Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

I went from a pleasantly diverting romantic comedy to this strained mess in my tour through the Bette Davis filmography. While It's Love I'm After was contrived and silly but ultimately entertaining and well-acted, The Bride Came C.O.D. is even more contrived but pretty consistently annoying, and my patience with it ran out quickly. Davis plays an imperious heiress who impulsively decides to marry a vapid bandleader (Jack Carson) whom she's known only a few days. Her father is apoplectic, so he hires the private pilot (James Cagney) flying the heiress and her fiance to Vegas to get married to instead take the heiress to her father.

It gets even more needlessly convoluted when the pilot and the heiress crash-land in a desert ghost town inhabited by a single old coot, but all the plot machinations serve the single purpose of, naturally, getting the two main characters together. Davis and Cagney bicker the entire time but have no chemistry, and the characters are both so unlikable that it's hard to root for them to end up with anyone. The heiress is spoiled and spiteful, and the pilot is dishonest and condescending. Those are not the makings of a great love story.

The plot works so hard to delay the inevitable that it's kind of maddening; the two characters spend a significant amount of time trapped in an old mine for no apparent reason. The difference between this movie and It's Love I'm After can be summed up by a comedic bit they both share, in which Davis' character barricades the door to her room only to have her unwanted suitor come in by the window behind her. In Love, Leslie Howard enters with a playful wink and soon the two are in each other's arms; in Bride, Cagney enters with a sneer and looks ready to pounce. Which of those sounds funny and romantic?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nick Spencer's Morning Glories and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents

Nick Spencer is one of the hottest writers in comics right now thanks to his various successful Image series, the latest of which is the very popular Morning Glories. I read previews online of some of Spencer's previous miniseries -- Shuddertown, Forgetless -- that didn't really impress me, but I liked the first look at Morning Glories and have picked up all four issues to date (despite their relative scarcity). The intriguing premise, with a number of teenagers trapped in a sadistic prep school, owes a lot to The Prisoner and Lost and X-Men, and probably coincidentally is nearly the same set-up as the recent Cartoon Network series Tower Prep. But it's a lot darker and meaner than Tower Prep, and the real sense of danger keeps the suspense up.

Of course, a series like this will get increasingly frustrating if it just involves the heroes trying to escape and failing, and even though the plot has moved a decent amount in these four issues, there's a slight sense of repetition as well. The good thing is that Spencer can take things wherever he wants them, and he's created an intriguing enough setting with plenty of mysteries (the third issue's opening flashback to the 15th century implies a rich mythology in the background) to suggest that there are a lot of places to go. The various teen characters are still working to differentiate themselves, and the story is still shaking off its influences, but it's got some decent cliffhangers and solid art from Joe Eisma, and most importantly, plenty of potential. I plan to stick around to see where it goes.

I'm also intrigued by Spencer's new DC series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his first major corporate superhero assignment. Luckily DC hasn't just ignored his strengths and slotted him into some generic Batman spin-off; T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is quirky and self-contained, with characters that inherently lack continuity baggage and can be handled without excessive caution. The idea is that this covert agency gives its operatives superpowers that kill them within a year, so many of the characters are pretty much expendable, and Spencer can focus on a large cast that emphasizes the support staff over the superheroes.

I don't read many mainstream superhero books anymore (the only one I'm regularly picking up right now is X-Factor), but like Morning Glories this is intriguing enough to stick with. Spencer lays out the first issue in a nonlinear fashion that is a little disorienting at first but eventually comes together (ending at another great cliffhanger), and it definitely doesn't feel like another retread added to pad the company's superhero line. The art from CAFU is lovely, with a clean, crisp look reminiscent of John Cassaday's work. I just hope DC can keep from meddling with things too much and let Spencer do his thing without drawing him into epic crossovers (or just canceling the book after five issues). For now, I'd say that Spencer deserves much of his praise, and I might even go back and give those other Image books a shot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: It's Love I'm After (1937)

The third time is the charm with the random Bette Davis movies I've been recording from TCM. After a couple of duds, this goofy comedy is a welcome change. It's certainly not a great movie or one of Davis' best performances, but it's entertaining and light, and it zips along at a brisk pace. Davis is good, and she's well-matched by Leslie Howard (the actual lead) and Olivia de Havilland, who is always an appealing collaborator for Davis (I enjoyed their work together in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, In This Our Life and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte; this was their first movie together). The screwball antics are pretty predictable, and some of the running gags get old. But mostly It's Love I'm After is fun to watch, especially since the actors all give such lively performances.

