“A woman is not a seal…not even a walrus.”

I would start  by saying that this is a weird movie for 1960, but that’d be a little disingenuous. This would be a weird movie for any year. Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), brings this strange arctic tale to the screen. You can chalk up Eskimo on Anthony Quinn‘s long list of nationalities he has portrayed. Where to begin?

First off: I do not know how accurate this movie is in portraying Inuit peoples, so I’m not sure if the movie is sexist or racist or sexist and racist or nothing. Not that a little culturally ill-informed bad taste has ever stopped me from enjoying a movie before (I refer you to my article on Song of the South). Whatever the case and however bizarre a product The Savage Innocents (1960) may be, I still liked it.

The story concerns Inuk (Quinn) and his search for a woman “to laugh with” (a.k.a. bang). Once he finds his woman, Asiak (played with sweetness by Yoko Tani), he seeks to become a great hunter. To become a great hunter he will trade fox pelts for a gun with the foolish white men. He accidentally murders a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) who insults his home by not eating his maggot-filled meat and refusing “to laugh with” his wife when he offers her. When his wife is ready to give birth he must leave his old mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to be eaten by polar bears. He must raise a son and hunt many wild animals. When the white authorities catch up with him he must remember his crime and try to explain before they can arrest him and then he must help his captors when they get lost on the ice.

Dogsleds, the derision of women, and the clashing of cultures is what this movie is all about. If their lives seem hard to understand and barbaric at times we must remember that theirs is a savage innocents. It may not be what the rest of the world is used to, but it is its own culture that was adapted to be as harsh as the arctic environment they reside in. It is no better or worse than the “civilized” world. It’s all about simplicity and survival.

Sometimes I’m actually uncertain if the filmmakers want to present these people as more than primitive blubber-munchers or if they want to say that they are but that’s okay because that’s just who they are. It is a puzzlement. In any event they do also condemn “civilized” man as well.

It is also just kind of neat that the movie is set in a contemporary setting. By telling the story of indigenous peoples unconcerned with the Atomic Age it bottles some genuine insulation and innocence from international troubles.

Inuits might be one of the most underrepresented groups in the media. Apart from Robert J. Flaherty’s vintage documentary Nanook of the North (1922) and Frank Zappa’s song Yellow Snow and a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two there really have not been many Northern folk in the movies. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I can respect this strange amalgam of drama and documentary (the drama is frequently punctuated by a narrator describing life in the Arctic). I confess I probably would not have even sought out this movie had it not been for the promise of seeing two of my favorite people to watch onscreen—Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone) and Anna May Wong (Piccadilly, Shanghai Express, Bombs Over Burma)—together in the same movie. Alas, I looked through this movie so hard and could not find her. Apparently someone else has the name “Anna May Wong” but it was not THE Anna May Wong. I was a little mad about that. Oh well.

Does it seem odd to cast a Chinese actress as an Inuit? Odder than casting a Mexican? Well, Quinn had played Apache, Greek, Persian, French, and the Prophet himself to name a few. Why not Inuit? And when much of the cast is apparently Japanese maybe you won’t mind. Just remember that this was a different time and this is how movies were made and we have come so far since then and pay no attention to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger (2013) movie.

It’s a strange movie to be sure. It’s rather episodic and uneven. Some of the scenery is impressive but sometimes it’s too apparent when they’re on a stage. There are a sloppy few animal sequences that mostly end in death of some kind (the walrus hunt is pretty good though). The trouble with an environment that is day half the year and night the other half is that it becomes impossible to distinguish the passage of time (Pacino! Insomnia!). Some of the dialogue feels stilted and possibly caricature. Peter O’Toole (pre-nose job!) is in it but his voice is dubbed by some American guy so it’s weird (Harvey Keitel in Saturn 3, anyone?). The narration feels out of place most of the time, like an old Disney nature documentary or Mondo Cane. Much of the film feels quite uncinematic actually. Some sequences make me feel uncomfortable because I’m not sure how uninformed and insulting the movie really is in regards to actual Inuit culture. Nanook of the North was definitely the better Inuit movie. Ultimately most the themes in The Savage Innocents were handled far better in Akira Kurosawa‘s grand Russian epic Dersu Uzala (1975).

