Monday, March 20, 2017

VODepths: 'Burlesque,' 'Punching Henry,' 'This Is Everything'

Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe (documentary, dir. Jon Manning) This documentary about burlesque performers in Portland is more of a commercial for local stage productions than an insightful or entertaining exploration of the art form. Manning gives no context for burlesque either as a historical practice or as a resurgent trend, instead just alternating talking-head interviews with performance footage, all of it looking like a low-budget newsmagazine. It's all resolutely superficial, with only brief digressions about some of the performers' personal lives, all of which are quickly moved past in favor of more underwhelming live performances. There's very little structure to the movie, which jumps around from subject to subject without any narrative progression, and doesn't have a clear starting or ending point. Building to a competition (many interviewees are credited as winners of past titles) or a benefit performance might have given the movie a better hook, and placing the community in the context of the city and/or the larger burlesque movement might have shown why these particular people should represent the entire current scene. As it is, this is a sizzle reel for a third-tier reality show, and barely adequate at that. Available on Amazon and iTunes.

Punching Henry (Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, J.K. Simmons, dir. Gregori Viens) Henry Phillips is the kind of comedian who garners lots of respect from other comedians but has never broken through to mainstream success, and his 2009 autobiographical feature Punching the Clown has built up a small cult following. Punching Henry is a quasi-sequel but seems to stand on its own (I never saw the previous movie), depicting the fictionalized life of Phillips (playing himself) as a struggling comedian. Phillips (who co-wrote the movie with director Gregori Viens) clearly called in a lot of favors, and famous comedians including Tig Notaro, Jim Jefferies, Sarah Silverman and Doug Stanhope show up in supporting roles. The problem is that Phillips himself has no charisma, no screen presence and almost no funny jokes. The episodic movie follows his misadventures in Hollywood, with some vaguely Curb Your Enthusiasm-style cringe humor and some really outdated, broad swipes at social media and viral marketing. Phillips' comedy is mostly in song form, and his folky compositions are at best semi-funny, and often just in a conceptual way. I'm sure he's a great guy for other comedians to pal around with, but this movie offers a good demonstration of why he's not more famous. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (documentary, dir. Barbara Kopple) Most of YouTube Red's feature films have been low-budget, low-concept cash-ins for insular YouTube celebrities, and this documentary about transgender beauty vlogger and YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous could easily have been the same thing. But Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., Shut Up & Sing) elevates the material, and what had the potential to be a crass promotional piece ends up as a slightly more sophisticated and sensitive promotional piece. As a YouTuber from her early teens, Gigi has plenty of footage to document her transition from shy gay boy to glamorous woman, and Kopple supplements it with talking-head interviews (mostly featuring Gigi's family) and plenty of intimate moments, including multiple surgeries. It's a mostly uplifting, positive story, as Gigi has a supportive family and plenty of resources to fund her transition exactly the way she wants to, and there are only a handful of slightly negative moments that pass quickly. The early steps of Gigi's journey are more compelling than her more recent celebrity adventures, since she's ultimately still a narcissistic, somewhat annoying online and reality TV star, even if she's dealt with a lot of adversity to get there. Available on YouTube Red.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen Days' (2000)

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

The kind of movie that would probably go direct to HBO these days, Thirteen Days is a solid if occasionally hokey account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, depicting the political maneuvering in the White House among President John F. Kennedy's team of advisers. In particular, it focuses on Ken O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), a longtime Kennedy associate whose steady clear-headedness is portrayed as the secret weapon holding the White House team together. In reality, that may not have been the case (sources seem to disagree on how important O'Donnell really was), but it works for the movie, giving the audience an everyman character to identify with who isn't one of the most famous politicians in American history.

Even those famous politicians, brothers John and Robert Kennedy (played by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, respectively), come across as grounded and real, relatively young men who find themselves in charge of an entire country and responsible for keeping it from being consumed by nuclear war. The movie portrays the warmongering American military leaders as nearly as much of a danger as the Soviets, eager to push the country into war at every provocation. Thanks to counsel from O'Donnell and from his brother, Kennedy holds the line, and his confrontations with seasoned military commanders (who are older than him and clearly consider themselves wiser) are thrilling to watch.

