Sunday, June 24, 2018

VODepths all-dinosaur edition: 'The Jurassic Dead,' 'The Jurassic Games'

Usually I try to include three movies in these occasional VOD round-ups, but when I received screeners for two dinosaur-themed straight-to-VOD movies that were being released on the same day (and just a week before the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), it seemed obvious that I should throw together a quick edition of this column to cover them both. Since Fallen Kingdom itself is actually very similar to a dopey dino B-movie (albeit with much better special effects), it would probably fit right in with these opportunistic knock-offs.

The Jurassic Dead (Ruselis Aumeen Perry, Andy Haman, Mia Klosterman, dir. Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick) Despite multiple prologues and an onscreen text crawl at the beginning of The Jurassic Dead (also known by the equally ridiculous title Z/Rex), I had basically no idea what was happening for most of the movie's running time. Like a lot of no-budget B-movies, it promises a grand sci-fi world but mostly takes place in a bunch of dingy corridors, in this case inside some sort of secret government facility in the middle of the desert. That's where a stranded group of teenagers and a group of mercenaries (or maybe special operatives?) come together after a meteor strike (or maybe a missile attack?) wipes out all electronics and possibly releases a deadly toxin or virus into the outside world? None of this is ever clear, and is also not really important, since mostly the movie is about these characters running from some sort of zombified Tyrannosaurus Rex that the evil scientist villain has created (although I have no idea what dinosaurs have to do with his ultimate world-ending plan), and then also fleeing from each other when contact with the T. Rex (or Z/Rex, per the title) turns them into zombies, too. Nothing makes any sense, the acting is terrible, the characters are dumb cartoonish stereotypes, and the special effects are beyond atrocious. Nearly the entire movie is shot against a green screen, with even simple locations like hallways created via CGI, and it looks like the characters are in that old Nickelodeon game show where kids were inserted into arcade games. Not even a zombie dinosaur eating people can make this movie watchable. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Jurassic Games (Adam Hampton, Katie Burgess, Ryan Merriman, dir. Ryan Bellgardt) Compared to The Jurassic Dead, The Jurassic Games is practically Jurassic Park, but it's still mostly terrible. Mixing a bit of The Hunger Games with a bit of The Running Man plus a bunch of dinosaurs, Games takes place in a future where death row inmates are given the chance to win their freedom in a deadly virtual reality game that is watched by hundreds of millions of people. Ten convicted killers are placed in a world where they're pursued by dinosaurs and other dangerous prehistoric creatures, and if they die in the game then they die for real. They're also allowed to kill each other, and since the last person standing wins freedom, there's really no good reason for them not to just fight to the death immediately and ignore the dinosaurs. There are a lot of plot holes here, of course, but director and co-writer Ryan Bellgardt just barrels right through them, and at times the movie is silly and exciting enough for that to work out. Ryan Merriman perfectly captures the smarm of reality TV hosts as the game's master of ceremonies, and the filmmakers make good use of sports-style graphics and talking heads to give the games a sense of authenticity. But the contestant characters are all one-note and boring, the acting overall is inconsistent, and the creatures themselves are completely unconvincing, especially when shown in the harsh daylight. It's also a bit disappointing that the dinosaurs are virtual, since the contestants are essentially just playing a really high-stakes video game. There's a moment when one of the contestants asks another why the designers chose dinosaurs to chase them around, and the second contestant jokes that they tested better than robots. That's probably about as thoroughly as the filmmakers thought through this premise, which plays like it started with the title and then filled in the rest from there. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Hell's House' (1932)

Oftentimes in these quick and cheap programmers that Bette Davis made in the 1930s, she has a small part and relatively low billing, which means just a few scraps for Davis fans to hang onto. For some reason, 1932's Hell's House gives Davis top billing, but her part is just as small (if not smaller) than in other forgettable movies she made during the same time period. Pat O'Brien is billed just under Davis (and they're both prominently featured on the poster), but the real star is neither Davis nor O'Brien, but Junior Durkin as Jimmy, an annoyingly naive teen who gets caught up in a bootlegging operation (without even knowing it) and shipped off to juvenile detention.

Jimmy is such a simpering loser that it's hard to feel bad for him as he's stuck in the mildly abusive reform school, where kids are forced into hard labor (which appears to involve stacking bricks into endless piles) and punished by being forced to stare at a line on a chalkboard until they pass out. It's pretty tame stuff, but of course Jimmy can't handle it, and he's desperate to get back to his aunt and uncle, and more importantly to gangster Matt Kelly (O'Brien), the guy who got Jimmy in trouble in the first place. Jimmy is absurdly loyal to Kelly, whom he meets at his aunt and uncle's, where Kelly is renting a room. They've only known each other a few days when Kelly hires Jimmy to watch over his warehouse full of illegal booze, and Jimmy gets nabbed by the cops just a few minutes into his first day on the job. Despite this obvious set-up, he takes three years in juvie over ratting out his new best friend to the authorities.

Jimmy's love for Kelly has some serious homoerotic undertones, as does his relationship with fellow inmate Shorty (Junior Coughlin), who always calls Jimmy "big boy" and basically dies in Jimmy's arms from his heavily foreshadowed heart condition. It's all absurdly overwrought, with Durkin playing up Jimmy's good-hearted innocence so excessively that he becomes irritating and difficult to root for. And Kelly isn't much of a hardened gangster, barely shown doing anything menacing and portrayed as more of a coward for letting Jimmy take the fall for his (extremely non-specific) crimes.

