Sunday, April 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apartment 1303' (2007)

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

One thing I've learned from this project is to avoid all apartment numbers with 13 in them. After the horrors of India's 13B, we move to Japan for Apartment 1303, a fairly familiar horror exercise with your basic stringy-haired female ghost. It's actually more of a traditional haunted-house movie than a J-horror tech nightmare, with an extensive back story about abuse and murder taking place in the titular apartment. The beginning of the movie quickly shows two different young women jumping to their deaths right after moving into the apartment. It turns out that a number of young women have done the same thing, and yet the rental company doesn't seem to have any problems finding new people to rent the apartment (apparently only young women are interested in living there).

Main character Mariko is the sister of the most recent victim, who decides to unravel the mystery with the help of a rumpled police detective. Star Noriko Nakagoshi brings some emotional weight to the role, which helps ground the mostly silly story, but the supporting performances are more cartoonish, and the cheesy special effects don't help. As Mariko learns more about the haunting of the apartment, the movie takes a lengthy detour to recount the back story, which involves an abusive mother who's killed by her own daughter. Eventually Mariko faces down the ghost of the daughter, but the climax is neither scary (thanks mostly to the aforementioned cheapo effects) nor emotionally involving (since Mariko has no real connection to the ghosts).

Mostly Apartment 1303 is a rote collection of haunted-house and J-horror tropes, held together by one decent performance and a whole lot of bad ones. The movie ends with what is probably meant as a chilling final moment, but it comes off as more of a shrug, thanks again to the cheesy effects, but also to the complete lack of engagement in the characters. Some girls jump off a balcony, and then some other people do, also. Nobody cares.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'The 100'

At least in its first two episodes, The 100 seems to be struggling between a gritty, Battlestar Galactica-style sci-fi drama and a swoony teen romance, and since it airs on The CW, there's a good chance that the second mode will ultimately win out. Like Battlestar, the show follows a tiny core of humanity that has survived the near-destruction of Earth and is living in cramped spaceships; in this case, survivors of a nuclear holocaust have been inhabiting a complex of multiple space stations for nearly 100 years since nuclear war wiped out most of Earth's population. The scenes that take place on the space stations, with character played by actors like Henry Ian Cusick, Isaiah Washington, Paige Turco and Kelly Hu, have a strong Battlestar vibe, as worn-out commanders and officials try their best to make impossible moral decisions.

But the core of The 100, and the source of the title, are the 100 teenage characters who are sent back to the desolate Earth to see if it can be re-inhabited. They're all convicts who would probably have been sacrificed in the resource-deprived society in space, so they're prone to violence and rebellion, and that plus their teenage hormones makes for a very volatile situation on the ground. While there are some Lord of the Flies-like moments of violent chaos, the show is just as interested in which of the pretty people will hook up with each other, and there are plenty of Tumblr-ready relationships being formed already. With its rudimentary production values and inconsistent acting, The 100 feels a bit like an old-school basic cable series, but airing on Syfy or USA probably would have freed it from the obligation to appeal to a teenage fangirl audience. On The CW, the 'shippers are likely to end up at the helm.

Premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on The CW.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The 'Veronica Mars' movie

First off, I was one of the Kickstarter backers of Veronica Mars, so it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to consider me in the tank for the movie. But that’s pretty much the entire point of a movie financed via nearly $6 million in donations from fans of the 2004-2007 cult TV series. Unlike Serenity, the 2005 movie adaptation of Joss Whedon’s little-watched TV series Firefly, Veronica Mars isn’t really designed to introduce a new audience to the title character (Kristen Bell) and her friends and enemies. While it does feature a stand-alone plot (and take place nine years after the end of the TV series), the movie is structured around callbacks and inside jokes, the kind of references that will make hardcore fans gasp with delight (as they did at the midnight screening I attended).

That’s not to say that the movie is nothing more than fan service. The callbacks and references were an important part of the TV series, too, so it makes sense that creator Rob Thomas (who directed and co-wrote the movie) would include them in the movie version. A big part of the appeal of Veronica Mars both as a TV show and as a movie is the collection of shady characters in Veronica’s hometown of Neptune, California, to which she returns after a nine-year absence. Since the show ended, former teenage detective Veronica has graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology and come in at the top of her class at Columbia Law School, and she’s up for a job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm when she gets a call from old flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who’s been charged with the murder of his rock-star girlfriend (who also happens to be an old high school classmate).

