on the Shaft tradition.

Although he's only six years younger than Richard Roundtree, Jackson plays the nephew of  Roundtree's original John Shaft, who shows up briefly in a handful of scenes but doesn't have any role in the plot. Jackson's Shaft is an NYPD detective who still believes that the system works, but he loses his faith when spoiled rich white scion Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale, basically playing Donald Trump Jr.) is granted bail on a murder charge against an innocent black man, and then flees the country. Shaft dedicates the next two years of his life to building a case against Wade, which mainly involves tracking down a bartender (Toni Collette) who witnessed the murder but is afraid to testify. Once Wade returns to NYC, he crosses paths with ambitious Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), and the two form an uneasy alliance of convenience against Shaft.

The movie is a bit ahead of its time with its focus on systemic racism and double standards in the justice system, and Bale's performance feels more relevant than ever. Wade is an over-the-top racist, but he's also sadly believable, and Bale is a more restrained villain than Wright, who puts on such a broad, cartoonish accent that I kept expecting him to ask people to say hello to his little friend. So certain aspects of this movie have aged better than others, and the details of the plot are not all that exciting (which, really, is standard for this franchise). Jackson is a good choice to take up the Shaft mantle, but his performance here is really more about playing his typical badass, wise-cracking Samuel L. Jackson character than it is about embodying the suave, righteous Shaft.

This Shaft is still committed to justice, though, even if he has to mow down a bunch of faceless henchmen in order to get it. The most iconic moments in this movie connect to Shaft's fury at injustice (when he hurls his police badge into a courtroom wall like a ninja star) and his way with the ladies (when he tells a lover "It's my duty to please that booty"), and those two elements are really what define the character, whatever generation he comes from. Singleton's movie is uneven, and it ends with a bit of a whimper, but he mostly proves himself worthy of picking up where Gordon Parks and Ernest Tidyman left off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black 3' (2012)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Despite the box-office success of Men in Black II in 2002 and Will Smith's continued dominance as a blockbuster action star, it took a decade for the creative team to return with Men in Black 3, and the time off seems to have been well spent. MIB3 doesn't have the same spark and excitement of the original movie, but it's definite improvement on MIB2, in terms of plotting, character development and visuals, and it makes a better case for the continued exploration of the MIB world (as is coming in this week's sequel/spin-off Men in Black: International). The dynamic between MIB agents Jay (Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) that was subdued in the second movie returns to the central focus here, albeit with an entertaining twist, and the special effects are much stronger, showcasing a new range of weird alien creations.

Jay and Kay spend the whole movie bantering and bickering, but Jones is only in about 30 minutes of the 106-minute movie, because the plot involves Jay traveling back in time to 1969 and teaming up with the younger Kay (Josh Brolin). Whether Jones wanted a reduced role or the story just called for him to be sidelined, the casting of Brolin turns out to be a genius move, and he riffs alongside Smith just as well as Jones did in the first movie. The villain here is more menacing than Lara Flynn Boyle was in MIB2, although nothing quite compares to Vincent D'Onofrio's turn in the first movie. Jemaine Clement plays Boris the Animal, a dangerous alien assassin who breaks out of a prison on the moon and travels back in time to kill Kay before Kay can capture him and lock him up.

Of course, the fate of Earth is also on the line, and Jay has to keep young Kay from being killed (and thus erased from the timeline) as well as make sure that Boris doesn't pave the way for a full-on alien invasion. As in most time travel movies, the rules are pretty inconsistent, and the franchise continuity doesn't entirely track, but as long as the story is entertaining, it doesn't really matter. For the third time in a row, Kay's character arc hinges on his longtime unrequited love for a woman (here, it's fellow MIB agent O, played in the present by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve), and that device has lost its impact from overuse. But the MIB movies are best when they focus on snappy banter and goofy aliens, and the worst elements of MIB3 are its attempts to wring emotional resonance from the relationship between Jay and Kay (including a particularly egregious retcon during the overly sentimental ending).

Clement doesn't really get to use his comedic skills as the humorless Boris, and MIB3 overall is more serious and action-oriented than the previous movies. But returning director Barry Sonnenfeld gets plenty of entertainment value out of the period setting, even if the movie's depiction of 1969 is about as realistic as Austin Powers. Brolin does a great approximation of Jones' gruff drawl, and Smith remains charismatic and likable. Thompson provides a suitable replacement for Rip Torn (whose character's funeral opens the movie) as the head of MIB, and at least the Burger King and Sprint store inside MIB headquarters are gone. Nothing has quite lived up to the potential that the first MIB offered, but at least MIB3 comes close.

