Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Mercury 13' (2018)

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

Given the massive success of Hidden Figures, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Netflix original documentary Mercury 13 gets optioned for a major studio feature film. It's another inspirational story of smart women pushing against entrenched prejudices at NASA, in this case a group of 13 female pilots who went through an unofficial astronaut training program in the early 1960s, only to be denied the chance to be considered for actual space flight. There's not quite the same happy ending as in Hidden Figures, though, since none of the women ever ended up going into space (although at least some of them went on to thriving aviation careers). Still, it's hard not to be at least a little moved by the testimonials from these determined women and the injustice they suffered.

As a movie, Mercury 13 isn't all that impressive; directors David Sington and Heather Walsh combine talking-head interviews (with some of the surviving pilots and relatives of those who've passed away) with archival footage to tell the story of 13 female aviators who were recruited by NASA medical specialist Dr. Randy Lovelace to undergo the same battery of physical and mental tests as the famous Mercury Seven male astronauts (famously depicted in The Right Stuff). Lovelace was convinced that not only could women be just as qualified as men to participate in space missions, but also that in some ways they might make for superior candidates. Without NASA authorization, he initiated his own program to test and train women, but he was ultimately shut down when his plan progressed to having the women train on military fighter jets.

A little while later, there was a Congressional hearing about the possibility of having the women officially join the astronaut training program, but that led nowhere, and it wasn't until the 1980s that NASA actually put women on its space missions. Sington and Walsh lay out all this information in a mostly straightforward, pedestrian fashion, and the interview subjects are compelling enough to keep the movie engaging over most of its slim 79-minute running time. But the directors also pad out the film with cheesy re-enactments (including a hokey speculative version of women participating in the first moon landing) and lots of lovely but questionably relevant footage of airplanes in flight. There's also an overbearing score to juice the emotions that are plenty powerful on their own. The result is a movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself, because no amount of lackluster filmmaking could undermine the emotional impact of the story and the inherent charm and grit of the women portrayed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

VODepths: 'Cartel 2045,' 'Darc,' 'Dead List'

Cartel 2045 (Brad Schmidt, Danny Trejo, Alex Heartman, dir. Chris Le) There's kind of a cool sci-fi premise at the heart of Cartel 2045 (also known as Juarez 2045), in which sophisticated military robots have become just another weapon to be stolen, co-opted and junked when no longer useful. Here, they've been smuggled to Mexican drug cartels, who use the deadly bots to assert their dominance in organized crime. The idea of futuristic technology becoming scrap to be scavenged by criminals reminded me a bit of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, not that anyone should be trying to emulate that movie. But there's the potential to explore some interesting sociopolitical elements here, even on a low budget. Writer-director Chris Le doesn't care about any of that, though, and instead fills the overlong movie with repetitive, listless action sequences populated with interchangeable characters. There's a former Marine released from prison so that he can join a team of fellow Marines in tracking down the contraband droids, but his shady back story turns out to be irrelevant, and his look and personality are barely distinguishable from his teammates. Danny Trejo chews some scenery as the evil drug lord, but even he can only carry things so far, and the rest of the performances are flat and uninspired. The effects aren't terrible, as long as the robots don't have to interact with the actors (in which case they almost always look like they're in separate images), but the fake film grain just highlights how far this movie is from a genuinely creative and entertaining B-movie. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Darc (Tony Schiena, Armand Assante, Shô Ikushima, dir. Julius R. Nasso) At first glance, Darc seems like a run-of-the-mill low-budget action movie, with a stock plot about a determined badass seeking revenge for the death of his mother. And for the most part, that's what it is, with Tony Schiena playing Jake Walters, who as a child witnessed his prostitute mother's murder at the hands of a Yakuza boss. The adult Jake (who also goes by the name Darc, inspired by a manga hero he read about as a child in Japan) is sprung from prison, where he's serving a sentence for unspecified crimes, by an Interpol agent played by a mumbly Armand Assante, tasked with rescuing the agent's daughter from the very same Yakuza boss who killed Jake's mom. Lots of violence and gratuitous nudity follows. What sets Darc apart is that it's a vanity project for star and co-writer Schiena, who is a private security contractor, activist, combat veteran and martial-arts champion with an insane Wikipedia entry that he almost certainly wrote himself. The action here is pretty solid, and Schiena is passable as a stoic man of action (or at least is no worse than Steven Seagal would've been in the exact same role 30 years ago), but the violence is repetitive and mind-numbing, the tone is vaguely misogynistic, and the presentation of the title character is so self-aggrandizing that it verges on parody. Available on Netflix.

