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

Month: May, 2015

“Wild Card” (2015)

"Wild Card" poster


William Goldman is among the most indispensable screenwriters of our time. If you don’t know his name, then you’re surely familiar with his words in one form or another, be they from The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman’s extensive experience in show business has yielded a lifetime’s worth of sagely advice, which, judging from the recent action flick Wild Card, includes, “If at first you don’t succeed with a draft, try, try again.” Having been released with about as much fanfare as star Jason Statham’s straight-to-DVD vehicles usually get, this outing is actually the second time Hollywood has taken a stab at adapting Goldman’s crime novel Heat (no, not that one) for the silver screen, with Goldman himself working on the script. As I’ve yet to read the original book or see the Burt Reynolds bomb it spun off, I can’t say for sure whether or not Wild Card knocked it out of the park. But what’s certain is that this isn’t your typical Statham slugfest, forgoing most of the requisite beatdowns in favor of telling a more contemplative story…even if said narrative still ends up with quite a few bruises of its own.

Statham plays Nick Wild, a man with a dangerous set of skills and a name straight from a USA Network ’90s cop show. He’s quick with his fists, he can improvise deadly weapons out of anything, and he knows the mean streets of Las Vegas like the back of his hand. But instead of raking in a fortune as security guard to the elite or something, Nick slums about Sin City as a chaperone for those who can even find his hole-in-the-wall office. He also has a heart of gold that gets him into trouble, as it does when old acquaintance Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) comes a-calling one day. After getting roughed up something awful by petulant gangster Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia) and his goons, Holly is out for revenge, and Nick can’t help but go along for the ride. Their quest to see DeMarco receive a fitting punishment ends up with a few wrong toes getting stepped on, sending the two scrambling to escape Vegas as soon as possible. But will Nick get out of town with his life intact, or will the self-destructive streak that’s been holding him back for years at long last spell his doom?

Just picture The Gambler with more guys being filleted with spoons, and you’ll have a pretty decent idea of Wild Card‘s tone. All of its marketing indicates the sort of smorgasbord of broken bones that we’ve come to love and anticipate from Statham, only for the film to veer into more introspective thematic territory about halfway through. But while the change certainly isn’t unwelcome (as Statham is rarely afforded shots at flexing the dramatic and comedic chops we know he has), it doesn’t feel as if Wild Card really earns it. Not only is it a jarring tonal shift — going from Nick dispatching thugs commando-style to fretting about his self-esteem — it also comes fairly late in the game and without a sturdy foundation to back it up. The generic musings on his dubious past that our hero shares with his medley of associates don’t do much to justify this pensive direction, especially when contrasted with the few but flashy fight sequences interspersed throughout. I don’t mean to knock Wild Card for daring to be more than its genre usually allows, but its plea for insight comes out of nowhere, ensuring that no matter how well Statham fares as Nick, the movie’s lack of focus denies the character the extra oomph it wants. It’s also wise not to expect any importance to come of prominent names like Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, and Anne Heche populating the supporting cast, as they’re around just to kill time in mostly inconsequential bit parts that virtually anyone could’ve filled.

It’s unfortunate that Wild Card never quite finds its bearings, because not only is it a scant instance of Statham getting to act, he’s not too shabby, either. Alright, so it’s no big stretch for someone in his physical condition to convince you that he could tear a henchman’s heart out with a sponge cake, but he does an admirable job of playing catch-up when the story suddenly decides to take Nick’s “inner darkness” seriously. Statham sells the world-weary, seen-it-all chip on his character’s shoulder as well as does his propensity for head-busting, letting Goldman’s witty one-liners roll off his tongue like a pro. Even though a decent chunk of their talents go to waste in quickie cameos, the supporting actors do try make the best of the situation, with a couple actually turning in memorable performances. Tucci has a good time in his one-scene appearance as a Vegas mobster, Ventimiglia makes for an effectively simpering creep, and Michael Angarano is fine as a twerpy tech bajillionaire who takes on Nick’s services as he hits the Strip. Those afraid that the movie’s emphasis on character reflection has done a number on its action-oriented side needn’t worry, for while the brawls are fewer compared to other Statham joints, they make up for it in sheer brutality. Nick is a guy who’s extremely adept at using the world around him as a weapon, and that he does, via thrillingly-staged fights in which the bad guys take a beating from ashtrays, credit cards, diner cutlery, and any other tools of destruction our hero can get his hands on.

