The Last Few Movies I saw: Episode XI – Or: the movies I liked better than Interstellar

And now…once again…the last few movies I saw in the order of how good I thought they were. Please, correct me.

The Insipid:

1a

For girls who don’t want to experience actual silent film comedy.

I don’t care how loved this movie is. Benny & Joon (1993) is pandering schmaltz. Having said that, it’s much better than you’re average schmaltz. Johnny Depp plays an eccentric man-pixie whose off-beat whimsy showcases an almost unreasonable obsession with silent film comedies. He falls in love with a woman who is actually crazy (played by Mary Stuart Masterson). Instead of wacky hijinks, we actually get a more believable confrontation with some of the consequences of mental illness—including a brother (Aiden Quinn) who loves both of them, but above all wants to protect his sister. Why do I put this so low on the list? Admittedly, it’s not terrible (and who doesn’t love The Proclaimers?), but for me it runs afoul of Patch Adams-ifying mental illness as well as drama. I didn’t hate it, but there wasn’t much there to begin with for me to have any feelings about one way or the other. It’s ultimately a little too neat, despite some of the risks it gets really close to taking.

Dawn of Gross:

These next two films I actually actively dislike. Which is to say I feel far more strongly about them than Benny & Joon, but Benny & Joon was innocuous and forgettable, and there’s something weirdly appealing about devastating, grotesque misfires that burn holes in your memory. I’ll come clean though. After seeing one of these (you’ll know which one), I may not be in my right mind.

1b

“And that was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death, an experience which I don’t hesitate strongly to recommend.”

Alan Parker (Pink Floyd The Wall, Angel Heart) isn’t a bad director. And part of me admires the ambition and potential behind this project. The Road to Wellville (1994) is a period comedy about the zany Dr. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins with big, fake teeth and a Col. Sanders drawl) and his upstate health haven where he promotes loopy diet and exercise regimens and maddeningly sexless lifestyles to all his patients. Bridget Fonda takes her ailing and unassailably horny husband, Matthew Broderick, to Kellogg’s dystopic Wonka-verse to return him to full health. So many uninteresting subplots and genuinely cool contraptions abound in this scatological romp through penis inspection, excrement handling, powdered derriere jiggles, failed breakfast formula sputum, and sexual revolution revelations. Despite some truly impressive sets and a refreshingly unromantic period atmosphere, the lack of effective humor or plot and the abundance of poop references make this perhaps a well-intentioned but failed endeavor. The cast also includes Lara Flynn Boyle’s jaundiced breasts, muddy Dana Carvey’s toothless smile, John Neville not playing Baron Munchausen, multiple takes of Michael Lerner regurgitating ground corn meal into a bucket, and John Cusack.

1c

I want to hurt this movie in the way it hurt me.

I think I hate this movie. I definitely dislike it more than Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville. Why do I rate it higher? I fear this movie broke me. It’s been over a month and I still vividly see every single gross, disgusting, cringe-worthy, dry-heave inducing scene. In detail. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers) wrote, directed, and starred in Nothing But Trouble (1991), an unflinchingly loathsome cinematic spectacle worthy of inspection at Dr. Kellogg’s clinic. As a kid I remember seeing this in the video store all the time and wanting to see it. The cover looked so weird and it had Dan Aykroyd in it! I only recently saw it and for that I am glad. Lord only knows how messed I’d be if I had seen it as a young’n. Demi Moore convinces rich jerk, Chevy Chase, to drive her to Atlantic City for some reason. They bring along two wacky Brazilian siblings, but on a detour through the back roads of New Jersey they get busted for running a red light and are escorted by John Candy to Valkenvania’s dilapidated courthouse for trial. The century-old judge, played by Aykroyd (who actually resembles Rev. Billy Graham, but with—not kidding—a severed penis for a nose), refuses to let them go. An onslaught of dark, grotesque nonsense masquerading as comedy ensues. John Candy in drag; a Rube Goldbergian roller coaster that strips human flesh from bone; two slimy, half-naked man-babies who live in—and presumably on—garbage; a random appearance by Digital Underground featuring Tupac; and a legitimately uncomfortably irrational romance between Moore and Chase makeup the landscape of this revolting and incredibly expensive production. The story is inane. The imagery is willfully gross. And it is only as unfunny as it is perplexing. I hate it, but I fear it tainted my soul with its toxic poison. For as much as I wanted to, I could never look away from the screen. I would sooner watch Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville again, but I would sooner watch Nothing But Trouble again with other people in the room just to explain to them how terrible the movie really is. This movie really is awful in every way, but it left such a huge dent in my psyche I have to put it above the two previous films.

