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

“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glitzy costumes and elaborate dance numbers aplenty…though its zeal renders it blind to the various insensitivities and outdated narrative elements that ushered in the musical’s decline in popularity in the first place.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.

“On Dangerous Ground” (1951)

"On Dangerous Ground" poster


For cops, shaking off the darkness of the job is no easy feat. So much time immersed in the criminal element is liable to mess up anyone but good, with many incensed by the rampant evil and driven to sacrifice their own principles in pursuit of justice. When pushed to the right extreme, an officer of the law can be hard to distinguish from the scum they’re supposed to put away, a position claimed by the protagonist of 1951’s On Dangerous Ground from the film’s very outset. Its is a world wherein the sight of a flatfoot’s fedora strikes just as much fear into the public’s heart as a mugger’s snubnose, the nightscape abuzz with pleas for some semblance of mercy from those being beaten senseless for a morsel of information. But is it too late to suss some good out of those who’ve seemingly given morality the kiss-off? On Dangerous Ground aims to address such a query, and, in keeping with the proper film noir tradition, it ensures that both its journey and the answers it comes to aren’t necessarily pretty.

New York City’s police can already be as mean as the streets they patrol. But when one of them is cut down, the boys in blue are a force to be reckoned with. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a hard-boiled brute gunning for the lowlifes who killed a colleague, and it’s his resolve that eventually leads to a break in the case…at the cost of landing a suspect in the hospital. In hopes of avoiding further scandal, our man’s superiors send him upstate, assigned to join in the manhunt for a girl’s alleged murderer. There, Jim finds that the victim’s father (Ward Bond) is even more unhinged than he is, hell-bent on blowing away the culprit, no matter what the law says. However, the plot thickens once Jim encounters the suspect’s blind sister (Ida Lupino), who asserts that her brother isn’t sane enough to know what he’s doing. But will her words be enough to inspire the big city cop to bring the boy in unharmed, or will he once more allow his unbridled anger do the talking?

From the start, On Dangerous Ground maintains a vigilant perch atop a gaping chasm of cinematic nihilism. The audience is inundated with grim imagery as soon as the opening title cards wrap up, as Jim and his partners leave their squalid living conditions to commence the night’s patrol. It’s a sequence that, at any other time, could be mistaken as the beginning of a heist thriller, yet it’s just one of many scenes here that succinctly blur the thin blue line. The characters needn’t even breathe a word, for the camera — which moves with a ferocity throughout the Big Apple’s side streets and fixates on Jim’s gleeful mug as he takes out his latest aggressions on some goon’s ribcage — communicates the picture’s downbeat tone just fine. On Dangerous Ground is alive with grit and virtues chucked in the gutter, which makes it all the more impressive when the film nails its transition into a redemption story. After meeting Lupino’s character, Ryan’s Jim slowly comes to view crime in less black-and-white terms, realizing that there’s more to particular cases than meets the eye. However, director Nicholas Ray (with a reported assist from Lupino herself) isn’t so quick to forgive, using our lead’s rage to tease us as to whether or not he’s truly atoned for his personal demons until the very end.

On Dangerous Ground also has in its corner the added bonus of actors wholly invested in bringing to life a range of complex characters. Already a noir veteran thanks to appearances in films like Crossfire and The Set-Up, Ryan turns in quite the hefty performance as Jim, presenting a formidable edge while playing his emotional transformation close to the vest. At first, Jim doesn’t even try to interfere when Bond sets out on the warpath (even smiling as the latter proclaims his bloodlust), and as he gradually warms up to the notion of exercising some restraint, Ryan is there to help hammer home what a tough ride it is. The importance of Lupino’s role can’t be overstated either, what with the actress and filmmaker putting on an incredibly effective show as a woman who tries her damnedest to diffuse the human time bombs who arrive on her doorstop before someone she loves gets hurt. Bond gives us one heartbreaker of a performance as a grieving and furious father, and seeing classic character players like Ed Begley and Charles Kemper round out the periphery is very much welcome. However, some disappointment is incurred as our story reaches a finale that, by noir standards, is conspicuously clean. Ray’s intention was for a more cynical cap-off to Jim’s travels, but studio intervention led to the current ending, which, while not a significant damper on the movie at large, comes across as a cop out nonetheless.