There are also a lot of shirts off for such a cold climate.

All these grievances add up to a truly weird movie experience. I did like it, however. It does have some pretty good sequences: the kayak and dogsled footage; the walruses tumbling off their rock island; Asiak winning over Inuk; the missionary murder; Asiak’s attitude towards the whites and “civilized” Inuits at the trading post; the chilling advice regarding childbirth from a dying old woman; the mission to arrest Inuk in the storm. It doesn’t all add up to a great movie, but it is pretty unforgettable. The main theme isn’t bad either (a sort of mix between Giacomo Puccini’s Humming Chorus from the opera Madame Butterfly and the theme from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust). Anthony Quinn is not doing his best work, but he’s still good and Yoko Tani does a fine job as his submissive but willful wife (her character is far more interesting). The Savage Innocents also create an atmosphere unlike any other. You feel secluded and desperate but cozy while watching it. Watching this movie you will feel like you have lived in this bleak, frozen world your whole life. You really do end up relating to these characters. You hate the traders and the missionary and the troopers despite their best intentions. They are the aliens in this world. Inuk and his family are the only guides you’d follow through this impossible tundra.

It’s a fairly immersive experience, which is sort of what a good movie is supposed to be. I had dreams all night about living on the ice after watching The Savage Innocents. Whether it be hackneyed pseudo-documentary or insensitive cultural sleight, I may not know, but I definitely enjoyed it for whatever it was. It’s weird, possibly racist, and terrifically uneven but I kind of like it’s kooky imperfection.

What are you waiting for? Go give it a whirl.

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That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.

Burroughs of Barsoom

So I did something which they tell me is rather unique for me. I went to go see a mainstream movie on its opening night. Weird, I know. I saw Disney’s John Carter (2012). I went into the theater expecting to be sadly disappointed as I had been when I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—which I also saw opening day. Douglas Adams and Edgar Rice Burroughs were the science fiction guys in my house growing up. Them and Isaac Asimov. Also H.G. Wells. And a bit of Jules Verne. All this to say I was fully prepared to see a cherished childhood memory tarnished. I must confess I was pleasantly surprised.

John Carter has been receiving mixed reviews at best and I think I can see why, but can I tell you something super dooper secret? I kinda really liked it. It felt like reading the old pulpy Burroughs’ books again. As the images kept coming I was reminded of exciting passages ripped straight out of Princess of Mars (originally written in 1912). A thousand past imagined battles and characters were alive and moving across the vast screen before me. Some images even bore the watermarks of the gnarly Frank Frazetta illustrations. Frazetta is to Burroughs what Sir John Tenniel is to Lewis Carroll. I was surprised by how much of the story remained intact. Amidst the wash of fond memories of the smells of the attic of my boyhood and sitting in the old chair reading these Martian books, I was struck to my core. This may be the closest Burroughs adaptation ever made.

Seriously. Tarzan (also a product of 1912) has been adapted so many times with so many different visions, but all fall short. . . although I’m still rather partial to the hokey Johnny Weissmuller ones from the 1930s. Burroughs would take perfectly masculine heroes to the darkest jungles, to the wild west, to Mars, to Venus, to the center of the earth, to dinosaur times, ad nausea. Tarzan is still his most well-known character. John Carter may not have had the impact of Tarzan, but he’s still a great character. Hey, wait. John Carter totally had an impact on American culture. Maybe even more than Tarzan.

