Tuesday, June 19, 2018

VODepths: 'Bark,' 'The Nursery,' 'Soft Matter'

Bark (Annie Brennen, Caitrin Gallagher, Eli Rubenstein, dir. Anna Nilles and Marco Jake) Three young siblings (two in high school, one in college) deal with their mother's suicide in a movie occasionally narrated by the voice of their dog in Bark, which sounds like it would be cutesy and sentimental, but is actually slow and naturalistic, with a lot of silent long takes and awkward interactions. Writer-directors Anna Nilles and Marco Jake withhold some basic information at first, including the nature of the mother's death, but their revelations are so restrained that initially I wasn't even sure what they were meant to convey. Some of the mumblecore-style bickering among the siblings is entertaining, but it's more often just tiresome, and there are some weird metafictional elements (in one scene another actor walks onscreen to essentially "tag out" the main actor playing the teenage brother, saying that the directors want him to take a break) that seem jarringly out of place. Even the conceit of the narration from the dog is inconsistent, reaching its culmination in a scene that feels like it should be the end of the movie, then completely dropped as the movie continues on. The occasional lyrical passages aren't enough to compensate for the disjointed structural composition. Available on No Budge.

The Nursery (Maddi Conway, Emmaline Friederichs, Carly Rae James Sauer, dir. Christopher A. Micklos and Jay Sapiro) At one point in The Nursery, one of the characters describes what's happening as "textbook ghost stuff," and that's a pretty fair description for this occasionally passable, entirely generic micro-budget horror movie. A college student babysits at a remote house where vaguely spooky things start happening, and when her friends show up to visit her, they're all terrorized by a malevolent spirit that may or may not be connected to the family that lives in the house and their young baby that Ranae (Maddi Conway) is charged with watching. It takes a little while for the story to get going, and once things start moving, the scares are pretty familiar loud noises and sudden apparitions. The filmmakers try to deepen the narrative by giving Ranae a tragic back story that just comes off as melodramatic, although the performances are fairly strong for a movie of this small a scale. The reveal of the ghost's true nature is pretty underwhelming, the kills are tame, and the conclusion is anticlimactic, brushing aside all the death and danger preceding it. It's textbook ghost stuff, and not even a particularly engaging textbook. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Soft Matter (Ruby Lee Dove II, Hal Schneider, Mary Anzalone, dir. Jim Hickcox) I don't even know where to start with the bizarre sci-fi/horror movie Soft Matter, which exists somewhere around the intersection of Troma, John Waters and Harmony Korine. It's certainly one of the grossest movies I've ever seen, the kind of movie in which a character is speaking entirely literally when she calls someone "a disgusting bag of slime." The plot, such as it is, involves two scientists experimenting on patients at an abandoned nursing home in order to discover the secret to immortality, in which they are thwarted by both an ancient sea goddess living in a mop bucket and a pair of hipster artists looking to stage an installation in a decrepit building. There are some moments of deadpan humor and some creative animated interludes, but mostly this is a movie that is just weird and off-putting and unpleasant for the sake of it. Watching a disgusting bag of slime bust out some dance moves to a synth-pop groove is kind of entertaining at first, but a string of inexplicable moments like that eventually just gets to be tedious. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Mercury 13' (2018)

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

Given the massive success of Hidden Figures, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Netflix original documentary Mercury 13 gets optioned for a major studio feature film. It's another inspirational story of smart women pushing against entrenched prejudices at NASA, in this case a group of 13 female pilots who went through an unofficial astronaut training program in the early 1960s, only to be denied the chance to be considered for actual space flight. There's not quite the same happy ending as in Hidden Figures, though, since none of the women ever ended up going into space (although at least some of them went on to thriving aviation careers). Still, it's hard not to be at least a little moved by the testimonials from these determined women and the injustice they suffered.

As a movie, Mercury 13 isn't all that impressive; directors David Sington and Heather Walsh combine talking-head interviews (with some of the surviving pilots and relatives of those who've passed away) with archival footage to tell the story of 13 female aviators who were recruited by NASA medical specialist Dr. Randy Lovelace to undergo the same battery of physical and mental tests as the famous Mercury Seven male astronauts (famously depicted in The Right Stuff). Lovelace was convinced that not only could women be just as qualified as men to participate in space missions, but also that in some ways they might make for superior candidates. Without NASA authorization, he initiated his own program to test and train women, but he was ultimately shut down when his plan progressed to having the women train on military fighter jets.

A little while later, there was a Congressional hearing about the possibility of having the women officially join the astronaut training program, but that led nowhere, and it wasn't until the 1980s that NASA actually put women on its space missions. Sington and Walsh lay out all this information in a mostly straightforward, pedestrian fashion, and the interview subjects are compelling enough to keep the movie engaging over most of its slim 79-minute running time. But the directors also pad out the film with cheesy re-enactments (including a hokey speculative version of women participating in the first moon landing) and lots of lovely but questionably relevant footage of airplanes in flight. There's also an overbearing score to juice the emotions that are plenty powerful on their own. The result is a movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself, because no amount of lackluster filmmaking could undermine the emotional impact of the story and the inherent charm and grit of the women portrayed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

VODepths: 'Cartel 2045,' 'Darc,' 'Dead List'

