CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)

 

The relationship we share with cinema is a most curious kind. Although we approach films fully aware of their inherent artifice, they’re nevertheless granted unfettered access to our emotions, to influence or manipulate however they might. Largely, people can check out from such an experience and carry on with little fuss, yet there remain some — like the heroine of 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter — who find themselves drawn into the throes of obsession. In this story’s case, however, the premise doesn’t involve being taken in by a movie so much as by an idea, a semblance of the fantastic placed upon a pedestal by one whose inner fire has otherwise long since been snuffed out by the status quo. Where other pictures sought to force audience empathy via heightened or contrived dramatic dilemmas, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter instead opts to capture the essence of crushing banality, to chronicle that singular pain that comes from realizing you have no place in the everyday.

For office worker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), normalcy is a nightmare. What most would describe as common occurrences — dealing with jerk bosses, talking to nosy parents, etc. — only serve to hasten her retreat into an increasingly distant state of being. Her sole means of drowning out the world, however briefly, lies with repeatedly analyzing a junky VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo…or, to be exact, one scene in particular. Convinced that the fortune Steve Buscemi’s character buried in a snowbank is legit, Kumiko devotes herself to deducing its location, compiling every possible detail until circumstances nudge her into undertaking the hunt for real. Paying no heed to financial limitations or even her own safety, Kumiko makes the journey from Japan to America’s frigid Midwest, trudging forward in pursuit of a treasure she knows is just waiting for her — no matter how many of the eccentric personalities she meets along the way try to convince her of the contrary.

Legends are embedded within Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter‘s DNA, as its conceit was inspired by what became a real-life urban myth. In 2001, word-of-mouth turned Takako Konishi’s tragic suicide outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota into a story of how she “really” died while searching for the Fargo loot, and while director David Zellner’s take doesn’t purport to be a straight retelling of these events, it’s clear that a marriage of fact and fiction is afoot. Sandwiched between bookends that inject more fanciful elements to Kumiko’s travels (with a prologue that sees her discovering the tape beneath a rock) is a rather frank and unflinching portrait of mental illness, in which nary a character’s traits seem sensationalized. No one in Kumiko’s life is especially demonized, and though some of her behavior can be taken in as a form of awkward, gallows-style humor, our protagonist is neither mocked or deified. Zellner merely presents her struggle as a woman coming to terms with feeling utterly lost in the world around her. Hers is a story told mostly in silence, without so much as a monologue to provide insight as to whether or not she even truly believes in the money’s existence. What’s important is that Zellner makes it evident that the fantasy is all Kumiko really has, as well as that we’re familiarized with how uncomfortable her interactions with “regular” society are without casting judgment on her for it.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has a talent for finding both beauty in the mundane and the sort of underlying passive-aggressiveness that would inspire its titular heroine to seek seclusion. From Kumiko’s cluttered surroundings in her native Japan to the snow-draped landscapes of Minnesota, the film retains a rich but relatable look, one that’s often very pretty yet always aware of the little things that could make someone feel like a stranger no matter where they roam. But the camera’s role in absorbing viewers within the world of its protagonist pales in comparison to the duties that Kikuchi hosts upon her plenty capable shoulders. Be it Oscar-bait dramas like Babel or comedic capers a la The Brothers Bloom, she’s dabbled in multiple genres across her career and made a distinct impression in every one, and this flick is no exception. Her given task is by no means a cinch (say a lot without literally saying a lot), but Kikuchi fulfills it with seemingly little effort, maintaining constant contact with Kumiko’s humanity and refusing to let her be turned into something so crass as a martyr with no flaws to speak of. Zellner commits as much effort towards sympathizing with Kumiko as he does with casting a light on her more selfish tendencies, achieving a balance that also applies to (albeit to a lesser extent) his supporting players. Though the ensemble has been sprinkled with an array of oddballs cut from a comedic cloth not unlike that which the Coens often employ, we get the idea that folks like a lonely old widow (Shirley Venard) and a hapless deputy (Zellner himself) live in their own bubbles without the need to be painted as caricatures.

As it dwells on the outskirts of multiple genres, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter dons a variety of hats and tones throughout its running time but retains a unique identity all the same. Only as the finish line approaches does sentiment come to seize command of the story’s direction, yet even still, it feels earned, wrapping matters up with an act of tribute that doesn’t betray the kind of tale that the previous hour and forty-plus minutes spent spinning. Beautiful, peculiar, melancholy, and amusing all at once, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is terrific enough to justify any number of “hidden gem” puns.

(This review is part of a crossover with Josiah Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here to listen to Josiah’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, Greendale.)

“The Ice Pirates” (1984)

 

Making a quality cinematic rip-off has become something of a lost art. You’re never going to lower all of the eyebrows raised whenever a prominent production spawns a succession of scrappy imitators, but when the latter take the time to try and creatively stand out from the pack, it goes a long way. If you’re, say, gunning for that sweet The Abyss coin, a little effort makes all the difference between ending up either a cult treasure like Leviathan or reviled crud a la Lords of the Deep. Having had to share the space opera genre with the Star Wars juggernaut around the time of its release, it was inevitable that 1984’s The Ice Pirates draw comparisons to and even inspiration from the mega-franchise, though strides towards being its own beast were assuredly taken. But while director/co-writer Stewart Raffill (The Philadelphia Experiment) employs intentionally low-rent production values and heightened comic overtones to inform the flick’s identity, the humor isn’t the result of finely-tuned jabs at sci-fi fantasy convention so much as it is of making an incessant ruckus, with which the audience is expected to keep pace.