Breath. It’s Behind Us Now:

Crazy, Stupid, Love

And the guy from The Drew Carey Show who has been a supporting character in so many movies and you see him all the time and you swear you’re going to learn his name this time but you never learn his name.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) was a pleasant, little movie with a pleasing cast. I liked it. It was cute. I accepted the coincidences and contrived conundrums out of simple enjoyment in the writing and the performances from Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, and Analeigh Tipton. That is all.

1e

Enjoy a quiet moment without Anthony Quinn or Anna Magnani screaming. Just passing bottles. Serenity.

Anthony Quinn has played almost every nationality so why not Italian? Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg) directed the WWII comedy-drama about a small Italian village that must work together to hide over a million bottles of wine from German soldiers using the town as a base. The premise is good, no? The scenery is nice, the cast is fine (Quinn, Anna Magnani, Giancarlo Giannini, Hardy Krüger), the production is attractive, but there’s something missing in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969). For a movie that’s pretty much The Hiding Place but with alcohol instead of Jews, there’s not much suspense or sense of danger. Most of the comedy is not particularly hilarious either. Quinn was much better in Zorba the Greek and Guns of Navarone. Here he’s way too bombastic. The movie goes on way too long and, ultimately, it’s plot was a little too close to the far superior Whiskey Galore! (1949). It’s pleasant enough, but watch Whiskey Galore! instead. It’s funnier and more suspenseful.

Now We’re Cookin’:

1f

Gotta love early two-strip Technicolor. Creates a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere.

House of Wax (1953) is widely regarded as one of Vincent Price’s best films and a superior remake to 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. I may be in the minority, but I actually like the 1933 one better. Michael Curtiz’s (Casablanca, Captain Blood) direction, Ray Rennahan’s (Gone With the Wind) cinematography, and Anton Grot’s (The Sea Hawk) set designs are great. Horror staples Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill star in the story of a disgraced sculptor who yearns to cast real wax-dipped humans in his comeback museum. Technically, I think Doctor X (1932) is the better film, but I like the lady reporter played by Glenda Farrell better than the guy reporter in and the ending is really good. It’s weightless, pulpy fun. If you’ve seen my previous lists you know I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. Naturally, I love it.

1a

You never loved me!

If you’ve ever wanted to see one man pretending to be Richard Nixon screaming and crying in a room for an hour and a half then Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye) Secret Honor (1984) is right for you. Philip Baker Hall, looking nothing like Nixon (not that that ever stopped Anthony Hopkins), is Nixon. Disgraced, he rambles a fractured and twisted stream-of-consciousness litany of his past shortcomings and present rationalizations. It’s well acted and humanizing in its portrayal of the complicated former president. It’s a better drama than a political film, in my humble opinion.

Upgrade:

1b

You’re a talking dog who owns a house. Why is that not more of a deal in this universe?

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014) is seriously the best feature-length adaptation of a Jay Ward cartoon. Not that that’s saying a whole lot [George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle]. Director Rob Minkoff pulls off a breezy, hip, smart time-travel comedy-adventure that retains the spirit of the original cartoon show. The puns and history warp would have been enough, but the animation, exceptional voice work (most notably Ty Burrell), and the heartbeat underneath make it more than a passing whim. This was more fun than I expected.

