Saturday, December 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Dinosaur 13' (2014)

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

The first and final thirds of Todd Douglas Miller's documentary Dinosaur 13 are pretty riveting (if incredibly one-sided), which almost makes up for the way the middle third gets bogged down in the kind of tedious legal minutiae that would barely pass muster in a Dateline segment. Although there are people who argue otherwise, Miller makes a strong case in the first part of the film that paleontologist brothers Pete and Neal Larson suffered a gross injustice when the U.S. government seized a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that they had unearthed in South Dakota in 1990. The Larsons come across as simple, hard-working businessmen who love paleontology and are geekily excited by their discovery. Pete Larson's wife even expresses something akin to jealousy when describing how "Sue," as they named the T. rex, was the real great love of his life.

Miller lays the pathos on thick, but he does it well, and it's hard not to feel outraged (along with all the citizens of the Larsons' small South Dakota town, whose protests are seen in archival video) when the government swoops in, taking advantage of the questionable legal status of the land where the skeleton was found, and takes the Larsons' find away from them. But the movie then shifts to the long legal case against the Larsons and their associates, which was less about Sue and more about an alleged pattern of misrepresentation and potential thievery in the business of finding and selling fossils. Although Miller does interview an IRS investigator who was part of the case against the Larsons, every other person in the movie is horrified at these trumped-up charges against the good-hearted brothers, and the relentless bolstering of their case paradoxically ends up making it sound suspect. Also, the detailed account of the testimony and lengthy trial on nearly 150 fraud-related charges is boring and only tangentially related to the fascinating story of Sue (who remained in federal custody for years while the Larsons were investigated and tried).

Eventually the story returns to Sue, who was auctioned off at Sotheby's in highly dramatic fashion and ended up at a world-class museum in Chicago (which to me seems like a much more appropriate location for sharing with the public than the middle of nowhere in South Dakota). The Larsons are at least gracious in defeat (and poor Pete was clearly railroaded by the system when he was sentenced to two years in prison for impropriety related to customs declarations), but their story too often comes across as sour grapes. Miller based his movie on a book by Pete Larson and his wife, so there's no secret where the movie's sympathies lie. The story is fascinating enough not to need such blatant heartstring-tugging, though, and the movie only intermittently gets that across.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 West Street' (1962)

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

A sort of alarmist melodrama about a respectable man who descends into vigilantism after being attacked by a group of teen hooligans, 13 West Street has a few things going for it, most notably an appealingly naturalistic performance from Rod Steiger as the world-weary police detective investigating the attacks, but is ultimately too stodgy and reactionary to make any meaningful social commentary or tell a gripping story about an ordinary man driven to the edge.

Star Alan Ladd is a big part of the problem, playing milquetoast aeronautics engineer Walter Sherill, who gets beaten up one night by sneering teenagers and then becomes increasingly frustrated with the police response. Ladd is just too stiff and stolid to really bring Walter's rage to life, although part of the problem may be that the movie simultaneously wants to endorse his disgust at teen delinquency and punish him for attempting to take the law into his own hands. The excessive moralizing gets in the way of creating a juicy thriller. Also, there is an inordinate amount of attention given to Walter's job (the entire opening scene involves a meeting about developing a new rocket, which made me wonder if I was about to watch a spy movie or a sci-fi story, since I hadn't bothered to look up the plot before starting the movie), without any payoff whatsoever.

But then there's Steiger as the jaded but well-intentioned detective who knows that investigations take time and footwork, and who, unlike most movie detectives, actually spends time working his other cases because Walter's is not the only one he has to investigate. He wears bow ties, always says "bye-bye" when leaving, and generally comes off like a real person amid all the hysteria about teenagers gone bad (the gang members turn out to be from upper-class families, which shocks Walter's wife, who assumed all delinquents were "underprivileged"). The rumpled sergeant seems as impatient with the movie itself as he is with Walter, and it's easy to sympathize with him on both accounts.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'That Certain Woman' (1937)

Writer-director Edmund Goulding packs an entire season's worth of soap opera storylines into his melodrama That Certain Woman, which starts as a strong showcase for Bette Davis as a whip-smart career woman, before devolving into a hand-wringing weepie. Davis plays Mary Donnell, the widow of a notorious gangster, who is trying to escape her shady past by working as the industrious assistant to respected lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). As the movie begins, Mary is busy trying to keep her name out of the newspapers and romancing an immature playboy named Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda). Rogers, as her rather patronizing mentor (who's also obviously in love with her, despite being married), helps both of those situations along, and soon the movie is skipping ahead years at a time to chronicle the increasingly overwrought developments in Mary's life.