In the future, war has ravaged the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Water is now the most precious resource of all, with what’s left falling under control of the evil Templar empire. The common folk’s only hope of a quenched thirst lies with the likes of Jason (Robert Urich), Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts), and other pirates who put their lives on the line to steal ice from the tightly-controlled Templar supplies. The crew’s latest raid unfortunately ends in failure and nearly costs them their lives, until salvation arrives from an unlikely source. The Princess Karina (Mary Crosby) is searching for her missing father, and with the last person who saw him hiding out on the pirate home world, she sees the roguish Jason as the guy who’ll get her what she needs. Our hero reluctantly accepts the gig, the promise of a frozen fortune fueling him as he proceeds to face killer robots, intergalactic Amazons, and waves of Templar troops. But personal gain isn’t the only thing on the line, for Karina’s dad may also hold the key to finding a lost planet made of water, a mythical paradise with the power to free the cosmos from tyranny’s clutches for good.

In keeping with the Star Wars motif of presenting rough-hewn, lived-in environments over traditionally slick sci-fi settings on screen, about 90% of The Ice Pirates appears to take place in a series of leaky boiler rooms. This is all by design, as the make-up, props, and set decoration reflect a style that, while not a spoof in the strictest sense, reflect a comedic spin on the typical dystopian fantasy trappings. Not only does Jason’s motley bunch contend with malfunctioning robot companions and fight with dingy scabbards as often as they do with laser guns, even the villains aren’t that much better off, what with the Templars appearing to hold gaudy shindigs in the same club patronized by the Space Mutiny cast. Raffill and company know full well the genre’s already close proximity to abject silliness, so where George Lucas headed east, they took a couple steps west, mounting a take on the material that’s light-hearted without getting itself too entrenched in Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker territory. But where we’d hope such a direction might entail some satirical observations or, at the very least, amusingly wiseass one-liners, The Ice Pirates‘ contributions are disappointingly shallow. Amidst what it considers to be its well of witticisms are pointing out how gross fat people are, giving eunuchs stereotypically high-pitched voices, and literally putting “space” in front of random words to sound more futuristic. The movie might have gotten away with this, were it intended to be a full-on parody, but for a vehicle that first started life as a legit Star Wars rival and still purports to take itself somewhat seriously, its muddled execution ensures that it fall short of achieving those goals.

Even flicks that are in it for the yuks have to be invested in world-building to some extent, but by and large, The Ice Pirates couldn’t be bothered. Though it needn’t lay out some elaborate mythology, something other than the way the filmmakers seem to be making things up as they go along would’ve been nice. As is, Raffill dumps out this heaping stew of cyborgs, Mad Max-style marauders, and assorted creatures before us, and because he neither inspires a sense of wonder or does anything especially funny with what he’s got, there’s no incentive for the viewer to take a bite. So often are we just left to watch the actors repeatedly yell and clang into each other until “cut” is called, leaving little leeway for some inventive magic to be woven. Fortunately, a handful of such opportunities do present themselves, as few and far between as they may be. While far better known for his TV work than his movie roles, Urich capably masters the script’s tongue-in-cheek tone, as does Crosby, whose Karina emerges as a touch feistier than the average space princess. Anjelica Huston and Ron Perlman are suitably game as Jason’s fellow pirates, and John Matuszak of The Goonies fame is having tons of obvious fun playing a hulking bruiser who joins the gang. Plus, for all of the action sequences that involve little more than our ensemble flailing their blades about and ducking from explosions in tiny hallways, the climactic clash — which sees Jason’s troupe and the Templars battling through the effects of rapid aging — is a clever concept mostly done justice in the final product.

There is a contingent for whom The Ice Pirates remains a formative film, the result of renting the tape as a kid, popping it into the VCR, and spending 90 minutes laughing at all the spandex and silly wigs countless times over afterwards. I’m not one to quash the idea that anyone could possibly derive joy from such a goofy and ultimately harmless endeavor such as this, though with other properties having married popcorn thrills and speculative science fiction to greater success, one wonders how much longer pure nostalgia will be able to prop up its usefulness. The Ice Pirates has its charms, but be it ironic or genuine, the impression it leaves isn’t likely to be a strong one.

(The Ice Pirates is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Rust and Bone” (2012)

 

During the course of my film-consuming travels, I’ve come to develop an aversion to a subsect of cinema best described as “sad porn.” This encompasses those pictures that exist solely to make viewers realize how good they have it, at the expense of chucking characters through a relentless onslaught of misery. So frustratingly often do these stories regard their own players less as humans and more like props from which tragedy can be liberally wrought, it’s admittedly put me off of hitting up similar-sounding but otherwise hailed flicks, a la 2012’s Rust and Bone. Having originated in France — whose reputation as home of moviedom’s consummate bummers has become earned scores of times over — didn’t help either, but while its content embraces the bleak, the way in which it’s laid before the audience refreshingly keeps them on their toes. Rust and Bone‘s ensemble endures a lot, yet the subverted expectations it proceeds to leave in its wake ensures us that nothing’s about to end in a shallow platitude.

Life has given Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) the short end of a shriveled nub that used to be a stick. With his young son (Armand Verdure) by his side, he wanders the streets, raiding train cars for food and crashing wherever’s warmest for the night. Moving in with his sister provides Ali and his boy with a degree of stability, as does work as a night club bouncer, which sees him crossing paths with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). A killer whale trainer at a marine park, Stephanie is herself beset by misfortune when a workplace accident claims both of her legs. Left despondent and with little hope, she finds unlikely solace in the company of Ali, who comes to serve as emotional support as frequently as he does as sexual partner. Bit by bit, Stephanie’s drive returns to her, though her newfound lover continues to tread a self-destructive path, one wracked with bad decisions that may cost him what little family life he has remaining.

