Sunday, October 22, 2017

VODepths: 'Dwelling,' 'Girl Flu,' 'OtherLife'

Dwelling (Erin Marie Hogan, Abigail Mary, Mu-Shaka Benson, dir. Kyle Mecca) There's a lot of atmosphere in low-budget horror movie Dwelling, but not much else. The movie opens with a confusing combination of dream sequence and flashback in which Ellie (Erin Marie Hogan) remembers the death of her mother in a house fire (or maybe by drowning or suicide, before the house caught on fire) possibly caused by her disturbed younger sister River. Years later, River (Devanny Pinn) is institutionalized, and Ellie and her husband have custody of River's young daughter Izzy (Abigail Mary). For reasons that I never quite understood, Ellie deliberately moves the family into a well-known haunted house so that she can discover the truth about what happened to her mother, even though the house has nothing to do with her mother's death. Most of the movie consists of standard haunted-house stuff (hidden rooms, strange apparitions, unsettling dreams), much of it focused on an apparently cursed mirror. None of it really explains how or why the house is haunted, how or why that will allow Ellie to understand her mother's death, or how or why it can bring peace to River or Izzy (who is also somehow connected to the spirit world). There are a handful of creepy (but meaningless) images, and Hogan conveys her character's anguish well, but the story never comes together, with an ending as inscrutable and dull as its opening. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Girl Flu (Jade Pettyjohn, Katee Sackhoff, Jeremy Sisto, dir. Dorie Barton) I wish I had liked Girl Flu just a little bit more, because it's the kind of indie dramedy we need more of: It's a sweet coming-of-age story about a young girl and her relationship with her single mom, giving a compassionate and sympathetic portrayal to a subject that's often the target of gross-out jokes in mainstream comedies. Tween star Jade Pettyjohn is great as 12-year-old Bird, who's freaking out about getting her first period, among other typical adolescent woes (bullying at school, a crush on a boy, moving away from her childhood home and friends, etc.). Katee Sackhoff, who's known primarily for badass genre roles, shows her range as Bird's screw-up of a mother, but their connection always feels slightly off. There are some nice individual moments, but the pacing is awkward, the supporting characters are too sketchy (Jeremy Sisto's main characterization as Bird's mom's boyfriend is to wear a douchey hat), and the comedy is often weak. The frank approach to the subject matter and Pettyjohn's warm, likable performance are not quite sufficient to make up for the narrative flaws. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

OtherLife (Jessica De Gouw, Thomas Cocquerel, T.J. Power, dir. Ben C. Lucas) There are some intriguing ideas in the slick Australian sci-fi movie OtherLife, but the execution is a bit lacking. Director and co-writer Ben C. Lucas (working very loosely from a novel by Kelley Eskridge) makes good use of his limited resources, giving the story a sense of scope and ambition even as it takes place mostly in sterile office buildings and apartments. The story starts slowly, establishing the idea of a new technology that implants memories, allowing people to accumulate experiences without actually experiencing them. Eventually the technology's creator, Ren (Jessica De Gouw), ends up the target of some shady power players who use her technology against her, and the movie turns into a thriller that borrows more than a little from Total Recall. The middle of the movie is exciting and unpredictable, but the third act goes back to boring corporate intrigue, and too many of the potentially intriguing plot threads are left hanging. After throwing in some decent (if obvious) twists, Lucas ends on an anticlimactic note, relying on the character relationships rather than the heady sci-fi concepts. De Gouw's performance is strong, but there's not enough of an emotional connection to give the story the impact it's aiming for. Available on Netflix.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Gantry Row' (1998)

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

Produced for Australian TV, ghost story 13 Gantry Row is about as musty as the old house in which it takes place. Yuppie couple Peter (John Adam) and Julie (Rebecca Gibney) buy the vintage row house in Sydney for a bargain after its elderly resident dies alone, so you know it's going to be totally haunted. An opening prologue shows a Jack the Ripper-style killer from the Victorian era taking refuge in the house, and his spirit starts possessing Peter via a straight razor that the killer used on his victims, which Peter discovers and begins carrying around. The process is slow and dull, though, and involves lots of scenes of house renovation as Peter and Julie and their friends literally peel away the layers on the walls, eventually reaching the part that holds the evil spirit (I guess?).

