Tuesday, November 15, 2016

VODepths: 'The Academy of Muses,' 'A Beautiful Now,' 'Hank Boyd Is Dead'

The Academy of Muses (Raffaele Pinto, Emanuela Forgetta, Rosa Delor Muns, dir. Jose Luis Guerin) Built around footage of real-life philology professor Pinto teaching a class about the classical concept of the muse, this awkward hybrid of documentary and fiction is tedious and off-putting, with an ugly, amateurish visual style that I can only assume is intentional but makes the movie look like it was shot by someone who doesn't know how to use a camera. The movie starts off like a document of Pinto's lectures, which are a bit dry and convoluted, before expanding to include a few of his female students, all of whom are romantically, intellectually and sexually drawn to their professor. In the middle there's a detour to Sardinia for one of the students to interview shepherds about traditional folk music, which seems like it belongs in an entirely separate film. Nothing about Pinto suggests that he has the kind of allure to draw in so many young, beautiful women, and the segments that are more clearly "acting" by the stars are pretty awkward. Guerin shoots many, many scenes through highly reflective windows in bright lighting that makes it hard to see the characters, and the scenes are full of random blackouts, like Guerin didn't shoot enough coverage. The result is obtuse and arty while also clumsy and technically inept, a combination that can't effectively serve the philosophical ideas or the psychosexual drama. Available on Fandor.

A Beautiful Now (Abigail Spencer, Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, dir. Daniela Amavia) Spencer plays a ballerina contemplating suicide in this insufferable drama, full of entitled, self-involved assholes who sit around contemplating the meaning of their empty existences. When Spencer's Romy locks herself in her bathroom with a gun on her birthday, her five best friends show up to offer emotional support, although they don't make much effort to call for help or even try to get her to come out of the bathroom. The eventual idiotic twist (one of the most cliched twist endings possible) at least explains the reasoning behind this, but before we get to that twist we have to sit through 90 minutes of ponderous narcissism, with every character speaking in pseudo-profound platitudes. As Romy's friends hang out in her apartment and bicker, the movie flashes back to their intertwined romantic and sexual connections, but it's often unclear when the flashbacks take place, and the lack of context makes it even harder to care about the already tiresome relationships. Occasional fantasy sequences featuring Romy dancing onstage provide some visually striking respites, and honestly I would have been happy if the movie focused more on her dance career and why it never quite took off (as with all of the characters' occupations, Romy's work is maddeningly vague, like a placeholder for a more detailed story). Romy's depression is what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might call a "sexy French depression," all artful pouts and meaningful stares, and none of her friends' problems feel authentic, either. Spencer, Jackson and Wolfe are all reliable TV actors, but they all seem a bit lost here, never able to craft fully realized characters from the wispy material. By the time that infuriating twist arrives, both the characters and the audience are ready to be put out of their misery. Available on Amazon.

Hank Boyd Is Dead (Stefanie Frame, David Christopher Wells, Liv Rooth, dir. Sean Melia) As with New Cops, which I wrote about in the first installment of this feature, the filmmaker himself sent me this movie unsolicited, and I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. That's not to say this is a bad movie, though -- it's a very promising if uneven first effort from writer-director Melia, who obviously worked with a small budget and limited resources to create a horror movie that is decently suspenseful and sometimes darkly funny. The cast of mostly New York theater actors is very strong and easily the movie's most valuable resource, and they help smooth over some of the rougher aspects of the production. Frame plays a caterer who finds herself trapped in the home of a demented family, with murder, incest, insanity and long-buried secrets coming quickly to the surface. Melia turns the escalating tension almost into a farce with some comical setbacks for the main character, but there's real menace in the situation, especially thanks to the creepy performance by Wells as the family's main psychopath. Some of the stunt work is questionable, and the background plot details are occasionally unclear, but the moment-to-moment storytelling is strong. Melia also periodically splices in what looks like stock home-movie footage, seemingly to offer a contrast to the present-day depravity, but it's mostly just distracting. The movie ends abruptly without a decent resolution, but it has plenty of disturbing moments before it gets there. Available on Amazon.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Chair' (1929)

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

When I wrote about the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair a couple of years ago, I speculated that director Tod Browning's 1929 version of the same material was probably better, since Browning is a renowned director known for suspense classics like Dracula and Freaks. But it turns out that the source material itself (a 1916 play by Bayard Veiller) is likely the real problem, since Browning's version is if anything less engaging and more awkward than the later version by George B. Seitz. It also doesn't help that Browning's film is his first sound effort, and it still struggles with a lot of the difficulties of early sound films (it was actually released in both silent and sound versions, although only the sound version has survived).

