Friday, December 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood' (1988)

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

After the surprisingly entertaining campiness of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the series' seventh installment returns to the standard killing spree of the earlier sequels. The New Blood was originally intended to be Freddy vs. Jason (which didn't end up coming to fruition until 2003), and when Freddy Krueger became unavailable, the producers substituted another much less compelling supernatural antagonist for Jason. The New Blood initially picks up right where Jason Lives left off, with Jason chained to a rock at the bottom of Crystal Lake, presumably drowned after he was defeated by Tommy Jarvis (who, after being played by three different actors in the last three movies, has now disappeared from the series altogether).

In keeping with Jason's now-supernatural existence, he's revived this time thanks to the telekinetic powers of Tina Shepard, who first witnesses her father drown in Crystal Lake and then years later as a teen (played by Lar Park Lincoln) attempts to revive him, ending up inadvertently resurrecting Jason instead. Tina is sort of a second-rate Carrie White or Charlie McGee from Firestarter, with dangerous telekinetic powers that manifest in times of stress or anger. After being accidentally responsible for Jason's return, she becomes his nemesis, attempting to stop him as he kills off the usual assortment of horny, clueless teens (conveniently staying in a house right next to Tina's).

Tina is a pretty poor substitute for Freddy Krueger, and the movie spends far more time than is worthwhile exploring her angst and the development of her powers at the hands of a sleazy doctor (played by Terry Kiser, aka Bernie of Weekend at Bernie's fame). Not that Jason is much more interesting -- he's such a powerful force that he can kill people pretty much instantaneously, and there's nothing in this movie about his back story or connection to Crystal Lake (aside from the return of the recap footage at the beginning of the movie, which offers highlights from the entire series but doesn't really tell very much).

The New Blood is also notable as the first appearance of Kane Hodder, the actor who would become most closely associated with Jason. The stuntmen/actors portraying Jason have been generally interchangeable so far, but Hodder's main contribution is playing Jason without his mask in the film's climax, demonstrating a snarling evil even under layers of prosthetics. The climax is otherwise pretty rote and underwhelming, with Jason seemingly killed multiple times before his actual, final defeat (at least until the next movie). For all her build-up as Jason's new nemesis, Tina was never heard from again.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


You have to give TV Land credit for finding and sticking to a successful formula for its original programming: Sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland and The Exes take seasoned sitcom veterans, stick them in stock sitcom scenarios, have them deliver hackneyed jokes and then amp up the audience reaction. These shows aren't creative, original or funny, but the presence of stars like Wendie Malick or Kristen Johnston or Wayne Knight sometimes makes them at least tolerable. Kirstie follows the same formula, teaming Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman and Michael Richards with newcomer Eric Petersen for the kind of show that could easily have been imported directly from an alternate version of 1993.

Although the show is named after its star, the main character isn't; Alley plays Madison Banks, a vain Broadway diva who reconnects with the son she gave up for adoption 20-some years earlier (Petersen). The contrast between self-centered showbiz lifer Madison and her naive, humble son Arlo is the source of the majority of the obvious humor, with Perlman and Richards chiming in as Madison's assistant and driver, respectively. Obviously the three veterans are good at what they do, and the show lets them play to their strengths, with Perlman as the no-nonsense truth-teller and Richards as the weirdo. But the material is universally dire, all obvious, belabored jokes and contrived storylines (starting with the basic premise). No matter how talented these performers are (and Alley is trying too hard to come off as self-deprecating), they can't salvage the material or transcend the format.

That's the double-edged sword of TV Land's original sitcoms, which bring back beloved actors and then trap them in terrible shows that serve mainly to remind audiences of how good they were when they had better material to work with. To be honest, I couldn't even make it through the three episodes of Kirstie that TV Land sent for review; after two, I gave up, unable to take any more exaggerated double entendres or forced emotional moments. It seems like the TV Land audience, however, can't get enough of them.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on TV Land.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

'Drinking Buddies'

Even though I'd only seen three of the seemingly dozens of features Joe Swanberg has made since 2005, I think I had a pretty good handle on his work going into Drinking Buddies, which I guess you could call his "mainstream" debut. The most striking thing about Drinking Buddies, though, is that despite the presence of famous people in the lead roles (it stars Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston), it's pretty much indistinguishable from Swanberg's previous work in all other ways. Once again, he's the writer, director and editor (and he makes a brief cameo), once again the story is about rootless twentysomethings in troubled relationships, once again the dialogue and story structure is developed through improvisation, and once again the movie has a sort of awkward, slapdash charm and looks like it was shot over a weekend in locations that Swanberg's friends happened to have access to.

