Sunday, October 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Investigation 13' (2019)

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

A group of college-student ghost hunters lock themselves into a seemingly abandoned, allegedly haunted old insane asylum for the night, determined to record conclusive evidence of the afterlife. The weird old lady who owns the property promises to return for them the next morning. Do you really need any more info to guess what happens next in the rote direct-to-VOD horror movie Investigation 13? It's definitely not that everything goes well and all of the characters leave the asylum the next morning in perfect health, satisfied with the important data they've collected.

Just because the plot of Investigation 13 (the title refers to 12 previous paranormal investigations that have all been inconclusive) has been seen dozens of times before doesn't mean it couldn't be effectively executed. But director and co-writer Krisstian de Lara does an abysmal job of generating scares or constructing a cohesive plot, and the movie fails to make use of even its exceedingly meager resources. A few splashes of very fake-looking blood are about as gruesome or scary as anything gets in Investigation 13, and De Lara relies on crude animatics for the extensive flashbacks to the asylum's history, suggesting, as one Letterboxd commenter pointed out, that the production ran out of money and was forced to use its own storyboards in the finished movie.

Whether those animated sequences were a deliberate artistic choice or a financial necessity, they're still incredibly ugly and amateurish, sketchy drawings that almost never actually move, layered with stilted voiceover. The acting from the onscreen performers isn't much better, and even genre legend Meg Foster (They Live, The Lords of Salem, Masters of the Universe) doesn't add much to the movie in her brief appearance as the creepy caretaker. Star Stephanie Hernandez spends the entire movie in a distracting, ill-fitting wig, and the male actors mostly just petulantly snipe at each other. In the grand tradition of micro-budget direct-to-video thrillers, the majority of the action involves slowly skulking around poorly lit corridors.

The boogeyman of the asylum is a former inmate named Leonard Craven (Peter Aratari), who is also nicknamed the Mole Man for reasons that I could never quite figure out. It's not clear if Leonard is meant to be a ghost or just a deranged murderer, but he's pretty corporeal for a ghost, and he'd have to be close to 80 years old (according to the movie's timeline) if he had just been hanging out in the abandoned building all this time. Either way, with his tight black clothing, stringy black hair and steampunk-style goggles, the Mole Man looks more like the singer of an industrial metal band than a possibly immortal psychopath. He's about as unimpressive as horror-movie villains get, which makes the promise in the movie's IMDb summary (presumably written by the filmmakers themselves) of a whole Mole Man franchise about as laughable as everything else in this worthless movie.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo' (2008)

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

When Sylvester Stallone returned to his other iconic movie character with 2006's Rocky Balboa, he took a more thoughtful approach to a character who had become a bit cartoonish, garnering positive reviews and positioning Rocky for a rejuvenation in commercial and critical success with the subsequent Creed movies. That seems to be Stallone's aim with Rambo, which brings back John Rambo after a 20-year absence, and is in some ways grittier and less cartoonish than the second and third Rambo films. But there's nothing thoughtful or sophisticated about this movie; it's a grim, shockingly violent B-movie with virtually no plot that barely runs 80 minutes before the final credits start to roll.

As the movie opens, Rambo is still living in Thailand, having traded underground stick fights for underground snake handling. He rents out his boat, helps the local handlers catch snakes and does various other odd jobs, living a seemingly quiet life. But that changes when a group of Christian missionaries from Colorado hire him to take them into Burma, where they want to bring medicine and food (and Jesus) to the persecuted Karen people. Stallone (who directed in addition to once again co-writing the screenplay) opens the movie with real-life footage of atrocities in Burma, setting the stage for movie's cheap exploitation, reducing the people of Burma (on both sides of the conflict) to faceless cannon fodder.

