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

Month: February, 2017

“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.