That last part is almost certainly not true, but Swanberg has done a remarkable job of retaining his low-fi aesthetic while working with well-known stars. It's a mixed blessing, since part of the reason for his aesthetic are the limitations on his budget and exposure, which aren't as much of a factor here. Certainly with the bigger names, Swanberg had access to more money and a more prominent platform (Magnolia Pictures released this movie, while some of Swanberg's past features have barely made it beyond the festival circuit). Yet he sticks with the cheap, grubby look, which is sort of admirable, although also sort of frustrating.

As for the movie itself, it's typically low-key and mostly pleasant to watch, and it has a bit more structure to it than some of Swanberg's other movies (which sometimes come off like he just shot a bunch of footage, stopped when he ran out of ideas and/or money, and then threw it all together). In the lead role, Wilde gets a chance to show off a range outside of her typical girlfriend-accessory roles, and she seems to fit well with Swanberg's unstructured style. She and Johnson have strong chemistry, and while the tension in their relationship builds to a sort of dissatisfying anticlimax, that's true of many ambiguous relationships in real life, too. I don't know that Swanberg gets anything artistically out of having a more recognizable cast, but it at least gives him the opportunity to bring his signature halting, amusingly jumbled insights to a wider audience.

Available on DVD today.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: '13/13/13' (2013)

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

Leave it to the folks at mockbuster factory The Asylum to run a gimmick into the ground. After releasing 11/11/11 in 2011 (coinciding with Darren Lynn Bousman's more high-profile but still fairly obscure 11-11-11), they followed that up with 12/12/12 last year, and, having run out of actual triplicate datelines, just decided to barrel ahead anyway with 13/13/13. The three movies are related only thematically, each with plots dealing with the sinister nature of their titular dates. But 13/13/13 isn't an actual date, you say? No problem. Writer-director James Cullen Bressack comes up with a nonsensical explanation about leap year and how after 120 years, it was meant to create a new month. Therefore the movie takes place on what is theoretically the 13th day of the new 13th month in 2013.

Why exactly this day causes everyone in the world to turn into violent maniacs is never explained, however. Apparently this leap year magic is only ineffective on people who were born on February 29, which conveniently includes main character Jack (Trae Ireland). Jack also keeps seeing visions of the number 13 pop up everywhere, although these ostensibly prophetic images turn out to have no relevance whatsoever. He teams up with one other leap year baby (played by Asylum regular Erin Coker, who was also in 11/11/11) who's also immune to the craziness, but otherwise the whole leap year thing seems like a random afterthought as an excuse to justify the title (which was certainly developed before the plot). Sadly, Leap Day William doesn't make an appearance.

It's not like the suspense or scares make up for the nonsensical mythology; staging a worldwide apocalypse on a tiny budget isn't easy, and Bressack can only muster tiny groups of homicidal freaks at any given time. The acting, as is expected for an Asylum production, is uniformly terrible, with Ireland severely overdoing it on Jack's angst. Character motivations come and go at random, and the movie ends so abruptly that you wonder if the filmmakers just ran out of money. Pretty much the only thing to hope for out of The Asylum is a bit of camp, but Bressack plays things disappointingly straight. A horror movie about leap year seems like a prime candidate for self-aware comedy, but there's none to be found here. Maybe they're saving it for 14/14/14.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Bordertown' (1935)

It's generally foolish to expect sensitivity in old Hollywood depictions of racial minorities (or often in newer Hollywood depictions of them, for that matter), but Bordertown has a higher success rate than most, even if much of its treatment of Mexican-American lawyer and businessman Johnny Ramirez (Paul Muni) remains insensitive. Obviously that starts with casting the Austrian-born Muni as a Latino, but he makes more of an effort to inhabit the role than, say, Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, and you can't fault him for doing his best once he's taken on the part. Johnny is an ambitious man with a short temper, and the first third of the movie shows him both as a self-sacrificing hard worker (getting his law degree from night school, then dispensing free legal advice to the community) and as a self-sabotaging hothead (tanking his first real case thanks to being ill-prepared and prone to violence).