Our robot looks like a coffee table, sits horizontally between us in the cockpit, yet doesn't have cup-holders.

Our robot looks like a coffee table, sits horizontally between us in the cockpit, yet doesn’t have cup-holders.

I imagine Interstellar (2014) will not be nearly as fun on a TV screen. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) takes us on a space adventure with equal parts awe and suspense. The cinematography, score, special effects, and emotional core make the film resonate beyond all the nit-picky shortcomings (like how come Michael Caine doesn’t age? I mean, I guess he’s sitting in a chair now. Is that alone meant to convince me he’s 30 years older?). I liked the robots, I liked the look, I like the music, and I liked the ending. There’s stuff I didn’t like, but who cares? For all the movies where they go inside a black hole, this is easily the best. Although, like Jay Ward film adaptations, it’s not saying much. No, that’s technically not a black hole in 2001: a Space Odyssey.

Your welcome. Sleep well.

Your welcome. Sleep well.

Surreal Italian horror/thriller films from the 70s are sort of their own genre. A Lizard in Woman’s Skin (1971) is a fine example of what Americans think of when they think of the giallo subgenre. Director Lucio Fulci paints a hyper-sexual, psychedelic mystery thriller complete with copious amounts of nudity and drug induced hallucinations. Despite all the lesbian orgy scenes I was somewhat disengaged from the film…until the chase scene through the cellars and cathedral organ, complete with hundreds of bats getting stuck in the she-protagonist’s hair. It’s wonderful. The weird, disemboweled dog medical experiment fever-dream is pretty much seared into my brain. The cutest thing about this movie though? It’s sort of a Reefer Madness for LSD. It’s adorable.

The Cable Car Elevates Us Even Higher:

*pew* *pew*

*pew* *pew*

WWII was a brutal time in history, but it got us some pretty damn good movies. Carol Reed (The Third Man, Our Man in Havana) gave us a wartime espionage suspense thriller starring Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, and Paul Henreid that features a climactic cable car chase. Even while playing a cold double agent Harrison still manages to be fey. It feels sort of like Shanghai Express but directed by Alfred Hitchcock and with Nazis. Long story short: watch Night Train to Munich (1940). This movie also features a couple of British stock characters (Charters and Caldicott) who love cricket. This humorous duo appeared in several English movies around this time and they play a very significant role in this.

Is it obvious I'm wearing a wig?

Is it obvious I’m wearing a wig?

I need to see more movies directed by Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron). He has regrettably been a cinematic blindspot that I have been meaning to catch up with. Danton (1983) chronicles the final days of Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) during the French Revolution. Maximillien de Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) is his political enemy during this time of great squalor and social unrest. If you liked Les Misérables but wanted less singing and more heads getting guillotined then this is the movie for you. Sumptuous costumes and fancy sets bring the history to life, but I can’t say you won’t be frustrated by the injustices endured by the characters.

Bring tissues and a stress ball.

Bring tissues and a stress ball.

I was recommended a documentary by a friend. I trust his judgement. I watched Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) without doing any research on it. I had no idea what it was about beyond a filmmaker (Kurt Kuenne) making a movie-letter to a boy about a dad who had been killed. Throughout the experience I was moved, angered, and brought to tears. I’d actually rather not give too much away. Probably best if you watch this fresh and let the frustrating emotional roller coaster drag you along for the heart-breaking ride.

The Top Three:

Hang in there.

Hang in there.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998) is a Yugoslavian comedy about gypsies, gangsters, double-crosses, weddings, and hiding bodies. Director Emir Kusturica (Underground) brings the wacky story to life with a pleasing ramshackle aesthetic. Geese covered in crap and gold teeth better be your thing. Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdzan) borrows money from old, wheelchair-bound hood, Grga Pitić (Sabri Sulejmani), under the false pretense that his father, Zarije (Zabit Memedov), is dead. He recruits his cocaine-loving pal, Dadan Karambolo (Srdjan Todorovic), for a hustle-job to steal a train carrying oil. Dadan two-times Matko and puts him into debt unless he agrees to let his son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), marry his dwarf sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova), but Zare is in love with Ida (Branka Katic). To the erratic tempo of a twangy jaw-harp, the plot propels onward. Black Cat, White Cat is a fun movie with enjoyable characters, grit, humor, and even a little warmth.