Although the presence of such talent on camera and behind the scenes can’t help but raise one’s hopes by a few degrees, Wild Card is pretty by-the-books action fodder. The genre as a whole will be no better or worse off for its existence, but strictly in terms of Statham’s filmography, the flick comes closer to utilizing his skills beyond femur-splitting than just about anything else he’s done. While part of me will always wish it had gone that extra mile or given itself one more rewrite, Wild Card is a passable picture with which Statham fans shouldn’t find themselves taking too much umbrage.

“Ladyhawke” (1985)

"Ladyhawke" poster


To have come upon 1985’s Ladyhawke during the decade’s wave of fantasy cinema must be like an ethereal and wistful Spider-Man popping up in our current superhero renaissance. It’s a major studio production with fairly prominent talent behind and in front of the camera, yet it’s strangely unconcerned with showing off the bag of visual tricks its budget bought. The film wants to achieve fairy tale charm the old-fashioned way, through a story and characters who touch us with their unflappable virtue, without the need to lean on trotting out the most dazzlingly distracting special effects that ’80s dollars could get. Sobering pictures on as handsomely-mounted of a scale as Ladyhawke are rare birds indeed, but unfortunately, being stout of heart can’t excuse the passive plotting that nearly derails its otherworldly appeal. When seen at the right, impressionable age, the movie’s soaring spirit can wrap you up in no time, but any scrutiny from a grown-up’s perspective will expose the padding used to try patching up its gaping narrative holes just as swiftly.

No soul has escaped the dreaded dungeons of Aquila and lived to tell about it…until Philippe Gaston (Matthew Broderick). A wise-cracking thief with a talent for worming his way out of the tightest of spots, Philippe’s latest escape has earned both the attention and the wrath of Aquila’s corrupt bishop (John Wood). However, a second party has also taken note of this astounding feat: Navarre (Rutger Hauer), former captain of the city’s guards. The good knight swoops young Philippe out of harm’s way and approaches him with a proposition — to break right back into Aquila. It seems that long ago, the jealous bishop called upon dark forces to forever separate Navarre from his lover Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), transforming the latter into a hawk at daybreak and the former into a wolf at nightfall. Driven by years of only sharing his beloved’s company in human form for a split second at dawn, Navarre is on a mission to kill the bishop and needs Philippe’s help evading his guards in the city. But as he’s reluctantly swept up into this quest, the cowardly thief learns that death might not be the answer to breaking the curse and struggles to help his new master realize the same, before his bloodlust makes things even worse.

If I can say anything in Ladyhawke‘s favor, it’s that it buys a hundred percent into the notion of love conquering all. It’s romantic to the core, unwavering in its lack of cynicism and the gentleness with which it acclimates viewers to its mythology. Predicting the rolled eyes and derisive sighs of those hesitant to accept its magical premise, director Richard Donner (who helmed The Goonies the same year) proceeds to explore the fantastic universe before him with a surprising amount of patience. He’s in no rush to legitimize the story for jaded audience members, allowing him to focus on setting up the intimate foundation on which the movie stands. Ladyhawke doesn’t venture far beyond the few key members of its ensemble, sidestepping the common fantasy pitfall of cramming each frame with ancillary characters whose kooky antics serve no other purpose than to bring the plot to a screeching halt. From start to finish, this is Navarre and Isabeau’s show, and though the premise may not have been based on an actual legend (which Warner Brothers reportedly claimed in its marketing back in the day), the film’s atmosphere feels akin to that of an ancient tale being given new life. Pfeiffer and Hauer truly commit to their roles as lovers torn apart by mystical forces, so good as to conquer the corny effects one scene uses to play out the single moment they can see one another in human mode.