Like Afghanistan in Rambo III, Burma is just a convenient place for Rambo to go kill a bunch of people without feeling conflicted about what side he's on, so it's especially disingenuous for Stallone to pretend like he's doing some sort of humanitarian good deed by highlighting the paramilitary campaign against the Karen minority. The violence in this movie makes the second and third films look like G-rated Disney movies, and Stallone doesn't just rack up the body count; he also makes every kill as graphic and gory as something out of a Saw or Hostel movie, with limbs getting hacked off, heads exploding and blood and guts flying everywhere. At least the second movie humanized Rambo's Vietnamese love interest and the third movie had him bond with an Afghan kid. The Burmese characters in this movie (including the sadistic villain, played by Maung Maung Khin) have no personalities, and what little dialogue they get is often presented without subtitles, as if to further underline how unimportant they are.

The American missionaries aren't much more fully developed, and the connection between Rambo and compassionate missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) is little more than a plot device to get him in place to slaughter Burmese soldiers. Presumably Rambo's reputation has brought numerous people to him over the past two decades seeking help, so why after all this time is this the one plea he agrees to? There's no personal connection (Richard Crenna died in 2003, so Col. Trautman doesn't show up), and the missionaries' pitch is pretty weak. But Rambo helps them get into the country and then returns to save them when they inevitably get captured, leading a team of generic mercenaries that feel like the sketchy first draft of The Expendables.

As a character, Rambo is a bit more like the haunted, traumatized veteran of the first movie than the gung-ho warrior of the second and third, but that just makes his murder spree feel like drudgery, the resigned obligation of a man who's no longer fighting against the killing machine that the military turned him into. A single question from Sarah about life at home propels Rambo to the perfunctory epilogue, arriving back at the ranch apparently owned by his never-previously-mentioned father. But this movie is less a culmination of a pop-culture fixture's character arc than a tired, cynical exercise in brand extension.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo III' (1988)

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

As absurd as Rambo: First Blood Part II was, at least it attempted to connect to John Rambo's history with the Vietnam War and his conflicted feelings about how it ended. Rambo III makes no such efforts, instead plugging its title character into a generic action story that could have been a vehicle for Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren just as easily as for Sylvester Stallone. After the events of the second movie, Rambo seems to have settled down in Thailand, living on the grounds of a monastery, where he helps the monks with maintenance jobs and probably meditates or something. He also, uh, participates in underground stick fights, which is where Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks him down.

Trautman and American government functionary Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) want to recruit Rambo for a mission to Afghanistan, where the Soviet army has been waging war against local rebels. Apparently there's one Soviet commander who's so ruthless and effective that Afghan forces can't make any progress against his forces. So Trautman is going on a covert mission to aid the rebels, and he wants Rambo to come along. There's some hand-waving about Rambo being the best soldier of all time or whatever, but otherwise the movie doesn't really care about why Rambo's being recruited for this particular mission. In the movie's only consistent character beat, Rambo declines the offer, but when Trautman goes in alone and is captured by the Soviets, Rambo decides he has to rescue his friend.

Up to that point, Rambo III is actually somewhat restrained compared to the previous movie, but once Rambo gets to Afghanistan, he just goes ballistic, mowing down every Russian in sight in his quest to rescue Trautman. At one time, Rambo III held the records for both the most expensive movie ever made (surpassed just a year later by Back to the Future Part II) and the most violent movie ever made (a dubious record, but certified by Guinness), and it's not hard to see that onscreen. The second half of the movie features near-constant explosions (which Rambo always easily escapes, of course) and the wholesale slaughter of enemy soldiers, along with most of the Afghan rebels who are foolish enough to offer to help Rambo.

Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay, and he and co-writer Sheldon Lettich give Rambo some cheesy one-liners and a kid sidekick, making the character's transformation into a cartoon pretty much complete (Rambo had, of course, starred in an actual cartoon series for kids two years earlier). Crenna at least gets more to do here, even though it makes no sense that a senior officer like Trautman would be sent alone into a war zone. Marc de Jonge sneers as the Soviet villain but doesn't do much else, and Smith, who is great at playing callous government and corporate functionaries, disappears after his first couple of scenes, never turning into the kind of petty, power-tripping bureaucrat that Rambo took on in the first two movies.