One of the biggest problems with the movie John Carter is that so many of its elements seem derivative of things like Star Wars, Superman, and so much more. But Burroughs predates all of them. In fact, for however pulpy and ludicrous a scribbler Edgar Rice Burroughs was, his work really changed the way America sees its heroes. An average, rugged American bashing around the country and getting zapped into outer space may sound fairly innocuous, but when he lands on another planet and discovers that he has superhuman strength and agility there and he decides to fight for what is good and unite the world’s peoples and ultimately save it you get Superman! But Siegel and Shuster didn’t come up with Superman until 1932. There are several scenes where hideous alien monsters battle the protagonists in sporting arenas. It may sound like Luke fighting the Rancor or the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, but the pages of Princess of Mars were scrawled long before these shadows were dreamed up. Even the language. Compare Burroughs’ “Jeddak” with Lucas’s “Jedi.” My dad always wondered about that. Even consider the fact that Burroughs developed several elaborate fantasy universes and cultures before Tolkien described Middle-Earth in 1937.

The trouble is that the mechanics and ingredients of a once original author’s worlds have become commonplace now. Since he has inspired so much, been copied so many times, and been reinvented over and over again, a faithful screen telling would undoubtedly seem somewhat deflated compared with other space opera blockbusters. The truth is that Burroughs’ Barsoom books could never have been realized on screen before now because of the necessary visual complexity. The movie may not be as fresh as it would have been 100 years ago, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In a time when superhero movies with explosive action and mayhem are becoming tired and boring, it’s no wonder a movie like John Carter can get lost in the shuffle. It looks like more of the same. It looks like a knockoff of Clash of the Titans (2010), Avatar (2009), or Thor (2011) but not nearly as mind-numbing as any of the Transformers movies. Now I thought all of those films were pretty godawful, but something about John Carter was different. Was it mere nostalgia? Was it the classic feel the movie had? Was it the wave of memories that surged through my mind at the theater? I don’t know. I do know this though: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter has a winning personality and energy and perhaps, in keeping so close to its source material, it has bottled some of the original magic. For all its new-fangled frills and costly special effects, it feels authentic and old-timey. I’m glad director Andrew Stanton didn’t feel the need to update or reboot the story.

Deal with it. I hated Avatar.

As for the film itself, it’s not perfect. Burroughs’ books, which originally appeared as cliffhangers in magazines, are pulp adventure and tales of violence and this movie does not veer from that origin and I don’t think it would be appropriate if they did. Consider Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). It took the Tarzan story way too seriously and it didn’t work. It also didn’t help that Christopher Lambert (The Highlander) was cast in the title role. No, Barsoom needed to be treated with affection and levity. I’d say they succeeded. It reminded my roommate of some of the cheesy B-movies made in the science fiction craze of the 70s and 80s, but with a better budget. Perhaps an apt description and that’s exactly what it needed to be. I’d be a sucker anyway. I kinda love those old B-movies.

The movie has action, humor, great special effects, engaging characters, monsters, cool vehicles, and some fun battles. It does have a few dialogue scenes that may go on a smidgen too long, but I can forgive it. I had my doubts about almost every character from the trailers; from John Carter and Dejah Thoris to my favorite character, Tars Tarkas. I must confess that Taylor Kitsch (Carter) was not as wooden as I’d feared and actually elicits some humor and embodies the character well. Lynn Collins (Dejah) is a fiery and sexy Princess of Mars (maybe a bit too sciency, but oh well). She looks great and her character is decidedly more interesting and fun than a lot of female characters in similar veined movies. The great Willem Dafoe does one heck of a Thark as Tars Tarkas too. Even the minor characters like Sola, Kantos Kan, Tal Hajus, and Woola are pretty great. We did need more of Kantos Kan, by the way. A note on the Martian (Barsoomian) dog, Woola: I know you may be thinking a quirky monster pet comic relief character sounds positively nauseating, but believe me when I say he is quite a delight and a pleasure to observe whenever he is onscreen.

The film does lack a concrete villain. We get that Mark Strong is playing another bad guy (he’s gonna get a rep if he’s not careful), but his motives are very unclear for the most part. That’s another thing though; Burroughs always seemed to prefer writing great, impossible heroes over memorable baddies. So be it.

The biggest problem with the movie is the title. I get not naming it Princess of Mars after the book, but John Carter is misleading and ambiguous. In an effort to give the movie broader appeal Disney has given it the kiss of death with one of the worst movie titles. Yes, the main character’s name is John Carter, but John Carter of Mars would have been so much more descriptive and appropriate. It’s all marketing and it seems fairly obvious that the suits in charge had no idea what they were doing.

