Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tribeca (Online) Film Festival

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival is really pushing its online component, offering up six feature films in a configuration meant to mimic the actual festival experience. Each movie has three separate "screenings," 24-hour windows in which they are available to watch online. The screenings have limited spots that can be reserved, and you have to "check in" early on to keep your spot. It's a neat way to approximate the event feel of a film festival for people at home, and since it's free (as opposed to last year's experiment that involved paying for an online pass), there's incentive to check out movies you might not otherwise bother with.

Only one of the six films (New York Says Thank You, a documentary about people inspired by 9/11 to help others) looked like something I really wouldn't want to see, so I picked the two most intriguing ones and signed up for the first screenings to see how the whole experience would go. The sign-up process was easy, and I was pleased that I was able to start the movies just before the screening window ended and still finish them after time expired (since I'm not always great at getting things done on time). The actual movie streaming was a little choppy, with some stops and starts, but that may have been the fault of my internet connection. Overall it was a worthwhile opportunity to get a taste of the film festival without actually being there, and if I have some more time this week (the screenings continue through May 1), I might check out some of the other offerings. As for the movies themselves:

Rabies (Navot Papushado & Aharon Keshale, Israel) Billed as Israel's first horror movie, Rabies has been getting mostly positive reviews from both horror fan sites and critics in general, but I was a bit underwhelmed. It starts like your typical slasher movie, with a group of young pretty people getting stranded in the woods and a killer apparently on the loose, and there are malfunctioning cell phones and cars that refuse to start. But writer-directors Papushado and Keshale take things in a different direction, and while that made the movie unpredictable and unconventional, it also made it a little frustrating, with characters behaving sometimes inexplicably. The title implies a sort of madness spreading among the characters, and that seems to be what's happening, although nothing is ever explained, and the movie ends with several plot threads unresolved. Various reviews mention social satire and postmodern genre deconstruction, but I mostly just got confusion and disappointment, albeit produced with suspense and style.

Neon Flesh (Paco Cabezas, Spain) This is such a morally bankrupt movie that it's hard to enjoy its achievements in empty style. Writer-director Cabezas mimics Guy Ritchie pretty heavily in his story of a small-time street hustler who decides to open his own brothel as a sort of misguided gift for his mother, a former prostitute who gave up her son when he was 12 and is about to be released from prison. The protagonist is meant to be sympathetic, I guess, and he's less evil than the other characters, but he still threatens and abuses a bunch of illegal immigrants that he purchases to populate his brothel, kidnaps the daughter of a corrupt cop and kills his underworld rival. Cabezas plays such unsavory plot elements as human trafficking, Alzheimer's disease and videotaped rape for laughs, and there's no sense of ironic distance or social commentary. The movie has a slick, propulsive style, but it's mostly cribbed from more entertaining films, and deployed in service of a rather despicable story.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: The Thirteenth Floor

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

Alternately cited as an unheralded precursor to The Matrix (by its fans) or a poor man's version of same (by its critics), 1999's The Thirteenth Floor is a scrappy little sci-fi B-movie that lacks the scope and creativity of The Matrix, but is still mostly entertaining in its modest way. It takes a more limited view, focusing mostly on a noirish mystery until the climax, when it pulls back to reveal the secrets of the universe. The main twist is pretty easy to see coming, but it's set up well, even if it kind of invalidates a lot of what was intriguing about the early part of the movie.

As it first appears, Floor is about a present-day technology company that has developed an elaborate virtual world modeled after Los Angeles in the 1930s. When the company's owner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is murdered, it seems to be tied to the time he was spending in the virtual world, where he was the patron of a fancy hotel and a favorite of the young, attractive call girls. His business associate (Craig Bierko, smirky as ever) enters into the virtual world to try to figure out what happened, while a dedicated detective (Dennis Haysbert) investigates the crime in the real world. The trips to the virtual 1930s give the movie a hard-boiled tone, which carries over into the present, where a mysterious femme fatale (Gretchen Mol) shows up claiming to be the deceased man's daughter. Haysbert also wears a fedora and a trenchcoat and speaks almost entirely in pulp dialogue.

