Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Hellblock 13' (1999)

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

Presented by Troma, Hellblock 13 is the kind of micro-budget exploitation movie that filled video-store shelves in the '90s, with an audience primarily composed of teenage boys eager for any movie featuring boobs and/or gore. Hellblock has a bit of both, although perhaps not as much as one might expect from a movie with this pedigree. It's a sort of low-rent take on Creepshow, an anthology of three EC-style horror stories, with a framing sequence that offers its own horrific twists. B-movie favorites Gunnar Hansen and Debbie Rochon star in the framing sequence, with Rochon as a serial killer about to be executed and Hansen as her executioner. Rochon's Tara has been keeping a notebook full of scary stories that are relayed to her by the ghosts in the prison (or something), and she convinces the nameless executioner to let her read him some of them.

So the three other segments are meant to be Tara's stories, although they don't really connect to her vaguely witchcrafty practices or to each other. Nor do they make much sense, really. The first one involves a woman whose two kids have gone missing, and it's never clear whether the woman actually killed her kids and is being pursued by their vengeful ghosts (since she's tormented and killed by a ridiculous-looking drowned-kid ghoul), or someone else killed the kids and set their ghosts on her, or it's something else entirely. The waterlogged kids are kind of hilariously clumsy-looking, and the woman's completely bored response to everything that happens to her (being accused of murder, being attacked by ghosts, being proposed to by her boyfriend) seems like more a product of bad acting than a deliberate storytelling choice.

The second segment is similarly baffling and similarly grotesque, with an abused trailer-trash housewife attempting revenge on her husband, only for the spell she procures from a local witch to backfire (it's not quite clear how) and turn him into a hulking monster (featuring more terrible prosthetics). This story just kind of peters out, with the only possible lesson being that it's a bad idea to attempt to escape an abusive relationship. The third story is the most coherent, with a biker gang initiating its newest member via a secret ritual honoring the spirit of a dead biker mama. The new member is an undercover cop, and he gets his comeuppance at the hands of the vengeful biker-mama spirit. It's simple and straightforward, and it gives the movie the opportunity for some gratuitous biker-chick toplessness and lesbianism.

The framing story wraps up with Tara getting her revenge on her captors by killing herself before they can kill her, then returning as a ghost (or something) and executing her executioner. Before killing herself, she writes "Publish Me" in blood on her cell walls, so the whole thing is apparently an elaborate ploy to get a book deal. That kind of haphazard silliness pervades the movie, which isn't really campy enough to be funny but certainly isn't actually scary or creepy, either. Rochon's exuberantly evil performance is the movie's highlight, but even that is only good for a handful of entertaining moments.

Director and co-writer Paul Talbot made three of these straight-to-video horror anthologies in the '90s and then apparently got out of the movie business, and it's hard to see anything particularly promising in his flat, functional style (it doesn't help that the version I watched on Amazon looked like it was transferred directly from VHS). B-movie aficionados (especially fans of Rochon or Hansen, who played Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre) could find a bit of enjoyment in this movie, but even they might struggle to make it to the end.

Monday, April 11, 2016

'Hunters'

Syfy has made a significant effort recently to rebuild its reputation as a place for intelligent science fiction, with series like The Expanse and The Magicians, and at first glance, Hunters seems like it could be part of that same trend. Based on the novel Alien Hunter by renowned genre writer (and alleged alien abductee) Whitley Strieber, Hunters is sort of like 24 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with an elite government agency battling against alien terrorists hidden among the human populace. It's a silly, pulpy premise that could have been campy fun, but creator Natalie Chaidez (a writer and producer on Syfy's 12 Monkeys) plays it with deadly seriousness. The tone is so grim and gritty that it's laughable, especially with the weak acting, chintzy special effects and overall blatant cost-cutting.

