Sunday, September 16, 2018

VODepths anthology edition: 'A.I. Tales,' 'A Taste of Phobia'

A.I. Tales The four segments in the sci-fi anthology A.I. Tales are all independently produced shorts that were then collected together to be released as a feature, which means they have very little in common stylistically or thematically (also, none of them actually deals with artificial intelligence). Watching this movie felt a bit like watching the sci-fi program at a short film festival (that's always one of my favorites at the Dam Short Film Festival), only without the one or two shorts that usually stand out. All four of the shorts here start with solid sci-fi premises (an overpopulated future where people are forcibly euthanized at 40; a woman signing up for a mission to Mars; a post-apocalyptic band of nomads stumbling across a secret bunker; a scientist with a homemade time machine) but fumble the follow-through, with clunky dialogue, unappealing characters and weak plotting. None of the filmmakers seems to know how to craft an ending, and all four shorts just kind of stop without resolutions (it's not surprising that one is credited as being based on a feature script). Throwing all four together doesn't make them stronger; it just makes their shortcomings more glaring. Available on Vimeo and elsewhere.

A Taste of Phobia Like The ABCs of Death, horror anthology A Taste of Phobia features a collection of filmmakers creating segments around a particular theme, which in this case is various phobias (or possibly made-up phobias). Also like The ABCs of Death, Phobia is mostly terrible, as the majority of filmmakers fail to do anything interesting (or even, much of the time, competent) with the subject matter. The 15 segments are largely slapdash and amateurish, relying on gross-outs over scares and sometimes only tangentially connected to the supposed theme. There are a few with stylish visuals, but the occasional striking image doesn't compensate for the consistently poor writing, and most segments barely even craft a story, settling for cheap shock value rather than a compelling narrative. There's a framing sequence (which eventually leads into the final segment) of a woman sitting on her couch watching the other segments, and she looks bored and annoyed most of the time, like she's just waiting for the movie she's in to be over. It's disappointingly easy to relate to her. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Was a Judas' (1971)

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

A spaghetti Western with a plot that resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery, 13 Was a Judas (also known as The Last Traitor) is an odd hybrid that doesn't really work, although it has some scuzzy B-movie charm. The title comes from the apparent superstition that 13 people at a table is bad luck, and that's exactly what Confederate army veteran Ned Carter (Donald O'Brien) has at his wedding banquet in Sonora, Mexico, where he's gathered a group of outlaws and miscreants to celebrate his impending betrothal to Maribel (Adriana Giuffrè). But before the wedding can even begin, the stagecoach carrying Maribel arrives with all of its passengers dead, slaughtered by some unknown assailants.

Thus begins a series of investigations and accusations among the 13 men, along with some of the residents of the small Mexican town where they've been taking refuge. There are the requisite twists and double-crosses, although most of the characters aren't particularly well-defined, so it's tough to figure out whom to root for, or even how some of the men are connected to each other. The plotting relies on flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue to eventually explain the motivations behind each killing, as the members of the group also start getting picked off one by one. (Not surprisingly, there's a hidden cache of gold that everyone is after.) Despite all the talk, though, the eventual explanations aren't exactly satisfying, or even entirely clear.

As is customary with spaghetti Westerns, the dialogue from the mostly Italian actors (O'Brien aside) is dubbed into English, which is always awkward but is notably poor here, with too many voices that sound similar to each other. It's hard enough to tell some of the characters apart, but it becomes even more difficult in crowded scenes when the dubbing obscures who is talking to whom at any given moment. The voice acting is stiff, which is especially detrimental to a story that features more talk than action.

There are some evocative moments, though, including the semi-impressionistic flashbacks, and while it's frustrating not to have a real protagonist to focus on, it's also impressive how committed the movie is to making all of its characters reprehensible outlaws, even the one who emerges as a sort of hero at the end. Unlike a typical Agatha Christie story, which would end with the genius detective wrapping things up neatly, Judas ends on a hollow victory, the mystery not so much solved as obliterated. It's an admirably bleak conclusion, but the journey to get there is far too clumsy and uneven to be satisfying.

