Thursday, July 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Hour' (1947)

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

Somehow I've ended up writing about several forgotten media franchises for this feature, and the latest one I've stumbled on is The Whistler, which was primarily a radio drama that ran from 1942-1955, for a total of 692 episodes (per Wikipedia). It was popular enough to spawn a short-lived TV version in 1954 as well as a series of eight movies, produced from 1944-1948, of which The Thirteenth Hour was the seventh. In all its incarnations, The Whistler was an anthology series, sort of a noir/crime take on Tales From the Crypt, hosted by the title character, an omniscient and mischievous narrator only seen in shadows. For the movies, he was voiced by Otto Forest, and he provides commentary mainly at the beginning and end of The Thirteenth Hour, setting up the story of hapless trucker Steve Reynolds (the bland Richard Dix, who starred in seven of the eight Whistler movies as various unrelated characters).

At the beginning of the movie, Steve suffers the injustice of being convicted of drunk driving after, uh, driving drunk and then crashing into a gas station. The movie clearly has the perspective that drinking just a little bit should not disqualify Steve from driving, and he's convicted mainly because the officer on the scene is the ex-boyfriend of his fiancee Eileen (Karen Morley) and has a grudge against Steve. But that's not even what the movie is really about! Poor luckless Steve is then about to lose his trucking business because his license has been suspended (for actual drunk driving, remember) and he can't find a driver to take a time-sensitive route. So he drives the route himself, and is then ambushed by a mysterious assailant, who uses Steve's truck to run over the cop from the drunk driving arrest, framing Steve for the guy's murder.

This all happens very quickly (the movie runs only 65 minutes), putting Steve on the run from the law and trying to clear his name, which is the main plot of the movie. There are some fun noir elements as Steve confronts his shady trucking rival (who seems like the obvious choice for the culprit) and sneaks in and out of Eileen's house/diner, but most of the plotting is highly unbelievable, and the eventual reveal of the people behind Steve's framing is underwhelming, with confusing motives. I've never listened to any of The Whistler radio episodes, but if there were nearly 700 of them then presumably they were churned out quickly, with plenty of duds. But a feature film (even a cheap B-movie) should have a bit more scope and impact, and The Thirteenth Hour (whose title remains inexplicable to me) never transcends its episodic anthology origins.

Summer School: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Rewatching Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn't much improve my opinion of that movie, but I came around a bit more on the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second time through. I'm still not ready to proclaim it brilliant, as so many critics and fans have, but I think it's a more successful addition to the Apes franchise, telling the kind of story that Rise should have gotten to much earlier. The plague that was implied in the closing credits of Rise has wiped out most of humanity (depicted in an effective opening montage that I had kind of forgotten about when I criticized the handling of this plot point in Rise), and a decade later the apes have built their own little civilization, assuming humans to be extinct. They're wrong, though, and the movie puts the burgeoning ape homeland in conflict with the surviving remnants of humanity (at least in the greater San Francisco area).

Much more so than Rise, Dawn evokes the original Apes movies, particularly Conquest and Battle. The ape settlement looks similar to the collection of treehouses in Battle, and the fight between the apes and humans recalls that movie's climax, on a much grander scale. And the theme of humans exploiting apes returns from Conquest, articulated here more effectively than it was in Rise, even though that movie took place before the collapse of civilization. None of the human characters from Rise return (presumably they all died in the plague), and while I'm not sad to see James Franco gone (although he does appear in a bit of archival footage), the replacement humans aren't all that compelling. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee do their best as the sympathetic humans who want to work with Caesar and the apes, but they're a little bland. Gary Oldman is a bit more charismatic, and I appreciated that his character wasn't just a one-dimensional warmonger, but he disappears for long stretches of the movie, only returning when he's needed to move the plot forward.

The real stars of the movie are the apes, led by the returning Caesar, played again via motion capture by Andy Serkis. Caesar is challenged by Koba (Toby Kebbell), another former lab animal who had a smaller role in Rise. Their conflict is similar to the one between Caesar and Aldo in Battle, although Koba is more devious than Aldo, and he doesn't have the chance to give long speeches because the apes in this movie can only speak a few words (and only a few of them can even do that). While the commitment to semi-realistic development is admirable (it's somewhat jarring in Battle when suddenly all apes speak perfect English), watching the apes communicate almost entirely via subtitled sign language is a bit frustrating, especially during the opening 10 minutes of the movie before any humans show up. The motion-capture actors do a lot within the limitations of the (accomplished) special effects, but allowing them to speak would help deepen and differentiate the characters.