Cartel 2045 (Brad Schmidt, Danny Trejo, Alex Heartman, dir. Chris Le) There's kind of a cool sci-fi premise at the heart of Cartel 2045 (also known as Juarez 2045), in which sophisticated military robots have become just another weapon to be stolen, co-opted and junked when no longer useful. Here, they've been smuggled to Mexican drug cartels, who use the deadly bots to assert their dominance in organized crime. The idea of futuristic technology becoming scrap to be scavenged by criminals reminded me a bit of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, not that anyone should be trying to emulate that movie. But there's the potential to explore some interesting sociopolitical elements here, even on a low budget. Writer-director Chris Le doesn't care about any of that, though, and instead fills the overlong movie with repetitive, listless action sequences populated with interchangeable characters. There's a former Marine released from prison so that he can join a team of fellow Marines in tracking down the contraband droids, but his shady back story turns out to be irrelevant, and his look and personality are barely distinguishable from his teammates. Danny Trejo chews some scenery as the evil drug lord, but even he can only carry things so far, and the rest of the performances are flat and uninspired. The effects aren't terrible, as long as the robots don't have to interact with the actors (in which case they almost always look like they're in separate images), but the fake film grain just highlights how far this movie is from a genuinely creative and entertaining B-movie. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Darc (Tony Schiena, Armand Assante, Shô Ikushima, dir. Julius R. Nasso) At first glance, Darc seems like a run-of-the-mill low-budget action movie, with a stock plot about a determined badass seeking revenge for the death of his mother. And for the most part, that's what it is, with Tony Schiena playing Jake Walters, who as a child witnessed his prostitute mother's murder at the hands of a Yakuza boss. The adult Jake (who also goes by the name Darc, inspired by a manga hero he read about as a child in Japan) is sprung from prison, where he's serving a sentence for unspecified crimes, by an Interpol agent played by a mumbly Armand Assante, tasked with rescuing the agent's daughter from the very same Yakuza boss who killed Jake's mom. Lots of violence and gratuitous nudity follows. What sets Darc apart is that it's a vanity project for star and co-writer Schiena, who is a private security contractor, activist, combat veteran and martial-arts champion with an insane Wikipedia entry that he almost certainly wrote himself. The action here is pretty solid, and Schiena is passable as a stoic man of action (or at least is no worse than Steven Seagal would've been in the exact same role 30 years ago), but the violence is repetitive and mind-numbing, the tone is vaguely misogynistic, and the presentation of the title character is so self-aggrandizing that it verges on parody. Available on Netflix.

Dead List (Deane Sullivan, Jan-David Soutar, Josh Eichenbaum, dir. Holden Andrews, Ivan Asen, Victor Mathieu) An actor invokes an extremely ill-defined curse in order to win a role in a Martin Scorsese movie, but the jumbled quasi-anthology structure of Dead List means that people start dying before it's clear who they are or why they've been targeted. Even after we see Cal (Deane Sullivan) acquire a mysterious mystical book and enact some ritual from it, the movie has a hard time conveying what he's summoned or how it works. The vignettes (written and directed in various combinations by the three filmmakers) feature Cal's rival actors dying in what seem to be meant as sort of ironic, Twilight Zone-style circumstances, but it's tough to tell what the connections to their lives are meant to be when we barely know anything about the characters. One short piece in which a victim dies by being transformed into a black man and then gunned down by police at least has the basic premise of one of those stories, but there's no real reasoning behind it. Other segments are tedious and/or excessively gross, and the production values are pretty terrible, with ugly visuals, subpar effects and questionable acting (absolutely none of these people would be up for a role in an actual Scorsese movie). Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Locker 13' (2014)

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

The low-budget horror anthology is a venerable genre tradition going back decades, and I've even written about a couple of them (Last Stop on 13th Street and Hellblock 13) in this space before. There's no way that Locker 13 is going to take its place alongside movies like Black Sabbath or Tales From the Crypt or Creepshow, but it's slightly better than its obscure straight-to-video pedigree would indicate. It features a cast full of veteran B-movie stars and character actors (including Curtis Armstrong, Jon Gries, Thomas Calabro, Jon Polito and David Huddleston), mostly giving decent performances, and its individual stories are all fairly concise. The production values are bare-bones, but they're professional enough, and forgiving horror buffs may find this movie to be an acceptable time-passer.

The first full segment is actually pretty good, starring Ricky Schroeder as a washed-up boxer who acquires a mystical pair of boxing gloves from a mysterious stranger and finds himself easily pummeling younger, stronger opponents. He pounds them so hard that they end up dead, though, and he has to face the consequences of his late-breaking rise to fame. The story ends with the kind of Twilight Zone/E.C. Comics twist that these anthologies often rely on, and it's an effective stinger for a nasty but engaging tale. Schroeder conveys the regret of a man whose glory days are behind him (probably not hard for the former child star to relate to), and Polito is his typically dyspeptic self as the boxer's opportunistic manager.

Unfortunately the rest of the stories are not nearly as strong. The wraparound story takes place in an Old West amusement park, with Gries as the veteran employee showing new night janitor Skip (Jason Spisak) the ropes. Gries' Archie tells the movie's first four stories to Skip as they tour the park, and then when Skip is left alone to work, he gets his own story. The other tales include an initiation gone awry at a secret society in the early 20th century; a suicidal jumper getting a unique pep talk; and a hitman interrogating three women who may have hired him. In Skip's story, he discovers that his locker (number 13, of course, which also shows up in three of the other stories) holds a portal to another version of himself.