As Mary accumulates more emotional baggage, including a brief marriage to Jack and conflict with his stuffy father, a child born out of wedlock, and a scandal surrounding her (non-existent) affair with Rogers, she changes from a sharp, independent go-getter into a noble sufferer, and becomes much less interesting and entertaining for it. With its sudden time jumps, the movie is paced terribly, and its shifting focus makes it hard to get a handle on any of the characters. Fonda gives Jack a kind of puppy-dog earnestness, but he comes across as naive bordering on moronic when up against his devious father or confronted with the child he obviously fathered.

Mary's motivations as the movie progresses are sometimes a little hard to fathom, even given the strict moral code of the time period. She seems destined to give up everything in her life at the whims of capricious and/or paternalistic men, and the movie approves of her every decision. After sacrificing her son and her chance at a meaningful life, Mary ends up with a rushed happy ending at the very last moment, but it's just one more unconvincing turn in a movie full of them. Davis isn't as vibrant playing Mary the martyr as she is playing the brash woman at the start of the movie, but she fully engages with the emotions of every scene, absurd as they may be. It's a movie-star performance in search of a better movie.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Curse of Chucky' (2013)

One of the reasons that the Chucky series is probably my favorite horror franchise (even though I like individual installments of other series more) is that the entire thing is the singular vision of Don Mancini. Even when the movies change protagonists, change tones or change budgets, Mancini keeps a consistent hand on the characters and the storytelling. That's sort of a blessing and a curse for Curse of Chucky, Mancini's second film as both writer and director. On the one hand, its shift in tone back to the straightforward horror of the first movie is mostly successful, with Mancini keeping it consistent with what happened in the more comedic previous two installments. On the other hand, the retcons and fan service in the movie's climax are a little strained, and while I appreciated that everything tied together, it sort of negated some of the effectiveness of the restrained scares in the early parts of the movie.

Although it's unlikely that anyone would come to this movie not having seen the previous entries in the series or at least having a familiarity with the general concept, Mancini still plays with the idea that maybe Chucky isn't actually a killer doll, and is just a reflection of a child's overactive imagination and the conflicts within her family. Chucky doesn't speak (except for his prerecorded Good Guys phrases) until halfway through the movie, and even then he keeps his words to a minimum until the last-act info-dump. The bulk of the movie is set in a single isolated creepy house, where Chucky (initially looking all cleaned up and new after his mangled appearance in the last two movies) shows up in a mysterious package.

Eventually Mancini reveals the (rather belabored) connection between Chucky and the house's inhabitants, but for most of the movie it doesn't really matter. There's a deadly presence in the house, and the squabbling family members have to figure out what's happening and how to survive. Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif) is quite good as Nica, the wheelchair-bound heroine, and the supporting cast is decent as well. This is the only Chucky movie in which I have genuinely cared about the human protagonists, and the tension between Nica and her sister is convincing enough without having to connect back to Chucky's past.

Mancini also seems to have improved markedly as a director (or has recruited better collaborators), and Curse has the visual sophistication that Seed of Chucky lacked. Mancini effectively builds tension in the first half of the movie, when Chucky is a silent menace, and his shot compositions often recall classic horror (he also uses some of the same deep focus framing that Ronny Yu employed in Bride of Chucky). The house is a marvel of creepy set design, complete with a rickety elevator and a dusty attic.

