The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIX – The Reckoning

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys. If you have different opinions please share.

Meh:

I remember watching the Disney Jungle Book (1967) as well as the Sabu Jungle Book (1942) and reading the original Rudyard Kipling stories many times as a kid. As far as Jon Favreau as a director goes I can say I enjoyed Elf. Everyone is talking about the amazing visuals in the Disney reboot of The Jungle Book (2016) and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure how special effects alone still manage to be a box office draw when every mainstream big budget movie looks exactly the same. It’s not a bad film (and yes, the special effects are impressive), but I found it just sort of tedious and uninspiring. Disappointingly, I think Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (voicing Baloo and King Louis respectively) were dreadfully miscast and distractingly out of place. Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and Idris Elba (Shere Khan) were fine. If you saw a trailer you’ve already seen the entirety of Scarlett Johansson’s scene as Kaa. The songs feel forced and out of place and visually I was a bit bored with the hour and a half spectacle, but it’s passable and light for kids. If I want to watch a young Indian boy in a dazzling CGI environment battle a tiger I’ll re-watch Life of Pi.

As a big fan of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele I was eagerly looking forward to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s big screen debut in Keanu (2016). It’s not a bad film, but it just falls so short of the madcap surreal energy and comedy of absurd escalation that their show was famous for. I realize that maybe that’s not what they were trying to achieve here. And that’s fine. The problem here is that there’s really only one joke and it doesn’t escalate enough. The plot: two suburban squares have to play gangster to get their cat back. There are a couple scenes that are funny, but overall it’s sort of a by-the-numbers liar-revealed Hollywood comedy plot with not much surprise or innovation. Watching Key and Peele in this movie is like looking at a parakeet with clipped wings sit in cage that is too small.

I Like It:

Possibly the most anodyne entry on this list is The Peanuts Movie (2015). I was in love with the animation that managed to be state of the art and finely textured while maintaining the vintage lo-fi style of the old cartoons and simple comic strip that preceded it. All the hallmarks of Charles Schultz are on display in this gentle little film. It has a pleasant sense of humor and a quiet feel-good optimism that plays off Charlie Brown’s insecurities and social shortcomings. If you know the characters, they are pretty much themselves (Linus is a bit less sage here and I would have liked a bit more Schroeder, but we can’t have it all). My only real complaint is that, like Star Wars and Jurassic World, it seems like it is trying too hard to hit all the familiar nostalgic marks without developing much new. Like the old TV specials, the stuff with Snoopy is gold.

Up in Smoke (1978) was the screen debut of the stoner comedy team of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The film itself is a bit of an amateurish hit-and-miss episodic road comedy. It means well, but not all of the jokes land like they should. A handful of funny moments, a mean sheriff (Stacy Keach) in pursuit, and the relationship between the two stars make it a warm little adventure. As perhaps the first stoner comedy, it’s more iconic than it is a masterpiece. Still worth a look.

I appreciated the character design and the social commentary better than the actual mystery in the animated Disney police procedural, Zootopia (2016). Voice cast was fine. Story was fine. Jokes were good. As a movie goer, I was perhaps most impressed with the world it created (Tundra Town, Rainforest District, etc.) and the ways that the city accommodated animals of wildly different sizes and shapes. Everything was fine, but I just really enjoyed the world they occupied and some of the character designs were wonderful. Additionally, the commentary on racism and prejudice was a refreshingly specific and important lesson that was handled well.

Guilty Pleasures:

This next schlock flick would be a great double feature with They Live. The Stuff (1985) is a delightfully cheesy horror comedy parable about consumerism and consumers not really knowing what’s in their food. When a mysterious viscous alien entity bubbles up from the ground it tastes simply too good to not be quickly packaged and sold in stores everywhere. The addictive substance is a living parasite that needs addicted host bodies to keep consuming it until it takes over. It’s a grim but refreshingly unusual sci-fi story with some gross special effects and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as a weirdly racist army general. It’s more campy and gross than it is scary, but that’s sort of as advertised. You can’t get enough of The Stuff.