But the movie is really about Johnny's second career as a nightclub impresario, in which he demonstrates plenty of business savvy as well as self-restraint. Bette Davis shows up as the wife of Johnny's business partner, throwing herself at him so wantonly that she practically tears his clothes off. Yet Johnny is so upstanding that he rebuffs her every advance; he's also apparently so irresistible that she eventually kills her husband so she can be with him. Davis gets to do two of the things she does best in this movie, first playing the bold seductress and then playing the unhinged crazy woman when she goes insane with guilt over having murdered her husband.

Meanwhile, Johnny ends up in bed with another woman who throws herself at him, played with delightful nastiness by Margaret Lindsay. Lindsay's character is a slumming socialite who calls Johnny "savage" and rebuffs his marriage proposal after stringing him along. She represents the hypocritical attitude of whites toward a rich Latino like Johnny, who can dress in fancy clothes, run an upscale nightclub and make tons of money, but will never be regarded as anything other than low-class by his white patrons.

Unfortunately, the movie seemingly ends up endorsing the same attitude; after escaping the clutches of the crazy women who are after him and selling his club, Johnny returns to his Los Angeles neighborhood having learned his proper place. He vows to remain among "his people," a disappointingly racist and classist conclusion for a movie that, at times, does an impressive job of challenging those ideas.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'The Scientific Cardplayer' (1972)

Bette Davis took on all sorts of odd projects in the later part of her career, including signing on to various European productions looking for a little Hollywood star power (probably at a discount). The Scientific Cardplayer (known in the original Italian as Lo Scopone Scientifico and on the subtitles of the version I watched as The Scopone Game) is one of two Italian productions in which she co-starred in her later years (the other is 1963's The Empty Canvas, which I haven't seen), and while it's an interesting curiosity for Davis fans, she doesn't exactly add much to the film's overall effect.

For starters, her entire performance (save one or two lines in English) has been dubbed into Italian, which means that the movie loses one of Davis' most appealing qualities, her voice. The role is actually a fitting one for late-period Davis, as a capricious and vindictive rich woman (known only as "the old lady") who vacations in a lavish villa overlooking a particularly poor neighborhood in Rome. She's obsessed with playing cards, and so she invites a working-class couple (played by Italian stars Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano) to play against her and her chauffeur (Joseph Cotten, also lending Hollywood glamour but also dubbed into Italian) while she's in town. They've been playing the Italian card game scopone against her for eight years, always teased with the bankroll she gives them each night and then wins back.

The old lady is sort of a personification of capitalism run amok, and the movie's climax involves her risking increasingly large sums of money and dangling the prospect of unimagined riches in front of her poor opponents (with whom she disingenuously claims friendship). Tonally, the movie is a bit of a mess, as Sordi plays his character as a total buffoon, while the old lady's cruelty is often deadly serious, and the poverty of the couple's neighborhood is depicted with grimy realism. Commenters online describe the movie as a black comedy, although it isn't very funny. And once you understand the central allegory, there's not much entertainment in watching the repetitive back-and-forth between the old lady and the couple as she dashes their hopes again and again.

There's also the distracting dubbing, which, typical for an Italian movie of this period, applies to all of the actors, not just the Americans. As for Davis, she projects regal contempt well enough in her limited screen time, but there's only so much effect she can have without delivering her own lines. The movie may benefit from her presence in terms of getting attention, but it doesn't benefit much artistically.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Front Page Woman' (1935)

The sexism of old Hollywood romantic comedies is out in full force in Front Page Woman, which casts Bette Davis and George Brent (of course) as a pair of rival newspaper reporters who are also romantically linked. The idea is that Brent's Curt Devlin wants Davis' Ellen Garfield to quit being a reporter and become his stay-at-home wife (because of course women aren't suited to being reporters), and he makes a bet with her that if he can successfully scoop her on a big murder story, she'll agree to step aside and assume her proper place. It's a really distasteful setup that's only worsened as time has passed, and it doesn't help that Brent is at his absolute smarmiest playing Curt, who delights in sabotaging the career of the woman he supposedly loves (right through to getting her fired).

