REVIEW: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

18 03 2015

kumiko_the_treasure_hunter_ver2A shy, young office worker in Japan mysteriously stumbles upon a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” and begins to interpret it as a factual document pointing her to buried treasure in the snows of North Dakota.

That constitutes the basic premise of the odd, eccentric film “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” by the Zellner Brothers.  The duo certainly concocted a unique caper, one that allows a bunny and a tawdry motel duvet cover to dwarf the acting prowess of their Academy Award-nominated star Rinko Kikuchi.  She plays Kumiko as the introvert that her character is, although her timidity and ambivalence at times makes for a frustrating watch.  (For a while, I wondered if she was playing another mute character like she did in “Babel.”)

Kumiko makes for a particularly tough read because the Zellners, quite admirably, provide very little context with which to make sense of her.  Is she a naive, childlike protagonist on a quixotic quest like Thomas Schell from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” or is she driven by sinister demons like the two assassins who claimed that J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” told them to kill people?  The question does not get answered until the very end of “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” and it provides a precious sense of tension to hold flagging interest.

The curiosity generated by the Zellners’ novel concept gradually dissipates as their tedious pacing and unrelenting ambiguity steers the film.  “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” is worth watching through to the end, if for no other reason than to find out what on earth will happen with this strange character.  The rewards for enduring such a slog, however, hardly amount to bountiful treasure.  B-2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 20, 2014)

20 06 2014

Rian Johnson was announced this week as the next major architect in the “Star Wars” franchise, which was met with cheers from the fanboys.  And understandbly so, as Johnson is a brilliant creative mind who has recently given us the ingenious “Looper” as well as some of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

But as for me, on the other hand, I found myself rather peeved.  The house that Lucas built will require non-stop attention for several years, leaving the cinemas without Johnson’s voice in peculiar but always memorable films.  He’s a master of mining subgenres for unexplored territory, be they high school movies or time travel sci-fi pics.  Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” not your average heist flick, is a unique and underappreciated film that earns my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Not unlike this year’s Best Picture nominated “American Hustle,” the film uses the art of the con as a means to explore individual identity as well as the nature of storytelling.  Filmmakers and hustlers often pull from the same theoretical toolbox, using the art of illusion to manipulate us into feeling exactly what they want us to feel.  As Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen puts it at one point in “The Brothers Bloom,” the perfect con is the one where  everyone involved gets just what they wanted.

While I’ll stop short of calling this a perfect movie, it’s certainly a very, very good one.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining, a mix that seems to be increasingly less common.  The performances are great, too – Ruffalo and Adrien Brody star as the titular fraternal con artists who pull bizarre stunts with the help of Rinko Kikuchi’s silent pyrotechnics companion Bang Bang.  The three make a hilarious pair, lighting up the screen with their off-kilter chemistry.

But the real dynamo of “The Brothers Bloom” is their target, Rachel Weisz’s cooped-up heiress Penelope Stamp.  Brody’s Stephen manages to win her affection, luring the quirky loner right into their trap.  They let her in on their chosen profession, and Penelope eagerly jumps right into scheme.  Who’s conning who and who’s being honest often gets a little hazy, but every moment is thrilling as we see simultaneously more and less of who the characters really are.  Johnson’s writing gives them so much to work with, and it saddens me to think we won’t be seeing another one of his movies like this for a long time.