Monday, January 13, 2020

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days in France' (1968)

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

A disclaimer at the beginning of the impressionistic sports documentary 13 Days in France declares that it's not the official film of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and it's not hard to see why this movie would be the wrong choice as a sanctioned record of the Olympic games. Produced and co-directed by French New Wave icon Claude Lelouch (along with more than a dozen credited collaborators), 13 Days is an abstract snapshot of the games that's almost entirely devoid of context, with virtually no dialogue and very little diegetic sound. It more closely resembles something like Aquarela or Samsara, documentaries made up of a series of images around a central theme, rather than what you'd expect from a movie about the biggest sporting event in the world.

Considering that I have no interest in sports or the Olympics, this approach generally works for me, although at nearly two hours, the movie does get repetitive and tedious at times. Having at least some sports knowledge would probably help, since there's no explanation of the various events or competitors, and while I eventually spotted a couple of famous athletes via context clues (Jean-Claude Killy and Peggy Fleming, both of whom have songs sung about them on the soundtrack), most of the time I had no idea what was happening in the competitions, or even what many of them were (there's a weird skiing one where you shoot a gun in the middle of it?). Lelouch and his collaborators are just as interested in local color and behind-the-scenes details (including parties and musical performances), though, and the movie is really a feat of editing, as various athletic accomplishments are juxtaposed with mundane activities.

Even when portraying the athletes, the filmmakers focus on the less obvious aspects of the competition. There's a montage of hockey players spitting, and one rapid-fire sequence of a starting pistol indicating the beginning of multiple races that we never see. There are scenes of spectators frolicking in the snow, and one shot of a baby's diaper being changed by the side of a ski slope. Lelouch matches the shots of the Olympic flame being lit with shots of a cameraman's long, dangling cigarette ash. It's playful and also clearly meant to sort of deflate the self-importance of the games, especially in brief shots of newspaper headlines about Vietnam inserted between marching bands and cheering crowds. The point of view is a bit muddled, but the movie is distinctive enough to make it worth watching as cinema, and not just as a recording of sports history.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My top 10 non-2019 movies of 2019

After 10-plus years, this is still one of my favorite things to write, a look at the best movies from previous years that I saw for the first time in 2019.

1. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) Although the structure of this existential thriller is your basic revenge story (criminal gets screwed out of money by his associates, tracks them all down and kills them), Boorman presents it as a sort of fever dream, to the point where it's not always clear what's meant to be real and what might be occurring in the mind of taciturn main character Walker (Lee Marvin). Marvin is brutish and implacable as the single-minded Walker, who appears to derive no pleasure or satisfaction from any of his efforts, and his mission becomes increasingly abstract, culminating in a deliberately obtuse ending that turns the simple quest for stolen funds into a meditation on the pointlessness of existence.

2. Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948) No, not the Patrick Swayze movie. I saw this sweaty, sensuous noir projected on nitrate at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it was easily the highlight of my festival weekend. Ida Lupino is outstanding as a  singer in a roadside diner/nightclub/bowling alley who is pursued by the establishment's shady owner (Richard Widmark) but instead falls for his more upstanding, respectful right-hand man (Cornel Wilde). Lupino delivers world-weary dialogue and anguished torch songs with equal beauty and poise, and the movie gets more unhinged as it goes along, moving from a low-key potboiler into a full-on chase thriller by the end.

3. Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) I watched this movie almost as an afterthought after writing about the new (and mostly solid) Hulu miniseries, to prepare for a TV segment talking about both. But while I thought the Hulu series was fine, Nichols' somewhat forgotten movie version is much better, preserving the fractured structure from Joseph Heller's novel and keeping more of the dark, nasty edge. Nichols balances the satire with the genuine horror of war (and of callous, amoral officers only out for themselves), and his stellar, eclectic cast, including Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Art Garfunkel and Orson Welles, matches his every ambition.

4. Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964) The only William Castle movies I've previously seen have been cheesy (but sometimes entertaining) schlock like 13 Ghosts, The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill and Zotz!, but Strait-Jacket, despite being an obviously trend-chasing mix of Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is genuinely fantastic filmmaking, with a stunning performance from Joan Crawford as a woman released from a mental institution after decades locked up, who finds herself possibly reverting to her delusional, homicidal ways. The twists in the script from Psycho writer Richard Bloch are maybe a bit obvious, but Castle executes them all masterfully, with Crawford playing the perfect balance between insanity and insecurity.

