Monday, February 20, 2017

VODepths: 'American Fable,' 'Chasing Bubbles,' 'Deadly Virtues'

American Fable (Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, dir. Anne Hamilton) I saw this movie at the Las Vegas Film Festival last June, when I was sort of surprised to see that it had been a favorite at other, more prominent festivals, because it struck me as the kind of amateurish first feature that gets into second-tier festivals and then disappears (it's now being released by IFC Films, although without much promotion). It's a weird sort of pseudo-fable (per the title) set sometime in the 1980s in the rural Midwest, about a young girl who befriends the banker sent to foreclose on her family's farm -- who happens to be held captive in an old silo after being attacked by her father. Their relationship, patterned after fairy tales in which children are lured in by imprisoned witches and monsters, makes no sense in the context of the story about economic struggles and familial tensions, and Richard Schiff, generally a welcome presence, has no idea how to play his character, who is a combination of a pragmatic corporate climber and a beguiling trickster. There are some lovely shots of Midwestern countryside that show a bit of writer-director Anne Hamilton's influence from her mentor Terrence Malick, but the acting is awkward and often flat-out bad, the story is a haphazard mix of social realism and ethereal wonder, the period setting is completely unconvincing and pointless, and none of it amounts to anything at the end. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Chasing Bubbles (documentary, dir. Topher Cochrane and Alex Rust) I've complained before, both here and elsewhere, about low-budget films that feel like watching someone else's home movies, and the documentary Chasing Bubbles, funded on Kickstarter and distributed for free online via Kentucker Audley's No Budge and elsewhere, is the epitome of that annoying byproduct of widely available filmmaking technology. Director Topher Cochrane crafts a loving tribute to his friend Alex Rust (who's credited as co-director thanks to the use of his copious personally shot footage), but the result is of value only to Rust's friends and supporters, an entirely insular collection of vapid vacation videos. A successful day trader who came from a wealthy family, Rust decided in 2008 to quit his job and sail around the world, despite having no sailing experience. He seems like a nice (if obliviously privileged) guy, and he clearly had a great time during the three and a half years he spent traveling on his boat, picking up various friends (both new and old) along the way. But there's nothing more than a rich, entitled bro's vacation footage, artfully edited, going on in this movie until the very end, after the sailing trip is over. Spoiler alert, I guess: Rust died about a year later, while on another trip, but not even in some ironic or poignant way that recontextualizes the preceding footage. He was a friendly guy who had a good time and died too young, and everyone who knew him liked him. That makes this a lovely way for his friends and family to send him off, not something that should play to a general audience. Available on No Budge.

Deadly Virtues: Love. Honour. Obey. (Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, dir. Ate de Jong) This unpleasant piece of torture porn from the U.K. came out on home video overseas two years ago but is just now making its way to the U.S. It reminded me a bit of the equally distasteful Mexican thriller Honeymoon, which I wrote about in this space last month, and which is similarly bare-bones and similarly exploitative and ugly. In this case, a man invades a suburban couple's home and holds them hostage for a weekend, torturing and imprisoning the husband while forcing the wife to playact a relationship with him. The filmmakers frame this as some pseudo-feminist empowerment narrative, which is blatant bullshit and borderline offensive, really. Aaron (Akrout), the psychopath who breaks into the couple's house, threatens rape, ties them up, cuts off the husband's fingers and makes the wife model fetish outfits for him, is really just there to teach Alison (Maczko) to stand up for herself and leave her abusive husband Tom (Barber). Sure, Tom cheating on Alison and smacking her around is bad, but there's no way that it's worse than torture, maiming and sexual assault. This kind of false moralizing doesn't work in Saw movies, and it certainly doesn't work in this low-budget production, which also suffers from terrible sound (the dialogue is often difficult to hear), mediocre performances and bland visuals. Any serious impact the story might have had gets thrown out during the absurd climax and even more ridiculous coda, setting up the main villain as some sort of savior of trapped women. Neither he nor the movie can credibly fill that role. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th' (2016)

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

I've been putting off watching Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th despite its critical acclaim (and recent Oscar nomination), because social-issue documentaries are easily my least favorite movie genre, and I usually don't have much to say about them. Even in these politically turbulent times, I do my best to avoid politics both in my writing and in my personal life, and focusing on the cinematic merits of movies like 13th is often difficult when their political message seems to be all that matters to viewers and critics. If not for this project, I might have simply passed on the movie entirely.

