CineSlice

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

Category: Uncategorized

“R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House” (2016)

 

R.L. Stine’s impact on the kiddie cultural zeitgeist can’t be overstated. Though often written off as an ironic nineties-stalgia icon, Stine and his work have transcended generations, so much so that new entries in the popular “Goosebumps” series are still being released to this day. But not all efforts to extend the author’s hair-raising brand have met with such successful results, as evidenced by the Mostly Ghostly franchise. Their own array of preteen page-turners before taking the cinematic leap, these movies demonstrate what happens when Stine’s family-friendly “humor and horror” formula backfires miserably. With both jokes and jolts of the laziest order in tow, the flicks have nestled themselves firmly into the most vanilla of niches, rocking no boats and getting about as many emotional responses from viewers with their material. Thanks to a more pronounced feisty streak and slightly improved production value, the saga’s newest installment, One Night in Doom House, has a leg up on its predecessors, but what hints of inspiration it does have are all but drowned out by the most generic frights this side of a dollar store Halloween aisle.

By the looks of things, Max Doyle (Corey Fogelmanis) is your average high schooler. He puts up with bullies, hangs out with girlfriend Cammie (Sophie Reynolds), and entertains his friends with the occasional magic show. But little do the living know that Max’s closest confidantes are really brother-and-sister spirits Nicky (Blake Michael) and Tara (Olivia Ryan-Stern), who lend a hand with our hero’s homebrewed hauntings. Alas, he’s been slacking off in helping the two track down their missing parents, so he opts to seek help from a pro in TV ghost chaser Simon Drake (Jamie Kennedy). Unfortunately, Simon’s been possessed by Phears (Adam Tsekhman), a wicked spook whose attempts to conquer our world have been stymied time and again by a certain, supernaturally-inclined trio. But now, he’s closer than ever to completing his fiendish goal, and if Max wants to stop the ghoulish invasion, he’ll have to unlock the chilling secrets of his town’s eeriest estate: Doom House.

It’s an easy jab to take at any film whose script isn’t up to snuff, but watching One Night in Doom House really does seem as though its first draft is unfurling before our eyes. In addition to the fits of wide-eyed mugging serving as placeholders for where actual gags ought to be, the story’s focus is in constant flux, changing its mind on what it’s about and introducing what come to be important plot details on a moment’s notice. How much bearing Doom House itself has on matters tends to waver from scene to scene, and we’ve skedaddled past the halfway point by the time some heretofore unmentioned artifact is abruptly granted narrative precedence. Having sat through the previous two Mostly Ghostly outings, I expected a lax commitment to continuity as part of the package here, but even members of the flick’s grade-school target audience will pick up on its outright sloppiness in no time. Whether this is more Stine’s fault for penning an inherently crummy book to begin with or the work of writer/director Ron Oliver’s meddling in the adaptation process is a matter of debate, though in either case, the movie’s ADD-addled storytelling and out-of-touch humor do it no favors. From the requisite goofball family dynamic to the stock bully archetypes, we’ve seen each sitcommy second of One Night in Doom House a thousand times before, and instead of perking things up with some modern, subversive touches, Oliver kicks up his feet and rubber-stamps his way to the end credits.

Even those inclined to give kid-geared productions a degree of leeway may be hard-pressed to find something positive to say about One Night in Doom House. The special effects are chintzy, the kindergarten-level scares are nothing to shriek at (oh, no, not a…coffin!), and the cast’s collective disinterest is palpable. Tsekhman does what he can to act through the Phears get-up, and Kennedy at least looks to be having fun putting on his bad guy face, but the other performers seem to have taken being cast in a family fright fest to mean that all of them should adopt a zombie’s verve. This applies doubly so to Fogelmanis, a photogenic youngster who’s nonetheless responsible for one of the most detached performances in film history. Whether Max is racing to prevent an undead apocalypse or cheering on Cammie during dance practice, Fogelmanis’ delivery retains the same monotonous cadence no matter what, in what I can only assume was a bet with the dolly grip to see how quickly they could get through every shot. All that said, there are the odd qualities that, if anything, help One Night in Doom House come out ahead of the first two Mostly Ghostly joints. Once in a while, an endearingly spooky shot will work its way onto the screen (like the so-phony-it’s-awesome haunted house model featured in the opening credits), and in the thankless role of Cammie’s best friend, Vivian Full exhibits a slightly off-kilter personality that you end up wishing had caught on with and roused her fellow castmates to action.