Unlike the boxing story, those other segments just kind of peter out, without the same punch (so to speak) to tie them together. It's hard to discern a lesson, or even a point, to those segments, and they're not exactly scary or unsettling, either. There are solid performances throughout, including from Huddleston as the creepy leader of the exclusive lodge, Gries as the cheerily philosophical theme-park janitor and Krista Allen as one of the hitman's captives, and the pacing is relatively brisk. With some sharper writing, Locker 13 could have been an underrated horror gem, but as it is, it's only about one-fifth of a gem.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

VODepths: 'For the Coyotes,' 'Josephine Doe,' When the Starlight Ends'

For the Coyotes (James Carpenter, Joshua Schell, dir. Eric Daniel Metzgar) It's not too surprising that the small-scale two-character drama For the Coyotes was at one time meant to be a stage play, since writer-director Eric Daniel Metzgar plays out many of the scenes between dying religious scholar Wendell (James Carpenter) and his tech-entrepreneur son Josh (Joshua Schell) in static long takes, as the two sit at a table or stand in Wendell's kitchen and rehash their past. Estranged for years, father and son reunite when Wendell calls Josh and insists he come to Wendell's remote rural home, where Wendell reveals that he has terminal brain cancer. The title refers to Wendell's wish for a so-called "sky burial," leaving his body to be devoured by wild animals, which Josh vehemently opposes, at least at first. Although Metzgar throws in lots of arty nature shots and ponderous philosophical and religious soliloquies, this is at heart a fairly predictable drama about reconciliation between parent and child as one is about to depart the mortal world. The lead performances (especially from Carpenter, selling Wendell's spiritual bullshit) are impressive, and some of the images are pretty, but the story is rather superficial despite its existential musings, and the characters' arguments are mostly tedious and repetitive. Available on No Budge (free) and Vimeo.

Josephine Doe (Erin Cipolletti, Emma Griffin, Elisabeth Bennett, dir. Ryan Michael) The title character of Josephine Doe (Emma Griffin) is a figment of main character Claire's imagination, but it's never quite clear why Claire is having such a vivid, realistic hallucination, what kind of condition she might be suffering from, or what anyone can do about it. As a portrayal of mental illness, this movie is borderline irresponsible, although it's obviously more interested in being a lyrical drama about dealing with grief and family trauma, at which it's only marginally more successful. Erin Cipolletti, who also wrote the screenplay, gives a strong performance as Claire, who's reeling from the death of her father and clashing with her more stable sister, but her motivations remain opaque. Josephine is sort of a manic pixie dream girl type of imaginary friend, wearing quirky clothes and pushing Claire to do wacky stuff like break into a roller rink to go skating in the middle of the night. I kept waiting for some kind of twist that would explain why no one is more than mildly concerned about Claire's full-on manifestation of another person, but it never came. The black-and-white cinematography is sometimes evocative, but it seems to be standing in for other artistic ambitions that are never quite achieved. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

When the Starlight Ends (Sam Heughan, Arabella Oz, Sean Patrick Flanery, dir. Adam Sigal) Thanks to star Sam Heughan's newfound fame and sex-symbol status on Outlander, terrible micro-budget romantic drama When the Starlight Ends is certainly reaching more viewers than it otherwise might have. I haven't watched Outlander, but Heughan's performance here is pretty bad, delivered with a horribly unconvincing American accent. He's not helped at all by the writing from filmmaker Adam Sigal, who sticks Heughan with nearly nonstop pompous voice-over narration from his character Jacob, a supposedly great writer who spews nothing but self-important pretentiousness. Jacob is devastated after he's dumped by his girlfriend Cassandra (Arabella Oz, daughter of TV's Dr. Oz), and he spends the entire movie moping and rehashing their relationship, via flashbacks as well as annoying "writerly" fantasies in which he casts Cassandra as different women he might meet and fall in love with. The distinction between past and present and between reality and fantasy is blurry at times, but not in a clever or illuminating way; it mostly just comes across as sloppy filmmaking. Jacob is insufferable, and his relationship with Cassandra never has the grand romantic feel that the movie needs in order to justify itself. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Dementia 13' (2017)

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

The only reason that anyone pays attention to the original 1963 Dementia 13 is that it's one of Francis Ford Coppola's earliest films; otherwise, the typically rushed and incoherent Roger Corman production would likely be forgotten, or known only to hardcore B-movie connoisseurs. Even with the Coppola connection, it's still a bit of a stretch to think that the movie has such a recognizable brand name that it's worth remaking; I suspect that a large part of the reason that producers latched onto the idea is that the original has fallen into the public domain, and thus can be remade by anyone without bothering with licensing.

"The source material is free" is, of course, not a great reason for making a movie, and Richard LeMay's 2017 remake of Dementia 13 never really offers up a better one. It's not like the original story is brilliant, anyway: Like most early (and later) Corman movies, it was produced in a mad rush, and Coppola's screenplay is more or less nonsensical, made even more so by mandated reshoots that were added at Corman's insistence by another director. The best thing about Coppola's film is its eerie atmosphere, something that comes from filmmaking technique and not from narrative. LeMay is no Coppola, to put it mildly, and screenwriters Dan DeFilippo and Justin Smith add a bunch of extra material to the original story, making the incoherent narrative even more of a mess.

It still takes place at a remote estate, where a woman who's married into an eccentric family tries to wrangle an inheritance following her husband's sudden death. Here, though, that woman is a con artist who straight-up murdered her husband, and the filmmakers add a group of home invaders and an actual ghost to the original story of family secrets and a mysterious killer. Although the story is streamlined in certain ways thanks to what was probably a more straightforward production process, it's still convoluted and ultimately pretty meaningless, and without the kind of unsettling style that Coppola brought to his film, it's just another cheap straight-to-VOD quickie. The acting is passable at best, the scares are rote, and the characters are pretty much all unlikable, which means that the primary entertainment value is in waiting for them to die.