The movie is a pretty engrossing procedural even when it isn't filled with tension, showing how various officials perform their duties during a crisis that lasts nearly two weeks (hence the title), and how recent presidential appointees mesh with career military and political officials. One of the movie's best moments comes as U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Michael Fairman), a veteran of multiple failed presidential campaigns and a relic of the country's political past, prepares for a showdown with the Soviet U.N. ambassador, and Robert Kennedy anticipates pulling Stevenson out because he doesn't have the spine to stand up to the Soviets. But Stevenson comes through in a big way, proving that the generations of patriots can work together for a common cause. It's a rousing and effective message that seems almost quaint in the current political climate.

Costner is solid as O'Donnell, although he lays on the Boston accent perhaps a little too thickly. And while it's a smart choice to build the movie around a relatable guy, the scenes between O'Donnell and his wife and kids are all dreadfully cheesy, hammering home the idea that the idyllic home life of Americans could be destroyed in an instant if the government didn't find a way to avert nuclear war. The stakes are clear enough in the high-level political meetings without the blatant tugging on the heartstrings. Still, the sentimental scenes (including some inspirational moments with military pilots) are minimal, and they're outweighed by the smartly written political maneuvering. If it were made for HBO now, Thirteen Days would probably win a ton of Emmys, instead of barely making a dent at the box office as it did when it was released theatrically.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Hollywood Canteen' (1944)

In my ongoing (albeit recently slowed) efforts to cover the entire Bette Davis canon, I've always skipped over 1944's Hollywood Canteen whenever it showed up on TCM, because all I read about it was that Davis' role was little more than a cameo. But thanks to the episode of Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast about the movie and the real-life Hollywood Canteen, I learned that Davis' connection was a lot stronger than I previously thought. The truth is that Davis really doesn't make much more than a cameo in the movie, but she's one of the driving forces behind the fascinating Hollywood Canteen project, and so while she's not credited as a producer on the film, she's in some ways responsible for its entire existence.

As a movie, Canteen isn't particularly good, although it's a fascinating historical artifact for anyone interested in classic Hollywood (which is why it was a perfect subject for YMRT). Davis and John Garfield founded the actual Hollywood Canteen in 1942 as a haven for members of the military spending time in Los Angeles awaiting deployment overseas. It recruited cast and crew from Hollywood studios to work as everything from entertainers to waiters to dishwashers in a nightclub that was free to anyone enlisted in the military service (including women and service members from allied foreign countries). It's the kind of apparently uncomplicated patriotism that would never happen in Hollywood today (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and the movie reflects the wholesome positivity that the project was meant to embody. It's more or less a feature-length version of a "buy war bonds" ad, albeit with as much propaganda for Hollywood itself as for the war effort.

The thin plot involves two soldiers, Robert Hutton's Cpl. Slim Green and Dane Clark's Sgt. Nowlan, on leave from the Pacific theater for a few days before shipping back out to war. They hang out at the Canteen, where Slim inexplicably charms all the celebrities and becomes the beneficiary of loads of special treatment, including a weekend spent with starlet Joan Leslie (who was a big name at the time but has since been mostly been forgotten). Meanwhile, Nolan eventually hooks up with a sassy studio messenger girl played by Janis Paige, who displays far more personality and independence than the saintly Joan. All of this stuff takes up maybe a third of the movie and just sort of trails off at the end; it's strange that Slim and Joan (playing herself, like the dozens of other celebrities in the movie) have a traditional romance, since it seems to imply that going to the Canteen allows soldiers to hook up with famous actresses. And Joan is portrayed as such a sweetly wholesome young woman (she lives with her parents and won't allow Slim to accompany her inside the house when they're not home) that the movie's contrast with Hollywood debauchery borders on self-parody.

The rest of the movie is devoted to musical performances at the Canteen, from acts including Roy Rogers, the Andrews Sisters, dancers Antonio and Rosario, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Cantor and more. Some of these performances are entertaining (the Andrews sisters are fabulous) and some are kind of a chore (a dreadful bit featuring Jack Benny and a famous violinist goes on forever), but they're all more fitting for a variety show than a movie, even a musical revue. There are also numerous patriotic speeches, mostly from the cameo-ing celebrities (whose names are conveniently announced by the main characters). Davis plays an almost entirely expository role, showing up every so often to explain the purpose of the Canteen or to award Slim some new, entirely undeserved perk. She's upbeat and friendly, which is a bit off-brand for her but makes sense given that she's there solely to promote this huge charitable endeavor she's in charge of. It's not a notable onscreen role for her, but it's a pretty impressive document of one of her biggest offscreen achievements.