The rampant misogyny makes it hard to enjoy the story, which does have its amusing moments, and is snappily directed by the reliable Michael Curtiz.The fast-talking reporter is a perfect part for Davis, and when she's verbally sparring with Brent or hot on the trail of a scoop, she's quite entertaining to watch. Unfortunately the movie spends equal time with Brent's character, whose glee in destroying his girlfriend's career (and potentially tainting a murder investigation in the process) is the opposite of endearing. Right from the start, as Ellen is joining the reporter boys' club in covering an execution in the first scene, the movie uses serious life-and-death news events as fodder for jokey sexism, which is in poor taste twice over.

At least the ending offers up some acknowledgement that Ellen might have some value beyond becoming a subservient housewife, and doesn't completely undermine her worth as an independent human being. While the entire movie has been about Curt trying to defeat her so that she'll agree to marry him, at the end she scores the final scoop, and he's forced to admit that she's actually a good reporter. And that's when she finally agrees to marry him -- when he's recognized her as an equal, not a conquest. It's not clear whether her agreement involves quitting her job as well, but at least that's left as an open question. It's one positive note to end a movie whose humor and romance have mostly turned sour.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'The Virgin Queen' (1955)

The Virgin Queen marks Bette Davis' second time playing Queen Elizabeth I, after 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. In that movie, a younger Elizabeth had a fling with the Earl of Essex, played by Errol Flynn; here, the older, more brittle Elizabeth falls for Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd). In both cases, the leading man is no match for Davis, although at least here Raleigh has plenty to do, as the movie was originally conceived as a story about him, before Davis came on board as Elizabeth. Todd is certainly dashing, although Raleigh is written as a fairly one-dimensional square-jawed hero, and Elizabeth as more of a jealous harpy.

Davis' Elizabeth had more nuance in Private Lives, but she still brings impressive intensity to the role here, in what amounts to a relatively small part (she shot all of her scenes in 12 days). A young Joan Collins is the real romantic lead, as a fresh-faced courtier Raleigh falls in love with and secretly marries. The love triangle turns the movie into a bit of a soap opera, with melodramatic faux-Shakespearean dialogue. The Oscar-winning costumes and sets are gorgeous, but the characters are mostly one-dimensional, and the story has only a passing resemblance to actual history.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Marked Woman' (1937)

In one of the Bette Davis documentaries I've seen (I'm not sure which one), Davis talks about the lack of vanity she brings to her performances, and she mentions specifically the 1937 film Marked Woman, in which her character, "nightclub hostess" Mary, is beaten badly by the gangsters against whom she is planning to testify. When the makeup department put her in fake-looking bandages, Davis left the set, drove to her doctor's office, described the injuries the character was supposed to have received, and returned with such realistic-looking wounds that the studio security guard thought she had been in a car accident.

Davis indeed looks much more realistically injured than the average 1930s movie character when Mary is in the hospital, and the movie overall has a fairly gritty, semi-realistic feel. It was inspired by the real-life conviction of mobster Lucky Luciano, although names and details were changed (and the movie even features a prominent disclaimer declaring it a work of complete fiction). Most importantly, Mary and the other female main characters can only be vaguely implied to be prostitutes, and instead are depicted as "hostesses" whose job is to "entertain" male customers at the mob-owned nightclub so that they will gamble more. This actually seems like a pretty innocuous job, so it doesn't make that much sense when Mary is so ashamed to reveal her true profession to her upstanding college-student sister (Jane Bryan).

That sister is the catalyst for the more melodramatic second half of the film, in which Mary decides to testify against her former bosses and is targeted for intimidation and physical harm. Davis embraces Mary's anguish, but the morality play (with Humphrey Bogart as a crusading prosecutor based on Thomas Dewey) is less entertaining than the seedy underworld drama that precedes it, with Davis as the tart-tongued dame who isn't scared off by her dangerous bosses or her lecherous clients. Overall, it's a great role for Davis, who gets to show off her range (it came after she unsuccessfully sued Warner Bros. for stranding her in a string of lame roles in B-movies), and the sanitized moralizing is at least followed up by an admirably downbeat ending. The journey to get there, however, is a little uneven.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Another Man's Poison' (1951)

There are a surprising number of Bette Davis movies about people swapping identities; Davis herself twice played twins who take over each other's lives (in 1946's A Stolen Life and 1964's Dead Ringer), and she also played a supporting role to Alec Guinness as a victim of mistaken identity in 1959's The Scapegoat. Another Man's Poison features Davis as a devious mystery novelist who kills her husband only to find herself stuck with an impostor (Gary Merrill, who was Davis' real-life husband at the time). Almost the entire movie takes place in the luxurious mansion owned by Davis' Janet Frobisher, a stiflingly ornate location that adds to the sense of characters being trapped in circumstances of their own making.