Still, once the movie gets past the setup, director Matt Reeves delivers on the more action-oriented story, and it's hard to be bored by a movie that features apes riding horses and wielding machine guns. There are some pretty impressive action sequences and one great shot with the camera in a fixed position on a spinning machine-gun turret atop a tank, as Koba sprays the battlefield with bullets. The way that belligerent bigots can trick even well-intentioned leaders into war is the kind of bleak theme that fits with the series' overall pessimistic view of human nature, and the filmmakers don't look away from the uglier aspects of war. The movie ends on a more hopeful note than Rise (which isn't hard since that movie ended by killing nearly the entire human race), although the brief moment of calm is just a short respite before the arrival of all-out war in the next movie.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Summer School: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (2011)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I debated whether to include both the recent prequel/reboot series and the original series as part of my Planet of the Apes catch-up, since they don't fit together seamlessly, but in the end I opted to include them all, since the shifting nature of timelines and the ability to change and influence the future is one of the key themes of the series. So while Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't strictly a prequel to the original Apes series, it could very well fit in as an alternate-timeline version of the same events, as described by the "shifting lanes" metaphor used by Dr. Hasslein in Escape and the ape scientist Virgil in Battle. Unlike Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes remake (which I'm leaving out), Rise isn't a retelling of the original movie's story, or any particular story from the original series, but a fresh start on the concept of how hyper-intelligent apes took over the Earth.

My initial review of this movie when it was released in 2011 was not very positive (in contrast to the overall critical acclaim), and I thought I might be more engrossed by it this time around, especially since the reputation of the whole prequel series has been so strong. But I still came away mostly unmoved, even with the ability to view this as the opening chapter to a trilogy rather than a standalone story. It's still unforgivably slow and plodding in its first half, and it still barely gets to what's potentially interesting about the story until the movie is almost over. It still basically kills the majority of humanity with some graphics during the closing credits, a decision that's even more bizarre given how that huge plot point is considered decidedly taken care of when the next movie begins (how many people who saw Rise turned it off before witnessing the most important development in the entire story?).

On the plus side, the special effects are still pretty amazing (this movie does not have the budgetary limitations of the original sequels) and have held up well, and Andy Serkis brings a remarkable expressiveness to his motion-capture performance as Caesar, the ape with boosted intelligence who leads the revolt against humans. And the last 20 minutes or so are pretty thrilling, as Caesar's mob of intelligent and regular apes rampage across San Francisco, commandeering the Golden Gate Bridge, defeating their human pursuers and fleeing into the forest to start a new life. It's just that there's more than an hour of superfluous other stuff (boring scientific ethics debates, James Franco barely trying, sadistic animal handlers taunting the apes) before we get to the action. Franco's character, who's attempting to develop a drug to fight Alzheimer's (and testing it on chimps, which eventually leads to both the intelligence boost for apes and the inadvertent death of most of the human race) is particularly dull, and his ethical quandaries are not nearly as engaging as the allegorical elements of the original movies. His romance with a pretty veterinarian (Freida Pinto) is equally dull, and his relationships with Caesar and with his Alzheimer's-afflicted dad (John Lithgow, giving the movie's most affecting performance) are only slightly more lively.

The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver takes itself awfully seriously, and the hyper-realistic apes add another level of solemnity. That makes the semi-campy nods to the original series (especially the sneering primate sanctuary employee played by Tom Felton yelling, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!") feel particularly jarring and out of place. I did like the sort of background subplot of the spaceship Icarus (piloted, presumably, by George Taylor) getting lost in space, which could set up its return at some point in the future. But mostly this is a movie that strains to seem thought-provoking, while its efforts to explore deeper issues only keep it from getting to the part of the story that's actually worth telling.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Summer School: 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' (1973)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

The fifth and final movie in the original Planet of the Apes series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes sends the franchise out on kind of a bum note, especially following the visceral and exciting Conquest. Once again, the severe budget limitations cripple the filmmakers' ability to tell a grand sci-fi story, and the titular battle is less for an entire planet than for a grove with a few treehouses in it. An introduction by the fabled lawgiver (played, somewhat shamefully, by John Huston) glosses over an apparent nuclear apocalypse that took place following the events of the last movie, while offering a sort of "previously on Planet of the Apes" recap that reuses five minutes of footage from previous installments.