I can't say that I regret watching 13th, but I can't say that I got much out of it, either, from a cinematic or a political perspective. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but also established the legality of forced servitude as punishment for a crime, and DuVernay takes that as the origin of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S. The movie starts, then, just after the Civil War and goes through the present day, which gives it a lot of ground to cover. DuVernay's focus on the idea of mass incarceration allows her to narrow her scope a bit, but the movie still makes plenty of digressions and jumps around in time, sometimes getting lost along the way.

A lot of the historical material may be a little basic for anyone with a working knowledge of U.S. history, and the message is most powerful toward the end of the movie, when DuVernay connects current rhetoric (including from Donald Trump, who was still just a presidential candidate when the movie was produced) to the more inflammatory and blatantly racist words and actions of the past. Her point about the expression of racism simply taking on different forms over time comes through most clearly in the final stretch, when she strongly connects current events to episodes from the past that most people agree were inexcusable.

Cinematically, the movie is straightforward and unadventurous, combining talking-head interviews (featuring scholars, activists and politicians) with archival footage. At least DuVernay doesn't try to include entertainers or artists among her interviewees; everyone she talks to is authoritative and involved with the subject they're addressing. She even allows a handful of conservatives to offer counterarguments, and while she's obviously opposed to what they're saying, she doesn't just set them up for Michael Moore-style takedowns. For people who know little about the history of race relations in America, the movie is relatively informative, although I wonder if any of those people will actually watch it. More likely, it's allowing people already familiar with these ideas the chance to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side. There's nothing wrong with feeling proud of your views on the world, but that's different from great filmmaking. Should this movie be shown in schools? Sure. Should it win an Oscar? Definitely not.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

VODepths: 'Coin Heist,' 'Counter Clockwise,' 'Fanny Pey'

Coin Heist (Sasha Pieterse, Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Jay Walker, dir. Emily Hagins) I have an affection for Hagins after watching the utterly charming 2009 documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, about her efforts to make her first feature film starting when she was just 12 years old, and I've even watched that movie (Pathogen), which is of course endearingly terrible. Hagins could have become a footnote or a novelty, but instead she's pursued a serious filmmaking career, and Coin Heist is her fifth feature (she's now 24). It's not great, but it's professional and competent, and it shows how much Hagins has developed as a filmmaker. The main actors here are two TV veterans (from Freeform teen dramas Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters) and two social-media stars, and they mix together pretty well as a group of teens who plan an unlikely heist in order to save their private school after its endowment is embezzled away. The plan is to break into the U.S. Mint and deliberately print error coins which can then be sold for high prices to collectors. It's kind of a silly concept, and there are plenty of holes in the plan, but the characters are likable, and writer-director Hagins (working from a novel by Elisa Ludwig) has a nice feel for teenage relationships. There's a meta element to the story, with the group's leader getting his ideas from heist movies, that could have been explored further, especially given Hagins' obvious geek-culture background. But like a lot of the aspects of the story, it's a bit underdeveloped, and ultimately the movie feels hollow and inconsequential, with a pretty bare-bones climactic heist. Still, it's a step in the right direction for Hagins, who will probably make her first really good feature by the time most filmmakers are just getting started. Available on Netflix.