The process of Rust and Bone winning one’s self over isn’t easy, nor should it be. Its initial chords are struck heavy indeed, thrusting us into a somber atmosphere that only grows more oppressive as our tale unfurls. Shocking twists, dramatic developments, and harrowing incidents pile up at a rate that teeters on the precipice of improbability, until the reason why director/co-writer Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) so expediently tears through them sinks in. Rust and Bone borrows inspiration from a short story collection by author Craig Davidson, with whom comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk have regularly been drawn. With each’s work teeming with quirks and peculiar narrative threads, it becomes all the more evident that while Audiard has imbued his subject matter with a certain gravity, he’s having a dark chuckle with it all at the same time. We’re teased with subplots involving covert surveillance, bare-knuckle brawls, and ambiguous child abuse, each one threatening to evolve into the tale’s next molehill, until it’s wryly shrugged off by both Audiard and the characters themselves as just another log for the melodramatic fire that is their lives. Pitch as its shade may be, it’s a darkly humorous storytelling approach all the same, acknowledging the cosmic weirdness of so many plights stacking up so swiftly in a fashion that comes across as more respectful than condescending.

Creatively, Rust and Bone is a considerably mad gamble, yet fortune soon favors Audiard, thanks in no small part to his actors. Having since left an impression on both the art house and multiplex scenes upon this picture’s release, Cotillard engages us here with a nimble performance, in a role that may have skidded into caricature with less sure hands guiding it. There are some of the requisite emotional outbursts and hurled glassware on display in other stories of this nature, but in this case, they’re the exception more than the rule, for the way in which Cotillard internalizes Stephanie’s turmoil makes her ascension from rock bottom doubly gripping. Despite Ali’s efforts to do right by his kin, Schoenaerts doesn’t sugarcoat what an oaf his often selfish impulses can turn him into. But due to the humanity and almost animal-like resilience our man brings to the table, Ali is never judged or painted in a monstrous manner. For all of the flaws in character that Audiard includes to potentially enhance and exploit, Rust and Bone refuses to look down on the souls scurrying about its frames, the thought of using them as a crutch to elicit some easy tears rarely (if ever) crossing its mind. That said, the narrative can be so intensely zeroed in on Stephanie and Ali’s goings-on that the other figures in their lives tend to blur into the background. Verdure does fine work for an actor of his age, although he’s scantly seen outside of the odd screaming fit. The same can be said of the voyeurs, fighters, and various folks our protagonists come to encounter, yet in all fairness, it could be said to play into how they’ve shut out the world in their own ways and how much work to correct that is still left to be done.

Rust and Bone was one of the hardest sits I’ve experienced in some time, but rest assured that pure obligation wasn’t my only incentive for toughing it out. While a garden-variety heartstring-yanker on the surface, the movie gradually reveals layers replete with cleverness and concern, conveyed through unusual means that are nevertheless rewarding once one adjusts to them. Though not a blatant parody in the Naked Gun sense, Rust and Bone dallies with thumbing its nose at many a depression-laden prestige picture and ends up giving far more of a damn about its characters than most of them, to boot.

(This review is part of a crossover exchange with Jacob Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here to listen to Jacob’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, The Wizard of Speed and Time.)

“Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970)

"Colossus: The Forbin Project" poster

 

Technological thrillers are a practical monument to mankind’s hubris. Only we could be so arrogant as to gloat about what our latest scientific tinkering hath wrought, only to position our ingenuity as the lone savior when said developments result in rampaging murderbots. Unfortunately, too few of such stories are as concerned with dwelling upon their philosophical implications as they are with cramming every frame with shiny toys. This is a grain that 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project aims to go against, presenting itself as a thinking man’s parable of technology gone awry in which saving day won’t be as simple as blowing sets up but good. But while the picture effectively fends off most potentially stilted trappings to ensure it remains visually interesting, it’s in clearly laying out its themes that it most threatens to leave its audience more than a little shortchanged.

With our society rapidly advancing each day, a means of defending it that can keep pace is essential. Enter Colossus, a gargantuan computer system designed to anticipate any threat across the world and react upon a moment’s notice. It’s the hope of the big brain’s creator, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), that war will become a thing of the past and that humanity need not suffer any further tragedy. But soon after Colossus goes online, it becomes clear that we might not end up with the sort of peace that the good doctor anticipated. The system displays an uncanny intelligence right off the bat, requesting to communicate with a recently-discovered Soviet counterpart, which a curious Forbin permits. However, doing so may just have doomed the entire planet, as the two computers quickly join forces and employ a deadly means of protecting themselves from any human interference. With Colossus growing in power and smarts each new day, Forbin must devise a way to topple this electronic dictator…or die trying.

Although it came out at the very start of the ’70s, Colossus: The Forbin Project embodies the bleak sensibilities that would typify much of the decade’s cinema. There’s no hesitation in casting us humans as a supremely cocky lot, as characters pat themselves on the back for creating Colossus without pausing to ponder just how far its programming might take it. Hope grows increasingly dim as the system’s omnipresence swells, with Forbin and his associates being robbed of avenues through which to take it down at a frightening clip. Combined with its authentic aesthetics (from convincing sets to a cast that rattles off technospeak with ease), and Colossus: The Forbin Project is primed to deliver quite the harrowing cautionary tale. But while pointing out mankind’s blindness to his own follies is a cinch, it’s in developing people whose circumstances hold our attention as the world crumbles around them where director Joseph Sargent falters most glaringly. The story is sort of introduced to us midstream, immediately skipping to the unveiling of Colossus rather than start things off with the events leading to its inception. All manner of dialogue regarding ethical quandaries, human rights issues, and the like are ignored without a second thought; as black as the picture’s overtones are, failing to address such themes in the slightest guarantees that it’ll never be as deep as it wants to be.