Even more than the intensity and excess of its violence, Rambo III has become notorious for the way it positions the guerrilla fighters of the mujahideen (who would later form the Taliban) as the underdog heroes, with some uncomfortable political prescience when Trautman tells his Russian captor that Afghanistan will be their version of Vietnam. The movie doesn't really have any kind of political message beyond the same patriotic "might makes right" nonsense of the second installment, but its choice of the Afghan setting is telling. At this point, Rambo just needs somewhere he can go and slaughter dozens of people who can be dismissed as soulless enemy fighters, and in 1988, Afghanistan happened to be that place. The closing dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan" is just as hollow as all the onscreen ultraviolence that precedes it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' (1985)

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

The second movie in the Rambo series (and the first to bear the character's name in the title) is the one that really cemented Rambo's place in the pop-culture consciousness. Pretty much any parody or rip-off of Rambo references this movie, which is every bit the excessive, reactionary ode to ultraviolence that First Blood was not. Much of Rambo: First Blood Part II plays like it was made by people who completely misunderstood the point of First Blood, although star Sylvester Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay (this time with James Cameron). Maybe it was the lack of David Morrell's source novel to guide them, or maybe Stallone just wanted to bolster his career as a star of action blockbusters. Either way, Part II ends up as the epitome of '80s action cheese, pretty much ruining the character of John Rambo in the process.

The movie opens with Rambo breaking rocks as part of a prison labor gang like he's in a 1930s melodrama, and it seems like he's been living a quiet existence for the past three years. Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up to change all that, offering Rambo the chance to return to Vietnam for a covert U.S. mission investigating POW camps to see if any American soldiers are still being held prisoner. Everything that we learned about Rambo in the first movie indicates that he wouldn't return to Vietnam for anything, but he doesn't hesitate to agree to Trautman's mission, and he's immediately let out of prison, apparently no longer obligated to serve his sentence for destroying half a small town and assaulting dozens of law enforcement officers.

None of that matters, because Part II is an entirely different kind of movie, quickly putting Rambo in a position to essentially re-fight the Vietnam War. While his resentment of "not being allowed to win" was just a small part of his overall trauma in the first movie, here it's his reason for existing, and he enters the country with what seems like a vendetta against the Vietnamese. Stallone, Cameron and director George P. Cosmatos turn Rambo into the eager, trigger-happy killer that everyone in the first movie misconstrued him as, and he murders dozens of people starting almost immediately after he enters the country. Discovering that there are in fact American POWs still being held at a prison camp in Vietnam, Rambo guns down every Vietnamese soldier in sight, and then when he's abandoned by the craven bureaucrat (Charles Napier, suitably craven) running the mission, he guns down dozens more, along with some Russian soldiers for good measure.

Part II isn't just over the top in its characterization of Rambo; it's full of absurdly bombastic action sequences that obliterate the grounded sense of reality of the first movie. Rambo doesn't just shoot a bunch of people and save the POWs; he seems to be literally invulnerable to bullets fired directly at him, and he's able to trigger explosions seemingly on command. At one point he shoots an explosive-tipped arrow at a single Vietnamese soldier armed with a handgun, and the guy blows up like he's a shed full of dynamite. I saw Weird Al Yankovic's Rambo parody in UHF way before seeing this movie, and what struck me most about watching Part II is that Yankovic barely exaggerates its ridiculousness.

The movie half-heartedly suggests that the spineless American officials represented by Napier's pencil-pusher are the real enemy, but that's hard to buy when Rambo spends all his time killing the Vietnamese (except his offensively cartoonish love interest, who dies in his arms) and the Russians. His killing spree culminates in the murder of the typically massive '80s computer (with lots of flashing lights) that supposedly determines the viability of rescuing POWs. In First Blood, Rambo was unhinged and irrational, a victim of bullying and neglect. Here, he himself is the bully, the filmmakers turning his justified frustration into crowd-pleasing bloodlust.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Summer School: 'First Blood' (1982)

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

The first movie in the Rambo series doesn't even have the character's name in the title, and bears little resemblance to the cheesy, over-the-top jingoistic violence that forms the franchise's pop-culture reputation. First Blood is actually quite critical of America and American policy, especially the way that veterans are discarded and mistreated. Far from an indestructible action hero, Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo is a broken man suffering from severe PTSD, abandoned by his government and without any friends or family. The Vietnam veteran literally wanders into a small town in Washington after discovering that the only other survivor from his unit has succumbed to cancer.

