Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen at Dinner' (1985)

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

There's a long history of movies and TV shows based on Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot, a snooty Belgian who solves crimes in London. Probably most notable is the British TV series Poirot (aired on PBS in the U.S.), which ran for 13 seasons from 1989 to 2013. David Suchet starred as Poirot in that series, and he shows up in Thirteen at Dinner as the Scotland Yard inspector who's always one step behind Poirot in his latest murder investigation. The star, however, is Peter Ustinov, who played Poirot in six movies starting with 1978's Death on the Nile (which I wrote about as part of my Bette Davis retrospective) and ending with 1988's Appointment With Death. They aren't exactly a series, though, since they were produced by different companies for different distribution (three for TV, three for theaters) and set in different time periods.

Thirteen at Dinner, based on Christie's novel Lord Edgeware Dies, was a joint British-American TV production that premiered in the U.S. on CBS. It updates the setting of Christie's novel from the time when it was published (1933) to the time of the movie's production (1985), sacrificing some of the genteel charm in favor of references to American action movies and an opening scene in which Poirot appears on a cheesy talk show. Mostly, though, it seems like the change in time period can be attributed to budget constraints, since the movie is clearly working with limited network-TV resources, and some of the production values are pretty low (there are shots that occasionally blur out of focus and some sound problems, indicating that maybe they didn't have the resources for enough takes). The story is also stretched thin at feature length, although it was previously made into a feature in 1934 and served as the basis for a 90-minute episode of the Poirot TV series in 2000.

It's not as exciting a mystery as something like Murder on the Orient Express (probably the most well-known Poirot story), and it doesn't have the single-location elegance of some of Christie's more popular work, but it does have a cast of colorful suspects and some choice bon mots from the always condescending Poirot. Ustinov overdoes it a bit on the Belgian accent and the overstated disdain for foolish supporting characters, and he kind of barrels over the rest of the cast. That includes Faye Dunaway as an American actress whose English nobleman husband has been murdered (for which she's one of the chief suspects) and a young Bill Nighy as the nobleman's perpetually drunk (and perpetually broke) nephew, who's also a suspect. You can see the seed of so many future debauched Nighy characters in just his brief appearance here.

Sadly Nighy only shows up for a couple of scenes, and most of the movie is not nearly as amusing. It's a lot of dull procedural details and perfunctory appearances by red-herring suspects, all leading up to the requisite scene in which Poirot gathers the suspects and recounts his solution to the crime while they all listen (no one ever tries to run away). Despite Poirot directly spelling out the convoluted scenario, it's still a bit hard to follow, and I never quite understood the actual murderer's motive (the reasoning mentioned in the Wikipedia summary of the novel isn't in the movie). Even the modified title refers to a fairly minor event that's barely even depicted onscreen. I'm no Poirot or Christie aficionado, but I'm pretty sure that this forgettable production is of interest to hardcore fans only.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' (2011)

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

When I initially reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I declared it an improvement over Gore Verbinski's bloated and convoluted second and third movies in the series, but watching all of the Pirates movies again in close proximity this week, I have to say I slightly prefer Verbinski's ridiculous (but visually inventive) messes over this dull, workmanlike movie, which doesn't even have the spark of a boondoggle. Directed by journeyman Rob Marshall, who can bring some life to the right sort of material (his Oscar-winning Chicago may be overrated, but it's still quite entertaining), On Stranger Tides has the mark of everyone involved going through the motions, from the money-hungry studio to the director looking to branch out to the supporting actors passing time in a big blockbuster before they can get back to more interesting work. Johnny Depp finally gets to make Jack Sparrow the sole main character, but even he doesn't seem to be particularly invested in this installment.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio return, but they come up with a much more straightforward story this time (based very loosely on an unrelated novel by Tim Powers), with a clear goal and characters whose agendas mostly make sense (although there are still the requisite double-crosses). As briefly set up by the end of the last movie, both Jack and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa are searching for the Fountain of Youth, although since it took a few years for this movie to get made, their respective quests have been somewhat derailed as the movie opens. After a protracted London-set opening, Jack ends up back at sea under the command of yet another mythical, supernaturally powered pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter and first mate Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is Jack's former lover. Barbossa, meanwhile, has gone legit, and is searching for the Fountain on behalf of the British crown. Both are attempting to beat the Spaniards to the finish line, although the presence of the Spanish crew is mostly pointless, since none of them become relevant (or even, as far as I could tell, named) characters, and don't have any bearing on the action until the very end.

Poor Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann don't get so much as a mention here, and most of Jack and Barbossa's previous stalwart crew members are absent as well (aside from Kevin R. McNally as Jack's trusty first mate Gibbs, who still disappears for long stretches). It makes the movie feel curiously underpopulated, even with the various new villains. Marshall also lacks Verbinski's talent for spectacle, and the action sequences are universally underwhelming, without any big sea battles. Much of the movie takes place on land, and the entire final act features the characters trudging through the jungle, with a climactic sword battle among a bunch of shrubbery. It's a far cry from the epic clashing of armadas in At World's End.