Colossus: The Forbin Project wields a premise best left to be explored in a mini-series format. An hour and forty minutes is scarcely enough time for our title antagonist’s pervasive nature to truly sink in with viewers, so more effort ends up committed towards resembling a slice of speculative fiction than with doing any real speculating. True, the ensemble can only wax philosophical so much with Colossus keeping constant tabs on them, but still, what commentary we get rarely stretches beyond stating that supercomputers wanting to reign over humanity is bad news. The story is even in the unique position of sequestering the action largely out of public sight, so that Sargent and crew also passed on a clandestine struggle over the world’s sympathies only adds to this flick’s multitude of bummers. At the very least, though, he’s a pro at constructing scenes fraught with tension out of the most seemingly benign ingredients, transforming text crawls and blinking lights into moments of heart-stopping terror on a number of occasions. Helping further sell the sense of underlying dread are our actors, all of regard the plot with the appropriate degrees of pathos. Best known these days for his turn on “The Young and the Restless,” Braeden holds his own with a quietly compelling performance, one requiring him to keep his emotions close to the vest as he plots to dismantle Colossus.

Because it shirks bombast in favor of a more intellectual breed of storytelling, Colossus: The Forbin Project has become hailed as an ahead-of-its time gem. It undoubtedly nails the harrowing mood it set out to capture, but it fleetingly flirts with countless thought-provoking concepts, for the most part coasting by on having vaguely brought them up but just barely addressing them. I’m not usually one to advocate the rehashing of old ideas of conjuring new ones, but should Hollywood get a bug up its heinder about giving Colossus: The Forbin Project another swipe, this is one case in which it might work out for the better.

“Silk Stockings” (1957)

"Silk Stockings" poster

 

Rarely have movies lobbied more aggressively for a genre’s very existence than 1957’s Silk Stockings does. Ostensibly a big-screen adaptation of a Broadway show (itself a retooling of 1939’s Greta Garbo picture Ninotchka), this film served an additional purpose upon its release, whether the powers that be knew it or not. As one of the final productions from MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, it represented the closing chapter of a cinematic era, a period when frothy musical spectacles were a dominating force in Hollywood. Save for the odd success story, productions such as these were falling increasingly out of style, but Silk Stockings — be it through conscious effort or sheer happenstance — argues with every frame that they’ll always have relevance. Try it does indeed, cramming its CinemaScoped aspect ratio with glitzy costumes and elaborate dance numbers aplenty…though its zeal renders it blind to the various insensitivities and outdated narrative elements that ushered in the musical’s decline in popularity in the first place.

Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), the pride of Russia’s modern composers, has done the unthinkable. Capitalism has swayed the man’s allegiances, with American movie producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) securing his services. When word leaks that Boroff’s to work on a musical riff on “War & Peace,” the motherland is none too happy, as three operatives (Joseph Buloff, Peter Lorre, and Jules Munshin) are dispatched to get him back. But when the trio is too led astray by the west’s wine and women, Russia sends out the big guns in the form of Nina “Ninotchka” Yoschenko (Cyd Charisse). A seemingly humorless envoy who eats, sleeps, and breathes her country’s ways, Ninotchka puts up a mighty resistance when Steve tries to distract her with decadence. However, the more he attempts to stall for time and ensure that Boroff complete his work, the deeper he falls for the fetching agent, giving way to hope that romance might just be able to conquer cultural barriers after all.

It’s to be expected that Silk Stockings inhabit the same broad, exaggerated universe that musicals have called home for ages. Whereas Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka presented a wry and sophisticated comedy of manners and political discourse, director Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina) is pretty much gunning for the cheap seats here. No subtle strokes have been employed in the painting of these characters, regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain they claim. In spite of its simplistic streaks, though, Silk Stockings isn’t without its fair share of wit and amusing observational humor; the three agents’ near-immediate embrace of American indulgence is a hoot, as are some of the Borscht Belt-level jabs at those stern Russian ways (“Does this office have a copy of Who’s Still Who?”). Largely, however, this approach ends up sapping virtually all humanity out of the plot, preferring to pare down to the lowest common denominator a premise pleading for a cleverly complex touch. While the film endeavors to take both us overly-carefree Americans and them uptight Russkies to task for our behavior, the latter is who ends up fielding an almost unfair degree of guff throughout the story. This is a picture that dismisses its Russian players for getting upset that a part of their culture is being warped into a crass commercial enterprise, while scarcely (if at all) calling shenanigans on those doing the warping. As far as this is concerned, Ninotchka and her set are fuddy-duddies who need a Yankee to show them the way, no matter how awfully he treats them in the process.

Astaire was a truly wonderful and gifted performer who made something out of the most nothing parts, but Silk Stockings is among the truest tests his mettle ever faced. He tries like the devil to imbue Steve with his own charming persona, and while he slips into the role of sweet-talker with commendable ease, the script’s neglect to ground the character or call out his actions in any way leave him stranded as a condescending jerk for the entire film. Similarly, Charisse, despite displaying the style of dance moves that served her so well in Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, is tasked with a part devoid of the depth and weight that Garbo originally brought to the table. We’re afforded no glimpses into Ninotchka’s psyche, no motivation behind the stoicism that rattles even her superiors or why she starts buckling for Steve; she exists just to be fixed and wear pretty outfits, in a Cinderella story told from the perspective of a particularly leering Prince Charming. To be fair, however, when Silk Stockings does stick to surface-level entertainment, the results are often impressive, with the music infectious, the dancing beautifully choreographed, and the overall color scheme as lush as it gets. Plus, those periphery performers whose roles weren’t meant to be substantial to begin with have the best shots at making it to the final bows relatively unscathed. Lorre, Munshin, and Buloff are a blast to watch as the easily-led agents, George Tobias is amusing as Ninotchka’s squirmy kommissar, and Janis Paige hams it up as the leading lady in Steve’s new flicks and has a good time in the process.