Merrill's George Bates shows up on Janet's doorstep demanding to see her husband, with whom he recently committed a bank robbery. When Janet reveals that her husband is dead, George decides to pose as his late partner, whether Janet wants him to or not. The rest of the movie involves a slow unraveling of their plan, thanks to Janet's much younger lover (the fiance of her secretary) and a meddlesome veterinarian neighbor who just loves solving the mysteries in Janet's novels. The plot doesn't quite hang together, and the intense romance between Janet and her beau isn't quite believable (I obviously love Davis, but she comes off as far too matronly for the young pretty boy here).

Still, Davis is always fabulous at scheming and delivering cutting insults, and she makes Janet into a combination of liberated woman and conniving harridan. Merrill is a little less compelling, but Davis generally has a tendency to overshadow her leading men, and he does a good job of selling George's desperation. The ending offers both main characters ironic comeuppance straight out of an EC Comics story, although its darkly comedic twist is a little at odds with the more staid tone of the rest of the movie. The script was reportedly being rewritten throughout the production, and the result is a movie whose tone is as inconsistent as its plot (although both have their occasional charms).

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Bette Davis Week: 'Fog Over Frisco' (1934)

Yes, more than three years after I first embarked on my Bette Davis Month project, I am still busy documenting my efforts to see all of her movies, and since I've got a backlog of Davis movies recorded from Turner Classic Movies, I thought I'd take this week, starting today on the 24th anniversary of Davis' passing, to devote to writing about a few of them. Most of my Davis viewing lately has been of her prolific 1930s output, when she was a contract player churning out whatever the studio decided to put her in. Fog Over Frisco is another one of those, a jumbled thriller with a convoluted plot and a mediocre role for Davis that nevertheless gives her a few moments to shine.

Davis gets top billing and at first seems like the movie's star, playing sleazy socialite Arlene Bradford, who hangs out with gangsters and uses her milquetoast fiance and blowhard stepfather as pawns in a scheme to launder stolen securities. Arlene is the kind of sassy dame Davis excels at playing, and her early nightclub scenes are a blast, as she eagerly attempts to corrupt her wholesome stepsister Val (Margaret Lindsay). But then halfway through the short (just 68 minutes) movie, Arlene winds up dead, and the focus shifts to Val's efforts to find out what happened, aided by a boring newspaper reporter (Donald Woods).

Lindsay is pleasant enough, but doesn't have half of Davis' charisma, and the plotting grows incoherent in the second half, with twists that hinge on characters who barely registered early on. There is a pretty impressive (for 1934) car chase through the streets of San Francisco, but otherwise, once Davis disappears, the whole movie loses its appeal.

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Sleepy Hollow'

Possible trend alert for the fall 2013 TV season: Hunky versions of deeply unsexy male historical/fictional characters. Okay, this probably isn't a trend, but next month you can catch the scruffy, smoldering Nostradamus on The CW's Reign, and this week the fall season kicks off with a decidedly debonair version of Ichabod Crane on Fox's Sleepy Hollow. Instead of a schoolteacher, this Ichabod is a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and his battle against the Headless Horseman catapults him 200-some years into the future, to the present day. There he teams up with a skeptical cop in the modern-day town of Sleepy Hollow and fights to stop the Headless Horseman, who also happens to be one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. There's also an ancient coven of witches and George Washington as some sort of grand mage.