That leads us to some indeterminate amount of time following the events of Conquest, as apes have become the dominant species on Earth (or at least in this one meadow), setting up a rudimentary version of the city they would eventually inhabit in the far future. Caesar (Roddy McDowall) is the ape leader, and he's now married to Lisa (Natalie Trundy), the female ape he bonded with in Conquest, with a son named Cornelius (Bobby Porter). The apes have developed a remarkable range of abilities, including full speech, writing and reading, horseback riding, tool-making and structure-building, all in a short period of time. They're living in relative harmony with some humans who survived the wars, led by MacDonald (Austin Stoker), brother of the sympathetic human MacDonald from Conquest (who was set to return until actor Hari Rhodes declined).

For some reason, Caesar has waited years to wonder about his dead parents, and when MacDonald tells him about the recordings from their interrogations, Caesar decides to enter the ruins of the unnamed city from Conquest and find those tapes. That leads to a confrontation with irradiated humans who are clearly (more clearly in the movie's extended cut) meant to be the precursors of the telepathic mutants in Beneath. It's a pretty flimsy pretext to bring the apes and humans in conflict, but screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington (working from a credited story by longtime writer Paul Dehn, who also did extensive uncredited rewrites on the screenplay) and returning director J. Lee Thompson manage to include some of the series' trademark social commentary, in the clash between the peaceful, diplomatic Caesar and the warmongering gorilla general Aldo (Claude Akins).

But after the timeliness of Conquest, the political content here feels pretty weak, and Aldo is a one-dimensional bully who pushes defenseless young Cornelius out of a tree to his death. The humans, with their Mad Max-style vehicles and outfits, are too cartoonish to pose a real threat, and only the occasional debates between Caesar and MacDonald have any real substance to them. Battle is more action-oriented than any of the previous Apes movies, and the climactic battle scenes are decent given the low budget, with plenty of explosions and shootouts. Still, the ape makeup is shoddy (especially on Akins as Aldo) and the sets are minimal and flimsy, giving the movie a rushed, haphazard feel. After four straight movies of mostly downbeat endings, Battle closes the series on an optimistic note implying that good intentions can change the future, and while it's a nice way to leave things, it's a bit underwhelming compared to the uncompromising bleakness of the rest of the series.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer School: 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' (1972)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

While it has its flaws, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the first Apes sequel that really feels like it has a unique vision, rather than just a twist on the concept of the original movie. At the same time, it follow directly from the plots of the previous movies, building on them to create a wider Apes mythology (even with its inconsistencies). It still suffers from the budget limitations that have plagued all the sequels (despite all being box office successes, they were never afforded decent budgets), which are especially tough to deal with in a movie that's meant to be showing a worldwide revolution. The action here is less Planet of the Apes than Office Park of the Apes, taking place entirely in what looks like a single building complex. But within that limited scope, returning screenwriter Paul Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson tell an intense and sometimes powerful sci-fi story, with almost none of the silliness that plagued the last two movies.

Set 20 years after the events of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest brings back Roddy McDowall as Caesar, son of his original character Cornelius. Caesar has grown up in secret with circus leader Armando (Ricardo Montalban, giving a much more subdued performance this time) following the execution of his parents Cornelius and Zira, and in the meantime events have progressed exactly as his parents predicted: A plague wiped out all dogs and cats, apes were taken as pets and soon enlisted as slaves as their intelligence and ability to perform menial tasks increased. There's also some sort of authoritarian government in place, although Dehn leaves things vague (the movie takes place in "North America"), and the movie never explores what life is like outside this small urban area.

In this particular unnamed city, at least, keeping apes as servants seems like more trouble than it's worth, even before they foment rebellion. They seem to be constantly failing at their assigned tasks, freaking out and breaking stuff, and they've also displaced various paid human workers (as seen via protests in the early part of the movie). They're growing more intelligent and more rebellious, but the human government doubles down on keeping them as servants and subjecting them to harsh conditioning. After Armando is arrested and tortured, Caesar is rounded up with some fellow apes and pressed into service, while the government hunts him down (since he's the only ape who can speak). There are many obvious parallels to the history of slavery in America and the civil rights movement of the time, and the movie doesn't play coy with them, populating the cast with numerous black actors including Hari Rhodes as sympathetic government official MacDonald, who references America's slave-owning past explicitly.