All Rambo wants is something to eat and maybe an honest day's work, but the intolerant sheriff (played to asshole perfection by Brian Dennehy) doesn't take kindly to long-haired drifters in his town (although Rambo's hair is barely long enough to qualify him for a .38 Special cover band), and he hassles Rambo the moment he sets foot inside the town limits. When Rambo exhibits quiet defiance to the unlawful order to leave town, the sheriff arrests him for vagrancy, taking him to a police station where the small-town cops take sadistic pleasure in their abusive power trip over a seemingly helpless vagrant.

Despite his fragile emotional state, though, Rambo is far from helpless, and when the cops' treatment triggers flashbacks to his experience being tortured by the Viet Cong, he snaps, attacking the officers and fleeing from the police station, eventually establishing a strategic position in the dense forest outside of town. He just wants them to leave him alone, but the sheriff is now consumed by vengeance, enlisting the help of the state police and the National Guard to flush Rambo out and capture him. The title refers to Rambo's assertion that the cops were the ones who drew "first blood," and throughout the movie he goes out of his way not to kill anyone, even when he's not afforded the same courtesy. The only law enforcement death is accidental, caused at least as much by overzealous bloodlust as by any of Rambo's actions.

Stallone (who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on David Morrell's novel) makes good use of his limited acting range as a taciturn, traumatized loner. Rambo barely speaks until an emotional monologue at the end, which could seem a little overwrought but works as an expression of all the pent-up emotions that this trained killer has been keeping inside for way too long. The middle stretch of the film, as Rambo hides out in the woods, taking out the ill-prepared men chasing him, is tense and stark and full of well-crafted action, with Dennehy and Richard Crenna (as the military officer who trained Rambo to be a deadly weapon) sparring sharply over what to do about the situation.

Even before the final monologue, the climax goes a little too broad, as Rambo comes into town and starts exploding and machine-gunning everything in sight (even while scrupulously avoiding endangering any civilians). But Stallone and director Ted Kotcheff keep the focus on Rambo's expression of mental trauma, and the violence is always an outgrowth of that. Rambo lashes out at both protesters and the law-enforcement establishment, showing how alienated he is from all sides of the political spectrum. First Blood isn't liberal or conservative; it's just about human frailty, something that anyone can understand and sympathize with, regardless of their political perspective.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Friday' (2017)

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

It's been a little while since I ran out of movies from the Friday the 13th franchise to feature in this series, but the concept of Friday the 13th is such a potent source for horror that there are still plenty of other movies that riff on that idea (and may get a little boost from the opportunistic association with a well-known property). Justin Price's straight-to-VOD crapfest The 13th Friday definitely falls into this category, with a title designed to catch the eye of Jason Voorhees fans even though the movie itself bears no resemblance to the adventures of the hockey mask-wearing killer. A Friday the 13th rip-off probably would have been more watchable than this completely incoherent mess, which makes absolutely no sense and contains nothing resembling scares or suspense.

I'm not even sure I can recount the basic plot, since the movie jumps around abruptly from scene to scene and character to character in such a haphazard manner that I was almost never sure what was happening or how the people onscreen were connected to each other. The movie opens with both expository title cards and expository narration, both of which begin with "It is said ..." and offer no useful information for what is about to happen. There's a prologue that is apparently set in the early 1900s featuring a woman setting her young daughter on fire, and as one Letterboxd user pointed out, the girl in this supposed period setting is wearing braces on her teeth.

