Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'John Paul Jones' (1959)

I'm not sure I should even bother including the 1959 biopic John Paul Jones in my Bette Davis series, since Davis' appearance in it is so brief that in the intro to the TCM showing I recorded, Ben Mankiewicz referred to her role as a cameo. Davis gets a splashy "special appearance" title card all to herself in the opening credits, but she only shows up for about four minutes near the end of the movie. The rest of the two-hour-plus movie belongs to Robert Stack as the title character, a hotheaded naval commander considered one of the founders of the modern U.S. navy.

The final film directed by John Farrow (father of Mia, who briefly makes her first onscreen appearance at age 13), John Paul Jones is a lavish but stilted military epic, full of bombastic patriotism but very little human emotion, even in its attempts at depicting its title character's romantic dalliances. Stack is stiff and robotic as Jones, like an exhibit in Disney World's Hall of Presidents, playing the rough-and-tumble Scotsman as a humorless scold who condescendingly dismisses pretty much all of his colleagues as spineless idiots.

The characterization may not be far off, since the real Jones was known for his questionable leadership tactics and possible criminal activities as much as for his bravery and strategic insight. But this movie glosses over any sordid aspects of Jones' life, portraying him as unerringly honorable and correct, whether arguing with the founding fathers of the United States or facing down a rival British sea captain. He comes off as equally pompous when interacting with his love interests, neither of whom get much screen time or make much of an impact on the story. Charles Coburn brings some earthy wit to his performance as Benjamin Franklin, whom Jones befriended during the Revolutionary War when he was based in France, but he's the only cast member who brings one of these historical figures to life.

And what about Bette Davis? She plays Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who employed Jones' services for a few years after the war, and she's appropriately regal in her brief appearance, even getting to speak some Russian and French. After that, though, it's back to Stack's bloviating, which continues all the way to Jones' deathbed. The movie is framed by modern-day Navy footage, connecting Jones to the integrity and honor of the contemporary American Navy, in a way that plays like an extended recruitment film. Given the movie's lackluster sea battles and self-important blowhard of a hero, though, it's hard to imagine it convincing anyone to sign up for military service.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Beyond the Forest' (1949)

Bette Davis' final film in her 18-year career at Warner Bros., Beyond the Forest is mostly known for its extraneous qualities, from the behind-the-scenes battles that led to Davis' departure from Warners, to her later comments about its low quality, to the bad reviews (including a designation from the founder of the Razzies as one of "the most enjoyably bad movies ever made"), to the iconic Davis line ("What a dump!") that's generally used as a clip without any context. Although it's still mostly regarded as terrible, Beyond the Forest has also picked up a cult following of sorts, like any campy movie with big stars tends to do, and some critics have re-evaluated it as subversively brilliant.

I fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. Watching the movie, I had kind of forgotten about its reputation, so aside from waiting for that famous line (which is such a throwaway that I never would have guessed it was particularly notable), I wasn't focused on how notorious it apparently is. Mainly, as usual with these lower-tier Davis movies, I was watching for Davis' performance, which is vampy in the extreme, possibly because she held the production in such contempt and just decided to let loose on what she felt was a poor script. Davis plays Rosa Moline, a vain housewife who's contemptuous of her small Wisconsin town and her square doctor husband Lewis (Joseph Cotton).

Rosa dreams of moving to the big city (Chicago, just because it's the closest), and is having an affair with a rich businessman named Neil Latimer (David Brian) who clearly does not care about her at all. The movie is sort of a tragedy about Rosa's ambitions ruining her happiness and ultimately leading to her death (after she attempts a self-induced abortion by literally throwing herself off a cliff), but Rosa is such a haughty, mean-spirited person that it's hard to sympathize with her. Davis is great at playing these kinds of imperious villain figures, but the movie doesn't seem to know whether Rosa is actually a villain or not, and so Davis' nasty line readings don't have much of an impact.