The riot scenes in the movie's final act are visceral and violent (even after they were trimmed to avoid an R rating), and they resonate with the racial turbulence of the time. Thompson shoots many of the chaotic street scenes with the immediacy of a news broadcast, and the small-scale society feels like it's on the brink of collapse from the very beginning. The movie has a seriousness and urgency that the last two installments lacked, making up for its technical shortcomings (the ape costumes are pretty shoddy, and even McDowall's more detailed makeup doesn't allow him a lot of expressiveness) with strong ideas and forceful characters. It also brings a bit of hope to the ending, in contrast to the downers of the last two movies, although the original conclusion (restored in an alternate cut available on home video) featured the apes perpetuating the cycle of violence. Instead, Caesar ends by preaching compassion for the oppressor, without diluting the necessity of the rebellion. The first movie presented the ape society as flawed but more noble than humanity, and Conquest sets the stage for that eventual outcome.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Summer School: 'Escape From the Planet of the Apes' (1971)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

After the literal scorched-Earth ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it's hard to believe that the series could continue (the ending was reportedly star Charlton Heston's way of getting out of having to make more sequels), but Hollywood always finds a way when there's money involved. So we get a major retcon in order to make Escape From the Planet of the Apes happen, with married ape scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, returning after skipping the last movie) avoiding the destruction of the future Earth by escaping on Taylor's refurbished spaceship before the bomb goes off. This also requires the invention of a previously unmentioned genius-level ape scientist named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), who apparently figured out how to fix and fly a spaceship despite the apes being baffled by the existence of a paper airplane in the first movie.

Whatever. It's all just a bunch of hand-waving to get Zira and Cornelius to travel through a rift back in time to Earth's present, where they are the ones who are out of place, in an inversion of the original movie's premise. But rather than the stark, otherworldly sci-fi of the first movie, Escape goes for silly fish-out-of-water comedy in its first half, as Zira and Cornelius become celebrities and get makeovers and are hounded by the press (Milo is quickly killed off after serving his plot purpose). There's some cute comedy along the way, but most of it is pretty cheesy, and it clashes with the more serious tone that the movie takes in its second half, as presidential science adviser Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden) becomes increasingly convinced that Zira and Cornelius represent an imminent threat to the human race and must be neutralized.

There's a sort of Terminator-style time paradox storyline here, as Hasslein learns that apes will eventually overtake humans (Cornelius seems to have a much better understanding of his culture's history than anyone did in the first movie) and worries that by appearing in the past, Zira and Cornelius will be the direct cause of the inevitable rise of the planet of the apes (via the unborn son that Zira is revealed to be carrying). On the other hand, it's clear that the rise of the apes will come thousands of years in the future, so Hasslein's urgency is a bit misplaced, even though Braeden plays him as a genuine concerned scientist, rather than an outright villain. Still, there are some intriguing sci-fi ideas brought up in the latter part of the movie, although they're overshadowed by silly chase antics and an even sillier subplot involving a circus led by a hammy Ricardo Montalban.

Hunter and McDowall bring some warm emotion to their characters and get a welcome spotlight after being sidelined and ignored in Beneath, but there isn't the same fire as there was to Heston's Taylor. The shift of setting to present-day Earth loses a lot of what was unique about the previous movies, the chance to explore the complexities of the ape society. There's no opportunity for allegory when the movie is dealing with the current real world. It does save money on makeup effects, at least, which was a major reason for the shift, and as with Beneath, the filmmakers (screenwriter Paul Dehn and director Don Taylor) make the most of the limitations, taking the story in a striking but frustrating new direction. Also like Beneath, Escape ends on a serious down note (albeit not quite as bleak), although it does have an epilogue that sets up potential future installments, a thread that would also eventually be picked up by the reboot/prequel movies. It's another messy but admirable effort to expand the world of the original movie.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Summer School: 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1970)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Like many sequels to surprise hits, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a rushed production that fails to capture what made the original movie creatively successful. But it's also a weird mix of two different approaches to making this kind of sequel: The first half is essentially a rehash of Planet of the Apes, with James Franciscus standing in for Charlton Heston (who returned only under duress for a brief appearance) and going through more or less the same motions that Heston's Taylor did in the first movie. (The first five minutes literally just reuses footage from the end of Planet.) Then the second half goes off in a completely crazy direction, practically ignoring the original premise and delivering a stark, nihilistic ending that would never fly in a modern franchise blockbuster (and is still pretty shocking for its time period). Neither of these sections really works, though, and the odd second half is too silly to be as haunting as the bleak ending would indicate.