However, the issue with a movie like Ladyhawke keeping its characters and story as close-knit as it does is that all it takes to collapse the whole endeavor is one piece that doesn’t fit right. In this case, that piece is Broderick’s Philippe, who initially doesn’t raise any red flags. Broderick gives an appropriately twitchy and smart-alecky performance, and his character’s frequent pleas to the Almighty to get him out of a jam are witty and amusing. But the further the story progresses, the more evident it becomes that Philippe simply doesn’t need to be there. Navarre says that the kid is best fitted to help him sneak into Aquila, but when the time comes to put his plans into action, Philippe barely makes any difference, as the bulk of the assistance is provided by Leo McKern’s holy man, Imperius. With his connection to Navarre and Isabeau’s dilemma, Imperius is blessed with a richer backstory and much more of a drive to reunite the pair than Broderick’s thief, whose journey entails learning how to be slightly less weaselly. Aside from one-liners, Philippe contributes zilch, and the pacing suffers as the film insists on preserving his prominence in the story and scrounging around in vain to find him things to do. Plus, Wood’s bishop is an ineffectual villain whose most diabolical deeds are told to us through hearsay, and Andrew Powell’s score is an almost outright disaster, a cringingly-synthesized hodgepodge of a soundtrack that couldn’t be less appropriate for the film’s setting if it were performed by Kool and the Gang.

I really admire Ladyhawke‘s attitude towards fantasy world-building, but its inability to solve its storytelling problems had my interest waning before the halfway point. There is genuine charm, humor, and emotion at work here, although they’re all too often at odds with those instances when the movie is too stubborn to realize that the elements it’s struggling so hard to make work are holding it back from flourishing. Its photography and actors are in tip-top shape, but Ladyhawke is one more draft away from achieving true liftoff and taking our imaginations with it.

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

“Satan’s Blade” (1984)

"Satan's Blade" poster


Horror fans are among the most persistent, dedicated, and forgiving in all of filmdom. No matter how obscure or low-rent a title may be, never underestimate someone’s urge to seek it out; one person’s disposable slasher is another’s object of obsession, sparked by seeing the right actor’s flesh pierced at just the right age. There are times when I truly envy the ability of gorehounds to get enjoyment out of certain movies and see something in them that’s totally lost on yours truly, as is the case with 1984’s Satan’s Blade. Released two years after it was filmed, this very low-budget production has what I can only assume to be a healthy fanbase, judging from the newly-minted Blu-ray restoration commemorating its thirtieth anniversary. But while I’ve never been one to cry moral outrage or bemoan the popularity of slasher cinema, I found myself questioning how anyone could like Satan’s Blade as I watched it — not because of its violence, but for the abundance of scenes in which nary a damn thing happens.

Legend tells of a terrifying force that lurks within the wilderness surrounding a cozy ski resort. Long ago, a man lived in peace, until so many newcomers drove him from his home and pushed him up the mountain, none other than Satan gifted him a special knife with which to take his revenge. Although most regard the story as a silly old myth, strange murders do plague the area from time to time, with the same bloody markings discovered at each grisly scene. The two married couples and five snow bunnies who converge on the resort definitely don’t pay any heed to the legend, but it isn’t long before their holidays are interrupted by the arrival of a crazed killer. One by one, the vacationers are stabbed, speared, and slashed, by a foe who knows the woods like the back of his hand. But is it a regular old psycho who’s targeted the groups, or has the mountain man’s spirit returned to use his demonic weapon of choice on the poor souls invading his territory?