The combination of sci-fi and film noir is clever and fun, and the movie has a cool style, even if the effects look a little dated at this point and the acting is uneven. Mol makes for a great femme fatale, but Bierko is too smarmy and Vincent D'Onofrio, as a techie (in the present) and a shady bartender (in the virtual 1930s), kind of overdoes things. Once the big twist shows up, the noir tone mostly disappears, and Floor becomes more of a dumb thriller. It's too concerned with cheap thrills to be as sophisticated as it appears on the surface, but it's still cheaply thrilling enough to be fun to watch.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bette Davis Week: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

Notably grim and gritty for an early sound film, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing focuses on Spencer Tracy as gangster Tommy Connors, who gets sentenced to the titular prison for armed robbery and winds up dealing with a whole lot more. Based on a book by the actual warden of Sing Sing, the movie explores prison life in detail and doesn't flinch from the deadly consequences (on both sides) of an escape attempt. At first belligerent and hostile, Tommy soon comes to respect the warden (Arthur Byron), so much so that he gets to become part of a program that allowed inmates to temporarily leave the prison with nothing more than a promise to return.

That's where Bette Davis comes in, playing Tommy's girlfriend Fay. She finds herself in over her head with Tommy's former associates, and he gets out in order to help her. Redemption isn't quite in the cards for Tommy, though, and the movie ends on a bleak note in which no one really wins. It's refreshingly pessimistic, although the plot can be a little disjointed, and some of Tommy's fellow inmates seem to be important characters only to fade in and out of the story. Davis, too, comes and goes, although Tommy's love for Fay is ultimately what keeps the story going. It's not much of a part for Davis, and she's mostly crying about Tommy's fate or professing her love for him. She does get to do a pseudo-deathbed scene, which she milks for all it's worth, and she looks glamorous in her gangster's-moll outfit in her first appearance. But this is Tracy's movie, and he carries it with intensity and vulnerability.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Old Acquaintance (1943)

The last time I saw Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins onscreen together, the notorious rivals were playing unusually close cousins in the mediocre The Old Maid. If I thought that Hopkins was straining to out-act Davis in The Old Maid, though, that's nothing compared to what she does in Old Acquaintance, in which she and Davis play unusually close best friends. Once again Davis plays the quieter, more sensible one, and once again she gives a fairly subdued, internal performance in contrast to Hopkins' histrionics. Those histrionics are so heightened here, though, that Hopkins is nearly impossible to watch. Her character is already unlikable enough to start with, a spoiled housewife who becomes even more insufferable when she starts writing trashy romance novels that bring in loads of money. Davis plays a fellow writer who takes more time with her work and reaches a much more limited audience.

Davis' Kit Marlowe is the one who helps Hopkins' Mildred Drake on her way to publishing success in the first place, but she's quickly overshadowed, and Mildred is pretty inconsiderate and shrill even before she becomes wealthy and famous. It's hard to tell just how villainous Mildred is meant to be; Hopkins' over-the-top performance marks Mildred as straight-up evil, but the story seems to be geared toward portraying her as tragic or misunderstood. Mildred's moments of berating her husband (played by John Loder), her daughter and Kit are so intense and overbearing (Hopkins raises her eyebrows so violently that they seem to be on the verge of flying off her face) that you just want to grab hold of her and shake her, as Kit does in the movie's most famous scene.

That bit is often excerpted for camp appreciation, but the film overall isn't quite silly enough to be enjoyed as camp. Davis, actually, is the one who takes things seriously, and she has quite a bit of soulfulness as the wry, world-weary Kit. This is yet another movie that takes place over a period of decades, and Davis is always good at conveying the development from a relatively carefree young woman into jaded middle age. The story's resolution is abrupt and silly, and any points it gets for not pairing up each character in the most obvious way are immediately discounted by the way Hopkins runs roughshod over the emotional nuances. She damn near ruins the entire thing.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Bunny O'Hare (1971)

Well, this is certainly a weird little movie. Among Bette Davis fans, Bunny O'Hare seems to have a reputation as her worst film, but it's not nearly as bad as, say, Return From Witch Mountain or Wicked Stepmother. It's more a missed opportunity than a complete disaster, with a plot that has potential for social commentary but is executed clumsily, and a tone that can't seem to decide between surrealism and slapstick. In a very different pairing from their turn as working-class parents in 1956's The Catered Affair, Davis and Ernest Borgnine team up as two misfits who dress up like hippies and rob a bunch of banks in New Mexico. Davis' Bunny is a lonely old lady who loses everything when the bank forecloses on her house (which for some reason involves immediately demolishing it). Borgnine's Bill is a junk collector who snatches up Bunny's plumbing to sell for scrap, but he's also an escaped convict who'd been in prison for robbing banks.