The plot is the same in both films: In British-occupied Calcutta, an unpleasant man is murdered, and his friend decides to convene a seance in order to find out who was responsible. Here, Edward Wales (John Davidson) gathers a bunch of high-society types to convene with medium Madame La Grange (Margaret Wycherly, ex-wife of playwright Veiller and star of the previous stage version) in hopes of reaching the spirit of the late Spencer Lee. When the lights go out during Madame La Grange's seance, Wales himself is murdered, and everyone else in the room is a suspect. The local cops send Inspector Delzante (Bela Lugosi), who goes to some unconventional extremes to root out the culprit.

The combination of the stagebound source material and the constraints of early sound filmmaking give the movie a belabored, sluggish feel, and the mystery isn't very compelling. Most of the characters just kind of stand around while Delzante makes proclamations, and his investigative style involves making loud, unfounded accusations and then seeing how people react. The majority of the movie takes place in just a couple of rooms in a spacious mansion, and the camera setups are all rudimentary and static, to better capture the sound. The acting is mostly broad (especially Wycherly's gratingly overdone Oirish accent, which might have worked onstage but comes across as irritatingly fake here), although Lugosi is occasionally amusing as the contemptuous investigator, who seems like he'd be content to just arrest all of these self-involved idiots and call it a day.

It's hard to care about who murdered two characters we know essentially nothing about, and the movie instead focuses mostly on the relationship between rich heir Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel) and his fiancee Nellie (Leila Hyams), who turns out to be the secret daughter of Madame La Grange. But the threats to their insipid love aren't particularly exciting or suspenseful, and when the case is finally resolved, clearing any obstacles to their marriage, there's no sense of justice or satisfaction, other than the relief that this plodding movie has finally come to an end.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

VODepths: 'Dartmoor Killing,' 'The Thinning,' 'Vampyres'

Dartmoor Killing (Gemma-Leah Devereux, Rebecca Night, Callum Blue, dir. Peter Nicholson) There's some promisingly eerie atmosphere at the beginning of this slow British thriller, but it never really pays off, and the plot proceeds extremely slowly to some highly dubious reveals. Devereux and Night play two friends hiking in the Dartmoor hills, where they meet a mysterious (but really, really obviously sinister) local who takes them in. Despite his extreme creepiness, both women are immediately hot for him, which means it takes them a while to figure out that he's a homicidal maniac hiding a dark secret from the past involving one of the women. Director and co-writer Nicholson seems to be going for a vibe of slow, creeping dread, along the lines of The Wicker Man or Picnic at Hanging Rock, but he only gets the slow part right, and once the plot twists start coming, they don't make much sense. Add in the somewhat lethargic performances (even in the moments of supposed heightened intensity), and you end up with a thriller that slowly loses steam even as it heads toward its violent finale. Available on Netflix.

The Thinning (Peyton List, Logan Paul, Calum Worthy, dir. Michael Gallagher) Most of the original content on YouTube's paid-subscription service YouTube Red is slightly higher-caliber versions of typical YouTube programming, featuring some of the biggest YouTube stars doing what they've already done to become popular, just on a larger scale. Even the handful of YTR feature films are often documentaries that expand on the idea of YouTube stardom. But The Thinning is a full-on sci-fi drama, combining elements of Divergent, The Hunger Games and The Purge in a blatant attempt to capitalize on the YA teen-dystopia trend (although it's not based on any existing material). It features social media star Logan Paul in one of the lead roles, alongside Peyton List as a pair of teens who challenge the future system in which five percent of the population is culled every year via a standardized test for grades 1-12. It's a ridiculous concept that doesn't stand up to even the most basic scrutiny, and the movie's low-budget suspense comes primarily from characters crawling through absurdly spacious air ducts. The acting is poor, the writing is sloppy, and the haphazard world-building is incredibly weak. I was sort of impressed by what seemed to be a remarkably bleak ending, only to be disappointed by the cop-out twist that sets up a sequel I hope will never arrive. Available on YouTube Red.