To sort of replace Will and Elizabeth, the filmmakers throw in a half-hearted romantic subplot for a religious missionary, a member of Blackbeard's crew who falls in love with a mermaid. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey are completely bland as the pair of young lovers, and their story doesn't get going until more than halfway through the movie. It's not quite clear why Claflin's Bible-toting character ended up as part of a pirate crew, nor why the unnamed mermaid (whom he dubs Syrena) rejects the monstrous ways of her race, whose main purpose seems to be to kill and devour humans. Their story ends with her whisking him away to the depths, without any indication of where they're going or how she might save him from a mortal wound. They're not set to appear in the next movie, and the majority of this forgettable installment seems destined to be ignored in the overall Pirates mythos.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (2007)

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

I ended up splitting my recent viewing of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World's End, into three separate installments, and it felt like binge-watching an entire TV season, one which has dug itself into deeper and deeper plot holes by the season finale. And yet the movie was designed to be consumed as a single, nearly three-hour experience, an exhausting endeavor that struggles to balance its genuine entertainment value with a tortuous plot and characters whose initial appeal has severely declined. Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is elevated nearly to the status of a demigod in this movie, and yet his casual, offhanded humor is almost completely absent. The movie actually keeps him offscreen for the first half-hour, but then compensates with periodic scenes featuring multiple Jack Sparrows, as Jack hallucinates various versions of himself offering up dubious advice.

The first movie presented Jack as a scrappy crook barely getting by, but in this movie he's worth an entire quest to the afterlife (where he ended up after being devoured by the kraken at the end of Dead Man's Chest) and is one of nine "pirate lords" who make up a secret council that governs the entire pirate society (he's also the son of a sort of keeper of pirate law, played by Keith Richards in a thudding literalization of what started out as a lively joke). The end of Dead Man's Chest left plenty of dangling plotlines, but instead of resolving those in a rousing, concise finale, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio add on a bunch of new plotlines, including one major new character (pirate captain Sao Feng, played by Chow Yun-Fat), downplaying some of the previous movie's biggest threats (the kraken is killed offscreen in a single line of dialogue) to make room for new ones.

The characters spend the first hour retrieving Jack from the afterlife and getting him back in place to take on Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and newly emboldened East India Company bureaucrat Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, having fun with his officious condescension). Most of the second hour involves all of the characters making various deals and arrangements that successfully make it impossible for the audience to figure out who is allied with whom and what each faction's goal is. That leads into the nearly hourlong action climax and multiple endings -- which then set up a potential plot for another installment. (I had always remembered the fourth movie as a standalone tale, but it follows directly from Jack and Barbossa's final scenes here.)

Even as the plot grows more incomprehensible (there's a scene in the middle featuring five or six characters making various negotiations that change their allegiances multiple times within a few minutes), the action is still exciting, and Verbinski is still a master of large-scale battles and effects-driven spectacle. It's hard to care about the outcome of a battle whose stakes have become completely unclear, but at the same time it can still be enjoyable to watch a bunch of ridiculous characters fight each other. Geoffrey Rush is still fun as Barbossa, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley do their best to bring some emotional grounding to the story, but the romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (including a marriage ceremony in the middle of a battle!) is still a total dud. It's gratifying to see Elizabeth as the captain of her own ship, even if the mechanics of getting her there are a bit nonsensical. The entire movie is a series of nonsensical plot developments that occasionally produce cool results.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' (2006)

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

Following the surprise success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was suddenly high demand for a sequel to a movie that really leaves no obvious avenue for following up. Instead of creating another self-contained adventure for Johnny Depp's breakout character Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and director Gore Verbinski concoct an elaborate, practically incomprehensible two-movie epic that attempts to turn a fun adventure movie based on a theme-park ride into a grand fantasy universe on par with The Lord of the Rings. Financially, the bid paid off, with the second and third Pirates movies, beginning with Dead Man's Chest, raking in tons of money at the box office. But watching both movies feels like a chore, a slog through endless plot and more dull romantic swooning in order to get to the meager good stuff.

That good stuff is still mostly Depp's amusing performance, which by Dead Man's Chest is already growing a bit tired but is still good for a few laughs. Less successful is the effort to add some dimensions to Jack, whose role as comic relief and plot mover in The Curse of the Black Pearl is expanded here to capitalize on his popularity. The cliffhanger at the end hinges on the question of whether Jack is willing to make a noble sacrifice for his crew and friends, and the entire plot is set into motion by a deal that Jack made years ago and is now attempting to get out of. That deal comes courtesy of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who's the movie's main villain even though it takes him an hour to show up onscreen.