The movie is shot in bright, ugly video (which makes sense for '90s TV but still looks awful), and director Catherine Millar tries to liven things up by framing various shots through windows or blinds or, her favorite move, from a low angle that appears to be under a table or other surface. It's more distracting than artful, though, and it doesn't add anything to the plodding progression of the story. The dialogue is functional at best, and the acting is similarly mediocre, with Adam and Gibney expressing almost no romantic chemistry despite a handful of steamy-for-Australian-TV sex scenes. The most notable thing about the cast is the inclusion of character actor Nicholas Hammond, who has the distinction of playing both one of the Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music and Spider-Man in the short-lived 1970s TV series (here he plays Julie's helpful gay co-worker).

As Peter becomes more and more consumed by the spirit of the killer, he fixates on stealing from the investment bank where he works, and the transition from masked serial-killing to armed robbery is a serious downgrade. The whole subplot about the bank is dreadfully misguided, taking over entire scenes in the movie's third act, as we watch cops interrogate Peter over whether he stole a case full of cash (he fabricates a fictional attacker to account for the missing money and a dead security guard). The violent incidents get dismissed far too easily, and there's never any clear sense of how to defeat the evil spirit (or even whether the characters will bother putting in the effort). The ending, which is meant to be sinister and surprising, is just anticlimactic, without a definitive vanquishing of the evil spirit or a triumph for its murderous agenda. It sort of persists, maybe, although what exactly it wants to accomplish (aside from stealing some money that will help Peter and Julie further renovate the house) isn't ever clear either. As hauntings go, it's not very effective, and that applies equally to the movie.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13Hrs' (2010)

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

There's a sort of cool idea at the very end of the low-budget British werewolf movie 13Hrs (unimaginatively retitled Night Wolf for U.S. release), about how a werewolf's attempts to protect their family from their monstrous nature might only put the family in greater danger, but it's barely an afterthought to this annoying, mostly tension-free horror movie. Thanks to the U.S. title, it's pretty obvious that the mysterious monster in this movie is a werewolf, but the low budget means that director Jonathan Glendening keeps the monster offscreen until the movie is nearly over, and the characters express confusion over what is chasing them even long after it's become readily apparent to the audience. Glendening represents the monster almost entirely via red-tinted POV shots and sound effects, which makes its kills tough to depict (he settles mostly for showing the gruesome aftermath with some mediocre gore effects).

The movie takes place at an isolated English country house, where Sarah (Isabella Calthorpe) has just returned to visit her family after moving to the U.S. for work. She finds her three half-brothers and a few of their friends getting wasted in the barn behind the creaky, spooky family house, but their evening of drunken obnoxiousness is cut short when they discover that Sarah's stepfather (the father of her half-brothers) has been murdered and mutilated. Soon whatever creature killed the family patriarch is stalking the irritating young people as well. They all behave like idiots, setting themselves up for easy kills, but without seeing the attacks, the deaths of the unpleasant characters aren't particularly satisfying.

The cast includes Harry Potter's Tom Felton along with some British TV stars, none of whom distinguish themselves in any way (although Glendening does find plenty of ways to showcase model Gemma Atkinson's generous bosom). The characters spend probably half the movie in a cramped attic crawl space hiding from the monster, meaning that the filmmakers fail to make use of one of their only real assets, the creepy old house. It's often hard to tell where the characters are in relation to each other and in relation to the monster, which diminishes the already minimal suspense. By the time Glendening actually shows the werewolf, the build-up has just gotten tiresome, and the makeup effects are laughable at best (the aftermath, with the werewolf changed back to human, features one of the most obvious bald caps I've ever seen in a movie). With a sharper script and more engaging characters, 13Hrs could have overcome its low budget and maybe even offered a new approach to the werewolf movie. Instead it aims for the bare minimum, and can scarcely even manage that.