That kind of sloppy inattention to basic detail is a hallmark of Price's work, which I've actually encountered before via his equally dreadful Christmas-themed horror movies The Elf and Elves. After the prologue, Friday introduces a bunch of people hanging out at the world's most listless party, holding obviously empty red Solo cups as they stand outside this supposedly haunted house (which is also a church, maybe?). The actors all deliver their lines so completely devoid of emotion that you could almost imagine this movie as some sort of experimental performance-art project commenting on terrible no-budget horror movies. But no, it's just a cheap, rushed production that follows these interchangeable people as they all die in various ways after they're cursed by this evil house (where they voluntarily have a party, for some reason).

The curse involves an object that looks kind of like the puzzle box from Hellraiser, but apparently is some sort of calendar that requires the group to sacrifice someone each month for 13 months (hence the title, I guess, although there is more than one Friday in a month). Price awkwardly fast-forwards through most of this, killing and introducing characters so clumsily that I had no idea who was who, even when he sort of settles on Lisa May's Allison as the protagonist. Some of the victims get sacrificed in a cave, although I could never figure out where the cave was or how they got there. There are some crappy-looking monsters that are obviously people in flimsy masks, but then there are also characters who are supposed to be wearing flimsy masks to make themselves look like monsters, I guess?

Anyway, it all relates to the young girl from the prologue being possessed by Satan, I think, and also to the erasure of the cursed 13th month of the year from the ancient calendar (also a plot point in the similarly awful bargain-basement horror movie 13/13/13). It doesn't matter, because the climax just involves the remaining characters wandering around the haunted house before the movie ends abruptly without resolving anything. May, who's worked with Price on multiple projects, delivers all of her lines in a sort of halting whisper, and the rest of the cast sound like they're being fed their lines one word at a time. The special effects are so rinky-dink that you can practically see the strings holding up the ghostly sheets, and even basic things like spiders and butterflies are created with horribly unconvincing CGI. Somehow Price keeps getting funding and distribution for these abominations (I watched this one on Hulu), but he's clearly not doing anything to improve his craft as a filmmaker.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Summer School: 'London Has Fallen' (2016)

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

Nothing about Olympus Has Fallen called out for a sequel, and I'd be surprised if anyone involved in its production expected there to be a follow-up. But the movie was successful enough that three years later Gerard Butler returned as Secret Service superhero Mike Banning, once again forced to protect U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) by murdering as many terrorists as possible. London Has Fallen is even more hyper-violent than its predecessor, with more grossly xenophobic pandering, and Mike comes across less as a freakishly competent agent than as a psychopath who gets off on killing.

While the action in Olympus was pretty much confined the under-siege White House, London takes place across the city of London, as well as above it, allowing director Babak Najafi to stage more elaborate action sequences, although the shoddy effects (even shakier than in the last movie) hold him back from doing anything particularly impressive. There are car chases and helicopter crashes and lots of explosions, but none of it carries any weight. Late in the movie, there's a stitched-together single-take shot of Mike infiltrating a terrorist stronghold, and it looks just like gameplay footage from a video game, with Mike as the deliberately blank protagonist. That's representative of the movie as a whole, which has a sort of plug-and-play feel with characters thrown into a generic action-movie template.

That template involves some anonymous Middle Eastern terrorists staging an attack on world leaders who are in London for the funeral of the British Prime Minister. Olympus sacrificed the leader of South Korea as a plot catalyst; here the filmmakers raise the stakes by killing at least five heads of state within a few minutes. Of course Asher manages to escape thanks to Mike's projected invulnerability and unerring aim (he shoots multiple bad guys in the head before even getting Asher into their getaway car), and then the terrorists are focused solely on tracking him down so they can complete their revenge for an American drone strike on the head terrorist's family.