Jones and his crew (on the fabled ship the Flying Dutchman) are triumphs of design and special effects, each one a sort of mutant hybrid between humans and various sea creatures (although they're simply another crew of undead pirates to replace the villainous crew of undead pirates in the last movie). Verbinksi takes advantage of the large budget with plenty of great-looking effects, sets and costume design, along with some big action set pieces (although there's only one major sea battle between ships). As good as the movie looks, though, the narrative is still full of tiresome twists and detours; an entire segment devoted to Jack and his crew kidnapped by cannibals (depicted with questionable cultural sensitivity) has no bearing on the overall story and could have been cut altogether.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom both spend significant portions of the movie captured and imprisoned by various forces, and the main motivation for their involvement in the Davy Jones storyline disappears about halfway through the movie. Delivering a fake-out that hints at a romance between Jack and Knightley's Elizabeth Swann (and giving Depp and Knightley an uncomfortable kiss) is one of the movie's most shameless ploys. After two and a half hours, nothing is even close to being resolved, and the filmmakers trot out Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa to prime the audience for the next movie in place of any genuine forward momentum.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)

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

It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an underdog. Casting him in a main role in a big-budget Disney movie was something of a risk, and in the first Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is more of a facilitator for the romance between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) than the primary focus of the story. Sparrow, of course, works best in small doses, and he's at his most appealing and entertaining in The Curse of the Black Pearl, able to utter a funny line and then step away for the plot to move forward. That plot is still convoluted and lumbering (although less so than it will become in later installments), and the movie isn't quite as lively as it ought to be. But it's still mostly fun to watch, certainly more so than any that came after it, and if it hadn't become a massive worldwide success, it could have been a fun little hidden Disney gem.

The Pirates brand has also become so closely associated with Depp that it's easy to forget that this movie was based on an iconic Disney ride, one which has now been retrofitted to feature elements from the movies (I bet there's a whole generation of Disneyland and Disney World visitors who have no idea that the ride came decades before the movies). So there's a sense of fun to spotting the references and seeing how the filmmakers came up with a story to fit the ride's aesthetic, mixing some historical aspects of piracy in the Caribbean with a supernatural story that allows for ghostly pirate skeletons. Again, the historical aspect is pretty much thrown out in the subsequent movies, but here there actually is a certain attention to period detail (even if it's cartoonish and exaggerated).

While Bloom and Knightley are lovely to look at, the love story between the wealthy governor's daughter and the humble blacksmith is pretty dull, and the obstacles to their being together get kind of tiresome. Luckily Jack Sparrow is there to poke fun at things, and Depp is quite amusing as the drunken, roguish (but good-hearted) pirate. Depp gets all the attention, but Geoffrey Rush is every bit as amusing playing the villainous Barbossa, and Rush really nails the pirate-speak, while Depp goes off on his Keith Richards impression. More than anyone else, Rush really feels like he's embodying the hokey but endearing spirit of the ride.

The movie, too, mostly embodies that spirit, although like every movie in the series, it goes on for too long (even if it's one of the shortest installments), with a plot full of too many reversals and double-crosses. Since there was no indication of the massive success to come and no need to set up a sequel, Black Pearl at least has a clean, definitive ending, leaving the characters in a position to be happy and sail off into the sunset (literally). Along the way there are some exciting sea battles, some funny lines and some entertaining side characters. Tighten it by 20 minutes and it would come close to being the modern adventure classic that fans make it out to be.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summer School: 'Prometheus' (2012)

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

Anticipation for Ridley Scott's Prometheus was so high before it was released that I think I went into the screening expecting to be disappointed, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot to like about the movie. Watching it again now, I expected to enjoy it again, and while I appreciated most of the elements that I had appreciated the first time, I was more aware of the many flaws. I still have a positive overall impression of the movie, which doesn't live up to its lofty ambitions and doesn't really add anything meaningful to the core Alien storyline, but does have some breathtaking visuals, a few expertly suspenseful scenes and at least one great performance. It's not worth getting rapturous over, but it's not worth all the griping, either.

The basics of the story are actually remarkably similar to Scott's original Alien, with the diverse crew of an interstellar vessel landing on an unfamiliar planet and encountering hostile monsters there, eventually getting picked off one by one. In this case the ship has gone purposefully looking for alien life, but the characters are no better at intelligently responding to threats than the random characters in Alien (and in many cases make significantly dumber decisions). Set about 30 years before the events of Alien, Prometheus follows an exploratory vessel looking for the so-called Engineers, a race of beings who may have been responsible for the creation of the human race. In basing its mission around the findings of a pair of archaeologists on Earth, Prometheus actually mimics some of the ideas from Paul W.S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator, with both drawing on the "ancient aliens" hypothesis that gets a lot of traction on message boards online.