Howard is egotistical stage star Basil Underwood, who's in a tumultuous relationship with fellow, slightly less famous thespian Joyce Arden (Davis). When infatuated fan Marcia West (de Havilland) crashes his dressing room, he agrees to a proposal by her fiance to spend a weekend at her house behaving reprehensibly in order to disabuse her of her crush. Naturally, disaster occurs: Marcia refuses to budge in her love for Basil, he starts to feel that maybe he's with the wrong woman, and Joyce shows up to throw a wrench in the whole thing. There's a lot of door-slamming and storming off, but it all seems pretty inconsequential. The pleasure is in seeing Howard as the preening egotist with a misguided sense of bettering himself, or Davis as the almost equally egotistical woman who can't resist a man as self-involved as she is. De Havilland's Marcia is more innocent, but she too ends up being plenty manipulative, and has a naughty twinkle to her performance behind the wide-eyed naivete.

There's also Eric Blore as Basil's absurdly put-upon assistant, who is clearly in love with his boss and will do anything for him. The running gag of the assistant packing and unpacking Basil's bags runs out of steam long before the end of the movie, and Blore is a little hammy where the main stars are more restrained. But it's still a fun little touch and a credit to the movie that it doesn't just let the big stars do all the work. The funniest, most effective scene, though, is probably the very beginning, in which Basil and Joyce play out the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, undercutting the romantic tragedy with snarky asides to each other. Howard and Davis play the transition between grandiose Acting and narcissistic sniping perfectly, possibly because they were adept at both in real life.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Glory Daze

I wouldn't trust anything associated with Wild Hogs and Old Dogs director Walt Becker, who co-created Glory Daze, and indeed the new TBS dramedy has his dumb-guy fingerprints all over it: It's set in 1986 for no reason other than to wallow in lazy nostalgia, and it's full of lazy stereotypes and tired plot devices. Four dudes at a generic state college join a misfit fraternity; cue large-scale appropriations from Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and any other college-themed movie of the last 30 years. Daze isn't as offensive as Becker's movies, maybe because it isn't full of big stars mugging for the camera in desperate bids for attention. But even if the acting is a little more low-key, the writing is still one-dimensional and predictable, and the jokes are tired and unfunny.

Also, I have no idea why this show is an hour long; it's essentially a comedy, as evidenced by Cheri Oteri, Brad Garrett and Time Meadows all guest-starring in the first episode, along with the deep debts to big-screen college sex comedies. But it plods on endlessly, with labored set pieces about pranks gone wrong and far too much time spent on go-nowhere supporting characters. I suppose it's positive that TBS is trying something new with its original scripted shows; at least this isn't another Tyler Perry-style sitcom. But a nostalgic comedy-drama set at college in the 1980s could have been bittersweet and genuinely funny, and instead Glory Daze is barely a step or two above Blue Mountain State.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on TBS.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Prisoner 13

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

Searching around for these movies with 13 in the title has led me to some interesting and unexpected places, and with the 1933 Mexican film Prisoner 13, I was introduced to director Fernando De Fuentes, an extremely influential figure in Mexico's cinema golden age of the 1930s and '40s. I had never heard of De Fuentes before, but he made dozens of movies over the course of two decades, of which Prisoner 13 is the second. It's also the first in a loose trilogy about the Mexican Revolution, with a story about a corrupt and selfish military colonel who pays dearly and ironically for his arrogance. The plot is a little overheated, and the pacing is kind of off (the colonel's estranged wife and son are key characters who disappear for nearly half the movie), but there are some powerful depictions of the corruption and chaos of the revolution.

De Fuentes is a strong filmmaker, although it's sometimes hard to tell in the murky, scratchy print of this film that's available on DVD. He uses several long tracking shots across the faces of condemned revolutionaries that give a simple but powerful sense of desperation, and another tracking shot earlier in the movie to illustrate the range of daily life. He might have done a little too good of a job depicting the complexity of the revolution on both sides, since he was required (by the government, at least according to an IMDb commenter) to tack on a ridiculous "it was all a dream" ending, which pretty much invalidates the entire film. If everything leading up to that teeters between affecting and overwrought, the ending tips the scales, and closes the movie with a feeling of uselessness.

I get the impression that Prisoner 13 might be more valuable for its influence and historical value than for its potential as entertainment, but it's still worth seeing. Wikipedia says that the New York Times called De Fuentes "the Mexican John Ford," which means I might want to check out more of his films.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

AFI Fest, day three

On Sunday I ended up missing a few things I wanted to see, and my alternate choices were a little disappointing. But this was a strong festival overall, and even the movies I wasn't crazy about were far from terrible. Probably the least impressive movie I saw was Chico & Rita, an innocuous but bland animated movie about the decades-long love story between two Cuban jazz musicians. It's filled with excellent music, but the story is predictable and simplistic, the dialogue is flat, and the animation is shapeless and kind of sloppy.

