Saturday, September 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '2:13' (2009)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.
 
The supporting cast of 2:13 includes Jere Burns, Teri Polo, Kevin Pollak, Mark Pellegrino and Dwight Yoakam. So why is some guy named Mark Thompson the star of the movie? If you're unfamiliar with the long-running Los Angeles morning radio duo Mark and Brian, you may be completely baffled by how this Thompson guy managed to get a movie made of his terrible screenplay, starring himself, with a bunch of competent, recognizable actors in the supporting roles. But Thompson (who is also an executive producer, along with his wife) is an LA radio icon and certainly quite wealthy, even if he and his partner Brian Phelps never quite achieved the national fame of people like Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony (they were syndicated for a while and had a short-lived TV show in the '90s).

So if Thompson wanted to write and star in a low-budget thriller, he undoubtedly had the money to bankroll it himself, hire a director (Charles Adelman) whose filmography consists primarily of bikini-model videos and convince solid working actors to take jobs acting opposite him and pretending he's remotely in their league. It's the definition of a vanity project, and not surprisingly it did not lead to a thriving movie career for Thompson (who has no subsequent movie or TV credits). Although I remember listening to the Mark and Brian show while growing up in Southern California, I didn't connect the two until after I finished watching the movie, and I spent the whole time trying to solve a much greater mystery than who was killing people and covering them in creepy masks: the mystery of how the hell Mark Thompson managed to become the star of this movie.

Because while Thompson's screenplay for 2:13 is terrible, it's really not that much more terrible than screenplays for dozens of other straight-to-video crime thrillers. With another actor in the lead role, 2:13 might have been slightly more tolerable, or at least less inadvertently hilarious. But Thompson overplays his cliched burned-out cop on the edge so excessively that every one of his actions becomes like a parody of a hard-boiled detective. Poor Teri Polo deserves hazard pay for having to pretend to be overwhelmingly attracted to this smug shlub, and their post-sex cuddling is some of the most awkward intimacy I've ever seen in a movie (thankfully the movie skips over the actual sex).

Thompson's Detective Russell Spivey is your basic tortured maverick who doesn't play by the rules, dealing with buried childhood trauma while tracking a serial killer who arranges his victims in ritualistic scenes complete with hand-painted masks. It's mostly standard-issue serial-killer stuff, all grim and ornate and pointless, complete with an overwrought backstory and predictable (yet also nonsensical) twist ending. Spivey is supposed to be some kind of master profiler, but he's prone to keen observations like "Emotions aren't possible without feelings," and he makes numerous dubious logical leaps in his efforts to capture the killer. (Even the title is part of that, since it refers to the time at which the killer always does something that turns out to not really be related to the murders.)

Despite his supposed keen psychological acumen, he's consistently stymied by the efforts of the therapist (Pollak) he's required to see following an on-duty mental breakdown. Those scenes are some of the movie's worst, with repetitive banter (Spivey's catch phrase is a sarcastic "Match?" when he tries to smoke a cigarette even though he knows it's not allowed) and a totally far-fetched hypnosis scene that of course sets the stage for the idiotic ending.

Since Thompson seems to have spent the entire budget on hiring semi-famous actors, the whole movie looks dingy and cheap, shot on unconvincing sets and locations and given a grimy visual style that's probably meant to make it look intense and brooding. Adelman may be great at shooting women in bikinis, but he can't do anything to improve Thompson's awful writing and even worse acting. Every time a new familiar face popped up, I felt bad for them for having been convinced to participate in this debacle. I'm sure the behind-the-scenes story of the radio DJ's vanity project, if it ever gets told, would be a lot more interesting than the movie itself.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Jimmy the Gent' (1934)

The title character of Jimmy the Gent is, of course, no gentleman, but I found it a little tough to take him as the charming rogue he's clearly meant to be. As Jimmy, James Cagney lays on his tough-guy accent so think that it's often hard to understand him, delivering every line with over-the-top smarminess and sleaze. At first he seems like the movie's antagonist, an unscrupulous businessman who tracks down unclaimed inheritances and directs them to their proper recipients, taking a healthy commission along the way, and not worrying too much if the money is actually going to the right person. Davis plays Joan, his former associate and former girlfriend, who now works for a more distinguished competitor, and is trying to distance herself from her criminal past.