I won’t pretend that “Goosebumps” was some flawless paragon of children’s literature, but there’s still an affection for the property that neither One Night in Doom House or the Mostly Ghostly name in general can ever hope to achieve. While the film stops short of selling its soul and turning into a complete corporate shill, it’s a stinker regardless for a whole other set of reasons, namely a screenplay and an ensemble that share the same allergies to risk-taking and discernable personalities. Failing to both deliver the nostalgic goods for long-time Stine buffs and stand on its own spine-tingling merits, Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House isn’t fit to haunt the collection of any self-respecting horror-holic.

Advertisements

“Halloween Is Grinch Night” (1977)

 

On the whole, my relationship with prequels, sequels, and their ilk isn’t unlike that of the Thing’s blood and some hot copper wire. I’m always open to being surprised, but usually, yours truly is left with no real desire to know where characters in what felt like otherwise complete stories came from or where they’re going. That said, 1977’s Halloween Is Grinch Night had me curious as to the other kinds of shenanigans Dr. Seuss’s crotchety Christmas crank enjoyed getting himself into. Is there an off-season when he lets Whoville be, or is raising havoc a full-time gig? Just how mean did the green grouch get before his heart swelled three sizes? This half-hour TV special sets out to show what happens on the one time of the year when the fiend’s powers are at their apex, but those expecting mythic results had best get ready for a rock in their proverbial trick-or-treat bags. Make no mistake, Halloween Is Grinch Night is Seuss through and through, with the author’s trademark lingo and moral lessons in fine form, yet its efforts to spin a somewhat more esoteric yarn are its downfall, depriving it of the profundity and personality that helped Mr. Geisel’s other tales leave such impressions.

Fall has come to scenic Whoville. Leaves fall, children play, and the townspeople shuffle about in their typically mirthful manner. But with the changing season comes an occasion that strikes terror in any Who’s heart: Grinch Night. The sour-sweet winds and growling Gree-Grumps summon the Grinch himself (voice of Hans Conreid) from his lair atop Mount Crumpit, compelling him to carry out his yearly mission of terrorizing the populace below. But as he begins to plot his latest campaign of fear, an unlikely adversary pops up in the form of young Euchariah (voice of Gary Shapiro). Separated from his family by a terrible whirlwind, the Who lad plops down right in the Grinch’s path, seeing firsthand a mere sample of the surreal sights he plans to unleash upon the village. With little time until the sneak arrives in Whoville, Euchariah takes it upon himself to spare his loved ones from further frights — even if it means experiencing the worst of what the Grinch has in store.

While the eponymous holiday is never actually mentioned, Halloween Is Grinch Night still brings its autumnal A-game when it comes to its visual palette. Whoville is awash in those oranges and golden browns liable to give most folks the warm and fuzzies, if the barren trees and creepy critters dotting the scenery didn’t already put them in a fall state of mind. Plus, Seuss purists will be pleased to see the character designs closely mirror the style of his original illustrations, as opposed to, say, the Chuck Jones makeover the Grinch got for his classic Christmas caper eleven years prior. But even if the Who masses looked entirely different, the essence of Seuss is still carried on here through the imparting of a sound message worth taking to heart for audiences of all ages. Halloween Is Grinch Night concerns the virtues of confronting what scares us over letting paranoia rule our emotions; as his family cowers in their home, Euchariah is busy getting to the bottom of just what it is that the Grinch does that has the whole town so skittish. All of this seems to be building towards a conclusion that reassures us of how what we fear most rarely lives up to what our vivid imaginations conjure, yet because the special passes on providing a clear frame of reference, the lesson’s delivery feels a little muddled. A scene or two of Euchariah’s fellow citizens perpetuating the Grinch’s reputation with inflated anecdotes would’ve rendered his climactic peek behind the curtain more satisfying, but hearsay is unfortunately the order of the day. We’re supposed to tremble before the Grinch apparently just because he’s the Grinch (and because he’s a jerk to flowers, too), though considering what a hammy buffoon he’s made out to be even while on the job, most of our boots will remain decidedly unquaked.