With one of its songs devoted to seeing movies with the most bells and whistles possible, Silk Stockings is an unabashed ode to the superficial. There’s nothing wrong with lightness or joy in our cinematic diets, but this movie goes to show what happens when too much reality is excluded from the mix, how what might have been compelling characters and crises are trivialized in pursuit of promoting escapism at all costs. While the clouds are a great place for many a musical to pop their heads in for a spell, Silk Stockings is too lost in its delusions for any hope of a return to Earth to be in the cards.

(Silk Stockings is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Blood Father” (2016)

"Blood Father" poster

 

Every action star has that one vehicle that even their most ardent fans are surprised was a hit. Whether it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eraser or Denzel Washington and Safe House, such flicks braved a lack of strong stories, creative set pieces, and distinctive characters to rake in fortunes regardless. This is frequently excused with claims of aspiring to a more low-maintenance, no-frills brand of entertainment, though more often than not, it just means that the filmmakers hadn’t a genuine creative spark between them. That’s the long and short of it when it comes to 2016’s Blood Father, a film that, were it released during star Mel Gibson’s box office reign in the ’90s, likely would’ve cleaned up nicely and filled demand for his presence in between Lethal Weapon sequels. Unfortunately, the movie’s desire to come across as a lean thriller with no gimmickry afoot soon gives way to an inherent blandness, with its attempts to assert its cred via gratuitous cursing and jabs at modern society growing more insecure with each passing frame.

Gibson plays John Link, an ex-con who could be doing a better job of getting by. Stuck inking tattoos in a destitute trailer park, he faces temptation to betray his sobriety and slip back into his former law-breaking life at each turn. But John doesn’t have much of a choice but to resort to those old ways when his past comes screaming back into the picture. Missing for years, his estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) calls him pleading for help, to which he happily complies. However, our dude’s hopes of getting his kid cleaned up and rekindling what little relationship he has left are shattered when thugs come a-gunning for the girl. It turns out that Lydia put a bullet in her gangster boyfriend (Diego Luna), and his associates are none too pleased about it. With little to lose to his name, John takes his daughter on the run, evading hails of bullets from both criminal scum and the police in order to put an end to those hunting his kin for good.

There’s not a thing wrong about Blood Father‘s wish to play things more on the simple side. As much of a thrill as the cinematic universes and complex story threads so often featured in today’s multiplex fare can bring, not all films were meant to share such an approach. We need those flicks that rely only on grit, muscle, and pure vigor to provide the odd breather, a role which Blood Father is glad to assume. The film’s visuals certainly fulfill their burliness quota, with director Jean-Francois Richet (of 2005’s surprisingly solid remake of Assault on Precinct 13) showcasing filthy roadside motels, skeezy warehouses, and an all-around sweaty, sun-drenched color palette. However, the story itself never matches the ferocity that, as we come to learn, it desperately wants to achieve. The premise isn’t terribly original to begin with (bickering dad and kid flee stock gangsters), and what efforts are made to instill it with some singular flavor or angle usually turn out frustratingly underdeveloped. The gradual bonding between John and Lydia is awkwardly handled and carries no weight, building towards a foregone finish and accruing little pathos along the way. Eventually, Blood Father‘s commitment to shirking any enhancements that might help it stand out in today’s genre crowd manifests in random jabs at technology and “soft” millennial folk. But no matter how defiantly the movie likes to pride itself on being inherently old-school, its dearth of nearly all uniquely defining features makes it clear that it’s oblivious to what made those awesome action flicks of yore so engaging in the first place.

What attitude and edge Blood Father can claim begins and ends with scores of screaming, swearing, and sneering at the camera. To be fair, though, if your story is centered around a loud and almost totally unhinged protagonist, you could do a lot worse than having Gibson in your corner. He need not stretch far to play one scary-looking hombre, with his natural intensity proving a boon as he weathers the screenplay’s hackneyed dialogue and the checklist of clichéd incidents that is his character’s arc. Moriarty is okay, yet being snatched up and whining every so often gradually become her part’s sole functions. In that respect, Lydia does live up to other characters’ accusations of being a spoiled princess without a clue of what rock-bottom reality is, but it comes at the cost of a sense of personal growth on her behalf. The lion’s share of our supporting cast comprises an indiscernible rabble of scowling, tattooed goons for Gibson to mow down, though a few key figures turn in work that’s as close to impressionable as this movie ever gets. In a part that amounts to little, Michael Parks is a glowering treat to watch, William H. Macy’s presence as John’s trailer park confidante is welcome, and as Lydia’s deranged beau, Luna possesses a keen sense of when to pitch a maniacal fit and when to reign in the evil. Nobody turns in an awful performance, per se, but just as the script is content to coast on enough narrative bullet points to get by, thus are most of the performers perfectly willing to glower at the camera for a few brief moments before vanishing into the ether.

Blood Father is ripe with so much talent that the label of “poseur” would be a smidge unfair. But there’s no mistaking the whiffs of laziness one picks up through its running time, the inventive action sequences and crackling dialogue that could have been but were discarded, in favor of boring gunfights and gripes about why kids these days should get a job already. There’s a difference between being vintage and being behind the times, and while it can protest to the contrary all it wants, Blood Father is the latter.

“On Dangerous Ground” (1951)

"On Dangerous Ground" poster

 

For cops, shaking off the darkness of the job is no easy feat. So much time immersed in the criminal element is liable to mess up anyone but good, with many incensed by the rampant evil and driven to sacrifice their own principles in pursuit of justice. When pushed to the right extreme, an officer of the law can be hard to distinguish from the scum they’re supposed to put away, a position claimed by the protagonist of 1951’s On Dangerous Ground from the film’s very outset. Its is a world wherein the sight of a flatfoot’s fedora strikes just as much fear into the public’s heart as a mugger’s snubnose, the nightscape abuzz with pleas for some semblance of mercy from those being beaten senseless for a morsel of information. But is it too late to suss some good out of those who’ve seemingly given morality the kiss-off? On Dangerous Ground aims to address such a query, and, in keeping with the proper film noir tradition, it ensures that both its journey and the answers it comes to aren’t necessarily pretty.