Dead List (Deane Sullivan, Jan-David Soutar, Josh Eichenbaum, dir. Holden Andrews, Ivan Asen, Victor Mathieu) An actor invokes an extremely ill-defined curse in order to win a role in a Martin Scorsese movie, but the jumbled quasi-anthology structure of Dead List means that people start dying before it's clear who they are or why they've been targeted. Even after we see Cal (Deane Sullivan) acquire a mysterious mystical book and enact some ritual from it, the movie has a hard time conveying what he's summoned or how it works. The vignettes (written and directed in various combinations by the three filmmakers) feature Cal's rival actors dying in what seem to be meant as sort of ironic, Twilight Zone-style circumstances, but it's tough to tell what the connections to their lives are meant to be when we barely know anything about the characters. One short piece in which a victim dies by being transformed into a black man and then gunned down by police at least has the basic premise of one of those stories, but there's no real reasoning behind it. Other segments are tedious and/or excessively gross, and the production values are pretty terrible, with ugly visuals, subpar effects and questionable acting (absolutely none of these people would be up for a role in an actual Scorsese movie). Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Locker 13' (2014)

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

The low-budget horror anthology is a venerable genre tradition going back decades, and I've even written about a couple of them (Last Stop on 13th Street and Hellblock 13) in this space before. There's no way that Locker 13 is going to take its place alongside movies like Black Sabbath or Tales From the Crypt or Creepshow, but it's slightly better than its obscure straight-to-video pedigree would indicate. It features a cast full of veteran B-movie stars and character actors (including Curtis Armstrong, Jon Gries, Thomas Calabro, Jon Polito and David Huddleston), mostly giving decent performances, and its individual stories are all fairly concise. The production values are bare-bones, but they're professional enough, and forgiving horror buffs may find this movie to be an acceptable time-passer.

The first full segment is actually pretty good, starring Ricky Schroeder as a washed-up boxer who acquires a mystical pair of boxing gloves from a mysterious stranger and finds himself easily pummeling younger, stronger opponents. He pounds them so hard that they end up dead, though, and he has to face the consequences of his late-breaking rise to fame. The story ends with the kind of Twilight Zone/E.C. Comics twist that these anthologies often rely on, and it's an effective stinger for a nasty but engaging tale. Schroeder conveys the regret of a man whose glory days are behind him (probably not hard for the former child star to relate to), and Polito is his typically dyspeptic self as the boxer's opportunistic manager.

Unfortunately the rest of the stories are not nearly as strong. The wraparound story takes place in an Old West amusement park, with Gries as the veteran employee showing new night janitor Skip (Jason Spisak) the ropes. Gries' Archie tells the movie's first four stories to Skip as they tour the park, and then when Skip is left alone to work, he gets his own story. The other tales include an initiation gone awry at a secret society in the early 20th century; a suicidal jumper getting a unique pep talk; and a hitman interrogating three women who may have hired him. In Skip's story, he discovers that his locker (number 13, of course, which also shows up in three of the other stories) holds a portal to another version of himself.

Unlike the boxing story, those other segments just kind of peter out, without the same punch (so to speak) to tie them together. It's hard to discern a lesson, or even a point, to those segments, and they're not exactly scary or unsettling, either. There are solid performances throughout, including from Huddleston as the creepy leader of the exclusive lodge, Gries as the cheerily philosophical theme-park janitor and Krista Allen as one of the hitman's captives, and the pacing is relatively brisk. With some sharper writing, Locker 13 could have been an underrated horror gem, but as it is, it's only about one-fifth of a gem.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

VODepths: 'For the Coyotes,' 'Josephine Doe,' When the Starlight Ends'