5. The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) Hey, it's Lee Marvin again! Marvin only has a supporting role in this brutal thriller, providing a bit of comic relief alongside Clu Gulager as a pair of sardonic hitmen tracking down the associates of a man they were hired to kill. John Cassavetes is the real star as that man, a racecar driver drawn into a life of crime by a mob moll played by Angie Dickinson (who had a similar role in Point Blank). The story (drawn loosely from an Ernest Hemingway short story) is relentless and unsentimental, with Ronald Reagan (in his final onscreen role) as the weaselly villain. Reagan's reported discomfort with playing a bad guy actually enhances his performance, making his character fidgety and untrustworthy, and Cassavetes brings pathos to the role of the doomed nice guy.

6. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950) The woman in this movie (played by Ann Sheridan) isn't really on the run; rather, she's tracking down her husband, who may be on the run or may just want to be left alone. He's being sought by the cops after witnessing a murder, but he clearly isn't interested in cooperating. Sheridan's Eleanor Johnson tries to stay one step ahead of the cops (who are constantly following her) as she looks for her husband, along the way questioning whether she actually really knows him at all. The dialogue is razor sharp, the characters are all complex, and the visual style is moody and evocative, with great location shooting around San Francisco.

7. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) I saw two Armstrong movies for the first time this year, and her 1994 take on Little Women is certainly the more well-known of the two. But her feature debut is even better, with many of the same qualities (a warm period piece about a headstrong young woman who dreams of becoming a writer and rejects her romantic suitors, based on a beloved work of literature) but a harder, more pragmatic edge. Judy Davis shines in her first role as stubborn 19th-century farm girl Sybylla, and she has lovely romantic chemistry with Sam Neill as her repeatedly thwarted paramour. Armstrong vividly captures the sense of possibility and the endless frustration of creative pursuits, along with the rhythms of rural Australian life.

8. Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, 2018) Cummings' 2016 short film of the same name is a pretty perfect encapsulation of one man's emotional collapse in a single scene, so I was skeptical about its adaptation into a feature film (the original short is re-created here as the movie's opening scene). But Cummings (as director, writer and star) expands on it in impressive ways, taking the awkwardness of the short and applying it to everything in the life of a cop undergoing a complete mental breakdown. The movie is tough to watch but also emotionally powerful, with the same impact as the short film sustained over the course of 90 minutes.

9. First Cousin Once Removed (Alan Berliner, 2012) Berliner, like Ross McElwee, is a master of the personal documentary, and this heartbreaking movie about his cousin (noted poet and intellectual Edwin Honig) succumbing to Alzheimer's is poignant and sad without every becoming maudlin. Berliner filmed Honig over the course of many years, but he edits footage together in a non-linear fashion that shows how Honig deteriorated but also how many core elements of his personality remained intact. Rather than a sentimental tribute to Honig, First Cousin is a clear-eyed look at a man with many flaws as he faces down the end of his life.

10. Alien Raiders (Ben Rock, 2008) I have no idea what led me to add this movie to my Netflix DVD queue (yes, a thing I still have) many years ago, but I'm glad that I did, and I'm glad it finally came up for me to watch. This is the kind of low-budget genre fare that floods streaming services and VOD in 2019, most of which is not worth seeing. But Rock and screenwriters Julia Fair and David Simkins come up with a clever twist on two direct-to-video staples, the single-location siege and the stealth alien invasion, beginning with what looks like an action thriller with a group of criminals taking hostages at a grocery store and turning it into something like The Thing, as the hostages realize that the attackers are actually the seasoned alien hunters they claim to be. Don't let the generic title and cheesy poster art fool you: This is a tense, effective and well-acted thriller.

Previous lists:

Friday, December 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Blood 13' (2018)

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

It's good to know that even in other countries, there are generic crime thrillers that feel like extended episodes of police procedural TV series. The Chinese movie Blood 13 is a dull, rote cop drama about the search for a serial killer who targets prostitutes, aiming for some sort of David Fincher-style darkness but ending up a lot closer to Criminal Minds, or something from the '90s starring Ashley Judd. There's no mystery here, really, since the identity of the killer is revealed halfway through the movie and never called into question, so the theoretical entertainment value is just in watching the two main detectives slowly realize that this guy they have repeatedly been questioning is in fact the killer, then racing to apprehend him.