Inexplicably, Bill offers Bunny a ride after her house is torn down, then immediately tries to get rid of her. When that doesn't work, he reluctantly agrees to teach her how to rob banks, and after coming across a group of hippie protesters outside one branch, they decide to don costumes for their heists. Jack Cassidy plays an oblivious, pompous detective who's hot on their trail and so obsessed with the depravity of contemporary youth that he refuses to even consider that the bank robbers might not be young people. There's a lot of near-satire here, and some of the plot devices are just so bizarre that you can't help but laugh. Bunny and Bill wear the exact same outfits to every robbery and never get recognized, and Bunny is motivated primarily by her pathological need to provide for her two ungrateful adult children (one of whom is played by an amusing John Astin). The detective hires a young college student to be his consultant on youth matters, and then proceeds to fondle and seduce her at every opportunity, even while she's clearly two steps ahead of him in solving the incredibly obvious crimes.

Unfortunately director Gerd Oswald doesn't seem to know how to play up the satirical elements, and most of them just fall flat. Davis ended up suing the producers for butchering the story and cutting her dialogue in post-production (she clearly says "fuck 'em" as the movie's last line, but it's dubbed in as "screw 'em"), and she was obviously hoping for something with more bite to it. But Bunny O'Hare is still worth seeing for Davis fans or fans of counterculture exploitation; it's never been released on VHS or DVD, but it plays on TV sometimes and is available at the moment on Netflix Instant. If nothing else, the moment when Cassidy's detective places a single canary feather in his filing cabinet under "F" (for "feather") nearly redeems the whole thing.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bette Davis Week: The Rich Are Always With Us (1932)

I have my DVR set to record everything involving Bette Davis (shut up), but it missed The Rich Are Always With Us because for some reason the cable guide doesn't list her as one of the stars (even though she plays probably the third most important character). But thanks to fellow online Bette Davis chronicler Stacia at She Blogged By Night (who is far more knowledgeable about classic cinema than I am, and from whom I borrowed a couple of images), I was aware of this as a quality Davis outing, and was able to set it to record when I saw that it was airing on TCM. And I'm certainly glad I did - this is a very entertaining trifle of a movie, with Davis at her glamorous best, playing a wonderfully sassy dame in a movie infused with bubbly energy.

As I said, Davis plays probably the third most important character, and the real star of the movie is Ruth Chatterton, who plays a witty socialite in love with two different men. As this is a pre-Hays Code movie, Chatterton's Caroline isn't bound by artificial morality, and the movie's cavalier attitude toward adultery and divorce is refreshing. Caroline, a filthy rich heiress, is married to a boring stockbroker (of whom she is very fond) but passionately in love with Julian (George Brent, naturally), a much more exciting writer who travels the world as an international correspondent when he's not writing novels. Meanwhile, Caroline's frivolous friend Malbro (Davis) is also in love with Julian and pursuing him relentlessly, and Caroline's husband has his own mistress. Caroline and her husband get a divorce (amicably, for the most part), and she seems to be committed to being with Julian, except she can't quite stop "mothering" (as Julian puts it) her ex.

This all sounds like the recipe for some serious anguish, but it's played with a very light touch, and the dialogue sparkles with barbs and innuendos. Chatterton, whom I've only seen in one other movie (1933's Female, in which she plays a career woman tamed by a man), is absolutely terrific, with a lovely sly smile and a wry delivery that imbues her dialogue with both wisdom and cleverness. She and Davis are both sharp and sexy, and they engage in several entertaining sass-offs. Even Brent, whom I've complained about many times in these Bette Davis write-ups, gives a pretty lively performance (for him). The ending gets a little absurd, but the whole thing wraps up in about 70 minutes, with a minimum of moralizing and a breezy, silly tone that lasts until the final frame.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Watch on the Rhine (1943)

At this point, the most notable thing about Watch on the Rhine is probably that its lead actor, Paul Lukas, beat out Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca for the Best Actor Oscar. Lukas is fine, but there's really no contest between his performance and Bogart's iconic turn in Casablanca. The movie as a whole feels very dated, a fairly didactic morality play about the dangers of fascism and the obligation of right-thinking people to oppose it in any way they can. Lukas plays a German operative of an anti-fascist organization who flees to the U.S. with his American wife (Bette Davis) and three children. A devious Romanian diplomat (George Coulouris, suitably weasely) also staying in the American family's lavish home discovers the true identity of Lukas' Kurt and threatens to expose him to the German government.