Oh, and Bette Davis is also in this movie. She plays Kelly's girlfriend Peggy in just a handful of scenes, and she's suitably spunky, taking a shine to dopey Jimmy and later scolding Kelly for letting the kid rot away in juvie for crimes he didn't commit. She looks stylish and puts a bit of attitude into her lines, but Peggy is little more than a plot device, a tool for exposition and for getting Jimmy and Kelly to reconcile at the end. Davis deservedly received top billing in plenty of other movies in later years, but in this case she doesn't contribute much, and her name recognition probably wasn't yet strong enough to make an impact.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

VODepths: 'Bark,' 'The Nursery,' 'Soft Matter'

Bark (Annie Brennen, Caitrin Gallagher, Eli Rubenstein, dir. Anna Nilles and Marco Jake) Three young siblings (two in high school, one in college) deal with their mother's suicide in a movie occasionally narrated by the voice of their dog in Bark, which sounds like it would be cutesy and sentimental, but is actually slow and naturalistic, with a lot of silent long takes and awkward interactions. Writer-directors Anna Nilles and Marco Jake withhold some basic information at first, including the nature of the mother's death, but their revelations are so restrained that initially I wasn't even sure what they were meant to convey. Some of the mumblecore-style bickering among the siblings is entertaining, but it's more often just tiresome, and there are some weird metafictional elements (in one scene another actor walks onscreen to essentially "tag out" the main actor playing the teenage brother, saying that the directors want him to take a break) that seem jarringly out of place. Even the conceit of the narration from the dog is inconsistent, reaching its culmination in a scene that feels like it should be the end of the movie, then completely dropped as the movie continues on. The occasional lyrical passages aren't enough to compensate for the disjointed structural composition. Available on No Budge.

The Nursery (Maddi Conway, Emmaline Friederichs, Carly Rae James Sauer, dir. Christopher A. Micklos and Jay Sapiro) At one point in The Nursery, one of the characters describes what's happening as "textbook ghost stuff," and that's a pretty fair description for this occasionally passable, entirely generic micro-budget horror movie. A college student babysits at a remote house where vaguely spooky things start happening, and when her friends show up to visit her, they're all terrorized by a malevolent spirit that may or may not be connected to the family that lives in the house and their young baby that Ranae (Maddi Conway) is charged with watching. It takes a little while for the story to get going, and once things start moving, the scares are pretty familiar loud noises and sudden apparitions. The filmmakers try to deepen the narrative by giving Ranae a tragic back story that just comes off as melodramatic, although the performances are fairly strong for a movie of this small a scale. The reveal of the ghost's true nature is pretty underwhelming, the kills are tame, and the conclusion is anticlimactic, brushing aside all the death and danger preceding it. It's textbook ghost stuff, and not even a particularly engaging textbook. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Soft Matter (Ruby Lee Dove II, Hal Schneider, Mary Anzalone, dir. Jim Hickcox) I don't even know where to start with the bizarre sci-fi/horror movie Soft Matter, which exists somewhere around the intersection of Troma, John Waters and Harmony Korine. It's certainly one of the grossest movies I've ever seen, the kind of movie in which a character is speaking entirely literally when she calls someone "a disgusting bag of slime." The plot, such as it is, involves two scientists experimenting on patients at an abandoned nursing home in order to discover the secret to immortality, in which they are thwarted by both an ancient sea goddess living in a mop bucket and a pair of hipster artists looking to stage an installation in a decrepit building. There are some moments of deadpan humor and some creative animated interludes, but mostly this is a movie that is just weird and off-putting and unpleasant for the sake of it. Watching a disgusting bag of slime bust out some dance moves to a synth-pop groove is kind of entertaining at first, but a string of inexplicable moments like that eventually just gets to be tedious. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Mercury 13' (2018)

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

Given the massive success of Hidden Figures, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Netflix original documentary Mercury 13 gets optioned for a major studio feature film. It's another inspirational story of smart women pushing against entrenched prejudices at NASA, in this case a group of 13 female pilots who went through an unofficial astronaut training program in the early 1960s, only to be denied the chance to be considered for actual space flight. There's not quite the same happy ending as in Hidden Figures, though, since none of the women ever ended up going into space (although at least some of them went on to thriving aviation careers). Still, it's hard not to be at least a little moved by the testimonials from these determined women and the injustice they suffered.

As a movie, Mercury 13 isn't all that impressive; directors David Sington and Heather Walsh combine talking-head interviews (with some of the surviving pilots and relatives of those who've passed away) with archival footage to tell the story of 13 female aviators who were recruited by NASA medical specialist Dr. Randy Lovelace to undergo the same battery of physical and mental tests as the famous Mercury Seven male astronauts (famously depicted in The Right Stuff). Lovelace was convinced that not only could women be just as qualified as men to participate in space missions, but also that in some ways they might make for superior candidates. Without NASA authorization, he initiated his own program to test and train women, but he was ultimately shut down when his plan progressed to having the women train on military fighter jets.

A little while later, there was a Congressional hearing about the possibility of having the women officially join the astronaut training program, but that led nowhere, and it wasn't until the 1980s that NASA actually put women on its space missions. Sington and Walsh lay out all this information in a mostly straightforward, pedestrian fashion, and the interview subjects are compelling enough to keep the movie engaging over most of its slim 79-minute running time. But the directors also pad out the film with cheesy re-enactments (including a hokey speculative version of women participating in the first moon landing) and lots of lovely but questionably relevant footage of airplanes in flight. There's also an overbearing score to juice the emotions that are plenty powerful on their own. The result is a movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself, because no amount of lackluster filmmaking could undermine the emotional impact of the story and the inherent charm and grit of the women portrayed.