People have called this film dull and derivative, but I say there is a noble soul deep down in there, despite the occasional convolutions. As cynical as I am about a lot of new Hollywood movies, I can honestly report that I greatly enjoyed John Carter. It stays very true to the original novel that was written 100 years ago. It’s fun, exciting science fiction entertainment (heavy on the fiction side of things, just the way we Star Wars dorks like it) and it should please the whole family. I went in with a jaded heart, but the movie won me over. Don’t let bad reviews scare you away from having a good time with this adventure. Who reads reviews anyway?

A final word. Don’t pick up an Edgar Rice Burroughs book expecting to find great literature. They are merely wonderful entertainment with loads of monsters, heroes, and violence. They’re also a bit racist. Okay, I love you, b-bye.

Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode One – the first episode

You know it’s a crime. You love movies and you have your opinions. This means anytime you don’t like something people get to call you a snob. Can we help it if we see a lot of movies? Well, probably, but who would want to?

What follows are the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Bad:

“We’re such positive role models for impressionable tween girls.”

It’s yet another sad day for vampire and werewolf movies everywhere. The film I thought the least of was Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011). For clarity’s sake I have been faithfully watching every Twilight film with Rifftrax (God bless you, MST3K guys, wherever you are). We get it, Stephanie Meyer. You don’t like sex or Native Americans. Much has already been said about the schmaltz factor and the potentially detrimental ideas it puts into susceptible preteen minds. These movies are about as entertaining as watching fake high school kids try to talk to each other. So this entry is nonstop laughably bad and ultimately not much happens, but it is the closest Twilight movie to actually feeling almost like it might want to be trying to consider being a horror movie, but it still doesn’t work. I really cannot find these movie’s appeal. But then, they are not made for me. I did almost like that one werewolf chick in it though. I like a strong jawline.

All of the other films on my list I actually did like on some level. So do not be alarmed if any film should be listed so close to Breaking Dawn.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“So this is what happens when you eat the yellow snow…”

I like Frank Zappa’s music and his whole persona. That being said, I found 200 Motels (1971) to be an endurance test. I definitely respect it’s surreality and hyperactive oddness, but there are times when the product was just a little too draining and sloppily assembled. Or maybe that was Zappa’s intent all along. If the theme is all about how touring can make you crazy, I must say I would expect more from Mr. Zappa’s presentation of this thesis. He is a talented weirdo and there are some pretty solid bits speckled throughout and a lot of good songs (if you like Frank Zappa). It’s a purposely grotesque oddity and bizarro time capsule that I don’t know who exactly I would recommend it to. It stars the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Pretentious? Moi?!”

I had heard of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) before I had seen it, but name only. That was actually more set up than I’m sure the movie would have liked me to have. It’s a movie about a relationship (and that is all I am willing to say regarding the curious plot). It’s not that I mind that the story is purposefully difficult to follow. It’s more that I somehow felt cheated. I felt as though it were leading me toward something concrete and the initial elusiveness was just a frill. It’s not a bad movie by any means. It kept me interested for the most part. Juliet Binoche (Three Colors: Blue, Chocolat) gives a fantastic performance and the beautiful Tuscan scenery is elegant and rich. Her co-star is decidedly a little more weak and in a movie with only two characters it can stand out. I admire some of the odd choices made, but a film that wants to remind me this much of Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset really ought to be better than them.

“This whole thing might even make Lewis Carroll uncomfortable.”

This next one I had wanted to see for sometime. Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants, My Dinner With Andre) is s strange director and Black Moon (1975) is always credited as his most unusual. As a fan of Zazie dans le métro (1960) I had to see how this movie could be weirder. Trust me. It’s weirder. Minimal dialogue and plot and lots of unkempt animals. A girl wanders through a strange landscape full of gas masks, tanks, naked children, and rotund talking unicorns. The film is very much inspired by Lewis Carroll, but it has more of a twisted edge in that it seems to be treating female puberty as the proverbial Wonderland. I can’t say that I enjoyed it a lot, but I was transfixed by it’s strangeness and the sick, inexplicable turns it was willing to take. If you like badger murder and teens breastfeeding nasty old ladies then this is the film for you.

