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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan' (1989)

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

Sadly, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is the last movie in the original Friday the 13th series that I'll be able to write about for this project, since the rest of the movies before the 2009 remake (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason) lack the number 13 in their titles. Also sadly, Jason Takes Manhattan is a pretty lame send-off, lacking even the meager charms of some of the earlier installments in the series. The biggest problem is the grossly misleading title, which promises a New York City rampage for the hockey-masked killer, even though budget constraints infamously kept the production from actually being filmed in NYC (aside from a handful of scenes). Instead of slashing his way through the Big Apple, Jason spends most of his time as a stowaway on a New York-bound cruise for graduating high school seniors from near Crystal Lake. A more accurate title might be Jason Takes a Boat.

Of course, while he's on the boat, Jason busies himself with killing as many of the attractive, dumb teenagers as possible, in his usual manner. As in Jason Lives, he's resurrected thanks to a timely jolt of electricity, and as in The New Blood, he rises from the bottom of the lake itself. The method of Jason's return doesn't really matter, of course (it's presented in as perfunctory a manner as possible), but even Jason's murder spree feels entirely rote this time around. The killings are surprisingly tame, often with minimal bloodshed, and Jason's status as an entirely supernatural force (at one point he literally punches a guy's head off) makes him essentially indestructible, taking any possible suspense out of the story. He dutifully picks off the interchangeable characters one by one, until no one is left except the Final Girl (who has some questionable backstory connection to Jason) and her love interest.

At least by that point they are actually in New York, although even the scenes set in New York were mostly shot in Vancouver. The last 20 minutes of the movie do feature some of the moments you'd expect from a movie titled Jason Takes Manhattan (Jason in Times Square! Jason on the subway! Jason in a greasy diner!), but mostly the characters end up running around back alleys and tunnels that could be anywhere. Jason's final defeat hinges on a nonsensical alleged function of New York City sewers, and the attempted thematic resonance with the main character is completely hollow. At the end, the last survivors just walk off into New York City as if none of it meant anything, which of course it didn't.

Previous Friday the 13th entries:
Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Sunday, June 01, 2014

White Elephant Blogathon: 'Underground Aces' (1981)

For past editions of the White Elephant Blogathon (in which participants write about a randomly selected movie chosen by another participant), I've covered the innocuous Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts, the bizarre Scorpion Thunderbolt and the tedious The Beast of Yucca Flats. This year I was assigned Underground Aces, which is probably the most entertaining movie I've gotten to write about for this project, even though it is, like all the other White Elephant movies I've written about, completely terrible.

In the vein of Caddyshack or Car Wash, Underground Aces features of a group of fun-loving misfits working menial jobs for an uptight boss, but mostly spending their time goofing off and hooking up. In this case, they're parking attendants at a Los Angeles hotel, which offers plenty of opportunities for "comical" vehicular carnage. These people destroy more cars than a demolition derby, and should certainly all have been fired and/or arrested long ago. They don't even face much opposition from the hotel's useless authority figures, a deadpan manager played by Jerry Orbach and an apoplectic head of security played by Frank Gorshin.

Orbach and Gorshin are just two of the familiar faces in the cast, which also includes Melanie Griffith, Dirk Benedict (of Battlestar Galactica and The A-Team fame), future Police Academy star Michael Winslow (playing a character who speaks exclusively in sound effects), Robert Hegyes (aka Epstein from Welcome Back, Kotter), and B-movie staple Sid Haig. Despite the surprising star power, Underground Aces is a strictly second-rate affair, a haphazard collection of lame jokes and one-dimensional characters, with barely any plot to speak of. The most prominent storyline involves some sort of Arab sheik posing as a parking attendant in order to seduce a bride-to-be whose wedding is being held at the hotel, and it manages to be both sexist and racist, in addition to completely nonsensical.

The actors breeze through their roles with minimal effort, and the comedy is similarly half-assed. This is the kind of movie that features two different fast-motion montages set to "wacky" fiddle music. Aside from a predictable gag involving a woman getting her clothes ripped off after they're caught in a car door, there isn't even any nudity to distract from the lazy writing and bored performances. The movie peaks during the opening credits, with the funky theme song by the Commodores playing over images of the wide variety of parking structures in Los Angeles. Neither that liveliness nor that authenticity shows up again for the rest of the running time. (The whole movie can be seen on YouTube, if you're curious.)

Kevin Cecil wrote a very thoughtful piece on my pick, The Minstrel Killer, aka Blackface Killer.