Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Dark Horse' (1932)

The Dark Horse starts out as a moderately promising political satire before getting sidetracked by dumb relationship comedy, but it has one or two sharp moments along the way. Thanks to a ploy by two different factions in the fictional Progressive Party of an unnamed state, a rube named Zachary Hicks unexpectedly finds himself the party's nominee to run for governor. To ensure that this inexperienced dimwit wins the election, the party hires hotshot campaign manager Hal Blake (Warren William), who can smooth-talk anyone into office.

That's a decent setup for satire, and indeed Blake's training of the consistently oblivious Hicks is good for a laugh or two, especially the way he instructs Hicks to answer every question, "Yes, and again, no." But the movie is more interested in Blake's caddish ways, including his romantic promises to fellow campaign worker Kay Russell (Bette Davis) and endeavors to get out of paying alimony to his vindictive ex-wife (Vivenne Osborne). William is a little too good at playing slimy creeps; as he was in the other movie I've seen him in with Davis, Satan Met a Lady, he's more off-putting than funny here, especially when he's trying to maneuver his way out of commitment. The movie isn't cynical enough to be really cutting when it comes to politics, and its portrayal of Blake tries to make him sympathetic and amoral at the same time, which doesn't quite work.

Davis has a fairly sizable part, but Kay is a pretty flat character. She starts out seeming like a savvy political operative (she's the one who suggests the party recruit Blake), but quickly gets relegated to the long-suffering love interest, stuck enduring Blake's schemes and deceptions related to his ex-wife. Davis shines when Kay is portrayed as competent and assertive, but her pining after the creepy Blake is just kind of sad. The protracted climax, involving a potential scandal between Hicks and Blake's ex-wife, is a chore, but there are still enough decent jokes here and there to put The Dark Horse slightly ahead of some of Davis' other early programmers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The first episode of Unsupervised is not a particularly auspicious start for FX's new animated comedy, and certainly will look pretty poor in comparison to Archer, which airs right before it. It comes off like an uninspired Beavis & Butt-Head knock-off, with its focus on two aimless teenage losers who try to be cool but fail. Unsupervised's Gary and Joel aren't as stupid as Beavis and Butt-Head, but they're just as pathetic, and their world full of off-kilter friends and neighbors is overly reminiscent of Mike Judge's Highland (as well as the world of the inferior Napoleon Dynamite animated series, which premiered just a few days ago).

The big difference, though, and one that becomes clearer as the show goes on, is that Gary and Joel are relentlessly positive optimists who make friends with virtually everyone they know, including parents, teachers and other authority figures. They have a boundless enthusiasm for life, even if that enthusiasm extends to wanting to get laid and be part of the in crowd. The show's funniest moments (which are admittedly infrequent) come from the contrast between Gary and Joel's absolute certainty that what they are doing is awesome and great for everyone and the reality that they are just acting like complete idiots. No other ostensibly edgy show would have its characters get so genuinely pumped up about going to the dentist, doing laundry or joining the school baseball team.

The problem is that the weird earnestness of the main characters doesn't really fit with the raunchy tone, and their enthusiasm wears as quickly on the audience as it does on the other characters. The jokes also just aren't very funny, failing to take advantage of the characters' unique perspective and instead going for cheap, obvious laughs, which often fail to materialize. At best, this could be a funny show about the contrast between the culture of blind self-confidence and the reality that most people's lives are full of drudgery and disappointment. Co-creator and voice of Joel David Hornsby embodies this idea in an exaggerated, absurd way via his character on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but Unsupervised doesn't have that show's over-the-top excess. It doesn't approach the more low-key sweetness of something like King of the Hill, either (a problem that Napoleon Dynamite shares), so it ends up awkwardly in the middle. Unlike Napoleon, though, it has enough promise and enough jokes that work that it might find the proper balance eventually.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

'Napoleon Dynamite'

It's hard to pinpoint the saddest thing about Fox's new animated-series version of 2004 cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Is it that the network is so clueless about how to expand its Sunday-night animated block that executives think a flash-in-the-pan sensation from eight years ago is going to get audiences excited? Is it that nearly every actor from the movie agreed to come back to offer up a recycled version of their original performance? Is it that filmmaker Jared Hess and star Jon Heder have completely failed at every other project they've attempted and have basically admitted defeat, crawling back to the only thing anyone cares to see them do? Or is it that despite all of that, this is essentially just a generic copy of Fox's other Sunday-night cartoons?

It's all of those things, of course, although the last one is really the most disappointing. Because if you're going to make a show out of Napoleon Dynamite, no matter how ill-advised that may be, you might as well at least try to capture some of what made the movie unique. I haven't seen it since it was first in theaters, but I remember certain parts being pretty funny, and the whole thing having an appealingly ramshackle, homespun feel. It wasn't exactly realistic, but it was a relatable look at the feeling of living in a boring small town and having to find any kind of ridiculous thing to do to keep yourself entertained.

The series keeps the characters and some of their unique quirks, but it's structured like any of the other Fox Sunday-night shows, set in a world full of fantastical absurdity that bears little resemblance to reality. The plots of the first two episodes could be lifted from second-rate latter-day Simpsons episodes, and although Napoleon utters a few of his trademark phrases, his distinctive charm is long gone. The animated version of Napoleon seems even more like an imitation of Beavis and Butt-Head than his live-action counterpart did, and the whole tone of the show is derivative of better animated series. This could have been a gentle look at small-town oddballs along the lines of King of the Hill, but instead it's trying way too hard to fit in with shows that have already been imitated ad nauseam.

Premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th Part III' (1982)

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

There are three Friday the 13ths in 2012, so I should be able to make some decent headway through this increasingly irritating horror series. This third installment is easily the weakest so far, lacking even the cursory efforts of the second film to tie together the Jason Voorhees mythology. Like the Saw series, the Friday the 13th movies were churned out one per year in the early days, and Part III has the rushed feel of a movie whose storyline and characters were secondary to getting production started as soon as possible. Director Steve Miner returns from the second installment, and he even recycles five full minutes from the previous movie as a rather unnecessary prologue, setting up Jason's (obviously failed) demise at the hands of a character that we then never see again (because the actress declined to appear in this movie). It's even more blatant than the dream sequence/recap that opened Part 2.

Then again, those five redundant minutes are more suspenseful than the rest of the movie, which offers up another cast of interchangeable young morons for Jason to chop to bits. Part III takes place starting the day after the second movie, with Jason on the loose and a group of friends headed up to a cabin on Crystal Lake, apparently unaware of the mass murderer still at large. This time there's no connection to the camp or to Jason's mother; he just kills anybody he comes across, for no reason whatsoever, and the movie just counts down until there's only one character left. Miner and writers Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson try to give the final girl some tenuous connection to Jason, but it's an awkward retcon that doesn't fit in with anything that came before. They also throw in some homages to the first movie, but without any sense of continuity, those are just empty gestures.

Part III is important for its introduction of Jason's trademark hockey mask, and this movie is where he finally becomes recognizable as the familiar pop-culture figure of action figures and lunchboxes. It's also one of the most high-profile examples of the 3D fad of the 1980s, and if you think today's 3D movies are shameless, they've got nothing on this movie, which is filled with characters awkwardly pointing objects at the camera so that they'll poke out at the audience (which is even sillier when viewed in 2D, as it almost always is now). Miner seems so focused on shoehorning in as much 3D as possible that he doesn't even bother to come up with any cool set pieces (although the gore had to be toned down to get an R rating, so maybe there's some entertainingly gruesome stuff missing). Jason has already become superhuman by this point; he kills one character by literally just crushing the guy's skull with his bare hands (and causing an eyeball to pop out in 3D). There's no sense of closure or satisfaction at the end (even though at one point this movie was meant to conclude the series), just a weariness at having finished another run-through of the same material.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Bureau of Missing Persons' (1933)

Although she gets top billing in Bureau of Missing Persons (a relative rarity for the cheap programmers she churned out for Warner Bros. in the '30s), Bette Davis doesn't show up until about half an hour into the 73-minute movie, and Pat O'Brien is the real star, playing a ridiculously hard-boiled, macho detective at the title agency. He's transferred over from the robbery division and is none too happy about it, but soon he takes a shine to tracking down missing people and getting them to return home, and the episodic movie follows a handful of cases, most of them totally ludicrous. One philandering man, tracked down in his mistress' apartment, is given the chance to be picked up in a neighboring town and branded an amnesiac, all so his family won't know about his affair.

Davis shows up as a woman ostensibly searching for her missing husband, but she's got a dark secret that gets progressively more far-fetched as more is revealed about it. O'Brien's Det. Butch Saunders takes on her case, and immediately sets to seducing her instead of putting in much of an effort to find her supposed missing husband. He's a walking sexual-harassment claim, but everything works out when it's discovered that Davis' Norma never had a husband at all. Plus, Butch's handling of Norma is nothing compared to the way he takes on his gold-digging ex-wife (played amusingly by Glenda Farrell, who was also amusing in the last lame Davis movie I saw, The Big Shakedown); his physical assault on her at the end of the movie is played for goofy comic relief.

The movie is so slapdash overall that the sexism isn't really any worse than the haphazard plotting and indifferent acting. Davis is fairly subdued as Norma, especially in contrast to Farrell's ditziness and O'Brien's hyper-masculinity, but her performance isn't anything special. She gives about as much effort to the part as the movie deserves, which is to say very little at all.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

'Jane By Design'

I think a lot of people still have the image of ABC Family as a wholesome network for tween girls, and, well, that's still probably mostly right, but over the years the network has featured several criminally underrated shows with smart writing, well-rounded characters and charismatic stars. Not a lot of people watched The Middleman or Huge or 10 Things I Hate About You, but they were all entertaining, well-crafted shows that deserved larger audiences (and probably would have found them if they had aired on a different network). I've missed the last few big ABC Family premieres (although I know Switched at Birth has gotten strong reviews, and I'm curious to catch up with it), so I wanted to give the network's new teen drama, Jane By Design, a chance to see if it could live up to the legacy of the best ABC Family programming.

Does it? No, not at all, although star Erica Dasher is charming and could certainly have a bright future on TV, either here or elsewhere. The concept is a total silly contrivance, with Dasher's high school outcast Jane scoring a job as the assistant to a high-powered fashion designer (Andie MacDowell) via a mix-up that requires her to pretend to be an adult (not difficult, since Dasher herself is in her 20s). So for half the day Jane goes to high school, where she is a friendless loser despite being incredibly beautiful and stylish, and then for the rest of the day she deals with the Devil Wears Prada-style office politics at her fashion job. Everything plays out with maximum predictability: Jane has a male best friend who's clearly going to fall in love with her, although she already has the sensitive high school jock and the (somehow not gay) British fashion designer chasing after her. She panics that she won't be able to pull off her impossible work assignments plus keep her grades up, but somehow she does. The second episode even pulls out the whole "main character has to be in two places at once" cliche, which is about the oldest TV plot device around.

Dasher aside, most of the cast is pretty bland (and blandly pretty), and MacDowell somehow manages to play almost all of her scenes via video conference, like her contract stipulated she wouldn't actually interact with any of the other actors. The show has a nice sense of fun, and the smart, independent, creative Jane is a solid female lead, but it's more of a passable time-waster for tweens than the next great unheralded series.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.