“So…women are the devil? I get it.”

Blue Valentine (2010) was one that got a lot of praise and I can see why. Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance certainly isn’t the only thing going for it. This delicate indie film follows the deterioration of a relationship and it does a pretty good job. My only real beef with the film is that it couldn’t surprise me. Friends told me it was amazing and that I should see it and I could tell from the synopsis exactly what it was going to be. Sure enough. It was. It’s still well acted and well-constructed (cleverly bouncing back and forth between past and present) but it just couldn’t surprise me. Not that I’m a baby and need to be surprised all the time. It was sad and inevitable and in then end I just felt bad for the guy. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand here. Blue Valentine is not the sort of movie I would generally gravitate toward, but it’s well done and a great anti-romance flick. I like depressing films, but I’ve seen better. Watch it instead of Breaking Dawn. And watch Blue Velvet instead of this. What the heck.

Guilty Pleasures:

“The screen can hardly contain all of our pathos!”

I don’t know why I keep watching old Godzilla movies. They’re all the same and I’ve seen it a hundred times already and the first one was really the only one that was a real movie. Maybe they just make me appreciate Pulgasari more. It’s some sort of sick tradition. It’s why we keep watching James Bond movies. Most of them are bad, but they’re fun and nostalgic. All this to say I watched Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) recently. It’s more of the same. Big dumb rubber monsters trash Japanese cities. In a word: awesome. There are three basic plots to a Godzilla movie: Godzilla is a bad guy; Godzilla is a good guy; Godzilla is tricked/talked into being a good guy. This time Mothra has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and be the good guys. After much monster political debate on the merits of protecting humanity, they agree and team up to fight Ghidrah, a hideous hydra dragon from outer space (unnervingly with no arms). My one complaint with this movie (and it’s a big one) is that Mothra never metamorphosizes out of his larval stage. Maybe they were afraid of having too many flying monsters. Oh, but the Twin Fairy chicks are back…but the Mothra song is different and sucks now.

“You should see what I taught them to do with their blowholes.”

George C. Scott teaching dolphins to speak English (that’s right) only to be sabotaged by corrupt government officials who want to use the English speaking dolphins to blow up the president should be a comedy. The dolphins actually sound more like balloons getting the air let out of them when they do vocalize. The Graduate director, Mike Nichols, does what he can with the ludicrous premise of Day of the Dolphin (1973), but how could this be saved? It’s loopy and stupid, but I strangely liked it. George C. Scott (Patton) and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) are talking to dolphins in a cockamamie story about the military raping science for sadistic ends. For all it’s foolishness I found myself enjoying it and the score by Georges Delerue is actually really great. Agent Flipper to the rescue!

Getting Better:

“Despite each segment being extremely short I doubt this generation will have the patience to sit through all of them.”

Life in a Day (2011) is an interesting experiment. It is compiled from footage sent from all over the world, but all shot on the same day. I suppose it does document a great deal and people in the future will be able to look to this film and see what the world was like in a more accessible way than say Baraka. I like it for the experimental reasons and for what the future may be able to get from it, but the way technology is going, the point might be moot. We already document everything. Maybe the novelty of it being shinier and in one place will make it more convenient than scouring youtube. It was enjoyable, but I wonder what stuff was cut. How much unpleasantness that went on that day did we miss? All in all, it’s a noble documentary effort that I will still unfairly compare to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

“Shouldn’t we be under ‘Guilty Pleasures?'” —“Probably, but SHHHH!”

