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

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More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Delhi Belly, The Muppets, The Last Circus, Into the Abyss, and The Artist

For those who feel I don’t watch enough new movies here be a melange of mini-reviews of some more recent films.

I saw trailers for Delhi Belly (2011) several months ago and it looked like some kind of madcap high-octane blitz of Indian gang chases. But I had to convince people that it got positive reviews for them to go see it with me. We drove out to the nearest theater that said they were playing it. They were not playing it. So myself, my buddies, and a couple extended Indian families in line behind us all went home sad. We ate at Denny’s to cushion the tragic blow. Delhi Belly, directed by Abhinay Deo, is pretty much what it promised to be in the trailers. It’s fast mayhem. Here’s the story in a nutshell: three roommates get mixed up with the mafia and the main character is reconsidering his impending marriage as a result of the introduction of a new female character. The term “Delhi belly” refers to diarrhea, and yes, diarrhea is a major plot point. Although it is an Indian film it feels very American. There are no real Bollywood song and dance numbers, although music does play in the background. It’s also all in English. It’s not a bad little film and it is definitely one of the more culturally accessible films to come out of India…which will either help or hurt the movie depending on who you are. It’s fun and funny and fairly insubstantial.

A much anticipated movie for this year was The Muppets (2011). Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) rescues his favorite Jim Henson characters and returns them to the big screen…with mediocre results. I am a huge Muppet fan. Jim Henson is one of the people I want to party with in heaven. I loved The Muppet Show (1976-1981) and their first several movies (Muppet Movie, Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan). After Jim died the Muppets got retooled a bit by his son Brian Henson in the 1990s. Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were pretty good and everybody crapped on Muppets from Space (1999). Segel wanted to put them back in classic mode and this new movie halfway succeeds. It’s sweet and light and colorful, but it is far too focused on Segel, Amy Adams, and Walter (the new Muppet character) and not everything feels quite right. It feels like it was recut or changed in some way. Some of the songs are pretty great, but the whole spectacle of the Muppets getting back together to host a telethon to save their old studio is underwhelming and feels like an insufficient shadow of their work in earlier films. It’s trying to be a Muppet movie. It knows the basic ingredients but its sensibilities might just be a little too modern for the classic characters. It’s a far better tribute movie than say films like Alvin and the Chipmunks. All in all it’s about as entertaining as Muppets from Space but its heart is definitely more in the right place. The original Muppets were more about Vaudeville and classic variety shows. This new Muppets is probably closer to Glee. Frank Oz is missed as well. Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Concords) songs are the best thing going for it.

The Last Circus (2011) is an ambitious step in a strange direction. Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (El Crimen Ferpecto) helms this joyless and grim depiction of clinical depression…or perhaps merely the life of a pudgy clown at the circus. I really wanted to like this film. It seemed so off the wall and wild from the trailers that I really thought I would enjoy this one. I did enjoy El Crimen Ferpecto after all. The film is well shot and meticulously lit, but the story is too familiar (it feels like a mishmash of several Lon Chaney, Sr. deranged/tortured clown movies from the silent era seen through the lens of a more evil version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and ultimately it feels more an exercise in repulsion and grotesquery. It starts with much potential; a disturbed loser joins the circus to be a sad clown and takes a shine for a girl who is stuck in an abusive relationship with the boss clown. It’s odd and enjoyable and then the violence starts and pretty soon we’re watching a naked fat man run around in a muddy forest and eating a raw elk. Then people are getting beat up with trumpets during sex and cheeks are being scalded off by acid and irons. It’s all rather gross. I liked pieces of this film, but the dark tone switches about halfway through to become way too dark and disgusting for me. Nothing means anything after awhile and you realize you are simply observing crazy tragic people do evil selfish things with no window for redemption. Not my cup of tea but perhaps it can be gulped down by someone. Too mean-spirited for me. I liked He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unknown (1927), Freaks (1932) and Santa Sangre (1989) better.

Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) has been making some of the most interesting films and documentaries for over four decades. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss (2011) is worth a look. Perhaps not quite so cinematic, but interesting nevertheless. Herzog interviews a man on death row and all of the other people involved in the crime and the victims of it as he tries to delicately unpack and humanize the death penalty and a broken system. He makes no secret that he is opposed to the death penalty and finds it rather an uncouth institution, however, he avoids manipulating the audience with camera tricks. The camera is merely there to record the honest emotions of real people and it succeeds in capturing incredible nakedness and fragility. The human animal is a peculiar beast and maybe nobody knows that better than Herzog. Into the Abyss does not attempt to resolve any issue or solve the case or even provide psychological closure…but then that just might be the point. Please walk away with something to talk about. It may not be Herzog’s best but I doubt there’s anything he’s done that’s not worth investigating.

I enjoy silent cinema. Naturally when I heard someone was making a new silent movie I initially thought, “How can they capture that time and the special magic that time had?” Well, they couldn’t but they came pretty close and they captured something else. The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Oss117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), is an affectionate homage to that lost time. A big shot silent actor (Jean Dujardin) with a big ego—and an adorable dog sidekick—suffers when the dawn of sound technology threatens his kingdom (reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain?). A young ingenue (Berenice Bejo) takes the stage and becomes a hit, and secretly harbors deep affections for the failed artist. American character actors John  Goodman (The Big Lebowski) and James Cromwell (Babe) co-star in this sweet and clever film and tribute to the silent era. It’s not the best silent movie ever made (not even close) and it’s not nearly as bold or imaginative as a movie from Guy Maddin (contemporary Canadian filmmaker specializing in silent-style movies today), but it’s an extremely pleasurable delight that will put a big smile wide across your face. The Artist reminds us of cinema’s roots and that silent films can be just as powerful and engaging despite their limitations and it makes that lost time smell fresh once more. I really enjoyed it. That dog steals every scene.

Now go to the movies and stop downloading crap.