Shot in Australia (presumably to save money) but set in the U.S., Hunters features a cast of mostly Australian actors doing questionable American accents, and sticks to generic-looking locations that lack geographic specificity (although theoretically the show takes place in the Washington, D.C. area). Everything about the show is just slightly off, in a low-budget knockoff kind of way. The characters work in an underpopulated warehouse-style office, for an agency with the absurd name of the Exo-Terrorism Unit (or ETU, strikingly similar to 24's CTU). The frequent shots of alien guts are excessively gross but also extremely fake-looking. The aliens' main form of communication is a kind of chattering that is meant to sound creepy but quickly becomes annoying, especially because it crops up in every attempt at a suspenseful moment, and also before and after every commercial break. It's like the producers were determined to build the entire series around one particularly cool piece of sound design that they commissioned.

Star Nathan Phillips plays the standard macho, tortured agent who crosses the line but gets results, who has a personal grudge against the alien terrorists who kidnapped his wife. Britne Oldford is slightly better as the ETU agent who is actually an alien herself, although she grew up believing herself human and doesn't know where the aliens come from or what they're meant to do. The main distinguishing mark on the aliens is a rash that looks like extremely dry skin, which leads to a hilarious scene in the second episode in which the anguished hero is devastated to discover his missing wife's cabinet full of moisturizer. Playing this scene as an emotional bombshell is indicative of how seriously the producers take this nonsense, and no one in the cast (even TV veteran Julian McMahon, playing the main super-evil alien terrorist) is equipped to pull it off. Hunters desperately wants to be a serious allegory for modern terrorism and an intense action thriller, but it fails at both, and in doing so loses the opportunity to at least come up with some enjoyable B-movie cheese.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Syfy.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Warrior' (1999)

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

In junior high, I was a huge Michael Crichton fan; Jurassic Park was one of the first "adult" novels I ever read, when I was in fifth grade, and I eagerly devoured Crichton's books alongside my other middle-school favorites, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice. Crichton's short 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead was sort of an outlier, a historical thriller dressed up to seem like nonfiction, with an academic narrative style that often undermined the story's potential excitement. By 1999, when the notoriously troubled film adaptation of Eaters of the Dead (retitled The 13th Warrior) was released, my Crichton fandom had largely subsided, and I never had any interest in seeing what turned out to be a poorly reviewed box-office failure.

It'd be nice to say that the movie turned out to be underrated, but the best I can say for it is that it doesn't come across as quite the disaster that one might expect from a movie that underwent extensive reshoots, helmed by a different director, after bombing at test screenings. I don't remember the plot details of the novel (which I probably read close to 25 years ago), but the movie hangs together well enough as a story, even if the narrative doesn't really go anywhere. Absent Crichton's meticulous (fake) historical references, Warrior is just a mediocre action movie with dubious period accuracy, cribbing a bit from Beowulf (although honestly I didn't realize that until reading up on it later) and a bit from the real life of 10th-century Arab explorer Ahmad ibn Fahdlan (played, of course, by the Spanish Antonio Banderas).

While on a diplomatic mission, Ahmad encounters a group of Vikings who enlist him to join their band of warriors (as prophesied, the 13th member must be a foreigner) and travel north to a village ravaged by mysterious cannibalistic assailants. Apparently these savages are meant to represent the monster Grendel from Beowulf, but the entire story builds to the revelation that they are not supernatural creatures, merely primitive humans (in the novel, they are specifically identified as remnants of Neanderthals), making it hard to know how to interpret their depiction (which seems vaguely racist at times, although against what real-life ethnic group is never clear).

The movie spends a lot of time building up Ahmad's rapport with his Viking compatriots, including an absurd montage in which he learns their entire language in what appears to be a few days, so that the characters can all talk to each other in English onscreen. That kind of clumsy storytelling might be indicative of where things went wrong, although it's generally hard to tell which parts of the movie were created by original director John McTiernan, and which were later added by Crichton himself, who was the uncredited director of the reshoots. Either way, the early part of the movie is a bit of a slog, but once the savages start attacking the village, things perk up a bit, and McTiernan (I'm assuming) stages a great nighttime battle sequence lit only by torches as the Vikings struggle to fight off what they believe may be actual demons.