Despite the vague thriller elements, Rhine is more concerned with speeches about moral responsibility and sacrifice than with suspense, and the early comedic elements about the American extended family feel out of place with the seriousness of what comes later. Davis does a respectable job as Kurt's long-suffering wife Sara, but it's a bland character, and she seems content to step aside and allow Lukas to have the spotlight (which makes sense, since she took a small role as a way to get the movie made with Lukas, who starred in the stage version). Despite Lukas' Oscar win, his performance is a bit dry, even when Kurt has to part with his family in favor of fighting for what he believes in. The child actors are also weirdly stilted, as if they were directed to convey their characters' foreignness by speaking in a halting fashion and never using any contractions.

At one point Kurt decries the way that Americans use "noble" in a pejorative way, but Rhine is exactly the kind of thing that you'd think of negatively as "noble." Its intentions are good, and in 1943 it probably seemed very timely, but at this point it's mostly just a historical curiosity.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Where Love Has Gone (1964)

Good lord is this movie awful. You never really know what you're going to get with these later-period Bette Davis performances; sometimes she's lively and entertaining, and just as often she's stumbling through hacky crap for the sake of a paycheck. Where Love Has Gone is definitely the latter; Davis has a decent-size supporting role as the rich and humorless Mrs. Hayden, mother to neurotic/slutty sculptor/heiress (quite a combo, that) Valerie Hayden, played by Susan Hayward. Mrs. Hayden is pretty much an evil hag, manipulating everyone in her life to her own selfish ends without a shred of remorse, and Davis brings a little bit of life to the role, but it's not on the level of her great camp-nasty performances of the '60s. She shows up every so often to fuck up the lives of the main characters, not that they really need her help.

Right, the main characters: Hayward's Valerie gets married to war hero Maj. Luke Miller (Michael Connors, best known as the title character from Mannix), who turns into a self-pitying drunk after Mrs. Hayden ruins his chances to start his own home-building business. Valerie responds to Luke's drinking by sleeping with every man she meets, and eventually they get a divorce orchestrated by, yep, Mrs. Hayden herself. Luke moves away, and Valerie gets custody of their daughter. All of this is laid out in a flashback that takes up more than a third of the movie; the story is really about the now-teenage daughter Dani (Joey Heatherton), who's locked up for murdering Valerie's latest lover in a fit of rage.

The whole thing is absurdly soap-operatic, inspired loosely by the case of Lana Turner's daughter's having killed Turner's boyfriend in 1958. There's no social relevance here, though -- it's all played for maximum histrionics, and Hayward and Heatherton make up for any overacting that Davis neglects to deliver. There's an annoying tension between the obviously seedy sexual exploits the characters are meant to have engaged in (which are probably more explicitly laid out in the Harold Robbins novel) and the semi-veiled way the movie has to portray them in order to fit mainstream standards of the time. Connors is square-jawed and boring, and the characters are so irritating and reprehensible that I kind of wanted them all to share one particular character's fate and stab themselves to death. They could also have stabbed crooner Jack Jones of "Theme From The Love Boat" fame for singing the terrible, terrible title song (which was nominated for an Oscar!). Just a really, really bad movie.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Winter Meeting (1948)

This is not exactly the best way to return to celebrating Bette Davis: Winter Meeting is a pretty dismal, tedious drama, with Bette doing her best but defeated by a morose script and a terrible performance by co-star James Davis, whose delivery reminded me so strongly of George W. Bush that I could not take anything he said seriously (appropriately enough, he went on to greater fame as one of the stars of Dallas). He plays a petulant war hero who falls in love with Bette's poet/heiress for no apparent reason; he basically follows her home like a puppy, parks himself on her couch and decides he's attached to her. Love happens quickly in a lot of old Hollywood movies, and the actors have to sell the heightened emotions as a substitute for extended courtship. James Davis can barely sell being alive, so his sudden infatuation is especially inexplicable.