Although Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt return as the screenwriters (with additional writing from several others), London is more focused on snarky dialogue and mean-spirited jabs than Olympus was. People most remember the infamous "Go back to Fuckheadistan" line, but Mike spends the whole movie throwing out racist and dehumanizing insults that make him sound like he places no value on human life. It's a strange approach to a character who's meant to be a hero, someone with a stronger moral code than the bad guys. But Mike's really just the American flip side of the equally vengeance-driven Middle Eastern terrorists. It turns what should be a fun action movie into an angry rant about foreign policy, making it hard to enjoy even on the level of mindless trash.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Summer School: 'Olympus Has Fallen' (2013)

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

When Olympus Has Fallen was released in 2013, most of the media attention was focused on it as the first of two very similar movies about terrorists attacking the White House, released just months apart. Yet somehow, while both Olympus and Roland Emmerich's White House Down (released three months later) were idiotic, loud, overblown action movies with nonsensical plotting and terrible dialogue, Olympus became a huge surprise hit, spawning an unlikely franchise for grim, single-minded Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

As a character, Mike is completely uninteresting, with barely any personality or back story in this movie, even with an opening prologue that provides him with motivation to seek redemption. As a conduit for violence, he's brutally efficient, plowing his way through dozens of faceless henchmen in his single-minded mission to rescue captive U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). The movie opens with a car accident in a snowstorm as Asher and his family are on their way to a Christmas party, and Mike is following behind. Mike saves Asher from a car that's skidded off the road and is dangling from a bridge, but Asher's wife (Ashley Judd) plummets to her death, and Mike is tortured by his inability to save them both.

A year and a half later, Mike has been relegated to a desk job at the Treasury Department, but of course he manages to infiltrate the White House when it's taken over by a Korean terrorist organization. Mike is so absurdly competent that literally every other character, aside from Asher and his aides, is disposable cannon fodder. Either they're easily dispatched minions of terrorist mastermind Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), or they're fellow U.S. operatives who lack Mike's skills and apparent invulnerability (he makes it through the entire movie without so much as a humanizing flesh wound). Mike single-handedly takes down the bad guys, to the point where he's giving Speaker of the House (and acting president) Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) orders, as the country's top military officials sit dumbfounded in a control room.

Butler is one of Hollywood's most inexplicably successful actors, and his performance here is just as flat and one-dimensional as usual, complete with his typically terrible American accent. Poor Radha Mitchell is stuck in the suffering-spouse role as Mike's nurse wife in a handful of scenes, but Mike never comes off like a real person. The easy shorthand for this movie is "Die Hard in the White House," but John McClane had a genuine emotional life that made his heroism more meaningful (at least in the first movie). The filmmakers here (including director Antoine Fuqua in one of his worst efforts) are interested only in excessive violence and over-the-top patriotism, from the slow-motion unfurling of the American flag to Melissa Leo's secretary of defense literally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as the bad guys drag her away. It's crass, disingenuous pandering that turned out be disgustingly effective.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Hours by Air' (1936)

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

It's pretty amazing how much air travel has changed in the last 80-plus years, as is plain to see in the otherwise forgettable 1936 B-movie 13 Hours by Air. Directed by journeyman Mitchell Leisen and starring affable but bland Fred MacMurray as pilot Jack Gordon, 13 Hours strolls leisurely through its brief 74-minute running time, only generating mild suspense toward the end. The title refers to the time it takes for a United Airlines flight to get from New York to San Francisco, making numerous stops along the way. Jack is first a passenger before taking over as pilot on the second half of the journey, but his fellow passengers mostly remain the same, including socialite Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett), with whom he shares a low-key flirtation.

MacMurray and Bennett have some appealing chemistry, but their romance, like everything in this sedate movie, is pretty underwhelming. There are only a handful of passengers on the flight, including an annoying spoiled brat named Waldemar (Bennie Bartlett) and his exasperated nanny (Zasu Pitts); a pair of suspicious men (Brian Donlevy and Alan Baxter) who turn out to be a bank robber and the FBI agent tracking him; and a haughty aristocrat (Fred Keating) trying to stop Felice from getting to San Francisco for reasons that are not very interesting once they're revealed. There's only slight intrigue in seeing these various plot threads develop, and the movie mostly proceeds at the same unhurried pace as its titular flight.