Monday, February 20, 2017

VODepths: 'American Fable,' 'Chasing Bubbles,' 'Deadly Virtues'

American Fable (Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, dir. Anne Hamilton) I saw this movie at the Las Vegas Film Festival last June, when I was sort of surprised to see that it had been a favorite at other, more prominent festivals, because it struck me as the kind of amateurish first feature that gets into second-tier festivals and then disappears (it's now being released by IFC Films, although without much promotion). It's a weird sort of pseudo-fable (per the title) set sometime in the 1980s in the rural Midwest, about a young girl who befriends the banker sent to foreclose on her family's farm -- who happens to be held captive in an old silo after being attacked by her father. Their relationship, patterned after fairy tales in which children are lured in by imprisoned witches and monsters, makes no sense in the context of the story about economic struggles and familial tensions, and Richard Schiff, generally a welcome presence, has no idea how to play his character, who is a combination of a pragmatic corporate climber and a beguiling trickster. There are some lovely shots of Midwestern countryside that show a bit of writer-director Anne Hamilton's influence from her mentor Terrence Malick, but the acting is awkward and often flat-out bad, the story is a haphazard mix of social realism and ethereal wonder, the period setting is completely unconvincing and pointless, and none of it amounts to anything at the end. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Chasing Bubbles (documentary, dir. Topher Cochrane and Alex Rust) I've complained before, both here and elsewhere, about low-budget films that feel like watching someone else's home movies, and the documentary Chasing Bubbles, funded on Kickstarter and distributed for free online via Kentucker Audley's No Budge and elsewhere, is the epitome of that annoying byproduct of widely available filmmaking technology. Director Topher Cochrane crafts a loving tribute to his friend Alex Rust (who's credited as co-director thanks to the use of his copious personally shot footage), but the result is of value only to Rust's friends and supporters, an entirely insular collection of vapid vacation videos. A successful day trader who came from a wealthy family, Rust decided in 2008 to quit his job and sail around the world, despite having no sailing experience. He seems like a nice (if obliviously privileged) guy, and he clearly had a great time during the three and a half years he spent traveling on his boat, picking up various friends (both new and old) along the way. But there's nothing more than a rich, entitled bro's vacation footage, artfully edited, going on in this movie until the very end, after the sailing trip is over. Spoiler alert, I guess: Rust died about a year later, while on another trip, but not even in some ironic or poignant way that recontextualizes the preceding footage. He was a friendly guy who had a good time and died too young, and everyone who knew him liked him. That makes this a lovely way for his friends and family to send him off, not something that should play to a general audience. Available on No Budge.

Deadly Virtues: Love. Honour. Obey. (Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, dir. Ate de Jong) This unpleasant piece of torture porn from the U.K. came out on home video overseas two years ago but is just now making its way to the U.S. It reminded me a bit of the equally distasteful Mexican thriller Honeymoon, which I wrote about in this space last month, and which is similarly bare-bones and similarly exploitative and ugly. In this case, a man invades a suburban couple's home and holds them hostage for a weekend, torturing and imprisoning the husband while forcing the wife to playact a relationship with him. The filmmakers frame this as some pseudo-feminist empowerment narrative, which is blatant bullshit and borderline offensive, really. Aaron (Akrout), the psychopath who breaks into the couple's house, threatens rape, ties them up, cuts off the husband's fingers and makes the wife model fetish outfits for him, is really just there to teach Alison (Maczko) to stand up for herself and leave her abusive husband Tom (Barber). Sure, Tom cheating on Alison and smacking her around is bad, but there's no way that it's worse than torture, maiming and sexual assault. This kind of false moralizing doesn't work in Saw movies, and it certainly doesn't work in this low-budget production, which also suffers from terrible sound (the dialogue is often difficult to hear), mediocre performances and bland visuals. Any serious impact the story might have had gets thrown out during the absurd climax and even more ridiculous coda, setting up the main villain as some sort of savior of trapped women. Neither he nor the movie can credibly fill that role. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th' (2016)

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

I've been putting off watching Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th despite its critical acclaim (and recent Oscar nomination), because social-issue documentaries are easily my least favorite movie genre, and I usually don't have much to say about them. Even in these politically turbulent times, I do my best to avoid politics both in my writing and in my personal life, and focusing on the cinematic merits of movies like 13th is often difficult when their political message seems to be all that matters to viewers and critics. If not for this project, I might have simply passed on the movie entirely.

