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.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Summer School: 'Toy Story' (1995)

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

With the current proliferation of computer-animated movies, it's easy to forget how revolutionary Pixar's Toy Story was when it was released in 1995. The idea of a full-length feature created entirely via CGI that could rival the hand-drawn animated movies from Disney was unimaginable just a few years earlier, and probably still unimaginable to many when Toy Story was released. From the perspective of 2019, Toy Story looks a bit unsophisticated, with animation less detailed and elaborate than in much lower-profile current CG-animated movies (and the human characters are stuck in the uncanny valley). But even if Pixar's animators didn't have as many strands of hair or facial details to work with, they still make every character distinctive and appealing, and it's a testament to the creativity of this movie that even as CGI technology has improved drastically, the core design of all these characters has remained the same.

The cutting-edge visuals wouldn't mean much without great characters and an engaging narrative, though, and while Toy Story may seem a little thematically slight compared to later Pixar movies (and to its own sequels), it's still consistently entertaining, with a lively story, clever dialogue and well-drawn characters who've deservedly become part of the Disney pantheon (now that Disney owns Pixar). Tom Hanks' cowboy toy Woody and Tim Allen's space-ranger toy Buzz Lightyear have such great chemistry that I had forgotten that the first movie was about a rivalry between the two, with Buzz as the fancy new toy that young Andy (John Morris) gets for his birthday. Woody is insecure and jealous that Buzz may become Andy's new favorite toy, while Buzz is oblivious to his existence as an action figure and believes that he's a real space explorer.

It's a simple, straightforward story that allows for simple, straightforward lessons about believing in yourself and embracing differences, and celebrates the power of friendship (as expressed in Randy Newman's theme song "You've Got a Friend in Me," easily one of the best songs in Disney animated cinema). Woody and Buzz are both a bit self-centered and inconsiderate, which gets them into increasingly desperate situations as Andy's family prepares to move into a new house and the toys need to ensure that they aren't left behind. But the main characters are never unpleasant or irritating, and their screw-ups come from places of wanting to do better and be better, so they are always likable. The supporting characters are charming and funny, with great voice work all around (it's no wonder that Toy Story 4 plans to use archival recordings of Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, since he seems irreplaceable).

The idea of toys that come to life when kids aren't around is such a strong hook that this movie doesn't need much else. Woody and Buzz's odyssey away from Andy's house drags at times, and its outcome is of course predetermined, but exploring the secret world of toys is the real appeal here. There's genuine creepiness among the cobbled-together toys of neighborhood bully Sid, and there's a sense of wonder to the whole new universe of toys at the kid-friendly arcade Pizza Planet. Toy Story only scratches the surface of a world with endless possibilities. It's a sweet, low-key beginning to a sweeping saga.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Style Strike' (1979)

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

I've written about numerous martial arts movies over the course of this project, and they've almost all been terrible: cheap-looking, poorly written, incomprehensibly plotted, broadly acted and completely lacking in suspense or excitement. Probably that's a byproduct of the kinds of movies that end up being retitled for home video with the number 13 in them; most of the horror movies I've written about suffer from the same problems. But since I have a general aversion to martial arts movies, I probably have less patience for these shoddy examples than I do for the many, many terrible horror movies I've seen over the years. I tend to tune out during even the most elegantly staged fight scenes, which I find inherently repetitive and dull. That's not to say that I've never enjoyed a martial arts movie, but it's often other elements (plot, character, set and costume design, cinematography) that draw me in.

All of which is to say that 1979's 13 Style Strike (also known as Eighth Wonder of Kung Fu) is very bad, and not just because it's a cheap martial arts movie. The plot is more or less incomprehensible, the characters are difficult to tell apart, the editing is choppy, and the fight scenes are sloppily staged, with punches and kicks that often land only vaguely near their targets. Some of the flaws can be blamed on the English-language version available to watch on Amazon Prime, which in addition to its laughable dubbing may have been edited for the American market (it runs just 76 minutes) and had its sound effects added or changed (the entire soundtrack, not just the dialogue, sounds like it was overdubbed). Amazon's video was clearly copied directly from VHS (including multiple tracking problems, which are always hilarious to see on streaming video), and no one's bothered to restore this poorly made obscurity.