Counter Clockwise (Michael Kopelow, Alice Rietveld, Devon Ogden, dir. George Moïse) This low-budget time-travel thriller clearly has aspirations to be the next Primer, but it gets some of that movie's opaqueness without any of the intriguing artistry. Which is to say that the plot is often confusing and difficult to follow, and yet there's no emotional or even aesthetic payoff to putting the pieces together. Kopelow (who also co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced and worked on the production design) plays a supposedly brilliant scientist (who looks like Brian Posehn and dresses like a member of a garage-rock band) who accidentally invents a time machine in his lab (basically just a storage space, perhaps an explicit nod to Primer) and impulsively tests it on himself without any idea of how it works, really. He ends up six months in the future (although even this basic detail isn't clarified until late in the movie), discovering that his wife and sister were murdered just hours after he left. In trying to prevent this tragedy, he of course just makes things worse, but not in an ironic or tragic or meaningful way. The guy is just a dumbass, really, and he could have avoided the whole problem if he'd just made some basic tests on the time machine first. The corporate villains are ridiculous, the pseudo-science is laughable, and the filmmaking is full of distractingly flashy camera moves that add nothing. As in a lot of low-budget movies, the world of the story feels very constrained and empty, which is a problem when your narrative encompasses the entire time-space continuum. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Fanny Pey (Ivan Pavletic, Alex Amadei, John Strelec, dir. Alex Amadei) I discovered this movie thanks to, of all things, comment spam; various people associated with the production kept plugging the movie in comments on the AV Club and other pop-culture sites, and I Googled it because I am now on the hunt for extremely obscure movies to cover for this feature. It's the work of a Colorado-based filmmaking collective called Film Wants You Back, who've posted five full feature films for free to YouTube over the last two years. Fanny Pey is their most recent, although they're already raising funds for another movie on Indiegogo. It's awesome that these guys are going out and pursuing their artistic ambitions and then sharing them with the world for free, but Fanny Pey is a terrible, terrible movie, which tried every ounce of my patience even at barely 70 minutes. I'm not sure what tone Amadei's other films take, but Fanny Pey, ostensibly about an evil doll stalking four people who invoke its spirit, is painfully self-conscious about being "bad," which means lots of belabored, groan-worthy jokes, deliberately crappy special effects, nonsensical story developments and performances so broadly over the top it seems like the actors may pull a muscle. (That's not to mention the amateurish camera work and uneven pacing.) Clearly everyone involved had a great time, but watching movies like this is the equivalent of looking at someone's house party video on their smartphone. Just because things can be shared with the world doesn't always mean that they should be. Available on YouTube.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Seconds' (2003)

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

I've watched a lot of bad movies for this project, but perhaps none as completely inept as writer/director/star Jeff Thomas' 13 Seconds. In many ways, 13 Seconds is just a typical shitty ultra-low-budget horror movie, corralling a bunch of characters in a creepy location and killing them off one by one. And certainly there are plenty of cheapo indie horror production that are just as bad as 13 Seconds, or even worse. But there are also plenty that manage to make the most of their limited resources, to write clever dialogue or interesting characters or to exhibit some visual flair even without sophisticated visual effects. Thomas manages none of that, although he did manage some pretty impressive distribution for this terrible, terrible movie, as many of the scathing IMDb reviews (complaining about renting the movie at Blockbuster and other video stores) attest. I easily found a DVD copy at my local library.

Shot on what looks like consumer-grade video in Thomas' native Detroit and populated with actors who aren't even up to the standards of community theater, 13 Seconds is without any sort of merit, even as a campy source of mockery. It's so technically inept that characters have conversations without ever appearing in the same shot, and much of the post-dubbed dialogue doesn't even sync up with the movements of the actors' mouths. The story features the members of a rock band (who never play any instruments or even attempt to set up their gear), plus a few hangers-on, converging in an old abandoned building (which is possibly a school or a house or a theater, and includes an art gallery, multiple bedrooms and a dark basement) to record their latest song or album or maybe video. As with everything in the movie, even the basic setup is unclear and glossed over, like Thomas couldn't be bothered to come up with a proper explanation or even a simple logline.

