Monday, August 24, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Man Who Played God' (1932)

The Man Who Played God is the second Bette Davis movie I've seen that stars George Arliss, and in both cases he comes off as smarmy and creepy when he's supposed to be noble and paternal. In The Working Man, he's condescending and villainous even though he's the ostensible hero, and in The Man Who Played God he's alternately pompous, self-pitying and condescending once again, playing a piano virtuoso who loses his hearing after a freak accident. Gaunt and patrician, Arliss isn't exactly convincing as a passionate artist, although in a weird way that works for the character, who is more of a skilled craftsman than someone trying to express himself. After his hearing goes, friends try to comfort him with the fact that Beethoven was deaf, but Arliss' Monty Royle dismisses the notion that he might write music like Beethoven. All he wants to do is play other people's music.

Well, that and marry Grace Blair (Davis), the much younger former student who's rather pathologically smitten with him. At the beginning of the movie Grace practically strongarms him into agreeing to marry her, since he refuses to see her as anything other than an immature child. Despite their complete lack of chemistry or anything resembling romance, she's determined to become his wife, and is even more determined after he loses his hearing and becomes a morose shut-in. Davis does her best to project attraction and love for a man who's 40 years her senior (and would play her surrogate father a year later in The Working Man), but she's fighting a losing battle, and Grace's motivations never really make much sense. Davis looks beautiful as Grace, which only makes it sillier to watch her moon over the corpse-like Arliss.

The last third or so of the movie shifts focus to the action referred to in the title, after Monty learns to read lips to compensate for his deafness. He discovers that he can use binoculars to read the lips of people across from his lavish apartment overlooking Central Park, and he finds a renewed appreciation for life in eavesdropping on people's private business and then anonymously meddling to make their lives better. Although he's doing good, he takes a sort of perverse pleasure in "playing God" to the less fortunate (in addition to being a brilliant pianist, Monty is also a fabulously wealthy heir). I guess this is meant to be a redemptive story about the power of faith, but it ends up being more about the power of entitlement. Even the resolution of Monty and Grace's courtship hinges on his pathological eavesdropping, when he discovers that she has a more age-appropriate love interest. The absurdly self-sacrificing Grace is determined to marry Monty out of some misguided sense of duty, but, rich-old-guy saint that he is, he lets her off the hook. Monty ends the movie rejuvenated by his role as a benevolent busybody and able to finally play music again, but, like the movie as a whole, it doesn't feel like much of a triumph.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Monster High: 13 Wishes' (2013)

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

There is some weird stuff lurking in the world of straight-to-video kids movies, like the apparently quite popular Monster High series of animated movies, which are essentially feature-length commercials for Mattel's line of dolls. Basically goth versions of Barbie, the dolls combine monster traits (vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, etc.) with skimpy outfits, heavy makeup and high heels. They are, of course, marketed at tween girls. The Monster High world includes various merchandise, video games, books and web series in addition to the movies, and watching 13 Wishes (the second full-length movie in the series) gave me only a brief glimpse into this bizarre world.

13 Wishes actually got a two-day event-style theatrical release in the U.K., but it's clearly tailored to the home video market and especially to the non-discerning tastes of kids who will buy anything associated with their favorite brand. The ugly computer animation looks like it came from a mobile-phone game, the voice acting is perfunctory, and the muddled story delivers simplistic lessons while barely managing to drag its plot out over 73 tedious minutes. At the same time, it's bright and cheerful and largely inoffensive, at least if you can get past the overly sexualized looks of the teenage female characters. Looks aside, their behavior is wholesome and positive, and the movie emphasizes friendship, acceptance and selflessness.

The story involves Monster High freshmonster Howleen Wolf discovering a magic lamp and releasing a genie, who then grants her 13 wishes (which kind of seems like a lot, but it allows me to include this masterpiece in my ongoing series of posts, so I'll accept it). The genie (named Gigi) has a sort of evil twin, a shadow creature called Whisp who tries to influence Howleen to make selfish choices with her wishes and eventually wish Whisp into ultimate power so she can rule the world (or something). The plot is both convoluted and inconsequential, and seems to exist mainly to send the various characters into different dimensions so they can wear new outfits that can then be made into dolls that Mattel will sell (obviously the primary goal of these movies).