Only the location looks impressive, a sprawling estate that conveys the isolation and eccentricity of the central family. LeMay makes the most of it, shooting all over the grounds and in the surrounding woods, relying on the creepy emptiness of the scenery to stand in for any narrative thrills. In a way, this movie is perfectly in keeping with the original, which was an opportunistic add-on using money left over from a previous Corman movie, churned out on a tiny budget as quickly as possible, to fill out drive-in double bills. The glut of movies on VOD and streaming services are the modern equivalent of that, and while it's unlikely that LeMay will become the next Coppola, he's managed to capture the spirit of one of the legendary filmmaker's early efforts.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The return of 'Roseanne'

I loved Roseanne during almost all of its original run, and although I've only seen bits and pieces of episodes since then, I'd still feel fairly confident ranking it among the best TV series (or at least best sitcoms) of all time. Then again, I felt the same way about The X-Files, and I've had mixed feelings about that show's recent revival (although the just-concluded second revival season was much better than the first). So I was a bit apprehensive approaching the new episodes of Roseanne, which, like The X-Files and Will & Grace, is essentially restarting as if it had never ended. I can't say that the three episodes made available for review would inspire me to put this current version of the show on a list of the best shows on TV, but they also never made me re-evaluate my love for the original series, as some of those X-Files episodes have.

Like the new Will & Grace, which blithely dismissed the events of the original series finale, the new Roseanne retcons pretty much the entire (terrible) final season of the show, returning the Conners to their working-class roots (there's no mention of winning the lottery) and getting rid of all the weird metatextual nonsense about the show being a story written by Roseanne herself, with events changed for dramatic effect (Dan is alive and well, although his pseudo-death does get a reference). In that sense, the creators (including ringers Whitney Cummings, Wanda Sykes and Norm Macdonald) pretty effectively capture the spirit of the original show. Roseanne Barr is a bit shaky at first in her return to acting, but Sara Gilbert (as daughter Darlene), John Goodman (as Dan) and Laurie Metcalf (as Roseanne's sister Jackie) are all very good, and Lecy Goranson (as daughter Becky) and Michael Fishman (as son D.J.) do solid work despite also having been out of the spotlight for quite a while.

As has been extensively reported, the show makes Roseanne (the character) into a Donald Trump supporter (much like Barr herself in real life), but the first episode goes out of its way to represent opposing political views (Jackie is a dedicated progressive activist), and it would be a stretch to say that the show itself supports Trump. Like Will & Grace, Roseanne improves once it ditches the efforts to comment on the current administration, but it engages with other topical issues more intelligently and convincingly, upholding the show's history of social awareness. Like Fuller House, the new Roseanne adds new kid characters to the central extended family, but unlike Fuller House, it manages to come up with some non-irritating characters who don't dominate the narrative, and Darlene's gender-fluid young son Mark (Ames McNamara) gets a sensitive portrayal without being played for laughs or coming off as absurdly precocious.

Most importantly, the show is still pretty funny, with the central cast chemistry (minus Fishman, who's barely in the previewed episodes) fully intact. There's no effort made to update the style or look of the show, which is an old-fashioned three-camera sitcom in every way, but unlike Will & Grace, which feels hopelessly dated and uses a hopped-up audience that howls at every line, Roseanne is fairly subdued, with some jokes passing by with only minimal audience laughter. At best, this kind of show can feel like a filmed play, and the strongest Roseanne episodes had that immediacy and intensity to them. The new season doesn't reach the level of the best of vintage Roseanne, but it mostly does justice to the show's legacy, which is probably the most you can hope for from any of these recent revival cash-ins.

Premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

VODepths: 'Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies,' 'Battle Drone,' 'Curse of the Mayans'

Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies (Timothy Haug, Wyntergrace Williams, Kaitlin Mesh, dir. Mark Newton) Originally titled (more accurately but less enticingly) Kudzu Zombies, the no-budget horror-comedy Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies isn't nearly as amusing as its revamped title. Slapped together with limited locations, shaky acting and distractingly poor CGI, Attack doesn't do anything new with the zombie formula, as an experimental herbicide (meant to wipe out the invasive kudzu plant that is rampant in the southern U.S.) somehow turns people into undead monsters (sometimes with incredibly fake-looking leaves and shoots growing out of them). The filmmakers barely even attempt to explain the plot, just hand-waving about scientific experimentation so that they can get to rampaging zombies at a carnival. The humor is weak, the characters are barely one-dimensional (and the large ensemble makes it tough to invest in the survival of anyone in particular) and the action is chaotic. Only the aerial shots (possibly captured thanks to the crop-dusters that were clearly the filmmakers' main asset) look remotely professional, and it's hard to stage a convincing zombie apocalypse when normal daily activity is clearly going on in the frame behind your characters. Movies like this need to get by on clever writing and lively pacing to make up for their budgetary shortfalls, but Attack is sluggish and plodding. The most entertaining part is the hard rock title song during the closing credits, but with the change to the new title, even that ends up missing the mark. Available on Amazon.

Battle Drone (Louis Mandylor, Dominique Swain, Jason Earles, dir. Mitch Gould) A bunch of mercenaries fight a bunch of remote-controlled death-bots in a movie that mainly resembles watching somebody else play a not particularly interesting video game. Battle Drone writer-director Mitch Gould wastes little time in setting up his basic premise, as the A-Team/Expendables-style group of rogue operatives is recruited to retrieve a cache of weapons at Chernobyl (yes, the actual Chernobyl), where they are then used as test subjects for a new line of "battle drones," cyborg soldiers controlled by human pilots from a remote location. The group, led by hardened but honorable ex-soldier Vincent Reikker (Louis "brother of Costas" Mandylor), takes on the robots in a series of repetitive fight scenes that constitute almost the entire movie, while Gould occasionally cuts to the evil government masterminds (plus an arms dealer played by B-movie staple Michael Pare) executing their plan. The character development is minimal, and the banter between Reikker and CIA agent Alexandra Hayes (Dominique Swain) is limp, although at least the movie doesn't try to oversell their sexual chemistry (of which they have none). The effects aren't all that bad for a movie with this presumably limited budget, and the battle drones look sort of like old-school Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. The action is mediocre at best, though, and Gould relies way too heavily on slo-mo and Matrix-style bullet time, which adds to the dated video-game feel of the movie (the Chernobyl location, shot possibly somewhere in Canada, is just a convenient empty space for the action, and has no plot relevance). Once the characters run out of things to shoot at, the movie just ends, having exhausted its meager purpose. Available on Netflix.