Scott spends a lot more time pondering big ideas than Anderson did, of course, but Prometheus' dorm-room philosophizing is pretty far from mind-blowing. The Engineers also seem to have engineered the alien xenomorphs, although those creatures don't appear in any form until literally the last shot of the movie. Before that, the crew finds plenty of other deadly creatures on the planet they've been led to by ancient cave drawings, all of which are apparently weapons created by the Engineers to wipe out other races. Or something like that -- a lot of the supposed revelations of the movie are muddled and unclear, and thinking about them for too long makes them seem even less revelatory.

Luckily, Scott has a lot more to go on, especially the film's gorgeous look, which is constantly awe-inspiring. All of the new creatures look creepy and unsettling, the alien planet feels truly alien, and every bit of set design has purpose and beauty. This is one of the few movies that I actually appreciated more in 3D (it was also shot with native 3D cameras, which almost no production even bothers with anymore), and the visuals are truly immersive, drawing you into this harsh but wondrous world. The performance aren't always as accomplished, but Michael Fassbender is terrific as the chilly, amoral android David, a worthy successor to Ian Holm's Ash from Alien. Noomi Rapace plays the Ripley figure, one of the two scientists who discovered the existence of the Engineers, but she doesn't have the same steely determination. Charlize Theron's corporate liaison Meredith Vickers is meant as a villain of sorts, but she's actually the most pragmatic and level-headed character in the movie (at least until her pointless demise).

The movie aims to ask plenty of important questions about existence, but audiences mostly wondered why certain plot details didn't add up, or why Guy Pearce was cast to play an elderly man in distracting makeup, rather than just casting an actual older actor. When Scott stages scenes like the incredibly intense robotic surgery that Rapace's Dr. Shaw gives herself to remove an alien parasite, those nagging questions disappear. But the movie isn't quite captivating enough to make them go away completely.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Summer School: 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem' (2007)

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

And here we hit rock bottom. On the whole, the Alien franchise is remarkably durable, accommodating the visions of various distinctive filmmakers, sometimes within the same movie, while building up memorable characters and providing long-lasting licensing opportunities. It can easily survive a movie like Paul W.S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator, a disposable B-level action thriller with little to say and even less lasting impact. But the directors of Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (brothers Colin and Greg Strause) make Anderson look like Ridley Scott, and it's a testament to just how durable this franchise is that not only did Requiem not kill it, but it also managed to bounce back to creative and financial heights only five years later with Prometheus.

Requiem is such a poorly made movie with such a generic, hacky premise that it's beneath the dignity of both aliens and predators. After the events of AVP, which took pains to isolate the aliens and predators in a remote location on Earth and limit their contact with humans, the Strauses and screenwriter Shane Salerno just dump the creatures in a small town in the middle of Colorado, where they encounter hundreds of people and eventually face down the U.S. military. If Anderson was doing his best to preserve series continuity, the filmmakers here are basically making a mockery of it, and their lazy callbacks somehow make the disregard for previous movies even more insulting.

You don't need to be a dedicated fan of the Alien or Predator movies in order to be insulted by the shoddy filmmaking in this movie, which is shot like someone fired the lighting department and consequently edited like no one involved could see what was going on in each frame. The predator ship that took off from Earth at the end of the last movie quickly crashes, thanks to an alien that gets loose on board, triggering an alert for another predator to travel from the creatures' home world (the glimpse of which is the movie's only moment of mild creativity) to Earth to clean up the mess. Soon there are multiple aliens loose in the small Colorado town of Gunnison, where they function as second-rate slasher-movie villains taking out tired stereotypes including horny teenagers, a troubled loner returning to town and a local sheriff who's quickly in over his head.

The predator is pretty much the hero of this movie, although its motivations aren't entirely clear -- it seems to want to contain the alien threat (it has some kind of goop that conveniently dissolves bodies instantly, leaving no trace), but it also randomly kills a few humans along the way. The alien that burst out of a predator's chest at the end of the last movie is a sort of alien/predator hybrid (which actually has a bit of established precedent, as the aliens are meant to take some characteristics from the beings they gestate in), and it also apparently has the ability to plant its embryos directly into humans without the need for eggs or facehuggers.

The hybrid was a cool visual for a second at the end of AVP, but it mostly looks goofy at full size -- not that you can see much of it, given how murky all the images are. Nearly every fight scene takes place in the dark and/or in the rain, and while Anderson at least offered up exciting battles, the Strauses can't even manage that. The human characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is idiotic, and the plot makes the universe-threatening menaces of previous Alien movies into the equivalent of Critters or Ghoulies. AVP could still fit into the series as a minor entry, but Requiem is best forgotten altogether.