Jimmy engages in every underhanded tactic he can think of to steal Joan back from her new employer (who soon becomes her new paramour as well), including launching an extremely convoluted scheme to claim an inheritance on behalf of a man who's wanted for murder (it involves several quickie wedding ceremonies). Jimmy's slimeball persistence is neither funny nor endearing, and Davis' typical sharp-tongued, no-nonsense presence makes Joan into someone who obviously shouldn't take any of this guy's shit. Her new beau turns out not to be much better, but Jimmy's scheme to expose his rival is hardly ethical or selfless, and when he takes Joan back in his arms at the end of the movie, it's only as the result of more illegal activity.

The retrograde gender politics of movies from the '30s are not exactly unexpected, and I'd be more forgiving if the rest of the movie were more entertaining or funny. But the plot is so haphazard and convoluted that it's distracting, and the humor is manic and broad (although I did like Alice White as Jimmy's dim-witted but chipper accomplice). Jimmy and his rival go to great lengths to sabotage each other while Joan, clearly smarter than either of them, ends up a pawn in their schemes. At the end, the winner takes the prize, another woman reduced to a trophy for men to fight over.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Chair' (1937)

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

I suspect that the 1929 version of The Thirteenth Chair, directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, etc.), is probably better than this 1937 remake (both were based on a 1916 play), but neither one is widely available, and this version happened to air on TCM, so it's the one I'm stuck with for now. It's not that bad, really, just kind of forgettable, a rather silly closed-door murder mystery that's both convoluted and rushed. It takes place in Calcutta for no good reason, although virtually every character is a white British person, and certainly no scenes were filmed anywhere near India.

After a rather unpopular gentleman is murdered, his friend gets the bright idea to stage a seance with all of the suspects in attendance, which will somehow lead to the murderer revealing him or herself (it's not clear exactly how this is supposed to work). Instead what happens is that the dumbass friend gets murdered during the seance, and now there are 12 suspects for both his murder and the original murder (the dead guy was sitting in, of course, the 13th chair). Thus the inspector who agreed to this stupid plan in the first place shows up to interrogate everyone and find the culprit.

There's some amusingly dry humor in the interactions among the characters, but the large cast is so cluttered that it took me half the movie just to get a handle on who everyone was (and even then I wasn't always entirely clear on it). After a while the red herrings and sudden reversals get pretty tiresome, and the ultimate resolution is simultaneously too neat and too random. The inspector treats everyone involved with obvious contempt, but then the suspect that he's completely convinced is the murderer turns out to be the wrong person, and he only finds out because the medium who conducted the seance (and is also the mother of one of the suspects) insists on yet another elaborate entrapment scheme that finally reveals the true culprit. But by that time, there had been so many twists that I had completely lost interest. Maybe eventually I'll get to see if Tod Browning managed to make the story any more interesting.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Way Back Home' (1931)

It's always fascinating to see how people who were once huge figures in pop culture can end up almost completely forgotten, leaving their work as emblems of the fleeting nature of fame. I came to Way Back Home as a Bette Davis fan, and she's certainly the one member of the film's creative team whose reputation has endured over the decades following its release, but Way Back Home is not a Bette Davis movie: It's a star vehicle for Phillips Lord, a massively popular radio personality bringing his well-known character Seth Parker to the screen for the first time. These days, it's unlikely that anyone but a hardcore old-time radio fan has heard of Lord or Seth Parker, but at the time the movie came out, both were huge stars.