I can't say that I regret watching 13th, but I can't say that I got much out of it, either, from a cinematic or a political perspective. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but also established the legality of forced servitude as punishment for a crime, and DuVernay takes that as the origin of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S. The movie starts, then, just after the Civil War and goes through the present day, which gives it a lot of ground to cover. DuVernay's focus on the idea of mass incarceration allows her to narrow her scope a bit, but the movie still makes plenty of digressions and jumps around in time, sometimes getting lost along the way.

A lot of the historical material may be a little basic for anyone with a working knowledge of U.S. history, and the message is most powerful toward the end of the movie, when DuVernay connects current rhetoric (including from Donald Trump, who was still just a presidential candidate when the movie was produced) to the more inflammatory and blatantly racist words and actions of the past. Her point about the expression of racism simply taking on different forms over time comes through most clearly in the final stretch, when she strongly connects current events to episodes from the past that most people agree were inexcusable.

Cinematically, the movie is straightforward and unadventurous, combining talking-head interviews (featuring scholars, activists and politicians) with archival footage. At least DuVernay doesn't try to include entertainers or artists among her interviewees; everyone she talks to is authoritative and involved with the subject they're addressing. She even allows a handful of conservatives to offer counterarguments, and while she's obviously opposed to what they're saying, she doesn't just set them up for Michael Moore-style takedowns. For people who know little about the history of race relations in America, the movie is relatively informative, although I wonder if any of those people will actually watch it. More likely, it's allowing people already familiar with these ideas the chance to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side. There's nothing wrong with feeling proud of your views on the world, but that's different from great filmmaking. Should this movie be shown in schools? Sure. Should it win an Oscar? Definitely not.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

VODepths: 'Coin Heist,' 'Counter Clockwise,' 'Fanny Pey'

Coin Heist (Sasha Pieterse, Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Jay Walker, dir. Emily Hagins) I have an affection for Hagins after watching the utterly charming 2009 documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, about her efforts to make her first feature film starting when she was just 12 years old, and I've even watched that movie (Pathogen), which is of course endearingly terrible. Hagins could have become a footnote or a novelty, but instead she's pursued a serious filmmaking career, and Coin Heist is her fifth feature (she's now 24). It's not great, but it's professional and competent, and it shows how much Hagins has developed as a filmmaker. The main actors here are two TV veterans (from Freeform teen dramas Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters) and two social-media stars, and they mix together pretty well as a group of teens who plan an unlikely heist in order to save their private school after its endowment is embezzled away. The plan is to break into the U.S. Mint and deliberately print error coins which can then be sold for high prices to collectors. It's kind of a silly concept, and there are plenty of holes in the plan, but the characters are likable, and writer-director Hagins (working from a novel by Elisa Ludwig) has a nice feel for teenage relationships. There's a meta element to the story, with the group's leader getting his ideas from heist movies, that could have been explored further, especially given Hagins' obvious geek-culture background. But like a lot of the aspects of the story, it's a bit underdeveloped, and ultimately the movie feels hollow and inconsequential, with a pretty bare-bones climactic heist. Still, it's a step in the right direction for Hagins, who will probably make her first really good feature by the time most filmmakers are just getting started. Available on Netflix.

Counter Clockwise (Michael Kopelow, Alice Rietveld, Devon Ogden, dir. George Moïse) This low-budget time-travel thriller clearly has aspirations to be the next Primer, but it gets some of that movie's opaqueness without any of the intriguing artistry. Which is to say that the plot is often confusing and difficult to follow, and yet there's no emotional or even aesthetic payoff to putting the pieces together. Kopelow (who also co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced and worked on the production design) plays a supposedly brilliant scientist (who looks like Brian Posehn and dresses like a member of a garage-rock band) who accidentally invents a time machine in his lab (basically just a storage space, perhaps an explicit nod to Primer) and impulsively tests it on himself without any idea of how it works, really. He ends up six months in the future (although even this basic detail isn't clarified until late in the movie), discovering that his wife and sister were murdered just hours after he left. In trying to prevent this tragedy, he of course just makes things worse, but not in an ironic or tragic or meaningful way. The guy is just a dumbass, really, and he could have avoided the whole problem if he'd just made some basic tests on the time machine first. The corporate villains are ridiculous, the pseudo-science is laughable, and the filmmaking is full of distractingly flashy camera moves that add nothing. As in a lot of low-budget movies, the world of the story feels very constrained and empty, which is a problem when your narrative encompasses the entire time-space continuum. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Fanny Pey (Ivan Pavletic, Alex Amadei, John Strelec, dir. Alex Amadei) I discovered this movie thanks to, of all things, comment spam; various people associated with the production kept plugging the movie in comments on the AV Club and other pop-culture sites, and I Googled it because I am now on the hunt for extremely obscure movies to cover for this feature. It's the work of a Colorado-based filmmaking collective called Film Wants You Back, who've posted five full feature films for free to YouTube over the last two years. Fanny Pey is their most recent, although they're already raising funds for another movie on Indiegogo. It's awesome that these guys are going out and pursuing their artistic ambitions and then sharing them with the world for free, but Fanny Pey is a terrible, terrible movie, which tried every ounce of my patience even at barely 70 minutes. I'm not sure what tone Amadei's other films take, but Fanny Pey, ostensibly about an evil doll stalking four people who invoke its spirit, is painfully self-conscious about being "bad," which means lots of belabored, groan-worthy jokes, deliberately crappy special effects, nonsensical story developments and performances so broadly over the top it seems like the actors may pull a muscle. (That's not to mention the amateurish camera work and uneven pacing.) Clearly everyone involved had a great time, but watching movies like this is the equivalent of looking at someone's house party video on their smartphone. Just because things can be shared with the world doesn't always mean that they should be. Available on YouTube.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Seconds' (2003)