Two of the most awesome movies in history collided. Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece Seven Samurai has crashed into Star Wars and we end up with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). George Peppard (The A-Team), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) star in this B-movie epic. Almost no explanations and already we get thrust into a space aged retelling of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, with fitting nods to these movies that preceded it. The people of the planet Akir are called the Akira and George Peppard dresses like an old timey cowboy despite flying a spaceship. Not much character development. Only convoluted space fights. I will say this, despite all its laughable bits, it’s actually more imaginative than it needed to be. Instead of seven samurai, they get seven spaceships with different alien races in each of them, some of which are pretty interesting. I liked the Nestor and the Kelvin. Some notes: Richard Thomas’s spaceship looks like balls straight on (but like a uterus from above) and this movie has a lot of weird cleavage (from only one character). It’s no Star Crash or Ice Pirates, but it’s still a good space crap flick. So A Bug’s Life was a remake of a remake.

“Jack owes me crack.”

I am a fan of Conan O’Brien and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) is perhaps an appropriate documentary about him traveling around after being kicked off of NBC. He’s a desperate, sad, and tortured clown underneath that tall, orange wave. It has some truly funny bits and makes him more human. It may not be a perfect movie, but it will please fans of Conan’s antics. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate portrait of a man kicked around by an unfair network board, but with an addiction to entertain, and what that man can do when he has fame still following him. The scene where he’s belittling Jack McBrayer had me on the floor laughing.

Greatness Beckons:

“What stereotype? Every culture loves booze.”

When a ship carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky crashes off the shore of a parched Scottish village you know exactly what’s going to happen. Whiskey Galore! (1949) is a funny, breezy British comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick (director of one of my favorite comedies, The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness). There are many humorous predicaments that arise, for instance the ship crashes on Sunday so they have to wait until Monday to get the booze so as not to break the Sabbath. The whole town banding together to hide the loot from nosey authorities might remind some folks of the more recent Waking Ned Devine. It’s a splendid, gentle comedy with a hilariously astute epilogue following a fun car chase. For those with a taste for sly British comedy, definitely watch this one.

“Have you seen ‘Puss’n’Boots?”

I like Pedro Almodóvar’s movies (All About My Mother, Volver), so I was used to his sneaky style of disguising information and hiding the truth until the appointed time, but even I was surprised by where The Skin I Live In (2011) went. I cannot reveal much, but it is a great and demented movie. Is this Almodóvar’s version of horror? It’s far more disturbing and subtle than most mainstream horror movies. Get a copy, invite friends over and tell them you’re watching an Antonio Banderas movie. Tell them nothing more and then watch their faces contort as they assemble the puzzle in their head. The Spanish The Skin I Live In keeps with the plastic-surgery-gone-awry film spirit along with the French Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the Japanese The Face of Another (1966).

“How is it half of our lives seem to unfold in a two-dimensional world?”

I am a huge admirer of Karel Zeman (The Stolen Airship, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). He is a Czech filmmaker with an unhealthy obsession with stop-motion animation, and his bizarre, bold, and unrepentantly stylized use of special effects throughout his films are always innovative and dazzling. His satirical look at the Thirty Years War is quite funny, and maybe more focused and consistent than his previous features. The Jester’s Tale (1964) follows the picaresque exploits of a man swept away by the changing tides of a Europe at war with itself. Zeman portrays political alliances to be quite literally as fickle as the changing winds. It’s clever, funny, and the unique special effects are truly charming.

“She’s takin’ ’em off! Quick! Get the the firepole!”

Milos Forman is known for his American films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, but not many folks this far west get to see his work from his home country. The Czech film (another Czech film, I know), The Fireman’s Ball (1967) is a smart if simple comedy about, quite aptly, a fireman’s ball. More specifically a fireman’s ball where many things do not go right. Prizes for the raffle keep disappearing and no young ladies want to be a part of the beauty pageant—this leads the creepy, old fireman to approach the girls themselves and create many awkward moments. It may not make you laugh out loud the whole time, but it will keep a smile on your face. Another thing worth mentioning is that it was a cast of non-actors.

A Satisfying Zenith:

“Shoe’s untied.”