5

If this doesn’t work it could be curtains.

I like Jack Benny. His understated style of comedy appeals to me. That said, Ernst Lubitsch’s (The Shop Around the Corner), To Be or Not to Be (1942) isn’t exactly a comedy. It is, but it’s not hilarious like a typical screwball farce of the era. The delicate mechanisms of the complicated plot are more of a concern than gags for this WWII movie set in Poland. Actors Maria and Joseph Tura (Carol Lombard and Jack Benny) and their whole company must act as double-agents to save the lives of several families whose identities have been compromised by a Nazi double-agent. The plot thickens when Benny discovers his wife’s not-so-secret admirer (Robert Stack), but even with emotions at an unstable high, the show must go on if they want to live through the night. It’s easy to see why Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) is more celebrated today. Chaplin was a more influential artist and icon and Dictator is genuinely a lot funnier and more fiercely political. To Be or Not to Be, however, has the more interesting storyline and more relatable characters and situations—never letting the grander picture upstage the human drama between the individual characters and never devolving into episodic slapstick routines. The solutions to their problems are innovative and surprising too as the story twists and turns. I was never sure what was going to happen next. Both were made during the war, but Dictator always felt distant, like a commentary from a far-off observer—which is what it was. To Be or Not to Be actually feels closer to the action, perhaps because of its more consistently serious structure and tone. I’ve seen Dictator at least 30 times, but I’m eager to watch this wartime comedy again soon.

It's amazing how little this film will remind you of E.T.

It’s amazing how little this film will remind you of E.T.

Here’s another I could not predict, scene to scene. Really, anything could have happened next. Everyone’s praised this one and I will too. Under the Skin (2013) really is like no film you’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s closest comparison being a hybrid of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Species, but even that doesn’t do justice to this stealthy, surreal contemplation on humanity given to us by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Scarlett Johansson goes through the motions of her alien mission to eat(?) human males around Scotland, until she meets a few people who alter her perception of humans and, in turn, her understanding of herself. But it’s so much more interesting than that. This is a very enigmatic and pensive film that takes its time, but, for me, it never felt slow. There is so much to constantly ponder and soak in. This is the sort of movie that you just watch as if you are in a dream. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It, for lack of a better cliche, got under my skin. Under the Skin was my favorite film I saw recently. I highly recommend it if you’re the sort of person intrigued by truly poetically surreal science-fiction. Or nudity.

BONUS: Short Film Festival

1

Werner Herzog Defends Dade (2011) dir. Lindsay Scoggins (USA). Old Herzog field footage synced up with some guy rambling about Florida that turns into a rap. At less than a minute long, it does not overstay its welcome.

1d

Inside the Mind of Colin Furze (2014) dir. David Beazely (UK) [documentary]. Colin Furze is an inventor, a tinkerer, a mechanical artist. Watch him soup up vehicles and appliances.

1e

Xenos (2014) dir. Mahdi Fleifel (UK/Denmark/Greece) [documentary]. A few Palestinians stuck in a destitute Greek economy consider if life were any better in the Lebanese refugee camps. It’s not a subject we think about a lot.

1e

Marilyn Myller (2013) dir. Michael Please (UK) [animation]. A stop-motion marvel (from the creator of The Eagleman Stag) about a perfectionist’s unyielding yearning to be perfect. The visuals are great.

1e

Person to Person (2014) dir. Dustin Guy Defa (USA). A record store owner can’t seem to get a strange. attractive woman out of his home. It’s funny and let’s you soak in the atmosphere. The character seems endearingly odd perhaps because he seems more realistically written than his situation. I enjoyed it a lot.