That background info helps if you want to understand why this movie focuses on a 29-year-old guy in old-age makeup, delivering folksy wisdom to the backward residents of his small Maine community. According to Wikipedia, Seth Parker is meant to be a preacher, but he never sets foot in a church during this movie, and he spends most of his time just sitting around his farm and meddling in people's business. The movie's sense of humor is relentlessly corny, and Seth is an irritating busybody, although his lessons are sometimes remarkably progressive for 1931. Seth and his wife have adopted a young boy to save him from his drunken lout of a biological father, and their efforts to keep the violent man away from his son are the closest thing the movie has to a plot.

Elsewhere, Davis plays Mary Lucy Duffy, a young woman whose father forbids her from marrying the boy she loves, because he was born to an unwed mother. Even more than raising an orphan, Seth's handling of the Mary Lucy situation is pretty forward-thinking, as he defends the poor single mother from the scorn of the town, and does everything he can to make sure that Mary Lucy gets to marry her true love, despite what her father decrees. Davis' performance is earnest and sunny, and like every other actor in the movie, she plays second fiddle to Lord whenever he's onscreen.

The message may be slightly ahead of its time, but the delivery is as old-fashioned as it gets, with plenty of scenes that could have been lifted directly from radio, including long interludes of Seth singing hymns with his neighbors and an opening comedy bit that highlights the confounding logic of backwoods business dealings. Combined with the haphazard plotting, it makes the movie a serious chore to watch. I can imagine big Seth Parker fans in 1931 getting a kick out of seeing their favorite character on the big screen, and probably recognizing some of his signature radio bits. Divorced from its original context, however, Way Back Home is just a bunch of lame, hokey jokes strung together into a tedious narrative. (And while he continued to have a successful radio career, Lord never starred in another movie.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

'Rush' and 'Satisfaction'

Under their generic titles, USA's new dramas Rush and Satisfaction are both trying to do something a little different for the network, but neither one really succeeds. Rush is by far the more familiar USA show, a medical procedural with a slight twist, although it attempts a darker tone than most of USA's relatively lighthearted procedurals. A little bit House, a little bit Royal Pains, a little bit Ray Donovan, Rush follows the title character (Tom Ellis), a hard-living doctor who caters to the private needs of L.A.'s rich and famous, when they have medical problems that they need taken care of on the down-low. Dr. Rush has his own problems with recreational drugs as well as a vaguely alluded-to traumatic past, but it's all pretty standard tortured-hero stuff. He purports to be cynical and uncaring, but of course by the end of the first episode he shows that he really does have a moral code.

In that sense, Rush conforms pretty well to the USA drama template, with characters like Burn Notice's Michael Westen who operate outside the law and appear to be selfish on the surface, but are good people at their core. It's somewhat surprising to me that Rush was created by filmmaker Jonathan Levine, who wrote and directed the pilot, and whose film work (including The Wackness, 50/50 and Warm Bodies) has impressed me with its emotional warmth and humanism. Rush is so generic that it seems like it could have been created by anyone, and the biggest disappointment for me is that Levine didn't come up with something more distinctive. Like most of USA's procedurals, Rush will probably be pleasant enough to watch in the background while doing something else, but is unlikely to rise to the status of appointment viewing.

Satisfaction, on the other hand, isn't just offering a slight tweak on the typical USA formula; it's a full-on serialized relationship drama, focused on the turmoil in the marriage of middle-aged suburbanites Neil (Matt Passmore) and Grace (Stephanie Szostak). That's not to say it's exactly original, though, just that it looks more like an AMC or FX or Showtime show than a USA series. It borrows heavily from American Beauty and other narratives about how tough it is to be a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class man in the suburbs, and as such the tone gets tiresome very quickly. But the pilot does take a few unexpected turns, and it moves the narrative along pretty briskly, to the point where what starts out as general ennui ends up in some rather extreme places by the end of the episode.

