Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13Hrs' (2010)

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

There's a sort of cool idea at the very end of the low-budget British werewolf movie 13Hrs (unimaginatively retitled Night Wolf for U.S. release), about how a werewolf's attempts to protect their family from their monstrous nature might only put the family in greater danger, but it's barely an afterthought to this annoying, mostly tension-free horror movie. Thanks to the U.S. title, it's pretty obvious that the mysterious monster in this movie is a werewolf, but the low budget means that director Jonathan Glendening keeps the monster offscreen until the movie is nearly over, and the characters express confusion over what is chasing them even long after it's become readily apparent to the audience. Glendening represents the monster almost entirely via red-tinted POV shots and sound effects, which makes its kills tough to depict (he settles mostly for showing the gruesome aftermath with some mediocre gore effects).

The movie takes place at an isolated English country house, where Sarah (Isabella Calthorpe) has just returned to visit her family after moving to the U.S. for work. She finds her three half-brothers and a few of their friends getting wasted in the barn behind the creaky, spooky family house, but their evening of drunken obnoxiousness is cut short when they discover that Sarah's stepfather (the father of her half-brothers) has been murdered and mutilated. Soon whatever creature killed the family patriarch is stalking the irritating young people as well. They all behave like idiots, setting themselves up for easy kills, but without seeing the attacks, the deaths of the unpleasant characters aren't particularly satisfying.

The cast includes Harry Potter's Tom Felton along with some British TV stars, none of whom distinguish themselves in any way (although Glendening does find plenty of ways to showcase model Gemma Atkinson's generous bosom). The characters spend probably half the movie in a cramped attic crawl space hiding from the monster, meaning that the filmmakers fail to make use of one of their only real assets, the creepy old house. It's often hard to tell where the characters are in relation to each other and in relation to the monster, which diminishes the already minimal suspense. By the time Glendening actually shows the werewolf, the build-up has just gotten tiresome, and the makeup effects are laughable at best (the aftermath, with the werewolf changed back to human, features one of the most obvious bald caps I've ever seen in a movie). With a sharper script and more engaging characters, 13Hrs could have overcome its low budget and maybe even offered a new approach to the werewolf movie. Instead it aims for the bare minimum, and can scarcely even manage that.

Friday, September 08, 2017

VODepths: 'The Atoning,' 'Fugue,' 'Unleashed'

The Atoning (Virginia Newcomb, Michael LaCour, Cannon Bosarge, dir. Michael Williams) The real atoning in The Atoning should come from the filmmakers, for making such a slow, turgid, obvious supernatural "thriller" that takes forever to get to its belabored point, with absolutely no creepy atmosphere or suspense or surprises along the way. The entire movie takes place in a creaky old house, where Vera (Virginia Newcomb), Ray (producer Michael LaCour) and their young son Sam (Cannon Bosarge) experience strange phenomena that suggest a haunting. The movie spends the first 40 minutes building to the most overused twist in horror movies (yep, they were dead all along!), which is really just a way to kill time until getting to the actual focus of the story, as the family members must come to terms with how they died in order to move on. The explanation for what happened to them is nearly as predictable as the mid-film twist, and writer-director Michael Williams draws it out as long as possible, spending way too much time on the mundane existence of ghosts in purgatory. There are some silly-looking demons that show up near the end, but mostly this is dull, soap-opera-level family drama, poorly acted, with some supernatural nonsense thrown on top. Available on iTunes.

Fugue (Sophie Traub, George Towers, Tristan Cowen, dir. Jorge Torres-Torres) A woman wanders through the Puerto Rican island of Vieques acting erratically, and Fugue starts by placing the audience inside her disorientation, with no explanation of who she is, where she came from or what she's doing there. Director and co-writer Jorge Torres-Torres creates an impressionistic narrative that mirrors the internal state of protagonist Claire (Sophie Traub), at least at first. Eventually the story comes together, in particular via a clumsy device of Claire, post-recovery, working with a hypnotist (co-writer Tristan Cowen) to reconstruct her memories. It's a mix of straightforward mystery and more experimental storytelling, with a jumbled chronology, and the movie is more intriguing the less it explains. Traub (who also contributed to the story) delivers an immersive performance, but even she stumbles over the chunks of exposition that the movie pauses to deliver periodically. The resolution is too esoteric to be satisfying on a narrative level, but too concerned with explanations to succeed as a piece of purely avant-garde cinema. Available on No Budge.

