Monday, April 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apartment 1303' (2012)

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

The 2007 Japanese horror movie Apartment 1303 is not exactly a stellar example of the genre, but the dreadful 2012 American remake makes it look like a masterpiece. It's sort of appropriate that a third-tier J-horror movie has been remade as a low-budget, basically direct-to-VOD American horror movie, featuring C-list actors clearly hard up for roles. Apartment 1303's only real selling points are its stars, specifically Mischa Barton in the lead role as a woman investigating her sister's mysterious death and Rebecca De Mornay as the sisters' mother, whose part has been greatly expanded from the original. But both actresses are terrible, with Barton giving a wooden performance that feels like she's marking time until the shoot ends and she can go home, and De Mornay overacting wildly as a drunken washed-up rocker who smothers her daughters.

The plot outline is basically the same, with timid 20-something Janet (Julianne Michelle) moving into her first apartment and encountering the ghost of a young woman who forces her off the balcony. Janet's sister Lara (Barton) then attempts to find out what happened, discovering the story of a mother and daughter who are now haunting the apartment, pushing all the young female tenants off the balcony. Writer-director Michael Taverna spends more time with Janet before she falls to her death, and he compresses the lengthy back story into a few quick explanations. Neither of these changes improves the plotting, especially since Michelle is extremely irritating as Janet, who's constantly talking to herself so she can over-explain her feelings and what's happening in the story.

Clearing out the flashbacks also makes room for more scenes of De Mornay, dressed like a second-rate Stevie Nicks, chewing scenery, but her performance is more desperate and sad than campy. A couple of months ago I watched the obscure Sam Rockwell indie movie Lawn Dogs on DVD, and was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable performance from a 10-year-old Barton in one of her first roles. She apparently peaked early, because she's clearly completely checked out by now, barely putting any effort into her performance. Not that this material deserves much effort; Taverna's screenplay includes such dialogue gems as "Apartments don't kill people. People kill people," which is such a crucial line that it gets repeated three times throughout the movie.

Taverna's film is also a mess visually, with cheap-looking effects and some basic failures of blocking (there are multiple scenes in which he can't even bother to put the two actors who are facing off against each other in the same frame). For some reason this movie was released in 3D in a very limited capacity, but I can't imagine how the flat images and drab sets would be improved by seeing them in 3D. I dismissed the original Apartment 1303 as dull and forgettable, but that's a welcome alternative to a movie this inept and tedious.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

'The Comedians'

On the FX comedy The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play versions of themselves who are pathologically desperate for attention and validation, and who reluctantly team up for a sketch-comedy show even though they have no chemistry or creative compatibility or mutual respect. That doesn't seem too far from the truth about this show, which is strained and painfully unfunny, bringing out the worst in its two already hammy leads. The format itself is tired, with more disingenuous self-deprecation from celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves, alongside a parade of awkward cameos.

The jokes about the shallowness and insincerity of show business are cliched, and dated enough that they could have come out of a sitcom from 20 years ago. Crystal seems like he's reluctant to really dig into his persona, so his character is more put-upon than actively unpleasant, but that just makes the potential satire even more lifeless. Gad is more willing to mock himself, but he's not really famous enough to have enough material for mockery (there are far too many jokes about 1600 Penn). The supporting cast features some cliched show business characters (the pretentious writer, the lazy production assistant, the stressed-out producer), and plenty of the humor is just moldy and stale (Steven Weber has an unfortunate two-episode arc as a wildly miscalculated transgender character, and there's an entire episode devoted to Crystal and Gad getting high and wandering a supermarket).

I'm honestly not sure whether the occasional sketches from the show-within-the-show are actually meant to be funny, or meant to be funny because they are terrible, but they don't succeed at either one. I may have been disappointed with the last season of Louie, but at least Louis C.K. is pushing boundaries and expanding the idea of what can be done in a show featuring a celebrity playing himself. Pairing The Comedians with Louie just highlights how backward and regressive and pathetic it is. For a network known to take chances and foster artistic ambition, this is a lazy, clumsy misfire.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th' (2000)

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

It's probably not a good sign when the best way to identify your film would be as "the poor man's Scary Movie." Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th was released direct to video a few months after the first movie in the alarmingly successful horror-movie parody series, and while Scary Movie has spawned four sequels and is apparently beloved by many, Shriek has been justifiably forgotten. As far as quickie spoofs go, Shriek is at least more structurally sound than movies like the works of infamous duo Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and the filmmakers (writers Sue Bailey and Joe Nelms, director John Blanchard) have a decent grasp on their most obvious targets (Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer). The opening scene is a fairly impressive re-creation of the opening scene from Scream; the only problem is that none of its jokes are remotely funny. At times it's not even clear what the jokes are meant to be.