1e

More Than Two Hours (2013) dir. Ali Asgari (Iran). A man races to find a hosptial that will treat his bleeding girlfriend…but the sexual nature of her injury causes the medical professionals to deny her or insist on reporting them to the authorities as their out-of-wedlock sexual activity is quite illegal. It’s frustrating and affecting. I recommend it.

1

Swimmer (2012) dir. Lynne Ramsey (UK). It’s surreal, hypnotic, and stunningly gorgeous in its rich black and white photography. My favorite short of the bunch.

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The Inconsequentials 2: Inconsequentialier

You may recall an article I wrote earlier called The Inconsequentials wherein I attempted to circumvent the ubiquitous essentials trope. Rather than plug great films everybody should see because of their power, depth, craftsmanship, and iconic status I chose instead to highlight some pulpier films that might not get as much attention as say It’s a Wonderful Life or Chinatown. I confess that I felt somewhat disingenuous with my previous selections of The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie. Perhaps these films were not obscure enough for the discerning Alternative Chronicle audience, I thought. Hence, I decided to extend my affections once more to the so-called “inconsequential” films of the past. This time, I tried to find movies that might be even less well-known, but still deserving of remembrance for different reasons.

They can’t all be classics, but that does not mean they cannot all entertain.

This time around we will venture into the dense forests of India with Elephant Boy (1937) then take a steamship to a deadly jungle island where they hunt The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and finally we’ll wash up on the suspicious shores of Japan to experience The Wrath of the Gods (1914). So you should know the drill by now. These are movies that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing, but I challenge you to enjoy them nevertheless. A common theme of interesting race relations lurks in all three of these films and I think it makes them even more worthy of study.

As a huge fan of iconic Indian actor, Sabu (The Thief of the Bagdad, Jungle Book, Black Narcissus) how could I resist plugging his very first movie, Elephant Boy (1937)? Nope, it’s not a prequel to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Sabu was one of those special rare cases of a non-white performer who gained notoriety in America and the United Kingdom during the 1930s and 40s. He had a naturally engaging persona and exuberance that was immensely enjoyable to watch. He’s still my favorite Mowgli. Before he played Mowgli in Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, however, he played Toomai of the Elephants. Toomai was another Rudyard Kipling character and the movie was directed by Zoltan Korda and documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North). The Flaherty wildlife photography has been praised and it is pretty wonderful—as when the film takes the time to lollygag around a watering hole just observing a playful baby elephant run laps around its reclining mother—but the rest of the movie is just as fun. Toomai (Sabu) is a young elephant driver (Sabu’s father was one himself) and he has a special kinship with his elephant, Kala Nag. He talks to it, scolds it, scrubs it, and climbs all over it like Kala Nag is a giant puppy dog. When Toomai and Kala Nag join a party led by a British gentleman, they journey into the jungle to find wild elephants. Toomai wants to be a great hunter, but the older Indian elephant drivers tease him and say he will never be a great hunter until he sees the elephants dance. Tragedies strike and eventually Toomai must save Kala Nag’s life before it is too late. If he succeeds, Kala Nag will most assuredly repay Toomai with the secrets of the elephants.

Elephant Boy features a great debut performance for Sabu (whose life ended far too soon) and some nice jungle photography. The animal performances are pretty good too. Say what you like about Kipling’s “white man’s burden” form of racism, I still enjoy his writing. I like how in touch he tries to be with the jungle. Elephants are not just elephants for this British author and resident of India. Elephants are “the wise ones.” He captures mystery and wonder in the jungles and beasts and this film attempts the same. Another interesting thing about this movie is that Sabu is the only Indian actor. He is virtually surrounded by white actors in makeup and beards. The other odd thing to note is that the Kala Nag character is essentially selling out his untamed elephant brothers and even after he is antagonized by human captors. Maybe the wild elephants screwed him over and he’s just settling the score. Who knows? Elephant Boy could be the pachyderm equivalent to Get Carter if taken from the animal’s point of view. So why don’t people celebrate this film more? Because Jungle Book was better. The film’s story is only adequate and some might say it hasn’t aged very well, but for Sabu’s charming performance and the great elephant footage, I’d hesitate not to recommend it.

