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

Month: June, 2017

“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.)