Summer School: 'Shaft in Africa' (1973)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

If Shaft's Big Score! turned Richard Roundtree's Harlem private eye John Shaft into a typical action hero, Shaft in Africa attempts to turn him into James Bond, a misguided effort that put an end to the Shaft franchise on the big screen for nearly 30 years (the character made it seven episodes into a CBS TV series the following year). It's one thing to add more action to a story of corruption and gang warfare in New York City, with Shaft caught in the middle. But taking the detective out of NYC (and out of the U.S. entirely) and turning him into some sort of globe-trotting superspy loses everything that was interesting and unique about Shaft in the first place.

Sure, he still sleeps with every beautiful woman he encounters (no matter which side she's on), and he occasionally makes a comment about contemporary race relations. But most of this movie is about Shaft using ridiculous weapons and affecting silly accents and fighting a series of interchangeable henchmen en route to a cartoonish big boss. He even ends up in a Bond-style elaborate death trap early in the movie, although it's just an effort by an African tribal leader to test Shaft's worthiness for a mission to infiltrate the human trafficking route bringing unwitting Africans to work in Europe for slave-labor wages.

That's a socially conscious (and unfortunately still timely) theme for a Shaft movie to explore, but the filmmakers are far more interested in fisticuffs and explosions than they are in taking on serious issues. Both original director Gordon Parks and original writer Ernest Tidyman are gone, replaced by journeyman director John Guillerman and veteran screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who won an Oscar for socially conscious detective story In the Heat of the Night), and even the music sounds more like a typical action-adventure score rather than the funk and jazz that Parks and Isaac Hayes brought to the first two movies. At one point when he's being presented with a bunch of Q-style gadgets, Shaft protests that he's not James Bond (he prefers to compare himself to Sam Spade), but the movie clearly lacks that perspective.

None of the other characters from the previous movies return, and the villain this time is even more of a Bond-style evil industrialist, complete with English accent, sprawling estate headquarters, seemingly endless supply of henchmen, and ridiculously gorgeous arm-candy girlfriend whom he treats with contempt. Refreshingly, the villain's girlfriend is hornier than Shaft himself, and she's the one who seduces Shaft when she's sent to help with the mission to take him out. (Of course, she then gets killed by a knife meant for Shaft, which is a very James Bond move.) Shaft's main love interest is the tribal leader's daughter, who talks casually about her clitorectemy, which is treated as a lighthearted plot point and not as evidence of barbaric misogyny. Between that tone-deaf subplot and the backward depiction of Africans, Shaft in Africa is much less progressive than its predecessors. By trying to broaden its hero's appeal, it killed anything unique and compelling about him.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black II' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

As much as I was a big fan of the original Men in Black and of director Barry Sonnenfeld's work at the time, I don't quite remember what I thought of Men in Black II when I first saw it. It came three years after Sonnenfeld and Will Smith's notorious flop Wild Wild West (which I still haven't seen), and my expectations were probably a bit lower by that time. Still, I don't remember particularly disliking it, but watching it again so soon after rewatching the first movie, I can see how significant a step down it really is. Nearly every element of the sequel is worse this time around, all the way through Smith's typically silly plot song during the closing credits.

Even the chemistry between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as MIB agents Jay and Kay suffers, since it takes nearly half the movie for Kay to get back in action. The rather sweet ending of the first movie, in which Kay has his memory wiped so he can return to a simple existence with the love of his life, has to be undone, but first Jay has to encounter the latest world-ending alien threat, here in the form of an alien queen (Lara Flynn Boyle) who is after an all-powerful MacGuffin hidden on Earth. Kay was the one originally responsible for hiding it, so Jay has to bring him in and get his memories restored.

The easy chemistry that defined Jay and Kay's relationship last time around only surfaces in bits and pieces in the second half, and before that Smith has to carry the movie on his own (Linda Fiorentino's character, who was set up as his partner at the end of the first movie, gets written out in a single line). He's paired first with a dopey new agent played by Patrick Warburton and then with Frank the alien pug, who's one example of how this movie takes a clever background element from the original and runs it into the ground (it does the same with the "worm guys" who hang around the MIB office, and the idea of celebrities as aliens). The jokes are mostly strained and awkward (the Michael Jackson cameo especially has aged very, very poorly), Boyle's Serleena is a pretty ineffective villain (and Johnny Knoxville as her two-headed henchman is even worse), the romantic subplot between Jay and a pizza parlor employee (Rosario Dawson) is useless, and the rampant product placement is cringe-inducing.