But the setup is the least of the movie's problems, really, since plenty of horror movies contrive thin reasons for characters to end up in a dangerous place, and still manage to generate suspense and scares from the situation. But everything else about 13 Seconds is as listless as its initial premise, and the terrible acting undermines any possible tension in the story. It's impossible to understate just how bad every actor is, and Thomas deserves much of the blame, since in addition to writing and directing, he also stars as the movie's main character (whom the eventual idiotic twist reveals as really the only character of any consequence). Once people start going missing and/or turning up dead, no one in the cast can even muster any energy to express fear or anger or concern, and nearly every line reading sounds like the character is on the verge of falling asleep.

That may be because multiple characters do go to sleep, just taking naps in creepy bedrooms in this abandoned building, even though theoretically they are all there to record and/or rehearse music of some kind. That allows Thomas to stage multiple fake-out dream sequences, which make even less sense once the ending reveals (spoiler alert, I guess) that nearly the entire movie is a dying vision of Thomas' character Davis, who has experienced it all in the final, yes, 13 seconds of his life (he's dying of a drug overdose). So why does his vision include other people's dream sequences? That's just one of the many, many incomprehensibilities of the movie's plot, which throws a bunch of ghost/demon/spirit things around without ever clarifying what they are or why they are there. Even the final explanation that it's all Davis' death dream (which I suppose absolves Thomas of having to create any logical consistency) is vague and rushed, turning one of the previously anonymous supporting characters into an angel of sorts, ending on a quasi-religious message. I was dreading the movie turning into a Christian allegory, but like everything else Thomas attempts here, the religious angle is a complete failure in concept and execution.

Monday, January 02, 2017

VODepths: 'Be My Cat,' 'The Devil Lives Here,' 'Honeymoon'

Be My Cat: A Film for Anne (Adrian Tofei, Florentina Hariton, Alexandra Stroe, dir. Adrian Tofei) Romanian filmmaker Tofei is the writer, director, star, producer, editor, production designer, cinematographer, casting director and sound designer of this micro-budget found-footage horror-comedy, which he also distributed and marketed himself (this is yet another movie that I was sent directly by the filmmaker). It seems to have worked, because by this point the movie has gotten more publicity than something at this level usually achieves, including a handful of Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Tofei certainly put a lot of passion into this ridiculous movie, in which he plays an aspiring filmmaker obsessed with Anne Hathaway (and in particular her portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises), who decides to make a demo reel of a movie he plans to direct (titled Be My Cat), in order to entice Hathaway to star in it (spoiler alert: Anne Hathaway does not appear). This involves hiring and then murdering three local Romanian actresses who sort of look like Hathaway, in a scheme that doesn't make much sense. Tofei is maybe a little too good at playing a creepy weirdo, because his character becomes annoying very quickly, with his verbal tics (he says "Oh my God" seemingly hundreds of times) and close-ups of his own face. The story builds to some disturbing moments but then stalls out with an anticlimactic ending. Even if the movie is kind of a mess, I give Tofei credit for ambition and determination. Available on Vimeo.

The Devil Lives Here (Pedro Carvalho, Clara Verdier, Pedro Caetano, dir. Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio) Inspired in part by Brazilian folklore, this atmospheric horror movie is a bit incoherent, but it delivers on creepiness even when it doesn't make much sense. The basic setup is standard horror-movie material, as four young friends travel to a remote vacation home and summon an evil presence they don't really understand and can't contain. The filmmakers introduce a few seemingly unrelated threads at the beginning of the movie, and it takes a little while to recognize the flashbacks of a sadistic plantation owner and the slave he tortured, and how those relate to what's happening in the present day. But the movie eventually sticks to its single time period, as that long-dead slavemaster returns, when the descendants of the slave who led a rebellion against him fail to prevent his spirit from being revived (I think). There's a lot of other confusing mythology that seems to change from moment to moment, but directors Gasparini and Vescio do a good job of building tension and putting every character in real danger, and the villain is genuinely scary, especially once his eventual plan is revealed. With its connections to dark chapters in Brazil's history, this movie probably has greater resonance for native audiences, but even without understanding all of the context, it's still pretty unsettling. Available on Amazon.