Unleashed (Kate Micucci, Justin Chatwin, Steve Howey, dir. Finn Taylor) I've enjoyed Kate Micucci in quirky comedic supporting roles, but I'm not sure she's quite up to playing the lead in a romantic comedy. It doesn't help that Unleashed's premise is so dumb and seems like a relic of late '80s/early '90s rom-coms: Lonely singleton Emma (Micucci) wishes there were men out there as wonderful as her cat and her dog, and thanks to some nonsensical magic whatever, her cat and her dog are transformed into people (played by Justin Chatwin and Steve Howey, respectively). There's a lot of strained comedy about these two dudes behaving like a cat and a dog, and their whole attempt to seduce Emma (who doesn't know that they're really her pets) is more creepy than funny (I can guarantee this movie will satisfy someone's very specific fetish). Emma is really meant to end up with well-meaning contractor Carl (Sean Astin), but Carl has almost no personality, and Astin and Micucci have no chemistry. The cutesy music, frequent montages and pseudo-hip workplace setting (Emma is an app developer) make the movie feel like a 2010s riff on movies like Mannequin, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

VODepths: 'Cut Shoot Kill,' 'Hickok,' 'My Hot Property'

Cut Shoot Kill (Alexandra Socha, Alex Hurt, Jay Devore, dir. Michael Walker) Filmmakers love making movies about making movies, but I think horror filmmakers love doing this most of all. Cut Shoot Kill is a horror movie about the making of a horror movie, in which the actors are actually getting killed in their death scenes. So it's sort of a meta-slasher film, with Alexandra Socha as an up-and-coming actress who plays the Final Girl in both the movie within the movie and the movie itself. Alex Hurt plays the homicidal director, who of course views murder as an extension of his art, and his resemblance to Eli Roth (whether intentional or not) gives the fairly rudimentary story an extra layer of commentary. Mostly it follows the familiar slasher formula, as Socha's Serena and her fellow actors are picked off one by one as they shoot their movie at a remote location in the woods. The ending tries to turn the movie into some kind of female empowerment story, which doesn't really fit with the preceding action, and sort of undermines Serena's position as the hero. Even if the story is underwhelming, there are still some suspenseful moments and gruesome kills, plus an amusing supporting performance from Jay Devore as the director's eager-to-please assistant, who's really polite about all the murdering his boss is doing. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Hickok (Luke Hemsworth, Trace Adkins, Cameron Richardson, dir. Timothy Woodward Jr.) While his brothers Chris and Liam star in Hollywood blockbusters and get regular coverage in celebrity gossip magazines, Luke Hemsworth is sort of the Daniel Baldwin of Hemsworths. The best he can do for a starring role is this low-budget biopic about Wild Bill Hickok, a heavily fictionalized account of the legendary gunfighter's time as the marshal of Abilene, Kansas. It's a straightforward and extremely dull Western, with a bright, flat visual style, threadbare sets and wooden acting; save for a couple of gratuitous sex scenes, it could be a '90s basic-cable movie. Hemsworth does his best to sound manly and angsty as Wild Bill, who's trying to settle down and go straight as a lawman, but his performance isn't particularly convincing. It's better than most of the rest of the cast, though, especially country singer Trace Adkins as the movie's ineffectual villain, a saloon owner who's barely even threatening until the movie's almost over. Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Dern bring a bit of dignity to their supporting roles as the town's mayor and doctor, respectively, but they're mostly there to give Hickok sage advice via poorly written platitudes. Even the final gunfight is underwhelming, without much suspense. Wild Bill dispatches the bad guys and rides off with barely a shrug. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

My Hot Property (MyAnna Buring, Tom Rhys Harries, Kate Bracken, dir. Max McGill) Something may be lost in the cultural transition with this British comedy about a posh corporate spy (MyAnna Buring) who loses her job and goes to extreme lengths to hold onto her fancy London apartment. I don't know anything about the real estate boom in London or the gentrification of the area where Buring's Melody lives, so some of the potential satire may have gone over my head. Even so, this is a pretty flimsily constructed comedy, with character relationships established so abruptly that it seems like entire scenes have been cut out (not entirely unlikely given the barely 80-minute running time). The characters are all pretty cartoonish, without much bite to their satirical targets (Melody's vapid boyfriend is a hipster chef who makes food that deliberately tastes bad). The plot unfolds without much internal logic and resolves in the same way, and the efforts at emotional resonance in the relationship between Melody and her brother (whose parents died tragically) fall flat. Maybe some trendy Londoners would find something funny here, though. Available on Netflix.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Worms' (1970)