Perhaps worst of all, the special effects are terrible, almost universally unconvincing and substantially worse than the effects in the previous movie. Maybe the problem is the overreliance on CGI (the original had quite a few practical effects), but even the CGI looked better last time around. The most amusing part of the movie is the opening clip from an In Search Of-style supernatural mystery show hosted by Peter Graves (playing himself) that lays out the back story in intentionally cheesy, low-budget fashion. And even that gets run into the ground, played again almost in its entirety later in the movie when Kay needs to be caught up. Running barely 80 minutes before the credits, MIB2 is a disappointing, half-hearted follow-up to one of the most entertaining summer blockbusters of the '90s.

Summer School: 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

From the beginning, Shaft was a more polished mainstream studio production than most blaxploitation movies, and thanks to the first movie's success, the sequel Shaft's Big Score! (released just a year later) obviously had a bigger budget to work with (alongside higher expectations). The result is a larger-scale action movie that has even less of a social or political perspective than the previous movie. Director Gordon Parks and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (author of the Shaft novels) both return alongside star Richard Roundtree, but Big Score is about cool fight scenes and big set pieces far more than it is about making a statement on American culture.

For starters, most of Big Score takes place in the middle-class suburban areas of Queens, rather than in Harlem as the first movie did. Even gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the only other returning character, now wears more traditional tailored suits. The somewhat convoluted story involves Shaft's old friend Cal Asby (Robert Kya-Hill), brother of Shaft's current main squeeze (although of course he has plenty of other squeezes), getting killed by his business partner, casualty of another turf war between white and black gangsters.

Cal and his partner Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) ran an illegal numbers racket out of their combined insurance and funeral home business, and Kelly wants to take it over for himself, while also using Cal's money to pay off his gambling debts to crime boss Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo). With both Kelly and Mascola looking to have Shaft taken out, Big Score has more clearly defined villains than the first movie did, and Mascola in particular is a typical ridiculous action-movie bad guy, complete with random eccentricities (he lounges around his house in what looks like a kimono, and spends his time playing the clarinet).

Shaft's previous police contact, the rumpled, old-school white Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), is gone, replaced by the humorless Capt. Bollin (Julius W. Harris), whom Shaft accuses of being a "black honky" in one of the movie's few instances of pointed commentary (there's also a moment when Bollin says "Fuck your rights!" to a black suspect protesting about being roughed up). Bollin isn't a particularly strong addition, but Mascola makes for a fun (if not very credible) villain, and Roundtree remains as charismatic as ever as Shaft. Parks himself takes over the music from Isaac Hayes this time, delivering a jazzier, more disco-oriented score that works best in an extended scene that cross-cuts between a club striptease and Shaft getting beat up by Mascola's goons.

The movie ends with a lengthy helicopter/boat/car/foot chase that shows off the increased resources but goes on way, way too long, and by the time it gets to the final confrontation, Shaft's motivations for taking on the gangsters are a bit confused. The first Shaft movie positioned its title character as a new kind of socially conscious detective; Big Score turns him into just another action hero.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black' (1997)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

In his early films, Barry Sonnenfeld seemed like the perfect melding of Tim Burton and the Coen brothers, and since they were some of my favorite filmmakers at the time, I was a huge Sonnenfeld fan from the start. After his work on Get Shorty and the Addams Family movies, Men in Black was the perfect fit for Sonnenfeld's blend of whimsy and snark, and the first MIB film is pretty much the zenith of his career (it was definitely all downhill from there). Based on a comic book in the days before every comic book property was made into a movie, MIB has a clear, instantly appealing premise, following the secret agency tasked with protecting humans from the aliens who live covertly on Earth.

Most of these aliens are harmless and friendly, and MIB gets a lot of mileage out of the gently antagonistic relationship between the human agents and the aliens trying to go about their business. The talking pug, the tentacled newborn, and the worm-like creatures in the breakroom are all instantly memorable, and their brief appearances give a perfect glimpse into the wider alien world that the main characters are working within. The mix of practical effects and CGI holds up remarkably well, and the creature design is inventive and fun. The core of the movie, though, are the human characters, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are at the height of their respective personas as the mismatched Agents Jay and Kay, who have a well-worn but entertaining buddy-cop dynamic.

Smith is the brash NYPD detective recruited into the secretive MIB organization, and Jones is the world-weary veteran who's seen it all and is ready for retirement. Although their styles clash, they clearly respect each other from the start, and their riffing is never insulting or unpleasant, just a string of clever, sometimes goofy jokes delivered with impeccable timing. The supporting cast is great, too, including Vincent D'Onofrio as the nasty bug alien wearing a suit of human skin, Rip Torn as the gruff MIB boss, and Tony Shalhoub as a fidgety alien dealer in stolen goods. I was especially disappointed to be reminded that Linda Fiorentino's career essentially ended not long after she made this movie, and her smart, alluring coroner character, who has great chemistry with Smith's Jay and ends the movie clearly set for a major role in the sequel, never returned.

