Monday, March 26, 2018

The return of 'Roseanne'

I loved Roseanne during almost all of its original run, and although I've only seen bits and pieces of episodes since then, I'd still feel fairly confident ranking it among the best TV series (or at least best sitcoms) of all time. Then again, I felt the same way about The X-Files, and I've had mixed feelings about that show's recent revival (although the just-concluded second revival season was much better than the first). So I was a bit apprehensive approaching the new episodes of Roseanne, which, like The X-Files and Will & Grace, is essentially restarting as if it had never ended. I can't say that the three episodes made available for review would inspire me to put this current version of the show on a list of the best shows on TV, but they also never made me re-evaluate my love for the original series, as some of those X-Files episodes have.

Like the new Will & Grace, which blithely dismissed the events of the original series finale, the new Roseanne retcons pretty much the entire (terrible) final season of the show, returning the Conners to their working-class roots (there's no mention of winning the lottery) and getting rid of all the weird metatextual nonsense about the show being a story written by Roseanne herself, with events changed for dramatic effect (Dan is alive and well, although his pseudo-death does get a reference). In that sense, the creators (including ringers Whitney Cummings, Wanda Sykes and Norm Macdonald) pretty effectively capture the spirit of the original show. Roseanne Barr is a bit shaky at first in her return to acting, but Sara Gilbert (as daughter Darlene), John Goodman (as Dan) and Laurie Metcalf (as Roseanne's sister Jackie) are all very good, and Lecy Goranson (as daughter Becky) and Michael Fishman (as son D.J.) do solid work despite also having been out of the spotlight for quite a while.

As has been extensively reported, the show makes Roseanne (the character) into a Donald Trump supporter (much like Barr herself in real life), but the first episode goes out of its way to represent opposing political views (Jackie is a dedicated progressive activist), and it would be a stretch to say that the show itself supports Trump. Like Will & Grace, Roseanne improves once it ditches the efforts to comment on the current administration, but it engages with other topical issues more intelligently and convincingly, upholding the show's history of social awareness. Like Fuller House, the new Roseanne adds new kid characters to the central extended family, but unlike Fuller House, it manages to come up with some non-irritating characters who don't dominate the narrative, and Darlene's gender-fluid young son Mark (Ames McNamara) gets a sensitive portrayal without being played for laughs or coming off as absurdly precocious.

Most importantly, the show is still pretty funny, with the central cast chemistry (minus Fishman, who's barely in the previewed episodes) fully intact. There's no effort made to update the style or look of the show, which is an old-fashioned three-camera sitcom in every way, but unlike Will & Grace, which feels hopelessly dated and uses a hopped-up audience that howls at every line, Roseanne is fairly subdued, with some jokes passing by with only minimal audience laughter. At best, this kind of show can feel like a filmed play, and the strongest Roseanne episodes had that immediacy and intensity to them. The new season doesn't reach the level of the best of vintage Roseanne, but it mostly does justice to the show's legacy, which is probably the most you can hope for from any of these recent revival cash-ins.

Premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

VODepths: 'Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies,' 'Battle Drone,' 'Curse of the Mayans'

Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies (Timothy Haug, Wyntergrace Williams, Kaitlin Mesh, dir. Mark Newton) Originally titled (more accurately but less enticingly) Kudzu Zombies, the no-budget horror-comedy Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies isn't nearly as amusing as its revamped title. Slapped together with limited locations, shaky acting and distractingly poor CGI, Attack doesn't do anything new with the zombie formula, as an experimental herbicide (meant to wipe out the invasive kudzu plant that is rampant in the southern U.S.) somehow turns people into undead monsters (sometimes with incredibly fake-looking leaves and shoots growing out of them). The filmmakers barely even attempt to explain the plot, just hand-waving about scientific experimentation so that they can get to rampaging zombies at a carnival. The humor is weak, the characters are barely one-dimensional (and the large ensemble makes it tough to invest in the survival of anyone in particular) and the action is chaotic. Only the aerial shots (possibly captured thanks to the crop-dusters that were clearly the filmmakers' main asset) look remotely professional, and it's hard to stage a convincing zombie apocalypse when normal daily activity is clearly going on in the frame behind your characters. Movies like this need to get by on clever writing and lively pacing to make up for their budgetary shortfalls, but Attack is sluggish and plodding. The most entertaining part is the hard rock title song during the closing credits, but with the change to the new title, even that ends up missing the mark. Available on Amazon.

