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I Luvz Me Some Silent Danish Sci-Fi


We live, as the eminent philosopher Louis CK has noted, in an age of wonders, and films long thought lost or available only in badly deteriorated form are now restored to almost pristine condition.

1918 A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920

One year after D.W. Griffith made Birth Of A Nation in the U.S. (and American audiences blithely bought into the ballyhoo that he had invented the language of cinema and creature the feature length film format), the Danes opted to end the world with a film called — surprise, surprise — The End of the World (Verdens Undergang).

Before we proceed, a bit of historical context: 
From 1914 to 1918, Europe was up to its neck in a little number called World War One.

It severely disrupted all the European nations involved in it, killing millions of people (mostly young men), and bringing much of those nations’ pop culture (read “movies”) to a screeching halt.

The United States, sitting safely on the other side of the Atlantic, was able to stay out of the first half of the war and kept cranking out big budget, high polished films that dominated the international market.

With virtually no home grown movies of their own (and the few that were made reflected the Spartan resources and budgets available), the European film markets eagerly lapped up the Hollywood product.

Even after the U.S. entered the war, our nation was never under direct threat, much less attack, and so was able to continue making highly polished big budget films.

Hollywood had no competitors in the world at that time…

…except for Denmark.

The Danes took a look at the gawdawful bloodbath going on just south of them and said thanks but no thanks, we’re sitting this one out.

As a result, they were able to make some truly astonishing movies, films that could — and did – compete head to head and nose to nose with the best American products.

While they made movies in a variety of genres and styles, I’m going to focus on two big budget (for the era) science fiction films they made (although the term “science fiction” wouldn’t be coined until almost a decade later).

The first was the above mentioned The End Of The World, a pretty straight forward tale that also clearly reflected Danish anxieties about the hell breaking loose just below their southern border.

Written by Otto Rung and directed by August Blom, it’s a story about a near collision with an asteroid causing worldwide havoc.

It pretty directly influenced the latter French film La Fin du Monde (1931) and both directly and indirectly (through adapted source material) the American productions Deluge (1933) as well as the opening chapter of Flash Gordon (1936).

1916 verdens1

Those films in turn influenced When Worlds Collide (1951) which in turn influenced both Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, and those films influenced a shipload of crappy direct-to-video disaster-from-space movies.

Not too shabby for a 77 minute movie you never heard of before, eh?


While The End Of The World has a compact cast, it makes an effort to provide as impressive a spectacle as possible.  An elaborate village miniature was built and destroyed in a hail of smoky comet debris, terrific storms (stock footage and tank work) flood the countryside, and in a poignant ending, the heroine wanders through a now desolate and decimated village that has been reduced to utter ruins.


The movie clearly reflects the Danes’ then anxiety about what was happening south of them, as well as their fears they would get swept up in it (they didn’t…in that war; World War Two did see them overrun by the Nazis).

Two years after that, as World War One was finally winding down, the Danes tried an even more ambitious science fiction project, A Trip To Mars (a.k.a. Himmelskibet, Excelsior, and Das Himmelschiff in various markets).

1918 Trip To Mars 6

Adapted from Sophus Michaelis’ novel by screenwriter Ole Olsen and directed by Holger-Madsen, A Trip To Mars is the space opera genre delivered full blown, with all the trappings we’re familiar with.

While the spaceship, the Excelsior, is somewhat fanciful, it’s based on aviation technology of the time and compared to the tiny cabins of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers’ rockets, certainly looks like it could be a functioning spacecraft.

1918 Trip To Mars 8

It may be the first time spacesuits were depicted in a film, and the actual trip itself takes place over a several month-long flight.

animated atriptomars

But the most impressive part comes when they finally reach Mars.

1918 Trip To Mars 3

Although the Martians are depicted as being identical the humans — specifically Danish humans – there are hundreds of them on screen in various scenes, all in full costume.  An elaborate set was built for the Martian city, and unlike most films an attempt is made to show how Martian civilization differs from humanity’s attempt at the same.

1918 Trip To Mars 7

What’s missing is the slam bang violence that’s the hallmark of American sci-fi films.  The Danes, clearly appalled by the carnage they’d seen unleashed beside them, stressed a pacifist message, and after an initial conflict between the human crew and the Martians, peace is made and the daughter of the Martian leader opts to come to earth with the returning crew to help spread the message of love.