Poor Joseph Cotton plays the world's blandest, most upstanding man, who endures all of Rosa's abuse with saintly patience, takes her back after she runs off with Neil and then is rejected, and serves his small-town patients with compassion and dignity, even if they can't pay. The dynamic between them is so lopsided that there's no interest in them staying together, but there's also no reason to want to see Rosa end up with Neil, especially after she commits murder just to keep word of her pregnancy a secret. Seeing Rosa end up dead isn't very satisfying, either, since she's at least partially a victim of sexist expectations of women (and possibly of unspoken racial prejudice, according to some viewers who read her as Latina, although that's never explicitly stated).

Director King Vidor puts together some striking compositions (as is often the case, Davis makes sure to get great lighting during her most dramatic scenes), and the story is so increasingly over-the-top that it's at least an entertaining train wreck. It's not quite insane enough to qualify as a camp classic, and I think the people who read sophisticated social commentary into it are reaching too far. But it's far from Davis' worst film, and it's certainly far from the least memorable (any number of 1930s cheapies outweigh it there). It's at least worth a look from anyone interested in Davis' late-period turn toward camp icon.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days in France' (1968)

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

A disclaimer at the beginning of the impressionistic sports documentary 13 Days in France declares that it's not the official film of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and it's not hard to see why this movie would be the wrong choice as a sanctioned record of the Olympic games. Produced and co-directed by French New Wave icon Claude Lelouch (along with more than a dozen credited collaborators), 13 Days is an abstract snapshot of the games that's almost entirely devoid of context, with virtually no dialogue and very little diegetic sound. It more closely resembles something like Aquarela or Samsara, documentaries made up of a series of images around a central theme, rather than what you'd expect from a movie about the biggest sporting event in the world.

Considering that I have no interest in sports or the Olympics, this approach generally works for me, although at nearly two hours, the movie does get repetitive and tedious at times. Having at least some sports knowledge would probably help, since there's no explanation of the various events or competitors, and while I eventually spotted a couple of famous athletes via context clues (Jean-Claude Killy and Peggy Fleming, both of whom have songs sung about them on the soundtrack), most of the time I had no idea what was happening in the competitions, or even what many of them were (there's a weird skiing one where you shoot a gun in the middle of it?). Lelouch and his collaborators are just as interested in local color and behind-the-scenes details (including parties and musical performances), though, and the movie is really a feat of editing, as various athletic accomplishments are juxtaposed with mundane activities.

Even when portraying the athletes, the filmmakers focus on the less obvious aspects of the competition. There's a montage of hockey players spitting, and one rapid-fire sequence of a starting pistol indicating the beginning of multiple races that we never see. There are scenes of spectators frolicking in the snow, and one shot of a baby's diaper being changed by the side of a ski slope. Lelouch matches the shots of the Olympic flame being lit with shots of a cameraman's long, dangling cigarette ash. It's playful and also clearly meant to sort of deflate the self-importance of the games, especially in brief shots of newspaper headlines about Vietnam inserted between marching bands and cheering crowds. The point of view is a bit muddled, but the movie is distinctive enough to make it worth watching as cinema, and not just as a recording of sports history.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My top 10 non-2019 movies of 2019

After 10-plus years, this is still one of my favorite things to write, a look at the best movies from previous years that I saw for the first time in 2019.

1. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) Although the structure of this existential thriller is your basic revenge story (criminal gets screwed out of money by his associates, tracks them all down and kills them), Boorman presents it as a sort of fever dream, to the point where it's not always clear what's meant to be real and what might be occurring in the mind of taciturn main character Walker (Lee Marvin). Marvin is brutish and implacable as the single-minded Walker, who appears to derive no pleasure or satisfaction from any of his efforts, and his mission becomes increasingly abstract, culminating in a deliberately obtuse ending that turns the simple quest for stolen funds into a meditation on the pointlessness of existence.

2. Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948) No, not the Patrick Swayze movie. I saw this sweaty, sensuous noir projected on nitrate at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it was easily the highlight of my festival weekend. Ida Lupino is outstanding as a  singer in a roadside diner/nightclub/bowling alley who is pursued by the establishment's shady owner (Richard Widmark) but instead falls for his more upstanding, respectful right-hand man (Cornel Wilde). Lupino delivers world-weary dialogue and anguished torch songs with equal beauty and poise, and the movie gets more unhinged as it goes along, moving from a low-key potboiler into a full-on chase thriller by the end.

3. Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) I watched this movie almost as an afterthought after writing about the new (and mostly solid) Hulu miniseries, to prepare for a TV segment talking about both. But while I thought the Hulu series was fine, Nichols' somewhat forgotten movie version is much better, preserving the fractured structure from Joseph Heller's novel and keeping more of the dark, nasty edge. Nichols balances the satire with the genuine horror of war (and of callous, amoral officers only out for themselves), and his stellar, eclectic cast, including Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Art Garfunkel and Orson Welles, matches his every ambition.

4. Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964) The only William Castle movies I've previously seen have been cheesy (but sometimes entertaining) schlock like 13 Ghosts, The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill and Zotz!, but Strait-Jacket, despite being an obviously trend-chasing mix of Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is genuinely fantastic filmmaking, with a stunning performance from Joan Crawford as a woman released from a mental institution after decades locked up, who finds herself possibly reverting to her delusional, homicidal ways. The twists in the script from Psycho writer Richard Bloch are maybe a bit obvious, but Castle executes them all masterfully, with Crawford playing the perfect balance between insanity and insecurity.

5. The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) Hey, it's Lee Marvin again! Marvin only has a supporting role in this brutal thriller, providing a bit of comic relief alongside Clu Gulager as a pair of sardonic hitmen tracking down the associates of a man they were hired to kill. John Cassavetes is the real star as that man, a racecar driver drawn into a life of crime by a mob moll played by Angie Dickinson (who had a similar role in Point Blank). The story (drawn loosely from an Ernest Hemingway short story) is relentless and unsentimental, with Ronald Reagan (in his final onscreen role) as the weaselly villain. Reagan's reported discomfort with playing a bad guy actually enhances his performance, making his character fidgety and untrustworthy, and Cassavetes brings pathos to the role of the doomed nice guy.

6. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950) The woman in this movie (played by Ann Sheridan) isn't really on the run; rather, she's tracking down her husband, who may be on the run or may just want to be left alone. He's being sought by the cops after witnessing a murder, but he clearly isn't interested in cooperating. Sheridan's Eleanor Johnson tries to stay one step ahead of the cops (who are constantly following her) as she looks for her husband, along the way questioning whether she actually really knows him at all. The dialogue is razor sharp, the characters are all complex, and the visual style is moody and evocative, with great location shooting around San Francisco.

7. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) I saw two Armstrong movies for the first time this year, and her 1994 take on Little Women is certainly the more well-known of the two. But her feature debut is even better, with many of the same qualities (a warm period piece about a headstrong young woman who dreams of becoming a writer and rejects her romantic suitors, based on a beloved work of literature) but a harder, more pragmatic edge. Judy Davis shines in her first role as stubborn 19th-century farm girl Sybylla, and she has lovely romantic chemistry with Sam Neill as her repeatedly thwarted paramour. Armstrong vividly captures the sense of possibility and the endless frustration of creative pursuits, along with the rhythms of rural Australian life.

8. Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, 2018) Cummings' 2016 short film of the same name is a pretty perfect encapsulation of one man's emotional collapse in a single scene, so I was skeptical about its adaptation into a feature film (the original short is re-created here as the movie's opening scene). But Cummings (as director, writer and star) expands on it in impressive ways, taking the awkwardness of the short and applying it to everything in the life of a cop undergoing a complete mental breakdown. The movie is tough to watch but also emotionally powerful, with the same impact as the short film sustained over the course of 90 minutes.

9. First Cousin Once Removed (Alan Berliner, 2012) Berliner, like Ross McElwee, is a master of the personal documentary, and this heartbreaking movie about his cousin (noted poet and intellectual Edwin Honig) succumbing to Alzheimer's is poignant and sad without every becoming maudlin. Berliner filmed Honig over the course of many years, but he edits footage together in a non-linear fashion that shows how Honig deteriorated but also how many core elements of his personality remained intact. Rather than a sentimental tribute to Honig, First Cousin is a clear-eyed look at a man with many flaws as he faces down the end of his life.