Battle Drone (Louis Mandylor, Dominique Swain, Jason Earles, dir. Mitch Gould) A bunch of mercenaries fight a bunch of remote-controlled death-bots in a movie that mainly resembles watching somebody else play a not particularly interesting video game. Battle Drone writer-director Mitch Gould wastes little time in setting up his basic premise, as the A-Team/Expendables-style group of rogue operatives is recruited to retrieve a cache of weapons at Chernobyl (yes, the actual Chernobyl), where they are then used as test subjects for a new line of "battle drones," cyborg soldiers controlled by human pilots from a remote location. The group, led by hardened but honorable ex-soldier Vincent Reikker (Louis "brother of Costas" Mandylor), takes on the robots in a series of repetitive fight scenes that constitute almost the entire movie, while Gould occasionally cuts to the evil government masterminds (plus an arms dealer played by B-movie staple Michael Pare) executing their plan. The character development is minimal, and the banter between Reikker and CIA agent Alexandra Hayes (Dominique Swain) is limp, although at least the movie doesn't try to oversell their sexual chemistry (of which they have none). The effects aren't all that bad for a movie with this presumably limited budget, and the battle drones look sort of like old-school Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. The action is mediocre at best, though, and Gould relies way too heavily on slo-mo and Matrix-style bullet time, which adds to the dated video-game feel of the movie (the Chernobyl location, shot possibly somewhere in Canada, is just a convenient empty space for the action, and has no plot relevance). Once the characters run out of things to shoot at, the movie just ends, having exhausted its meager purpose. Available on Netflix.

Curse of the Mayans (Steve Wilcox, Carla Ortiz, Mark Tacher, dir. Joaquin Rodriguez) Maybe director Joaquin Rodriguez should have just made a documentary about cave-diving in the Yucatan, because that's the only material that works in Curse of the Mayans (aka Xibalba), a poorly paced, confusing horror/sci-fi/action movie about the History Channel's favorite subject, ancient aliens. You know you're in for a slog when a movie starts with an expository text crawl followed by an expository voiceover before it even gets to any action, and Mayans makes almost no sense at all despite all the explanations (if anything, they make it worse). Set in Mexico with dialogue in both English and Spanish (albeit poorly dubbed in both cases, so it's hard to tell what language the actors were actually speaking), Mayans follows an expedition into the jungle to excavate some Mayan ruins, where the explorers disturb the final resting place of those ancient aliens. The ruins are accessible only via an underground cave system, which allows Rodriguez to shoot that cool, eerie cave-diving footage, but combining it with fake-looking monsters kind of kills the mood. Those monsters don't even show up until the last few minutes, and before that the movie grinds through some dull character drama (complete with a gratuitous sex scene) and some vague warnings about the dangers of disturbing sacred artifacts. The characters are so ill-defined and the action is so murky that it's tough to tell who's being killed off and/or possessed by monsters during the climax, but the movie ends with another nonsensical voiceover that seems to render it all irrelevant anyway. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

VODepths: 'Counterfeiters,' 'In the Cloud,' 'Sensitivity Training'

Counterfeiters (Bryce Hirschberg, Robert McEveety, Taylor Lockwood, dir. Bryce Hirschberg) I feel sort of bad for tearing apart movies like Counterfeiters, which was made for $8,000 and submitted to me for review directly by its writer/director/producer/editor/star Bryce Hirschberg, clearly trying to drum up some attention for his micro-budget effort. But he asked for it, so to speak, and so I will warn anyone who comes across this movie on Amazon Prime and thinks its logline (about makers of counterfeit money turning on each other) sounds intriguing: This is a terrible, terrible movie, even for its budget level and limited resources. Honestly, I might believe that Hirschberg made the movie for $80, mostly spent on renting a boat where the majority of the action takes place. Hirschberg plays Bridger, who begins the movie by learning about his mother's cancer in the most awkward cancer-diagnosis scene since The Room, and then six months later is apparently some sort of counterfeit-money kingpin, working with his indistinguishable friends to create counterfeit bills via a process that was not remotely believable. Something goes bad (?) and they have to ditch their operation, but also they're putting together a drug deal? The motivations are as murky as the visuals, and the dialogue is full of what sounds like semi-improvised fumbling. Hirschberg, in a man bun and ugly denim shirt, gives himself the part of a compassionate badass who's irresistible to women, It's clearly a calling-card project to pitch himself for more work, but I have a feeling that no one's going to be calling. Available on Amazon and iTunes.