First, there's 45 minutes of Franciscus as astronaut Brent, going through many of the same motions as Taylor after crash-landing on the apes' planet. He watches his one crewmate die; he encounters Nova (Linda Harrison), the primitive human Taylor bonded with; he discovers the ape city and is captured; he winds up in the care of Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson, replacing Roddy McDowall), who try to protect him after discovering he can talk; and he eventually escapes custody along with Nova. Franciscus, who even looks like Heston, is a less charismatic leading man, although he does what he can with the recycled material. Harrison gets an expanded role as Nova, but Zira and Cornelius just argue over their familiar talking points again.

Once Brent escapes the city of the apes, though, the movie takes a crazy turn, as he discovers the extensive ruins of New York City (implied by the Statue of Liberty appearance at the end of the previous movie). There he encounters a society of human mutants, who've developed telepathic powers and worship an ancient (but still functioning) mega-powerful atomic bomb. Given that so much of the effectiveness of the first movie's story came from the contrast between the primitive humans and the evolved apes, it sort of undermines that impact to then introduce an entire civilization of intelligent, even superpowered humans who've been living underground this whole time. The simplicity and directness of the story in the first movie is one of the things that make it so engaging, and Beneath needlessly complicates and muddies that.

At the same time, the second half is so over-the-top and ridiculous that it's kind of fun to watch, especially as the actors in hideous costumes stare very intently at Franciscus while communicating their telepathic messages. While the ape makeup in the first movie created a surprisingly convincing look, budget cuts mean that many of the ape extras are wearing cheap masks, and the human cultists wear costumes that look like Star Trek rejects. The bland Franciscus is a poor man's Heston (which is, of course, a deliberate choice), and Heston himself, in his minimal appearances at the beginning and end of the movie, gives a performance that cries "contractual obligation." Heston was also supposedly the one who came up with the ending as a way to kill any potential sequels, as Taylor sets off a "doomsday bomb" that will eradicate the entire planet, and closing narration assures the audience that "a green and insignificant planet is now dead," just in case it wasn't clear. Of course, that didn't prevent producers from eventually creating three more sequels, but it's still a bold middle finger to the studio at the end of a major Hollywood sequel, the unexpected kicker to a confused, compromised cash-in.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Summer School: 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

There's almost nothing about the original Planet of the Apes that suggests the birth of a long-running media franchise, one that would inspire four direct sequels, a remake and an ongoing prequel/reboot series, in addition to two short-lived TV shows (one live action, one animated), comic books, video games and other spinoffs. The story of Planet of the Apes, based somewhat loosely on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle, is a parable of sorts, and it's no surprise that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling is one of the two credited screenwriters (the other is Michael Wilson). It tells an unsettling sci-fi story with plenty of contemporaneous social relevance, capped by a twist ending that hammers home its moral. As a standalone story, Planet is extraordinarily successful, with just enough hints of a wider world to be satisfying without overexplaining everything. While there are occasional clumsy moments, the movie holds up remarkably well, in terms of both its themes and its production values.

Charlton Heston's excess machismo is perfect for the part of astronaut George Taylor, who crash-lands along with his two crewmates on what appears to be a distant planet populated by intelligent apes and primitive humans (but we all know that it was Earth all along) and is taken captive by the ape government. He's an example of the best and worst of humanity, with his short temper, male chauvinism and boundless cynicism, alongside compassion, intelligence and hope. Taylor scoffs at fellow astronaut Landon's optimism about the human race, but he also fights to prove to the apes that humans are noble and worthwhile, even when all the apes want to do is imprison and experiment on him. He gives the benefit of the doubt to his captors Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), eventually winning them over to his side.

It's easy to forget that the apes don't even show up until half an hour into the movie, and before that point it's an eerie sci-fi movie about landing on an unknown planet, light-years from home with almost no resources. Taylor's rants about how everyone they knew on Earth has been dead for centuries are entertainingly bleak, and the way he casually lights a cigar while discussing their limited food supply is great gallows humor. I was almost disappointed when the two other astronauts left the story (one is killed, while Landon ends up lobotomized), but Taylor remains wryly pessimistic as he interacts with the apes, even as he refuses to give up the fight for his own life and freedom. At times the movie's political allegory could come off as heavy-handed, but Taylor's almost nihilistic perspective on the prospect of social change effectively undercuts the potential self-righteousness.