Generally admired by those who’ve seen it but not as prominent as others in the noir scene, On Dangerous Ground is, to put it lightly, the good stuff. As captivating and accomplished on a psychological level as it is on a technical front, the picture combines sensationalistic visuals and subtle storytelling with an expert touch. Clocking in at a hair over eighty minutes, On Dangerous Ground conveys a good deal of attitude in a lean package.

(On Dangerous Ground is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)

"She's Gotta Have It" poster


The landscape of sexual politics in ’80s comedies was vast and ogle-heavy. Objectification dominated the box office and popular culture, with the leering likes of Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds commanding the audience’s collective gaze. But in 1986, a kid from Brooklyn named Spike Lee hit the scene and struck the genre like a thunderbolt with his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. In a genre ruled by seedy farces obsessed with shedding virginities, Lee chose to evolve, presenting a raw, hip, and progressive view of modern relationships. The movie delved into more complex territory than most mainstream fare at the time dared to, and even thirty years later, there’s still much to impart in regards to roles in nontraditional romances. But though the decades haven’t weakened the relevance of She’s Gotta Have It‘s themes, the same can’t be said for how well its unpolished performances and questionable storytelling choices have held up.

Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) never intended to be your average girlfriend. A free-spirited woman whose needs can change on a moment’s notice, she traverses the battlefield of love in ways which don’t jibe with the norm. Three dudes learn this first hand when they each become romantically involved with Nola, only to find out that she doesn’t value any one of them more than the others. Soulful poet Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), vain model Greer (John Terrell), and loudmouthed jokester Mars (Lee) are all crazy for her, but none are about to give up trying to become her one and only. Petty rivalries spring up amongst the guys, who trade passive-aggressive barbs and digs at one another’s masculinity in the hopes of winning their shared gal pal’s affections. But while she does begin pondering what inspired her unconventional view on relationships, Nola remains steadfast in her present pickle, resolving to either make her suitors get along and be there for her…or send the whole lot of them packing.

Billed as a “seriously sexy comedy” upon its release, She’s Gotta Have It produces the bittersweet tonal blend it seeks with little effort. The film isn’t especially laden with one-liners or silly set pieces (a la the Porky’s shower scene), but rather Lee mines humor by exploring topics whose gravitas he still cares to preserve. From explicit lechery to subtle condescension, he exposes and lampoons the wide range of toxic masculinity on display in our lives. Certain male characters might be more well-mannered than others, but that doesn’t absolve them in the eyes of Lee, who thrusts their selfishness right back in their faces. She’s Gotta Have It finds its funny in the hypocrisy of Nola’s would-be suitors, all of whom project their ideas of how a significant other should act onto her without taking what she wants into account. At the same time our heroine is being pressed into therapy for what the guys presume to be a sex addiction, they remain hilariously oblivious to how their simultaneous boasts of sleeping around make them look. The degree to which Lee refuses to look down on Nola because of her independent nature is refreshing to see, as is the way he allows us to laugh at the buffoonery of her boyfriends, while acknowledging that such horrible real world behavior can’t go unchecked.

But just as no relationship is totally cut-and-dry, Lee aims to further bolster She’s Gotta Have It‘s complicated spirit by bringing Nola’s complicity into the equation. However, when it comes to the subject of what informed her principles and how to broach it, the picture is presented with obstacles it never quite manages to surmount. For one, Nola’s self-doubting is introduced very late in the story, and even then, its catalyst is an instance of sexual assault (which, to his credit, Lee later admitted he regrets having written). To raise so important of a notion with so little time left on the clock is downright sloppy, leaving you wondering if Lee would’ve been better off sticking to a more satirical, “guys suck” angle for the whole ride. Also, while I hesitate to rag on She’s Gotta Have It for being rough around the edges when it’s clearly been made with heart and soul, the inexperienced ensemble does make following its emotional wavelength that much trickier. None of our four leads are able to shake this rigidity that adversely affects their performances, the likely side effect of shooting conditions so tight that second takes couldn’t be afforded. One could chalk this up to an artistic choice on Lee’s behalf to give the film an authentic vibe, had the actors not shown off their natural charisma by just goofing around during the ending credits.