I've thus far avoided recounting the plot, because I'm not quite sure I know what it is. There's a kung-fu school in what characters keep referring to as Shanghai, even though the movie is from Taiwan. A couple of white American businessmen have imported an American martial-arts champion to fight against Chinese kung-fu masters for some reason. There are references to the combination between Western and Eastern styles (maybe 13 of them?), and in an early scene, one of the kung-fu champions fights an American boxer, complete with boxing gloves. I'm tempted to credit this movie with inventing mixed martial arts, but that would imply that I understood what was happening.

There's also a rivalry between local kung-fu masters, one of whom is also a crime lord, maybe. There's a kung-fu champion taking the fall for an accidental killing by his brother (or student?), getting sent to jail, breaking out of jail, becoming a kung-fu clown (?), and then triumphantly returning to take on the American challenger. I guess this guy is the hero of the movie, although he doesn't really seem any more important than any of the other characters, whose relationships to each other are always unclear, until the movie gets close to its climax. There are a handful of cool moments in a late-film fight sequence at a construction site, but otherwise the action is listless, and since it's hard to figure out what the characters are fighting for and why, there's very little rooting interest in these anonymous ciphers. This certainly isn't a kung-fu movie for anyone but the most dedicated schlock fans.

Summer School: 'Shaft' (2000)

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

When John Singleton died a few months ago, not many tributes mentioned his 2000 reboot of the Shaft series starring Samuel L. Jackson as the title character. And it's not hard to see why, since Singleton's Shaft doesn't have the social conscience or personal vision of movies like Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice or Baby Boy, and it's not a big blockbuster product like 2 Fast 2 Furious. It's sort of a transitional piece for Singleton, mixing in the social realism and political commentary of his early work with the glossy action he shifted to later in his career. Those two elements don't always fit together neatly, but in that sense, this movie is just carrying on the Shaft tradition.

Although he's only six years younger than Richard Roundtree, Jackson plays the nephew of  Roundtree's original John Shaft, who shows up briefly in a handful of scenes but doesn't have any role in the plot. Jackson's Shaft is an NYPD detective who still believes that the system works, but he loses his faith when spoiled rich white scion Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale, basically playing Donald Trump Jr.) is granted bail on a murder charge against an innocent black man, and then flees the country. Shaft dedicates the next two years of his life to building a case against Wade, which mainly involves tracking down a bartender (Toni Collette) who witnessed the murder but is afraid to testify. Once Wade returns to NYC, he crosses paths with ambitious Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), and the two form an uneasy alliance of convenience against Shaft.

The movie is a bit ahead of its time with its focus on systemic racism and double standards in the justice system, and Bale's performance feels more relevant than ever. Wade is an over-the-top racist, but he's also sadly believable, and Bale is a more restrained villain than Wright, who puts on such a broad, cartoonish accent that I kept expecting him to ask people to say hello to his little friend. So certain aspects of this movie have aged better than others, and the details of the plot are not all that exciting (which, really, is standard for this franchise). Jackson is a good choice to take up the Shaft mantle, but his performance here is really more about playing his typical badass, wise-cracking Samuel L. Jackson character than it is about embodying the suave, righteous Shaft.