Friday, September 08, 2017

VODepths: 'The Atoning,' 'Fugue,' 'Unleashed'

The Atoning (Virginia Newcomb, Michael LaCour, Cannon Bosarge, dir. Michael Williams) The real atoning in The Atoning should come from the filmmakers, for making such a slow, turgid, obvious supernatural "thriller" that takes forever to get to its belabored point, with absolutely no creepy atmosphere or suspense or surprises along the way. The entire movie takes place in a creaky old house, where Vera (Virginia Newcomb), Ray (producer Michael LaCour) and their young son Sam (Cannon Bosarge) experience strange phenomena that suggest a haunting. The movie spends the first 40 minutes building to the most overused twist in horror movies (yep, they were dead all along!), which is really just a way to kill time until getting to the actual focus of the story, as the family members must come to terms with how they died in order to move on. The explanation for what happened to them is nearly as predictable as the mid-film twist, and writer-director Michael Williams draws it out as long as possible, spending way too much time on the mundane existence of ghosts in purgatory. There are some silly-looking demons that show up near the end, but mostly this is dull, soap-opera-level family drama, poorly acted, with some supernatural nonsense thrown on top. Available on iTunes.

Fugue (Sophie Traub, George Towers, Tristan Cowen, dir. Jorge Torres-Torres) A woman wanders through the Puerto Rican island of Vieques acting erratically, and Fugue starts by placing the audience inside her disorientation, with no explanation of who she is, where she came from or what she's doing there. Director and co-writer Jorge Torres-Torres creates an impressionistic narrative that mirrors the internal state of protagonist Claire (Sophie Traub), at least at first. Eventually the story comes together, in particular via a clumsy device of Claire, post-recovery, working with a hypnotist (co-writer Tristan Cowen) to reconstruct her memories. It's a mix of straightforward mystery and more experimental storytelling, with a jumbled chronology, and the movie is more intriguing the less it explains. Traub (who also contributed to the story) delivers an immersive performance, but even she stumbles over the chunks of exposition that the movie pauses to deliver periodically. The resolution is too esoteric to be satisfying on a narrative level, but too concerned with explanations to succeed as a piece of purely avant-garde cinema. Available on No Budge.

Unleashed (Kate Micucci, Justin Chatwin, Steve Howey, dir. Finn Taylor) I've enjoyed Kate Micucci in quirky comedic supporting roles, but I'm not sure she's quite up to playing the lead in a romantic comedy. It doesn't help that Unleashed's premise is so dumb and seems like a relic of late '80s/early '90s rom-coms: Lonely singleton Emma (Micucci) wishes there were men out there as wonderful as her cat and her dog, and thanks to some nonsensical magic whatever, her cat and her dog are transformed into people (played by Justin Chatwin and Steve Howey, respectively). There's a lot of strained comedy about these two dudes behaving like a cat and a dog, and their whole attempt to seduce Emma (who doesn't know that they're really her pets) is more creepy than funny (I can guarantee this movie will satisfy someone's very specific fetish). Emma is really meant to end up with well-meaning contractor Carl (Sean Astin), but Carl has almost no personality, and Astin and Micucci have no chemistry. The cutesy music, frequent montages and pseudo-hip workplace setting (Emma is an app developer) make the movie feel like a 2010s riff on movies like Mannequin, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

VODepths: 'Cut Shoot Kill,' 'Hickok,' 'My Hot Property'