Things go downhill from there, and the attack by the Vikings on the savages' lair (meant to most directly evoke Beowulf) is confusing and anticlimactic, as is the rushed finale (which Crichton shot to replace McTiernan's poorly received original ending). The Vikings themselves never really develop into distinctive characters, and while Banderas gives Ahmad some moments of quiet strength, he remains mostly inscrutable as well (his fling with a Viking woman barely makes an impression). Diane Venora gets second billing but virtually no screen time as the queen of the besieged village, another sign of what may have been left on the cutting-room floor. A handful of online posts clamor for a release of the original director's cut, but the movie doesn't give the impression that there's brilliance to be salvaged somewhere within.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

'The Real O'Neals'

For all its pretense at getting to what's "real," The Real O'Neals is as tacky and glib as any sitcom on the air, treating the supposedly serious issues of its characters with a dismissive shrug. There's no sense of the real difficulties facing the formerly upstanding Catholic O'Neal family as they deal with various hidden problems, all of which bubble to the surface in the overwrought pilot episode. Parents Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson, a long way from Mad Men) are getting divorced, football-playing older son Jimmy (Matthew Shively) is anorexic, daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) is a kleptomaniac, and younger son Kenny (Noah Galvin), who also narrates the show, is gay.

Kenny's coming-out motivates the explosion of family secrets, but his newly expressed sexuality and his mother's negative response to it are depicted with the same breeziness, just wacky quirks among this deeply repressed family. Advice columnist and outspoken LGBT activist Dan Savage is one of the producers (and a loose inspiration for the main character), but none of his passionate advocacy comes across in the way the show portrays Kenny. Kenny's siblings' problems are given even less weight, to the point at which it's hard to understand what place they even have in the show's concept. It would be one thing if this was a challenging show mining dark humor from uncomfortable situations, but it's just as corny and contrived as the average family comedy. The actual jokes, with wacky mishaps and tiresome fantasy sequences (check out the ABC cross-promotion with the extensive Jimmy Kimmel guest spot in the second episode!), don't live up to the potential complexity of the concept.

As she proved on Raising Hope, Plimpton is great at playing an exasperated matriarch, and Ferguson, whose work on Mad Men was underrated, has a few solid moments as the clueless dad. The kids are less impressive, especially Galvin, whose voiceover narration should tie the show together. His observations are neither funny nor insightful, over-explaining the central concept (that the seemingly perfect family is not actually perfect) in a way that only highlights the disconnect between what the show is aiming for and what it actually accomplishes.

Premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteen Assassins' (1963)

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

It's been quite a while since I wrote about Takashi Miike's 2010 remake of the 1963 samurai movie The Thirteen Assassins, and I don't remember a lot of details about it, other than that it ended with a massive, incredibly violent action scene that took up essentially the entire third act. The original follows the same structure, although director Eiichi Kudo doesn't have Miike's penchant for extreme violence (not that it would have been acceptable in a movie from this era anyway). The first half of the movie is more of a slow historical drama than an action movie, and there really isn't any fighting until the last half-hour, when the titular team of samurais stages an elaborate ambush in a remote village.

Their target is a powerful, arrogant feudal lord who raped and killed one of his subjects while he was a guest in her husband's home, and then killed the husband, too. The complicated process of authorizing his assassination, and the various political alliances that come into play, takes up most of the first hour, and it's a bit pokey and hard to follow. Even with helpful onscreen explanations of some of the terms used in feudal Japan (a pleasantly surprising addition to the subtitles), I still had trouble figuring out how the various characters and domains related to each other. As with the remake, I also ended up having a tough time telling most of the assassins apart, with their nearly identical outfits and hairdos.