The only mild tension comes from the main detective's prejudice against prostitutes, which is explained in a heavy-handed flashback to her father leaving her mother (presumably because of his habit of visiting prostitutes). But it doesn't have much of an effect on her dedication to the case, and other than a single scene in which she gets lectured about giving sex workers basic respect, it's not a major theme of the movie. That detective, Xing Min (Lu Huang), is a cop-movie stereotype, a reckless lone wolf (note her leather jacket) who never listens to anyone's advice. The movie just uses that as an excuse to place her as a damsel in distress for the last half-hour, though, when she offers herself as bait for the killer and ends up being abducted.

The other detective on the case is veteran Lao Zhou (Gang Xie), who's been obsessed with this killer since failing to catch him 15 years ago. I think he's meant to be a tragic figure looking for redemption, but his habit of carrying around the first victim's skull in a wooden box wherever he goes mostly just makes him seem creepy. The characterization of both detectives is pretty minimal, and the killer is the one who gets the most development, in a long monologue toward the end as he explains his evolution as a murderer. None of it is particularly interesting, and the movie especially drags once the audience knows who the killer is and we have to wait for the detectives to figure it out. It's not surprising that director Candy Li has worked on productions in both the U.S. and China, since she seems to have learned all about making bland, forgettable low-budget cop movies directly from the original source.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th Child' (2002)

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

Although it looks like it was shot for a budget of around $100 wherever the filmmakers could grab locations, horror movie 13th Child boasts a cast that includes Robert Guillaume, Lesley-Anne Down, Christopher Atkins and Cliff Robertson, whose co-writing credit may explain this inept indie production's ability to attract so many recognizable actors. None of them are doing their best work here, and Down's role, at least, is little more than a cameo. But Robertson throws himself into the part of a strange, wealthy recluse living in rural New Jersey, delivering his lines with the kind of devilish menace that he probably imagined in his head while he was writing the terrible dialogue. If nothing else, 13th Child gives a veteran character actor a chance to realize some sort of bizarre personal vision (Robertson's only other writing credits are a 1962 episode of TV Western Outlaws and the 1971 cowboy movie J W Coop, both of which he directed), in one of his final onscreen roles.

Robertson aside, 13th Child is your basic no-budget horror movie, with a story based around the urban legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature that haunts the Pine Barrens, the vast forest area of southern New Jersey. The movie gives the Jersey Devil a back story as the 13th child of a Native American tribe who clashed with early English settlers, although the Wikipedia entry doesn't mention anything about Native Americans. Also, for some reason Robertson's Mr. Shroud calls the monster "Bruno," which does seem like a very New Jersey name for an evil entity. Mr. Shroud turns out to be the English priest who initially ordered the Native American man put to death, or at least I think that's what the movie's ending implies. He's definitely not quite human, and he has a supernatural bond of some kind with the Jersey Devil.

That all sounds a lot more exciting than the movie actually is, since the bulk of the story is about Kathryn (Michelle Maryk), a somewhat snarky investigator for the New Jersey attorney general's office, who's looking into the case of an escaped convict who's been mutilated by some kind of creature deep in the woods. It's not clear why the regular police aren't part of the investigation, and Kathryn teams up with a forest ranger (Atkins) and an officer "on loan" from the NYPD to look into the attack. The trio mostly stand around making awkward jokes and blatantly violating the chain of evidence, at one point leaving a bag of body parts in their car overnight before taking it to a coroner. This is the kind of movie that has the coroner's assistant perform some sort of magical, instantaneous analysis on a strange claw found at the murder scene that can identify it as a combination of multiple types of animal DNA, as well as date its existence back 200 years.

The other main plot strand involves Guillaume as a mental patient obsessed with the Jersey Devil, and the movie's confusing timeline indicates that his ravings about the creature while locked up in the world's dingiest, most poorly staffed mental institution come after the main events of the story. Most of Guillaume's dialogue is delivered in what sounds like voiceover while director Steven Stockage shoots him from a curiously distant angle, like they just got some random footage of Guillaume stumbling around his cell and then added whatever audio they needed later.