There are those out there who’ll take umbrage with any insinuation that Halloween Is Grinch Night isn’t freaky enough, seeing as how one of the most surreal sequences ever associated with Seuss is contained within its frames. Euchariah’s last stand involves getting up close and personal with the menagerie of monsters in the Grinch’s “Paraphernalia Wagon,” and to the short’s credit, it’s one creatively kooky scene that’ll leave a quizzical stare on anyone’s mug. On the other hand, it’s pretty much the only truly memorable chunk of the special, with the rest of the running time dominated by narrative white noise. Halloween Is Grinch Night leaves a lot of its storytelling duties to the soundtrack, a bad move considering the surprisingly robust bounty of tunes, how closely they’re strung together, and how many of them sound essentially the same. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Seuss was on autopilot here, but there’s a definite air of playing things safe, of undermining the impact of his own themes by not challenging viewers enough with what’s seen or heard. Conreid (who voiced Thorin in Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit that same year) proves quite welcoming whilst donning his narrator hat, though his turn as the Grinch is a touch shaky. He didn’t have a snowball’s chance of matching Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal, and his performance isn’t bad in and of itself, but in choosing to skew “silly” over “sinister,” he makes the character come across less as a master of mischief and more akin to Charles Nelson Reilly with a head cold. On the bright side, Shapiro helps give us a plucky little hero in Euchariah, taking care to never sound too cutesy and selling us right off the bat on having the stuff to stand up to whatever the Grinch can throw at him.

Featuring neither the stirring sermonizing of The Lorax or The Cat in the Hat‘s semi-anarchic charm, Halloween Is Grinch Night isn’t much more beyond an innocuous footnote in Dr. Seuss’s legacy. With its seasonal atmosphere and appealing animation, the reasons as to why this has evolved into a nostalgic favorite aren’t lost on me, though, ultimately, they aren’t strong or plentiful enough to prop up the many patches of homogeneity that threaten to send even the most stalwart of souls to sleep. Its lack of cynicism remains refreshing and doesn’t count for nothing, but Halloween Is Grinch Night could’ve stood to have a kitschy edge to help hammer its points home.

“Casper: A Spirited Beginning” (1997)

 

Like “Street Sharks” and OK Soda, Casper was a big idea of the ’90s that didn’t really pan out. Based upon everybody’s favorite cartoon ghost, the film’s release came heralded by the aggressive marketing campaign and myriad product tie-ins of what surely had to be a box office smash. But as respectable as its receipts were, the flick performed below expectations, enough so that Universal jumped ship on a proposed sequel and handed the franchise to Saban Entertainment for a fast, thorough cheapening. 1997’s straight-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning sands off what edge and mystique its predecessor possessed, jettisoning its surprisingly somber ruminations on the acceptance of death and cutting-edge special effects in favor of cranking out a grating punfest laden with the era’s most half-assed CGI. From its scripting to its blending of live-action and animated characters, the degree to which a complete lack of care has infected nearly every aspect of this production is downright inexcusable. Casper wasn’t great, but it knew when and how to handle its younger viewers with a grown-up touch; A Spirited Beginning, however, holds nothing but contempt for its audience, its wellspring of creativity nothing more than a bottomless pit of fart jokes and desperate pop culture references.

When you die, you don’t go to Heaven — apparently, you hit the rails, instead. This is where young Casper (voice of Jeremy Foley) finds his newly-incorporeal self, on a literal ghost train bound for haunting school in the afterlife. However, he’s not too keen on spending his eternity spooking the daylights out of people, though that doesn’t stop folks from heading for the hills anyway when he arrives in quaint Deedstown ahead of schedule. But the fledgling phantom soon comes across a confidante in Chris (Brendon Ryan Barrett), a kid totally enamored with all things supernatural. He even introduces Casper to Stretch (voice of James Ward), Fatso (voice of Jess Harnell), and Stinky (voice of Bill Farmer), a trio of mischievous spirits who take the little ghost into their very own old dark house and start teaching him the tricks of the scaring trade. Unfortunately, trouble begins to brew on multiple fronts, as the specters must not only avoid lord of the dead Kibosh (voice of James Earl Jones) and his otherworldly wrath but also save their mansion from being torn down…by Chris’s workaholic father (Steve Guttenberg).