Despite the sometimes graceless manner in which it’s delivered, She’s Gotta Have It‘s commentary remains sound and challenging all the same. Its bravery is commendable, its heart is in the right place, and Ernest Dickerson’s provocative photography gives what was made on quite the slim budget a memorable visual flavor. She’s Gotta Have It feels like the tip of the iceberg for a passionate filmmaker with much to say, and, love or hate his work, Lee’s spent the three decades since his debut living up to that promise.

“Rusty Knife” (1958)

"Rusty Knife" poster


Any filmmaker, novelist, or what have you weaving a saga of crime undoubtedly has their work cut out for them. Despite the genre’s cultural proliferation, it’s hard to do right, as your audience is, in some respect, asked to pledge allegiance to the exploits of individuals tainted by seediness. However, one way around such a tricky premise entails focusing on a figure who’s since abandoned their illicit past, allowing an audience to experience firsthand the struggle of someone from delinquent origins trying to adhere to the straight and narrow. The list of movies that incorporated this technique to great success is extensive indeed, including in their numbers everything from the Godfather trilogy to 1958’s Rusty Knife. One of the classic, scrappy noir thrillers from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio, this picture adopts a borderline nihilistic view of crime’s corruptive influence, revealing the scummy sides of its supposed “good guys” and exposing its villains as being even more morally bankrupt than on the outset. Into this sea of wickedness wades a man driven to the brink of madness, and it’s by way of chronicling his self-destructive quest to bring the whole damn thing down that Rusty Knife‘s veins come to pulsate with an invigorating fury.

From the ashes of World War II rose Udaka City, a metropolis on the move. Industrial developments are quickly turning this young community into a thriving economic powerhouse, but, alas, crime has already infested its very heart. Gang bosses like Katsumata (Naoki Suigura) reign supreme and rest comfortably, knowing that witnesses to their misdeeds are too frightened to come forward. But one threat to this creep’s empire arises in the guise of an old low-level thug, who anonymously declares his intentions to inform the authorities about Katsumata’s role in staging a councilman’s suicide. Scrambling to silence any with knowledge of the incident, his cronies track down those parties present to the deed — one of whom, Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara), prefers to be left alone to tend his humble bar. Quite the hothead in his time, Tachibana wants nothing to do with Katsumata or the police seeking to put him away…that is, until learning the truth of an ex-girlfriend’s death sends him on a vengeful journey to strike at the mobster and his operations by any means possible.

Rusty Knife was among the first features by director Toshio Masuda, who became something of a fixture in Japanese cinema’s swelling crime movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Teaming again with star Ishihara for Nikkatsu’s Red Pier later that year and eventually contributing to the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Masuda presents a movie whose thematic ambition and technical proficiency are all the more impressive, considering he was virtually a first-timer. His is a sad, angry, and unexpectedly philosophical picture, one that commits the majority of itself towards chronicling Tachibana’s crisis of conscience. Whether it’s allowing Katsumata to buy his silence or snitching to the cops, our protagonist sees any involvement in that old life as a potential trigger for feelings he never wants to confront again. Just mentioning his former associates gets Tachibana riled up, and he only grows more unhinged when the reality behind past tragedies comes to light. Masuda makes a compelling case for how ignoring one’s sins doesn’t atone for them, as not only does the evil Tachibana became wrapped up in continue to prosper and adapt alongside Udaka City, it was even more deplorable than he knew back in the day. The realization of how deeply corruption has penetrated society rocks our man to his core, leaving him to ponder whether protecting his soul is worth it if means allowing depravity to flourish.

