Drugs, Dwarfs, Tong Wars, Sex Slavery, and Vincent Price

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“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!”

Now we could argue all day about whether or not this film is actually good. Whether it was politically correct in its portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Whether it was sensitive to the actual tragedies of real human sex trafficking. Whether it even accurately depicts the effects of opium. At the end of the day Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price (Theater of Blood, House of Wax, Comedy of Terrors, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Edward Scissorhands) and a mostly Asian cast, it’s just too weird of a movie not to geek out about.

4

De Quincey meets the mysterious Ruby Lo.

Confessions of an Opium Eater, directed by exploitation director Albert Zugsmith and apparently very liberally inspired by the memoirs of Thomas De Quincey, is a weird bit of exotic thriller pulp. It should rank alongside Coke Ennyday and the Mystery of the Leaping Fish* (1916) for weird, vintage drug movies or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for Chinatown-is-magic action movies.

*Oh, it’s a real movie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes spoof with super Popeye crime-fighting powers whenever he snorts cocaine. The best bits are when he makes the bad guys O.D. and they shoot through the roof. For 1916, it’s hilariously cavalier about drug use.

7

One alternative American title for this movie was “Souls for Sale.” Fitting.

The movie begins with a somber, reflective voice-over narration as we see a Chinese junk drifting in the mists of a murky, bathtub sea. We get the credits and a skeleton washed up on a forgotten beach. Then we get almost 10 straight minutes of no dialogue; just drugged up Chinese women being loaded into a net and transplanted from ship to shore, where a small hook-filled battle erupts. There’s a lot of desperation and suspense and mystery already. Also a bad guy gets murdered by a random horse, which is always great.

Vincent Price (perhaps woefully miscast, but just maybe his out-of-place poetic, world-weary melancholy and hammy energy are actually what makes this movie so deliciously strange) plays Gilbert de Quincey, a mysterious turn-of-the-century sailor man with a cryptic tie to the Orient. De Quincey, a passive character who wanders about as if in a sort of dream, gets mixed up in the Tong wars going on in the nineteenth century streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He meets a host of culturally sensitive Chinese characters such as the sneaky, deceitful merchant; the manipulative dragon lady; the bribe-able opium dealer; and the helpless lotus flower waif who needs a white man to save her from sex slavery. Like I said, it might not be the most P.C. flick, but, to its credit, the cast is nearly all an authentic Chinese cast (minus one dwarf, but we’ll get back to her later). The cheesy broken English is made even weirder when they awkwardly speak it when Vincent Price is not around (it’s sad because you know actors like Philip Ahn speak perfect English and they have to dumb it all down) and even sillier when Vincent Price talks to them using flowery Shakespearean language meant to evoke deep philosophical sophistication. Price waxes poetic like a jackass while his Asian co-stars are lacking definite articles and proper verb conjugation. Yet never a miscommunication.

2

A grateful Lotus embraces De Quincey.

De Quincey gets captured and lackadaisically falls for a lovely Chinese girl named Lotus (June Kyoto Lu) whom he rescues from axe-murderers. A nice secret dumbwaiter getaway and sewer battle ensues. He also meets a power-hungry Asian seductress, Ruby Lo (played very well by Linda Ho). She is the true puppet master of the devilish proceedings of Chinatown’s seedy underbelly and, once she gets enough treasure and opium, she will return to China and lead an army…that will do…something.

It goes without saying that Ruby Lo is a way more interesting that Lotus (and, by de facto, much sexier), but the real intriguing character is the fearless, tough-talking Chinese midget named Child (played by Yvonne Moray who also appeared in Wizard of Oz and Terror of Tiny Town). She’s like Zelda Rubinstein and Linda Hunt with even more chutzpah. She’s seen it all and doesn’t really care what the world has to say. She’s feisty and optimistic—even when facing certain death. She’s pretty much the best character ever. I liked the movie a lot before she shows up (arriving floating down a dark corridor in a suspended bamboo cage), but after that I loved the movie. And she’s not the only little person in this movie. Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) has a bit part as a newspaperman in the beginning.

3

Yvonne Moray as Child.

Vincent Price is known for playing spooky killers and tortured killers and obsessed killers (he’s got a bit of a persona), so seeing him as a butthole action guy is kind of surreal. Anyway, this movie is weird for a number of reasons, Vincent Price being an action guy not least of them. The majority of the cast being Asian is unique for an early ’60s Hollywood movie (almost no objectionable “yellow-face”). The dialogue has only two modes: Vincent Price ham poetry and stilted Chinaman-ese. It really sort of fetishizes human sex trafficking and by that I mean it doesn’t exactly condone it (only the bad guys are involved in it), but at the same time the film tries to make it sexy. Between the floating bamboo cages, steamy dance numbers, seeming disposable nature of women, it’s all rather fetishistic. It’s hard to say your film is condemning using women as sex props when your movie pretty much uses them as sex props. I like secret trapdoors and hidden passageways and cool torture devices, but maybe it’s all too campy for something as serious as human sex trafficking. The atmosphere of the movie, aided by Price’s creepy, condescending line delivery and narration readings, is very eerie and dreamlike. The musical score helps that feeling too. The music sounds like vaguely hypnotic theremin tones. Then occasionally all music and sound will drop out and it’ll feel even weirder. There is really only one scene where our hero actually smokes opium…AND THAT SCENE IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

5

You’re tripping balls, man…

 Skulls and sawfish parade by along with a host of other phantasmagoric imagery and nightmarishly distorted countenances during his trip…and then he wakes up and we get a 1960s soundless stoner action scene with Chinese axe-throwers and Vincent Price running around in late 1800s ‘Frisco. It’s way too cool to even be real. Even the ending of this movie feels bizarre, like we’re all stuck in suspended animation. Does he die? What happens? Where are they going? Did they kill the bad guy? What’s happening? Who was the random guy at the end who was in disguise? Is it over?

1

I’m beginning to think this is not a Edgar Allen Poe adaptation.

I really don’t know what else to say. Watch this movie if you can find it. It’s weird. If you’ve read any of my reviews of other old movies you’d know I’m exceedingly forgiving of racism, sexism, and cheesiness in my vintage pulp. Take it all for what it is. Don’t be offended. It’s a peculiar and unflattering history lesson to watch these old movies. Moral of the story: locate Confessions of an Opium Eater and enjoy all it’s weird, uncomfortable, erotic dreaminess. Maybe make it a double feature with Reefer Madness (1936).

Picture References:

http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com/archives/2013/10/confessions_of.html

http://www.midnightonly.com/2013/04/21/confessions-of-an-opium-eater-1962/

http://scalisto.blogspot.kr/2013/06/albert-zugsmith-confessions-of-opium.html

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Around the World in 80 Days: Is it Really the Worst Best Picture?

Premise: In 1976 Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It beat Taxi DriverAll the President’s MenBound for Glory, and Network. While most of us love Rocky, we do feel like there were definitely some better movies nominated that year that maybe deserved it more. Rocky was the safe pick.

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I'm Sly!

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I’m Sly!

Sometimes it’s a tough call. My Fair Lady beat Mary PoppinsBecketZorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove in 1964. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat JawsDog Day AfternoonNashville, and Barry Lyndon in 1975. Those years were anyone’s game.

On rare occasions I all-encompassingly agree with the Academy’s decision (e.g. On the Waterfront was an obvious win). Sometimes a winner is reviled or labeled “overrated” by folks were preferred other nominees (e.g. CrashRocky, etc.). Rarer still is the occasion when I must defend a snubbed winner.

I know exactly why Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners, but I am here to defend it. I’m in an awkward place because this is actually one of my favorite movies. . . but did it deserve the Oscar? Let’s take a look at the successes and shortcomings of Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.

atw80d13 drink

*slurrrrp*

Perspective: 80 Days beat out Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper is a conflicted Quaker), Giant (James Dean finds oil), The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein ensure happy and balanced America-Thai relations FOREVER!…it’s actually still banned there, I think), and The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille makes the religious epic to end all religious epics).

Around the World in 80 Days was a bold widescreen period epic that employed nearly 70,000 extras and nearly 8,000 animals and required moving crews of thousands to relocate equipment and people to thirteen different countries. In addition to the wild costumes, exotic locations, and incredible set-pieces; countless Hollywood hotshots were given cameo bit parts throughout the film. Some movie star extras include Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown, Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jose Greco, Hermoine Gingold, Charles Boyer, Red Skelton, John Mills, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, and more.

atw80d8 sinatra

“Sgt. Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.”

Full Disclosure: Friendly Persuasion is good, but High Noon was the Gary Cooper film that should have won something. I actually haven’t seen Giant (yet), but I’m not a big Elizabeth Taylor fan and wonder if it really could be better than East of Eden for Dean flicks (my favorite). The King and I is a lavish, vibrant, and somewhat racist pageant show that boasts a few great songs and a lot of tedious bits. We can’t be too down on The King and I for racial mischaracterization because 80 Days is actually guilty of the same (and in way more countries). Finally, The Ten Commandments is an incredible visual feast with another epic cast list, and while I still do love a lot of the biblical melodrama and the impressive score, this film sometimes does feel too long (still maybe better paced than Ben-Hur though…but Ben-Hur is probably the better film).

atw80d14 bike

+5 points for penny-farthing.

I’ve heard it said that Around the World in 80 Days is proof you can buy an Oscar—due to its high production costs and lavish flourishes. But come on! The King and I and The Ten Commandments might be even more lavish and even flourishier. The only real difference here is that Around the World in 80 Days seems less pretentious.

I’m also somewhat biased because I do like travelogue adventures, Jules Verne, and levity.

The Skinny: Following a long prologue about the possibilities of technology and the influence of prophetic science-fiction writers on scientific progress, presented by Edward R. Murrow who shows us Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. . . our story finally begins.

There's a Visine for that.

There’s a Visine for that.

Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is an exceedingly punctual and fastidious 19th century British gentleman. On a whim over a game of whist he decides to prove to his aristocratic colleagues that he can successfully circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. The wager is set.

Fogg takes his amorous new servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), along for the ride.

Detective Fix (Robert Newton), a Scotland Yard agent under the suspicion that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, pursues.

Despite the demands of the trek, Fogg and Passpartout manage to find the time to rescue an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) too.

Modes of transportation include trains, ships, coaches, hot air balloons, horses, ostriches, elephants, and more.

Lands traversed include England, France, Spain, India, China, Japan, the United States, and then some.

atw80d4-balloon landing

What do you mean matte paintings would be cheaper than all this travel?

The Good: The cast and characters themselves are great. So Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly Indian, but Cantinflas certainly isn’t French (as he is described in the book). Niven is the perfect Fogg and Cantinflas is one of the most fun movie sidekicks of all time as Passepartout.

The film boasts some snappy dialogue, riddled with wit and smarm (one of the screenwriters was American humorist S. J. Perleman). There is an abundance of clever lines and welcome character moments. The script never let’s us forget the stakes or to remind us that it’s all for fun.

atw80d7 wager

So British it hurts.

The scenery is great and the film makes wonderful use of the widescreen photography. Remember, in 1956 most people hadn’t really seen much of the rest of the world. This was their chance to get the Disney-fied Haliburton experience from the comfort of a theater seat.

The film has a loose buoyancy to it and never loses its spirit of fun and adventure—even when the ubiquitous threat of immolation at the hands of politcally incorrect uncouthed savages looms large. There is a pleasing and self-depricating sense of patriotism for both Brits and Yanks alike. That it can manage to be both cavalier and suspenseful at the same time is something of a noteworthy feat as well.

This is a great album.

This is a great album.

The score is fantastic. Composer Victor Young creates wonderful atmosphere and momentum. There are several very memorable themes. Each country and character gets special musical treatment. Seriously, find the soundtrack and listen to it. It is sublime.

The great intro credits artist, Saul Bass, also provides a very fun cartoon at the end. . . that summarizes the entire three hour film in about seven minutes.

atw80d1

Saul Bass is amazing.

The Bad: The production itself is a staggering achievement and that this ambitious globe-trotting feature is not a mess are positives, however, there are some problems. The movie, perhaps by design, is structured in a fairly episodic manner (there are a lot of isolated mini-adventures throughout, but that seems unavoidable in a story like this. Heck, the original Jules Verne novel is crazy episodic).

atw80d11 stranded2

Cantinflas, Niven, Newton, and MacLaine wait for a train.

The film’s camera direction is actually stultifyingly unimaginative. Very basic shots. Establishing shots and two shots and wide shots. That’s about it. Nothing particularly inspired in the cinematography department, but it could be argued that the content being filmed was so impressively orchestrated that it needed no distracting angles or frills.

183 minutes is a long commitment and you notice more when scenes linger at that length. Most of the movie clips along nicely and there are very few boring scenes. The flight over France, the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain, and the train ride through the Indian jungle, however, as great as they are, do feel like they go on a tad too long. Perhaps they were just so taken with what they were filming they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it.

atw80d12 train

Sir Topham Hatt blew his whistle, but Percy kept on chugging, defiant to the end.

Some of the cultural representations might feel a little insensitive today. The angry mob that chases Passepartout after he shoos a cow in India; the bloodthirsty Native Americans attacking the train; German actor Peter Lorre being Japanese (a reference to his Mr. Moto days).

The ending is really perplexing. It’s funny, I guess, but even as a kid it felt tonally wrong. The last thirty seconds of this three hour movie are just so bafflingly off that if it wasn’t for the Saul Bass cartoon that immediately followed I reckon even more people would dislike this movie. You can’t invest three hours into something that is going to be written off so flippantly and strangely in the homestretch. It’s a decent joke, but it just comes at the wrong time.

The Leftovers: The novelty of seeing all those old Hollywood celebrities comprise the background atmosphere may have lost some its luster over time as many of the then-famous faces are now unknown to many today.

atw80d5 henrietta

The suspenseful journey across the Atlantic is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

It’s not a great anthropological exploration of the many cultures around the world, but it’s not really trying to be (more a series of snapshots). With regards to its hasty and generalizing representations it can be likened to the It’s a Small World ride at Diseneyland. Oversimplified, but, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.

So what is it? It’s an adventure movie, a road movie, a comedy, a joking prod at British classism, a wild western movie, a suspense movie, and tack on a somewhat limited romance as well.

Ultimately: I suspect people think that Giant or The Ten Commandments should have won. I suspect they feel that Around the World in 80 Days was too light and fun to be important and too sweeping and grandiose while failing to be more artistic. I suspect they feel it was gimmicky and perhaps kitsch. Too broadly painted to be taken seriously.

atw80d9 colman

New plan: the team from Guns of Navarone will free the Prisoner of Zenda.

Honestly, Around the World in 80 Days is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, but for me it still is a great feel-good crowd-pleaser. When I was a little kid borrowing this from my local library I had no idea it was such a hotly contested Oscar winner. I didn’t even know what the Oscars were or that it had won. Perhaps I am too nostalgic for it, but I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to hate this movie.

Maybe The Ten Commandments should have won. I don’t know. It’s not like the Oscars actually have any bearing over how good or bad a film really is. The Court Jester, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! weren’t even nominated that year (because comedy, science fiction, and atomic parables with giant lizards are not high art).

Thus saith the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord.

There have been plenty of wins, and even nominations, I didn’t particularly care for. There have also been plenty of movies I thought were great that never even got nominated. Does the say-so of “The Academy” really matter? Maybe not. So for all those haters out there who like to downplay Around the World in 80 Days, let me just remind you: get over it.

And while I still think Network and the other 1976 nominees were better than Rocky I don’t begrudge Rocky. Good for Rocky. But I have my alternative preferences.

picture references:

http://wall.alphacoders.com/by_sub_category.php?id=172040

http://floobynooby.blogspot.kr/2012/04/saul-bass-1920-1996.html

http://tehparadox.com/forum/f89/around-world-80-days-1956-a-5139594/

http://thebestpictureproject.wordpress.com/tag/red-sea/

http://silentlondon.co.uk/2011/05/23/a-trip-to-the-moon-and-silent-animated-shorts-at-the-barbican-26-june-2011/

http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1435873280/tt0048960?ref_=ttmd_md_nxt

http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/02/worst-movies-that-won-oscars/around-the-world-in-80-days

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on May 20, 2014.

It’s About Time

Future Thanksgiving

Future Thanksgiving

H.G. Wells’ stories have been adapted countless times from the good, James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), to the not so good, Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (1976). My personal favorite movie take on Wells is The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Arguably, however, his most famous novels were War of the Worlds (adapted into okay but flawed films in 1953 and in 2005) and The Time Machine (adapted most famously in 1960 and 2002).

It's right behind me, isn't it.

It’s right behind me, isn’t it.

Originally published in 1895, The Time Machine, like most of H.G. Wells’ books was more a social commentary than straight up science-fiction. If Jules Verne was more about the possibilities and potential of science untethered, then Wells was brimming with parables condemning contemporary mores. In the story we meet the Time Traveler, a turn of the century man (like Wells himself) who gets the opportunity—via the eponymous time machine—to see what the world is destined to become.

One ring to rule them all...

One ring to rule them all…

In the future, the Time Traveler encounters two subdivisions of humanity. Evolution has divided the human race into the blissfully ignorant, childish, and decadent Eloi and the subterranean, industrial predators known as the Morlocks. Knowing a thing or two about Victorian classism helps illuminate what the tale is really about. The Eloi are the ultimate conclusion of the aristocracy—they care little and know less and they live lavish lifestyles with no work so they become ambitionless and infantile. The Morlocks are where the workers are headed—spending their entire lives in dehumanizing factories, never seeing the light of day. The irony is that in the Time Traveler’s era, the rich exploit the working class and in the future the rich have become the docile cattle for the cannibalistic proletariat.

While I like and dislike things about both the 1960 and the 2002 versions of The Time Machine, regrettably this cuttingly dark satirical element is never quite expressed in either.

time machine10

I miss you, Lolita.

The Good

The 1960 version of The Time Machine, directed by George Pal (War of the Worlds), stars Rod Taylor (The Birds) as the inventor. His Victorian gentlemen pals think he’s insane when he proposes the impossible idea of time travel. Sebastion Cabot (The Jungle Book) and Alan Young (Mr. Ed) memorably play two of his skeptical friends. It is through Young’s character (Filby), the sensitive and affable bookend, that gives this film the heart it needed.

The time travel sequences themselves are great and wonderfully executed (copious usage of stop-motion and time-lapse photography). The wild plains, vegetation-overgrown minimalist future-buildings, and the Morlock sphinxes are atmospheric and good as well.

Filby and  VOX

Filby and VOX

The 2002 version also has some good points to it. It was directed by H.G.’s great-grandson, Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt), and starred Guy Pearce (Memento). They up the stakes a tad by giving the inventor a deep, personal reason for building the time machine: his girlfriend is killed by a mugger. At first he goes back in time to save her, but he cannot seem to change the past. If he averts danger once she will only be killed in a different way. He then travels forward in time to the future to find the answer to why he cannot change the past.

This premise is actually pretty good. Like the 1960 movie, he stops in the near future first and witnesses the effects of war and progress, but he also meets a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who helps provide necessary exposition and some subtle comic relief. The librarian character is totally new and I actually think he services and amplifies the story in an innovative way.

Again, the time travel sequences are really well done (this time with computerized special effects). The impressive images and swelling score captures the breadth of change on a cultural and geological scale.

1.21 gigawatts?!

1.21 gigawatts?!

Lastly, the Time Machine itself. Both films feature similar designs for the title apparatus. Both feature a barbershop chair, home-made doorknob cranks, a spinning mechanical calendar, and a huge disc positioned behind the passenger. Rod Taylor’s machine looks a bit like a steampunk swamp-mobile and Guy Pearce’s incorporates two large, spinning thingies that create a time envelope around the entire machine (looks like a shiny, giant hamster ball). Seriously, both time machine designs are awesome.

The Bad

I insist both films have some great setups and great gadgets and both Time Travelers are played by fine actors and both have at least one solid supporting cast member. Their depictions of Victorian England/New York are well done and the time travel sequences are fantastic. But then we get to the future. Both Time Travelers make a few pleasant and intriguing stops along the way before the year 802,701 AD, but once at their final destination the films seem to be on autopilot.

time machine comparison 2

Everything leading up to 802,701 had been changed or expanded upon from the original novel. The changes were appropriate and added dimension and soul. But Wells’ future loses all social significance in both films and the filmmakers (George Pal and Simon Wells) seem unsure of what to do with the Eloi and the Morlocks and the context of two opposing races of humans where one feeds on the other.

While neither film gets the Eloi or the Morlocks quite right, the 1960 version does come closer. Both versions insist on making the Eloi too human, while the book describes them as nonverbal alien babies with no long-term or short-term memory. But all movies seem to require romance and since he cannot fall in love with a Morlock, the Time Traveler naturally develops feelings for an Eloi girl (Weena, played by Yvette Mimieux in 1960 and Mara, played by Samantha Mumba in 2002). In the 1960 version, Rod Taylor gets appropriately frustrated with the Eloi and eventually pities them and their broken culture. In 2002, Guy Pearce is just innocently learning the ways of a somewhat naive but defined culture that vaguely resembles Native American societies. . . or Ewoks.

Mumba vs. Mimieux

I understand why they humanized the Eloi so much. The filmmakers probably don’t think an audience would go for our protagonist being truly alone with no real good guys versus bad guys. That said, the Morlocks also suck. 1960 has blue, dopey sumo guys with furry arms and lovehandles—but their eyes do glow! They also get killed way too easily to be scary, but at least their design in more interesting than in the 2002 version.

time machine morlocks

The newer movie has boring, beige, gorilla-like Morlocks that are big but not scary. . . until we meet the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons (The Mission). Irons is the smartest person in this future and he is able to relate all the horrors of the past few millenia and even is able to answer the Time Traveler’s question. Unfortunately he only has about 5 minutes of screentime and his character feels tacked on (because the movie needed a clear villain).

The 1960 version has a Rod Serling-esque nightmare Eloi harvest. A siren calls the complacent Eloi to parade quietly into the Morlock sphinxes. It is an inbred Pavlovian memory of the air-raid sirens that told their ancestors to flee underground. The 2002 update rips off The Planet of Apes (1968) round up scene. Big guys in suits chase and capture dudes who look like extras from Apocalypto.

time machine12

Stand back. There’s a giant Bugs Bunny around here somewhere.

Ultimately

I actually like both films to a degree. I really do enjoy the George Pal version from 1960, despite a weaker third act (that is somewhat resurrected through Morlock massacre and Filby’s adorable conclusion back in the past). The structure is good and it’s a very well done science-fiction film that just loses its way ever so slightly after 802,701 AD. It’s a solid movie that might underplay the social satire and not do justice to the Eloi or the Morlocks, but it makes up for it with great characters, atmosphere, and pleasant bookends.

And that's how I did it.

And that’s how I did it.

The Simon Wells 2002 adaptation has a solid and thoughtful beginning and setup that unfortunately devolves into a weak action movie after 802,701. It royally screws up the Eloi and removes the darkness from the Morlocks (with the exception of the added Jeremy Irons character in the homsetretch). It doesn’t totally work, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It just can’t consistently deliver the goods the way it should.

For all their flaws, both movies have some charm, pleasing eye candy, and add some of their own intriguing elements to Wells’ original novel. The Morlocks as depicted in Wishbone were better, but I’d still recommend checking out these guys again.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30th, 2013.

Richard Nixon Sat On a Wall…

In lieu of the politics of late…

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a room full of nothing but all of the very best political movies that my resilient retinas have allowed entry. Amongst such wonderful films as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Costa-Gravas’ Z (1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), etc. there sits one movie on a shabby desk with crumpled papers and notepads littering an otherwise visible typewriter. This movie is Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men (1976) starring Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) as the now legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that ousted Nixon from his presidential office.

When nobody seems to be questioning a possible link between five Cubans breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building and an ever-expanding list of politicos who are remaining decidedly tacit about the whole ordeal, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) starts pestering his boss, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Once Upon a Time in the West), at the Washington Post to let him write more on the subject. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is assigned the project alongside the newer Woodward. No other papers seem interested in Watergate and more than half the country never heard of Watergate, but Woodward and Bernstein are determined to find the truth and discover why people keep changing their stories. What is everybody hiding? Through the anonymous source “Deep Throat” a.k.a. W. Mark Felt (Hal Holbrook), Woodward is encouraged that he is on the right track, but confounded by how ambiguous and elusive his source is . . . Ben Bradlee proves even more confounded by their lack of solid evidence. With bigger and bigger names being pulled from the investigative hat with no nameable source, and Bradlee’s neck on the line, it boils down to an all or nothing stance for the Washington Post to take…and they risk it all. If the Committee to Reelect President Nixon was involved with the Watergate burglary (and they deny it vehemently) then the Washington Post will be in a lot of trouble, but if Woodward and Bernstein are correct then it will be quite a story.

That’s the basics of what happens in the movie and the book it was based on (written by Woodward and Bernstein), but the real important thing to take away from this fantastic film is the power of the press and investigative reporting. This movie champions journalists and real journalism like no other, specifically American journalism. Watching this film it is hard not to realize how blessed we are that we live in a nation where this story could have happened. John Peter Zenger would be proud. Regardless of how our leaders may attempt to conceal the truth, let us never forget that we live in a nation where the truth can be uncovered as long as the drive to expose it exists. This brings me to another inspiring aspect of the film: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein themselves! They dug. They didn’t have to. They risked a lot (before either of them had reputations), not because they were asked to (Bradlee wanted them to stop in the beginning), but because the truth was somewhere to be found. Was it so the American people would know? Was it to bother the government? Was it for the story? Was it for their own pride? Was it because the authoritative power of the truth was inherently driving them? Maybe it was just so people could be reminded that they could find the truth, even if nobody cared.

Freedom of the press and free speech is not merely a right as an American. It is an obligation. A questioning and discerning public should keep its government from misstepping too drastically.

Where Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) desperately charges that the American people must know the truth at all costs (and does a good job of it), All the President’s Men never feels like it’s pushing any sort of agenda. Questions must be asked and answered because it is the natural way of humankind. It is how the youngest child learns and why should it be any different for the rest of us? All the President’s Men is one of the finest examples of investigative reporting caught on film and should inspire the reporters of today. Virtually the whole movie is Woodward and Bernstein asking questions and probing reluctant people through phone calls—practically half the movie is shots of people talking on the phone—and doorstep visitations and parking garage rendezvous.

In addition to the themes, the very craft of the film is great. The cast is perfect and the direction, writing, editing, cinematography, etc. are all top notch as well. There’s a reason it was nominated for so many awards (including Best Picture). All the President’s Men, in addition to being one of the greatest American movies, is one of the most American movies and it says and does things that can’t be said or done too often.

I was just thinking, this might make an interesting (if a bit strange) double-feature with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). That way you’d get two different extremes of American journalism. Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had teamed up with Hunter S. Thompson! No. That’s way too far.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 13, 2010

Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

See, Here’s the Thing…from Another World

The face of science fiction is an ever-evolving curiosity. Every era brings something new and exciting. Whether it is Jules Verne or Isaac Asimov that tickles your fancy, you like your science fiction clever and full of wonder. If you like space aliens, suspense, and sharp dialogue you will love the Howard Hawks’ film, The Thing from Another World (1951).

When you examine the ambitious roots of the sci-fi flick it’s really quite a wonder. Science fiction, by nature has to be audacious. That’s what I loved about the Victorian era of science fiction: space was still full of immeasurable potential and possibilities. When Georges Melies made his amazing Trip to the Moon in 1902 the world got a taste for what worlds beyond could look like. The bulk of early science fiction movies explored the wonder and awesome possibilities of outer space. By the time the 1950s rolled around space still held a lot of wonder and excitement, but there was also increased fear and the movies became more ominous, foreboding, and frightening. The movies began reflecting fears of communism, wars, etc. Rather than bold scientists traveling to the moon, this next tier of science fiction dealt more with the warning and horrors of spacemen coming to our planet. . . and turning out to be not so friendly. I think this concept was best encapsulated in The Thing From Another World.

The Thing has it all. An alien flying saucer crash-lands in The Arctic Circle near a military research base (or something. . . it really doesn’t matter). An alien (James Arness), encased in a block of ice, is retrieved from the spacecraft. It is brought back to the base to be studied more closely. Before long, an absent-minded soldier (suspecting the creature to be staring at him through the ice) flees his post and leaves an electric blanket on the ice block. Naturally the thaw is accelerated and the creature escapes his frozen prison. It soon becomes very apparent that this is a miraculous yet dangerous discovery so we naturally get the classic tri-corner conflict: the military who wants to destroy it to protect humanity vs. the scientist who is blinded by the possibilities of contact with an alien race and will sacrifice humanity to keep the contact alive vs. the reporter who just wants to get the scoop.

The alien is ubiquitous, but rarely seen—except for a few key scenes—and requires the blood of animals and people to sustain life. The scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), soon discovers that the space creature is more plant than animal. The scientist also discovers (but keeps it to himself) that the alien has shed spores to grow more creatures like it. Carrington, believing the creature to be superior to mankind, wants to communicate with it and allow it to take over the earth. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), will not allow the creature to go on killing innocent people. The reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), can’t get a single clear picture of the monster. And there’s your trifecta.

Did I mention that the monster was also radioactive? Didn’t have to, right? Because it’s a 50s science fiction movie! You already knew. The radioactivity shtick is more than just a gimmick to be topical in this movie, however. They use it in a very clever way. There is a Geiger counter that ticks and crackles louder and louder whenever the creature gets closer. This adds a welcome dose of suspense and it is used to great affect.

As a blizzard limits their mobility, the monster continues to suck the blood of the captain’s men and sled dogs while it also systematically cutting off their power, forcing the people into smaller and smaller confines on the base. If you saw Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) you may spot some similarities: a rarely seen phantom monster bumps off characters in gruesome ways while slowly cutting off the supplies and places to hide and getting closer and closer. Same thing, except instead of being trapped in outer space they’re trapped in a research base in the frozen arctic. The 1982 remake of The Thing put its own twists on things. John Carpenter’s The Thing is more of a reimagining of the Howard Hawks original. The remake has the creature replicating people and infiltrating the base in even more horrific ways. It’s a gross out feature with some great, disturbing special effects from Rob Bottin and Kurt Russell in mascara. Some days I like John Carpenter’s version even better than the original, but not today.

So we’ve covered the basics of this film: a blood-sucking six-foot vegetable man is roaming around the tundra and many people are all locked inside a rapidly shrinking base awaiting their fates. The scientist wants to preserve the monster at all costs and the military wants to stop it from killing again. All the classic moves, but what makes this particular film stand apart from the hundreds of other spaceman movies that came out around this time? Answer: the characters and the writing. While a lot of 50s sci-fi horror is campy and loopy and loves its stoically wooden protagonists, The Thing From Another World is firstly interested in the people. It’s not all about the monster out there in the snow. This movie is more about the human struggle to find reason and understanding amongst each other. There is a lack of trust between many of the main characters (mainly from Dr. Carrington) and this leads to many a great debate about the significance or insignificance of the human race. I’ve painted the characters rather broadly in this article, but I assure you they have much more dimension than the strict ideologies they represent. Then there’s the writing. When I first saw this film at around age 14 I was actually really impressed with the sharp, witty dialogue. I was used to the more hokey aphorism-riddled verbal interplay of the standard old-timey B-movie (a genre I actually really like) and was taken aback that they had gone for more. The story is fascinating and tightly woven and the characters are all fully realized (there may be a bit of melodramatic acting here and there, but that’s all part of the fun).

The Thing from Another World is also genuinely suspenseful and thrilling. It has some very memorable and chilling scenes. Whether it be a group of soldiers and scientists standing around the shadow of the flying saucer buried in the snow, or an ice-covered eye glaring relentlessly at a frightened guard, or a twitching severed vegetable hand on an operating table, or ominously pulsing alien pods growing in a closet, this film has the cards to play and knows exactly when to play them. We don’t see the monster often, but you won’t be bored with the human element (a criminal mistake of many a forgettable B-movie is to make the monster immensely more enjoyable than the people and then never showing it). It’s not by chance that The Thing is regarded as a classic. I think it is one of the best representations from this genre.

So if you loved Alien (1979) or John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) or if you love the older classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) or if you just always wondered what they were watching on the TV set in that one scene from Halloween (1978) then check out The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s a very enjoyable film and I think you’ll like it.

picture references:

ferdyonfilms.com

eons.com

homestead.com

dvdtimes.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 6, 2010

Bogey Gets the Gold

As I sit and type in this infernal LA heat I feel it only appropriate to write about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The great John Huston (Moby Dick, Wise Blood) directed this golden classic in 1948 which was based on the novel of the same name written by the mysterious B. Traven. Much of it was filmed on location in the sweltering heat of Mexico. The film starred Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Caine Mutiny), Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine), and John’s father Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln, The Devil and Daniel Webster) as a ragged trio of down-and-out fortune hunters seeking to find gold in a cruel 1920s Mexican desert. It is a rich and complex film that boldly neglects sentimentality in favor of a delirious story about greed, betrayal, paranoia, and the death of human decency in the face of all three.

John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had teamed up previously for Huston’s first film and solid noir classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and would pair up again after Sierra Madre for more unmissable classics, Key Largo (1948) with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson and The African Queen (1951) with Katherine Hepburn. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is another first rate character drama loaded with tension and texture. Its a fantastic classic not to be missed.

The gunfire from Federales executing bandits rings in the distance. People peddle their wares on every corner and all around is the inescapably dense feeling of stifling heat and the odor of too many humans living too close to each other. A sweaty, grizzled hobo, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), begs for pennies in the chaotic and colorful post Mexican Revolution town of Tampico. He is a self-professed “fellow American who is down on his luck” who sleeps on park benches and lives from drink to drink. Dobbs finds a fellow homeless American named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together they take a construction job from a shifty American who cheats his workers and runs off with their pay. Life is going nowhere for Dobbs and Curtin until they meet an old, penniless prospector named Howard (Walter Huston in his Academy Award winning role) in a seedy hostel. Howard jokes about the horrors he has seen and the wisdom he has gained from his many years on the trail mining gold. Dobbs doesn’t buy into the magical power of gold. He understands it all depends on what kind of a man finds it. Though he seems to be a bit cracked, the good-natured Howard is welcomed into the group of gringos by Curtin. The three invest all of what little they have attained during their cruel lives to obtain burros and supplies for a long journey and hopefully a profitable dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

Much trekking and much sweating leads them into the wilds of untamed Mexico. Jungles, deserts, banditos, and sore feet all urge them to turn back, but the hearty old prospector puts their young muscles to shame as he jovially bounds onwards and upwards as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Just as exhaustion sets in and Dobbs and Curtin prepare to turn back, Howard cackles maniacally and calls them a couple of jackasses as he claps and performs an impromptu jig, for lo and behold the very dust beneath their feet sparkles with the tantalizing hues of that which they seek: gold. They quickly set up a mine and begin their panhandling. Always wary of strangers—for the perch is precarious—they proceed to extract riches from the earth. Without permit or claim they could be run off by the government, bigger mining companies, or slaughtered by banditos. Before long the old man’s words of warning about greed and mistrust set in and Dobbs, concerned about his share of the prize requests they begin dividing up the goods every night. Howard amiably acquiesces. Soon each man is hiding their share at night, lest they get ripped off by their partners. Howard seems to be the only one who retains a peaceful, logical, level head about the matter as he has seen this sort of thing many times before. Curtin regains his balance after he rescues Dobbs from a cave in, but Dobbs has become noticeably shaken by the discovery of gold. Dobbs mutters under his breath and talks to himself and exhibits apparent mistrust of the other two men.

More gold is being taken from the weary mountain every day and the beards grow thick on the three gringos and their clothes grow more tattered and dirty. Curtin returns from running errands in the nearest town and is followed by another would-be treasure hunter, Cody (Bruce Bennett). Dobbs will have no intruders to divide his share of the gold and convinces Howard and Curtin that they need to kill him, but they wind up needing all the guns they can get when a group of banditos who “don’t need no stinking badges” show up. Their leader (Alfonso Bedoya) toys with Dobbs before a desperate fire fight ensues.  Following this skirmish it becomes increasingly apparent that Dobbs cannot be trusted and has indeed sold his soul to the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Things only heat up when the team is separated. Howard is asked to stand in as medicine man for some Indians who have a little boy who nearly drowned. The pure-hearted Curtin is then left alone with the old man’s share of the loot and a crazed Dobbs (in full on greedy Daffy Duck mode). Betrayal, paranoia, greed, and violence all permeate from the scenes that follow. The film throws a few more shocks and shots of human and moral deterioration at us before it comes to a bittersweet conclusion that truly satisfies like a punch in the guts…but it tickles a little too.

This is a stand out film for the period. It is decidedly more dangerous and cynical. Huston and his amazing cast manage to conjure so many internal emotions and build so much tension in every scene. This film feels as hot and desperate as the three protagonists must feel. Real danger lurks in the shadows when a cluster of quiet Indians approach a campfire. Real terror prods one’s heart when the banditos show up and outnumber our “heroes.” There is suspense and devastation within each frame. There is an unflinching crazed look in Bogart’s eyes that continuously grows throughout the film and is difficult to shake. There have been many films about greed and the loss of humanity in the face of such greed, but perhaps The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the finest examples of the subject.

It’s easy to see the inspiration P.T. Anderson must have gotten from this film for his own There Will Be Blood (2007). Anyone who only knows Bogart as the hard-boiled detective needs to see this film. From each characters’ shrouded uncertain background and their even further cloaked futures, this film develops its own greatness. We follow the lives of “fellow Americans who are down on their luck” and we hope they will overcome the maddening heat and the ecstasy of gold because we really journey alongside them. John Huston won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director, losing Best Picture to Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. As a big fan of both Huston and Humphrey Bogart I cannot recommend this great film enough. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a truly unforgettable movie experience and amply worthy of its classic status.

Top 10 Reasons to See Treasure of the Sierra Madre

1. Humphrey Bogart plays against type and is awesome.

2. Great early location filming in Mexico.

3. Guys grow beards in it.

4. Considered a top ranking classic for many critics, film buffs, and directors.

5. It’s uncharacteristically bleak for the time it was made.

6. John Huston is a movie making beast.

7. It influenced many films to follow.

8. Bugs Bunny references Bogart’s Dobbs character in several cartoons (mostly the ones with the penguin who cries ice-cubes).

9. Walter Huston’s character is iconic and unforgettable—the quintessential crusty, old prospector guy.

10. Four Oscar nominations and three wins.

BONUS 11. The little boy next to Bogey in the first picture is Robert Blake.

picture references:

ign.com; tinypic.com; thecityreview.com; mattalgren.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 20, 2010