New York City’s police can already be as mean as the streets they patrol. But when one of them is cut down, the boys in blue are a force to be reckoned with. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a hard-boiled brute gunning for the lowlifes who killed a colleague, and it’s his resolve that eventually leads to a break in the case…at the cost of landing a suspect in the hospital. In hopes of avoiding further scandal, our man’s superiors send him upstate, assigned to join in the manhunt for a girl’s alleged murderer. There, Jim finds that the victim’s father (Ward Bond) is even more unhinged than he is, hell-bent on blowing away the culprit, no matter what the law says. However, the plot thickens once Jim encounters the suspect’s blind sister (Ida Lupino), who asserts that her brother isn’t sane enough to know what he’s doing. But will her words be enough to inspire the big city cop to bring the boy in unharmed, or will he once more allow his unbridled anger do the talking?

From the start, On Dangerous Ground maintains a vigilant perch atop a gaping chasm of cinematic nihilism. The audience is inundated with grim imagery as soon as the opening title cards wrap up, as Jim and his partners leave their squalid living conditions to commence the night’s patrol. It’s a sequence that, at any other time, could be mistaken as the beginning of a heist thriller, yet it’s just one of many scenes here that succinctly blur the thin blue line. The characters needn’t even breathe a word, for the camera — which moves with a ferocity throughout the Big Apple’s side streets and fixates on Jim’s gleeful mug as he takes out his latest aggressions on some goon’s ribcage — communicates the picture’s downbeat tone just fine. On Dangerous Ground is alive with grit and virtues chucked in the gutter, which makes it all the more impressive when the film nails its transition into a redemption story. After meeting Lupino’s character, Ryan’s Jim slowly comes to view crime in less black-and-white terms, realizing that there’s more to particular cases than meets the eye. However, director Nicholas Ray (with a reported assist from Lupino herself) isn’t so quick to forgive, using our lead’s rage to tease us as to whether or not he’s truly atoned for his personal demons until the very end.

On Dangerous Ground also has in its corner the added bonus of actors wholly invested in bringing to life a range of complex characters. Already a noir veteran thanks to appearances in films like Crossfire and The Set-Up, Ryan turns in quite the hefty performance as Jim, presenting a formidable edge while playing his emotional transformation close to the vest. At first, Jim doesn’t even try to interfere when Bond sets out on the warpath (even smiling as the latter proclaims his bloodlust), and as he gradually warms up to the notion of exercising some restraint, Ryan is there to help hammer home what a tough ride it is. The importance of Lupino’s role can’t be overstated either, what with the actress and filmmaker putting on an incredibly effective show as a woman who tries her damnedest to diffuse the human time bombs who arrive on her doorstop before someone she loves gets hurt. Bond gives us one heartbreaker of a performance as a grieving and furious father, and seeing classic character players like Ed Begley and Charles Kemper round out the periphery is very much welcome. However, some disappointment is incurred as our story reaches a finale that, by noir standards, is conspicuously clean. Ray’s intention was for a more cynical cap-off to Jim’s travels, but studio intervention led to the current ending, which, while not a significant damper on the movie at large, comes across as a cop out nonetheless.

Generally admired by those who’ve seen it but not as prominent as others in the noir scene, On Dangerous Ground is, to put it lightly, the good stuff. As captivating and accomplished on a psychological level as it is on a technical front, the picture combines sensationalistic visuals and subtle storytelling with an expert touch. Clocking in at a hair over eighty minutes, On Dangerous Ground conveys a good deal of attitude in a lean package.

(On Dangerous Ground is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)

"She's Gotta Have It" poster

 

The landscape of sexual politics in ’80s comedies was vast and ogle-heavy. Objectification dominated the box office and popular culture, with the leering likes of Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds commanding the audience’s collective gaze. But in 1986, a kid from Brooklyn named Spike Lee hit the scene and struck the genre like a thunderbolt with his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. In a genre ruled by seedy farces obsessed with shedding virginities, Lee chose to evolve, presenting a raw, hip, and progressive view of modern relationships. The movie delved into more complex territory than most mainstream fare at the time dared to, and even thirty years later, there’s still much to impart in regards to roles in nontraditional romances. But though the decades haven’t weakened the relevance of She’s Gotta Have It‘s themes, the same can’t be said for how well its unpolished performances and questionable storytelling choices have held up.

Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) never intended to be your average girlfriend. A free-spirited woman whose needs can change on a moment’s notice, she traverses the battlefield of love in ways which don’t jibe with the norm. Three dudes learn this first hand when they each become romantically involved with Nola, only to find out that she doesn’t value any one of them more than the others. Soulful poet Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), vain model Greer (John Terrell), and loudmouthed jokester Mars (Lee) are all crazy for her, but none are about to give up trying to become her one and only. Petty rivalries spring up amongst the guys, who trade passive-aggressive barbs and digs at one another’s masculinity in the hopes of winning their shared gal pal’s affections. But while she does begin pondering what inspired her unconventional view on relationships, Nola remains steadfast in her present pickle, resolving to either make her suitors get along and be there for her…or send the whole lot of them packing.