That Satan’s Blade has any atmosphere to call its own makes it a cut above many of its similarly thrifty slasher contemporaries. The synth score possesses an eerie and genuinely unsettling quality, and for as unspectacular as the photography may be overall, it effectively highlights the stark isolation of its locales. With snow-laden settings that bathe viewers in a constant, blinding whiteness, the flick brought to mind 1983’s Curtains, and that’s never a bad thing. This is one case in which not having the greatest resources to work with paid off, for instead of having its ensemble be stalked through a ritzy ski chalet, they’re cowering in junky-looking cabins, resulting in a more organically freaky experience. Unfortunately, the pros of Satan’s Blade pretty much end there, as the con side of matters is taken up by the fact that the film really doesn’t have much else going for it. Its opening sequence (in which bank robbers flee their latest heist, only to fall prey to our madman du jour) is a unique start, but it swiftly squanders whatever potential it might have had by introducing a premise, antagonist, and cast of characters that are all as simplistic as can be. While those wading in the victim pool aren’t necessarily unlikable, their little subplots make for staggeringly uninteresting filler in between kill scenes; the wooden performances given by anyone that isn’t the old lady who assumes the mantle of resident doomsayer renders them even less fascinating.

Those hoping for at least an iconic villain out of Satan’s Blade will head home from this nightmare vacation empty-handed. The movie does a poor job of exploiting its whodunit angle — disguising the killer’s identity but never playing around with possible suspects to throw us off the trail — and giving its bloodthirsty baddie the mythic aura it’s aiming for. Never mind the fact that holes can be poked in the mountain man’s lore with the slightest amount of thought (so he murders anyone who intrudes on his land, yet the resort owners and who knows how many other customers over the years are all safe?); the guy frankly doesn’t get enough time to build up a frightening presence. After that opening sequence, you don’t see hide nor hair of the killer for a solid fifty minutes or so, save for a couple teases to fake us out. When our supernaturally-enhanced slasher does return, all we get is a gloved hand clutching the eponymous knife and a hint of arm, hardly the makings of a butcher to strike fear into our collective hearts. A climactic reveal comes too late to shake things up, and both the bloody set pieces and the effects used to pull them off are mundane as all hell. If your idea of a gory good time involves watching knives smear pre-applied blood on mostly bored actors, then this is the lightweight horror show for you.

I’ve seen more woeful productions than Satan’s Blade, but the idea of anyone seriously heralding a comeback after its video store heyday is truly baffling. It’s just so flavorless, lacking both memorable imagery to help it stick out amongst its splat pack brethren and ineptitude on such a scale so as to carve itself a place in “so bad, it’s great” infamy. Satan’s Blade does what it does in as unexciting and dull of a manner as one can conceive, a movie of note only to those who are just that bound and determined to fill gaps in their horror to-watch checklists.

(Satan’s Blade is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

“Tokyo Twilight” (1957)

"Tokyo Twilight" poster


Until 1957’s Tokyo Twilight, the Yasujiro Ozu pictures I’d seen had a certain lightness about them. It’s strange saying this about the man who gave us a tear-jerker on the scale of Tokyo Story, but even then, his family-oriented dramas seemed to contain at least some sweet element to offset the bitter. He gave these melancholic tales a glint of hope, a nuanced pat on the back reassuring us that things would be alright but a pat nonetheless. However, as the events of Tokyo Twilight unfold, one isn’t so certain that redemption will come easily for the characters…should it rear its head at all. This film has been referred to as one of Ozu’s darkest, if not the most bleak in his entire career. Approaching topics like child abandonment, dysfunctional marriages, and abortion in the highly intimate fashion for which he’s been hailed certainly makes the story feel as though there’s little hope in it, but Ozu knows better than to simply wallow around in depression and call it a day. “Dark” isn’t the best way to describe Tokyo Twilight, so much as it’s “honest,” naturally relaying the plights of its characters so as not to give their misery the slightest whiff of being engineered.