Really, though, these scenes are no more disjointed or clumsy than the rest of the movie, which includes things like one character struggling to put on a jacket in the foreground of the shot while two other characters have a conversation next to him. The monster barely ever appears onscreen, and the killings are mostly just quick splashes of blood before Stockage cuts away. A disclaimer at the end of the credits states that all of the dead deer seen in the movie (the preferred bait for the Jersey Devil, apparently) were repurposed roadkill, which is just the kind of thrifty yet distasteful technique that exemplifies this odd mess of a movie.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Investigation 13' (2019)

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

A group of college-student ghost hunters lock themselves into a seemingly abandoned, allegedly haunted old insane asylum for the night, determined to record conclusive evidence of the afterlife. The weird old lady who owns the property promises to return for them the next morning. Do you really need any more info to guess what happens next in the rote direct-to-VOD horror movie Investigation 13? It's definitely not that everything goes well and all of the characters leave the asylum the next morning in perfect health, satisfied with the important data they've collected.

Just because the plot of Investigation 13 (the title refers to 12 previous paranormal investigations that have all been inconclusive) has been seen dozens of times before doesn't mean it couldn't be effectively executed. But director and co-writer Krisstian de Lara does an abysmal job of generating scares or constructing a cohesive plot, and the movie fails to make use of even its exceedingly meager resources. A few splashes of very fake-looking blood are about as gruesome or scary as anything gets in Investigation 13, and De Lara relies on crude animatics for the extensive flashbacks to the asylum's history, suggesting, as one Letterboxd commenter pointed out, that the production ran out of money and was forced to use its own storyboards in the finished movie.

Whether those animated sequences were a deliberate artistic choice or a financial necessity, they're still incredibly ugly and amateurish, sketchy drawings that almost never actually move, layered with stilted voiceover. The acting from the onscreen performers isn't much better, and even genre legend Meg Foster (They Live, The Lords of Salem, Masters of the Universe) doesn't add much to the movie in her brief appearance as the creepy caretaker. Star Stephanie Hernandez spends the entire movie in a distracting, ill-fitting wig, and the male actors mostly just petulantly snipe at each other. In the grand tradition of micro-budget direct-to-video thrillers, the majority of the action involves slowly skulking around poorly lit corridors.

The boogeyman of the asylum is a former inmate named Leonard Craven (Peter Aratari), who is also nicknamed the Mole Man for reasons that I could never quite figure out. It's not clear if Leonard is meant to be a ghost or just a deranged murderer, but he's pretty corporeal for a ghost, and he'd have to be close to 80 years old (according to the movie's timeline) if he had just been hanging out in the abandoned building all this time. Either way, with his tight black clothing, stringy black hair and steampunk-style goggles, the Mole Man looks more like the singer of an industrial metal band than a possibly immortal psychopath. He's about as unimpressive as horror-movie villains get, which makes the promise in the movie's IMDb summary (presumably written by the filmmakers themselves) of a whole Mole Man franchise about as laughable as everything else in this worthless movie.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo' (2008)

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

When Sylvester Stallone returned to his other iconic movie character with 2006's Rocky Balboa, he took a more thoughtful approach to a character who had become a bit cartoonish, garnering positive reviews and positioning Rocky for a rejuvenation in commercial and critical success with the subsequent Creed movies. That seems to be Stallone's aim with Rambo, which brings back John Rambo after a 20-year absence, and is in some ways grittier and less cartoonish than the second and third Rambo films. But there's nothing thoughtful or sophisticated about this movie; it's a grim, shockingly violent B-movie with virtually no plot that barely runs 80 minutes before the final credits start to roll.

As the movie opens, Rambo is still living in Thailand, having traded underground stick fights for underground snake handling. He rents out his boat, helps the local handlers catch snakes and does various other odd jobs, living a seemingly quiet life. But that changes when a group of Christian missionaries from Colorado hire him to take them into Burma, where they want to bring medicine and food (and Jesus) to the persecuted Karen people. Stallone (who directed in addition to once again co-writing the screenplay) opens the movie with real-life footage of atrocities in Burma, setting the stage for movie's cheap exploitation, reducing the people of Burma (on both sides of the conflict) to faceless cannon fodder.

Like Afghanistan in Rambo III, Burma is just a convenient place for Rambo to go kill a bunch of people without feeling conflicted about what side he's on, so it's especially disingenuous for Stallone to pretend like he's doing some sort of humanitarian good deed by highlighting the paramilitary campaign against the Karen minority. The violence in this movie makes the second and third films look like G-rated Disney movies, and Stallone doesn't just rack up the body count; he also makes every kill as graphic and gory as something out of a Saw or Hostel movie, with limbs getting hacked off, heads exploding and blood and guts flying everywhere. At least the second movie humanized Rambo's Vietnamese love interest and the third movie had him bond with an Afghan kid. The Burmese characters in this movie (including the sadistic villain, played by Maung Maung Khin) have no personalities, and what little dialogue they get is often presented without subtitles, as if to further underline how unimportant they are.