Despite all being based on different monsters, the female characters are fairly interchangeable; they all have the same basic body type and facial expressions, just with different color skin and outfits. Some of them have inexplicably exaggerated accents (Howleen and her sister sound like they come from the Bronx, and a sea monster character has an Australian accent), but otherwise they speak in the same teen-girl cadence. The humor is pretty bland (although I did catch and appreciate a Heathers reference) and the moral of the story is predictable, as Howleen learns to appreciate what she has and that wishing isn't a shortcut to a better life, etc. As toy commercials that contribute to the objectification of young women go, 13 Wishes could certainly be worse.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' (2011)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Like J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird didn't have any experience with big Hollywood action movies when he took over the Mission: Impossible franchise with the fourth installment, Ghost Protocol. Abrams had at least directed some action in episodes of his TV series Alias and Lost, but Bird had never even worked on a live-action film before taking on Ghost Protocol. His previous three features (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) were all animated, and while The Incredibles does feature plenty of action, it's all done via computer animation. Of course, the scale of the stunts in the Mission: Impossible series requires the use of CGI, but one of the series' trademarks is how much is done via practical stunts (and specifically by star Tom Cruise himself). Bird proves himself remarkably adept at helming a massive production like this, and he turns in the best series installment since the first one (and possibly the best overall).

The plot raises the stakes as high as they've ever been, with global nuclear war eventually being averted with literally seconds to spare, although there still isn't much weight to the supposed danger. As usual, the plot functions mainly as a framework for the crazy set pieces, which in this movie include a fun prison break soundtracked to Dean Martin, a climactic battle in an automated car park between Cruise's Ethan Hunt and the villain played by Michael Nyqvist, and of course the amazing sequence featuring Ethan hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, easily the best stunt in the series and probably one of the greatest stunts of all time. Like Brian De Palma, Bird is great at creating suspense within these action sequences, and the movie overall is paced very well, even as it runs past two hours (it's the longest movie in the series).

Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec mostly discard the character development from the previous movie, writing out Ethan's nurse wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan, reduced to a wordless cameo) and putting Ethan firmly back in the field. They do make the dissolution of Ethan's marriage into a plot point, though, although the emotional impact from that mainly falls on new characters William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The team dynamics in this movie are very effective, with Brandt and Carter joining returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), upgraded from a brief appearance in the third movie, as Ethan's colleagues. Because the plot involves the entire IMF being disbanded and disavowed, the characters have a strong bond, and they feel more like people who care about each other and work well together than the teams in the past movies. (Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell, Ethan's one constant ally, shows up only for a cameo appearance at the end.)

After the comparatively straightforward plots of the second and third movies, this one gets a little convoluted, but even when the particulars aren't entirely obvious, the need for Ethan and his team to save the world and clear their names definitely is (also like the first movie, this one features Ethan on the run after being framed for the villain's terrorist act). At this point, the filmmakers know exactly what audiences look for from the series, and Bird delivers it, combining the jaw-dropping action with some witty banter and just enough emotional moments to give the characters a bit of depth. The cast, both new and returning, is uniformly strong, the cinematography by Robert Elswit is dynamic and bold, and composer Michael Giacchino comes up with some great variations on the Mission: Impossible theme song. Like those variations, Ghost Protocol is a fresh gloss on a now-familiar refrain.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible III' (2006)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

He may be the king of Hollywood now, but when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Mission: Impossible III, there was a lot of skepticism. He'd never directed a movie before and was mainly known as a TV writer-producer who'd only directed a handful of episodes of the shows he worked on (AliasLostFelicity). But Mission: Impossible III turned out to be Abrams' big Hollywood breakthrough, the movie that helped him land gigs on some of the biggest franchises around (Star Trek, Star Wars) and made his name into its own brand. He's still credited as a producer on the subsequent Mission: Impossible films that he hasn't directed.

Abrams may not be a visual stylist along the lines of Brian De Palma or John Woo (his love of lens flares, which is only slightly evident here, aside), but he does know how to put together a big-budget action movie, and he manages to bring some level of emotion and character development to Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, something that the previous movies weren't all that concerned with. Those efforts don't always work out, but at least they point to some kind of life beyond missions for Ethan and the supporting characters. Disappointingly, Thandie Newton doesn't return as master thief Nyah, who was a promising love interest for Ethan in the second movie. Instead, we get Michelle Monaghan as Julia, a pleasant but bland nurse who doesn't know about Ethan's real job, and thus ends up mostly as a helpless damsel in distress.