I don’t get most superhero movies. I also have not been a fan of Ryan Reynolds (The Voices). I’ll admit it straightaway. That said, Deadpool (2016) was pretty fun, and, although not nearly as clever and edgy as it pretends to be, I still liked it better than pretty much all of the other Marvel movies I’ve seen. It pokes fun at obnoxious Marvel cliches (as well as its own one-note schtick) and has a charismatic wacky cynicism. I don’t remember the action much (I liked the fight between Colossus and Angel Dust because it had some interesting character moments alongside the punching), but I remember the snark and the snark was fun (Deadpool spelling out his nemesis’s hated name in henchman corpses was funny). Basically, if you thought Darkman needed more pop culture references and fourth wall breaking winks, this crass revenge flick is for you. More Morena Baccarin, please. All this said, I really want this to be an anomaly. We don’t need fifty more cynical, winky, ultra violent superhero movies. It works because it’s a novelty.

After all these years I finally got around to see the cult Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985). Honestly, I loved From Beyond (also directed by Stuart Gordon) a lot more and The Frighteners still contains my favorite Jeffrey Combs performance, but I get why this became a subversive hit. It slowly builds to being a zombie movie and then goes all out schlocky berserk in the final act. It’s silly, slimy sci-fi 80s mayhem. A lot of fun.

Rocking Harder:

After my disappointment with Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and modest feelings toward Inside Out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Finding Dory (2016). Taking notes from Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 in that much of the film is a convoluted prison break plot with multiple characters in different locations trying to rescue each other, Finding Dory is also a bit more fast and loose about its water-bound characters moving with ease from impossible situation to the next than its predecessor (Nemo’s hangup was in one small fish tank while the sequel moves through several tanks, pipes, buckets, etc.). The movie’s focus is all on Dory’s search for her parents and her past and, in addition to being a fast, funny adventure full of fun characters (Hank the octopus is a nice addition) and harrowing situations with innovative solutions, the fact that the main protagonist suffers from a difficult mental disorder (short term memory loss) and is able to overcome her countless obstacles through her perseverance and abundant cheerfulness should bring hope to sufferers of all kinds of problems. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyable and deeply moving (Ellen Degeneres shines in her role), and I applaud the writers’ ingenuity in figuring out ways to move characters that essentially need to be in the water at all times. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it deals with very human emotions and problems in ways that are respectful and hopeful.

Two young boys trying to run away from home stumble upon a police squad car and hit the road in Cop Car (2015). To make it more interesting, the cop car belongs to a murderer and bad sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. It’s a tight, small movie with just enough moving parts to keep the suspense building. I don’t want to spoil too much so I recommend just checking this one out.

Last list I watched The Lobster and I didn’t get it. So I gave director Yorgos Lanthimos  another try with his earlier film, Dogtooth (2009). It’s a dark and disturbing surreal tale of three teenage siblings (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Christos Passalis) being sequestered in their home by their controlling father (Christos Stergioglou) for reasons that are never explicit. A weird system of rewards and punishments is placed upon them. Weird sexual experimentation, gender favoritism, and sudden bouts of savage cruelty remind us just how innocent our protagonists are and how demented their parents must be. It is a quietly troubling film that has stuck with me. Watch it if you dare.

 

If you can get past Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) playing a Mexican and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) wearing a putty nose then you will enjoy Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Crime and corruption in a Mexican border town are the ingredients and playground for this classic. From the famous opening long take shot to the final bullets fired, Touch of Evil is a magnificent looking film and a pleasure to watch. Also features Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Love It:

Terrence Malick. Some people love him. Others find him slow and pretentious. From Days of Heaven to Tree of Life, his films all look breathtaking. The New World (2005) was Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontis. It is a slow movie, but one whose languid pace, for me, added to the richness of the environment and emotional weight to the almost wordless plot. The refreshing take on this historical narrative comes in the way the film depicts its characters as complex human beings bound by culture rather than a sanitized Hollywood romance. These are difficult situations that befall young Pocahontis (Q’orianka Kilcher), her father (August Schellenberg), the pirate John Smith (Colin Ferrell), and pious John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the solutions are not easy and may never come. The New World, like Malick’s best, is a profound and beautiful work that resonates well beyond the screen. Pocahontis is an exciting and curious and tragic figure and this film gives the legendary icon perhaps more respect than any other pop culture incarnation has. Strongly recommend.