The American missionaries aren't much more fully developed, and the connection between Rambo and compassionate missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) is little more than a plot device to get him in place to slaughter Burmese soldiers. Presumably Rambo's reputation has brought numerous people to him over the past two decades seeking help, so why after all this time is this the one plea he agrees to? There's no personal connection (Richard Crenna died in 2003, so Col. Trautman doesn't show up), and the missionaries' pitch is pretty weak. But Rambo helps them get into the country and then returns to save them when they inevitably get captured, leading a team of generic mercenaries that feel like the sketchy first draft of The Expendables.

As a character, Rambo is a bit more like the haunted, traumatized veteran of the first movie than the gung-ho warrior of the second and third, but that just makes his murder spree feel like drudgery, the resigned obligation of a man who's no longer fighting against the killing machine that the military turned him into. A single question from Sarah about life at home propels Rambo to the perfunctory epilogue, arriving back at the ranch apparently owned by his never-previously-mentioned father. But this movie is less a culmination of a pop-culture fixture's character arc than a tired, cynical exercise in brand extension.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo III' (1988)

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

As absurd as Rambo: First Blood Part II was, at least it attempted to connect to John Rambo's history with the Vietnam War and his conflicted feelings about how it ended. Rambo III makes no such efforts, instead plugging its title character into a generic action story that could have been a vehicle for Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren just as easily as for Sylvester Stallone. After the events of the second movie, Rambo seems to have settled down in Thailand, living on the grounds of a monastery, where he helps the monks with maintenance jobs and probably meditates or something. He also, uh, participates in underground stick fights, which is where Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks him down.

Trautman and American government functionary Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) want to recruit Rambo for a mission to Afghanistan, where the Soviet army has been waging war against local rebels. Apparently there's one Soviet commander who's so ruthless and effective that Afghan forces can't make any progress against his forces. So Trautman is going on a covert mission to aid the rebels, and he wants Rambo to come along. There's some hand-waving about Rambo being the best soldier of all time or whatever, but otherwise the movie doesn't really care about why Rambo's being recruited for this particular mission. In the movie's only consistent character beat, Rambo declines the offer, but when Trautman goes in alone and is captured by the Soviets, Rambo decides he has to rescue his friend.

Up to that point, Rambo III is actually somewhat restrained compared to the previous movie, but once Rambo gets to Afghanistan, he just goes ballistic, mowing down every Russian in sight in his quest to rescue Trautman. At one time, Rambo III held the records for both the most expensive movie ever made (surpassed just a year later by Back to the Future Part II) and the most violent movie ever made (a dubious record, but certified by Guinness), and it's not hard to see that onscreen. The second half of the movie features near-constant explosions (which Rambo always easily escapes, of course) and the wholesale slaughter of enemy soldiers, along with most of the Afghan rebels who are foolish enough to offer to help Rambo.

Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay, and he and co-writer Sheldon Lettich give Rambo some cheesy one-liners and a kid sidekick, making the character's transformation into a cartoon pretty much complete (Rambo had, of course, starred in an actual cartoon series for kids two years earlier). Crenna at least gets more to do here, even though it makes no sense that a senior officer like Trautman would be sent alone into a war zone. Marc de Jonge sneers as the Soviet villain but doesn't do much else, and Smith, who is great at playing callous government and corporate functionaries, disappears after his first couple of scenes, never turning into the kind of petty, power-tripping bureaucrat that Rambo took on in the first two movies.

Even more than the intensity and excess of its violence, Rambo III has become notorious for the way it positions the guerrilla fighters of the mujahideen (who would later form the Taliban) as the underdog heroes, with some uncomfortable political prescience when Trautman tells his Russian captor that Afghanistan will be their version of Vietnam. The movie doesn't really have any kind of political message beyond the same patriotic "might makes right" nonsense of the second installment, but its choice of the Afghan setting is telling. At this point, Rambo just needs somewhere he can go and slaughter dozens of people who can be dismissed as soulless enemy fighters, and in 1988, Afghanistan happened to be that place. The closing dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan" is just as hollow as all the onscreen ultraviolence that precedes it.