Nyah ended up that way eventually, too, but at least she got to be capable and formidable first. Julia picks up a gun at the end of the movie, but she manages to knock off one of the main bad guys by sheer luck. Abrams (who co-wrote the screenplay with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) draws a lot from the vibe of Alias, especially the early seasons, which focused on Sydney Bristow's efforts to balance a normal life with her spy adventures. But Ethan Hunt isn't Sydney Bristow, and although it gives the story more emotional stakes to put Julia in danger, he's never seemed like the kind of guy who's after a normal life. Still, that tension does help motivate the series' most entertaining villain, Philip Seymour Hoffman as sadistic arms dealer Owen Davian. Davian comes to a sort of disappointing end, and he's eventually supplanted by yet another IMF official gone bad (that's three for three in the series so far). Before that, though, he's genuinely menacing and scary, and his more intimate threats carry a weight that vast world-ending plots often lack.

The real draw for this series is the action sequences, though, and while Abrams doesn't stage any iconic stunts, he does a consistently good job of generating excitement and intensity, as Ethan and his latest team (once again including Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, along with one-off characters played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q) pursue Davian and a MacGuffin called the "Rabbit's Foot," about which literally nothing is ever revealed. An elaborate kidnapping sequence at the Vatican is the movie's most impressive, and Abrams sort of pokes fun at Woo by making his one appearance of the hyper-realistic masks into a detailed look at how much effort it takes to create them. Abrams may not be the kind of self-conscious auteur that De Palma or Woo are, but in his own down-to-earth way, he manages to create a vision just as singular as theirs.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible II' (2000)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Going once again by my Netflix ratings, I apparently preferred the second Mission: Impossible to the first whenever I initially rated them, although now it seems obvious to me that the sequel is not as good, despite featuring a more coherent plot and a better villain. It also has plenty of visual style, but while Brian De Palma used his flashy imagery to call attention to the artifice of the storytelling, sequel director John Woo just seems interested in making things look badass. Not that there's anything wrong with badassery, which Mission: Impossible II has in abundance. It's still a fun action movie and a worthy addition to the franchise, but it's not as exhilarating as the first movie turned out to be.

Like De Palma, Woo brings many of his signature visual elements to this movie, including slo-mo action scenes and the inexplicable presence of doves. He also relies heavily (to an almost comic degree) on the franchise device of characters pulling off hyper-realistic masks to reveal they aren't actually who they appear to be. Bad guys disguise themselves as Tom Cruise's main character Ethan Hunt, Hunt disguises himself as various bad guys, and the whole thing becomes a bit ridiculous after a while. Then again, that's probably no surprise from the man who just a few years earlier directed the gleefully over-the-top identity-swapping movie Face/Off, although this movie doesn't quite have Face/Off's nutso charm.

The main thing that Mission: Impossible II does is firmly establish the franchise's focus on Ethan Hunt, superspy, rather than a team of operatives like the TV series. Here there's barely even a nod to Ethan putting together a team, although he does get support from his old buddy Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and some forgettable Australian dude. More importantly, the latest IMF head (played by an uncredited Anthony Hopkins) tasks Ethan with recruiting master thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), whose main function turns out to be as Ethan's love interest and a damsel in distress. Newton is great (and very sexy) in the role, and her introduction, as Nyah attempts to steal a valuable necklace and Ethan thwarts her, is playful and fun and one of the most entertaining sequences in the movie. So it's disappointing that she spends the bulk of the rest of the time as a pawn, of Ethan and of villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a former IMF agent now in possession of a deadly virus.

Like the first movie, the sequel was written largely around the predetermined action sequences, and Woo generally excels at those. Cruise's reputation for doing insane stunts himself probably began with the mountain-climbing sequence at the beginning of the movie, which has no plot relevance whatsoever other than to show off Cruise's bravado and re-establish Ethan as a total badass. There's nothing quite as memorable as the computer-vault sequence in the first movie, though, and the motorcycle-duel finale is a little anticlimactic. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable action movie that establishes the franchise's policy of giving new directors free rein for each sequel, and it's one of Woo's more successful combinations of his operatic visual style with the demands of Hollywood filmmaking.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible' (1996)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

When I pulled up Mission: Impossible to watch on Netflix, I saw that I had apparently rated it two stars at some point in the past, which seemed odd to me because I remember having liked all the movies in the series when I first saw them. Regardless of what I actually thought of Mission: Impossible when I initially saw it in 1996, I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around, even with the convoluted plot and some less-than-convincing special effects in the helicopter-vs.-train finale. As producer and star of the series, Tom Cruise has done a great job of recruiting distinctive directors for each installment, and he started out by giving Brian De Palma one of his most high-profile gigs. It's the last big hit of De Palma's career, which is a shame because it proves that the director can do a great job with a Hollywood franchise if given the proper freedom. Sure, the plot makes no sense (it was constructed piecemeal during shooting, essentially, and built around the action sequences), but the set pieces are great and the visuals are striking. The pacing is so relentless that you hardly have time to stop and think about how nonsensical the plot is.