So, yeah, it's totally stupid, and unfortunately it plays everything completely straight. The pilot is filled with mind-numbing exposition delivered by a range of stock characters, some of whom exist solely to get killed off (there are two seemingly major characters who don't survive the first episode). There's some lame time-travel comedy with Ichabod (Tom Mison) expressing disbelief at the black, female police lieutenant (Nicole Beharie) he's teamed up with, but in general the camp factor is pretty low. The first episode burns through so much plot that it could have worked as the first two acts of a movie, and I'm not entirely sure how the rest of the season will play out. Will Ichabod and his new cop buddy keep chasing the Headless Horseman each week? Or will they end up solving random other supernatural cases that happen to crop up in the eerie small town? Either way, I don't think I will stick around to find out.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives' (1986)

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

After audiences revolted when the villain in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning turned out to not be Jason at all, the series' producers went out of their way to definitively bring him back in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. It's right there in the title, and the movie opens with doomed survivor Tommy Jarvis (now played by Thom Matthews, replacing John Shepherd, who replaced Corey Feldman) exhuming Jason's grave, ostensibly to make sure that he's dead. A quick lightning strike later, Jason is up and lumbering about again, now a completely supernatural force (which at least explains why he is super-strong and essentially invincible).

Writer-director Tom McLoughlin's greatest contribution is to embrace the silliness of the series; Jason Lives isn't remotely scary, but it's still the best Friday the 13th movie since the first one, thanks to its sometimes clever, often dopey humor. McLoughlin doesn't worry about the mechanics of Jason's resurrection, and he gets rid of all the angst and seriousness of Tommy's life from the last two movies. Instead he focuses on dumb jokes and self-referential one-liners ("Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment," says the cemetery caretaker after Tommy and his buddy have dug up Jason's corpse, just as the producers have dug up Jason's corpse for the sake of entertainment by making this movie).

Most of the jokes are lame, and McLoughlin still has to go through the motions of getting Jason to kill a bunch of random people, and that leaves him only so much room for creativity. Jason Lives returns to Camp Crystal Lake (renamed Camp Forest Green by town leaders to distance it from its murderous past) and once again offers up horny camp counselors as fodder for Jason's blade, although this time there are actual kids at the camp (even though they aren't really in danger). Jason Lives also has the distinction of being the only Friday the 13th movie to feature no nudity, which goes along with McLoughlin's throwback monster-movie vibe. None of the clever touches are quite enough for Jason Lives to transcend its sixth-movie-in-a-slasher-franchise origins, but after four straight movies of unrelenting sameness and predictability, a little originality is a pleasant surprise.

Previous Friday the 13th posts:
Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Officer Thirteen' (1932)

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

The dull, dreary morality play Officer Thirteen runs only 59 minutes, but it feels like twice that, with its slow, monotonous story about a wholesome police officer killed in a hit-and-run accident and his wholesome partner's quest for justice. Shot in the flat, static style of a lot of early talkies (albeit with some inadvertently fascinating footage of 1930s Los Angeles), Officer Thirteen starts with some lead-footed comedy about jovial police officers Tom Burke (Monte Blue) and Sandy Malone (Charles Delaney) pulling over a horrifying Italian stereotype and letting him go thanks primarily to his wacky accent, then teasing Sandy's son and his friend before very unsafely riding them to school on their motorcycles.

Things turn serious, however, when Sandy takes off in pursuit of a speeder who ends up deliberately running him off the road into a ditch. The accident doesn't look serious when it happens onscreen, but it apparently ends up being fatal, and the grief-stricken Tom takes it upon himself to avenge his partner and take care of the man's elderly mother and cute son (played by a young Mickey Rooney). This involves a lot of hectoring "crime does not pay" nonsense, culminating in a raid on a gambling joint where the killer has been holed up. The movie takes on corruption (the killer gets off because his boss, who owns the illegal casino, bribes top officials), perjury (the killer's girlfriend initially lies for him at his trial) and the twin scourges of illegal gambling and driving over the speed limit, with all of the bad guys getting their comeuppance and the heroes remaining morally pure.

Tom is so stolidly heroic that he not only achieves justice for his dead partner but also takes care of the dead man's entire family, stands up to his bosses at the police department, and almost single-handedly reforms the killer's girlfriend, Doris Dane (Lila Lee), turning her from a gangster's moll into an upstanding citizen who makes her judge father proud and an eventual surrogate mother for Sandy's mop-topped kid when she decides to marry Tom. He's such a great guy that he even manages to turn his unlucky badge number (13, of course) into a sign of good luck. The movie is similarly bland and upright, with wooden performances, stiff dialogue and turgid pacing. It's designed simply to teach the audience a lesson, but the lesson mainly is that movies like this are a terminal bore. (Watch the whole thing yourself at the Internet Archive.)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Jaws 3' (1983)

If Jaws 2 was making an effort to recapture the style and tone of Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking 1975 original, along with taking advantage of the box-office appeal of shark attacks, Jaws 3 has no such concerns, going right for the sensationalistic violence with only the most tenuous connections to the characters and story of the first two movies. Although the main character is Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid), son of original protagonist Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, who supposedly booked another movie specifically so he wouldn't be available for this one), only a few throwaway lines of dialogue connect him to the character played by other actors in the previous movies, and it would make virtually no difference to get rid of the connection entirely.

