Tuesday, June 19, 2018

VODepths: 'Bark,' 'The Nursery,' 'Soft Matter'

Bark (Annie Brennen, Caitrin Gallagher, Eli Rubenstein, dir. Anna Nilles and Marco Jake) Three young siblings (two in high school, one in college) deal with their mother's suicide in a movie occasionally narrated by the voice of their dog in Bark, which sounds like it would be cutesy and sentimental, but is actually slow and naturalistic, with a lot of silent long takes and awkward interactions. Writer-directors Anna Nilles and Marco Jake withhold some basic information at first, including the nature of the mother's death, but their revelations are so restrained that initially I wasn't even sure what they were meant to convey. Some of the mumblecore-style bickering among the siblings is entertaining, but it's more often just tiresome, and there are some weird metafictional elements (in one scene another actor walks onscreen to essentially "tag out" the main actor playing the teenage brother, saying that the directors want him to take a break) that seem jarringly out of place. Even the conceit of the narration from the dog is inconsistent, reaching its culmination in a scene that feels like it should be the end of the movie, then completely dropped as the movie continues on. The occasional lyrical passages aren't enough to compensate for the disjointed structural composition. Available on No Budge.

The Nursery (Maddi Conway, Emmaline Friederichs, Carly Rae James Sauer, dir. Christopher A. Micklos and Jay Sapiro) At one point in The Nursery, one of the characters describes what's happening as "textbook ghost stuff," and that's a pretty fair description for this occasionally passable, entirely generic micro-budget horror movie. A college student babysits at a remote house where vaguely spooky things start happening, and when her friends show up to visit her, they're all terrorized by a malevolent spirit that may or may not be connected to the family that lives in the house and their young baby that Ranae (Maddi Conway) is charged with watching. It takes a little while for the story to get going, and once things start moving, the scares are pretty familiar loud noises and sudden apparitions. The filmmakers try to deepen the narrative by giving Ranae a tragic back story that just comes off as melodramatic, although the performances are fairly strong for a movie of this small a scale. The reveal of the ghost's true nature is pretty underwhelming, the kills are tame, and the conclusion is anticlimactic, brushing aside all the death and danger preceding it. It's textbook ghost stuff, and not even a particularly engaging textbook. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Soft Matter (Ruby Lee Dove II, Hal Schneider, Mary Anzalone, dir. Jim Hickcox) I don't even know where to start with the bizarre sci-fi/horror movie Soft Matter, which exists somewhere around the intersection of Troma, John Waters and Harmony Korine. It's certainly one of the grossest movies I've ever seen, the kind of movie in which a character is speaking entirely literally when she calls someone "a disgusting bag of slime." The plot, such as it is, involves two scientists experimenting on patients at an abandoned nursing home in order to discover the secret to immortality, in which they are thwarted by both an ancient sea goddess living in a mop bucket and a pair of hipster artists looking to stage an installation in a decrepit building. There are some moments of deadpan humor and some creative animated interludes, but mostly this is a movie that is just weird and off-putting and unpleasant for the sake of it. Watching a disgusting bag of slime bust out some dance moves to a synth-pop groove is kind of entertaining at first, but a string of inexplicable moments like that eventually just gets to be tedious. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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.