Curse of the Mayans (Steve Wilcox, Carla Ortiz, Mark Tacher, dir. Joaquin Rodriguez) Maybe director Joaquin Rodriguez should have just made a documentary about cave-diving in the Yucatan, because that's the only material that works in Curse of the Mayans (aka Xibalba), a poorly paced, confusing horror/sci-fi/action movie about the History Channel's favorite subject, ancient aliens. You know you're in for a slog when a movie starts with an expository text crawl followed by an expository voiceover before it even gets to any action, and Mayans makes almost no sense at all despite all the explanations (if anything, they make it worse). Set in Mexico with dialogue in both English and Spanish (albeit poorly dubbed in both cases, so it's hard to tell what language the actors were actually speaking), Mayans follows an expedition into the jungle to excavate some Mayan ruins, where the explorers disturb the final resting place of those ancient aliens. The ruins are accessible only via an underground cave system, which allows Rodriguez to shoot that cool, eerie cave-diving footage, but combining it with fake-looking monsters kind of kills the mood. Those monsters don't even show up until the last few minutes, and before that the movie grinds through some dull character drama (complete with a gratuitous sex scene) and some vague warnings about the dangers of disturbing sacred artifacts. The characters are so ill-defined and the action is so murky that it's tough to tell who's being killed off and/or possessed by monsters during the climax, but the movie ends with another nonsensical voiceover that seems to render it all irrelevant anyway. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

VODepths: 'Counterfeiters,' 'In the Cloud,' 'Sensitivity Training'

Counterfeiters (Bryce Hirschberg, Robert McEveety, Taylor Lockwood, dir. Bryce Hirschberg) I feel sort of bad for tearing apart movies like Counterfeiters, which was made for $8,000 and submitted to me for review directly by its writer/director/producer/editor/star Bryce Hirschberg, clearly trying to drum up some attention for his micro-budget effort. But he asked for it, so to speak, and so I will warn anyone who comes across this movie on Amazon Prime and thinks its logline (about makers of counterfeit money turning on each other) sounds intriguing: This is a terrible, terrible movie, even for its budget level and limited resources. Honestly, I might believe that Hirschberg made the movie for $80, mostly spent on renting a boat where the majority of the action takes place. Hirschberg plays Bridger, who begins the movie by learning about his mother's cancer in the most awkward cancer-diagnosis scene since The Room, and then six months later is apparently some sort of counterfeit-money kingpin, working with his indistinguishable friends to create counterfeit bills via a process that was not remotely believable. Something goes bad (?) and they have to ditch their operation, but also they're putting together a drug deal? The motivations are as murky as the visuals, and the dialogue is full of what sounds like semi-improvised fumbling. Hirschberg, in a man bun and ugly denim shirt, gives himself the part of a compassionate badass who's irresistible to women, It's clearly a calling-card project to pitch himself for more work, but I have a feeling that no one's going to be calling. Available on Amazon and iTunes.

In the Cloud (Justin Chatwin, Tomiwa Edun, Nora Arnezeder, dir. Robert Scott Wildes) Hey, did you know that Crackle makes original feature films? Sony's free, ad-supported streaming service is mostly known as the butt of jokes, but it somehow keeps going even when subscription-based niche services like Seeso or Warner Archive Instant shut down. It's no Netflix, but Crackle has its own original series and occasional movies, like the dreadful cyber-thriller In the Cloud, a sort of low-rent take on themes from movies like The Cell and Inception and Transcendence. It's not nearly as good as any of those movies (whose quality varies wildly anyway), and its ideas are so muddled and poorly executed that they're essentially meaningless. Given the obvious budget constraints, a movie like this has to succeed on its story and characters, not any dazzling visual effects, and first-time writer Vanya Asher and director Robert Scott Wildes completely fail to deliver on that front. The plot involves a combination of a technology that can digitally map a person's brain and an ultra-sophisticated virtual-reality system, with Justin Chatwin and Tomiwa Edun as the tech bros who use them to delve into the mind of a terrorist and discover where he's planted bombs around London. They don't get around to that until more than halfway through the movie, though, and most of the story is actually about confusing corporate intrigue related to a tech genius played by Gabriel Byrne who dies at the beginning of the movie. It's so convoluted that the resolution (with blatant sequel-bait) was completely lost on me, but at least I got to watch a bunch of Red Lobster commercials along the way. Available on Crackle.

Sensitivity Training (Anna Lise Phillips, Jill E. Alexander, Quinn Marcus, dir. Melissa Finell) Mild indie comedy Sensitivity Training follows the Hollywood rom-com template almost beat for beat, via the relationship between a gruff microbiology researcher (Anna Lise Phillips) and the aggressively chipper counselor (Jill E. Alexander) hired to teach her to be nicer to her co-workers (after some particularly harsh words are the alleged catalyst for another scientist's suicide). Phillips' Serena is antagonistic and resentful at first, but she soon forms a (platonic) bond with Alexander's Caroline, which is then tested via some overblown misunderstanding in the third act. As usual, I sympathized with the misanthropic curmudgeon before her transformation into a friendlier person, but the character arc is so predictable and basic that neither version of Serena is particularly convincing. The movie gives a surprisingly large focus to Serena's research into a new kind of bacteria, which is detailed enough to take up a lot of the audience's attention, while coming across as completely dubious from a scientific perspective (and questionably useful from a plot perspective as well). Writer-director Melissa Finell throws in a half-formed lesbian subplot that seems designed solely to give the movie a little bit of edge, but everything about this story is as bland and safe as a Disney Channel original. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Redboy 13' (1997)

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

The opening sequence of the micro-budget spy spoof Redboy 13 is actually sort of promising, despite its painfully low production values and questionable acting. The title character (Devon Roy-Brown) is a teenage superspy who's being held captive by a Nazi named Dr. Heimlich Manure (played by writer-director Marcus van Bavel), and his escape from the enemy facility is amusing in a sort of ramshackle, amateurish manner. At its best (which isn't often), Redboy 13 recalls the aggressively goofy spy parody Get Smart (at one point Redboy even uses a variation on a shoe phone), but van Bavel isn't clever enough to sustain the humor for more than a few minutes at a time. After Redboy escapes from Dr. Manure (who talks to a puppet of Adolf Hitler), saves the damsel in distress and blows up the enemy base, the movie has pretty much run out of creativity.