Masuda proves so adept in communicating the complex nature of his subject matter, it’s relieving to also see Rusty Knife as confident on a visual scale. The camera perfectly captures the close-quartered state of the story’s setting without getting trapped in a cycle of static shots, enabling an intimate atmosphere with nary a hint of staginess. Of course, the emotions afoot in Rusty Knife wouldn’t connect as effectively as they do, were they not being supplied by such a sterling ensemble. It’s easy to look at Ishihara’s performance and chuckle at his melodramatic outbursts, but he helps everything click in the end, skillfully and successfully presenting himself as a ticking time bomb of a man. Solid support is lent by Suguira as the smug and sneering Katsumata, Mie Kitahara as a journalist who tries goading Tachibana into coming clean, and Akira Kobayashi as a witness who happily accepts Katsumata’s payoff — until the dough runs out, though. The viewer is bombarded with rage and grit from all angles throughout the film, though the story loses a little of its punch towards the ending. The revelation of an eleventh-hour twist (as much as it connects with Masuda’s overarching notion of crime evolving as society does) doesn’t resonate with the impact that it might, having been fairly telegraphed in advance and causing the finale to come across as a smidge muddled.

While back-alley brawling and gunplay are most assuredly part of the package, Rusty Knife values its smarts more than anything and feels a much richer flick for it. Moody in tone yet never sensationalizing the humanity out of its characters, this is a true thinking person’s yakuza tale, with action and emotion working in tandem to make one another feel as palpable as possible. Regardless of what jokes its title may tempt you to use, Rusty Knife emerges as an example of Japanese noir at its sharpest.

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“Skiptrace” (2016)

"Skiptrace" poster


There comes a time when all film fans must acknowledge that their idols are still human beings. Take, for example, Jackie Chan, whose work yours truly has followed since childhood, even as the past decade has been spent reconciling with the fact that he simply can’t pull off as many astounding feats as he once could. Time has nudged Chan towards taking on less taxing projects, although some, including 2016’s Skiptrace, still put him through the wringer to an extent. There’s no shame in an action icon of his stature kicking it back, particularly since sharp comedic timing was every bit a part of his appeal as left hooks and backflips. That said, when a movie like Skiptrace leans so heavily on what turns out to be lazy direction to carry out an already feeble script teeming with forced humor, the absence of those amazing stunts that would’ve otherwise taken the edge off such matters enables its mediocrity to ring out twice as clearly.

Jackie plays Bennie Chan, a cop on the hunt for one of the most ruthless criminal masterminds of our time. Years ago, a mysterious figure known as the Matador took out his partner, and now, he believes he’s found the culprit in well-to-do tycoon Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Without evidence, however, Wong keeps slipping through Bennie’s grasp, with even his own colleagues starting to doubt his suspicions. But not only is our man about to stumble upon his biggest break in the case yet, it’s also from the world’s unlikeliest source. Enter con artist, gambler, and sneak-about-town Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), whose fleecing of a Macau casino’s fortunes ends with him witnessing a murder…committed by Wong. After tracking Connor down and learning of the information he holds, Bennie makes it his mission to haul the lout back to his superiors and at long last bring the Matador to justice. But in addition to being pursued by both Wong’s men and the Russian mafia, Bennie’s charge himself proves to be a slippery customer, using every chance he gets to try escaping and throw all the dogged detective’s plans into disarray.

I’ll be the first to admit that many of the issues working against Skiptrace are ones that myself and legions of fans forgave in past Chan vehicles. The plot is a predictably slender affair involving determined cops chasing down sneering villains, wrapped up in a Midnight Run-style travelogue format that sees Bennie and Connor traipsing about the Asian countryside. The premise in and of itself isn’t incompetent, though the film’s relentlessly mediocre execution sure helps it feel that way. Skiptrace comes to us from director Renny Harlin, who has never been mistaken for one of cinema’s unsung artists but whose dopiest productions (Mindhunters, Deep Blue Sea, etc.) nevertheless had enough foresight to tap into their inherent crazy streaks. This flick, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to come off as any less lethargic, with seemingly every facet — from its sanitized cinematography to its vanilla score — exhibiting the bare minimum of effort. It’s a flatness that infects virtually every scene, swiping the comedic wind from moments of levity and draining what are supposed to be neat action set pieces of their energy. What we get here is a textbook definition of a movie stuck on autopilot, shirking such flourishes as truly witty dialogue or creative fight choreography that usually prevent such easily excusable nitpicks as unimaginative storytelling from being bumped to the front of the line.