The grown-up Mike is now working at SeaWorld in Florida, which has just opened a massive new attraction that mingles with the open sea (the real-life SeaWorld in Florida is landlocked, but parts of the movie were shot on the Florida coast). The underwater complex is realized via a mix of miniatures and rather shoddy-looking special effects, which are made even less convincing by the fact that the movie was shot in 3D but of course is only available to watch in 2D on home video. Like most 3D movies of the '80s, Jaws 3 is filled with random objects thrusting toward the camera, although some of them are rendered in such fake-looking special effects that they look more like objects just sort of floating in front of the screen. The unconvincing effects often undermine the suspense, which is pretty minimal to begin with anyway.

There's no effort here to connect the sharks that accidentally find their way into SeaWorld with the sharks of the previous two movies; it's just serious bad luck that Mike and his younger brother Sean (John Putch) are subject to deadly shark attacks for the third time. There's some rote, underwhelming drama about Mike's relationship with his girlfriend (Bess Armstrong), and Sean hooks up with another park employee (Lea Thompson) before being quickly jettisoned from the story altogether. The climax focuses more on eccentric park owner Calvin Bouchard, played by Louis Gossett Jr., hamming it up as a stereotypical greedy businessman.

It's sort of surprising that SeaWorld authorized the use of its brand (and its actual park) in this movie, which portrays the company as greedy, neglectful and irresponsible. Of course, SeaWorld isn't actually run by a colorful, careless millionaire, but still, I can't imagine this movie was positive PR for them. Maybe if it had been a better movie with a more interesting story, it could have showed how SeaWorld's commitment to preserving marine life could help prevent shark attacks, or something. Instead it's just a mediocre thriller that does no good for the brands of either SeaWorld or Jaws.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Dark Tide' (2012)

At one time, I thought John Stockwell was one of the most underrated directors in Hollywood. He boasted a fresh, glossy visual style and a simple, direct approach to characters, and he turned potentially trashy, cliched movies like Crazy/Beautiful and Blue Crush into engaging, vibrant experiences. But Stockwell followed those two movies by taking on increasingly questionable projects, from the vapid if pretty Into the Blue and the dismal horror movie Turistas down to a number of barely released obscurities and the much-maligned Nat Geo TV movie Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden.

Dark Tide is one of Stockwell's projects that barely made it to theaters, although given its lead performance from Halle Berry, that's somewhat surprising. Berry's star power is the only thing this movie has going for it, though, and even she doesn't exactly bring anything exciting to her role as supposed "shark whisperer" Kate Mathieson. Following a tragedy that takes the life of one of her team members, Kate gives up frolicking with sharks for good, until her slimy ex (Olivier Martinez) recruits a rich asshole who will pay big money to have Kate teach him to swim with sharks.

This sounds like the setup for your typical shark-attack thriller, but Dark Tide doesn't get to what would be the beginning of that kind of movie until its final 20 minutes, when the boat containing Kate and her crew capsizes in shark-infested waters during a storm. By that point, the movie has already spent more than 100 minutes on Kate's boring angst, her dysfunctional relationship with her ex, the rich dude's issues with his son, and other mundane, uninteresting personal drama. Stockwell, who conveyed beautiful ocean imagery in Blue Crush and Into the Blue, fails completely on the visual front here, and the underwater scenes are so murky and confusingly edited as to be almost entirely incomprehensible. For a couple who met during filming and are now married, Berry and Martinez have no chemistry, and none of the other actors can bring any life to their characters, either. In most shark-attack movies, there would at least be the satisfaction of seeing these cardboard characters entertainingly eviscerated, but Dark Tide denies its audience even that basic pleasure.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Bait' (2012)

It represents some sort of failure on the part of the filmmakers that Bait is not titled Supermarket Sharks. Stupid, catchy titles have been the recipe for success when it comes to recent low-budget shark-attack movies (think Sharknado, Sharktopus, Sharks in Venice), but Bait seems to have higher ambitions. Despite the premise of the movie literally involving sharks in a supermarket, the title is instead a more generic (albeit briefly relevant), theoretically classier name for a thriller that tries to inject real drama into its silly setup. That setup involves a tsunami striking the coast of Australia, flooding a supermarket and trapping a handful of people inside. The tsunami has brought some wildlife along with it, and Bait features one shark menacing a small group inside the supermarket, while another shark menaces survivors in the underground parking garage.