Veronica’s return to Neptune to help Logan conveniently coincides with her 10-year high school reunion, which is a good excuse for Thomas to trot out brief appearances from a whole range of supporting players from the TV show. The central mystery isn’t as compelling as Veronica’s investigation of her best friend’s death during the show’s first season, but the involvement of Logan as the prime suspect definitely ups the stakes for Veronica. Whenever it seems like Thomas is just placating fans with familiar references, he’ll throw in an unexpectedly strong emotional moment between Veronica and Logan or Veronica and her private-eye dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni).

It also helps that Bell is always at her best as Veronica, and she slips back into the role like no time has passed. Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero are still great at coming up with snarky banter and hard-boiled narration for Veronica, and although the movie may be clumsy at times, it’s always entertaining. Fans may quibble about certain aspects of the story (more time for Veronica’s buddies Wallace and Mac, who seem to get short shrift in favor of Veronica/Logan swooning, would have been nice), but ultimately Thomas, Bell and the entire cast and crew have done exactly what they promised their Kickstarter backers they would do. It’s hard to argue against such an obvious labor of love.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Eerie' (2013)

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

Although the title of 13 Eerie does actually refer to something in the movie, it still comes off like one of those low-budget genre movies that added the number 13 to its title to make it seem more menacing (as I have mentioned before). Theoretically, the title is the designation for the plot of land where a forensic science professor (Michael Shanks) is conducting his final field exam for a group of six students. It's part of the grounds of abandoned penitentiary Eerie State, presumably the 13th sector in the area. The professor's exam involves strategically placing dead bodies in various places on the grounds, and then having his students examine them to determine the cause of death. I kind of doubt that real forensic science courses actually involve this sort of exam, although I suppose that if people donate their bodies to science, maybe they are okay with having them molested by forensic science students in a random field somewhere. I'm not entirely sure that these bodies were donated, though, since the professor's colleague tells him at the beginning of the movie that the exam better not take too long, because the bodies have to be returned to the morgue.

Whether it's realistic or not, it's kind of a clever setup for a zombie movie, which of course is completely botched. Wouldn't it be scary if the supposedly dead bodies that the students are working on suddenly came back to life and attacked? Yes, that would be scary, but that's not what happens here. Instead, there are some zombies just hanging around the area, apparently waiting for some students to show up so they can be eaten. The zombies are remnants of some vaguely defined experiments that occurred at the prison many years ago, before it was shut down. So they stalk the students while the asshole professor denies that anything weird is happening and orders the students to get back to work. Eventually after a couple of the students get zombified, the professor acknowledges that bad shit is going down, and he teams up with the students to run away from the zombies.

That's about all there is to this movie. The characters are less than one-dimensional, and the interesting setup dealing with forensic science is pretty much abandoned once the zombie attacks start (it's not like the students use their scientific knowledge to defeat the zombies, which would be interesting). The acting is serviceable, and the cast includes C-listers like scream queen Katharine Isabelle and former Roswell star Brendan Fehr. The effects are decent for a low-budget production, but there's nothing particularly creative or gruesome. The second half devolves into some rote running and fighting, and the ending is laughably abrupt. What starts out as somewhat creative quickly becomes generic and forgettable.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

'Saint George'

The business model for the so-called 10/90 shows (with a 10-episode first season followed by 90 more episodes over the course of about two years) like Tyler Perry's TBS sitcoms and FX's Anger Management emphasizes quantity over quality, so it's not surprising that FX's George Lopez vehicle Saint George, another 10/90 project, comes off like an assembly-line product. With its ugly, flat visual style, cheap-looking sets, abrasive laugh track, broad acting and hackneyed jokes, Saint George is as generic as sitcoms get, a little like the prefab reruns on TV Land, only not quite as appealing.

Lopez stars as what is basically a fictionalized version of himself (named George Lopez), of course, a semi-retired energy-drink mogul who's taken up teaching for reasons that are not explained in the pilot. He's recently divorced but still close with his ex-wife, who's a key member of the supporting cast along with his preteen son, his mother, his uncle and his cousin. They all exist pretty much solely to make jokes at George's expense, but it's not like George is much more of a well-rounded character than they are. He doesn't spend any time running his business and barely spends any time teaching, his relationship with his ex-wife seems friendly, and the worst he has to deal with are some harsh but loving words from his mother.