This Shaft is still committed to justice, though, even if he has to mow down a bunch of faceless henchmen in order to get it. The most iconic moments in this movie connect to Shaft's fury at injustice (when he hurls his police badge into a courtroom wall like a ninja star) and his way with the ladies (when he tells a lover "It's my duty to please that booty"), and those two elements are really what define the character, whatever generation he comes from. Singleton's movie is uneven, and it ends with a bit of a whimper, but he mostly proves himself worthy of picking up where Gordon Parks and Ernest Tidyman left off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black 3' (2012)

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

Despite the box-office success of Men in Black II in 2002 and Will Smith's continued dominance as a blockbuster action star, it took a decade for the creative team to return with Men in Black 3, and the time off seems to have been well spent. MIB3 doesn't have the same spark and excitement of the original movie, but it's definite improvement on MIB2, in terms of plotting, character development and visuals, and it makes a better case for the continued exploration of the MIB world (as is coming in this week's sequel/spin-off Men in Black: International). The dynamic between MIB agents Jay (Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) that was subdued in the second movie returns to the central focus here, albeit with an entertaining twist, and the special effects are much stronger, showcasing a new range of weird alien creations.

Jay and Kay spend the whole movie bantering and bickering, but Jones is only in about 30 minutes of the 106-minute movie, because the plot involves Jay traveling back in time to 1969 and teaming up with the younger Kay (Josh Brolin). Whether Jones wanted a reduced role or the story just called for him to be sidelined, the casting of Brolin turns out to be a genius move, and he riffs alongside Smith just as well as Jones did in the first movie. The villain here is more menacing than Lara Flynn Boyle was in MIB2, although nothing quite compares to Vincent D'Onofrio's turn in the first movie. Jemaine Clement plays Boris the Animal, a dangerous alien assassin who breaks out of a prison on the moon and travels back in time to kill Kay before Kay can capture him and lock him up.

Of course, the fate of Earth is also on the line, and Jay has to keep young Kay from being killed (and thus erased from the timeline) as well as make sure that Boris doesn't pave the way for a full-on alien invasion. As in most time travel movies, the rules are pretty inconsistent, and the franchise continuity doesn't entirely track, but as long as the story is entertaining, it doesn't really matter. For the third time in a row, Kay's character arc hinges on his longtime unrequited love for a woman (here, it's fellow MIB agent O, played in the present by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve), and that device has lost its impact from overuse. But the MIB movies are best when they focus on snappy banter and goofy aliens, and the worst elements of MIB3 are its attempts to wring emotional resonance from the relationship between Jay and Kay (including a particularly egregious retcon during the overly sentimental ending).

Clement doesn't really get to use his comedic skills as the humorless Boris, and MIB3 overall is more serious and action-oriented than the previous movies. But returning director Barry Sonnenfeld gets plenty of entertainment value out of the period setting, even if the movie's depiction of 1969 is about as realistic as Austin Powers. Brolin does a great approximation of Jones' gruff drawl, and Smith remains charismatic and likable. Thompson provides a suitable replacement for Rip Torn (whose character's funeral opens the movie) as the head of MIB, and at least the Burger King and Sprint store inside MIB headquarters are gone. Nothing has quite lived up to the potential that the first MIB offered, but at least MIB3 comes close.

Summer School: 'Shaft in Africa' (1973)

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

If Shaft's Big Score! turned Richard Roundtree's Harlem private eye John Shaft into a typical action hero, Shaft in Africa attempts to turn him into James Bond, a misguided effort that put an end to the Shaft franchise on the big screen for nearly 30 years (the character made it seven episodes into a CBS TV series the following year). It's one thing to add more action to a story of corruption and gang warfare in New York City, with Shaft caught in the middle. But taking the detective out of NYC (and out of the U.S. entirely) and turning him into some sort of globe-trotting superspy loses everything that was interesting and unique about Shaft in the first place.

Sure, he still sleeps with every beautiful woman he encounters (no matter which side she's on), and he occasionally makes a comment about contemporary race relations. But most of this movie is about Shaft using ridiculous weapons and affecting silly accents and fighting a series of interchangeable henchmen en route to a cartoonish big boss. He even ends up in a Bond-style elaborate death trap early in the movie, although it's just an effort by an African tribal leader to test Shaft's worthiness for a mission to infiltrate the human trafficking route bringing unwitting Africans to work in Europe for slave-labor wages.