That problem pervades the generally laugh-free movie, which, like Scream, takes place in a small town menaced by a hooded and masked killer. Obviously plotting isn't a major concern in a spoof, but Shriek is so listless that the incoherent plot ends up dragging it down, and the requirements of a parody mean that the filmmakers have to include large chunks of plot from both Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. There are also the requisite references to other horror movies (including Child's Play, Halloween and, of course, Friday the 13th), as well as an inordinate fixation on Dawson's Creek, which extends to naming one of the characters Dawson Deery (a play on Dawson Leery), even though he does nothing at all that's reminiscent of the character he's named for. There is exactly one clever idea in the movie, a brief bit about the characters being aware that they're in a parody (much like the characters in Scream are aware of the rules of horror movies), which might have made for some successfully self-aware commentary on self-awareness, but it disappears as quickly as any of the other half-formed comedic riffs.

The cast is a who's-who of people who needed money at the end of the '90s, including Tiffani Thiessen, Tom Arnold, Simon Rex, Coolio, Heather Graham's sister Aimee, Artie Lange and, uh, Shirley Jones. Buffy the Vampire Slayer recurring players Julie Benz and Danny Strong (now an Emmy-winning writer) play two of the main characters, and while Benz actually comes off fairly well, Strong radiates desperation as the nerdy virgin character (who ends up in a running, half-assed American Pie parody). The producers seem to have spent most of their money on casting, because the movie's aesthetic is grubby and cheap, with limited sets and fake-looking special effects. The art of filmmaking is even less of a concern than plot mechanics in a movie like this, but the lack of style and grace speaks to how little anyone involved seems to care about the finished product.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Parachute Jumper' (1933)

Bette Davis apparently cited Parachute Jumper as the worst movie she ever made, and clips from it were used in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to illustrate the terrible roles her character was forced to take. To be fair, Davis is pretty bad in this movie, but the film itself isn't nearly as awful as plenty of others she churned out in the '30s, or some of the truly dreadful stuff from late in her career. Maybe because she was annoyed at being stuck with yet another faithful girlfriend role, Davis coasts through Parachute Jumper, affecting a terrible, inconsistent Southern accent as a woman nicknamed "Alabama." She's the third most important character at best, behind star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as former military pilot Bill Keller and Frank McHugh as his buddy and fellow former airman Toodles.

The two of them get booted from the Marines after going AWOL and getting drunk in Nicaragua, and they find themselves broke in New York City at the height of the Depression. Although it's mostly a lighthearted caper, Parachute Jumper does show some of the harsh realities of the Depression, including Bill and Toodles sharing the same worn-out suit to look for work, and Bill and Alabama joking about eating a stray cat. That comes soon after the two of them first meet, and she immediately shacks up with Bill and Toodles, amid plenty of sexual innuendo. The pre-Code naughtiness is Parachute Jumper's greatest appeal, and it includes lots of double entendres, drug-dealing and murder, characters in their undershirts, and Toodles giving the middle finger to a rude driver.

But the plot is a bit of a mess, jumping from the trio looking for jobs to Bill getting hired as a chauffeur for a randy socialite to its eventual focus as all three go to work for a suave gangster named Weber (Leo Carillo). They come across as simultaneously naive (believing Weber's story about border patrol agents really being hijackers) and devious, and they eventually scheme to bring Weber down, mainly because working for a criminal organization has become too risky to justify the money. They manage to escape without any legal consequences, and the movie ends with Bill and Toodles rejoining the military (from which they couldn't wait to get away), because that's apparently the only reliable source of income, and slightly less risky than working for the mob. It's a haphazard ending to a haphazard movie that never really figures out what it's supposed to be about.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th' (2009)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 
 Having exhausted all the movies in the original Friday the 13th series that have the number 13 in their titles, I've moved on to the 2009 series reboot, which could probably have been branded as yet another sequel without much alteration. It's not a remake of the 1980 original, and it's certainly less of a radical retooling than, say, Jason X, which took Jason into space. Instead it's just the latest iteration of Jason the unstoppable killing machine murdering a bunch of young pretty people, with the requisite gore and nudity. It does open with a black-and-white prologue that sort of recontextualizes the ending of the original movie, with Jason's mother stalking counselors as revenge for their letting her son die, but that seems to exist primarily to get the expected story beats out of the way, so that horror nerds can't accuse the producers of ignoring the original concept of the series.

The thing is, with its impressionistic flashes of black-and-white images, the prologue is probably the strongest, most distinctive part of the movie. It certainly has more style than what follows, which is an uninspired rehash of familiar slasher-movie elements, with some slight adjustments to Jason's approach. For reasons that are not quite clear, he kidnaps rather than kills one of his victims (Amanda Righetti), whose brother (Jared Padalecki) then heads to Crystal Lake to search for her, encountering the standard group of sexy morons ripe for the slaughter (following the previous group of sexy morons slaughtered after the prologue but still before the opening credits). Director Marcus Nispel (also responsible for the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) and writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift run through some of the series' greatest hits, from Jason's mom's rampage to Jason himself discovering his iconic hockey mask (after first wearing a cloth hood) to Jason's expected final surge up from the bottom of Crystal Lake.