Stanley Kubrick should be a familiar name. He’s the mad genius behind movies like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut. Having seen most of his cannon, save for two of his earliest works, I was delighted to finally make acquaintance with Barry Lyndon (1975). This enchanting period epic stars Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) as the eponymous Barry and features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography (revolutionary too in that Kubrick used a special lens and all natural lighting) as well as some intensely choreographed classical pieces by Handel, Schubert, Bach, Vivaldi, and others. This rise and fall of a no-account Irish vagabond is mesmerizing, if a bit cold, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. It feels like we are in an 18th century painting at times (The Mill and the Cross, anyone?). If you like your duels then you gotta see this one, and it’s battle scenes rival Full Metal Jacket (and maybe even Paths of Glory).

Almost done.

“Right this way, Mr. Samurai…Bwahahahaha!”

I saw Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) several years ago and was greatly impressed. It was a hypnotic, erotic, horror tale set in feudal Japan and truly much of its imagery was haunting. Kuroneko (1968) is a worthy accomplice. It is an atmospheric, seductive ghost story that has much more than meets the eye. It actually deals with a few feminist issues in a way, much like Kenji Mizoguchi in Ugetsu. Ghosts are murdering samurai and only one detective is brave enough to figure out why. It sounds simple, but he is compromised in more ways than one when he takes on the assignment. For those who like their horror to be sleek, spooky, and utterly beautiful to look at do not miss this movie. One thing: Tim Burton may have borrowed elements from this film—as well as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—for Batman Returns.

“California Dreamin’….”

I admit it. I need to see more Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046). But I don’t have to see more to know that I really loved Chungking Express (1994). From stem to stern you are looking at a sweet, cunning, impressionistic, romantic masterpiece. As folks shuffle in and out of a seedy diner we enter into their lives and watch their pain and longing for love. The characters, although very entertaining, have a certain reality to them. I found Faye Wong’s character in particular to be immensely adorable and appealing. Chungking Express may seem to treat romance like fast-food at times, but I still love how the mechanics of the movie work. It’s a real movie movie.

“Are we not men?”

Finally, the film I thought the most highly of that I saw recently was The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the BountyThe Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as a mad scientist who is using evil science to accelerate animals’ evolution so that they may become weird hairy humans. This is my kind of movie. It’s got a wonderfully pulpy premise (courtesy of H.G. Wells), great set design, a scantily clad female, and Bela Lugosi looking like the “Pogs” guy. The mad scientist genre can be a great one and this might be one of the best (alongside the first two Frankenstein movies). A classic atmospheric pre-code horror flick with edge, uncomfortable bits, grim foreboding, and suspense. I couldn’t tell you more. The movie is great and I just loved it. It just gives me one more reason to believe that the 1930s were one of the best decades for American film.

For those who have still been curious about my movie tastes, perhaps this layout might clarify a few things. What were some of the last few films you saw and how would you rank them?

‘Cause Those Nazis Ain’t Gonna Smash Themselves

Slight break with tradition today. Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher (2011…) is not a movie. It is a show. It is a one man show. Not a movie. Yet I write anyhow. I have been having a hard time finding inspiration in the cinematic world as of late. I blame myself. Also a neverending host of ho-hum movies. Naturally when I see something that really excites me I feel a strange compulsion to write about it. I call it the twinge.

Humphrey Ker’s award winning one man show, Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher, was quite a sneaky surprise to weasel its way onto my schedule. I was told of a show (via facebook, perhaps you’ve heard of it) that it was playing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood. The friend who invited me said that a friend of his (Ker) was putting on some sort of play and that it would be funny and that I should go. Not knowing anything beyond this, I only had to glance at the title once to seriously consider thinking about it.

I had seen some bad shows before. Would this disappoint me too?

Traffic on a Wednesday night might not be too terrible, but who to go with me? Surely folks would be clamoring to see the so-called smashing of Nazis. I was quite dumfounded to discover that many people I invited were either not interested, too busy, or just didn’t feel like it. So basically I am writing this with a dual purpose. A: to tell of my enjoyment of the show and admiration for its performer and B: to stick it to all those tinkling stuffy posh anus-nibblers who missed out. The apathetic flakedom, which is the Southern California mentality, is an infectious disease and can lead to being extremely dull if not treated with sporadic doses of culture.