Although the supporting cast includes hardest-working man in straight-to-video movies Danny Trejo and veteran character actor David Zayas, the performances are all aimed at the cheap seats, augmented by an overbearing laugh track. The jokes are lame and obvious, and frequently sexist as well (a whole storyline in the first episode involves George's cousin texting random women pictures of his penis as some sort of dating strategy), especially when they focus on George's sexually voracious colleague. Lopez is more likable than Charlie Sheen, so Saint George isn't as painful to watch as Anger Management, but there's the same sense that everyone involved is just trying to churn out as much product as they can as quickly as possible so that they can get it over with.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on FX.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13B' (2009)

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

Bollywood is one of my major movie blind spots, but as I've said before, this feature often exposes me to new genres or movements with which I was previously unfamiliar. My guess is that 13B is not exactly a great starting point for exploring Bollywood movies, but it fits with the theme, so here it is. Unlike the typical Bollywood production, 13B isn't filled with lavish musical numbers, nor does it have any large-scale action or romance. Instead it's a sort of Bollywood-ized version of the J-horror trend, with a story about ghostly infestations terrorizing a family (mostly via technology) in an urban apartment building.

Although writer-director Vikram K. Kumar doesn't follow every Bollywood convention, the movie does have an inflated running time (just over two hours in the version I saw, although IMDb lists a version that's 20 minutes longer), and the action stops abruptly at one point for a completely incongruous musical number, which comes off as sort of a fantasy sequence featuring the two main characters (there's no explanation for why the harried businessman and his stay-at-home wife are suddenly glamorous pop stars for three minutes). The rest of the songs are confined to one time-passing montage and a music video that plays over the closing credits, so that Kumar can work on building tension in his haunted-house story without the characters having to stop and sing every few minutes.

Not that he does a very good job of creating suspense, however. The movie begins with an extended family moving into a brand-new high-rise condo (the title refers to their unit number), where inexplicable spooky things immediately start to happen (the milk always goes sour, the elevator doesn't work, cell phones take distorted pictures). But Kumar eventually focuses his attention on just one creepy element, a daily soap opera that appears to air only on the family's TV, with events that mirror (and foreshadow) their own lives. The logistics of this concept are completely nonsensical, especially when main character Manu (R. Madhavan) eventually tracks down an explanation. The whole second half of the movie is a mess of belabored exposition that completely undermines any creepy atmosphere developed early on.

Aside from the occasional musical interludes, 13B's other main Bollywood characteristic is the broad, melodramatic acting style of its cast, which goes against the subdued, ominous tone of Kumar's J-horror influences. Even when terrified, the characters are constantly mugging and overemoting, so the supernatural happenings come off as more goofy than scary. It doesn't help that the special effects are chintzy and the cinematography is flat. Clearly there are a lot of things that Bollywood movies do well (and I probably ought to expand my horizons in that area), but horror is not one of them.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days to Die' (1965)

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

Another discovery from the depths of Amazon's instant video offerings, 13 Days to Die is an Italian-German co-production whose original title translates as The Curse of the Black Ruby. The version I saw was awkwardly dubbed into English, but I doubt that hearing the original dialogue with subtitles would have made this spy thriller any less tedious and soporific. The best thing about the movie is that it was shot in Thailand and features plenty of local color, although deployed in the clumsiest, most obtrusive way possible. Hero Ralph Tracy (Thomas Alder) travels to Thailand at the request of its prince, who hires Tracy to track down a sacred necklace that was stolen from a museum. The thieves have been sending the prince one jewel from the necklace a day, with the warning that after the 13th jewel is sent, the prince will die (hence the movie's English-language title).

It's not clear exactly what Tracy's profession is -- he appears to be some sort of secret agent, but his services are also obviously for hire. Whatever he is, he's presented as pretty much the world's greatest human being. He handily dispatches all of the bad guy's henchmen in the poorly choreographed fight scenes (in which punches always land somewhere in midair), solves the convoluted mystery with ease, wrestles both a tiger and a crocodile, outwits diabolical geniuses and heads of state, and resists the charms of the beautiful Thai museum director/secret princess (er, spoiler alert). He has two sidekicks who provide extra brawn but seem mostly superfluous; mainly their function is to serve as a sounding board for Tracy's awesomeness. The movie's theme song consists entirely of jaunty instrumental music with the words "Ralph Tracy" whispered at regular intervals.

Of course, Ralph Tracy is really Rolf Torring in the movie's original German, which does sound sexier. And despite the copious fight scenes, the Thai scenery and the presence of various exotic animals, 13 Days to Die is terminally boring. The plot is needlessly complicated, the dialogue is bland and delivered poorly by the voiceover actors, and the shooting style is haphazard and sloppy (also, Amazon's version is in black and white for some reason, even though the movie is in color). It actually took me two days to finish watching the 99-minute movie because I kept falling asleep. It would be nice to say that this was a hidden gem worth wading through many pages of Amazon search results to find, but the truth is that it probably deserves to stay hidden.