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.