10. Alien Raiders (Ben Rock, 2008) I have no idea what led me to add this movie to my Netflix DVD queue (yes, a thing I still have) many years ago, but I'm glad that I did, and I'm glad it finally came up for me to watch. This is the kind of low-budget genre fare that floods streaming services and VOD in 2019, most of which is not worth seeing. But Rock and screenwriters Julia Fair and David Simkins come up with a clever twist on two direct-to-video staples, the single-location siege and the stealth alien invasion, beginning with what looks like an action thriller with a group of criminals taking hostages at a grocery store and turning it into something like The Thing, as the hostages realize that the attackers are actually the seasoned alien hunters they claim to be. Don't let the generic title and cheesy poster art fool you: This is a tense, effective and well-acted thriller.

Previous lists:

Friday, December 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Blood 13' (2018)

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

It's good to know that even in other countries, there are generic crime thrillers that feel like extended episodes of police procedural TV series. The Chinese movie Blood 13 is a dull, rote cop drama about the search for a serial killer who targets prostitutes, aiming for some sort of David Fincher-style darkness but ending up a lot closer to Criminal Minds, or something from the '90s starring Ashley Judd. There's no mystery here, really, since the identity of the killer is revealed halfway through the movie and never called into question, so the theoretical entertainment value is just in watching the two main detectives slowly realize that this guy they have repeatedly been questioning is in fact the killer, then racing to apprehend him.

The only mild tension comes from the main detective's prejudice against prostitutes, which is explained in a heavy-handed flashback to her father leaving her mother (presumably because of his habit of visiting prostitutes). But it doesn't have much of an effect on her dedication to the case, and other than a single scene in which she gets lectured about giving sex workers basic respect, it's not a major theme of the movie. That detective, Xing Min (Lu Huang), is a cop-movie stereotype, a reckless lone wolf (note her leather jacket) who never listens to anyone's advice. The movie just uses that as an excuse to place her as a damsel in distress for the last half-hour, though, when she offers herself as bait for the killer and ends up being abducted.

The other detective on the case is veteran Lao Zhou (Gang Xie), who's been obsessed with this killer since failing to catch him 15 years ago. I think he's meant to be a tragic figure looking for redemption, but his habit of carrying around the first victim's skull in a wooden box wherever he goes mostly just makes him seem creepy. The characterization of both detectives is pretty minimal, and the killer is the one who gets the most development, in a long monologue toward the end as he explains his evolution as a murderer. None of it is particularly interesting, and the movie especially drags once the audience knows who the killer is and we have to wait for the detectives to figure it out. It's not surprising that director Candy Li has worked on productions in both the U.S. and China, since she seems to have learned all about making bland, forgettable low-budget cop movies directly from the original source.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th Child' (2002)

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

Although it looks like it was shot for a budget of around $100 wherever the filmmakers could grab locations, horror movie 13th Child boasts a cast that includes Robert Guillaume, Lesley-Anne Down, Christopher Atkins and Cliff Robertson, whose co-writing credit may explain this inept indie production's ability to attract so many recognizable actors. None of them are doing their best work here, and Down's role, at least, is little more than a cameo. But Robertson throws himself into the part of a strange, wealthy recluse living in rural New Jersey, delivering his lines with the kind of devilish menace that he probably imagined in his head while he was writing the terrible dialogue. If nothing else, 13th Child gives a veteran character actor a chance to realize some sort of bizarre personal vision (Robertson's only other writing credits are a 1962 episode of TV Western Outlaws and the 1971 cowboy movie J W Coop, both of which he directed), in one of his final onscreen roles.

Robertson aside, 13th Child is your basic no-budget horror movie, with a story based around the urban legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature that haunts the Pine Barrens, the vast forest area of southern New Jersey. The movie gives the Jersey Devil a back story as the 13th child of a Native American tribe who clashed with early English settlers, although the Wikipedia entry doesn't mention anything about Native Americans. Also, for some reason Robertson's Mr. Shroud calls the monster "Bruno," which does seem like a very New Jersey name for an evil entity. Mr. Shroud turns out to be the English priest who initially ordered the Native American man put to death, or at least I think that's what the movie's ending implies. He's definitely not quite human, and he has a supernatural bond of some kind with the Jersey Devil.