If you like King Kong (1933) then names like Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Ernest B. Schoedsack ought to be familiar to you. Schoedsack (Mighty Joe Young, Dr. Cyclops) co-directed this next project with Irving Pichel. Based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starts with a horrific shipwreck complete with leaks, explosions, sharks, the works. Suck it, Titanic. The last survivor, Bob (Joel McCrea), swims to shore only to discover a jungle island with a castle on it. Upon investigation of said castle he meets the eccentric Russian, Zaroff (a particularly hammy Leslie Banks), and a cadre of mute cossacks acting as butlers. Zaroff introduces Bob to his guests, two former shipwreck survivors, Eve (Fay Wray) and her incessantly inebriated brother Martin (Armstrong). Honestly, Bob seems to be taking the grisly death of all his friends on the ship pretty well, and he doesn’t even seem to be a little perturbed by Zaroff’s odd insistence on ominous secrecy. He likes Eve though. Bob does finally get riled up when Zaroff’s plans are revealed: he’s a manhunter! Tired of the lack of challenge with hunting wild beasts, Zaroff craves a foe who can outsmart him. He has human heads mounted on the wall in his trophy room from his games of “outdoor chess.” Soon the hunt is on and Bob and Eve are set loose in the forest. They set traps for Zaroff, but Zaroff upgrades from bow and arrow to rifle and then he sets the dogs on his prey. The Most Dangerous Game is extremely melodramatic and silly, but the jungle settings are great (it even has the infamous log from King Kong) and the fights are fun. I really liked the castle too.

Yes, it’s hammy and the villain is oh-so-obvious and over-the-top, but I really liked this movie. It’s quick, breezy, pulpy, and fun. No one is going to confuse The Most Dangerous Game with a “great movie” but it does everything it needs to do and it’s entertaining from start to finish. So what’s the weird racial thing in this one? Here it is. It’s Americans vs. disgruntled Russians, right? Well, the head butler-cossack, Ivan, is played by African American actor, Noble Johnson (he’s the chief in King Kong), in white-face and a funny beard. As a big fan of the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, I’m used to seeing white actors in black-face, yellow-face, red-face, etc., but it’s not often you get to see a black guy in a supporting role in white-face. It’s kinda cool in a weird way. This movie obviously gets overlooked living in the shadow of the far superior and grander King Kong, but this more modest film has a lot of the seeds that would grow into Kong and it’s a fun little adventure to boot.

When you hear The Wrath of God what do you think of? Wener Herzog? Carl Theodor Dreyer? Robert Mitchum and Frank Langella? Skip them for now. How about Sessue Hayakawa? The Wrath of the Gods (1914) is a silent film that takes place near the pounding surf of a doomed Japanese shore. Sessue Hayakawa (The Bridge On the River Kwai, Swiss Family Robinson) is a poor fisherman named Yamaki. His daughter, Toya San, is cursed because of an ancestor’s murderous desecration of a temple and so she cannot find love lest the gods unleash their wrath on the village. Toya San (played by Hayakawa’s wife in real life, Tsuru Aoki) renounces her Buddhist faith exclaiming, “I refuse to acknowledge a god who would so unjustly curse the innocent.” This is a huge religious and philosophical statement. One that I’m not sure even the film fully comprehends. When a shipwreck lands an American sailor, Tom Wilson (Frank Borzage), at their doors they take care of him, but soon he and Toya San fall in love. Here’s where things get interesting. Toya San cannot accept his marriage proposal for fear of the curse, but Tom assures her that Jesus Christ will protect them and that his god is stronger than all their Japanese gods. It was at this point I realized that guys will say anything to get sex but his motives are purer than that, I think. He genuinely loves her and so he evangelizes to her so he can marry her. Seeing that they can be happy together, Yamaki accepts Christianity and builds a wooden cross to replace the figure of Buddha. Naturally, the small village community is furious when they get wind of this idiot American staining their way of life. They murder Toya San’s father and torch their house and then the whole island erupts and rocks and flames poor down on everyone. The old Japanese seer gets killed in a volcanic avalanche and the island burns and the entire town is wiped out, but Tom and Toya San escape. As the Japanese villagers die in the distance, Tom says, “Your gods may be powerful, Toya San, but mine has proved his omnipotence. You are saved to perpetuate your race.” Wow. Culturally insensitive much?