Cut Shoot Kill (Alexandra Socha, Alex Hurt, Jay Devore, dir. Michael Walker) Filmmakers love making movies about making movies, but I think horror filmmakers love doing this most of all. Cut Shoot Kill is a horror movie about the making of a horror movie, in which the actors are actually getting killed in their death scenes. So it's sort of a meta-slasher film, with Alexandra Socha as an up-and-coming actress who plays the Final Girl in both the movie within the movie and the movie itself. Alex Hurt plays the homicidal director, who of course views murder as an extension of his art, and his resemblance to Eli Roth (whether intentional or not) gives the fairly rudimentary story an extra layer of commentary. Mostly it follows the familiar slasher formula, as Socha's Serena and her fellow actors are picked off one by one as they shoot their movie at a remote location in the woods. The ending tries to turn the movie into some kind of female empowerment story, which doesn't really fit with the preceding action, and sort of undermines Serena's position as the hero. Even if the story is underwhelming, there are still some suspenseful moments and gruesome kills, plus an amusing supporting performance from Jay Devore as the director's eager-to-please assistant, who's really polite about all the murdering his boss is doing. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Hickok (Luke Hemsworth, Trace Adkins, Cameron Richardson, dir. Timothy Woodward Jr.) While his brothers Chris and Liam star in Hollywood blockbusters and get regular coverage in celebrity gossip magazines, Luke Hemsworth is sort of the Daniel Baldwin of Hemsworths. The best he can do for a starring role is this low-budget biopic about Wild Bill Hickok, a heavily fictionalized account of the legendary gunfighter's time as the marshal of Abilene, Kansas. It's a straightforward and extremely dull Western, with a bright, flat visual style, threadbare sets and wooden acting; save for a couple of gratuitous sex scenes, it could be a '90s basic-cable movie. Hemsworth does his best to sound manly and angsty as Wild Bill, who's trying to settle down and go straight as a lawman, but his performance isn't particularly convincing. It's better than most of the rest of the cast, though, especially country singer Trace Adkins as the movie's ineffectual villain, a saloon owner who's barely even threatening until the movie's almost over. Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Dern bring a bit of dignity to their supporting roles as the town's mayor and doctor, respectively, but they're mostly there to give Hickok sage advice via poorly written platitudes. Even the final gunfight is underwhelming, without much suspense. Wild Bill dispatches the bad guys and rides off with barely a shrug. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

My Hot Property (MyAnna Buring, Tom Rhys Harries, Kate Bracken, dir. Max McGill) Something may be lost in the cultural transition with this British comedy about a posh corporate spy (MyAnna Buring) who loses her job and goes to extreme lengths to hold onto her fancy London apartment. I don't know anything about the real estate boom in London or the gentrification of the area where Buring's Melody lives, so some of the potential satire may have gone over my head. Even so, this is a pretty flimsily constructed comedy, with character relationships established so abruptly that it seems like entire scenes have been cut out (not entirely unlikely given the barely 80-minute running time). The characters are all pretty cartoonish, without much bite to their satirical targets (Melody's vapid boyfriend is a hipster chef who makes food that deliberately tastes bad). The plot unfolds without much internal logic and resolves in the same way, and the efforts at emotional resonance in the relationship between Melody and her brother (whose parents died tragically) fall flat. Maybe some trendy Londoners would find something funny here, though. Available on Netflix.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Worms' (1970)

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

The 1970 low-budget Taiwanese production 13 Worms joins The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles and Ninjas, Condors 13 on the list of weird and terrible martial-arts movies I have watched for this project. I can enjoy sitting through an endless stream of bad horror movies, but I get bored with even decent martial-arts movies, so getting through a bad one is a real chore. Luckily for me, I guess, 13 Worms crams in about five other genres along the way, handling each one in its bizarre, nonsensical way. It starts out, bafflingly, with a chess tournament (although the game depicted in the movie, labeled in the subtitles as chess, doesn't look much like any chess I have ever seen, and is probably actually some other Chinese board game), which the title characters (a band of roving adventurers and/or bandits or something) have somehow won as a collective. A mysterious chess master shows up and challenges them to a match, and they agree to perform a task for him if they lose. The Worms' leader (maybe?) is an old man who appears to have a heart attack and die during the chess match (!!), which is then finished up (and lost) by the second-in-command (?).

Anyway, the Worms (of which there are now only 12, because the leader died of a chess-induced heart attack) now agree to go on a quest to rescue a princess for this mysterious chess master. This involves them getting arrested for some reason that I didn't understand and then carted off to a prison where this princess is being held, and where the inmates are forced to move pieces in a giant life-size version of chess (or whatever Chinese game is actually in the movie). More crazy ideas like that would have made the movie a bit more fun to watch, but most of it is a tedious slow chase as the Worms track the soldiers who are taking the princess ... somewhere. Also, there are a bunch of songs, because this movie is sort of a musical? I don't even know.