That's a socially conscious (and unfortunately still timely) theme for a Shaft movie to explore, but the filmmakers are far more interested in fisticuffs and explosions than they are in taking on serious issues. Both original director Gordon Parks and original writer Ernest Tidyman are gone, replaced by journeyman director John Guillerman and veteran screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who won an Oscar for socially conscious detective story In the Heat of the Night), and even the music sounds more like a typical action-adventure score rather than the funk and jazz that Parks and Isaac Hayes brought to the first two movies. At one point when he's being presented with a bunch of Q-style gadgets, Shaft protests that he's not James Bond (he prefers to compare himself to Sam Spade), but the movie clearly lacks that perspective.

None of the other characters from the previous movies return, and the villain this time is even more of a Bond-style evil industrialist, complete with English accent, sprawling estate headquarters, seemingly endless supply of henchmen, and ridiculously gorgeous arm-candy girlfriend whom he treats with contempt. Refreshingly, the villain's girlfriend is hornier than Shaft himself, and she's the one who seduces Shaft when she's sent to help with the mission to take him out. (Of course, she then gets killed by a knife meant for Shaft, which is a very James Bond move.) Shaft's main love interest is the tribal leader's daughter, who talks casually about her clitorectemy, which is treated as a lighthearted plot point and not as evidence of barbaric misogyny. Between that tone-deaf subplot and the backward depiction of Africans, Shaft in Africa is much less progressive than its predecessors. By trying to broaden its hero's appeal, it killed anything unique and compelling about him.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black II' (2002)

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

As much as I was a big fan of the original Men in Black and of director Barry Sonnenfeld's work at the time, I don't quite remember what I thought of Men in Black II when I first saw it. It came three years after Sonnenfeld and Will Smith's notorious flop Wild Wild West (which I still haven't seen), and my expectations were probably a bit lower by that time. Still, I don't remember particularly disliking it, but watching it again so soon after rewatching the first movie, I can see how significant a step down it really is. Nearly every element of the sequel is worse this time around, all the way through Smith's typically silly plot song during the closing credits.

Even the chemistry between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as MIB agents Jay and Kay suffers, since it takes nearly half the movie for Kay to get back in action. The rather sweet ending of the first movie, in which Kay has his memory wiped so he can return to a simple existence with the love of his life, has to be undone, but first Jay has to encounter the latest world-ending alien threat, here in the form of an alien queen (Lara Flynn Boyle) who is after an all-powerful MacGuffin hidden on Earth. Kay was the one originally responsible for hiding it, so Jay has to bring him in and get his memories restored.

The easy chemistry that defined Jay and Kay's relationship last time around only surfaces in bits and pieces in the second half, and before that Smith has to carry the movie on his own (Linda Fiorentino's character, who was set up as his partner at the end of the first movie, gets written out in a single line). He's paired first with a dopey new agent played by Patrick Warburton and then with Frank the alien pug, who's one example of how this movie takes a clever background element from the original and runs it into the ground (it does the same with the "worm guys" who hang around the MIB office, and the idea of celebrities as aliens). The jokes are mostly strained and awkward (the Michael Jackson cameo especially has aged very, very poorly), Boyle's Serleena is a pretty ineffective villain (and Johnny Knoxville as her two-headed henchman is even worse), the romantic subplot between Jay and a pizza parlor employee (Rosario Dawson) is useless, and the rampant product placement is cringe-inducing.

Perhaps worst of all, the special effects are terrible, almost universally unconvincing and substantially worse than the effects in the previous movie. Maybe the problem is the overreliance on CGI (the original had quite a few practical effects), but even the CGI looked better last time around. The most amusing part of the movie is the opening clip from an In Search Of-style supernatural mystery show hosted by Peter Graves (playing himself) that lays out the back story in intentionally cheesy, low-budget fashion. And even that gets run into the ground, played again almost in its entirety later in the movie when Kay needs to be caught up. Running barely 80 minutes before the credits, MIB2 is a disappointing, half-hearted follow-up to one of the most entertaining summer blockbusters of the '90s.