Two men from 1991 (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Lukaszewicz) are supposed to be put into hibernation for three years as a test, but wars lead them not being awoken until 2044. The Polish sci-fi comedy Sexmission (1984),  directed by Juliusz Machulski, depicts a not-too-distant future where men are extinct and asexually producing women have taken over a technologically advanced subterranean colony. While the premise might seem like a childish slam against feminism (in part, it may be) it is in fact a more fascinating critique on Soviet rule. The fantastic set work and fun costumes look great and the story is legitimately interesting as straight science fiction. The social satire on the politics of Poland at that time keep it from feeling like just another high-concept comedy. This one was a fun find.

If you are not already a fan of Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) then this may not be the best place to start, but I really liked The Forbidden Room (2015) (co-directed and co-written by Evan Johnson). Like all Maddin movies, it looks like it’s about 100 years old and operates on a surreal sense of wacky logic. Stories within stories unfold in an elliptical and episodic manner making it difficult to find your grounding. One minute we’re in a submarine quickly losing oxygen and the next we are in a night club singing about a strange doctor’s obsession with butts. If you have the right sense of humor and don’t mind feeling occasionally lost then I definitely recommend this one. It’s unique, to be sure.

Francis Veber adapted his own play for film in the French comedy The Dinner Game (1998). Mr. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who enjoys the pastimes of the wealthy: in this case, finding the most oblivious dolts to take to a weekly dinner to showcase their oafishness and have a good laugh at the expense of these lowly peons. Although he believes he has found an idiotic champion in François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), Brochant has injured his back golfing and cannot go to the dinner. But getting rid of Pignon is more difficult than originally anticipated, especially once Brochant learns his wife is leaving him. Over the course of the evening, the good-intentioned Pignon creates, dissipates, and escalates innumerable predicaments and causes some needed reflection to be done on the part of his heartless host. Once the film gets going it is on a roll. The Dinner Game is an immensely pleasing comedy that took me by surprise.

The Peak:

Color me freaked out by Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch (2015). A family in the 1630s builds a homestead on the edge of a forest. The forest happens to contain a witch. Hence the title. What makes this such a good horror film is the raging sense of dread and discomfort you feel as the horrible events unfold. It’s a deeply unsettling slow-burn that haunts your soul rather than your basic jump-scare torture-porn splatter-fest. With the presence of the witch, the family dynamic is strained and the overwhelming paranoia and creeping sense that evil is getting closer all pay off chillingly. It made me uncomfortable and I think that’s what good horror is meant to do. Stellar acting (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw) and sumptuous cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) brings this minimalist period piece to terrifying life. Watch out for goats.

I’ve been coming around to zombie films. I still don’t like zombie storylines that play it all too straight. I still like a little bit of satire or whimsy in my undead carnage. Maybe I’m giving away too much by using the word “zombie” here. Pontypool (2008) (directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess) is a brilliant lo-fi horror thriller with enough cleverness and mounting unease to keep you glued to the screen despite the lack of onscreen action. Self-contained in a church basement broadcasting local radio, grouchy disc jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and the show’s producer (played by McHattie’s wife, Lisa Houle) gradually learn of a mysterious outbreak. The viewer watches the skepticism vanish and the horror set in on the faces of our insulated leads. How they learn about the virus, what the virus is, how it is spread, and how to counteract it are all part of what makes Pontypool unique and wonderful. Go watch it.

And finally, if only because any chance to mention animator Don Hertzfeldt should be seized, I submit a cheat. World of Tomorrow (2015) is a short film, but it was so good it must take the top slot. Hertzfeldt has impressed us all before with his uncanny ability to marry crude simplistic illustrations (Rejected) with immense richness of thought and personal creativity, combining bleak and absurd humor with existential postulation (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) in ways few filmmakers are capable of doing. World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily. Toddler Emily (Winona Mae) is visited by her adult self from the future (Julia Pott)—or rather, what is the latest in a series of genetically cloned copies of herself in the future’s attempts at attaining immortality. Adult Emily has summoned the girl to find a memory, but the implications of little Emily’s future, while death is technically staved off for the moment, is not a cheerful one. It is a cold, clinical, and lonely future full of more questions than answers and riddled with many of the same social inequalities of toddler Emily’s time—albeit manifested in uniquely horrifying ways. This short explores the nature of self, the nature of life, the nature of death, and the nature of progress. World of Tomorrow is overflowing with brilliant ideas treated as nonessential throwaway gags and, in addition to being exceedingly clever, is also wonderfully funny. I highly recommend this one.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVI – Z for Zombie

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.