Our story centers around Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), a bank officer whose family has been dealt a number of tragic blows over the years. His son perished in an accident some time ago, his eldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) and her baby have moved back in after fleeing her emotionally distant husband, and youngest child Akiko (Ineko Arima) has gotten involved with a college student who doesn’t seem to think much of her. Despite these obstacles, Shukichi has tried to provide his kids with as much love, guidance, and stability as he could muster, although one past decision threatens to emerge again and potentially undo all that hard work. His daughters hear word that Kisako (Isuzu Yamada), the proprietress of a mahjong parlor, knows a great deal of information about the two and has been asking about them. Takako follows up, only to learn that the woman may in fact be their long-absent mother. As she feels Akiko — who’s just found out that she herself is pregnant — would be unable to bear the news, Takako resolves to keep it a secret, only to discover that lies and refusing to reconcile with the past is what’s been eating away at her family the whole time.

Where many dramas go wrong and what puts a bad taste in my mouth for the genre as a whole is when such movies become ruled by their somber content. Several have done this to dodge criticism on character interactions and plot developments that don’t add up, hiding their absence of tact behind a wall of sadness and decrying anyone who dares call them out. Admittedly, a small part of me feared this as I pressed play on Tokyo Twilight, even though I should’ve known better from the time I’d spent engrossing myself in emotionally earnest Ozu works like Passing Fancy and There Was a Father. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the man’s incredible sense of empathy and understanding put any feelings of dread to rest. Tokyo Twilight is as genuine and relatable of a film as it is because of Ozu’s lack of judgment, his refusal to exaggerate the situation so as to sway the viewer’s allegiances in one direction or another. He merely observes the characters as they are, and whether the decisions they make turn out for the best or only worsen matters, the circumstances that inspired them are loud and clear. Ozu expertly adapts to the heavier themes that the story comes upon, handling progressively heartbreaking revelations without demonizing the parties involved or turning them into martyrs for enduring such a daunting parade of misery. Still, while the movie’s ultimate message deals with how confronting the issues in your life will do less damage in the long run than ignoring or lying about them, that the ending suggests that two-parent households are what kids really need is a touch out of character. I know that this wasn’t made at a time when unconventional families were as accepted as they are now, but for a narrative that acknowledges the complexity in so many of the areas it covers, pointing so easily to this notion as a solution to the obstacles in it comes off as weak.

Also, while I’ve no issue with how Tokyo Twilight focuses mostly on how Takako and Akiko react to the fallout of discovering what they do, the film’s perspective could’ve been more well-rounded. It feels that despite the vital role he played in past events we come to learn about, Shukichi is nudged off to the side an awful lot, particularly during scenes where his voice might’ve either cleared things up or cracked open another can of worms. Ryu’s performance as a patriarch struggling to make things work is quietly effective, but including more of him into the story could very well have deepened the experience. The same can be said for Yamada as the mystery woman whose appearance throws a wrench into everything; she compensates for her scant screen time with a tenderly subtle turn, yet one can’t help but imagine what wonders expanding her role beyond that of just a catalyst would possibly have wrought. But conjecture be damned, Tokyo Twilight is still powerful stuff, conquering its almost impossibly morose proceedings to emerge as one of Ozu’s most down-to-earth works. His famous stationary style of photography gets us up close and personal with the characters, allowing us to glimpse their faces as they attempt to disguise the flurry of emotions they’re going through. The visual gaze that found warmth and beauty in mundane settings has been employed to stir up feelings of loneliness and isolation to equally potent effect here; the shot of a toddler walking towards a woman who just underwent an abortion is haunting stuff. The score too has been suppressed to a certain degree, lest the silence our ensemble has voluntarily plunged itself into be interrupted. Hara and Arima are excellent as the two daughters, responding to the changes in their characters’ lives differently but through performances just as gut-wrenching as one another.

I wouldn’t recommend Tokyo Twilight to anyone new to the wonderful world of Ozu. It’s a movie to take in after one has become acclimated to the way he works, to witness the compassion with which he addresses his stories and be blown away by how he moves from lighter fare to more sorrowful stuff without betraying his sensibilities. Tokyo Twilight earns in spades whatever buttons it pushes and heartstrings it effortlessly tugs on.