Even without the social commentary, Planet is a really effective sci-fi adventure story, with suspenseful chase sequences, tight pacing and some impressive costume and makeup work that looks pretty good even now. The ape makeup does restrict the actors' facial expressiveness a bit, but it gives them an uncanny enough appearance that they resemble an ape-like alien race, rather than realistic apes (as in the recent prequel/reboot movies), which adds to the sense of having traveled a long way in space and time. The ape society is an intriguing mix of technological sophistication (in medical equipment, for example) and primitive ignorance (in religion, but also in a lack of understanding of the mechanics of flight), and the adobe-like structures (a product of budget constraints, most likely) reflect that. It has obvious echoes of the culture clash of the time (most awkwardly shown via the character of Zira's nephew Lucius), but it's not as schematic as some of the allegory-based alien races on Star Trek from the same time period. The movie is smart enough to make you think, but pulpy enough to know when it's time to get to the action.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen at Dinner' (1985)

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

There's a long history of movies and TV shows based on Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot, a snooty Belgian who solves crimes in London. Probably most notable is the British TV series Poirot (aired on PBS in the U.S.), which ran for 13 seasons from 1989 to 2013. David Suchet starred as Poirot in that series, and he shows up in Thirteen at Dinner as the Scotland Yard inspector who's always one step behind Poirot in his latest murder investigation. The star, however, is Peter Ustinov, who played Poirot in six movies starting with 1978's Death on the Nile (which I wrote about as part of my Bette Davis retrospective) and ending with 1988's Appointment With Death. They aren't exactly a series, though, since they were produced by different companies for different distribution (three for TV, three for theaters) and set in different time periods.

Thirteen at Dinner, based on Christie's novel Lord Edgeware Dies, was a joint British-American TV production that premiered in the U.S. on CBS. It updates the setting of Christie's novel from the time when it was published (1933) to the time of the movie's production (1985), sacrificing some of the genteel charm in favor of references to American action movies and an opening scene in which Poirot appears on a cheesy talk show. Mostly, though, it seems like the change in time period can be attributed to budget constraints, since the movie is clearly working with limited network-TV resources, and some of the production values are pretty low (there are shots that occasionally blur out of focus and some sound problems, indicating that maybe they didn't have the resources for enough takes). The story is also stretched thin at feature length, although it was previously made into a feature in 1934 and served as the basis for a 90-minute episode of the Poirot TV series in 2000.

It's not as exciting a mystery as something like Murder on the Orient Express (probably the most well-known Poirot story), and it doesn't have the single-location elegance of some of Christie's more popular work, but it does have a cast of colorful suspects and some choice bon mots from the always condescending Poirot. Ustinov overdoes it a bit on the Belgian accent and the overstated disdain for foolish supporting characters, and he kind of barrels over the rest of the cast. That includes Faye Dunaway as an American actress whose English nobleman husband has been murdered (for which she's one of the chief suspects) and a young Bill Nighy as the nobleman's perpetually drunk (and perpetually broke) nephew, who's also a suspect. You can see the seed of so many future debauched Nighy characters in just his brief appearance here.

Sadly Nighy only shows up for a couple of scenes, and most of the movie is not nearly as amusing. It's a lot of dull procedural details and perfunctory appearances by red-herring suspects, all leading up to the requisite scene in which Poirot gathers the suspects and recounts his solution to the crime while they all listen (no one ever tries to run away). Despite Poirot directly spelling out the convoluted scenario, it's still a bit hard to follow, and I never quite understood the actual murderer's motive (the reasoning mentioned in the Wikipedia summary of the novel isn't in the movie). Even the modified title refers to a fairly minor event that's barely even depicted onscreen. I'm no Poirot or Christie aficionado, but I'm pretty sure that this forgettable production is of interest to hardcore fans only.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' (2011)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When I initially reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I declared it an improvement over Gore Verbinski's bloated and convoluted second and third movies in the series, but watching all of the Pirates movies again in close proximity this week, I have to say I slightly prefer Verbinski's ridiculous (but visually inventive) messes over this dull, workmanlike movie, which doesn't even have the spark of a boondoggle. Directed by journeyman Rob Marshall, who can bring some life to the right sort of material (his Oscar-winning Chicago may be overrated, but it's still quite entertaining), On Stranger Tides has the mark of everyone involved going through the motions, from the money-hungry studio to the director looking to branch out to the supporting actors passing time in a big blockbuster before they can get back to more interesting work. Johnny Depp finally gets to make Jack Sparrow the sole main character, but even he doesn't seem to be particularly invested in this installment.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio return, but they come up with a much more straightforward story this time (based very loosely on an unrelated novel by Tim Powers), with a clear goal and characters whose agendas mostly make sense (although there are still the requisite double-crosses). As briefly set up by the end of the last movie, both Jack and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa are searching for the Fountain of Youth, although since it took a few years for this movie to get made, their respective quests have been somewhat derailed as the movie opens. After a protracted London-set opening, Jack ends up back at sea under the command of yet another mythical, supernaturally powered pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter and first mate Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is Jack's former lover. Barbossa, meanwhile, has gone legit, and is searching for the Fountain on behalf of the British crown. Both are attempting to beat the Spaniards to the finish line, although the presence of the Spanish crew is mostly pointless, since none of them become relevant (or even, as far as I could tell, named) characters, and don't have any bearing on the action until the very end.