They don't add any meaning or context, though, nor do they tell a compelling or original story. The acting from some familiar young faces (in addition to Righetti and Padalecki, the cast includes Danielle Panabaker, Ben Feldman and Ryan Hansen) is passable, but the female characters especially are essentially interchangeable (and deployed mainly for their nude assets, in several instances). Travis Van Winkle gets some amusingly campy moments as the entitled douchebag who doesn't believe in Jason, but even his entertainment value is minimal. (His funniest moment involves dropping his gun in a ravine while running away from Jason and then yelling, "Where the fuck are you, gun?"). Instead of reinvigorating or reinventing the franchise, the reboot is little more than another desultory sequel. Naturally, there's another one planned for next year.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Ex-Lady' (1933)

For a film made in 1933, Ex-Lady features remarkably progressive values, but its open-mindedness (helped by being made before the implementation of the Production Code) only carries it so far. It's refreshing and even a little jarring at first to see single career woman Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) carrying on a sexual relationship with ad executive Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), and to stand up to her very old-fashioned parents when they try to pressure her into getting married. It's obvious these two are having plenty of premarital sex with no consequences, and that they are completely happy about it.

Unfortunately, the movie has them get married anyway, at Don's insistence, although at least becoming a wife doesn't mean that Helen has to stay home and cook all day. She joins Don's advertising firm as a junior partner, and it's clear throughout the movie that her skills as an illustrator and graphic designer are in much higher demand than Don's skills at whatever he does. But this isn't quite the proto-Mad Men it sounds like; the intrigue is mostly dull and plodding, and the characters lack the spark they seemed to have at the beginning of the movie. Once married, Helen and Don immediately get into a rut, made worse by financial troubles at the ad agency.

Despite their early hedonism, they both turn out to be rather dull, and even Helen's antipathy toward marriage is more about her being a stubborn stick in the mud than a free-spirited lover. She decides that getting married was the cause of their problems, just as she predicted, so they decide to separate and become lovers again, living apart and going on dates every so often, while half-heartedly pursuing (but never consummating) dalliances with other people. There's no sense of what drew Helen and Don together in the first place, nor any real sense of what then pushes them apart. The movie ends with the pair making a renewed commitment to married life, but again, it's hard to see what has changed that will make their second effort any more successful.

As usual, Davis is strongest when she's playing Helen as a feisty, independent woman, and she's less appealing once Helen gets needy and indecisive. Raymond is more of a blank slate, and he plays Don as a reluctant reactor, just as likely to go along with Helen's progressive marital ideas as he is to fall back on convention, depending on who's around. It makes for a mismatched relationship, with little audience investment in whether the pair will stay together or not. As carefree, rule-flouting lovers, they're refreshing, but as a couple, they're a total bore.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'Man Seeking Woman'

The generic title of Man Seeking Woman doesn't indicate the surreal tone of the comedy starring Jay Baruchel as a lonely single guy in Chicago, and it isn't going to do the show any favors in its struggle to find an audience. Relegated to FXX, the network where FX sends shows to die (exception: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Man Seeking Woman seems destined to air for a single low-rated season and then disappear, leaving only semi-fond memories. It's not a terrible show, but it's not distinctive enough to overcome its disadvantages, nor is it outrageous enough to compete with It's Always Sunny, whose 10th season serves as a lead-in.

The bare bones of the premise are as simple as the title implies: After getting dumped by his longtime girlfriend, slacker temp Josh (Baruchel) is looking to meet someone new. He has a best friend (played by Eric Andre) and a sister (played by Britt Lower) who help him. But Josh's mundane relationship struggles are portrayed with a heavy dose of surreal fantasy that exaggerate the metaphorical difficulties of dating. Ever feel like you've been set up on a blind date with a troll? Josh ends up having dinner with an actual troll, who lives under a bridge and eats garbage. Ever feel like your ex's new significant other is the worst person in history? Josh's ex-girlfriend turns out to be dating Adolf Hitler (played by Bill Hader). And that's just in the first episode.

While these bits offer amusing takes on the overblown drama of relationships, every joke is drawn out into a set piece that lasts several minutes, meaning that they're consistently beaten into the ground. When Josh gets dragged into a relationship courtroom for perceived violations against his new girlfriend, it's sort of funny, but by the third time he's there defending his case, the joke has entirely lost steam. I was mistakenly hoping for a grounded but raunchy romantic comedy along the lines of the excellent You're the Worst (which recently received the FX kiss of death by being transferred to FXX), and the weird thing about Man Seeking Woman is that it's still trying to be that kind of show amid all the fantastical touches. But the fantasy bits just end up putting the emotions in air quotes, since every step in Josh's dating journey becomes a belabored sketch. A show about a single guy who actually dates trolls and fends off sex aliens might be refreshing, but Man Seeking Woman reduces those elements to cheap punchlines in what turns out to be a pretty unremarkable romantic comedy.

Premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on FXX.