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

The 1970 low-budget Taiwanese production 13 Worms joins The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles and Ninjas, Condors 13 on the list of weird and terrible martial-arts movies I have watched for this project. I can enjoy sitting through an endless stream of bad horror movies, but I get bored with even decent martial-arts movies, so getting through a bad one is a real chore. Luckily for me, I guess, 13 Worms crams in about five other genres along the way, handling each one in its bizarre, nonsensical way. It starts out, bafflingly, with a chess tournament (although the game depicted in the movie, labeled in the subtitles as chess, doesn't look much like any chess I have ever seen, and is probably actually some other Chinese board game), which the title characters (a band of roving adventurers and/or bandits or something) have somehow won as a collective. A mysterious chess master shows up and challenges them to a match, and they agree to perform a task for him if they lose. The Worms' leader (maybe?) is an old man who appears to have a heart attack and die during the chess match (!!), which is then finished up (and lost) by the second-in-command (?).

Anyway, the Worms (of which there are now only 12, because the leader died of a chess-induced heart attack) now agree to go on a quest to rescue a princess for this mysterious chess master. This involves them getting arrested for some reason that I didn't understand and then carted off to a prison where this princess is being held, and where the inmates are forced to move pieces in a giant life-size version of chess (or whatever Chinese game is actually in the movie). More crazy ideas like that would have made the movie a bit more fun to watch, but most of it is a tedious slow chase as the Worms track the soldiers who are taking the princess ... somewhere. Also, there are a bunch of songs, because this movie is sort of a musical? I don't even know.

I could go through the rest of the inane plot beat by beat, although I don't think I understood most of it, including what exactly the Worms were trying to accomplish at any given moment. There's a sequence in which they dress up as ghosts (covered in white sheets) to scare the soldiers, and bits where they pose as various workers (a boatman, a wine merchant, an innkeeper) that the soldiers encounter along the way. The princess doesn't seem all that upset at being held captive (she's never shackled or confined), and both sides are consistently foiled by a "beggar" who first shows up as the chess master's assistant (or something). There's a big twist at the end when this beggar turns out to be a woman, which is completely obvious the entire time but comes as a total shock to all the other characters.

These nonsensical martial-arts movies are usually at least partially redeemed by their fight sequences, but 13 Worms has surprisingly minimal action, most of which is confusingly shot and not very exciting. The final battle involves the Worms fighting some guy who's basically just shown up, and there are no consistent villains to root against. Even the heroes kind of come and go throughout the story, and the annoying beggar ends up being the most prominent character. I was kind of amused by the self-important songs about the characters' heroism and the dangers they face, but I'm sure a lot of their impact was lost in translation. That's probably true for the rest of the movie, which might have made more sense with more careful subtitling. I don't think it's really worth the effort to find out, though.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Girl From 10th Avenue' (1935)

As I've been making my way through the entire Bette Davis theatrical filmography, I've been winding down with plenty of cheap quickies from Davis' very prolific 1930s period as a Warner Bros. contract player, and most of them are entirely forgettable (some are quite a bit worse than that). So I wasn't expecting much out of The Girl From 10th Avenue, one of five movies that Davis made in 1935 alone. It's overshadowed by that year's Dangerous, for which Davis won her first Oscar (although the movie itself is a bit underwhelming), and it's not generally mentioned in discussions of Davis' best work from the period. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun, entertaining movie with a great Davis performance, albeit opposite a male lead without much screen presence.

Directed by Alfred E. Green, who worked with Davis on seven films (including Dangerous), 10th Avenue bears a bit of resemblance to the 1932 Green/Davis collaboration The Rich Are Always With Us, which also poked fun at the antics of rich society narcissists, although 10th Avenue is less comedic and not as clever. It's also a bit disjointed, running only 70 minutes and abruptly jumping ahead in time at several points. Davis plays a working-class girl named Miriam Brady who happens upon rich lawyer Geoffrey Sherwood (Ian Hunter) as he drunkenly loiters outside his ex's wedding. Miriam gets Geoffrey off the street and spends an evening with him, after which they wake up to find themselves married.

Instead of a wacky misunderstanding, this is played as a beneficial arrangement for both; Miriam helps Geoffrey get sober, and Geoffrey provides Miriam with a more comfortable lifestyle. But once Geoffrey has his life together, the vain Valentine (Katherine Alexander) decides that she wants him back. Miriam is a great strong-willed Davis character, both when standing up to Geoffrey and his old-boys-club chums and when fending off Valentine's designs on her husband (whom she comes to love, of course). Determined to fit in with high society, she enlists the aid of her landlady (Alison Skipworth), a former society dame herself, tackling every challenge with confidence. Instead of deriving comedy from a commoner attempting to act sophisticated, the movie treats Miriam with respect, and Davis gives her a combination of sauciness and dignity.