The implications in this film are reason enough to watch this! Seriously! This is crazy, crazy stuff! It was based on an actual disaster that struck Sakura-Jima in 1914, the biggest Japanese eruption in the century. The dramatic elements were based on an old Japanese legend, but the implications here… This is not a love story, this is the gods at war. Each god has a very different nature and personality it seems, yet they appear to both wield authority despite their seemingly distant and abstract portrayal. The American guy has no idea how serious his infringement on their culture is. He just wants the girl and he has a simple faith in Christianity. He says Christ will protect them if she believes. Which he does and they are saved. The seer says that the Japanese gods will destroy the island if Toya-San marries. Which they do and everyone is killed. Not to say there isn’t a clear pro-American/pro-Christian agenda here, but I think there is plenty more to unpack in this story. It presents two very different world views. The ignorant, meddling, naive, and optimistic Christian American all in favor of New World ideals and individualism is in stark contrast to the traditionalist, isolationist, and superstitious mob mentality of the Japanese fishing village who live in fear and follow strict ritual. Both are caricatures, but both make Toya San’s choice that much easier to go with the flat white guy. He’s nice to her and says she won’t be cursed. Who would you go with?

Another really cool thing about this movie is that the Asian people are PLAYED BY ASIAN PEOPLE. The Wrath of the Gods was made early enough (1914) that there was still some diversity in American films. No yellow-face in this film. Another really fascinating thing is that, unlike Madame Butterfly copies, the Japanese girl gets the white guy in the end and doesn’t die. Actor Frank Borzage and actress Tsuru Aoki even share an onscreen kiss. Miscegenation laws be damned! This sort of interracial romantic representation would be banned later on in Hollywood and hurt the careers of people like Anna May Wong. No one remembers this movie today because it is a silent movie with no big, famous names in it. Hayakawa was a fine actor and he made dozens of films in both the sound era and the silent, but he is not as famous as Valentino, Pickford, Chaney, or Fairbanks. This is a strange little movie, particularly in its representation of foreign relations, but it’s only good and not great and so it gets swept under the carpet.

So why do I keep doing this? Watching these films that are good but not great and recommend them? It is because I’d hate to think of some of these fine movies being forgotten or missed by people who might enjoy them. Like The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie which I loved and featured folks like Marlene Dietrich, Lon Chaney, Sr., and Bela Lugosi; Elephant Boy, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Wrath of Gods are not so off the beaten path that even the most nominal of film buff couldn’t enjoy them. Sabu, Fay Wray, and Sessue Hayakawa are still pretty big. Next time maybe I’ll try to find even smaller movies. Until then enjoy these titles.

http://www.moviemartyr.com/1932/mostdangerousgame.htm

http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/Elephant-Boy/

http://www.listal.com/list/filmography-robert-j-flaherty

http://www.filmfan.com/pages/memorial_wray.html

http://furuhonjoe.blog137.fc2.com/blog-entry-5.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 22, 2011

The Inconsequentials

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

 

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

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

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

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

Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

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.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

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).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

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.

king_kong__1933____the_venture_crew_by_kriegdersterne77-d52mmws

Do you think they’ve spotted us?

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.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

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.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

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.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

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.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

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 7

Acrophobic yet?

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.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009