Also disappointing was the exploitation-style goof Norwegian Ninja, a sort of fanciful take on a real-life Norwegian government official who was arrested for being a Soviet spy. Director Thomas Cappelen Malling reimagines the man as the leader of an elite squad of, yes, Norwegian ninjas, and he shoots the movie like an old martial-arts movie or straight-to-video action cheapie. That makes for a few laughs, but mostly Norwegian Ninja is just confusing and scattered, a collection of empty pastiches. Merely copying the style of a type of movie generally known for being amusingly terrible isn't enough if you can't add something to it.

Much better was Diego Luna's Abel, a touching and funny family comedy/drama about a mentally disturbed young boy who convinces himself he's the patriarch of his family after his actual father runs off. Luna mostly avoids excessive sentiment even when dealing with some very sensitive issues, and he balances humor with poignancy very well. Young actor Christopher Ruíz-Esparza is excellent as the boy, giving a convincing performance as a child pretending to be an adult (that's a lot of layers to navigate). Some of it is a little cutesy and melodramatic, but it wraps up in a melancholy way without offering any easy answers. Given Luna's fame as an actor, I expect this will end up with at least a limited theatrical release in the U.S. before too long.

I also managed to catch a pretty strong shorts program, with only one piece that didn't really work (an Israeli film about a soldier on leave). It included the funny and unexpectedly affecting Successful Alcoholics (right), written by and starring T.J. Miller, previously known as an annoying supporting player in movies like Get Him to the Greek and She's Out of My League. Miller and the always excellent Lizzy Caplan play a pair of highly functioning alcoholics who are hilarious and carefree until reality sets in, and that transition is played incredibly well by the two actors and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. I also enjoyed the goofy time-travel lark Time Freak; the backstage theatre comedy The Savage Canvas; the surprisingly sweet British comedy I Love Luci, about a pair of drug addicts; and the innovative documentary Photograph of Jesus. Basically everything except that one Israeli movie. Shorts are always underappreciated, and I was glad I got to catch at least one program, and that the theater was mostly full for it.

And that was it. I wish I could have stayed longer (the event runs through this Thursday), but other work beckoned. If you live in the L.A. area, though, you should absolutely get down to this festival, even if you have no tickets. It was remarkably easy to get into screenings that I didn't have tickets for (the aforementioned missed screenings were only because I showed up very late and didn't want to sit in the front row). The staff was friendly and helpful and just as accommodating to random members of the public as they were to press and industry people. Even the fancy gala premieres of studio films had plenty of room for average fans. I hope to be able to cover the festival for more than just this blog next year, but even if I can't get a press pass, I'll definitely return.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

AFI Fest, day two

I know that film festivals are the places to check out the kinds of difficult, uncompromising and experimental movies that would never make it to mainstream audiences, and I do like seeing those. But I also love genre movies, and I appreciate that festivals like AFI don't shy away from programming thrillers and horror movies and things like that, because those films can be just as exciting and artistic as more personal works. Today I happened to catch three genre-style movies, all of which succeeded to some degree, while the two art movies I saw were decidedly less satisfying (although both had their moments).

The highlight of the day (and probably the festival so far) for me was the Belgian thriller Pulsar, directed by Alex Stockman and starring Matthias Schoenaerts, who's apparently a big star in his native country. Pulsar sort of updates the techno-paranoia of movies like The Conversation and Blow Out for the wi-fi age, and moves its conspiracy focus from the criminal to the personal. Schoenaerts is great as a guy who's convinced someone has hacked into his personal computer network and is using it to screw up his relationship with his long-distance girlfriend. Pulsar becomes more and more surreal toward the end, but it always remains grounded in its depictions of jealousy and fear of betrayal, as well as in its illustration of how dependent we are on technology to connect us to one another.

There was much less ambiguity and artiness to the other two foreign genre movies I saw today: Pretty much none, in fact, in the Russian thriller The Weather Station, one of those noir-type movies in which small bad decisions spiral out of control until nearly all of the characters end up dead. You could pretty much translate this movie word-for-word and have it be an American studio picture, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It has a few too many absurd twists, and it gets really melodramatic toward the end, but overall it's an entertaining, fast-paced thriller with a nifty setting (a remote weather outpost). The Spanish horror movie Julia's Eyes (right) actually is a studio production (from Universal), produced by Guillermo del Toro, so it should have no trouble finding an audience. It's a pretty creepy movie with a cool gimmick in a protagonist who is progressively losing her sight, and it loses points only for dragging on too long (with, again, a twist or two too many) and for getting overly sappy at times. Still, I found it more exciting than the last horror sensation del Toro brought over from Spain, the overrated The Orphanage.