The movie's centerpiece is a delightfully catty confrontation between Miriam and Valentine at a fancy restaurant, which eventually involves the throwing of a grapefruit, and Davis is at her sharp-tongued best here, while Alexander does what she can to keep up. Davis shines again as Miriam confronts Geoffrey over his romantic indecisiveness, but Hunter isn't quite up to the task of sparring with her, and the two have minimal chemistry throughout the movie, making their abrupt happily-ever-after at the end especially jarring. Colin Clive, best known as Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale's films, is much more charismatic as the poor sap Valentine dumps to attempt to win Geoffrey back, but he has only a few scenes to shine in. The movie really belongs to Davis, and it probably deserves a more prominent spot among her flood of '30s roles.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Hour' (1947)

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

Somehow I've ended up writing about several forgotten media franchises for this feature, and the latest one I've stumbled on is The Whistler, which was primarily a radio drama that ran from 1942-1955, for a total of 692 episodes (per Wikipedia). It was popular enough to spawn a short-lived TV version in 1954 as well as a series of eight movies, produced from 1944-1948, of which The Thirteenth Hour was the seventh. In all its incarnations, The Whistler was an anthology series, sort of a noir/crime take on Tales From the Crypt, hosted by the title character, an omniscient and mischievous narrator only seen in shadows. For the movies, he was voiced by Otto Forest, and he provides commentary mainly at the beginning and end of The Thirteenth Hour, setting up the story of hapless trucker Steve Reynolds (the bland Richard Dix, who starred in seven of the eight Whistler movies as various unrelated characters).

At the beginning of the movie, Steve suffers the injustice of being convicted of drunk driving after, uh, driving drunk and then crashing into a gas station. The movie clearly has the perspective that drinking just a little bit should not disqualify Steve from driving, and he's convicted mainly because the officer on the scene is the ex-boyfriend of his fiancee Eileen (Karen Morley) and has a grudge against Steve. But that's not even what the movie is really about! Poor luckless Steve is then about to lose his trucking business because his license has been suspended (for actual drunk driving, remember) and he can't find a driver to take a time-sensitive route. So he drives the route himself, and is then ambushed by a mysterious assailant, who uses Steve's truck to run over the cop from the drunk driving arrest, framing Steve for the guy's murder.

This all happens very quickly (the movie runs only 65 minutes), putting Steve on the run from the law and trying to clear his name, which is the main plot of the movie. There are some fun noir elements as Steve confronts his shady trucking rival (who seems like the obvious choice for the culprit) and sneaks in and out of Eileen's house/diner, but most of the plotting is highly unbelievable, and the eventual reveal of the people behind Steve's framing is underwhelming, with confusing motives. I've never listened to any of The Whistler radio episodes, but if there were nearly 700 of them then presumably they were churned out quickly, with plenty of duds. But a feature film (even a cheap B-movie) should have a bit more scope and impact, and The Thirteenth Hour (whose title remains inexplicable to me) never transcends its episodic anthology origins.

Summer School: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014)

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

Rewatching Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn't much improve my opinion of that movie, but I came around a bit more on the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second time through. I'm still not ready to proclaim it brilliant, as so many critics and fans have, but I think it's a more successful addition to the Apes franchise, telling the kind of story that Rise should have gotten to much earlier. The plague that was implied in the closing credits of Rise has wiped out most of humanity (depicted in an effective opening montage that I had kind of forgotten about when I criticized the handling of this plot point in Rise), and a decade later the apes have built their own little civilization, assuming humans to be extinct. They're wrong, though, and the movie puts the burgeoning ape homeland in conflict with the surviving remnants of humanity (at least in the greater San Francisco area).

Much more so than Rise, Dawn evokes the original Apes movies, particularly Conquest and Battle. The ape settlement looks similar to the collection of treehouses in Battle, and the fight between the apes and humans recalls that movie's climax, on a much grander scale. And the theme of humans exploiting apes returns from Conquest, articulated here more effectively than it was in Rise, even though that movie took place before the collapse of civilization. None of the human characters from Rise return (presumably they all died in the plague), and while I'm not sad to see James Franco gone (although he does appear in a bit of archival footage), the replacement humans aren't all that compelling. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee do their best as the sympathetic humans who want to work with Caesar and the apes, but they're a little bland. Gary Oldman is a bit more charismatic, and I appreciated that his character wasn't just a one-dimensional warmonger, but he disappears for long stretches of the movie, only returning when he's needed to move the plot forward.