A shark prowling the aisles of a grocery store is an inherently silly concept, but director Kimble Rendall and the six (!) credited screenwriters don't play it for laughs. Instead, they focus on the relationship drama among various characters in the supermarket.There's the tortured hero who once watched his best friend/the brother of his fiancee get killed by a shark, and now has lots of shark-related angst. Wouldn't you know it, his now-ex-fiancee shows up in the supermarket with her new boyfriend just before the tsunami hits. Will the new boyfriend die, clearing the way for the former lovers to reunite? Yes, of course he will.

The acting in Bait isn't that bad by B-movie standards (Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon even has a supporting role), but the drama is pretty unconvincing. The shark attacks are marginally more effective, and while the special effects are dodgy, they are light years ahead of a lot of bargain-basement shark movies. Possibly the weirdest and most distracting thing about this movie is the way that many of the actors sort of halfway affect American accents, despite the movie clearly taking place in Australia and other characters speaking with obvious Australian accents. And it's not even like one or two characters are meant to be American -- the accents waver from scene to scene and line to line for no apparent reason. Bait actually ended up being a pretty large international hit (although not in the U.S.), so maybe the flattening of the accents paid off somehow, but it's just one more element contributing to the generic, lifeless tone of what could have been a much more fun movie.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Shark Week 3: '2-Headed Shark Attack' (2012)

For various reasons, I have seen several of the ultra-low-budget productions from "mockbuster" factory The Asylum, and 2-Headed Shark Attack is pretty typical of the company's work. With Carmen Electra, Charlie O'Connell and Brooke Hogan in the cast, it actually has more star power than a lot of Asylum releases, but otherwise it's the same terrible acting, incoherent writing, inept direction and shoddy special effects, with lots of padding to get to the 87-minute running time. The only real appeal of any Asylum movie is the so-bad-it's-good quality, but even that is in fairly short supply here. Most of 2-Headed Shark Attack is just tedious and boring, without anything even entertainingly awful about it.

There's plenty of non-entertaining awfulness, though. It starts with the basic premise, that a small boat full of scantily clad hotties is actually a "semester at sea" vessel for college students, manned by one ineffective professor (O'Connell), his wife (Electra) -- who is maybe a doctor? -- and a captain who seems to possess very little nautical knowledge (also, the professor is occasionally referred to as the captain, for some reason). This alleged educational expedition comes in contact with the titular creature, ending up stranded in the middle of the ocean next to a small atoll, to which everyone evacuates for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

Also not entirely clear: Why does the shark have two heads? There's some vague handwaving about mutants or something, but the movie doesn't even bother to come up with some ludicrous explanation. The shark has two heads because it does (and, as one character astutely notes, two heads means twice the teeth). The movie consists of the college students running around randomly, the females in bikinis (and sometimes gratuitously topless), the males in board shorts and tank tops, broken up by occasional perfunctory shark attacks (this movie has some of the least convincing screaming I've ever heard onscreen). The editing is so terrible that there's often a complete lack of continuity between shots of the animatronic shark heads and the CGI shark, within the same attack scene.

Director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray is the son of legendary schlockmeister Fred Olen Ray, so in a way he's just carrying on the family tradition (his other movies include Reptisaurus, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus and Asylum mockbuster Almighty Thor). He certainly isn't aspiring any higher than his father's example, and 2-Headed Shark Attack is indifferently directed at best. Even for a movie with such a tiny budget, it's sloppy and half-assed; witness the pathetic swaying of the actors when their boat is supposedly being battered or the atoll is supposedly trembling and collapsing. Or the many background goofs, including a visible dinghy in the supposed middle of the ocean, and an actor clearly cracking up at one point after Hogan slaps another character in the face. When the people who made the movie barely seem to care about it, it's hard to muster up even ironic enthusiasm for the viewing experience.