Summer School: 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972)

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

From the beginning, Shaft was a more polished mainstream studio production than most blaxploitation movies, and thanks to the first movie's success, the sequel Shaft's Big Score! (released just a year later) obviously had a bigger budget to work with (alongside higher expectations). The result is a larger-scale action movie that has even less of a social or political perspective than the previous movie. Director Gordon Parks and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (author of the Shaft novels) both return alongside star Richard Roundtree, but Big Score is about cool fight scenes and big set pieces far more than it is about making a statement on American culture.

For starters, most of Big Score takes place in the middle-class suburban areas of Queens, rather than in Harlem as the first movie did. Even gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the only other returning character, now wears more traditional tailored suits. The somewhat convoluted story involves Shaft's old friend Cal Asby (Robert Kya-Hill), brother of Shaft's current main squeeze (although of course he has plenty of other squeezes), getting killed by his business partner, casualty of another turf war between white and black gangsters.

Cal and his partner Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) ran an illegal numbers racket out of their combined insurance and funeral home business, and Kelly wants to take it over for himself, while also using Cal's money to pay off his gambling debts to crime boss Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo). With both Kelly and Mascola looking to have Shaft taken out, Big Score has more clearly defined villains than the first movie did, and Mascola in particular is a typical ridiculous action-movie bad guy, complete with random eccentricities (he lounges around his house in what looks like a kimono, and spends his time playing the clarinet).

Shaft's previous police contact, the rumpled, old-school white Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), is gone, replaced by the humorless Capt. Bollin (Julius W. Harris), whom Shaft accuses of being a "black honky" in one of the movie's few instances of pointed commentary (there's also a moment when Bollin says "Fuck your rights!" to a black suspect protesting about being roughed up). Bollin isn't a particularly strong addition, but Mascola makes for a fun (if not very credible) villain, and Roundtree remains as charismatic as ever as Shaft. Parks himself takes over the music from Isaac Hayes this time, delivering a jazzier, more disco-oriented score that works best in an extended scene that cross-cuts between a club striptease and Shaft getting beat up by Mascola's goons.

The movie ends with a lengthy helicopter/boat/car/foot chase that shows off the increased resources but goes on way, way too long, and by the time it gets to the final confrontation, Shaft's motivations for taking on the gangsters are a bit confused. The first Shaft movie positioned its title character as a new kind of socially conscious detective; Big Score turns him into just another action hero.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Summer School: 'Men in Black' (1997)

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

In his early films, Barry Sonnenfeld seemed like the perfect melding of Tim Burton and the Coen brothers, and since they were some of my favorite filmmakers at the time, I was a huge Sonnenfeld fan from the start. After his work on Get Shorty and the Addams Family movies, Men in Black was the perfect fit for Sonnenfeld's blend of whimsy and snark, and the first MIB film is pretty much the zenith of his career (it was definitely all downhill from there). Based on a comic book in the days before every comic book property was made into a movie, MIB has a clear, instantly appealing premise, following the secret agency tasked with protecting humans from the aliens who live covertly on Earth.

Most of these aliens are harmless and friendly, and MIB gets a lot of mileage out of the gently antagonistic relationship between the human agents and the aliens trying to go about their business. The talking pug, the tentacled newborn, and the worm-like creatures in the breakroom are all instantly memorable, and their brief appearances give a perfect glimpse into the wider alien world that the main characters are working within. The mix of practical effects and CGI holds up remarkably well, and the creature design is inventive and fun. The core of the movie, though, are the human characters, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are at the height of their respective personas as the mismatched Agents Jay and Kay, who have a well-worn but entertaining buddy-cop dynamic.