The real stars of the movie are the apes, led by the returning Caesar, played again via motion capture by Andy Serkis. Caesar is challenged by Koba (Toby Kebbell), another former lab animal who had a smaller role in Rise. Their conflict is similar to the one between Caesar and Aldo in Battle, although Koba is more devious than Aldo, and he doesn't have the chance to give long speeches because the apes in this movie can only speak a few words (and only a few of them can even do that). While the commitment to semi-realistic development is admirable (it's somewhat jarring in Battle when suddenly all apes speak perfect English), watching the apes communicate almost entirely via subtitled sign language is a bit frustrating, especially during the opening 10 minutes of the movie before any humans show up. The motion-capture actors do a lot within the limitations of the (accomplished) special effects, but allowing them to speak would help deepen and differentiate the characters.

Still, once the movie gets past the setup, director Matt Reeves delivers on the more action-oriented story, and it's hard to be bored by a movie that features apes riding horses and wielding machine guns. There are some pretty impressive action sequences and one great shot with the camera in a fixed position on a spinning machine-gun turret atop a tank, as Koba sprays the battlefield with bullets. The way that belligerent bigots can trick even well-intentioned leaders into war is the kind of bleak theme that fits with the series' overall pessimistic view of human nature, and the filmmakers don't look away from the uglier aspects of war. The movie ends on a more hopeful note than Rise (which isn't hard since that movie ended by killing nearly the entire human race), although the brief moment of calm is just a short respite before the arrival of all-out war in the next movie.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Summer School: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (2011)

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

I debated whether to include both the recent prequel/reboot series and the original series as part of my Planet of the Apes catch-up, since they don't fit together seamlessly, but in the end I opted to include them all, since the shifting nature of timelines and the ability to change and influence the future is one of the key themes of the series. So while Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't strictly a prequel to the original Apes series, it could very well fit in as an alternate-timeline version of the same events, as described by the "shifting lanes" metaphor used by Dr. Hasslein in Escape and the ape scientist Virgil in Battle. Unlike Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes remake (which I'm leaving out), Rise isn't a retelling of the original movie's story, or any particular story from the original series, but a fresh start on the concept of how hyper-intelligent apes took over the Earth.

My initial review of this movie when it was released in 2011 was not very positive (in contrast to the overall critical acclaim), and I thought I might be more engrossed by it this time around, especially since the reputation of the whole prequel series has been so strong. But I still came away mostly unmoved, even with the ability to view this as the opening chapter to a trilogy rather than a standalone story. It's still unforgivably slow and plodding in its first half, and it still barely gets to what's potentially interesting about the story until the movie is almost over. It still basically kills the majority of humanity with some graphics during the closing credits, a decision that's even more bizarre given how that huge plot point is considered decidedly taken care of when the next movie begins (how many people who saw Rise turned it off before witnessing the most important development in the entire story?).

On the plus side, the special effects are still pretty amazing (this movie does not have the budgetary limitations of the original sequels) and have held up well, and Andy Serkis brings a remarkable expressiveness to his motion-capture performance as Caesar, the ape with boosted intelligence who leads the revolt against humans. And the last 20 minutes or so are pretty thrilling, as Caesar's mob of intelligent and regular apes rampage across San Francisco, commandeering the Golden Gate Bridge, defeating their human pursuers and fleeing into the forest to start a new life. It's just that there's more than an hour of superfluous other stuff (boring scientific ethics debates, James Franco barely trying, sadistic animal handlers taunting the apes) before we get to the action. Franco's character, who's attempting to develop a drug to fight Alzheimer's (and testing it on chimps, which eventually leads to both the intelligence boost for apes and the inadvertent death of most of the human race) is particularly dull, and his ethical quandaries are not nearly as engaging as the allegorical elements of the original movies. His romance with a pretty veterinarian (Freida Pinto) is equally dull, and his relationships with Caesar and with his Alzheimer's-afflicted dad (John Lithgow, giving the movie's most affecting performance) are only slightly more lively.

The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver takes itself awfully seriously, and the hyper-realistic apes add another level of solemnity. That makes the semi-campy nods to the original series (especially the sneering primate sanctuary employee played by Tom Felton yelling, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!") feel particularly jarring and out of place. I did like the sort of background subplot of the spaceship Icarus (piloted, presumably, by George Taylor) getting lost in space, which could set up its return at some point in the future. But mostly this is a movie that strains to seem thought-provoking, while its efforts to explore deeper issues only keep it from getting to the part of the story that's actually worth telling.