Terrible:

This never happens in the movie.

I actually had to stop watching Mesa of Lost Women (1953) before the third act. It is a slog to get through. As much as I enjoy some of the hammy acting and weird kinkiness (the tarantula woman’s sexy dance was funny watching with grandma), the poor quality of the picture and sound and slow nothingness of the pace made it difficult to follow. I like actor Harmon Stevens’ placid and infantile hypnotized grin after one of the spider women stabs him (with something??), but then it was depressing seeing a sad looking Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester) as the mad scientist who operates out of some weird Mexican cave. No idea how it ended. Did I mention the terrible two measures of tensionless score that’s stuck on repeat?

But it seems better in stills.

Ever think about how Casablanca would be improved by being set in a post apocalyptic future and giving Bogart massive gazongas? Well Barb Wire (1996) starring Pamela Anderson Lee may be just the thing for you. Pam is an ex-freedom fighter and a club owner and a stripper who moonlights as an agent/assassin and a hooker. It’s as ridiculous as you can imagine, and I guarantee you that whatever you’re picturing in your head is better, sexier, and more coherent than what they filmed. Despite trying so hard to be sexy and action packed, it just comes off as cold and stilted for the most part. I did like Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown) and a lot of the line deliveries were so bad they were hilarious. Udo Kier, Clint Howard, and Boba Fett’s dad co-star.

This guy reminded me of Hedonism Bot from Futurama.

I didn’t expect much from the David Carradine sword-and-sorcery vehicle literally called The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and boy was I overestimating it. It’s basically a ripoff of Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars) but set in a poorly defined fantasy world. Where Mesa of Lost Women was hard to watch, this one is at least entertainingly bad (for the most part). At least there’s tons of needless and degrading nudity (so much so that there’s even a dancer who has four breasts—like they couldn’t find a way to get enough tits into this movie already) and at least two cheesy puppet monsters.

I Didn’t Entirely Get It:

It’s a lot of this.

The premise for Kon Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962) is cute enough: daily life as seen alternately from a 2 year old’s perspective and that of his parents. It’s not a bad little film, I just found it somewhat tedious. At best it’s an interesting look into Japanese life in the 60s, but the baby narration was too eloquent and all-knowing to be taken seriously and the family drama felt bland (but maybe that was the point??).

Don’t get too excited. It’s not nearly this trippy.

Sorry, 1960s Japan. Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) wasn’t wacky enough. Oh, it’s wacky alright, and I would recommend it, but it never lives up to it’s gorgeously surreal title sequence. A disaster movie about bugs staging a revolt against humanity could stand more bug photography (a la Phase IV) and less loony pantomiming…although that does add to its silly charm. In fairness, any plot that features a female holocaust survivor turned evil mad scientist who wants to poison humanity with bug juice to make them go insane and die has to at least be seen. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s that kinda fun B-movie, not-everything-makes-sense sort of thing. But a movie about killer bugs needs more bugs. One point of interest is the starkly anti-American position it takes. In that regard it reminded me a little bit of the Korean film The Host. Charlie is great. If you see it, you’ll learn who Charlie is.

Getting Better:

Lots of pretty scenery.

John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is a spectacularly photographed arthouse western about a young Scottish man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching the untamed American frontier for the woman he loves with the help of a cynical outlaw (Michael Fassbender). It’s a slow-going movie more akin to Dead Man than Silverado, and it is littered with strange western tableaus. I liked it just fine until in a scene that figuratively pours salt in our hero’s wounds he literally has a jar marked “salt” get broken over his head and poured into his wounds. It was such a laughable, on-the-nose moment that it took me out of the drama faster than Japan’s Maglev train. Not a literal train. That would be silly. Recommended for fans of artsy neo-westerns and great cinematography.