So when Mancini dives full-on into the continuity porn at the end of the movie, it's a little disappointing. I'm not complaining about any of the individual elements -- it's great to see Brad Dourif back on screen for the first time since the original movie as Charles Lee Ray (in flashbacks), it's great to see Jennifer Tilly make a brief return as the in-the-flesh Tiffany (or, technically, Tiffany in Jennifer Tilly's body), and it's even nice to see the bland Alex Vincent do a cameo as Andy Barclay. But all of that stuff sort of feels like it comes from a different movie. The haunted-house horror of most of Curse doesn't quite fit with what comes later, even though it's fun to watch. Mancini is already promising another installment, and maybe next time he'll be able to find the perfect balance of horror, humor and self-awareness. I have every reason to believe he can do it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Seed of Chucky' (2004)

I thoroughly enjoyed Seed of Chucky when it was released in 2004, and I was happy to see Chucky creator Don Mancini finally get the chance to direct a movie in the series that's become essentially his life's work. But revisiting the movie a decade later, I wasn't nearly as entertained. The self-reflexive elements of the movie have not aged well, and while some of the humor is still effective (I was pretty impressed with Mancini's commitment to the dumb "Made in Japan" joke that recurs throughout the entire movie), a lot of it is pretty painful. Bride of Chucky manages to be campy while also functioning more or less as a coherent thriller about Chucky and Tiffany on a killing spree; Seed is a full-on comedy with minimal internal logic and a paper-thin story. If the jokes don't land, there's basically nothing else there.

The biggest problem with Seed is the introduction of the title character, the spawn of Chucky and Tiffany glimpsed at the very end of Bride. While Tiffany (and Jennifer Tilly) reinvigorated the franchise with her debut, Glen/Glenda (voiced by Billy Boyd) is mostly just a drain on the story, and his/her character arc is scattershot and belabored, especially compared to Tiffany's development in Bride. Poor Tiffany gets a much weaker arc in this movie, too, as she decides to give up killing now that she's a mother, and treats it as an addiction to be overcome. It's disappointing that Mancini dilutes her nastiness and then doesn't offer much in its place.

Even Chucky is a bit diluted here, as the movie focuses on Glen/Glenda, Chucky and Tiffany's gender-confused, cowardly child (the name, of course, is a play on the Ed Wood movie Glen or Glenda), who tracks down his parents and inadvertently revives them with a variation on the old soul-switching spell. Apparently not even pieces of the old dolls are necessary for revival now, since the Chucky and Tiffany of Seed are actually movie props for a film-within-the-film about the Chucky murders. That film stars Jennifer Tilly, who gets to appear in the flesh this time by playing herself, but, disappointingly, her performance as herself is not nearly as entertaining as her performance as Tiffany was in Bride.

Tilly is game for anything, but the meta storyline is so half-assed that it completely squanders her fearlessness. Seed seems like an obvious reaction to the Scream movies (especially Scream 2, with its characters dealing with a film-within-the-film about their lives), but it's also indebted to another Wes Craven project, 1994's New Nightmare, which managed to cleverly deconstruct its franchise via actors playing themselves and also work pretty effectively as a horror movie. Seed isn't actually interested in being scary, which is okay, but its hit-and-miss jokes aren't strong enough to compensate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Bride of Chucky' (1998)

If Child's Play 3 was evidence that Chucky creator Don Mancini was out of ideas, then Bride of Chucky finds him reinvigorated, with a new direction for the series and a new take on Chucky himself. Some fans were apparently annoyed at the overtly comedic tone of Bride, but for me it was the movie that really made me love the Chucky franchise. Before going back to the beginning for this project, I would have named Bride as my favorite Chucky movie, although now I think I prefer Child's Play 2, which has the strongest mix of humor, horror and visual style. Still, Bride is a lot of fun, and it introduces a great addition to the Chucky mythos in Jennifer Tilly's Tiffany.

It also jettisons poor Andy Barclay, which to me is a welcome change but was another thing that bothered some longtime fans. I found Andy to be an annoying wet blanket no matter which actor played him, so this movie's focus on the relationship between the Chucky and Tiffany dolls worked much better for me, since it meant that the human characters didn't have to carry the movie. Even so, Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile as doomed teenage lovers Jade and Jesse are more compelling than Andy ever was, and their forbidden love is much more enjoyable to watch than the bland romance teenage Andy had in Child's Play 3.

