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

Month: November, 2016

“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.

“Vicki” (1953)

"Vicki" poster


Exposing one’s self to the world entails two different levels of sacrifice. Not only does an actor, model, or the like surrender a degree of freedom once they choose to pierce the public consciousness, so do their admirers, who devote time and energy towards keeping up on their affairs. It’s easy to lose your way in pursuit of loving or being loved, a fate that’s befallen scores of those unfortunate enough to be trapped in a film noir narrative. The ensemble inhabiting 1953’s Vicki follows suit to an extent, yet the picture itself falls achingly short of fostering its tragic themes in a fashion that resonates with viewers. It talks the talk and passes with flying colors a good deal of noir’s technical prerequisites, but the story merely skirts the sort of sordid territory in which its brothers in darkness thrived.

Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) was inescapable. Glance at any billboard or flip open any magazine, and there she was, her enchanting visage beckoning you to buy whatever it was employed to sell. But now, Vicki’s received the biggest press of her life…only it’s for her death. A blow to the head put an end to Miss Lynn’s brief time on this earth, and Lt. Cornell (Richard Boone) is hell-bent on hunting down who did it. Out of the frenzy surrounding the crime scene emerge two suspects: publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and Vicki’s sister, Jill (Jeanne Crain). An intense grilling follows, during which the two profess their innocence while detailing the deceased’s rise from humble waitress to superstar in the making. But no matter how ironclad Steve’s and Jill’s alibis might be, that doesn’t cut it with Cornell, who couldn’t care less about how many innocent reputations he tramples over in his crusade to bring Vicki’s killer to justice.

Based on the same material that inspired 1941’s I Wake Up ScreamingVicki endeavors to examine the ways in which obsession warps all it touches. No souls are off this flick’s hook, whether you’ve allowed yourself to be suckered by a pretty face or you’re the one letting your mug profit off the adoration of others. “If men want to look at me, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” inquires Vicki during her ascent into notoriety, showing just how swiftly even the most pure-hearted can be seduced by fame. All appears set for a sardonic exploration of some very rich, sinister themes, yet the story’s fear of painting itself in too somber of strokes ultimately undermines its efforts. Vicki is visibly skittish about casting the characters it eventually wants us to like in a negative light, as well as in trying to cast suspicion onto others. While the picture needn’t dive whole hog into depravity to be interesting, its shaky command of moral complexity makes it that much harder to appreciate what elements do click. It’s a recurring issue that comes into play as soon as the movie veers from its initial, Rashomon-esque set-up, which sees Vicki’s personality pieced together via accounts from people who knew her in different capacities. From the woman of the hour herself to those who witness her climb to the top, all manner of figures with multiple facets screaming to be expanded on come across as disappointingly by-the-numbers.

However, none of this is because of Vicki‘s actors, each of whom put forth as profound of a performance as the script allows. Foremost is Peters, who, despite her role not quite achieving the dominating presence that the story demands, exudes a genuine and undeniable charm. Hers is a grounded turn, one portraying Vicki as a sweet person whose gradual cravings for recognition are shown to stem from good enough intentions. Crain (1945’s State Fair) fares nicely as her supportive yet skeptical sister, Reid does a solid job as the rare PR guy in a movie who’s (seemingly) genuinely concerned about his client’s well-being, and Boone commits himself to filling Cornell with piss and vinegar to spare. There’s nary a sour note struck by anyone in this bunch (which also includes future TV mogul Aaron Spelling as a shady switchboard operator), but again, without a screenplay going that extra mile, the amount of dimensions so briefly addressed is downright disheartening. Plus, as if that weren’t enough, the film comes to favor a romantic bent that deals even more blows to what moody atmosphere it has to its name. Milton Krasner’s ink-black photography and the odd burst of acerbic dialogue reflect the relative doom and gloom that’s a tenet of any proper noir, yet the whole enterprise culminates in an ending far too sunny by genre standards.

Tonal gripes and nitpicks aside, Vicki is a perfectly serviceable thriller. The acting is sturdy, the cinematography maintains an ominous ambience, and not all of the notions the writing touches upon go by wasted or undeveloped. Vicki isn’t a bad flick, but get ready for the grand-daddy of echoes with how much room for improvement there is.

(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.)