Monday, September 03, 2018

VODepths: 'Euthanizer,' 'The Forest of the Lost Souls,' 'Searching for Fortune'

Euthanizer (Matti Onnismaa, Jari Virman, Hannamaija Nikander, dir. Teemu Nikki) True to its title, the bleak Finnish drama Euthanizer starts out with a cat being put to death, and things do not get cheerier from there. The title character (Matti Onnismaa) is a gruff mechanic who has a side business in putting animals down, for prices much lower than at the veterinarian's office. His methods are much cruder, too: For smaller animals, he has a makeshift gas chamber in the back of a car, and for larger animals, it's a bullet to the head out in the woods behind his shop. When Veijo the euthanizer crosses paths with the members of a white supremacist gang, it seems inevitable that he'll bring his euthanizing talents to humans. But that's not quite what happens here, since Veijo is only interested in being left alone and upholding his peculiar code of ethics, which has no tolerance for mistreatment of animals but doesn't apply the same standards to people. Veijo starts up a relationship with the nurse caring for his dying father, but this guy is clearly not cut out for normal human interaction. Parts of Euthanizer are darkly funny, while other parts are painfully difficult to watch (this is definitely not a movie for animal lovers), but Onnismaa ties them all together with a fascinating performance, and his nuanced portrayal of Veijo helps the movie earn its darker and darker turns. It's never obvious or predictable, and its off-kilter rhythms keep it from just wallowing in misery. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Forest of the Lost Souls (Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, dir. José Pedro Lopes) The prologue of the Portuguese art-horror film The Forest of the Lost Souls is a haunting, wordless sequence featuring a young woman in the title location, an eerie wilderness similar to the Aokigahara forest in Japan, where people come for solitude and isolation when they plan to commit suicide. This unknown woman moves with determination toward her death, and the movie follows that with an evocative opening-credits sequence featuring stop-motion animation. It sets the tone for a somber, reflective movie, but writer-director José Pedro Lopes doesn't quite follow through, at least not in the way that the opening would indicate. The rest of the film is divided into two sections, the first featuring another young woman (Daniela Love) and an older man (Jorge Mota) in the forest, trading thoughts on their impending suicides. It's a somewhat ponderous but still intriguing examination of mortality, that then shifts gears entirely into a sort of slasher movie, as the young woman targets a family for revenge (for reasons that are never specified). That abrupt change in location and styles leads the movie into less unique, less intriguing territory, although the black-and-white cinematography remains lovely throughout, with some striking shot compositions, and Love is creepy as the unfeeling killer. But what started out as something distinctive and stylish ends as empty B-horror provocation. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Searching for Fortune (Brian Smolensky, Christina Moore, John Heard, dir. Joseph Matarrese) Writer and star Brian Smolensky personally asked me to review this movie (and even complimented one of my other reviews, with specific examples, in his pitch!), so I'm sorry that I don't have more positive things to say about it. Smolensky plays Mike, a hardscrabble oil driller in Colorado who spends his off time drinking, picking up women and getting into bar fights, and lives in a trailer strewn with dirty clothes because he's a man's man and can't be bothered with domestic niceties (also, he never closes the door when he comes home, which I found really distracting throughout the movie). His world is rocked when Emily (Christina Moore) shows up on his doorstep and reveals that he had an older brother who was given up for adoption, and that brother has just been killed on active military duty in Afghanistan. Emily, the brother's widow, then asks Mike to help her have a child, since he's the closest thing she has left to her late husband. What follows is an awkward mix of pseudo-romance (there is some seriously inappropriate sexual tension between Mike and Emily), earnest working-class drama and family soap opera, with some very clunky dialogue. The lead performances are decent, with John Heard (in his final role) delivering a soulful turn as Mike's dad, and there is some lovely footage of rural Colorado (captured on Super 16mm film). But the plot proceeds in awkward fits and starts, the bonding scenes between Mike and his macho buddies are painfully stilted, and the resolution is abrupt and dissatisfying. Available on Amazon.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13' (1986)

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

Also known by the more accurate title City in Panic, the 1986 Canadian exploitation movie 13 is a weird mix of surprisingly forward-thinking social commentary and typically grubby low-budget slasher-movie aesthetics. The acting is terrible, the pacing is awkward, the dialogue is blunt and utilitarian, and some of the camerawork is seriously questionable (although I saw the movie on Amazon Prime in what was obviously a rip from a degraded VHS copy, so I may not be able to accurately judge the visual style). But this is a movie from 1986 that explicitly takes on the AIDS epidemic, with an often compassionate (if also sometimes clueless) perspective on tolerance and understanding for those afflicted.

That is, of course, contained within a plot about a serial killer stalking the streets of an unnamed city (shot in Toronto), and an edgy radio talk-show host basically taunting the killer. The movie's hero is Dave Miller (David Adamson), who's kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and who becomes bait for the killer known as M when he encourages the mysterious figure to call in to his show. M brutally slashes his victims and carves an M into their flesh, and police soon discover that all of the victims have AIDS, and most are gay men. There are some crude ideas about homosexuality and the spread of AIDS in this movie, but there's also a blatantly homophobic and sexist police detective who is consistently chastised and corrected by his colleagues, as a sort of avatar of outdated, intolerant attitudes (that also hinder the investigation).