But the movie really belongs to Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany. She's great as the overheated but ruthless sexpot in the first half hour when she's onscreen in the flesh, and she's also great as the voice of the Tiffany doll, who more fully embraces Chucky's homicidal worldview. Sure, Chucky's motivations for changing Tiffany into a doll in the first place are a little unclear, and sure, the entire plot hinges on an amulet that was never deemed important in the previous movies, but it's all just an excuse for silly one-liners and gruesome murders, anyway, so that didn't bother me too much.

It would be one more movie before Mancini finally got the chance to direct his own creation, but Hong Kong action director Ronny Yu does justice to Chucky, bringing some impressive visual flair to this chapter of the series. In addition to staging amusingly gruesome death scenes, Yu amps up the sense of dread and disorientation with a number of striking deep-focus shots, and he imbues the relationship between two animatronic dolls with genuine nastiness and intensity (aided by Tilly and, of course, Brad Dourif as Chucky).

Although there are plenty of winking references to other horror movies (especially in the opening shots of the police evidence locker that holds Chucky's remains, where accessories from other horror icons like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are stored as well), Bride isn't a meta-horror film like Scream. It may be comedic, but it takes its own premise at face value, turning Chucky and Tiffany into antiheroes of a sort as they go on a killing spree that gets attributed to their hapless human hosts. Only at the very end does the movie return to the idea of Chucky (and now Tiffany, too) attempting to take over a human body, and it feels a little rote by this point. Mancini and the audience have figured out that Chucky is better off as a doll, and with his acceptance and embracing of Tiffany, it seems like maybe Chucky has, too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play 3' (1991)

Although it was released only nine months after Child's Play 2, Child's Play 3 takes place eight years later, with Andy Barclay now 16 years old and shipped off to a military boarding school after drifting through various foster homes. It's a sort of jarring shift that's just one indication of this movie's paucity of ideas (to which series creator Don Mancini has admitted). Since Alex Vincent did not also age eight years in nine months, he was replaced as Andy by Justin Whalin, an older and slightly less annoying (but no more charismatic) actor. Making Andy into a teenager doesn't really do much to complicate his relationship with Chucky, and the movie hedges its bets by introducing a new kid to befriend Chucky, theoretically moving Andy forward as a character while preserving the same dynamic from the first two movies.

The movie opens in the same location where the previous one left off, the factory where the Good Guys dolls were made, starting back up after lying dormant for years. Of course the remnants of Chucky are still there, and of course his blood contaminates the materials being used to make Good Guys dolls, and Chucky is somehow reborn. After he kills the head of the toy company (you'd think they'd learn not to bother trying to make new dolls after their employees keep getting murdered) in a mildly amusing sequence involving toys as deadly weapons, Chucky has himself shipped to Andy's school, but he ends up in the possession of the cheerful, naive Tyler (Jeremy Sylvers) instead.

From there, Chucky makes his familiar play to transfer his soul into a new body, although thanks to a half-hearted loophole, he can now possess Tyler instead of Andy, so Andy becomes the protector figure that his mother and foster sister played in the previous movies. Chucky's threat is pretty weak here, and his kills are rather perfunctory. There isn't quite as much humor as in the second movie, but at this point Chucky isn't remotely scary, so he barely makes an impact. Mancini and director Jack Bender spend as much time focusing on the military school setting and the sadistic bully who torments Andy as they do on Chucky. That bully is a pretty stock military-school type, but at least he has some personality, which is more than can be said for Andy or his bland love interest.

The underwhelming finale takes place inside a carnival haunted house, which is somehow less exciting and inventive than the second movie's toy factory location. Given how unstoppable Chucky has been in the past, his death here is seriously anticlimactic (he doesn't even get the requisite horror-movie "I'm not really dead" moment before being finally dispatched). After rushing into this movie, Mancini and the producers waited until 1998 to bring Chucky back, and thankfully by that time they had a better idea of how to make him entertaining again.