Although Mission: Impossible purists were apparently not happy with how this movie turned out, it's the closest movie in the series to the original TV show, with Jon Voight playing original IMF leader Jim Phelps and prominent use of the self-destructing mission assignments. De Palma brings a fun action-adventure style to the movie, even though the story is more blockbuster movie than TV procedural. Cruise brings every bit of his movie-star charm to the role of Ethan Hunt, who of course quickly eclipses familiar name Jim Phelps as the movie's actual main character (the purists might have been happier if Voight's character had just been given a different name). Although Ethan is just one part of the IMF team (which also includes short-lived characters played by Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas) at the beginning and then recruits his own team once he's on the run, he's more in the mold of the lone-wolf agent, especially since he spends the bulk of the movie being pursued by his own government (a theme that would get repeated throughout the series).

Cruise is a great action hero, and his charm and determination make Ethan easy to root for. Voight is a bit underwhelming as the mentor-turned-villain (a twist that annoyed fans of the TV show), and some of the other supporting players are underused. Henry Czerny, who went on to play a deliciously devious rich douchebag on Revenge, is highly entertaining as the weasely government agent trying to bring Ethan in, and it's actually a little disappointing when he turns out not to be the bad guy. Ethan and Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell went on to form the core of the franchise, but this movie isn't really about characters. It's about bravura set pieces, none better than the incredibly tense sequence in which Ethan is suspended from the ceiling in a CIA vault, determined not to set off any motion or heat sensors as he attempts to copy some sensitive files. The sequence combines humor, stunt work and some stunning deep focus shots to steadily build suspense until ending in a sudden rush of relief.

De Palma is a renowned visual stylist (sometimes to his detriment in the eyes of some critics, although I disagree), and his creative framing makes up for most of this movie's shortcomings. He relies heavily on the aforementioned deep focus, along with near-constant Dutch angles, frequently calling attention to the style for its own sake. It's a sort of pop-art approach to moviemaking, one that fits perfectly with the idea of making a ridiculous Hollywood blockbuster based on a decades-old brand. Mission: Impossible certainly is ridiculous, but it's also consistently entertaining, and it sets the tone for the installments to come, balancing auteurist style with large-scale action.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'Impastor'

In Las Vegas Weekly, I reviewed The Jim Gaffigan Show, one of two new TV Land comedies premiering tonight, along with Impastor. Gaffigan is the more traditional, old-fashioned sitcom, more in line with the retro-style comedies that TV Land has been relying on for the last several years. It's harmless and pleasant, a reasonable time-passer but nothing else. Impastor attempts to push the envelope much more strongly, with swearing and drug use and sexual situations and violence, even though at heart its premise is pretty standard sitcom material. The show comes off as trying way too hard, mixing self-consciously shocking elements with the kind of heartwarming sitcom storylines that have previously served TV Land well.

Michael Rosenbaum is sort of charming as a small-time criminal who escapes his pursuers by posing as the new gay pastor of a small-town congregation. The guy who has to hide his real identity and scramble to fit in with who people think he should be is an age-old sitcom convention, and the show probably could have just skated by on that, since Rosenbaum's womanizing atheist Buddy has to pretend to be a religious gay man. But even in the first three episodes, the crime elements get a disproportionate spotlight, as if the creators decided they needed serialization in order to qualify as edgy or sophisticated. I had no interest in whether some generic criminals tracked Buddy down or not, and any definitive resolution to that storyline threatens to destroy the show's entire premise anyway.

This wouldn't be as frustrating or distracting if the main action were funnier or more engaging. The supporting cast, including Sara Rue, Episodes' Mircea Monroe and veteran character actor David Rasche, is appealing enough, but the character types are overly familiar, as are sitcom-style bits about shooing a secret lover out of the house or pretending to be knowledgeable about an unfamiliar topic. Impastor could easily have been retooled as one of TV Land's old-school multi-camera sitcoms; it probably wouldn't have been funnier, but at least it would have had a more consistent tone.

Premieres tonight at 10:30 on TV Land.