So the foreign movies I saw were all pulpy genre exercises, while today's American movies were indulgent art pieces. Actually, Alistair Banks Griffin's Two Gates of Sleep has some slight genre elements, with enough of a central mystery that one audience member at the post-screening Q&A asked Griffin to explain what happened at the end (he refused, saying only that there were "clues" astute viewers could decipher). Mostly, though, it's a slow, nearly dialogue-free account of two hillbilly brothers on a long trip to bury their dead mother in a location whose significance I could never discern. Griffin shot in the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana, and the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes looks phenomenal. There's just enough of a story to make it frustrating that Griffin leaves so much out, though, and lead actors Brady Corbet and David Call can't quite fill in the gaps to make up for those shortcomings.

Also frustrating but not nearly as bad as I expected it would be was Cam Archer's Shit Year. I hated Archer's first feature, the solipsistic Wild Tigers I Have Known, when I saw it at CineVegas a few years ago, and Shit Year shares some of that movie's penchant for endless navel-gazing and nonsensical ponderousness. But it's saved at times by the wonderful lead performance from Ellen Barkin, who plays a burned-out actress depressed by her recent retirement and the end of her affair with a much younger co-star (complete non-presence Luke Grimes). Archer still indulges in laughable dream/fantasy sequences that belabor the emotions Barkin conveys with just her demeanor and delivery, and he's still completely spastic and undisciplined when it come to structure. But in the mostly straightforward narrative scenes, Shit Year is insightful and melancholy and affecting, and the grainy black and white cinematography by Aaron Platt is outstanding.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

AFI Fest, day one

With CineVegas no more, and the rest of Vegas' film festivals mostly small niche events (although plenty of them are excellent), I really wanted to check out a large-scale general-interest film festival this year, so I'm in Los Angeles for a few days at AFI Fest. I'm attending just as a fan, so I don't have a press pass, and my selections have been dictated by the availability of the festival's free tickets (the entire event is free, which is awesome for people who don't have industry or media connections). Still, I have a pretty full schedule. Here's a quick look at what I saw on my first day at the festival:

The Human Resources Manager (Eran Riklis) I saw Israeli director Riklis' film The Syrian Bride at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival in 2007, and this movie is similarly balanced between mainstream accessibility and serious examinations of sociopolitical issues. Like The Syrian Bride, The Human Resources manager is concerned with the place where two cultures intersect, as the title character, who works for a large Jerusalem bakery, travels to Romania to represent the company at the funeral of an employee who was killed in a suicide bombing. What's meant as a face-saving measure of course becomes more meaningful, and the manager bonds with the sullen son of the dead woman. It's a little too cutesy at times, but Riklis mostly holds back on the big emotional moments, and instead lets his capable actors quietly demonstrate the coming together of both individuals and traditions.

Free Radicals (Pip Chodorov) This documentary about the history of experimental filmmaking is exuberant and fun (Chodorov himself is an experimental filmmaker, and his father is a TV journalist who spotlighted many of the movement's pioneers in its early days), but it's also a little incomplete and scattered, focusing on only a handful of (admittedly important and influential) filmmakers and jumping around in time. Chodorov's enthusiasm is sometimes detrimental, as he seems to be saying, "Look at all these awesome people I'm friends with!" rather than laying out a real primer on this fascinating movement for people who are unfamiliar with it. But he effectively conveys his excitement, sometimes best of all when he simply steps aside and plays out wonderful short experimental films in their entirety.

Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield) I appreciate unvarnished naturalism, but Porterfield's improvised drama about friends and family coming together for the funeral of a working-class Baltimore drug addict is often realistic to the point of tedium, with scenes of repetitive or simply inaudible dialogue, poorly lit locations and one sequence that takes place almost entirely in the pitch dark. Some of these choices are stylistically impressive (one conversation that takes place between two friends while the camera is on two other friends shows contrasting viewpoints in an understated way), but too many of them feel like Porterfield just lost control of the scene (one karaoke sequence near the end goes on for what feels like years). Some of the acting from the cast of nonprofessionals is disarmingly strong, but nearly as much of it is awkward and forced. Ultimately I felt that the frustrations outweighed the triumphs by too much.

Cargo (Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter) Billed as the first sci-fi movie from Switzerland, Cargo looks impressive given its reportedly tiny budget, but all the resourceful special effects can't make up for a muddled story cobbled together from various sci-fi classics. It starts as a sort of "haunted ship"-type story in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon, and builds up a decent amount of suspense in that mode, even if all the moves are familiar. But the final third shifts gears entirely to do a whole Matrix riff complete with overblown emotional moments, and it's far too cheesy and pompous to be taken seriously. Engler and Etter don't know when to quit, and by the time the movie finally sputtered to an end, I had completely stopped caring.