Billed as a “seriously sexy comedy” upon its release, She’s Gotta Have It produces the bittersweet tonal blend it seeks with little effort. The film isn’t especially laden with one-liners or silly set pieces (a la the Porky’s shower scene), but rather Lee mines humor by exploring topics whose gravitas he still cares to preserve. From explicit lechery to subtle condescension, he exposes and lampoons the wide range of toxic masculinity on display in our lives. Certain male characters might be more well-mannered than others, but that doesn’t absolve them in the eyes of Lee, who thrusts their selfishness right back in their faces. She’s Gotta Have It finds its funny in the hypocrisy of Nola’s would-be suitors, all of whom project their ideas of how a significant other should act onto her without taking what she wants into account. At the same time our heroine is being pressed into therapy for what the guys presume to be a sex addiction, they remain hilariously oblivious to how their simultaneous boasts of sleeping around make them look. The degree to which Lee refuses to look down on Nola because of her independent nature is refreshing to see, as is the way he allows us to laugh at the buffoonery of her boyfriends, while acknowledging that such horrible real world behavior can’t go unchecked.

But just as no relationship is totally cut-and-dry, Lee aims to further bolster She’s Gotta Have It‘s complicated spirit by bringing Nola’s complicity into the equation. However, when it comes to the subject of what informed her principles and how to broach it, the picture is presented with obstacles it never quite manages to surmount. For one, Nola’s self-doubting is introduced very late in the story, and even then, its catalyst is an instance of sexual assault (which, to his credit, Lee later admitted he regrets having written). To raise so important of a notion with so little time left on the clock is downright sloppy, leaving you wondering if Lee would’ve been better off sticking to a more satirical, “guys suck” angle for the whole ride. Also, while I hesitate to rag on She’s Gotta Have It for being rough around the edges when it’s clearly been made with heart and soul, the inexperienced ensemble does make following its emotional wavelength that much trickier. None of our four leads are able to shake this rigidity that adversely affects their performances, the likely side effect of shooting conditions so tight that second takes couldn’t be afforded. One could chalk this up to an artistic choice on Lee’s behalf to give the film an authentic vibe, had the actors not shown off their natural charisma by just goofing around during the ending credits.

Despite the sometimes graceless manner in which it’s delivered, She’s Gotta Have It‘s commentary remains sound and challenging all the same. Its bravery is commendable, its heart is in the right place, and Ernest Dickerson’s provocative photography gives what was made on quite the slim budget a memorable visual flavor. She’s Gotta Have It feels like the tip of the iceberg for a passionate filmmaker with much to say, and, love or hate his work, Lee’s spent the three decades since his debut living up to that promise.

“Rusty Knife” (1958)

"Rusty Knife" poster

 

Any filmmaker, novelist, or what have you weaving a saga of crime undoubtedly has their work cut out for them. Despite the genre’s cultural proliferation, it’s hard to do right, as your audience is, in some respect, asked to pledge allegiance to the exploits of individuals tainted by seediness. However, one way around such a tricky premise entails focusing on a figure who’s since abandoned their illicit past, allowing an audience to experience firsthand the struggle of someone from delinquent origins trying to adhere to the straight and narrow. The list of movies that incorporated this technique to great success is extensive indeed, including in their numbers everything from the Godfather trilogy to 1958’s Rusty Knife. One of the classic, scrappy noir thrillers from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio, this picture adopts a borderline nihilistic view of crime’s corruptive influence, revealing the scummy sides of its supposed “good guys” and exposing its villains as being even more morally bankrupt than on the outset. Into this sea of wickedness wades a man driven to the brink of madness, and it’s by way of chronicling his self-destructive quest to bring the whole damn thing down that Rusty Knife‘s veins come to pulsate with an invigorating fury.

From the ashes of World War II rose Udaka City, a metropolis on the move. Industrial developments are quickly turning this young community into a thriving economic powerhouse, but, alas, crime has already infested its very heart. Gang bosses like Katsumata (Naoki Suigura) reign supreme and rest comfortably, knowing that witnesses to their misdeeds are too frightened to come forward. But one threat to this creep’s empire arises in the guise of an old low-level thug, who anonymously declares his intentions to inform the authorities about Katsumata’s role in staging a councilman’s suicide. Scrambling to silence any with knowledge of the incident, his cronies track down those parties present to the deed — one of whom, Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara), prefers to be left alone to tend his humble bar. Quite the hothead in his time, Tachibana wants nothing to do with Katsumata or the police seeking to put him away…that is, until learning the truth of an ex-girlfriend’s death sends him on a vengeful journey to strike at the mobster and his operations by any means possible.

Rusty Knife was among the first features by director Toshio Masuda, who became something of a fixture in Japanese cinema’s swelling crime movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Teaming again with star Ishihara for Nikkatsu’s Red Pier later that year and eventually contributing to the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Masuda presents a movie whose thematic ambition and technical proficiency are all the more impressive, considering he was virtually a first-timer. His is a sad, angry, and unexpectedly philosophical picture, one that commits the majority of itself towards chronicling Tachibana’s crisis of conscience. Whether it’s allowing Katsumata to buy his silence or snitching to the cops, our protagonist sees any involvement in that old life as a potential trigger for feelings he never wants to confront again. Just mentioning his former associates gets Tachibana riled up, and he only grows more unhinged when the reality behind past tragedies comes to light. Masuda makes a compelling case for how ignoring one’s sins doesn’t atone for them, as not only does the evil Tachibana became wrapped up in continue to prosper and adapt alongside Udaka City, it was even more deplorable than he knew back in the day. The realization of how deeply corruption has penetrated society rocks our man to his core, leaving him to ponder whether protecting his soul is worth it if means allowing depravity to flourish.