The details of the plot are a little underwhelming at times, and the ticking-clock finale doesn't quite have the urgency that it needs. But it's also refreshing that a comic book-based summer blockbuster didn't feel the need to stage a massive action climax with an entire city being demolished. Jay, Kay and Fiorentino's Laurel fight off the gross, evil bug alien, and that's all it takes to save the Earth. It reinforces the idea that the MIB are always saving humanity without anyone realizing it, and it places this story in the overall context of their ongoing adventures. The ending makes the prospect of a series of sequels enticing, and I'm already bracing for the inevitable disappointments of returning to the second and third movies.

Summer School: 'Shaft' (1971)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Although the blaxploitation movement is generally built around scrappy, sometimes very rough low-budget productions, the genre's most famous movie is actually a slick, studio-backed film that won an Oscar. I haven't seen a lot of blaxploitation films (I'm pretty sure Super Fly and Black Caesar are the only other ones I've watched), but Shaft is definitely the best of what I've seen, an entertaining, well-acted detective story that effectively mixes social commentary with its old-fashioned crime story. It's still gritty and authentic, showing audiences a side of New York City that mainstream moviegoers wouldn't have been familiar with, but it's less confrontational than some movies in the genre, making more of an effort to reach a wider range of viewers (i.e., white people).

That's not necessarily a criticism, since one of the key themes is the way that private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is able to move between two worlds, connecting with the white police establishment and with the underground of Black Power groups and low-level hustlers. It's an ability that serves him well as a private detective, but it also means that he's never quite accepted by any of the people he interacts with. The cops don't trust him to give them all the information they need to bring in the criminals he associates with, and the African-American activists see him as a sell-out. There's no indication that any of this bothers him, though, and he sticks to his personal code of ethics regardless of who he's dealing with.

The specific plot, taken from the novel by Ernest Tidyman (who co-wrote the screenplay with John D.F. Black), isn't all that innovative or exciting, and it proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner, without any big twists. Shaft gets hired by Harlem crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find Bumpy's kidnapped daughter, who's become a pawn in the war between Bumpy and white mobsters from out of town. Once Shaft figures out who took the daughter, he basically just goes in and gets her, in an impressively staged action sequence at a hotel. What's more interesting than the plot is the way the movie follows Shaft around NYC, giving a tour of the city's underrepresented areas and presenting a range of colorful characters.

Roundtree, in his first film role, is fantastic as Shaft, making the detective charismatic and sharp and, of course, sexy, as Isaac Hayes' iconic, Oscar-winning theme song describes him. Shaft's dalliances with women are an essential part of his character, and while he casually sleeps around, he never mistreats the women he's with. The sex scenes are sensual but not sleazy, and director Gordon Parks, who worked mainly as a photographer, has an eye for artful compositions in the bedroom as well as on the streets. Hayes' funky, off-kilter music perfectly complements Parks' imagery, and I was more impressed with the use of music here even than with Curtis Mayfield's equally famous soundtrack to Super Fly.

Shaft's narrative drags in the middle, as the title character spends a lot of time just walking around aimlessly, but it's a solid mystery framework for the movie's exploration of contemporary NYC life, and it's no surprise that Shaft returned for more movie adventures (as well as a short-lived TV series). He's an appealing, durable character, and the movie effectively sparks interest in more of his cases.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Scooby-Doo and the Curse of the 13th Ghost' (2019)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Over the decades, cartoon dog Scooby-Doo and his human friends have starred in many, many different series, some of which lasted for numerous seasons, some of which were cut short after just a short run. The 1985 series The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo lasted for just 13 episodes, and it's mostly just a footnote in the long franchise history. But the proliferation of online fandom means that nothing in pop culture gets lost anymore, and thus the latest straight-to-video Scooby-Doo original movie is an exercise in integrating this obscure series into some kind of overarching continuity.

That makes Scooby-Doo and the Curse of the 13th Ghost an extremely niche product, and yet it plays out mostly like a typical kid-friendly Scooby-Doo production, albeit with more self-awareness. Anyone who (like me) has never seen the original 13 Ghosts series can easily follow the movie, and it wouldn't be hard to believe that all the silly back story imported from the old show was just made up for this new movie. That includes the character of Vincent Van Ghoul, who is modeled after and was originally voiced by Vincent Price, and here gets an impressive soundalike vocal performance from veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche.