Bette acts rings around him even while keeping her performance pretty subdued; her Susan Grieve has a bunch of melodramatic secrets, but they're revealed in a measured way over the course of a really long, overly talky scene as Susan and James Davis' Slick Novak sit around a fire and awkwardly open up to each other. Novak has secrets, too, which he also lays out in laborious fashion. It takes more than half the movie to get to this point, though (which was ruined by my cable guide's description), and the fallout from the revelations then feels rushed, just as the whole romance was in the first place. The movie gets points for ending on a down note and actually questioning whether the leads are really meant to be together just because they're good-looking movie stars, but there's no dramatic vitality left by the time we get there. John Hoyt adds a little vibrancy as Susan's clearly gay society friend, but he disappears for long stretches, leaving nothing but strained blather between Bette and her outmatched lummox of a co-star.

Bette Davis Month returns for a week

Last April, in honor of what would have been the 102nd birthday of Bette Davis, I wrote a month's worth of posts on Davis' movies, and when that ended I just kind of kept going, posting periodic bonus pieces on whatever Davis movies I happened to watch, mainly because I love Bette Davis even in the most forgettable trash, and I find each of her performances fascinating in some way. I figured I might as well stick with it as long as there were more Davis movies to watch (and she made a lot of them). And since it's once again April, and tomorrow would mark Davis' 103rd birthday, and I had a backlog of Davis movies I'd been meaning to watch and write about, I decided to do a condensed version of Bette Davis Month for the next week. Seven days, seven Davis movies, from the '30s to the '70s. I've gotten this far, and there's no going back now. Enjoy.

Friday, April 01, 2011

White Elephant Blogathon: Scorpion Thunderbolt

For last year's White Elephant Blogathan (a sort of movie exchange in which participants submit movie suggestions to a pool and then write about a randomly chosen selection from someone else), I lamented the fact that I ended up with the bland and harmless Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts instead of something weird or amusingly terrible. Well, for this year's version, I got my wish, and I think maybe I would have been happier with another Dr. Dolittle sequel: Scorpion Thunderbolt is certainly both weird and terrible, although I was more annoyed than amused by its awfulness. It's a sort of Frankenmovie spliced together from pieces of several different projects, a strategy that director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai apparently used to churn out dozens of Z-grade exploitation films in the '80s.

The main portion of Scorpion Thunderbolt is a Hong Kong horror movie dubbed clumsily into English, the plot of which I found almost completely inscrutable for the first hour or so of the 85-minute running time. Eventually there's a huge chunk of exposition explaining that the cheesy rubber snake monster running (and flying, for some reason) around killing people is actually the demure female reporter who has fallen in love with a mustachioed detective investigating the crimes. She's some sort of half-human/half-snake demon who's being controlled by either a blind dude with a flute (in the original footage) or a maniacal witch (in the spliced-in later footage) and being forced to transform and kill random people. I guess.

But that's only like 35 percent of the movie anyway. The rest of it is either the completely separate movie (starring go-to Ho/Lai white guy Richard Harrison) or a bunch of seemingly random scenes that have no discernible connection to the plot and feature characters who never appear again. There's some frolicking on the beach like something out of a tampon commercial, a crazed guy who holds a woman hostage and shoots pool balls between her legs, haphazard chase scenes and a whole bunch of other stuff that just kind of passed me by. I have no reason to believe that any of the dubbed-in dialogue relates to what the actors were actually saying in Chinese, anyway.

And then there's Harrison, who encounters random hooker-assassins, works out a lot and eventually defeats the evil witch without ever having to interact with the footage of her. His dialogue is also dubbed, but he at least appears to be speaking the same words we hear. His segments come at such staggered intervals that you almost wonder why they bothered to put them in at all, other than a need for an occasional white face onscreen (also, extra nudity from the aforementioned hooker-assassin).

It doesn't help that the DVD I watched has clearly been transferred from an old VHS tape (complete with tracking problems!) that makes the whole thing look like it was filtered through a wet sock. I'm sure connoisseurs of bad movies can find something to enjoy here, and there were indeed one or two moments that were so ridiculous that I had to laugh (the breastfeeding baby that turns into a tiny snake monster and bites its mother's breast, for example). But mostly this is tedious, annoying, worthless trash, and it made me long for the narrative coherence and intelligible performances of Million Dollar Mutts.

(The brave Victor Morton takes on my pick, Cool as Ice, here.)