Eventually, there's a bit of danger, as the plane is forced into an emergency landing by inclement weather, and the bank robber decides to finally reveal himself and threaten his fellow passengers. Even with all the gunplay (of course in 1936, anyone could bring a gun on board an airplane without any interference), nobody seems like they're in much danger, and loudmouthed Waldemar ends up saving the day somehow. Even dedicated MacMurray or Bennett fans could easily skip this one, as both actors coast through the undemanding roles. The best reason to see the movie is really to witness the early incarnation of commercial air travel, when passengers could just wander into the cockpit or open the outside door mid-flight. That stuff is far more attention-grabbing than anything in the sleepy plot.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '3:13' (2015)

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

One of the great things about Amazon Prime is that it's so open, allowing indie filmmakers to post their small-scale, micro-budget productions without many barriers, so that they can be discovered by viewers around the world. Of course, most small-scale, micro-budget productions are terrible, so Amazon Prime is also full of obscure trash, making it very hard to discern what's worth seeing in this avalanche of anonymous content. I watched David Jaure's 3:13 because its title fits this project, but I can't imagine anyone other than the friends and family of the people involved in making this movie stumbling across it online and actually sitting through the entire thing.

I suppose Jaure has good intentions in creating this drama about the life of a homeless man following the 2008 financial crisis. The movie opens with an epigram about homelessness that is full of tortured syntax, but the bottom line is that Jaure is attempting to engender empathy for the forgotten and ignored people who live on the streets. Unfortunately he fails in pretty much every respect, and even the efforts to make main character Peter Grecco (Paul Alexandro) sympathetic as he struggles to survive often achieve the opposite effect. Peter speaks in stilted voiceover about his plight, making laughable pseudo-philosophical pronouncements like "What does 'human being' mean? Is it being human?"

The acting is terrible, the story is clumsy and heavy-handed, and Peter himself comes off like a selfish idiot who's largely responsible for his own situation. Flashbacks show Peter eagerly signing up for an unsustainable interest-only home loan, and Jaure seems so determined to demonstrate how corrupt the loan practices were leading up to the financial crisis that he has the loan officer plainly tell Peter that they are committing fraud. And yet Peter doesn't hesitate to go for it! His wife leaves him for reasons that are unclear, and then he refuses to come visit their young daughter, even after she begs him. He packs up and leaves his house seemingly hours after losing his job, not bothering to fight to keep it, just like he doesn't bother to fight for his family.

It's hard to say whether that's a character flaw or just poor filmmaking from Jaure. There are a lot of weird inconsistencies in this movie that may or may nor be intentional. At one point Peter is stalked and shot multiple times by some teenage thrill-seekers, and the bullet holes in his back have just disappeared by a few scenes later, without any medical attention. Those thrill-seekers show up again at the end of the movie, which shifts abruptly from its empathetic tone to a doom-and-gloom screed about human nature, as Peter winds up killed (at 3:13 in the morning, hence the title) by being set on fire by some faceless assailants while he's sleeping on a bench.

It's inspired by real-life attacks on homeless people, but it's so jarring and poorly depicted (with fake-looking CGI fire) that it's mostly just laughable. After a Bible quote (from a passage also reference by the title), the credits roll adjacent to interviews with some real homeless people, which are far more genuine and affecting than anything in the preceding movie. Maybe Jaure should have just made a documentary instead.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Summer School: 'Toy Story 3' (2010)

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

By the time Pixar got around to Toy Story 3, 11 years after the release of Toy Story 2, the property was deeply entrenched as a major part of people's childhoods -- and their adulthoods, too, thanks to the relatable themes of growing up and moving on. The third movie really leans into those themes, with a story that repeats a lot of the plot elements of the second movie, but with higher stakes, more intense emotions and more beautifully rendered computer animation. Often regarded as the best movie in the series, Toy Story 3 gets a little too emotionally manipulative for my tastes, but it's still wonderfully entertaining and emotionally rich, a perfect capper to the trilogy (even if a fourth movie is on the way this week).

Once again, the toys are worried about being discarded, this time because Andy is all grown up and headed to college. And once again, a mix-up leads to some of the toys being carted off to an unfamiliar place, in this case to the seemingly idyllic Sunnyside Daycare. While in Toy Story 2, it was just Woody (Tom Hanks) who'd been taken away, here it's Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and all the remaining supporting toys who get donated to Sunnyside, and Woody, who's been packed away to join Andy in his college dorm, must break in and save them from being demolished by reckless toddlers. So there's another rescue mission in another location where the toys meet a whole bunch of new characters, only this time the stakes are even higher (by the end, the toys are in imminent danger of being incinerated).

Still, the Sunnyside location is impressively envisioned, and the tyrannical Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) is easily the series' best villain. Woody's fixation on staying with Andy at all costs is starting to get a little tiresome by this point, and the reversion of Buzz to an oblivious simpleton who thinks he's an actual Space Ranger seems like a step backward for the character, who's never been as fully developed as Woody in the later movies. All of the plot and character elements come together perfectly in the central prison-break sequence, though, which is far more elaborate than the breakout in Toy Story 2 and benefits from even further advances in computer animation. The new and returning characters fit together well to create an immersive world of toy-based conflict.

And then the movie kind of overplays its hand with the climax at the garbage dump, which puts the toys in actual mortal peril for the first time, and features multiple fake-outs that string the audience along (even though it's obvious that Disney/Pixar isn't going to kill off some of its most popular characters in a movie aimed at kids). The final scene between Andy and young Bonnie, as he passes his toys to a new generation, is equally manipulative in a different way, pressing way too hard on the feelings of nostalgia and regret that were more gently evoked in the second movie. Sure, it gets (mostly adult) viewers to cry, but it's a little cheap. That said, the overall sentiment is lovely, and it does find a satisfying way to end the story, while emphasizing the circle of life (to quote another Disney movie). If Pixar is getting corporate pressure to keep returning to this well, at least they do justice to it each time.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Summer School: 'Toy Story 2' (1999)

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

Although the original Toy Story was a huge success and a major catalyst for the shift from hand-drawn to computer animation in feature films, 1999's Toy Story 2, released four years after the first movie, is really what cemented the series' reputation as Pixar's crown jewel and a wellspring of melancholy emotion. In the first movie, the toys were a little concerned about being usurped in Andy's favor by new arrivals, but it was a relatively minor issue that was mainly a plot device to generate conflict between Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The sequel is all about the fear of mortality and obsolescence, with Woody experiencing an existential crisis after his arm gets torn and he's accidentally put out at a garage sale.

Before Woody can get back to the other toys in Andy's room, he's snatched up by greedy toy collector Al (Wayne Knight) and placed in a display case in Al's apartment for imminent sale to a vintage toy museum in Japan. It turns out that Woody is based on an obscure children's TV character from the 1950s, and any toys of the characters from Woody's Roundup are now sought-after collector's items. While the first movie provided plenty of back story for the Buzz Lightyear character, the sequel does the same for Woody, including giving him a group of supporting characters. The toys for Woody's pals Jessie (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and Bullseye the horse are already in Al's possession, just waiting for Woody to arrive so they can be a full set suitable for museum display.

Jessie has become an integral part of the Toy Story franchise, and she has lively chemistry with Woody, who of course just wants to get home to Andy. The other toys mount an extensive rescue mission to save Woody from Al's high-rise apartment, taking a detour to Al's Toy Barn, where they encounter new friends and foes. The rescue operation and the new toy-filled environment are the core elements of each movie in the series, but this movie offers probably the best versions of them, especially in the aisles of the toy store. What happens when kids leave their toys behind has emerged as the central theme of the franchise, and Woody's big decision here is whether to join the museum display or return to Andy's room and risk eventually being discarded.

Al and Stinky Pete are both worthy villains, especially since Pete's motives are not hard to understand (he wants the Roundup gang to stay together so they aren't put back into deep storage). The mission to infiltrate Al's apartment is fun and suspenseful, and the balance between humor and pathos is well-maintained. Even just four years after the original movie, techniques for computer animation have improved dramatically, and the opening Star Wars-style sequence of Buzz's adventures in space (as part of a video game) is still pretty awe-inspiring. Toy Story 2 has often been cited as the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor, but all of this movie's strengths come from the groundwork laid in the first installment. It's an expert expansion on an elegant, resonant concept.