Sunday, August 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Worms' (1970)

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

The 1970 low-budget Taiwanese production 13 Worms joins The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles and Ninjas, Condors 13 on the list of weird and terrible martial-arts movies I have watched for this project. I can enjoy sitting through an endless stream of bad horror movies, but I get bored with even decent martial-arts movies, so getting through a bad one is a real chore. Luckily for me, I guess, 13 Worms crams in about five other genres along the way, handling each one in its bizarre, nonsensical way. It starts out, bafflingly, with a chess tournament (although the game depicted in the movie, labeled in the subtitles as chess, doesn't look much like any chess I have ever seen, and is probably actually some other Chinese board game), which the title characters (a band of roving adventurers and/or bandits or something) have somehow won as a collective. A mysterious chess master shows up and challenges them to a match, and they agree to perform a task for him if they lose. The Worms' leader (maybe?) is an old man who appears to have a heart attack and die during the chess match (!!), which is then finished up (and lost) by the second-in-command (?).

Anyway, the Worms (of which there are now only 12, because the leader died of a chess-induced heart attack) now agree to go on a quest to rescue a princess for this mysterious chess master. This involves them getting arrested for some reason that I didn't understand and then carted off to a prison where this princess is being held, and where the inmates are forced to move pieces in a giant life-size version of chess (or whatever Chinese game is actually in the movie). More crazy ideas like that would have made the movie a bit more fun to watch, but most of it is a tedious slow chase as the Worms track the soldiers who are taking the princess ... somewhere. Also, there are a bunch of songs, because this movie is sort of a musical? I don't even know.

I could go through the rest of the inane plot beat by beat, although I don't think I understood most of it, including what exactly the Worms were trying to accomplish at any given moment. There's a sequence in which they dress up as ghosts (covered in white sheets) to scare the soldiers, and bits where they pose as various workers (a boatman, a wine merchant, an innkeeper) that the soldiers encounter along the way. The princess doesn't seem all that upset at being held captive (she's never shackled or confined), and both sides are consistently foiled by a "beggar" who first shows up as the chess master's assistant (or something). There's a big twist at the end when this beggar turns out to be a woman, which is completely obvious the entire time but comes as a total shock to all the other characters.

These nonsensical martial-arts movies are usually at least partially redeemed by their fight sequences, but 13 Worms has surprisingly minimal action, most of which is confusingly shot and not very exciting. The final battle involves the Worms fighting some guy who's basically just shown up, and there are no consistent villains to root against. Even the heroes kind of come and go throughout the story, and the annoying beggar ends up being the most prominent character. I was kind of amused by the self-important songs about the characters' heroism and the dangers they face, but I'm sure a lot of their impact was lost in translation. That's probably true for the rest of the movie, which might have made more sense with more careful subtitling. I don't think it's really worth the effort to find out, though.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Girl From 10th Avenue' (1935)

As I've been making my way through the entire Bette Davis theatrical filmography, I've been winding down with plenty of cheap quickies from Davis' very prolific 1930s period as a Warner Bros. contract player, and most of them are entirely forgettable (some are quite a bit worse than that). So I wasn't expecting much out of The Girl From 10th Avenue, one of five movies that Davis made in 1935 alone. It's overshadowed by that year's Dangerous, for which Davis won her first Oscar (although the movie itself is a bit underwhelming), and it's not generally mentioned in discussions of Davis' best work from the period. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun, entertaining movie with a great Davis performance, albeit opposite a male lead without much screen presence.

Directed by Alfred E. Green, who worked with Davis on seven films (including Dangerous), 10th Avenue bears a bit of resemblance to the 1932 Green/Davis collaboration The Rich Are Always With Us, which also poked fun at the antics of rich society narcissists, although 10th Avenue is less comedic and not as clever. It's also a bit disjointed, running only 70 minutes and abruptly jumping ahead in time at several points. Davis plays a working-class girl named Miriam Brady who happens upon rich lawyer Geoffrey Sherwood (Ian Hunter) as he drunkenly loiters outside his ex's wedding. Miriam gets Geoffrey off the street and spends an evening with him, after which they wake up to find themselves married.

Instead of a wacky misunderstanding, this is played as a beneficial arrangement for both; Miriam helps Geoffrey get sober, and Geoffrey provides Miriam with a more comfortable lifestyle. But once Geoffrey has his life together, the vain Valentine (Katherine Alexander) decides that she wants him back. Miriam is a great strong-willed Davis character, both when standing up to Geoffrey and his old-boys-club chums and when fending off Valentine's designs on her husband (whom she comes to love, of course). Determined to fit in with high society, she enlists the aid of her landlady (Alison Skipworth), a former society dame herself, tackling every challenge with confidence. Instead of deriving comedy from a commoner attempting to act sophisticated, the movie treats Miriam with respect, and Davis gives her a combination of sauciness and dignity.

The movie's centerpiece is a delightfully catty confrontation between Miriam and Valentine at a fancy restaurant, which eventually involves the throwing of a grapefruit, and Davis is at her sharp-tongued best here, while Alexander does what she can to keep up. Davis shines again as Miriam confronts Geoffrey over his romantic indecisiveness, but Hunter isn't quite up to the task of sparring with her, and the two have minimal chemistry throughout the movie, making their abrupt happily-ever-after at the end especially jarring. Colin Clive, best known as Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale's films, is much more charismatic as the poor sap Valentine dumps to attempt to win Geoffrey back, but he has only a few scenes to shine in. The movie really belongs to Davis, and it probably deserves a more prominent spot among her flood of '30s roles.