Honeymoon (Hector Kotsifakis, Paulina Ahmed, Alberto Agnesi, dir. Diego Cohen) This grim, distasteful Mexican horror movie is pretty much just straight-up torture for 90-plus minutes, as a lonely doctor kidnaps his pretty neighbor and keeps her in a dingy basement as his "wife." Other than a creepy fake marriage ceremony, however, the movie doesn't do anything with the idea of the two being fake-married, and the doctor's motivations for fixating on this particular woman are never really clear (aside from a climactic twist that only makes things more confusing). Both major characters remain complete ciphers, with no personality traits other than abductor and abductee. The majority of the movie takes place in the single basement room, where Isabel (Ahmed) acts out or attempts to escape, and then Jorge (Kotsifakis) punishes her. It's repetitive and gruesome, as he pours acid in her mouth, removes the skin from her fingers, breaks her bones, rapes her and administers electric shocks. There's no message or broader thematic concern here; it's just this guy torturing this woman, followed by a sloppy twist ending. Not only that, but the production values are quite poor, with dialogue that is often hard to hear (although watching with subtitles alleviates that problem) and a terrible overbearing score that often overpowers the action. I kept waiting for some kind of development that would take the story in an interesting or thought-provoking direction, but director Cohen and screenwriter Marco Tarditi Ortega just wallow in sadism for 96 uncomfortable minutes. Available on Netflix.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My top 10 non-2016 movies of 2016

It's the last day of the year, so it's time for one of my favorite features, my look back at the best movies from previous years that I watched for the first time in 2016. (Some comments brazenly reproduced from Letterboxd.)

1. Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013) With all the praise that Damien Chazelle is getting for La La Land this year, maybe people will rediscover this early, mostly forgotten Chazelle film, which he wrote but didn't direct. In a way it's a riff on the same concept as Whiplash, with a driven but neurotic musician being pushed to the limits of his talent by a sadistic taskmaster. In this case, though, the musician's life is actually on the line, and the tormentor is portrayed as an actual villain. The silly premise, with Elijah Wood's master pianist forced to play a complicated piece perfectly or be killed by John Cusack's maniacal sniper, is a variation on the Speed formula, and seems like it would run out of steam within a few minutes. But Chazelle and director Mira find numerous entertaining variations on the theme, with dynamic camera work, near-constant suspense and enjoyable performances from the two leads. The movie knows how absurd it is, but still manages to generate nail-biting tension until the very end. Anyone who liked La La Land or (especially) Whiplash should check it out.

2. Fat City (John Huston, 1972) I almost skipped this one at the TCM Festival in favor of a different screening, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out to be the kind of fantastic discovery that I come to that festival to find. Starring Stacy Keach as a small-time boxer in central California and Jeff Bridges as an up-and-comer he takes under his wing, it's one of the most affecting sports movies I've ever seen. It's amazing that Huston, who's so strongly associated with classic Hollywood, directed something so completely contemporary and relevant, and Keach (whom I generally think of as a solid if one-note character actor) is equally revelatory in the lead role. This is a bleak, honest, funny and startlingly naturalistic portrayal of working-class life that just happens to include some boxing.

3. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) I loved Stillman's take on Jane Austen in this year's Love & Friendship, but I hadn't yet seen that when I watched this somewhat underappreciated comedy, which at the time was billed as his comeback (it was his first film in 13 years). I'm actually a bit lukewarm on Stillman's early, most acclaimed films (I found The Last Days of Disco to be kind of a slog), but I love these frothier, lighter comedies. Damsels is even more lighthearted than L&F, although it's also quite insightful about the insular culture of college campuses and college students' self-indulgent search for identity. Greta Gerwig is typically fabulous as a particularly narcissistic student at a small liberal arts college, and Stillman gives her and the rest of the cast a nearly nonstop series of clever witticisms. The movie ends with a gloriously silly musical number that makes me hope Stillman gets to make a full-on musical someday.