That all sounds a lot more exciting than the movie actually is, since the bulk of the story is about Kathryn (Michelle Maryk), a somewhat snarky investigator for the New Jersey attorney general's office, who's looking into the case of an escaped convict who's been mutilated by some kind of creature deep in the woods. It's not clear why the regular police aren't part of the investigation, and Kathryn teams up with a forest ranger (Atkins) and an officer "on loan" from the NYPD to look into the attack. The trio mostly stand around making awkward jokes and blatantly violating the chain of evidence, at one point leaving a bag of body parts in their car overnight before taking it to a coroner. This is the kind of movie that has the coroner's assistant perform some sort of magical, instantaneous analysis on a strange claw found at the murder scene that can identify it as a combination of multiple types of animal DNA, as well as date its existence back 200 years.

The other main plot strand involves Guillaume as a mental patient obsessed with the Jersey Devil, and the movie's confusing timeline indicates that his ravings about the creature while locked up in the world's dingiest, most poorly staffed mental institution come after the main events of the story. Most of Guillaume's dialogue is delivered in what sounds like voiceover while director Steven Stockage shoots him from a curiously distant angle, like they just got some random footage of Guillaume stumbling around his cell and then added whatever audio they needed later.

Really, though, these scenes are no more disjointed or clumsy than the rest of the movie, which includes things like one character struggling to put on a jacket in the foreground of the shot while two other characters have a conversation next to him. The monster barely ever appears onscreen, and the killings are mostly just quick splashes of blood before Stockage cuts away. A disclaimer at the end of the credits states that all of the dead deer seen in the movie (the preferred bait for the Jersey Devil, apparently) were repurposed roadkill, which is just the kind of thrifty yet distasteful technique that exemplifies this odd mess of a movie.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Investigation 13' (2019)

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

A group of college-student ghost hunters lock themselves into a seemingly abandoned, allegedly haunted old insane asylum for the night, determined to record conclusive evidence of the afterlife. The weird old lady who owns the property promises to return for them the next morning. Do you really need any more info to guess what happens next in the rote direct-to-VOD horror movie Investigation 13? It's definitely not that everything goes well and all of the characters leave the asylum the next morning in perfect health, satisfied with the important data they've collected.

Just because the plot of Investigation 13 (the title refers to 12 previous paranormal investigations that have all been inconclusive) has been seen dozens of times before doesn't mean it couldn't be effectively executed. But director and co-writer Krisstian de Lara does an abysmal job of generating scares or constructing a cohesive plot, and the movie fails to make use of even its exceedingly meager resources. A few splashes of very fake-looking blood are about as gruesome or scary as anything gets in Investigation 13, and De Lara relies on crude animatics for the extensive flashbacks to the asylum's history, suggesting, as one Letterboxd commenter pointed out, that the production ran out of money and was forced to use its own storyboards in the finished movie.

Whether those animated sequences were a deliberate artistic choice or a financial necessity, they're still incredibly ugly and amateurish, sketchy drawings that almost never actually move, layered with stilted voiceover. The acting from the onscreen performers isn't much better, and even genre legend Meg Foster (They Live, The Lords of Salem, Masters of the Universe) doesn't add much to the movie in her brief appearance as the creepy caretaker. Star Stephanie Hernandez spends the entire movie in a distracting, ill-fitting wig, and the male actors mostly just petulantly snipe at each other. In the grand tradition of micro-budget direct-to-video thrillers, the majority of the action involves slowly skulking around poorly lit corridors.

The boogeyman of the asylum is a former inmate named Leonard Craven (Peter Aratari), who is also nicknamed the Mole Man for reasons that I could never quite figure out. It's not clear if Leonard is meant to be a ghost or just a deranged murderer, but he's pretty corporeal for a ghost, and he'd have to be close to 80 years old (according to the movie's timeline) if he had just been hanging out in the abandoned building all this time. Either way, with his tight black clothing, stringy black hair and steampunk-style goggles, the Mole Man looks more like the singer of an industrial metal band than a possibly immortal psychopath. He's about as unimpressive as horror-movie villains get, which makes the promise in the movie's IMDb summary (presumably written by the filmmakers themselves) of a whole Mole Man franchise about as laughable as everything else in this worthless movie.