But really, I also want to encourage people to see shows. The movies are great. . . can be great, but sometimes breaking up your week with a real event can be refreshing and unforgettable. See more shows.

We made it to the theater (one gangly fellow did agree to go) and we spent about 28 minutes locating a parking space. We waited in line. Our hands were stamped. We joked and laughed and pondered the proximity of a pisser to purge our bladders. The doors were opened. We entered. We sat down in the tiny, intimate, black-box theater. We purged our bladders. We sat back down. There was an excessive amount of scarves that night. This was an upscale hipster’s Hollywood. The lights dimmed. The show started.

Actual review: comedian and actor from across the pond, Humphrey Ker, is a fine performer and he has a sharp wit to boot. His piece follows the narrative of a young British soldier who specializes in things Romanian, the eponymous Dymock Watson. From a series of suspicious murders, to secret orders, torrid romance, intrigue, espionage, mistaken identities, magic, and an invisible dog that puts Uggie from The Artist to shame, Ker takes us on a real journey. Clever character pops and well-timed costume changes abound in this laugh-a-line WWII spy farce that takes shots at every period war movie cliche in the book. I was reminded of some of my favorites like The Guns of Navarone, The Devil’s Brigade, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

When Dymock Watson finds himself parachuting out of a plane and deep behind enemy lines and his team getting shorter by the minute, it soon becomes apparent that if anyone is going to be able to complete the mission and blow up the dam (smashing the Nazis) it’s going to be Dymock. But there is a saboteur in their midst, but who could it be?

I really enjoyed the cleverness of the jokes. I like clever things, you see. Virtually every line of this wonderful story is either a great line or a humorous set-up. The performer runs the gamut from broader comedy involving clever anachronistic dialogue and funny observations about the times to subtler, smarter jokes with material gleaned from history, literature, and elsewhere. I also really appreciate that most of the humor derives from the characters themselves. In addition to Ker’s excellent writing, he also displays his keenness to ad lib with the audience when the occasion calls for it. The story is not merely slapdash, but highly engaging and entertaining. You feel like you go on an epic journey with Dymock, despite the minimalism of the stage. Ker himself proves his written abilities as well as his talents as a performer. Basically I loved it like a Russian girl loves Americans. Yeah, I don’t know either. The ads on certain cites always say that. I highly enjoyed myself and found that it was well worth the price of admission, the headache finding someone to go with, and the drive.

Some of the best comedians tell stories. From Bill Cosby to Louis C. K., some comedians know how to stretch out a story and squeeze out all the comedy. Humphrey Ker takes things in a slightly different direction. He takes archetypes from a classic war drama and throttles them into humor. For approximately 50 minutes Ker dons many characters (whose jingoistic identities may seem strangely familiar) and wields them all well to convey a fun plot that leaves plenty of room for nonstop laughs. It’s not just a joke story. It’s something bigger than that.

You know how disappointing the trailers for Jackboots on Whitehall (2010) looked? (Especially if you’ve seen Team America: World Police). This is way better. I don’t want to spoil too much of the show, so just go see it. You will laugh and you will thank me.

You might be asking yourself, “Well, that’s great, BurrelloSubmarine, but you’re a movie reviewer. What background qualifications could you possibly have to evaluate the aesthetic and emotional effectiveness of this limey’s stage show?” First off, don’t use the term limey. We say lobsterbacks now. Secondly, I have a wealth of expertise in judging spoken performances, you presumptuous twit. I have been involved in the world of forensics (or speech & debate) for many years as both competitor, coach, and judge and I think I know what I’m talking about. Apart from that I done lol’d most heartily and that should be good enough for anybody.

Go see Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher if you can. Humphrey Ker is a wonderful entertainer with brilliant comic timing. And moreover, just go to a live show. The movie theaters have enough of your money. It’s time to smash some Nazis, kids.

This show really inspired me. Someday, Lord willing, I want to do a one-man-show.