Poor Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann don't get so much as a mention here, and most of Jack and Barbossa's previous stalwart crew members are absent as well (aside from Kevin R. McNally as Jack's trusty first mate Gibbs, who still disappears for long stretches). It makes the movie feel curiously underpopulated, even with the various new villains. Marshall also lacks Verbinski's talent for spectacle, and the action sequences are universally underwhelming, without any big sea battles. Much of the movie takes place on land, and the entire final act features the characters trudging through the jungle, with a climactic sword battle among a bunch of shrubbery. It's a far cry from the epic clashing of armadas in At World's End.

To sort of replace Will and Elizabeth, the filmmakers throw in a half-hearted romantic subplot for a religious missionary, a member of Blackbeard's crew who falls in love with a mermaid. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey are completely bland as the pair of young lovers, and their story doesn't get going until more than halfway through the movie. It's not quite clear why Claflin's Bible-toting character ended up as part of a pirate crew, nor why the unnamed mermaid (whom he dubs Syrena) rejects the monstrous ways of her race, whose main purpose seems to be to kill and devour humans. Their story ends with her whisking him away to the depths, without any indication of where they're going or how she might save him from a mortal wound. They're not set to appear in the next movie, and the majority of this forgettable installment seems destined to be ignored in the overall Pirates mythos.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I ended up splitting my recent viewing of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World's End, into three separate installments, and it felt like binge-watching an entire TV season, one which has dug itself into deeper and deeper plot holes by the season finale. And yet the movie was designed to be consumed as a single, nearly three-hour experience, an exhausting endeavor that struggles to balance its genuine entertainment value with a tortuous plot and characters whose initial appeal has severely declined. Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is elevated nearly to the status of a demigod in this movie, and yet his casual, offhanded humor is almost completely absent. The movie actually keeps him offscreen for the first half-hour, but then compensates with periodic scenes featuring multiple Jack Sparrows, as Jack hallucinates various versions of himself offering up dubious advice.

The first movie presented Jack as a scrappy crook barely getting by, but in this movie he's worth an entire quest to the afterlife (where he ended up after being devoured by the kraken at the end of Dead Man's Chest) and is one of nine "pirate lords" who make up a secret council that governs the entire pirate society (he's also the son of a sort of keeper of pirate law, played by Keith Richards in a thudding literalization of what started out as a lively joke). The end of Dead Man's Chest left plenty of dangling plotlines, but instead of resolving those in a rousing, concise finale, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio add on a bunch of new plotlines, including one major new character (pirate captain Sao Feng, played by Chow Yun-Fat), downplaying some of the previous movie's biggest threats (the kraken is killed offscreen in a single line of dialogue) to make room for new ones.

The characters spend the first hour retrieving Jack from the afterlife and getting him back in place to take on Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and newly emboldened East India Company bureaucrat Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, having fun with his officious condescension). Most of the second hour involves all of the characters making various deals and arrangements that successfully make it impossible for the audience to figure out who is allied with whom and what each faction's goal is. That leads into the nearly hourlong action climax and multiple endings -- which then set up a potential plot for another installment. (I had always remembered the fourth movie as a standalone tale, but it follows directly from Jack and Barbossa's final scenes here.)

Even as the plot grows more incomprehensible (there's a scene in the middle featuring five or six characters making various negotiations that change their allegiances multiple times within a few minutes), the action is still exciting, and Verbinski is still a master of large-scale battles and effects-driven spectacle. It's hard to care about the outcome of a battle whose stakes have become completely unclear, but at the same time it can still be enjoyable to watch a bunch of ridiculous characters fight each other. Geoffrey Rush is still fun as Barbossa, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley do their best to bring some emotional grounding to the story, but the romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (including a marriage ceremony in the middle of a battle!) is still a total dud. It's gratifying to see Elizabeth as the captain of her own ship, even if the mechanics of getting her there are a bit nonsensical. The entire movie is a series of nonsensical plot developments that occasionally produce cool results.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' (2006)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Following the surprise success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was suddenly high demand for a sequel to a movie that really leaves no obvious avenue for following up. Instead of creating another self-contained adventure for Johnny Depp's breakout character Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and director Gore Verbinski concoct an elaborate, practically incomprehensible two-movie epic that attempts to turn a fun adventure movie based on a theme-park ride into a grand fantasy universe on par with The Lord of the Rings. Financially, the bid paid off, with the second and third Pirates movies, beginning with Dead Man's Chest, raking in tons of money at the box office. But watching both movies feels like a chore, a slog through endless plot and more dull romantic swooning in order to get to the meager good stuff.