Still, the stuff about honor and obligation is interesting as an examination of the historical period, and the attention to detail and methodical plotting give the movie a sense of realism by the time it finally gets to all the sword-fighting. Kudo doesn't have the same nihilistic worldview as Miike, and this movie's fight, while bloody and deadly, isn't the kind of over-the-top gory massacre that Miike presented in his remake. The deaths are more about honor and respect than about random cruelty, and the characters live by their strict moral code to the very end, even when that code requires them to kill people they respect. The callous, self-centered lord who set the plot in motion is the only person in the movie who behaves dishonorably, and the ripple effect of his actions leads many more respectable (but less powerful) men to their dooms. For Miike, that's evidence of the harshness of the world, but for Kudo, the fact that that these men would come together and give their lives to right a wrong that none of them directly experienced or witnessed is a kind of validation of human decency.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

'Freeheld'

The good news about Freeheld is that the true-life situation it depicts—lesbian police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), dying from cancer, unable to pass her pension along to Stacie (Ellen Page), her longtime domestic partner—should no longer be a concern thanks to the legalization of gay marriage. The bad news is that Laurel and Stacie’s legacy is being honored with such flat, uninspired drama, a movie-of-the-week-level narrative that does little service to the difficult fight they fought. Moore and Page (also one of the film’s producers) stumble awkwardly through Laurel and Stacie’s early courtship, and the movie also clumsily introduces Laurel’s law-enforcement skills with a barely developed subplot about a murder investigation.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner move things along briskly, so that Laurel goes from having a pain in her side to a doctor’s visit to late-stage cancer within a handful of scenes. Moore and Page bring out the heartfelt emotions in the story, but the movie frustratingly loses focus on them in the second half, as both Laurel’s police-force partner (Michael Shannon) and a flamboyant gay-rights activist (Steve Carell) spend time arguing with the local government (known as freeholders) on her behalf. A story about a lesbian couple fighting for their rights shifts to a story about various men deciding their fate. Both the movie and the men in Laurel’s life are well-intentioned, but both seem to be ultimately missing what’s important about her struggle.

Available on DVD/Blu-ray today.

Monday, January 25, 2016

'Recovery Road'

ABC Family may have changed its name to Freeform, but the new drama Recovery Road represents the same old approach for the channel that has built its success around earnest teen-focused dramas. While that has produced some unexpected gems (Bunheads and 10 Things I Hate About You among them), it's also produced plenty of unremarkable cheese like Recovery Road, a very Afterschool Special-level drama about a reckless teenager forced to face up to her addictions when she's put in a sober living house. The drinking and partying that Maddie (Jessica Sula) engages in is pretty mild even by basic-cable standards, but it's enough to get her expelled from school (it's not clear whether this is private or public school) if she doesn't agree to spend 90 days sobering up.

Cue the motley crew of recovering addicts, all adults since the teenage Maddie has been allowed to move to an adult facility. Of course Maddie has a chip on her shoulder and is in complete denial about her problems when she first moves to the house, and of course over time she will come to realize that these annoying, overbearing people really have her best interests at heart. It's an evolution that might be tolerable over the course of a 90-minute movie (or a single novel, like the series' source material), but drawn out over an entire TV season (or more), it's going to get repetitive, and the 90-day time frame gives the concept a limited shelf life. Already Maddie goes through essentially the same emotional arc in each of the first two episodes, handled with the absolute minimum of subtlety.

There's no genuine darkness in the show's portrayal of addiction, and its portrayal of teen life is similarly toothless. Sula is appealing as Maddie, bringing more shades to the character than the writing provides her, and there are some solid veterans in the supporting cast, including Sharon Leal, Kyla Pratt and Looking's Daniel Franzese. But the overall vibe is clunky and out of touch, not the kind of launch that a channel looking to rebrand as adventurous and youthful should be starting out with.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Freeform (fka ABC Family).