Vincent summons the Scooby gang to help him capture the 13th ghost who escaped from an ancient chest of demons ("demon" and "ghost" are used pretty much interchangeably throughout) when it was accidentally opened by Scooby and Shaggy in the first episode of 13 Ghosts. The show only lasted long enough for the gang (also including Daphne, but minus regulars Fred and Velma) to capture 12 of the ghosts before it was canceled, and so the 13th ghoul has just been hanging out in continuity limbo. The gang travels first to Vincent's spooky castle home and then to a remote village in the Himalayas in order to track down and capture that final ghost.

Curse is full of familiar Scooby-Doo elements, including groan-worthy puns and ineffectual, ultimately harmless bad guys. But it's also surprisingly clever, at least for someone who hasn't kept up with the various incarnations of the show for the past 30 years. After an opening prologue establishing Vincent's origin story, the movie introduces the Scooby gang as they seem to thwart one of their typical nemeses (a creepy farmer sabotaging the development of a new mall). But it turns out that this isn't a masked criminal, and they've in fact caught an innocent man. A local cop tells them to stop trying to solve mysteries, or he'll have to haul them in.

When Vincent reaches out for help, Daphne has to clue Fred and Velma in on who he is, because they weren't part of that incarnation of the show. She also takes over as leader, changing into a stylish version of her very '80s jumpsuit from the 13 Ghosts series, prompting an existential crisis from Fred as to what his role is within the group if Daphne is leader. Sure, it's all fan service, but there's an element of intelligent deconstruction that keeps it from just coming across as pandering.

The plot drags in the second half (this probably did not need to be a feature-length story), and the villain is underwhelming, but overall Curse is lively and entertaining, with strong voice work from a mix of veterans (Frank Welker has been voicing Fred sine 1969!) and relative newcomers (Matthew Lillard has taken his live-action role as Shaggy into the animation realm, and Kate Micucci is an inspired choice as Velma). The animation is colorful and appealing, and there's enough here to engage both the primary Scooby-Doo kid audience and the nerdy adults who care about the continuity minutiae of cartoons.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Phone Call From a Stranger' (1952)

Although she gets a fancy "Also Starring" title card in the opening credits, Bette Davis doesn't actually show up until Phone Call From a Stranger is nearly over, and her role is the kind of maudlin old lady that she rarely played, even later in her career. The real star of Phone Call is Davis' husband at the time, Gary Merrill, and Shelley Winters plays the kind of sassy-dame role that Davis would have gotten if this movie had been made a decade or two earlier. The movie is awkwardly structured, with the scenario indicated by the title not coming up until halfway through the story, and the relaxed first half is a lot more enjoyable than the heavy-handed, melodramatic second half (of course, Davis only gets called on for the heavy-handed melodrama).

In that first half, Merrill's lawyer David Trask is a passenger on a flight to Los Angeles, where he bonds with three other passengers as they wait for the delayed departure, and then again when they have to make an emergency landing in Utah to sit out a storm. David befriends struggling singer/actress Binky Gay (Winters), loudmouthed novelties salesman Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn) and brooding doctor Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie), and they exchange contact information so they can stay in touch after they go their separate ways. There's a loose hangout vibe to these early scenes, even when Robert discloses a dark secret to David so he can ask for legal advice.

The exchanging of contact info becomes crucial to the second half of the movie, after the plane crashes and David is one of the only survivors. He takes it upon himself to contact the families of his three dead friends (I guess the rest of the dead passengers are out of luck), both learning and imparting important lessons in each case. The movie devotes lengthy flashbacks to each passenger's sob story, robbing a lot of the liveliness and fun from the characters in the process. Binky is unable to please her overbearing mother-in-law. Robert is tormented by a fatal mistake that ended up estranging him from his family. And Eddie uses an old sexy photo of his wife (Davis, finally) and a jovial attitude to mask his difficulties at home.

David, too, has domestic troubles, and he's on the plane fleeing from his cheating wife, who's at home with their children, begging to be forgiven. He doesn't get a flashback, but he explains his situation pretty thoroughly, and he has a couple of fraught phone conversations with his wife. His final revelation that he should go back to his family and forgive his wife is jarring and abrupt, and it makes it seem like the only reason he offered closure to these other families was so he could find an excuse to go back to his own. Davis, as Eddie's disabled wife, gives a florid speech about forgiveness and love, which is obviously meant to be a big showcase for her but just sounds hokey and pathetic. If she showed up in the movie as a favor to Merrill, she wasn't able to do enough to save it.