See? No Brad Pitt.

Call me a Philistine. I don’t care. I get why Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is such an influential science fiction film, but I regrettably confess that having already seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (which pilfered the plot of La Jetée) I was a little let down. La Jetée is a French short film told entirely with still black and white photographs and voice-over narration. It chronicles a man who is haunted by childhood memories and is made to travel through time. It’s good. It’s told in an innovative way. But ultimately (don’t hate me, film people) I liked the Bruce Willis movie better and found it more detailed and dramatically satisfying.

Pay attention to that plant in the top left.

Who’s more affable and likable and all-American than Henry Fonda? [Well, Jimmy Stewart, but that’s the subject of another day.] Honestly, I never got the appeal of Henry Fonda. He was always so slow and serious to be a believable person (although I do enjoy a lot of his movies—Young Mr. Lincoln being one of them). Mister Roberts (1955) is one of those gung-ho American navy movies your grandfather watches because he was in the navy (at least it is with my grandfather). Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), James Cagney (White Heat), William Powell (The Thin Man), and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) star in the movie about a real swell officer (Fonda) on a ship too far from battle to see action, the crew who loved him, and the commanding officer who was a bit of dick to everybody (Cagney). It’s got a few really great scenes, a few really hokey scenes, and it does feel a bit too long. It’s more Operation Petticoat than M*A*S*H. Soapy, but it’s worth a look just for some of the psychological showdowns between Fonda and Cagney.

More Worth It:

Every time she talks all I hear is, “I’m the boss, applesauce!”

John Patrick Shanley adapts his own stage play to the screen with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Doubt (2008) is an austere little movie about a no-nonsense nun (Streep in her best Judge Judy voice) who suspects a priest (Hoffman) of molesting a young boy, but she has no proof and we—the audience—are not entirely sure who to believe. It’s a simple and effective drama with good acting and cinematography. Fans of the play will like it and fans of movies that do not give easy answers will too.

Shut up. I liked it.

[Full disclosure: I moved to Spain last week. I saw this movie in Spanish and I don’t really speak Spanish, but I think I got the gist. So maybe this is a testament to visual storytelling?] I didn’t like Despicable Me enough to bother with the sequel, but I was consistently entertained by the adorable gibberish, cutesy antics, and energetic animation of Minions (2015). It was creative and funny and I liked watching the weird characters get in and out of trouble. I also enjoyed some of the sixties tunes. It’s a different premise for sure: a species that evolved a psychological need to be subservient to a powerful master (preferably evil) searches for the perfect leader to ally with.

Grimly Good:

It’s how would have wanted to go.

Shôhei Imamura is a legendary Japanese filmmaker whose work I have not really explored yet. Boo, me. I know. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a bleak portrait of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), based on real life criminal, Akira Nishiguchi. It explores his relationship with his family and a few women he cons. It’s not a sentimental film. It doesn’t glamorize crime. There are really no positive characters in the film (I did like the old lady who had been a jailbird herself). It’s gritty and gloriously shot. Fans of Japanese cinema or crime drama should not miss this one.

Kinda wish there were more zombies like the melty guy and bisected dog and headless guy.

I don’t know why I never really got into zombie movies. Especially when I really do enjoy a lot of them (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made his directing feature debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985). It’s a fantastic bit of horror comedy, fully embracing its zaniness but still giving us some decent writing and fun characters. Two employees accidentally release a canister-o-zombie and things only escalate at an alarming rate from there. The zombies can’t really be killed so that makes it a little trickier. Classic fun.

Not exactly “The Thing” or “The Fly”, but it’s a slimy time to be had.

H.P. Lovecraft gets adapted a lot. I have no idea what the original story looked like, but Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs one crazy, slimy, prosthetic-filled science fiction horror yarn with From Beyond (1986). An unexplained “science machine” reveals another dimension filled with phosphorescent flying eels that are surrounding us at all times. When sexual deviant, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), gets his head bitten off by an unseen monster, his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) gets institutionalized unless he can prove his sanity to a kind doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree). Returning to the attic in the mysterious house, they get multiple scary encounters with Pretorius’s new, monstrous form. The movie is absolutely nuts and I loved it…probably loved it more because so little of it makes any sense. The special effects are great and gross.