Those places are actually so extreme that it's a little tough to see where the show will go beyond the first, extra-long episode, which often feels more like a feature film than a TV pilot. Neil and Grace go through an entire arc of dissatisfaction and rebellion in the single episode, more or less reconciling by the end. Some of the more out-there plot developments seem unsustainable, although from what I can tell the characters involved in those developments (to be appropriately vague in case people are worried about spoilers) are series regulars, so I guess the show will continue to explore those avenues. It's tempting to give Satisfaction too much credit just for breaking out of the USA mold, but the performances are pretty bland and the characters are often insufferable. It may not be copying other USA shows, but it's still copying something.

Premiering tonight at 9 p.m. (Rush) and 10 p.m. (Satisfaction) on USA.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Hour of 13' (1952)

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

Peter Lawford is charming in the otherwise unremarkable mystery The Hour of 13, based on the 1933 novel Mystery of the Dead Police (which was previously filmed as the 1934 movie The Mystery of Mr. X). Lawford plays debonair jewel thief Nicholas Revel, who (through some rather unlikely contrivances) finds himself the chief suspect in a series of murders of London police officers, and must resort to even more contrivances in order to clear his name. Along the way, he's also hoping to cash in on a valuable emerald he stole from a socialite (which is what got him in trouble in the first place) and possibly seduce the daughter (Dawn Addams) of the London police commissioner.

It's all rather breezy for a movie in which innocent policemen keep getting brutally murdered. Although Revel is in constant danger of being arrested for horrible crimes, he never seems particularly worried, and he takes foolish, unnecessary risks in order to spend more time with Addams' Jane, or just to nudge the police in the right direction for him to be able to sell his emerald quietly. Lawford's inherent likeability helps sell the improbable character, but even he can't compensate for the convoluted absurdity of the story, which gets more ridiculous as it goes along.

The Victorian setting (it takes place in 1890) lends some class as well, and the movie gets in a few amusing digs at the exaggerated British politeness of the time. Still, the mystery is completely uninteresting, and when Revel unmasks the villain at the end, his identity and motives are essentially meaningless. The title, too, is a bit nonsensical, referring possibly to the times at which the killer sends warnings of his impending crimes to the police (always at 1 and 3), or to the number of people he's planning to kill. It's a peculiar title for a mostly forgettable movie, although it did at least inspire the name of a heavy metal band.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Working Man' (1933)

The inherent creepiness of George Arliss is just one thing that prevents The Working Man from being the charming comedy it's clearly aiming for. Really, Arliss' creepiness only exacerbates the problems with the plot, which features the main characters rather callously deceiving each other for dubious ends, and then just shrugging it off and laughing about it. The convoluted set-up finds Arliss' shoe magnate Reeves passing himself off as a harmless old man as he befriends the irresponsible young heirs to his late rival's company. His own business has been taken over by his ruthless nephew, so he decides to work behind the scenes to build up the competition. But then he takes a liking to the flighty young people (Bette Davis plays the daughter), and through another convoluted set of circumstances, manages to get himself appointed as the trustee to their inheritance so that he can mold them into upstanding citizens.

Got all that? That doesn't even take into account Davis' character's work undercover at Reeves' company (where she falls in love with the unscrupulous nephew) or the underhanded dealings of the manager at Reeves' rival's factory. The 78-minute movie has a dizzying array of plot twists, but it's all treated as completely inconsequential. Arliss gives Reeves a condescending paternal manner that makes him feel like the movie's villain, even though he's meant to be the level-headed voice of reason. The poor kids just want to cut loose and have some fun after their father has died and left them his fortune, but Reeves tricks them into becoming boring businesspeople.

The Working Man is ostensibly a comedy, but it's more off-putting than funny, and by the end it's just exhausting. When Reeves reveals his deception to the two young people, they don't even get mad, despite the fact that he's manipulated them and held their rightful inheritance hostage. Davis does a decent job of playing the silly, flighty girl, but this isn't a challenging role for her, and the movie really belongs to Arliss -- which is, for the most part, to its detriment.