For the Coyotes (James Carpenter, Joshua Schell, dir. Eric Daniel Metzgar) It's not too surprising that the small-scale two-character drama For the Coyotes was at one time meant to be a stage play, since writer-director Eric Daniel Metzgar plays out many of the scenes between dying religious scholar Wendell (James Carpenter) and his tech-entrepreneur son Josh (Joshua Schell) in static long takes, as the two sit at a table or stand in Wendell's kitchen and rehash their past. Estranged for years, father and son reunite when Wendell calls Josh and insists he come to Wendell's remote rural home, where Wendell reveals that he has terminal brain cancer. The title refers to Wendell's wish for a so-called "sky burial," leaving his body to be devoured by wild animals, which Josh vehemently opposes, at least at first. Although Metzgar throws in lots of arty nature shots and ponderous philosophical and religious soliloquies, this is at heart a fairly predictable drama about reconciliation between parent and child as one is about to depart the mortal world. The lead performances (especially from Carpenter, selling Wendell's spiritual bullshit) are impressive, and some of the images are pretty, but the story is rather superficial despite its existential musings, and the characters' arguments are mostly tedious and repetitive. Available on No Budge (free) and Vimeo.

Josephine Doe (Erin Cipolletti, Emma Griffin, Elisabeth Bennett, dir. Ryan Michael) The title character of Josephine Doe (Emma Griffin) is a figment of main character Claire's imagination, but it's never quite clear why Claire is having such a vivid, realistic hallucination, what kind of condition she might be suffering from, or what anyone can do about it. As a portrayal of mental illness, this movie is borderline irresponsible, although it's obviously more interested in being a lyrical drama about dealing with grief and family trauma, at which it's only marginally more successful. Erin Cipolletti, who also wrote the screenplay, gives a strong performance as Claire, who's reeling from the death of her father and clashing with her more stable sister, but her motivations remain opaque. Josephine is sort of a manic pixie dream girl type of imaginary friend, wearing quirky clothes and pushing Claire to do wacky stuff like break into a roller rink to go skating in the middle of the night. I kept waiting for some kind of twist that would explain why no one is more than mildly concerned about Claire's full-on manifestation of another person, but it never came. The black-and-white cinematography is sometimes evocative, but it seems to be standing in for other artistic ambitions that are never quite achieved. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

When the Starlight Ends (Sam Heughan, Arabella Oz, Sean Patrick Flanery, dir. Adam Sigal) Thanks to star Sam Heughan's newfound fame and sex-symbol status on Outlander, terrible micro-budget romantic drama When the Starlight Ends is certainly reaching more viewers than it otherwise might have. I haven't watched Outlander, but Heughan's performance here is pretty bad, delivered with a horribly unconvincing American accent. He's not helped at all by the writing from filmmaker Adam Sigal, who sticks Heughan with nearly nonstop pompous voice-over narration from his character Jacob, a supposedly great writer who spews nothing but self-important pretentiousness. Jacob is devastated after he's dumped by his girlfriend Cassandra (Arabella Oz, daughter of TV's Dr. Oz), and he spends the entire movie moping and rehashing their relationship, via flashbacks as well as annoying "writerly" fantasies in which he casts Cassandra as different women he might meet and fall in love with. The distinction between past and present and between reality and fantasy is blurry at times, but not in a clever or illuminating way; it mostly just comes across as sloppy filmmaking. Jacob is insufferable, and his relationship with Cassandra never has the grand romantic feel that the movie needs in order to justify itself. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Dementia 13' (2017)

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

The only reason that anyone pays attention to the original 1963 Dementia 13 is that it's one of Francis Ford Coppola's earliest films; otherwise, the typically rushed and incoherent Roger Corman production would likely be forgotten, or known only to hardcore B-movie connoisseurs. Even with the Coppola connection, it's still a bit of a stretch to think that the movie has such a recognizable brand name that it's worth remaking; I suspect that a large part of the reason that producers latched onto the idea is that the original has fallen into the public domain, and thus can be remade by anyone without bothering with licensing.

"The source material is free" is, of course, not a great reason for making a movie, and Richard LeMay's 2017 remake of Dementia 13 never really offers up a better one. It's not like the original story is brilliant, anyway: Like most early (and later) Corman movies, it was produced in a mad rush, and Coppola's screenplay is more or less nonsensical, made even more so by mandated reshoots that were added at Corman's insistence by another director. The best thing about Coppola's film is its eerie atmosphere, something that comes from filmmaking technique and not from narrative. LeMay is no Coppola, to put it mildly, and screenwriters Dan DeFilippo and Justin Smith add a bunch of extra material to the original story, making the incoherent narrative even more of a mess.