4. Little Darlings (Ronald F. Maxwell, 1980) It's really a shame that this movie is essentially unavailable (I watched a VHS rip on YouTube, for a piece in David Magazine about summer camp movies), because it's far better than you'd expect an '80s summer camp teen sex comedy to be. Kristy McNichol is outstanding as a tough but vulnerable teen looking to lose her virginity at summer camp, and Tatum O'Neal is also good as a lonely rich girl looking to do the same. Their contest to see who can get laid first is the stuff of crass gross-out comedies, but it's handled with remarkable sensitivity by the filmmakers. There are some typical dumb teen-comedy moments, and the supporting characters are a little one-dimensional, but overall this is a warm, funny, surprisingly smart and sophisticated movie about growing up and carving out an individual identity. It's also one of the most casually feminist mainstream movies of the period (it was written by two women), and it totally deserves a proper home-video release.

5. Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, 2014) Continuing the theme of connections to 2016 releases, I loved Bliss and Rogers' TBS series Search Party, and Fort Tilden lays a lot of the groundwork for that show in its tone and character types. It's less plot-driven than Search Party, with a loose structure as its main characters, a pair of hilariously narcissistic Brooklyn hipsters played by Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty, wander around the city as they attempt to get to the titular beach. The bone-dry sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I was laughing instantly during the first scene, as the main characters text each other cruel put-downs about the so-called friends whose musical performance they're watching. Rogers and Bliss even manage to throw in a bit of smart social commentary about class privilege, but they never lose sight of their deadpan nastiness. As I said on Letterboxd at the time I watched it, I've never laughed so hard at the prospect of kittens drowning.

6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) From one kind of Brooklyn story to a very different kind, this one set in a time when the borough was a home for working-class immigrant families. This was the final movie I saw at this year's TCM Festival, and it's the kind of well-loved classic that I often avoid at the festival in favor of something more obscure and offbeat. So I was a bit wary of it at first, but ultimately liked it quite a bit. It's a tearjerker that never relies on cheap sentiment in telling the story of the struggles of a poor Brooklyn family in the early 20th century, and it's often moving and powerful. I thought the third act dragged at times, but even then, all of the individual moments are touching and extremely well-acted, especially by young Peggy Ann Garner as the pre-teen main character, an aspiring writer who idolizes her alcoholic dreamer of a father.

7. Frankenstein: The True Story (Jack Smight, 1973) Of all the movies that I watched for my month of Frankenstein films, this was the most welcome surprise, a three-hour NBC TV movie (released theatrically overseas in shorter cuts) with more sophistication and cleverness than most of the more well-known adaptations. Its length makes it a bit unwieldy at times, and despite its title it's neither a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley's novel nor an attempt to depict the true events surrounding the book's creation, but the movie still works very well on its own. The layered writing and character relationships (between Victor Frankenstein and Henri Clerval, Frankenstein and his monster, the sinister Polidori and the female monster, Polidori and Frankenstein) are impressive, even if the somewhat episodic structure can be a bit jarring. Thanks to strong acting and surprisingly high production values for a 1970s TV movie, True Story goes deeper than most would expect. More in my original post.

8. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936) The convoluted plot of this screwball comedy is hilariously outdated, as William Powell's newspaper reporter attempts to lure Myrna Loy's socialite heiress into a compromising position so that she can't sue his employer for libel (since her scandalous reputation will be justified). All of the indiscretions, both real and manufactured, in this movie are the kind of things that are brushed off as insignificant nowadays, but the movie itself views them that way, too, and mostly mocks how seriously people take the appearance of propriety. Powell, Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy are all very funny as the players in this constantly revolving romantic rectangle, and while the movie sticks to some of the period's rigid ideas about gender, it also subverts them in clever and satisfying ways.

9. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) I'm still working my way through a handful of notable Hitchcock movies that I haven't seen, and this was one I'd been meaning to see for a long time. Despite being produced explicitly as a pro-Allied propaganda piece, it still manages to create nuanced drama from a group of British and American citizens trapped in a lifeboat with a German seaman who was involved in torpedoing their cruise ship. Hitchcock builds suspense in the claustrophobic single location and also develops some well-realized characters, including the German himself. Eventually the movie draws clear lines between bad guys and good guys, but it never comes off as simplistic or dishonest. Hitchcock uses his filmmaking and storytelling skills to give life to what could have been a heavy-handed recruiting tool.

10. Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) It's pretty common to end up with biopic fatigue by the end of awards season, and so I put off watching this biopic about famous psychologist Stanley Milgram (creator of the renowned experiment in which subjects were told to administer electric shocks to a fellow volunteer) at the end of 2015. But some strong reviews eventually brought me back to it, and I'm glad they did, because it's an example of a biopic done right, using cinematic technique and formal innovation to tell the story of a real person's life. The movie is best when it focuses on Milgram's controversial and groundbreaking experiments, but Almereyda makes even the more mundane passages intriguing with metatextual devices, including characters addressing the audience and sets that look deliberately fake. It highlights the artificiality of shaping someone's life story into a movie, and it ties into the manufactured environment that Milgram (played well by Peter Sarsgaard) created in his experiments.

Previous lists:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Tale' (2013)

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

Based on the 2006 novel by Diane Setterfield, BBC movie The Thirteenth Tale promises Gothic chills but delivers something much tamer, getting less and less intriguing as it goes along. Part of that may be a peril of adaptation, not only condensing the story into 90 minutes from Setterfield's novel but also losing the Gothic style she apparently wrote in (I haven't read the book). While the novel was compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the movie doesn't capture any of that atmosphere, with the look of a genteel British TV drama rather than a creepy and foreboding ghost story. It's anchored by two great actors, but a lot of their work is sidelined in favor of extensive flashbacks that lose steam by the time they get to the story's big reveal.

Ubiquitous British TV/movie presence Olivia Colman is especially wasted in a role as what initially appears to be the main character, journalist Margaret Lea, who's summoned to the home of ailing, reclusive author Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) to document her life story before she dies of cancer. Margaret holds her own secret from her past, but it's much less interesting than Vida's, and learning about it doesn't illuminate anything about her character. Mostly her function is to sit and look concerned while Vida tells her story, and to spend a bit of time poking around the ruins of Vida's childhood home, the sprawling estate known as Angelfield.

The bulk of the movie is devoted to Vida's story about growing up at Angelfield, where she was known as Adeline March and lived with her twin sister Emmeline (or so it appears). Madeleine Power plays the twins as children, and she makes them each disturbing and unpredictable in their own ways, as they grow up essentially without parents (their father is dead, and their heiress mother is confined to an insane asylum), raised by servants in the lavish but decaying family home. Power upstages the more well-known stars, making her segments the best parts of the movie. Vida, who refuses to allow Margaret to question her story, is set up as an unreliable narrator, but onscreen her account doesn't have the uncertainty that it would on the page. This is especially obvious when the story jumps ahead to Adeline and Emmeline as teenagers, and the truth of Vida's identity is blatantly telegraphed merely by the actresses playing the parts.

That's only part of the reason that the eventual twist falls flat; instead of adding a level of creepiness to the mystery of a potential haunting at Angelfield, the plot slowly lets the air out of it, revealing mundane explanations behind every spooky moment. Those explanations come from some dark places, but their presentation is straightforward and anticlimactic. Margaret gets the answers she came for, but despite the connection to her own past trauma, there's no emotional resonance for her or for the audience. Redgrave does more to sell Vida's need to unburden herself, but even her final throes are a bit underwhelming. In the end, Margaret just shrugs off the whole thing and goes off to write her biography, and the audience ends up similarly unaffected.