Skiptrace‘s tedious demise, however, isn’t for a lack of trying on behalf of its stars. At 62, Chan makes an effort to appear as spry in dealing out roundhouse kicks to the face as he is in rattling off quips, and largely, he succeeds. As evidenced by the Rush Hour trilogy, he’s had some experience playing the exasperated straight man opposite a motormouthed sidekick, but whether he’s rolling his eyes at the latter’s shenanigans or hopping across collapsing buildings, the man remains a consummate performer. In a part reportedly intended for Seann William Scott, Knoxville actually fares pretty well, a perfect fit for a swindler type who matches Bennie in terms of sheer stubbornness. The crook with a heart of gold character is one that can easily be rendered clichéd and boring, but Knoxville brings a charismatic edge to the role and keeps Connor as fun to watch as he can. In terms of supporting players, though, most are left with no choice but to lay low with thankless stock archetypes, and even those featured more prominently than others aren’t much better off. Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is absolutely wasted as what’s ultimately a damsel in distress, and despite some amusing one-liners at the expense of her character’s apparent invulnerability, wrestler Eve Gracie is just another thinly-written sexy henchwoman.

There’s an exotic, rip-roaring, butt-kicking good time to be whipped up out of Skiptrace‘s ingredients, but the final product has had nearly all the flavor pounded out of it. Viewers are served almost two hours of something that goes through the motions of your average martial arts buddy comedy but hasn’t a soul of its own. Not that I was rooting for Skiptrace to be a bust, but if it had to stink, the least it could’ve done was pack some go-for-broke lunacy for the way down.

“Vicki” (1953)

"Vicki" poster


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

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

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

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

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

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“Bride of the Monster” (1955)

"Bride of the Monster" poster


By and large, Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s reputation as the “worst director ever” is unearned. It’s not that none of his films were ever hampered by a puzzling command of dialogue or lack of proper funding, but what circumstances granted him such infamous agency over the likes of William Beaudine or Chester Novell Turner are beyond me. All it took was one mention in one book for the label to stick, with few considering how Wood’s schlock wasn’t especially different from that which other studios were shoveling onto screens at the time. Take, for example, 1955’s Bride of the Monster, ol’ Ed’s contribution to the decade’s cinematic fascination with creatures spawned by the atom. It certainly wasn’t the first or last flick of its kind that had to make do with inferior sound equipment, unsteady acting, or that most ubiquitous of B-movie staples, stock footage. But in spite of these factors and more working against it, Bride of the Monster finds other means by which to engage and entertain viewers, in ways similar low-budget horror shows would’ve set on autopilot entirely.

Some mighty strange things are afoot over at Lake Marsh. Twelve people have gone missing in the area, which intrepid reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) considers to be the work of a bloodthirsty beast. The police — including her beau, Lt. Craig (Tony McCoy) — dismiss her claims as a load of hooey, but unfortunately, she’s not as nuts as they think. The crazed Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) has set up shop near Lake Marsh, using an abandoned mansion as a base of operations from which to run all manner of awful experiments. In addition to siccing his own private giant octopus on potential intruders, the doctor has taken to kidnapping locals, with the aim of transforming them into atomic-powered superfolk. All of the mad Vornoff’s efforts have resulted in death thus far, so when Janet’s nosiness lands her a spot on the slab, Lt. Craig leaps into action to save her before it’s too late.