That sequence mimics the typical structure of a James Bond movie, in which the pre-credits scenes feature the conclusion of some previous mission, and then van Bavel transitions to an extremely low-rent version of a Bond-movie title sequence, complete with a Shirley Bassey-style theme song about Redboy, performed by a singer who can barely carry a tune. It's indicative of how far the movie's reach will exceed its grasp over the course of its narrative, as Redboy heads out on a new mission to Central America to stop a drug lord and confront the resurrected Dr. Manure (now a brain in a jar, attached to a monitor). Van Bavel strains to fill the running time, delving into a lengthy, pointless flashback about Redboy's origins (he was recruited out of a military school for boys that seems to have about five students total), and introducing more irritating, one-note characters to sideline the hero from his own movie.

A pair of hillbilly caricatures who serve as Redboy's pilots as he infiltrates Central America are especially irritating in their unfunny ineptitude, and even for a parody, the villain's motivation is confusing and ill-defined. Add to that the terrible special effects (including some bargain-basement homemade CGI), the awkward performances and the limited locations, and Redboy 13 quickly goes from mildly amusing to actively annoying. Van Bavel even bungles the defeat of his own villain, dispatching Dr. Manure so ineffectively that I kept wondering when the movie was going to get back to him. Instead of leaning into its production limitations as an asset for parodying an overblown genre, Redboy 13 attempts to match the high stakes of the movies it's spoofing, and consistently falls short.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Sign' (2000)

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

Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on the ultra-low-budget British horror movie The 13th Sign, because from what I can gather from various online commentaries, it may actually be a student film that somehow managed to get major home video distribution. But the truth is that even students should be able to do a better job than this, or at least should start with something smaller while still learning basic filmmaking techniques. Sign is more or less unwatchable, a grubby, incomprehensible "horror" movie that's full of exposition and yet still makes absolutely no sense. There are no signs, let alone 13 of them, in this movie, in which some sort of demon-worshiping cult takes over a small English village for purposes that I never understood.

Fifteen years earlier, main character Lany (Nadja Brand) witnessed her father go on a murderous rampage through their hometown, killing 15 people before shooting himself. Now an adult, Lany lives with her aunt (although the relationship is only clarified by credits listing her as "Aunt Mira"), but is drawn back to the village after experiencing mysterious dreams/visions about another, similar killing spree carried out by a skinny bald man. That sounds a lot more coherent than the way that directors Jonty Acton and Adam Mason present the storyline, via elliptical dialogue that references poorly defined supernatural forces, characters whose motivations make no sense, and a setting that has all the authenticity of a pre-planned obstacle course.

That's not to mention how just plain ugly this movie is, shot on the cheapest early '00s digital video, with murky colors and frequent blown-out light sources making the picture physically hard to look at. The acting is uniformly horrendous (although clearly Acton's script didn't give his stars much to work with), the special effects are laughably basic, and the mythology is totally nonsensical, with its boilerplate references to secret rituals and chosen ones and ancient demonic forces. The main evil is some sort of moon god that gets its power from an eclipse, but what exactly that power is or what the entity wants to accomplish is never clear.

Lany teams up with Riley (Eric Colvin), the man from her vision, who learned from her father all about the evil cult, and is apparently the only person in the village interested in stopping them (or even, as far as I could tell, the only person in the village who's not actually in the cult), although they do recruit some random homeless guy later. Their plan seems to be the same as Lany's father's plan from years ago (just shoot everyone!), and the movie somehow makes the mass slaughter of everyone in the village into a heroic goal. In the second half of the extremely short movie (not even 80 minutes long), some group of Mad Max-looking warriors (including one with a giant claw hand) come to town to take care of Lany and Riley, but again I had no idea where they came from or what their motivation was or whether they were demons or just henchmen. At least the claw hand looked cool, which was literally the only redeeming quality of this dreadful movie. If it really was a student film, it deserves an F.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

VODepths: 'Almost Paris,' 'Future '38,' 'Mustang Island'