Smith is the brash NYPD detective recruited into the secretive MIB organization, and Jones is the world-weary veteran who's seen it all and is ready for retirement. Although their styles clash, they clearly respect each other from the start, and their riffing is never insulting or unpleasant, just a string of clever, sometimes goofy jokes delivered with impeccable timing. The supporting cast is great, too, including Vincent D'Onofrio as the nasty bug alien wearing a suit of human skin, Rip Torn as the gruff MIB boss, and Tony Shalhoub as a fidgety alien dealer in stolen goods. I was especially disappointed to be reminded that Linda Fiorentino's career essentially ended not long after she made this movie, and her smart, alluring coroner character, who has great chemistry with Smith's Jay and ends the movie clearly set for a major role in the sequel, never returned.

The details of the plot are a little underwhelming at times, and the ticking-clock finale doesn't quite have the urgency that it needs. But it's also refreshing that a comic book-based summer blockbuster didn't feel the need to stage a massive action climax with an entire city being demolished. Jay, Kay and Fiorentino's Laurel fight off the gross, evil bug alien, and that's all it takes to save the Earth. It reinforces the idea that the MIB are always saving humanity without anyone realizing it, and it places this story in the overall context of their ongoing adventures. The ending makes the prospect of a series of sequels enticing, and I'm already bracing for the inevitable disappointments of returning to the second and third movies.

Summer School: 'Shaft' (1971)

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

Although the blaxploitation movement is generally built around scrappy, sometimes very rough low-budget productions, the genre's most famous movie is actually a slick, studio-backed film that won an Oscar. I haven't seen a lot of blaxploitation films (I'm pretty sure Super Fly and Black Caesar are the only other ones I've watched), but Shaft is definitely the best of what I've seen, an entertaining, well-acted detective story that effectively mixes social commentary with its old-fashioned crime story. It's still gritty and authentic, showing audiences a side of New York City that mainstream moviegoers wouldn't have been familiar with, but it's less confrontational than some movies in the genre, making more of an effort to reach a wider range of viewers (i.e., white people).

That's not necessarily a criticism, since one of the key themes is the way that private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is able to move between two worlds, connecting with the white police establishment and with the underground of Black Power groups and low-level hustlers. It's an ability that serves him well as a private detective, but it also means that he's never quite accepted by any of the people he interacts with. The cops don't trust him to give them all the information they need to bring in the criminals he associates with, and the African-American activists see him as a sell-out. There's no indication that any of this bothers him, though, and he sticks to his personal code of ethics regardless of who he's dealing with.

The specific plot, taken from the novel by Ernest Tidyman (who co-wrote the screenplay with John D.F. Black), isn't all that innovative or exciting, and it proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner, without any big twists. Shaft gets hired by Harlem crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find Bumpy's kidnapped daughter, who's become a pawn in the war between Bumpy and white mobsters from out of town. Once Shaft figures out who took the daughter, he basically just goes in and gets her, in an impressively staged action sequence at a hotel. What's more interesting than the plot is the way the movie follows Shaft around NYC, giving a tour of the city's underrepresented areas and presenting a range of colorful characters.

Roundtree, in his first film role, is fantastic as Shaft, making the detective charismatic and sharp and, of course, sexy, as Isaac Hayes' iconic, Oscar-winning theme song describes him. Shaft's dalliances with women are an essential part of his character, and while he casually sleeps around, he never mistreats the women he's with. The sex scenes are sensual but not sleazy, and director Gordon Parks, who worked mainly as a photographer, has an eye for artful compositions in the bedroom as well as on the streets. Hayes' funky, off-kilter music perfectly complements Parks' imagery, and I was more impressed with the use of music here even than with Curtis Mayfield's equally famous soundtrack to Super Fly.

Shaft's narrative drags in the middle, as the title character spends a lot of time just walking around aimlessly, but it's a solid mystery framework for the movie's exploration of contemporary NYC life, and it's no surprise that Shaft returned for more movie adventures (as well as a short-lived TV series). He's an appealing, durable character, and the movie effectively sparks interest in more of his cases.