It still takes place at a remote estate, where a woman who's married into an eccentric family tries to wrangle an inheritance following her husband's sudden death. Here, though, that woman is a con artist who straight-up murdered her husband, and the filmmakers add a group of home invaders and an actual ghost to the original story of family secrets and a mysterious killer. Although the story is streamlined in certain ways thanks to what was probably a more straightforward production process, it's still convoluted and ultimately pretty meaningless, and without the kind of unsettling style that Coppola brought to his film, it's just another cheap straight-to-VOD quickie. The acting is passable at best, the scares are rote, and the characters are pretty much all unlikable, which means that the primary entertainment value is in waiting for them to die.

Only the location looks impressive, a sprawling estate that conveys the isolation and eccentricity of the central family. LeMay makes the most of it, shooting all over the grounds and in the surrounding woods, relying on the creepy emptiness of the scenery to stand in for any narrative thrills. In a way, this movie is perfectly in keeping with the original, which was an opportunistic add-on using money left over from a previous Corman movie, churned out on a tiny budget as quickly as possible, to fill out drive-in double bills. The glut of movies on VOD and streaming services are the modern equivalent of that, and while it's unlikely that LeMay will become the next Coppola, he's managed to capture the spirit of one of the legendary filmmaker's early efforts.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The return of 'Roseanne'

I loved Roseanne during almost all of its original run, and although I've only seen bits and pieces of episodes since then, I'd still feel fairly confident ranking it among the best TV series (or at least best sitcoms) of all time. Then again, I felt the same way about The X-Files, and I've had mixed feelings about that show's recent revival (although the just-concluded second revival season was much better than the first). So I was a bit apprehensive approaching the new episodes of Roseanne, which, like The X-Files and Will & Grace, is essentially restarting as if it had never ended. I can't say that the three episodes made available for review would inspire me to put this current version of the show on a list of the best shows on TV, but they also never made me re-evaluate my love for the original series, as some of those X-Files episodes have.

Like the new Will & Grace, which blithely dismissed the events of the original series finale, the new Roseanne retcons pretty much the entire (terrible) final season of the show, returning the Conners to their working-class roots (there's no mention of winning the lottery) and getting rid of all the weird metatextual nonsense about the show being a story written by Roseanne herself, with events changed for dramatic effect (Dan is alive and well, although his pseudo-death does get a reference). In that sense, the creators (including ringers Whitney Cummings, Wanda Sykes and Norm Macdonald) pretty effectively capture the spirit of the original show. Roseanne Barr is a bit shaky at first in her return to acting, but Sara Gilbert (as daughter Darlene), John Goodman (as Dan) and Laurie Metcalf (as Roseanne's sister Jackie) are all very good, and Lecy Goranson (as daughter Becky) and Michael Fishman (as son D.J.) do solid work despite also having been out of the spotlight for quite a while.

As has been extensively reported, the show makes Roseanne (the character) into a Donald Trump supporter (much like Barr herself in real life), but the first episode goes out of its way to represent opposing political views (Jackie is a dedicated progressive activist), and it would be a stretch to say that the show itself supports Trump. Like Will & Grace, Roseanne improves once it ditches the efforts to comment on the current administration, but it engages with other topical issues more intelligently and convincingly, upholding the show's history of social awareness. Like Fuller House, the new Roseanne adds new kid characters to the central extended family, but unlike Fuller House, it manages to come up with some non-irritating characters who don't dominate the narrative, and Darlene's gender-fluid young son Mark (Ames McNamara) gets a sensitive portrayal without being played for laughs or coming off as absurdly precocious.

Most importantly, the show is still pretty funny, with the central cast chemistry (minus Fishman, who's barely in the previewed episodes) fully intact. There's no effort made to update the style or look of the show, which is an old-fashioned three-camera sitcom in every way, but unlike Will & Grace, which feels hopelessly dated and uses a hopped-up audience that howls at every line, Roseanne is fairly subdued, with some jokes passing by with only minimal audience laughter. At best, this kind of show can feel like a filmed play, and the strongest Roseanne episodes had that immediacy and intensity to them. The new season doesn't reach the level of the best of vintage Roseanne, but it mostly does justice to the show's legacy, which is probably the most you can hope for from any of these recent revival cash-ins.

Premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

VODepths: 'Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies,' 'Battle Drone,' 'Curse of the Mayans'

Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies (Timothy Haug, Wyntergrace Williams, Kaitlin Mesh, dir. Mark Newton) Originally titled (more accurately but less enticingly) Kudzu Zombies, the no-budget horror-comedy Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies isn't nearly as amusing as its revamped title. Slapped together with limited locations, shaky acting and distractingly poor CGI, Attack doesn't do anything new with the zombie formula, as an experimental herbicide (meant to wipe out the invasive kudzu plant that is rampant in the southern U.S.) somehow turns people into undead monsters (sometimes with incredibly fake-looking leaves and shoots growing out of them). The filmmakers barely even attempt to explain the plot, just hand-waving about scientific experimentation so that they can get to rampaging zombies at a carnival. The humor is weak, the characters are barely one-dimensional (and the large ensemble makes it tough to invest in the survival of anyone in particular) and the action is chaotic. Only the aerial shots (possibly captured thanks to the crop-dusters that were clearly the filmmakers' main asset) look remotely professional, and it's hard to stage a convincing zombie apocalypse when normal daily activity is clearly going on in the frame behind your characters. Movies like this need to get by on clever writing and lively pacing to make up for their budgetary shortfalls, but Attack is sluggish and plodding. The most entertaining part is the hard rock title song during the closing credits, but with the change to the new title, even that ends up missing the mark. Available on Amazon.

Battle Drone (Louis Mandylor, Dominique Swain, Jason Earles, dir. Mitch Gould) A bunch of mercenaries fight a bunch of remote-controlled death-bots in a movie that mainly resembles watching somebody else play a not particularly interesting video game. Battle Drone writer-director Mitch Gould wastes little time in setting up his basic premise, as the A-Team/Expendables-style group of rogue operatives is recruited to retrieve a cache of weapons at Chernobyl (yes, the actual Chernobyl), where they are then used as test subjects for a new line of "battle drones," cyborg soldiers controlled by human pilots from a remote location. The group, led by hardened but honorable ex-soldier Vincent Reikker (Louis "brother of Costas" Mandylor), takes on the robots in a series of repetitive fight scenes that constitute almost the entire movie, while Gould occasionally cuts to the evil government masterminds (plus an arms dealer played by B-movie staple Michael Pare) executing their plan. The character development is minimal, and the banter between Reikker and CIA agent Alexandra Hayes (Dominique Swain) is limp, although at least the movie doesn't try to oversell their sexual chemistry (of which they have none). The effects aren't all that bad for a movie with this presumably limited budget, and the battle drones look sort of like old-school Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. The action is mediocre at best, though, and Gould relies way too heavily on slo-mo and Matrix-style bullet time, which adds to the dated video-game feel of the movie (the Chernobyl location, shot possibly somewhere in Canada, is just a convenient empty space for the action, and has no plot relevance). Once the characters run out of things to shoot at, the movie just ends, having exhausted its meager purpose. Available on Netflix.

Curse of the Mayans (Steve Wilcox, Carla Ortiz, Mark Tacher, dir. Joaquin Rodriguez) Maybe director Joaquin Rodriguez should have just made a documentary about cave-diving in the Yucatan, because that's the only material that works in Curse of the Mayans (aka Xibalba), a poorly paced, confusing horror/sci-fi/action movie about the History Channel's favorite subject, ancient aliens. You know you're in for a slog when a movie starts with an expository text crawl followed by an expository voiceover before it even gets to any action, and Mayans makes almost no sense at all despite all the explanations (if anything, they make it worse). Set in Mexico with dialogue in both English and Spanish (albeit poorly dubbed in both cases, so it's hard to tell what language the actors were actually speaking), Mayans follows an expedition into the jungle to excavate some Mayan ruins, where the explorers disturb the final resting place of those ancient aliens. The ruins are accessible only via an underground cave system, which allows Rodriguez to shoot that cool, eerie cave-diving footage, but combining it with fake-looking monsters kind of kills the mood. Those monsters don't even show up until the last few minutes, and before that the movie grinds through some dull character drama (complete with a gratuitous sex scene) and some vague warnings about the dangers of disturbing sacred artifacts. The characters are so ill-defined and the action is so murky that it's tough to tell who's being killed off and/or possessed by monsters during the climax, but the movie ends with another nonsensical voiceover that seems to render it all irrelevant anyway. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.