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

I've watched a lot of bad movies for this project, but perhaps none as completely inept as writer/director/star Jeff Thomas' 13 Seconds. In many ways, 13 Seconds is just a typical shitty ultra-low-budget horror movie, corralling a bunch of characters in a creepy location and killing them off one by one. And certainly there are plenty of cheapo indie horror production that are just as bad as 13 Seconds, or even worse. But there are also plenty that manage to make the most of their limited resources, to write clever dialogue or interesting characters or to exhibit some visual flair even without sophisticated visual effects. Thomas manages none of that, although he did manage some pretty impressive distribution for this terrible, terrible movie, as many of the scathing IMDb reviews (complaining about renting the movie at Blockbuster and other video stores) attest. I easily found a DVD copy at my local library.

Shot on what looks like consumer-grade video in Thomas' native Detroit and populated with actors who aren't even up to the standards of community theater, 13 Seconds is without any sort of merit, even as a campy source of mockery. It's so technically inept that characters have conversations without ever appearing in the same shot, and much of the post-dubbed dialogue doesn't even sync up with the movements of the actors' mouths. The story features the members of a rock band (who never play any instruments or even attempt to set up their gear), plus a few hangers-on, converging in an old abandoned building (which is possibly a school or a house or a theater, and includes an art gallery, multiple bedrooms and a dark basement) to record their latest song or album or maybe video. As with everything in the movie, even the basic setup is unclear and glossed over, like Thomas couldn't be bothered to come up with a proper explanation or even a simple logline.

But the setup is the least of the movie's problems, really, since plenty of horror movies contrive thin reasons for characters to end up in a dangerous place, and still manage to generate suspense and scares from the situation. But everything else about 13 Seconds is as listless as its initial premise, and the terrible acting undermines any possible tension in the story. It's impossible to understate just how bad every actor is, and Thomas deserves much of the blame, since in addition to writing and directing, he also stars as the movie's main character (whom the eventual idiotic twist reveals as really the only character of any consequence). Once people start going missing and/or turning up dead, no one in the cast can even muster any energy to express fear or anger or concern, and nearly every line reading sounds like the character is on the verge of falling asleep.

That may be because multiple characters do go to sleep, just taking naps in creepy bedrooms in this abandoned building, even though theoretically they are all there to record and/or rehearse music of some kind. That allows Thomas to stage multiple fake-out dream sequences, which make even less sense once the ending reveals (spoiler alert, I guess) that nearly the entire movie is a dying vision of Thomas' character Davis, who has experienced it all in the final, yes, 13 seconds of his life (he's dying of a drug overdose). So why does his vision include other people's dream sequences? That's just one of the many, many incomprehensibilities of the movie's plot, which throws a bunch of ghost/demon/spirit things around without ever clarifying what they are or why they are there. Even the final explanation that it's all Davis' death dream (which I suppose absolves Thomas of having to create any logical consistency) is vague and rushed, turning one of the previously anonymous supporting characters into an angel of sorts, ending on a quasi-religious message. I was dreading the movie turning into a Christian allegory, but like everything else Thomas attempts here, the religious angle is a complete failure in concept and execution.