In the Cloud (Justin Chatwin, Tomiwa Edun, Nora Arnezeder, dir. Robert Scott Wildes) Hey, did you know that Crackle makes original feature films? Sony's free, ad-supported streaming service is mostly known as the butt of jokes, but it somehow keeps going even when subscription-based niche services like Seeso or Warner Archive Instant shut down. It's no Netflix, but Crackle has its own original series and occasional movies, like the dreadful cyber-thriller In the Cloud, a sort of low-rent take on themes from movies like The Cell and Inception and Transcendence. It's not nearly as good as any of those movies (whose quality varies wildly anyway), and its ideas are so muddled and poorly executed that they're essentially meaningless. Given the obvious budget constraints, a movie like this has to succeed on its story and characters, not any dazzling visual effects, and first-time writer Vanya Asher and director Robert Scott Wildes completely fail to deliver on that front. The plot involves a combination of a technology that can digitally map a person's brain and an ultra-sophisticated virtual-reality system, with Justin Chatwin and Tomiwa Edun as the tech bros who use them to delve into the mind of a terrorist and discover where he's planted bombs around London. They don't get around to that until more than halfway through the movie, though, and most of the story is actually about confusing corporate intrigue related to a tech genius played by Gabriel Byrne who dies at the beginning of the movie. It's so convoluted that the resolution (with blatant sequel-bait) was completely lost on me, but at least I got to watch a bunch of Red Lobster commercials along the way. Available on Crackle.

Sensitivity Training (Anna Lise Phillips, Jill E. Alexander, Quinn Marcus, dir. Melissa Finell) Mild indie comedy Sensitivity Training follows the Hollywood rom-com template almost beat for beat, via the relationship between a gruff microbiology researcher (Anna Lise Phillips) and the aggressively chipper counselor (Jill E. Alexander) hired to teach her to be nicer to her co-workers (after some particularly harsh words are the alleged catalyst for another scientist's suicide). Phillips' Serena is antagonistic and resentful at first, but she soon forms a (platonic) bond with Alexander's Caroline, which is then tested via some overblown misunderstanding in the third act. As usual, I sympathized with the misanthropic curmudgeon before her transformation into a friendlier person, but the character arc is so predictable and basic that neither version of Serena is particularly convincing. The movie gives a surprisingly large focus to Serena's research into a new kind of bacteria, which is detailed enough to take up a lot of the audience's attention, while coming across as completely dubious from a scientific perspective (and questionably useful from a plot perspective as well). Writer-director Melissa Finell throws in a half-formed lesbian subplot that seems designed solely to give the movie a little bit of edge, but everything about this story is as bland and safe as a Disney Channel original. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Redboy 13' (1997)

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

The opening sequence of the micro-budget spy spoof Redboy 13 is actually sort of promising, despite its painfully low production values and questionable acting. The title character (Devon Roy-Brown) is a teenage superspy who's being held captive by a Nazi named Dr. Heimlich Manure (played by writer-director Marcus van Bavel), and his escape from the enemy facility is amusing in a sort of ramshackle, amateurish manner. At its best (which isn't often), Redboy 13 recalls the aggressively goofy spy parody Get Smart (at one point Redboy even uses a variation on a shoe phone), but van Bavel isn't clever enough to sustain the humor for more than a few minutes at a time. After Redboy escapes from Dr. Manure (who talks to a puppet of Adolf Hitler), saves the damsel in distress and blows up the enemy base, the movie has pretty much run out of creativity.

That sequence mimics the typical structure of a James Bond movie, in which the pre-credits scenes feature the conclusion of some previous mission, and then van Bavel transitions to an extremely low-rent version of a Bond-movie title sequence, complete with a Shirley Bassey-style theme song about Redboy, performed by a singer who can barely carry a tune. It's indicative of how far the movie's reach will exceed its grasp over the course of its narrative, as Redboy heads out on a new mission to Central America to stop a drug lord and confront the resurrected Dr. Manure (now a brain in a jar, attached to a monitor). Van Bavel strains to fill the running time, delving into a lengthy, pointless flashback about Redboy's origins (he was recruited out of a military school for boys that seems to have about five students total), and introducing more irritating, one-note characters to sideline the hero from his own movie.

A pair of hillbilly caricatures who serve as Redboy's pilots as he infiltrates Central America are especially irritating in their unfunny ineptitude, and even for a parody, the villain's motivation is confusing and ill-defined. Add to that the terrible special effects (including some bargain-basement homemade CGI), the awkward performances and the limited locations, and Redboy 13 quickly goes from mildly amusing to actively annoying. Van Bavel even bungles the defeat of his own villain, dispatching Dr. Manure so ineffectively that I kept wondering when the movie was going to get back to him. Instead of leaning into its production limitations as an asset for parodying an overblown genre, Redboy 13 attempts to match the high stakes of the movies it's spoofing, and consistently falls short.