It’s easiest to view Casper: A Spirited Beginning not as a prequel to the 1995 film but rather as the launching pad for whatever the hell Saban had planned for the property. The setting’s been changed, actors like Ben Stein and Rodney Dangerfield show up in cameo roles different from those they had the last time around, and Casper’s tragic backstory is altogether swept under the rug. For as many family-friendly traits as the first movie embraced, A Spirited Beginning doubles down on them, yet a more kid-oriented tone isn’t necessarily a bad thing to pursue. Setting out to engage grade-schoolers with something less frightening is understandable, but future Bratz maestro Sean McNamara’s brand of sanitized storytelling strips away virtually all heart and emotion in the process. While Casper’s quest to find a family over having to frighten everyone away isn’t without its endearing qualities, darn near everything involving the “fleshies” is the stuff of Disney Channel nightmares. Rather than develop Chris’s frustrations at seeing his one living parent be so distant physically and emotionally, the matter is mostly breezed over with some melodramatic shouting and the inclusion of a ridiculously unmotivated love interest in Lori Loughlin’s teacher. All of this is in the service of getting to the next dead-on-arrival gag as soon as possible, a succession of toilet humor, Mission: Impossible parodies, and poor Richard Moll getting drenched in gallons of gunk that buries one’s patience six feet under before the first act is over.

On the other hand, I don’t know why I was expecting Casper: A Spirited Beginning to give a hoot about its script when what’s partially an effects-driven production can’t be bothered to cough up remotely appealing visuals. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the movie’s CG animation, which had no chance of being up to the first one’s par and, to be honest, could’ve turned out much worse. But once one catches onto how poorly the cinematography and special effects have been integrated — how often the illusion of movement is faked by randomly swirling the camera about while Casper and company remain stationary — the absence of effort embeds itself into your brain, ruining all pretense of whimsy the flick had hoped to impart. If anything, at least the voice actors try as they can to keep things lively, as Foley gives us a likable enough Casper, the new Ghostly Trio performers match the original ones fairly accurately, and Jones’s booming timbre nicely perks up an otherwise generic villain. The same, however, can’t be said for the live-action ensembles, which comes evenly split between bored paycheck-cashers like Guttenberg or supporting players such as Michael McKean mugging up a storm and serving only to embarrass themselves in the attempt. Then we have Barrett, who isn’t without talent (and apparently left enough of a mark on the powers that be to have him voice the title ghost himself in 2000’s Casper’s Haunted Christmas) but obviously wasn’t given the best direction with his line readings. Whether he’s supposed to be sad or enthusiastic, Barrett’s energy and delivery are at Roberto Benigni levels from beginning to end, which would be reassuring if it didn’t mean Chris so frequently crossing the annoying brat line.

Regardless of its objectives and how passionately the filmmakers went about fulfilling them, Casper: A Spirited Beginning did little to extend the character’s pop culture shelf life. Another live-action/animation hybrid followed the next year before the franchise went full cartoon eventually, and while the ’95 flick is still enjoyed by certain nostalgic circles, there’s no such love for the quickie cash grab that tried hitching a ride on its ectoplasmic coattails. Casper: A Spirited Beginning is a frivolity that’s not about to cause irreparable harm to the growing minds that do take it in, but don’t expect it to value strong moral lessons any more than it does making sure that Junior sees those Power Rangers toys not-so-subtly nudged into frame.

“Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” (2009)

 

If, at this instant, the “man-child misadventures” genre was razed to the ground and the earth upon which it stood thoroughly salted, it wouldn’t be soon enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the conceit of immature goofballs coming to terms with responsibility, yet the abundance of lazily-written, poorly-concealed wish fulfillment fantasies tends to drown out those stories with actual concern for exploring this tension. 2009’s Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is but one in a swarm of comedies that reward their lead characters for having no arcs to speak of, masking the absence of personal growth with constant claims of, like, just trying to be funny, man. In its defense, this UK-born farce does strive to be something in the Bill & Ted mold, a light-hearted romp mining its humor from what comes to pass when a few pop culture-obsessed slackers are thrust into a situation way over their heads. But in making these guys alleged experts in the kind of pickle they’re in and proceeding to do jack-all about it over the course of the narrative, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sets itself up for disappointment that springs up more consistently than good jokes or witty observations.