Somehow Dave's friends and colleagues seem to be disproportionately afflicted with AIDS (and are all keeping it a secret), so a bunch of people that he knows fall victim to the killer. Some of the murders are staged with style, including an opening that mimics the famous shower scene from Psycho and a particularly gruesome scene in which a man gets his penis chopped off at a glory hole. The movie tries to walk a line between salaciousness and thoughtfulness, and it doesn't really succeed, in part because the acting is so uniformly awful that none of the more sensitive moments are particularly convincing, and in part because the low-budget effects are also not all that convincing, despite the homages to classic films (Fritz Lang's M, namesake of the killer, also gets referenced). The AIDS angle is really just a framework for your typical serial-killer cheapie, with a rushed resolution to its mystery topped off by some condescending moralizing by Dave in a closing voiceover. It's not exactly a shining example of social progress, but at least it has a few distinctive elements.

Monday, August 06, 2018

The stilted cowboy poetry of 'The Rider'

Positioned somewhere between naturalistic drama and impressionistic documentary, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider never quite captures the strengths of either one, even with a cast full of compelling characters (or are they subjects?). Zhao casts former rodeo competitor Brady Jandreau and his family and friends as versions of themselves, telling a story drawn from their real-life experiences. The result is a movie that has moments of unvarnished honesty, but is also full of stilted, uncomfortable interactions with the occasional undercurrent of exploitation.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who when the movie opens has just checked himself out of the hospital against medical advice following a serious head injury suffered in the rodeo ring. After a fairly graphic scene of Brady using a knife to pry out the staples holding a bandage to his head wound and a reunion between Brady and his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), the movie cuts to some amount of time later, with Brady’s hair now mostly covering the scar on his skull, although he’s clearly not completely recovered.

Brady may never completely recover, and the conflict between his desire to return to the rodeo and his need to preserve his fragile health forms the core of the movie. Brady putters aimlessly around the family home (which is a trailer), joking and arguing with his dad and his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). He reluctantly takes a job at a local grocery store, and also starts working as a horse trainer, even though he isn’t in stable enough physical condition to ride horses for any amount of time. Whenever anyone asks, he says he’s taking a little time off before returning to professional riding, although it’s pretty clear that he’s fooling himself.

Brady also spends time visiting his buddy Lane Scott (as himself), another former rodeo star who’s now mostly paralyzed and unable to speak, living in a full-time care facility. They watch videos from Lane’s rodeo glory days and even prop Lane up on a makeshift saddle to practice riding as if he, too, could someday return to the ring. These are the scenes that feel the most exploitative, as Scott (like Jandreau) suffered very real injuries (albeit in a car accident, not in the rodeo), as is readily apparent in his performance.

Brady’s interactions with Lilly also have a sort of queasy awkwardness, although most of the movie is more sensitive, especially to Brady’s internal conflict over whether to ignore his doctors’ advice and literally get back on the horse. There’s nothing quite as bad here as the non-professional performances in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, but most of the dialogue scenes come off as artificial and forced, which is surely the opposite of what Zhao was aiming for. Brady Jandreau gives the most convincing, fully realized performance, conveying his anguish and melancholy in quiet scenes of solitude, as he slowly trains a new horse or just stares off into the South Dakota skyline, pondering his uncertain future.

That South Dakota scenery is one of the movie’s major assets, and Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards take full advantage of it, shooting gorgeous vistas of empty, open prairie, capturing the loneliness and isolation (along with beauty and tranquility) that surround the characters. Zhao immersed herself in the South Dakota Native American community for both The Rider and her debut feature, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and her affection and respect for the culture and the people come through in the film she’s made. It’s a lovingly shot ode to a dying corner of American society—it’s just not particularly effective as a dramatic narrative.

Available on home video tomorrow.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Jaws: The Revenge' (1987)

There are many, many (many, many) shark movies that are worse than Jaws: The Revenge, but probably none are quite as notorious for their awfulness. Bad low-budget shark movies are a dime a dozen, but there are only four official movies in the Jaws series, so for one of them to be among the worst movies ever made (by some estimations) is far more noteworthy than some indie filmmaker producing a terrible shark movie with a pun for a title and a budget of $1.98. The Revenge was a major studio release of summer 1987, bringing back one of the main stars of the first two Jaws movies (Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody) and co-starring big-name actor Michael Caine. And yet it's nearly as entertainingly terrible as something like Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast.

Blatantly ignoring the events of Jaws 3, The Revenge picks up with the Brody family in pretty good shape, although patriarch Martin (Roy Scheider, running far away from this movie) has apparently died of a heart attack between movies. His widow Ellen seems relatively upbeat, however, happy that her younger son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) is following in his father's footsteps as a sheriff's deputy in their coastal hometown of Amity Island, and keeping in touch with older son Mike (Lance Guest), who's working as a marine biologist in the Bahamas, where he lives with his artist wife Carla (Karen Young) and their ultra-annoying five-year-old daughter Thea (Judith Barsi). But their tranquility is soon shattered when Sean is killed by a shark, and Ellen becomes obsessed with the idea that the shark from the previous movies is coming to seek revenge on the Brodies.