That good stuff is still mostly Depp's amusing performance, which by Dead Man's Chest is already growing a bit tired but is still good for a few laughs. Less successful is the effort to add some dimensions to Jack, whose role as comic relief and plot mover in The Curse of the Black Pearl is expanded here to capitalize on his popularity. The cliffhanger at the end hinges on the question of whether Jack is willing to make a noble sacrifice for his crew and friends, and the entire plot is set into motion by a deal that Jack made years ago and is now attempting to get out of. That deal comes courtesy of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who's the movie's main villain even though it takes him an hour to show up onscreen.

Jones and his crew (on the fabled ship the Flying Dutchman) are triumphs of design and special effects, each one a sort of mutant hybrid between humans and various sea creatures (although they're simply another crew of undead pirates to replace the villainous crew of undead pirates in the last movie). Verbinksi takes advantage of the large budget with plenty of great-looking effects, sets and costume design, along with some big action set pieces (although there's only one major sea battle between ships). As good as the movie looks, though, the narrative is still full of tiresome twists and detours; an entire segment devoted to Jack and his crew kidnapped by cannibals (depicted with questionable cultural sensitivity) has no bearing on the overall story and could have been cut altogether.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom both spend significant portions of the movie captured and imprisoned by various forces, and the main motivation for their involvement in the Davy Jones storyline disappears about halfway through the movie. Delivering a fake-out that hints at a romance between Jack and Knightley's Elizabeth Swann (and giving Depp and Knightley an uncomfortable kiss) is one of the movie's most shameless ploys. After two and a half hours, nothing is even close to being resolved, and the filmmakers trot out Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa to prime the audience for the next movie in place of any genuine forward momentum.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an underdog. Casting him in a main role in a big-budget Disney movie was something of a risk, and in the first Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is more of a facilitator for the romance between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) than the primary focus of the story. Sparrow, of course, works best in small doses, and he's at his most appealing and entertaining in The Curse of the Black Pearl, able to utter a funny line and then step away for the plot to move forward. That plot is still convoluted and lumbering (although less so than it will become in later installments), and the movie isn't quite as lively as it ought to be. But it's still mostly fun to watch, certainly more so than any that came after it, and if it hadn't become a massive worldwide success, it could have been a fun little hidden Disney gem.

The Pirates brand has also become so closely associated with Depp that it's easy to forget that this movie was based on an iconic Disney ride, one which has now been retrofitted to feature elements from the movies (I bet there's a whole generation of Disneyland and Disney World visitors who have no idea that the ride came decades before the movies). So there's a sense of fun to spotting the references and seeing how the filmmakers came up with a story to fit the ride's aesthetic, mixing some historical aspects of piracy in the Caribbean with a supernatural story that allows for ghostly pirate skeletons. Again, the historical aspect is pretty much thrown out in the subsequent movies, but here there actually is a certain attention to period detail (even if it's cartoonish and exaggerated).

While Bloom and Knightley are lovely to look at, the love story between the wealthy governor's daughter and the humble blacksmith is pretty dull, and the obstacles to their being together get kind of tiresome. Luckily Jack Sparrow is there to poke fun at things, and Depp is quite amusing as the drunken, roguish (but good-hearted) pirate. Depp gets all the attention, but Geoffrey Rush is every bit as amusing playing the villainous Barbossa, and Rush really nails the pirate-speak, while Depp goes off on his Keith Richards impression. More than anyone else, Rush really feels like he's embodying the hokey but endearing spirit of the ride.

The movie, too, mostly embodies that spirit, although like every movie in the series, it goes on for too long (even if it's one of the shortest installments), with a plot full of too many reversals and double-crosses. Since there was no indication of the massive success to come and no need to set up a sequel, Black Pearl at least has a clean, definitive ending, leaving the characters in a position to be happy and sail off into the sunset (literally). Along the way there are some exciting sea battles, some funny lines and some entertaining side characters. Tighten it by 20 minutes and it would come close to being the modern adventure classic that fans make it out to be.