Vampyres (Veronica Polo, Christian Stamm, Marta Flich, dir. Victor Matellano) Apparently this is a remake of a 1974 cult exploitation classic, but I've never seen (or, honestly, even heard of) the original, so I can't comment on how this new version compares. Hopefully the original is better than this mess, though, or at least has higher camp value. Shot in Spain and set, apparently, in the English countryside, it's the inscrutable story of a group of campers who encounter a couple of lesbian vampires in an old house in the woods. That's the most I could get out of the elliptical, impressionistic plot, which involves a lot of characters wandering aimlessly through the woods. The dialogue sounds like it was run back and forth through Google Translate, and the actors offer up a mishmash of accents and often sound like they learned their lines phonetically. There are a handful of evocative images, along with plenty of nudity, and for a certain cult audience, that's probably enough (there are also cameos from some exploitation stars I'm not familiar with). But overall, director Matellano seems to be trying too hard to evoke the low-budget weirdness of genuine cult cinema, and self-designated cult classics almost never actually become what they aspire to. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Frankenstein Month: Wrap-up

After spending last month writing about 32 different takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I'm still impressed with how much potential there is in Shelley's timeless, brilliant novel and the various ways it can be interpreted. Even if many of the movies I wrote about are less than great (or downright terrible), they all capture something inherently creepy and unsettling about the story, and the best of them also tackle its still-complicated moral and philosophical quandaries. Here are my picks for some of the highlights of the movies I watched.

Best Frankenstein: Peter Cushing in the Hammer series. The quality of the six Hammer Frankenstein movies starring Cushing varies, but his performance as Baron Frankenstein is always a highlight, bringing a mix of arrogance, menace and erudition to the character. Cushing's Frankenstein drifts pretty far from the original conception of the character, aging and taking on new scientific projects, but he always embodies the zeal and ambition that define Frankenstein. Honorable mentions: Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein; Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970; Gene Wilder in Young Frankensein; Raul Julia in Frankenstein Unbound.

Best monster: Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. This is an obvious choice, but the truth is that there just aren't many great performances as the monster; most movies present the creature as an inarticulate brute, which doesn't offer actors much to work with. Karloff did a lot to establish that precedent, but even his grunting, lumbering creation has some soul, especially compared to the actors who took over for him in the later Universal movies. For better or worse, this is the version of Frankenstein's monster that will forever be remembered. Honorable mentions: Michael Gwynn in The Revenge of Frankenstein; Michael Sarrazin in Frankenstein: The True Story; Clancy Brown in The Bride.

Best bride: Jane Seymour in Frankenstein: The True Story. There aren't nearly as many examples of this character to choose from, partially because she's not actually in the original novel (Victor Frankenstein ultimately refuses to create a mate for the monster). But ever since James Whale made Bride of Frankenstein, the character has become an important part of the series mythology, albeit often as an end to the story. But Seymour shows up for a decent stretch of the three-hour Frankenstein: The True Story, and she makes for a unique kind of monster, completely articulate and intelligent and with a cold sort of sociopathic motivation. It's not the kind of performance usually associated with Seymour or with the bride character, and it invigorates the movie at just the right moment. Honorable mentions: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein; Patty Mullen in Frankenhooker; Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Best assistant: Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. It may be a stretch to call Lugosi's Ygor an assistant, since he spends much of his time bullying the descendants of Baron Frankenstein in his two appearances in the Universal movies. But in many ways he established the template for the simpering assistant to Frankenstein, another character not in the original novel but now an integral part of the mythology. In movies that are inconsistent at best, Lugosi's performance is the best thing about them, embodying the completely unhinged, gleefully homicidal maniac that Frankenstein himself is often not allowed to be (or at least must hide away). Honorable mentions: Paul Muller in Lady Frankenstein; Arno Juerging in Flesh for Frankenstein; Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein; Shane Briant in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.

Best blind man: Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein. The blind man, for some reason, is one of the smaller elements of Shelley's novel that filmmakers frequently take on even when they deviate significantly from the story in other ways. It's a simple, direct way to demonstrate the extreme reactions to the monster's mix of grotesque appearance and open, childlike nature, and it provides for an easy moment of drama when the family sees the creature that their father/grandfather has befriended. Most of the blind-man characters in the Frankenstein movies are fairly anonymous, but Hackman makes his version into one of the funniest and most memorable parts of Young Frankenstein by playing it mostly straight, even as he comically batters and bruises the poor unsuspecting monster.

Best line: You would think that "It's alive!" would win this hands down, but I have to go with Flesh for Frankenstein's immortal "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life ... in the gall bladder!"