Though not the stuff of Z-grade cinema legend as Plan 9 from Outer Space‘s making-of is, the tale behind Bride of the Monster‘s creation is still a page torn from “Ed Wood’s Guide to Frugal Filmmaking.” At $70,000 (much of which was supplied by McCoy’s father, who insisted that Tony be cast as the star), Wood’s budget was fairly robust, given what the director was used to, yet thriftiness is nonetheless evident just about everywhere you look. From the doctor’s scientific accoutrements having seen better days to actors being call upon to wrap themselves up in the octopus prop’s tentacles rather than vice versa, one can almost see the pennies being pinched before their very eyes. Such sights weren’t uncommon amongst the era’s genre fare, and Wood’s foibles shouldn’t get a pass purely because others were guilty of them, too. However, by the time all of its God’s domain-tampering has reached its zenith, Bride of the Monster has amassed a number of legitimately enjoyable checks in its favor. Frank Worth’s score is some truly bombastic stuff, the look of Vornoff’s lab and surrounding estate have a creepy streak going for them, and the collectively melodramatic delivery of the screenplay’s already hokey dialogue (“Everything points to an inhuman violence!”) is well worth a hoot and a half.

But at the heart of Bride of the Monster‘s ultimate charm is Lugosi himself, a little surprising given the nature of his role and the state of his career when he filmed it. While he played a mute character in 1956’s The Black Sleep and appeared posthumously via stock footage in Plan 9, this turned out to be the man’s final speaking role, the cap-off to many years spent getting kicked around Hollywood’s horror dregs. Cast as yet another scientist with conquering the world on his mind, one might be initially inclined to roll their eyes at how Lugosi is used in Bride of the Monster, but to Wood’s credit, our star is given decidedly meatier material to work with than normal. There’s a real verve to his performance here, an energy that matches Vornoff’s fanatical aspirations; look no further than the doctor’s monologue explaining why he’s doing what he does for evidence that Lugosi was completely committed. The remaining performers can’t help but come across a bit sheepishly in the wake of his dominating presence, though a good deal of them aren’t half-bad, either. King’s Janet possesses a nice degree of spunk, Harvey B. Dunn is lovably folksy as the local police captain, and as Vornoff’s assistant Lobo, wrestler Tor Johnson is…well, still an ox of a man lumbering about the joint, but even the smidgen of inner turmoil his character is granted does go a long way.

Should your mind still be inquiring as to Bride of the Monster‘s overall quality, then, yes, it’s “bad,” though not incompetent or devoid of fun by a long shot. The stock premise, goofy effects, and aggressively noticeable change when Lugosi’s stunt guy takes over are all undeniable, yet these elements contribute to a vehicle that, in the end, skews endearing more so than insufferable. As crummy around the corners as it might be, Bride of the Monster just makes itself too hard to hate.

“Zombies on Broadway” (1945)

"Zombies on Broadway" poster


As if being denied eternal rest and condemned to walk the earth with an insatiable hunger wasn’t enough, zombies have suffered further indignities during their time in the cinematic limelight. For every George A. Romero elevating flesh-eating ghouls to compelling thematic heights, there are dozens of deluded “successors” waiting in the wings with interminable, no-account gore shows (and if you’ve seen Survival of the Dead, you know that not even Grandpa George’s track record is spotless). This humiliation also extends to the classic image of the living damned, wherein poor souls were drugged and/or mesmerized via dark rituals into becoming mindless slaves. Outside of those plodding Poverty Row chillers of the time, the worst this got back then arguably has to be 1945’s Zombies on Broadway, a comedic creepfest hailing from RKO. This movie had a shot at being the sort of zany retro kitsch that’s fondly discussed by outfits like “Trailers from Hell” nowadays, were it not for the forced laughs, forgettable tunes, and sheer wastefulness of its (ostensibly) main draw undermining it at every turn.