Rising Above:

The face British people make when they see a spider crawling on your shoulder.

Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more forms than almost any other fictional character. Hammer Studios’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) was not the first nor the last adaptation of this specific Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, but it might be the best known and liked. Directed by Terence Fisher (he did a lot of Hammer horror movies) and starring Hammer icons Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as Holmes and Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) as Sir Henry, it has all the Victorian style and spooky atmosphere Hammer was famous for. A great outing for lovers of the legendary sleuth.

It really could have been one hell of a movie.

I had reviewed Island of Souls and Island of Dr. Moreau in past lists. Souls (1932) being fantastically good and Moreau (1996) being a baffling, disjointed disaster of a movie. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a documentary that seeks to elucidate us all as to what happened and how everything went so so very wrong on the set of the infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. David Gregory’s doc features extensive interviews with cast and crew, giving incredible insights into what it was like working on this nightmare project and how everything fell apart at an exponential rate. If you loved Lost in La Mancha or ever saw the 1996 film you owe it to yourself to watch this. It’s absolutely bonkers what went on.

Gagin’s casual disregard for literally everyone but himself make him an interesting hero.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an interesting film noir. Our hero, Gagin (director Robert Montgomery), is an unlikable small time crook and army vet on the hunt for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and the money he feels Hugo owes him. What makes the film memorable is the dusty New Mexican town setting and some of the colorful side characters like Pancho (Thomas Gomez), Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and an old FBI agent (Art Smith)…not to mention the giant marionette from your nightmares, Zozobra (god of bad luck), paraded through town at night only to be immolated by the villagers as part of their local festival. If you enjoy noir, this one comes highly recommended.

My Favorites This Time Around:

This scene is actually a really clever sight gag if you end up watching the film.

Another zombie movie. Why do I keep thinking I hate zombies? Before Ip Man, Wilson Yip directed a low-budget teenage horror comedy set in a Hong Kong shopping mall called Bio-Zombie (1998). It’s great fun. When there’s no onscreen action, there’s plenty of wonderful character business propelling the plot. Our main characters, Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), are lowlifes, thieves, bullies, and obnoxious dressers. They pal up with two sexy ladies, Jelly (Suk Yin Lai) and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) to battle the hordes of advancing zombies. There’s also a lovable sushi chef nerd (Wayne Lee) who brings a lot of comic tragedy to the already zany project. I highly recommend this Hong Kong zombie flick.

A lot of awkwardness in their hotel room.

I have loved every one of Satyajit Ray’s films that I’ve seen. (Check out The Apu Trilogy if you are unfamiliar with him.) Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (1979) is an Indian detective film featuring sleuth Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee, Apur Sansar) and his two friends—his young cousin (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and the pulp novelist (Santosh Dutta)—trying to locate a missing statuette. The mystery is full of great locations, rich scenes, spooky meetings, and some levity. The characters are fun and, coming from America, it’s sort of exciting to see an original Indian genre film with no songs. One memorably suspenseful scene features the comic relief novelist facing an old knife thrower who may be losing his sight and is definitely suffering from a severe cough. This is actually a sequel to an earlier detective movie featuring Feluda, but I haven’t seen it.

Just like “Homeward Bound,” kids!

Hungarian filmmaker, Kornél Mundruczó, takes you on a gritty and uncomfortable journey through the eyes of a canine named Hagan in White God (2014). A young girl, Lilli (Zsófia Psotta), and her furry best friend have to live with her grouchy divorced father (Sándor Zsótér). Not wanting the dog—and the city not wanting mixed breeds—he gets rid of Hagan. While Lilli goes through a lot of growing up and looking for her dog, Hagan goes on a brutal journey through serious abuse on the streets and the world of dog fighting before finally leading a Spartacus-esque revolution of death-row mongrels, exacting revenge on their tormentors as they storm through the city. It’s about growing up, remembering how to be a family, and about how we treat outsiders. The cinematography and performances are great (both human and dog) and the tension keeps on building. Read any metaphor you want into it or just take it as is. It’s brilliant filmmaking.

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.