There are those among us who have occasional difficulty grasping with the duties of adulthood; Ray (Chris O’Dowd), on the other hand, can’t even handle working at a low-rent theme park. Along with his buds Pete (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Toby (Mark Wootton), he’s fine with griping about what might’ve been and waxing nerdy down at the pub. But what starts as an evening over a couple pints soon turns into an adventure beyond anything these gents could have ever imagined. Following the appearance of a woman (Anna Faris) who says she’s from the future, the trio finds that the bar bathroom has become the host of a “time leak.” Every time they leave it, they’re greeted with a different point during the night — and, sometimes, an apocalyptic vision of things to come. Initially freaked at their predicament, Ray and company quickly realize that they haven’t the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand until things get better. Pursued by both murderous monsters and evil “editors” that want them wiped from the history books, the gang discovers that the fate of existence itself is in their hands and that it’ll take all the geeky knowledge at their disposal to save it.

With its budget and scope equally restrained, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel has to rely on its laughs and its smarts to woo viewer interest. As most of the action takes place in or around the pub, director Gareth Carrivick and writer Jamie Mathieson (who penned a handful of “Doctor Who” episodes) tailor the story’s time-hopping elements to suit it. The flick has fun constructing scenarios in which versions of our protagonists from different periods must dodge one another in enclosed spaces, many of which come across as novel and elicit a well-earned smile. But such smirks gradually peter away, as the realization that these gags are all the film really has to its name and that it wholesale ignores a potential comedic gold mine sets in. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel does next to nothing with the notion of its main characters being nerds who’ve spent countless drunken nights speculating how they’d handle the sort of far-fetched mess they end up stumbling into for real. Rarely are Ray, Toby, and Pete permitted to put their collective years spent absorbing sci-fi culture to good use, with this aspect reserved chiefly for pushing the target audience’s nostalgia buttons with some key references while our heroes blunder from scrape to scrape. One can make the excuse that the guys being useless in the face of real peril is part of the joke, but it’s a stretch, especially considering what scant variety the script wrings from its time angle, forgoing opportunity after opportunity to show off how clever it supposedly is.

Still, the right cast has been known to elevate the crummiest material, and to its credit, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel benefits from a wholly likable bunch. Having perfected his layabout act on TV’s “The IT Crowd,” O’Dowd carries a similar persona and sense of timing in the part of Ray, chalking up his fair share of chuckles (albeit without as much charisma). As for his socially-awkward chums, Kelly proves as ideal of a choice for the group’s designated cynic as Wootton is for its naïve dreamer, each actor’s natural charm doing what they can to help us weather the screenplay’s sorriest sections. For as all smiles as Faris remains through the ordeal, though, she’s almost totally wasted here, her roles in the plot relegated to those of exposition dump and Ray’s flimsily-established love interest. All in all, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel doesn’t utterly strip its players of their humanity, yet because we so often see them either whining up a storm or citing better movies in their dialogue, those moments that try to develop them end up feeling phony and trite. Cobbling together a silly escapade for the yuks is fine and everything, but narratives have to have some consequence to them, and be it in serving up characters who learn from their trials or creatively inserting them in and out of danger, this film falters far more than it needed to.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is Diet Edgar Wright, substituting the savvy, soul, and genuine introspection his flicks possess in spades with rote storytelling and cheap nostalgia baiting. Though the production isn’t without merit, I hesitate to give it too much credit for the odd amusing one-liner or well-executed conceptual set piece, lest it come off in the same way the plot congratulates its protagonists merely for not completely sucking in the end. Clocking in at around eighty minutes, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel isn’t insufferable, but with its lazy attitude, chances of it endearing to us at any length are mighty slim.

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

“The Love Parade” (1929)

 

Potent is the charge that arises when the cinema of generations past connects with modern audiences. Naturally, this all depends upon the film, but it’s always wild to see something speak to viewers so strongly even decades down the road. Certain themes, situations, and stories bridge the gap like nobody’s business, especially sex, a subject undergoing such constant societal exploration and evolution that one might assume its big-screen portrayals would age the least gracefully. Yet here we are, going on ninety years since 1929’s The Love Parade first marched into theaters, and its grasp on romance and its many complications has scarcely eased up. With the soundtrack’s propensity for fluff, it’s easy to imagine this picture getting lumped in with the slew of inconsequential musicals that cropped up during the talkie’s infancy. But the wit that The Love Parade comes to proudly place on display proves that it’s anything but a simple lark, even if its execution can be regrettably rocky at times.