Almost Paris (Wally Marzano-Lesnevich, Michael Sorvino, Abigail Hawk, dir. Domenica Cameron-Scorsese) You'd think that Martin Scorsese's daughter could land a better project for her feature directorial debut than micro-indie Almost Paris, but given the lack of skill on display in this movie, maybe it's better that Domenica Cameron-Scorsese didn't get a more high-profile shot. A thoroughly phony and unconvincing family dramedy, Paris follows the creaky indie template of the big-city guy returning to his small hometown and reconnecting with his roots while falling in love with a girl from his past. Here it's former financial VP Max (Wally Marzano-Lesnevich, who also wrote the script in an obvious bid to showcase himself) moving back in with his parents, plus his sister and her husband and young daughter, on Long Island. It seems like the movie takes place around 2008 or 2009, although that's not entirely clear, and the filmmakers make a clumsy attempt at social commentary about the subprime mortgage crisis that fits awkwardly with the Hallmark-level romantic storyline about Max pursuing a sweet toy-store owner (Abigail Hawk). The dialogue is stilted, the performances are stiff, the jokes fall flat, and Cameron-Scorsese's direction is bland and lifeless. Maybe she needs a few more lessons from her dad. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Future '38 (Nick Westrate, Betty Gilpin, Tom Riis Farrell, dir. Jamie Greenberg) Somewhere around the intersection of a Guy Maddin movie and a Saturday Night Live sketch, 1930s sci-fi pastiche Future '38 imagines a lost movie (introduced by Neil deGrasse Tyson!) from 1938, depicting a government agent (Nick Westrate) traveling into the far future of 2018 in order to retrieve a weapon that can end World War II. Of course when he arrives, he meets a dame (played by GLOW's Betty Gilpin) and falls in love, while trying to complete his mission and deal with the unfamiliarity of the future. Shot in a style meant to evoke 1930s filmmaking, the movie can't quite settle on being a parody of how people in the '30s would have envisioned the future, or a parody of modern culture through the lens of the '30s. The dialogue is full of groan-worthy puns and double entendres, but Westrate and Gilpin have great chemistry (and Gilpin is fantastic as an old-Hollywood sassy broad), and they help in getting about half of the jokes to land. It's probably better as a concept than as a feature film, but Future '38 is still a fun watch for fans of vintage Hollywood. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Mustang Island (Macon Blair, John Merriman, Lee Eddy, dir. Craig Elrod) Thanks to his lead role in Blue Ruin, Macon Blair became an instant indie-film star, and he made an impressive directorial debut last year with I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. As the star of indie rom-com Mustang Island, though, he doesn't make nearly as strong an impression, and the movie itself feels like a leftover from the Sundance slacker-cinema boom of the '90s. Blair plays Bill, a sad-sack whiner who gets dumped by his girlfriend and drags his brother and his oddball friend to the titular location (a low-rent resort island off the Texas coast) to track her down. While there, Bill meets and falls for a local waitress (Lee Eddy, Blair's real-life wife), and various complications ensue. Director and co-writer Craig Elrod uses minimalist dialogue, abrupt transitions and black-and-white cinematography to give the movie a more distinctive style, but that doesn't enliven the pedestrian story or make the entitled, inconsiderate characters easier to invest in. The jokes are repetitive, and the minimalist style sometimes obscures seemingly important plot points and character relationships. Blair definitely has star qualities, but this movie is a poor showcase for them. Available on Netflix.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Dead Men' (2003)

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

I didn't keep close count, but I am almost certain there are not 13 dead men in 13 Dead Men, the title of which apparently refers to 13 death row inmates who've exhausted all their appeals and are set to be executed imminently. This is explained in a single throwaway line, and the only one of the 13 who actually appears in the movie is Malachi (Ashley Tucker), who's been convicted of killing a cop but maintains his innocence throughout the movie. I couldn't tell if he was actually innocent of the cop-killing, but he was definitely not innocent of stealing millions of dollars worth of diamonds, which the prison's warden (David Weininger) is determined to take for himself. The warden and most of the guards keep devising new ways to torture Malachi so he will tell them where the diamonds are hidden before he's scheduled to be executed.

Also looking for the diamonds are Malachi's former partners, all of whom apparently escaped arrest, led by Santos (Lorenzo Lamas). Eventually they launch some sort of half-assed plan to break Malachi out of prison, which mostly involves getting themselves into the prison and then fighting all the guards until they find Malachi. Surprisingly, this plan mostly works, because Malachi is being held in the most poorly secured and guarded prison of all time, along with barely enough other inmates to make it to the movie's titular number. Nobody's goals in this movie are particularly coherent, but the diamonds are just a flimsy excuse for director and co-writer Art Camacho to stage an endless series of listless fight scenes.

Camacho is a veteran of straight-to-video action movies and a prolific stunt performer/coordinator, but the fight choreography in this movie is absolutely terrible. The fight scenes are less believable than professional wrestling matches, with punches and kicks that clearly land nowhere near their intended targets, and characters lumbering slowly around each other. Say what you will about Lorenzo Lamas, but he knows his way around a low-budget action movie, and his fights are the only ones in the entire movie that even come close to credible. His acting is another matter, but it's not like anyone in the cast (which also includes rapper Mystikal, who joins Lamas in being billed above actual main star Tucker) gives a good performance. At least Lamas seems to be having fun as the cynical badass who gets the hot girl, which is more than can be said for the mostly flat line deliveries from the rest of the cast.

Although there isn't any nudity, there are some gratuitously misogynistic sex scenes between the warden and his wife/assistant, which go overboard in establishing him as a sadistic asshole. The women in the movie are generally just tools to further the agendas of the macho male characters, whether that's the lone female guard who's basically in love with Malachi and helps him contact his associates (only to be brutally murdered by the other guards and the warden in a faked suicide); or the female member of the robbery crew who goes from Malachi's girlfriend to Santos' to a captive of the prison guards (although she does get to kick ass eventually); or the warden's poor mistreated spouse. It's less a failing of this particular movie than just standard-issue for this kind of movie in this era; nothing about 13 Dead Men sets it apart from other cheap straight-to-video action movies of the '00s. Even Lorenzo Lamas has done better.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

My top 10 non-2017 movies of 2017

I'm a little behind on getting this done, but I didn't want to miss out on one of my favorite annual traditions. This year, I made a resolution (that I stuck to more often than not) inspired by this Matt Singer ScreenCrush article to watch at least one movie a week that was released before I was born, so I probably had a wider selection to choose from than in previous years. Here are the best movies I saw for the first time in 2017 that were released in previous years.

1. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Nicolas Gessner, 1976) I didn't know what to expect from this movie, other than a young Jodie Foster in some sort of thriller. What I got was a fascinatingly unpredictable mix of thriller, coming-of-age drama, horror and teen romance, with one of Foster's best-ever performances (at age 13!), as a teenager trying to balance a secret life after both of her parents die, leaving her alone in a big, isolated house. Martin Sheen is wonderfully creepy as the sleazy neighbor who wants to expose (in more ways than one) the young girl's secrets, and the plot deals with serious issues of morality, maturity and consent in a frank and direct way while still telling an entertaining, twisty story.

2. Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932) This delightfully disreputable pre-Code comedy, starring a fantastic Jean Harlow as a brazen gold-digger and home-wrecker, was my favorite film at the 2017 TCM Fest. Harlow's Lil Andrews openly declares her intent to sleep her way to the top, seducing her married boss, marrying him and then seducing an even older, richer industrialist. She never even really faces a moral reckoning, although the hapless men eventually get wise to her scheme. It's weirdly feminist in the way the anti-heroine exploits the patriarchy for her own selfish ends, and it's absolutely hilarious while she does.

3. Don't Bother to Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952) I've seen Marilyn Monroe in entertaining performances that play to her popular image, but this is the first time I've been truly impressed with her dramatic skills, and it's a shame that this movie isn't as well-known as her more stereotypically sexy performances. She's still sexy here, but she's also haunted and tragic as a woman whose mental instability becomes more apparent as she works as a babysitter in a hotel and flirts with a fellow guest. Richard Widmark plays the ostensible hero, who has a more sensible love interest waiting in the wings, but Monroe is the real star of this surprising, unsettling and sad movie.

4. Christmas, Again (Charles Poekel, 2014) I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Christmas movies, finding them fascinating but also mostly annoying, but it's worth watching the bad ones in order to come across gems like this, which I checked out thanks to a review from colleague Mike D'Angelo. Like Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas, it's a micro-budget mumblecore take on the Christmas movie, starring indie stalwart Kentucker Audley as a mopey guy working at a bargain Christmas-tree lot in New York City. Audley is endearing, and the movie is full of entertaining character details, charming little moments of interaction that get at the spirit of the holidays without being sappy, and while always balancing the cheer with melancholy.

5. The Children (Tom Shankland, 2008) And speaking of Christmas movies, this was probably the nicest surprise of the series I did on Christmas horror movies at the end of 2017. It's a creepy killer-kids movie that takes advantage of the inherent stress of family togetherness during the holidays to create a tense atmosphere even before the kids start committing violence against their family members. The characters are well-defined enough that the domestic squabbles feel real, but there isn't more back story than is needed to fuel the suspense. The kids are genuinely frightening, the isolated rural estate is a great location, and the ending has just the right mix of cruelty and triumph. More in my original post.

6. Ava's Possessions (Jordan Galland, 2015) Sometimes things sit for so long in my Netflix queue that I have no idea why I wanted to see them when I finally get around to watching them, so I can't say how this random straight-to-video horror movie came across my radar, but I'm glad it did. Like a lot of the movies on this list, it's unpredictable and determined to confound expectations, starting out as a dark horror comedy with a sitcommy premise (what if there was a support group for people recovering from ... demon possession?) before veering off into darker, more twisted territory. Director Galland gives it a sort of garish, sickly neon color palette somewhere between noir, EC Comics and an '00s alt-rock video, and the plot gives Louisa Krause's title character the chance to go from victim to righteous avenger, all with a devious smile.

7. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) One of the best Western plots is "determined lawman does the technically right thing even though it will lead to his certain death and is also futile," and this movie really nails that story. It's embodied by Randolph Scott as self-destructively righteous bounty hunter Ben Brigade, who uses a wanted outlaw to bait that outlaw's brother (Lee Van Cleef) into coming after him, delivering perceived justice for both, most likely at the cost of Brigade's own life. Scott's Brigade is stoic and tragic, and the movie is, too, with its beautiful but harsh frontier vistas and a pair of opportunistic gunmen entertainingly played by James Coburn and Pernell Roberts.

8. Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) I put this on expecting a light '80s teen comedy in the vein of a John Hughes movie, and I discovered something more like Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets The Graduate. Sure, everyone remembers Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to "Old Time Rock and Roll," and this movie also features Curtis "Booger" Armstrong as the main character's crass best friend, plus a giant over-the-top house party (filled with hookers) while parents are away. But it's also surprisingly bleak and pessimistic, with an undercurrent of hopelessness about the future. Cruise's Joel Goodson discovers that his life of privilege and wealth is completely hollow, and risking it all for an alluring prostitute (played by Rebecca De Mornay at her most alluring) is more meaningful than getting into Princeton.

9. Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976) And we're back to killer kids! I actually saw the remake of this movie (titled Come Out and Play) at AFI Fest in 2012 without having any knowledge of the original, and I found it slow and dull and not very scary. But (not surprisingly), the original is much better, an incredibly eerie, suspenseful and downright nasty movie about a vacationing British couple finding themselves on a Spanish island full of kids who've turned homicidal. There's a misguided prologue with real news footage of atrocities affecting children, and the movie doesn't quite support that thematic weight. After that, though, it's tense and well-acted, full of impossible situations as represented by the title question, the answer to which is always bad news.

10. The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951) I had a few potential choices for this last spot and went with this one in part because like so many movies on this list, it unfolds unpredictably, at first seeming like one kind of movie and then developing into something else. The main character is a concentration-camp survivor who moves to San Francisco by adopting the identity of a fellow inmate who died, but the story isn't about her deception being uncovered. Instead it's about her uncovering deception and murder in the wealthy family into which she insinuates herself, going from one horror into another that's more devious and not as readily apparent. The shots of 1950s San Francisco are stunning, and Wise builds an atmosphere of dread that sustains all the way until the very end.

Previous lists: