Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.
I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.
Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.
Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.
I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.
I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.
One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.
I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.
Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.
Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.
OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.
I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.
Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (
1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).
Interestinger and Interestinger:
Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.
Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.
This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.
Beyond Our Borders:
Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.
La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.
Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.
Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.
A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.
Really, a Tough Call:
Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.
Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.
Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.
Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.
When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.
The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.
The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.
A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.
Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.
Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011
Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?
Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it. Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.
Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).
A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).
The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.
Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.
Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.
The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.
We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.
There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.
There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.
Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.
So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.
Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:
1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.
2. Stuff blows up in it.
3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.
4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.
5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.
6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.
7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.
8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.
9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.
10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.
Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.
For all the serious, highfalutin movies I watch, I do confess I have a weakness for the kung-fu flick. Action is fun to watch and as a guy it’s sometimes hard not to be fascinated by violence and destruction in movies. Watching a building collapse or a high speed car chase or dinosaurs fighting each other or Bruce Willis jumping off a roof with a fire-hose bungee cord is fun and exciting. Naturally the martial arts epic must enter one’s peripheries at some point. Ever since I saw a Jackie Chan marathon on TV as a kid I was hooked. The kung-fu movie gets a lot of flack sometimes for being fairly thin when it comes to plot, but the incredible athletes and personalities that have emerged from it are what draws us. Every move Bruce Lee does is astonishing to watch and there’s something eternally fascinating about using only your body as a weapon.
Recently, it seems, there has been a rebirth of kung-fu (for the west anyway). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) reminded everybody that you could have a good mythical storyline alongside ballet-like violence. Then we got Jet Li in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and Stephen Chow gave us an incredibly zany Looney Tunes-esque action comedy in Kun Fu Hustle (2004). These films were all wonderful (maybe more wuxia than traditional martial arts) and had great action and stories, but they were more stylistic and employed more wire-fu and special effects than the traditional martial arts films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Out of Thailand came action star Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). The stunts were real and gritty once more and the action was great, but the story was now missing again. I am happy to report that another martial arts epic has come about and puts back good old-fashioned fights with a really decent story. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) stars Donnie Yen (The Iron Monkey, Shanghai Knights) as the legendary grandmaster of the Chinese martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, Yip Kai-man (1893-1972), and the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee and many others.
I confess that as a westerner my actual knowledge of the history and meanings behind all the various styles of kung-fu is pretty minute, and admittedly I do not recall actually hearing of Ip Man before this movie, but it definitely filled me in…even if the movie is a rather loose treatment on the real man’s life. It’s also insanely nationalistic, but you can’t have everything.
The film takes place in Foshan, China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. Ip Man (Yen) is a leisured aristocrat and well respected member of the community. He has a loving wife (who does not exactly support his martial arts practice) and a young son who he realizes he must spend more time with. The citizens of Foshan regard Ip Man as a quiet but deadly master of Wing Chun, but he would honestly rather not fight anybody (reminded me of John Wayne in The Quiet Man). A foreign bully from the north (played by Fan Siu-wong of Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky fame) arrives in town and, desiring to set up a martial arts club in Foshan, he viciously beats up every master in town save for Ip Man. The fight that follows is indeed wildly entertaining.
The story jumps ahead a few years after the town of Foshan is oppressed by Japanese occupation in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man has lost all of his possessions but maintains his dignity and lives in a rundown shack while his dedicated wife pawns everything to buy rice (kinda reminded me of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). To support his starving family he gets a job as a coolie shoveling coal in a filthy quarry. It is not long before a former Chinese friend has returned as the mouthpiece for the Japanese army and announces that the quarry workers can earn a bag of rice if they defeat Japanese karatekas for the amusement of General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is an obsessed karate master. Ip Man initially refuses but when a friend who volunteers never returns, he decides to go to defend the honor of his fallen brothers, avenge the death of countless Chinese, and reclaim the honor of Chinese martial arts.
Before entering the tournament, Ip Man witnesses another friend and kung-fu master doing battle on the mat surrounded by Japanese karatekas awaiting their turn to fight the Chinese workers. General Miura watches menacingly from the platform above. Ip Man then watches helplessly as his friend is shot through the head following the match (against Miura’s command). Ip Man requests to go next and further requests that he face not one but ten black-belts at once. If this fight does not pull you into the movie then nothing will. His prowess in Wing-Chun, although a bit rusty, is no match for the attacks of his enemies and he glides between them with grace and deadly accuracy as he systemically annihilates them all. He departs enraged and stoically defiant to the General’s questions (although the fearful translator disguises this fact).
Back in the wounded town, Ip Man is asked to defend an old friend’s cotton mill from bandits (led by the northern bully whom Ip Man defeated in battle earlier in the movie) who are stealing their product and demanding money and threatening violence. He graciously agrees to teach the workers Wing-Chun and the audience gets a kung-fu training montage (yep, they still do ‘em). When the bandits return a big battle is ignited as the workers fight back and the bandits up the ante by bringing out axes, but Ip Man shows up and throws down real good with the thugs and chases them off.
Ip Man’s incredible abilities have earned him respect and fascination in the mind of General Miura. Miura seeks to bring Ip Man back for more tournaments, but Ip Man is forced to take his family and hide when he beats up the Japanese soldiers who come for him and attempt to rape his wife. Desperate to find him, the soldiers attack the cotton mill and force Ip Man to show himself. With the soldier he beat up ready to shoot him and General Miura threatening to allow him to be shot unless he trains his Japanese soldiers, Ip Man challenges the General to a public match: a challenge the General’s ego will not allow him to decline. For the final battle all of the stakes are raised to the umpteenth level. A nasty Japanese soldier threatens to kill Ip Man if he wins and his wife and child are forced to flee and all of the town is gathered for the public spectacle…you could not ask for more suspense. All of China’s morale and pride rest in the fists of Ip Man. It is assured to be a match to remember and it will ultimately bring national shame to the losing party.
Ip Man has all of the classic moves a good kung-fu movie should have and the fight scenes (choreographed by Spooky Encounters star Sammo Hung) are fantastic. The story builds and continues to create urgency, suspense, and danger up until the last scene. It’s a compelling plot about a man who has had his world torn apart and the only thing left to do is stuff his peaceful demeanor and kick butt. Donnie Yen and the rest of the cast give fine performances and the cinematography is also top notch. The story takes its liberties with the real Ip Man’s life, but it is perfectly forgivable when you consider how much fun the movie is as a whole. The kung-fu action movie is back, folks.
The sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), brings the cast back and features Sammo Hung as a cantankerous martial arts master in Hong Kong and sees Ip Man fighting a cocky, belligerent (and rather obnoxious) British boxer (reminded of Mr. T in Rocky III). Although the stakes are never quite as high, more fights seem bloated or forced, there’s an influx of what appears to be some wire-fu, and the western boxing is never as interesting to watch as the kung-fu business, it is a fun sequel about restoring national pride through the unifying power of martial arts. For fans of the martial arts epic, Ip Man might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan 12, 2011
A friend had randomly sent me a link to some wild scenes from a crazy Kollywood movie (Indian film in Tamil rather than Hindi which would be Bollywood). Instantly smitten with the footage, we sought out the complete movie almost immediately and watched it in all of its absurd 3-hour long glory. This was no pensive and delicate Satyajit Ray tragedy epic. This was S. Shankar’s Endhiran(2010).
If you saw Slumdog Millionaire and think you know Indian cinema, guess again. As my title playfully hints, Endhiran (aka Robot) is a bloated, mismatched hodge-podge of the Matrix movies, the Iron Man movies, the Terminator movies and whole mess of other American science-fiction action fantasy flicks. At the time it was the most expensive movie made in India and, although it’s pretty dumb, I found it to be more fun and more innovative than half of the films it was ripping off, and I don’t say this much (as I generally dislike the current gimmick of 3D) but I kinda wish Endiran was in 3D.
Where to begin? Popular Indian actor, Rajinikanth, plays Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant scientist with good intentions (always), who creates an amazing humanoid robot (also played by Rajinikanth) named Chitti Babu after the famous Indian veena musician. The robot is fast, strong, powerful, super-smart, magnetic, charismatic, knows kung fu, and has the ability to seemingly ignore the laws of physics when the action calls for it. Chitti falls in love with Dr. Vaseegaran’s fiance, Sana (played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai), and so the jealous doctor destroys him and then the android’s battered parts find their way into the hands of the evil Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa). Things go wrong and the new evil Chitti kidnaps Sana and makes hundreds of deadly powerful duplicates of himself. It is up to Dr. Vaseegaran to rescue Sana, stop Chitti, and set the world right again. It takes the film 3 hours to convey this plot.
There are plenty of amusing subplots that happen along the way. Two bickering lab technicians who helped construct Chitti try to play tricks on him. Dr. Bohra tries to disgrace Dr. Vaseegaran. Chitti helps Sana cheat on her doctor’s exam (that actually worries me a little). Chitti has an in-depth conversation with a colony of mosquitoes to prove his love for Sana. He even rescues several people from a burning building (a la Spiderman) but things go wrong when he rescues one girl from the fire who happens to be naked and she runs out in front of a speeding bus to commit suicide out of shame. The little naked girl suicide really kinda shifted the mood of the film for me, but Chitti makes up for it by immediately delivering a baby! Another recurring theme is that Sana keeps getting near-raped by greasy dudes. Really though, all of these minor plot points and small character adventures take a back seat to the fun action sequences.
Rajinikanth does a fine job playing the naive doctor and the charming but rigid Chitti and then the evil Chitti and all his duplicates. At over 60 years old—in addition to having one of the biggest age differences between himself and his onscreen love interest since High Noon—he had to do a lot of running around for these dual roles (and then some). Aishwarya Rai is very lovely to look at and you can tell she seems to be having fun as the much sought-after damsel in distress. But the special effects! I must be honest that the special effects are actually pretty good (much better than a lot of Indian films I’ve seen), but that’s not what makes them so great: it is the imagination they use to choreograph the super-stylized action and effects. Srinivas Mohan, visual effects supervisor, had his work cut out for him as so many scenes are little more than huge kaleidoscopes of digital engineering. ILM and Stan Winston Studios also lent their effects expertise to the film and the results are quite impressive. There is an excellent car chase to rival Matrix Reloaded and a smashing sequence in which the evil Chitti duplicates join together to form a death ball, a giant snake, a drill, and a huge dude (among other things) that might give Matrix Revolutions a run its money. Machine guns, explosions, car chases, robots, sunglasses, talking mosquitos, and Aishwarya Rai are just a few reasons to check this film out.
And what Bollywood/Kollywood film would be complete without some wild song and dance numbers? The film travels all over the world for the many zany music video sequences (why they seem to be singing about Mount Kilamanjaro whilst dancing in Machu Picchu is beyond me, but whatever). From an American point of view these sequences can seem like a huge waste of time, but I actually enjoyed them. It reminded me that Endhiran was from a different culture with different values than that of the land that brought us Transformers. It let me enjoy the poofy hair and unusual clothing even more. I liked listening to the music and watching all the wildly dressed extras and extravagant backgrounds. This movie was made to be a show and I’d say they succeeded. One note on all the musical numbers I have comes from cultural ignorance and it is this: if they hadn’t drastically changed the setting for every song I don’t think I would have been able to tell them apart.
I mentioned a few times earlier that this movie is 3 hours long. At first that number startled us. Having seen the trailer and a few clips I wasn’t sure how such a fluffy action movie could stand to go on for so long. Seven Samurai this was not. Having said that, I will further attest to the miracle of editing. Endhiran is so frenetically cut together that we were all bewildered when we realized that what felt like 15 minutes turned out to be an hour. The pacing of this freight train of a film is vigorous to say the least. It’s also a bit disorienting at times, but I’d say that just adds to the absurd experience of watching this thing. At the end—and it does end well—it felt more like 90 minutes and we found ourselves wanting even more mayhem. What started out as an endurance test for foreign oddity transmogrified into an extremely pleasurable afternoon of entertainment.
1. Playing a quirky, charismatic, multi-faceted superhero at Rajinikanth’s age earns him mad Ron Perlman Hellboy points.
2. Aishwarya ain’t too shabby.
3. Despite the language barrier it’s got some great super-cool action movie lines.
4. If you’ve never seen a Kollywood/Bollywood movie this is as good a place as any to start.
5. They spent a lot of money on this garbage so help these guys out.
6. Chitti looks like an obscene amalgam of Johnny Cash, Jon Belushi, and Deep Roy. I liked that. Maybe you will too.
7. If you thought you’d seen it all, watch this to get humble again.
8. At times it approaches Kung Fu Hustle status for action ludicrousness.
9. It’s about as action-packed and insubstantial as Tony Jaa’s Ong bak: Muay Thai Warrior so you don’t have to think for 3 whole hours!
10. Robot death ball. Dot!
Sooooooooo if you recall I had a few things to say regarding The Planet of the Apes series from a previous article. Well, as it so happens I realized the other day that I had to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes for sheer completeness’s sake. So I saw it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was seen by me. For my immediate thoughts on the film kindly enjoy the following paragraphs.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt in this year of our Lord 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an effective redux of the original’s third sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) which deals with the ape revolution. It is also quite easily the best Apes movie since the first Planet of the Apes in 1968. Rise features some impressive special effects, compelling characters, exhilarating action, and some truly fascinating motion capture performances (the main character of Caesar being performed by Andy Serkis who is definitely going to start getting a reputation for this sort of thing after Gollum and King Kong). Rise, however, is by no means a perfect movie.
My main beef with Rise comes from the cold simple fact that the filmmakers are so preoccupied with conveying a believable and complex ape plot that they forget about the humans. I go into a movie like this not expecting to buy every pseudo-scientific detail spewed at me, but I would have liked it better had a little more care been placed into the human storyline. James Franco (Pineapple Express) does an OK job as the stereotypical good scientist with ambition who winds up taking care of Caesar, but the role never calls for much and we lose track of him and what his goals actually are before the halfway point. John Lithgow (Third Rock From the Sun) is back on the screen as Franco’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father, but again not much is given to him. The gorgeous Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is the biggest loss. She is essentially a wasted character entirely. She provides nothing to the story except its basic need for a female character. Literally nothing she says or does is important in this movie (BECHDEL TEST). She is so woefully underwritten that it makes me very sad indeed. Brian Cox (25th Hour) has the most interesting human character as the ambiguous “monkey jail warden,” but he’s given very little screen-time and most of it comes down to what he can do with very little. His animal-hating son is played by Draco Malfoy himself, and I certainly hope that he gets better work in American films after this. David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland) plays the final piece to this cliche-wrought puzzle: the greedy rich guy who controls the apparent progress of science. I found all of these fine actors wasted here. It begs the question of why you would cast big names for stock roles that could be played by anybody? I think had they spent a little more time developing the human world (and maybe casting it a bit more along the lines of District 9) it could have saved much for me.
All this aside, the only real reason anyone is going to see this movie is for the apes. This department delivers. With almost no dialogue the CG apes provide an incredibly emotional and nuanced narrative that is hard not to be sucked into. Caesar (the name obviously a nod to Cornelius and Zira’s son from Conquest and Battle) is a chimpanzee physically, but science run amok has sculpted his brain to be far more advanced and so he has an identity crisis of sorts. He can recognize injustice and he has a look in his eye that says he knows there is more that he does not yet understand. When he violently defends John Lithgow from the mean next-door neighbor the courts order James Franco put Caesar is a sanctuary for old apes. Once inside “monkey jail” the film really picks up. Up until now there have only been startling moments of realization and intrigue, here is where we get the lower primate retelling of Escape From Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, and maybe Hunger. No longer protected by his human father, Caesar learns what it means to be an animal in a human’s world…also what it means to be an animal in an animal’s world. You feel his frustration and you really follow his logic and learning. If you know anything about this movie you know they stage a huge ape revolt. No room for passive resistance or nonviolent civil disobedience when your main thought is regarding your own feces and exactly where to throw it and how hard. I won’t spoil all the details, but I will say that it is this chapter of the film—where we really learn who Caesar is and who he can become—where it really soars.
The revolt inevitably leads to action. The action is a lot of fun and I had a good time watching the dumb, dopey humans being consistently surprised by the wily ape strategies. My problem again was that all of the human characters are dumb, dopey cardboard cutouts, but it was enjoyable watching them get pummeled by Caesar’s army. The film ends well and I was surprised that I found myself actually hoping for a sequel. That almost never happens to me! I would like to see more of these apes in action.
In addition to the splendid tale of science gone haywire and the subsequent ape revolution, there are several in-jokes and references for Planet of the Apes geeks. Caesar’s mother is called “Bright Eyes” by the scientists, which is the same name given to Taylor (Charlton Heston) by his ape captors in the first Planet of the Apes. The name Caesar derives from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Mr. Malfoy’s character is named Dodge Landon (which I didn’t catch until the credits) and Dodge and Landon were the names of Taylor’s shipmates in the original movie. James Franco sort of plays a cross between the good human scientists in Conquest and Ricardo Montalban’s kindly circus proprietor from Conquest and Battle. To keep it pure, not just chimpanzees are present, but gorillas and orangutans as well. In possibly another nod to Montalban, one orangutan signs that he was from the circus. The humans have also named this orangutan Maurice which I presume to be a reference to Maurice Evans who played the dogmatic orangutan, Dr. Zaius, in the original 1968 film. Since he is a good orangutan I also take it as reference to Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Also the gorilla in the movie is named Buck which is another reference to the original film because the gorilla named Julius was played by Buck Kartalian. Charlton Heston can be seen on the television a couple of times as well. One ape is referred to in passing by the name of Cornelia (the feminine form of Roddy McDowell’s chimpanzee character, Cornelius?). The lines, “It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!” as well as “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” are both spoken. I’m sure there’s some I missed, but you get the idea and sometimes it’s good to know things were made by fans.
Things are also kept safe for the Apes timeline because it depicts the original revolution and not the second one that was instigated by the now second Caesar (the offspring of Cornelius and Zira when they went back in time following the destruction of the earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). So Escape from the Planet of the Apes can still take place and set up the revised timeline where Lawgiver presides over both ape and man harmoniously and essentially undoing all of the previous and future movies. Don’t worry.
I am sufficiently nerded out. I liked the movie quite a bit despite its many shortcomings. It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn satisfying. And you know what else? I have completed my mission. I have seen all seven Planet of the Apes movies now. If you loved the first movie with Charlton Heston and were let down by some of the sequels and remake then maybe this will give you hope. Apes ain’t dead yet.
One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.
Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).
With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.
In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.
The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.
Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.
Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.
There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.
Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.
The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.
Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.
In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.
King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009