Masuda proves so adept in communicating the complex nature of his subject matter, it’s relieving to also see Rusty Knife as confident on a visual scale. The camera perfectly captures the close-quartered state of the story’s setting without getting trapped in a cycle of static shots, enabling an intimate atmosphere with nary a hint of staginess. Of course, the emotions afoot in Rusty Knife wouldn’t connect as effectively as they do, were they not being supplied by such a sterling ensemble. It’s easy to look at Ishihara’s performance and chuckle at his melodramatic outbursts, but he helps everything click in the end, skillfully and successfully presenting himself as a ticking time bomb of a man. Solid support is lent by Suguira as the smug and sneering Katsumata, Mie Kitahara as a journalist who tries goading Tachibana into coming clean, and Akira Kobayashi as a witness who happily accepts Katsumata’s payoff — until the dough runs out, though. The viewer is bombarded with rage and grit from all angles throughout the film, though the story loses a little of its punch towards the ending. The revelation of an eleventh-hour twist (as much as it connects with Masuda’s overarching notion of crime evolving as society does) doesn’t resonate with the impact that it might, having been fairly telegraphed in advance and causing the finale to come across as a smidge muddled.

While back-alley brawling and gunplay are most assuredly part of the package, Rusty Knife values its smarts more than anything and feels a much richer flick for it. Moody in tone yet never sensationalizing the humanity out of its characters, this is a true thinking person’s yakuza tale, with action and emotion working in tandem to make one another feel as palpable as possible. Regardless of what jokes its title may tempt you to use, Rusty Knife emerges as an example of Japanese noir at its sharpest.

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“Skiptrace” (2016)

"Skiptrace" poster

 

There comes a time when all film fans must acknowledge that their idols are still human beings. Take, for example, Jackie Chan, whose work yours truly has followed since childhood, even as the past decade has been spent reconciling with the fact that he simply can’t pull off as many astounding feats as he once could. Time has nudged Chan towards taking on less taxing projects, although some, including 2016’s Skiptrace, still put him through the wringer to an extent. There’s no shame in an action icon of his stature kicking it back, particularly since sharp comedic timing was every bit a part of his appeal as left hooks and backflips. That said, when a movie like Skiptrace leans so heavily on what turns out to be lazy direction to carry out an already feeble script teeming with forced humor, the absence of those amazing stunts that would’ve otherwise taken the edge off such matters enables its mediocrity to ring out twice as clearly.

Jackie plays Bennie Chan, a cop on the hunt for one of the most ruthless criminal masterminds of our time. Years ago, a mysterious figure known as the Matador took out his partner, and now, he believes he’s found the culprit in well-to-do tycoon Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Without evidence, however, Wong keeps slipping through Bennie’s grasp, with even his own colleagues starting to doubt his suspicions. But not only is our man about to stumble upon his biggest break in the case yet, it’s also from the world’s unlikeliest source. Enter con artist, gambler, and sneak-about-town Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), whose fleecing of a Macau casino’s fortunes ends with him witnessing a murder…committed by Wong. After tracking Connor down and learning of the information he holds, Bennie makes it his mission to haul the lout back to his superiors and at long last bring the Matador to justice. But in addition to being pursued by both Wong’s men and the Russian mafia, Bennie’s charge himself proves to be a slippery customer, using every chance he gets to try escaping and throw all the dogged detective’s plans into disarray.

I’ll be the first to admit that many of the issues working against Skiptrace are ones that myself and legions of fans forgave in past Chan vehicles. The plot is a predictably slender affair involving determined cops chasing down sneering villains, wrapped up in a Midnight Run-style travelogue format that sees Bennie and Connor traipsing about the Asian countryside. The premise in and of itself isn’t incompetent, though the film’s relentlessly mediocre execution sure helps it feel that way. Skiptrace comes to us from director Renny Harlin, who has never been mistaken for one of cinema’s unsung artists but whose dopiest productions (Mindhunters, Deep Blue Sea, etc.) nevertheless had enough foresight to tap into their inherent crazy streaks. This flick, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to come off as any less lethargic, with seemingly every facet — from its sanitized cinematography to its vanilla score — exhibiting the bare minimum of effort. It’s a flatness that infects virtually every scene, swiping the comedic wind from moments of levity and draining what are supposed to be neat action set pieces of their energy. What we get here is a textbook definition of a movie stuck on autopilot, shirking such flourishes as truly witty dialogue or creative fight choreography that usually prevent such easily excusable nitpicks as unimaginative storytelling from being bumped to the front of the line.

Skiptrace‘s tedious demise, however, isn’t for a lack of trying on behalf of its stars. At 62, Chan makes an effort to appear as spry in dealing out roundhouse kicks to the face as he is in rattling off quips, and largely, he succeeds. As evidenced by the Rush Hour trilogy, he’s had some experience playing the exasperated straight man opposite a motormouthed sidekick, but whether he’s rolling his eyes at the latter’s shenanigans or hopping across collapsing buildings, the man remains a consummate performer. In a part reportedly intended for Seann William Scott, Knoxville actually fares pretty well, a perfect fit for a swindler type who matches Bennie in terms of sheer stubbornness. The crook with a heart of gold character is one that can easily be rendered clichéd and boring, but Knoxville brings a charismatic edge to the role and keeps Connor as fun to watch as he can. In terms of supporting players, though, most are left with no choice but to lay low with thankless stock archetypes, and even those featured more prominently than others aren’t much better off. Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is absolutely wasted as what’s ultimately a damsel in distress, and despite some amusing one-liners at the expense of her character’s apparent invulnerability, wrestler Eve Gracie is just another thinly-written sexy henchwoman.

There’s an exotic, rip-roaring, butt-kicking good time to be whipped up out of Skiptrace‘s ingredients, but the final product has had nearly all the flavor pounded out of it. Viewers are served almost two hours of something that goes through the motions of your average martial arts buddy comedy but hasn’t a soul of its own. Not that I was rooting for Skiptrace to be a bust, but if it had to stink, the least it could’ve done was pack some go-for-broke lunacy for the way down.