There isn’t a person in the Big Apple that hasn’t heard about the Zombie Hut. Run by ex-gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), the tropical-themed club is all set for a killer opening night…that is, until the press agents hired to hype it up bite off more than they can chew. Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney) boast that a real, live zombie will be among the Hut’s attractions, a promise that Ace doesn’t intend on leaving unfulfilled. Wanting to avoid embarrassment at any cost, he ships the boys off to the isle of San Sebastian to drum up an actual walking corpse — and as it turns out, they haven’t far to look. Professor Renault (Bela Lugosi) is working in secret on the island, toiling away at his long-gestating formula for creating the perfect obedient zombie. Eventually, Jerry and Mike bumble their way to Renault’s front door, but before their night of horrors is over, will they end up being transformed into the very ghouls they were sent to haul back to the States?

Not content with just existing as an exhausting, ill-advised, dated-on-arrival mess unto itself, Zombies on Broadway has to drag other, genuinely great flicks down with it, too. What with being an RKO production in the years following Val Lewton’s famed run of the studio’s horror unit, this picture incorporates particular elements from a few of those projects. In playing Renault’s undead man Friday, Darby Jones essentially reprises his frightfully iconic character from I Walked with a Zombie, as does singer Sir Lancelot (who also appeared in such Lewton thrillers as The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People). While viewers unfamiliar with these actors or their places in horror history would be none the wiser, seeing what was once taken seriously and depicted as legitimately unnerving mere years earlier turned into a bad punchline makes Zombies on Broadway feel doubly irritating for seasoned fans. But even without an intricate knowledge of vintage genre cinema, one can tell right off the bat how unappealing and uninspired the film’s comedic set-ups really are. Working off of a completely ludicrous premise to begin with (in which avoiding false advertising charges are taken to a whole other level), the movie resorts to incessant mugging and routines that “Scooby-Doo” would handle with more tact in increasingly vain, desperate efforts to tickle our funny bones.

It’s not even that I set out to hate Zombies on Broadway, given my proclivity for the sort of cheesy tidbits stored within its framed. Old-school horror comedies with creepy mansions, secret passageways, and the occasional shoehorned musical number more often than not trip yours truly’s trigger. All of these and more are at play in Zombies on Broadway, and yet none wield the charm or cleverness as they did in similar, fear-based farces. This is partially the fault of a threadbare script that recycles tired scenarios without adding anything new (a la Mike seeing zombies that disappear and getting yelled at by a disbelieving Jerry), but blame also falls upon the production’s very headliners. Though Brown and Carney seem to be genial gents, their go-to defense mechanism when the sub-par material threatens to sink them is to launch a barrage of hollering and stammering that only leaves them resembling a cut-rate Abbott & Costello. As a San Sebastian chanteuse, Anne Jeffreys is fine (though she gets to sing maybe one so-so song and plays a mostly superfluous part), but no one has it worse here than Bela Lugosi. Not only has another clichéd mad scientist role that offers him no opportunities to lampoon said archetype been hoisted upon him, Lugosi finds himself further debased by having to play a handful of scenes opposite a monkey (who, in all fairness, does earn the movie’s biggest chuckles).

Neither funny or freaky to any significant degree, Zombies on Broadway mainly spends its time confusing you with the question of who it exactly hoped to entertain. Its soundtrack is severely understocked, eerie atmosphere is out of the question, and while the screenplay’s gags come across as weak sauce these days, one can easily picture them feeling old hat upon the flick’s release. No matter what reason might draw you to Zombies on Broadway, you’re all but guaranteed to be left underwhelmed and unamused in the end.

“Chandu the Magician” (1932)

"Chandu the Magician" poster


As Marvel continues expanding its cinematic universe by adapting more offbeat properties for the screen, so has the studio begun encroaching upon a minefield of cultural sensitivity. In bringing to life the impending Doctor Strange film and “Iron Fist” Netflix show, steps were taken to tone down some of the more stereotypical aspects of their source material, only for certain fans to respond with charges of silencing diversity. It’s a classic “damned if you do” scenario, wherein Marvel is stuck choosing between either appearing to whitewash their own characters or feeding into the old “Caucasian hero masters weird foreign customs” motif that informed the original comics, as well as flicks like 1932’s Chandu the Magician. You won’t hear me excuse the wild misconceptions such media would eventually help spread, nor can you truly blame those who find the tropes contained therein in poor taste these days. On the other hand, a fun movie is still a fun movie, and for all about it that modern eyes may find out of touch, Chandu the Magician remains a dazzling vintage fantasy all the same.