Never mind that two separate sharks terrorizing Amity Island were killed in the first two movies, or that the sharks in the third movie (which, again, is completely ignored here) had no connection to those other sharks. No one bothers to remind Ellen that her late husband already killed two sharks, and there's no speculation about whether this is somehow a relative of the original shark(s), or a reincarnation or what. She seeks a fresh start by temporarily moving in with Mike and his family in the Bahamas, and the shark somehow follows her all the way there, targeting family members including little Thea, who wasn't even alive when the original shark(s) were killed (or not killed, or whatever).

The idea of the shark taking revenge on the Brodies is absurd, of course, but the movie could be more fun to watch if writer Michael de Guzman and director Joseph Sargent played up the pseudo-mystical angle a bit more, going all-in on Ellen's psychic premonitions about the shark and the shark's apparently preternatural abilities to identify and track the members of the Brody family. Instead the movie wastes time with a half-assed romance between Ellen and Caine's roguish pilot Hoagie, who get thrown together seemingly just because they're the only two middle-aged people in the cast. There's also far too much material with Mike's Bahamian research partner Jake, played by Mario Van Peebles with an "island" accent that sounds like the characters from the In Living Color "Hey Mon" sketches.

Perhaps worst of all, the production values are so low that the shark attacks aren't remotely scary or intense. Despite more than a decade of advances in special effects, the shark looks faker than ever, and Sargent completely fails to build up any suspense for the attacks. Although it features a few quotably awful lines ("I've always wanted to make love to an angry welder" is Mike's come-on to his sculptor wife), The Revenge isn't self-aware enough to make any clever commentary on its own ridiculousness. and any comedic value comes from the general lack of filmmaking standards. Almost every micro-budget shark attack movie these days knows to make a few jokes at its own expense, but The Revenge plays everything depressingly straight.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre' (2015)

For the most part, I've tried to find movies with at least some redeeming cinematic value for this latest edition of Shark Week, but when putting together the list of stuff to watch, I knew I had to include one movie solely on the basis of its endearingly dumb title. The final choice came down to Raiders of the Lost Shark and Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre, and Sharkansas won out because it looked like it might be a marginally more entertaining movie (plus "Sharkansas" is a more creative and nonsensical pun). Obviously this is not a good movie, and really the title is the best part about it, so I probably could have just had an appreciative chuckle at that and moved on.

Of course, that's not what I did. I watched the whole thing, which I can't exactly recommend. For starters, there's no prison in this movie, although most of the main characters are in fact inmates at a women's correctional facility. The closest they get to prison comes at the beginning of the movie, when six female inmates (all dressed, of course, in denim cut-offs and tight white tank tops, apparently standard prisoner attire in Arkansas) get into a van marked "Arkansas Department of Corrections" from what looks like a low-slung trailer. From there, the van heads off into the woods, where a fracking operation has inadvertently unearthed a prehistoric underground ocean and released the giant ancient sharks living there (y'know, under Arkansas).

These sharks can apparently burrow in the ground as well as swim in the water, and the movie often depicts them as tunnels of dirt that look like Bugs Bunny taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. They're more like the creatures from the Tremors movies than aquatic predators, although they do still attack from marshes and underground streams, including when the main characters decide that the best way to escape from the subterranean sharks is to, uh, head into some caves. Keeping the sharks underground the whole time presumably allows the filmmakers to save money on special effects, since the sharks themselves only show up onscreen a handful of times. There's also very little gore in this movie, even though many characters get eaten alive, with most of the kills happening offscreen.

And despite the presence of numerous well-endowed actresses in skimpy outfits, there's no nudity or sex in this movie either, so it doesn't offer much to prurient interests of any kind. There's minimal humor in the screenplay by William Dever and director Jim Wynorski, although Traci Lords (apparently having entered the "world-weary veteran cop" phase of her career) is amusing as the detective attempting to track down the missing inmates. Wynorski is a bit of an exploitation legend, who's churned out dozens of movies including one genuine cult classic (Chopping Mall); several cash-in sequels (The Return of Swamp Thing, 976-Evil II, Ghoulies IV); other ridiculous creature features (Piranhaconda, Camel Spiders, Komodo vs. Cobra); and a bunch of straight-up softcore porn. Sharkansas was probably just another day at the office for him, throwing together some boobs and some blood to go with a silly title dreamed up for marketing purposes. The end result is nothing more, and nothing less, than that.