I could go through the rest of the inane plot beat by beat, although I don't think I understood most of it, including what exactly the Worms were trying to accomplish at any given moment. There's a sequence in which they dress up as ghosts (covered in white sheets) to scare the soldiers, and bits where they pose as various workers (a boatman, a wine merchant, an innkeeper) that the soldiers encounter along the way. The princess doesn't seem all that upset at being held captive (she's never shackled or confined), and both sides are consistently foiled by a "beggar" who first shows up as the chess master's assistant (or something). There's a big twist at the end when this beggar turns out to be a woman, which is completely obvious the entire time but comes as a total shock to all the other characters.

These nonsensical martial-arts movies are usually at least partially redeemed by their fight sequences, but 13 Worms has surprisingly minimal action, most of which is confusingly shot and not very exciting. The final battle involves the Worms fighting some guy who's basically just shown up, and there are no consistent villains to root against. Even the heroes kind of come and go throughout the story, and the annoying beggar ends up being the most prominent character. I was kind of amused by the self-important songs about the characters' heroism and the dangers they face, but I'm sure a lot of their impact was lost in translation. That's probably true for the rest of the movie, which might have made more sense with more careful subtitling. I don't think it's really worth the effort to find out, though.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Girl From 10th Avenue' (1935)

As I've been making my way through the entire Bette Davis theatrical filmography, I've been winding down with plenty of cheap quickies from Davis' very prolific 1930s period as a Warner Bros. contract player, and most of them are entirely forgettable (some are quite a bit worse than that). So I wasn't expecting much out of The Girl From 10th Avenue, one of five movies that Davis made in 1935 alone. It's overshadowed by that year's Dangerous, for which Davis won her first Oscar (although the movie itself is a bit underwhelming), and it's not generally mentioned in discussions of Davis' best work from the period. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun, entertaining movie with a great Davis performance, albeit opposite a male lead without much screen presence.

Directed by Alfred E. Green, who worked with Davis on seven films (including Dangerous), 10th Avenue bears a bit of resemblance to the 1932 Green/Davis collaboration The Rich Are Always With Us, which also poked fun at the antics of rich society narcissists, although 10th Avenue is less comedic and not as clever. It's also a bit disjointed, running only 70 minutes and abruptly jumping ahead in time at several points. Davis plays a working-class girl named Miriam Brady who happens upon rich lawyer Geoffrey Sherwood (Ian Hunter) as he drunkenly loiters outside his ex's wedding. Miriam gets Geoffrey off the street and spends an evening with him, after which they wake up to find themselves married.

Instead of a wacky misunderstanding, this is played as a beneficial arrangement for both; Miriam helps Geoffrey get sober, and Geoffrey provides Miriam with a more comfortable lifestyle. But once Geoffrey has his life together, the vain Valentine (Katherine Alexander) decides that she wants him back. Miriam is a great strong-willed Davis character, both when standing up to Geoffrey and his old-boys-club chums and when fending off Valentine's designs on her husband (whom she comes to love, of course). Determined to fit in with high society, she enlists the aid of her landlady (Alison Skipworth), a former society dame herself, tackling every challenge with confidence. Instead of deriving comedy from a commoner attempting to act sophisticated, the movie treats Miriam with respect, and Davis gives her a combination of sauciness and dignity.

The movie's centerpiece is a delightfully catty confrontation between Miriam and Valentine at a fancy restaurant, which eventually involves the throwing of a grapefruit, and Davis is at her sharp-tongued best here, while Alexander does what she can to keep up. Davis shines again as Miriam confronts Geoffrey over his romantic indecisiveness, but Hunter isn't quite up to the task of sparring with her, and the two have minimal chemistry throughout the movie, making their abrupt happily-ever-after at the end especially jarring. Colin Clive, best known as Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale's films, is much more charismatic as the poor sap Valentine dumps to attempt to win Geoffrey back, but he has only a few scenes to shine in. The movie really belongs to Davis, and it probably deserves a more prominent spot among her flood of '30s roles.