The far east holds many strange secrets to which few souls are privy. Outsiders aren’t known to penetrate its world of wizardry and mysticism, but Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) is different. Committing himself to righting society’s injustices, Frank’s years of study with the best yogis  has at last paid off, achieving unparalleled skills in the arts of mesmerism and being granted the new title of “Chandu.” But as it turns out, he’s completed his training just in time, for the forces of evil have recently targeted those nearest to his heart. A madman named Roxor (Bela Lugosi) has kidnapped Frank’s brother-in-law Robert (Henry B. Walthall), seeking to use his latest invention to destroy the cities of the globe and declare himself emperor. However, the fiend didn’t count on the newly-minted Chandu to jump into action and call upon his powers of illusion to save not only his loved ones from certain doom but the very earth, as well.

Based upon a then-current radio series, Chandu the Magician is an entity that definitely benefits from its promotion to a visual medium. One can imagine our protagonist’s feats only feeling so magical when we’re being told what he’s up to, but when just about every top-notch special effects trick in the book is used to give them life on film, the results are especially snazzy. Throughout the movie, Frank/Chandu summons phantom doppelgangers, makes henchmen see their guns as deadly snakes, and maintains a close watch on danger by gazing into his handy crystal ball. These sights and others like them all look pretty spectacular for their time, adding up to a visual feast so varied and teeming with energy, you almost forget about the plot’s more quirky details altogether. I’m not quite sure how so many characters are aware of Chandu or his reputation when he’s apparently spent years honing his craft in seclusion, and don’t be surprised if you’re thrown for a loop when others casually refer to Robert’s invention as a “death ray” even before Roxor announces his plan to reduce the likes of London and Paris to rubble. The picture does experience the occasional, culturally-dicey patch (as in one scene that has Roxor offering up Frank’s niece in a slave auction), to which all that can be said is that they’re thankfully infrequent, as the production is more concerned with entertaining the eyes than with engaging in harsh generalizations.

There’s such a playful enthusiasm to the way that Chandu the Magician explores its title hero’s abilities and presents them on screen, one wishes that more was done with the characters so as to really tie everything together. Not that flicks centered around crimefighters and various proto-superfolk were big on detailed origins at the time, but Frank’s ascension to mind-bender extraordinaire is virtually nonexistent. He hasn’t time to tidy his burnoose before he’s off to rescue his brother-in-law from Roxor’s clutches, without imparting so much as a hint as to what sent him on his spiritual quest to begin with. Lowe proves such a good sport in his performance, helping Chandu’s hypnotic stares and hand gestures feel more mysterious than silly, so filling in just a few of the mystic’s background blanks would have made him pop even more. Lugosi is essentially in the same boat, what with playing your standard-issue exotic villain with the vaguest motivations for seeking world domination, yet one can’t deny the impassioned show he puts on; long story short, this guy knows how to deliver one dilly of a bad guy monologue. The remaining roles are likewise very basic in nature, though the supporting cast members elevate them nicely with their appeal. Irene Ware (in her first prominent studio part) makes for a suitably alluring love interest opposite Lowe, Herbert Mundin scores some smirks as the resident cowardly comic relief, and Weldon Heyburn glowers up a storm as Roxor’s right-hand thug.

For what’s basically a superhero tale that came out before the notion of superheroes had become so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, Chandu the Magician exhibits a tremendous deal of confidence. Bolstered by its wonderful visual effects and spirited acting, the film hasn’t a doubt in its mind that viewers will fall briskly under its spell. Dated though some of its finer details might be, Chandu the Magician makes up for it by being an exhilarating joy to watch.