Throughout the picturesque land of Sylvania, love is in the air. Marriage is all that seems to be on anybody’s mind, yet not in regards to themselves. As fair and fine as her reign has been, Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) remains single, with no man willing to concede authority by becoming her royal consort. While her advisers fret about how the absence of a husband makes Sylvania look on the world stage, Louise is peeved for entirely different reasons, until one potential suitor instantly captures her curiosity. Into her life schmoozes Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier), a military attaché who flirted up a scandal in Paris and happily accepts his queen’s marriage proposal. But it isn’t long before the lap of luxury’s charms begin to wear on the count, who learns too late that despite being royalty, he hasn’t any influence on affairs of state. The country jumps only on Louise’s command, and as he’s viewed as little more than another of her subjects, Alfred plots to assert his dominance wherever possible, be it in the public eye…or in the bedroom.

The Love Parade was among the first sound efforts from director Ernst Lubitsch, as skilled a purveyor of romantic fables as Hollywood ever saw during its Golden Age. Kicking off a trend he’d carry on in later years through the likes of Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, his objective here is to create a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups, marrying fanciful storytelling elements with weightier thematic undertones. This film being so early an entry into the burgeoning musical genre, greater emphasis is put on developing song-and-dance spectacle, yet Lubitsch devises numerous means to help it stand out against its more rigid and primitive contemporaries. Outside of its tinkering with editing techniques and the inclusion of some wonderfully-staged physical comedy from co-stars Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth, The Love Parade‘s greatest asset is the wicked streak lurking just underneath its otherwise mushy façade. There’s a wink behind nearly everything this movie does, be it in the form of Chevalier’s fourth wall-breaking nods to the camera or the many examples of wry social satire at work. Lubitsch takes real delight in sticking it to the institutions on his list, with poking fun at the male ego’s fragility of particular interest, if not his top target. On more than a few occasions are the pretensions of masculinity yanked away, as when Louise’s blustering advisers are shown to be no better than a group of giggling gossips as they keep tabs on her first date with the count.

As the picture strives for equal opportunity amongst the sexes, it only makes sense that The Love Parade take the queen herself to task, as well. In doing so, though, more harm than good comes about, as Lubitsch fails to make as compelling of a case for Louise’s dressing-down as he does for Alfred’s. Seeing the serial ladies man get his just desserts is one thing, but after witnessing what little cruelty there is in the way Louise regards her new hubby, that the last act seems to wag its finger at her as strongly as it does is downright confusing. For a spot, it appears as if The Love Parade is more concerned with taking shots at the aristocracy’s most outdated customs, what with all the focus cast on royal red tape curtailing even the smallest shred of Alfred’s personal freedom. Unfortunately, the story exaggerates the size of Louise’s role in this (as well as in a hastily-cobbled subplot about Sylvania needing a loan), leaving the movie to wrap up with that most tired of suggestions: no matter how much power they yield, all women “really” want is a man to show them what’s what. This leaves a bitter taste that The Love Parade‘s charms can’t entirely wash out, though that doesn’t stop the otherwise sharp script and very appealing leads from giving it a go. MacDonald brings equal parts grace and fire to her character, transforming Louise into a kind ruler who can still cut through the baloney surrounding her on a constant basis. Though it’s a shame she’s not allowed to cut as loosely as her co-star is, her chemistry with Chevalier remains fittingly playful, with the latter’s rascally charisma consistent from scene to scene.

While lacking the same timeless quality as future Lubitsch productions, The Love Parade is fascinating to take in as a kind of first draft, one introducing both themes that would spring up in those later films and the manner in which he’d tackle them. Where other musicals of the era were skittish about how much their actors could move and what taboos could be tested, this movie goes with the flow, having its actors bound across the screen and trade in as much sentimentality as they do double entendre. Not all of its choices have withstood the test of time, but on the whole, The Love Parade still serves as a master class on the heights of naughtiness similar stories can reach while hanging the most innocent of smiles on their mugs.

“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.)