1918 Trip To Mars 5

While Danish cinema continued on, it lost interest in science fiction themes and, coupled with the impact of World War Two, the country did not produce any more science fiction films until Reptilicus in 1961 and Journey To The Seventh Planet in 1962.

Despite being in color and sound, neither measures up to either The End Of The World and A Trip To Mars, both of which have been extensively restored by the Danish Film Institute and are available for viewing on YouTube.

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Seriously, 2016, Stop It. Just…Stop.


FU2016 prince-side-view

FU2016 david bowie

FU2016 Haggard

FU2016 blowfly-studio-1970-billboard-650

FU2016 Dale-Griffin-Mott-the-Hoople

FU2016 dan hicks

FU2016 george martin

FU2016 glenn-frey-old-1453160905

FU2016 Jimmie Van Zant 2 BWs

FU2016 kantner-700x602

FU2016 keith-emerson-lake-palmer-portrait-bw-billboard-650

FU2016 maurice white

FU2016 vanity

This is only a small portion of the large number of talented people we have already lost this year — musicians, composers, songwriters, creators — but I thought 13 would be an appropriate sample.  

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I’m going to break my overview of Zootopia into five parts:
How it succeeds as a social critique, how it succeeds as science fiction, how it succeeds as an animated film, then — because this part will be spoilericious – after the jump how perfectly plotted it is, then finally for the most masochistic of you, the theological implications.

Shall we begin?

Zootopia_ticketsZootopia as social critique:

This would make a perfect double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8.

Like The Hateful 8, Zootopia is at its heart a sincere and surprisingly profound meditation on prejudice and ethnic stereotypes in contemporary society.

Unlike The Hateful 8, Zootopia is afforded the luxury of being an animal fable, and while certain parallels are evident between its characters and ethnic stereotypes in modern day America, there are no one-to-one analogies.

The Hateful 8, on the other hand, even though it is apparently set in the alternate Tarantino universe, can’t avoid very specific comparisons among and between various ethnicities in the US today.

The Hateful 8 is a hard film to digest. As noted, it is Tarantino’s most significant film to date, but it’s also his least successful one.

That’s because there is no cushion between the audience and the ugliness it portrays, there is no distancing that lets people identify-with-yet-pretend-they-aren’t exactly like the characters seen on the screen.

Zootopia, conversely, has the luxury of being an animated animal fable, so audiences can nod sagely in recognition yet at the same time not feel a condemning “thou art the man” finger pointed at them.

Zootopia also lets the viewer off the hook insofar as those few scenes in which the audience recognizes themselves are quickly offset by those same characters doing something virtuous or by non-ethnic comedy.[1]

What Zootopia does brilliantly is to admit there are friction points among us all, and that not every body gets along well with everybody else.

But it also points out that, while life is messy, it is also full of options, and just because one particular path is blocked does not mean there isn’t a way to the ultimate destination.

If The Hateful 8 tells us we must pay for our sins before the healing begins, Zootopia tells us we can forgive the sins of others and ask forgiveness for ourselves.

Zootopia as science fiction:

The basic premise is this:
Thousands of years ago animals — predators and prey — found a way of living peacefully with one another and, because there was no longer disruptive hunting preventing the advancement of societies and science, the world became a better / cleaner / happier place.


The world realized from that premise is flawlessly executed. Every imaginable detail is either demonstrated or alluded to, and everything seems to fit.

In a perfect exampled of the old dictum, “He who handwaviums least, handwaviums best”[2], Zootopia doesn’t have to explain every single little detail of its world.

Something is presented to us and we simply roll with it. “Of course that’s the way they’d do it” even when five minutes of thought would make us realize what we’ve just seen actually opens can after can of worms.

ZOO Screen-Shot-2015-12-31

The trick to writing good sci-fi is not to explain each and every thing but to let the audience presume there is an explanation for each and everything.

The world building in Zootopia is great, a perfect combination of advanced CGI technology[3] and clever human ideas. It looks and feels real enough for us to accept it without thought, and that acceptance is what makes the powerful impact of Zootopia’s social comment possible.

Zootopia as an animated film:

This may be the best animated film ever.

I’m talking Ghost In The Shell quality.

Technically it is flawless. The character animation is great, the world building superb, the voice acting just about the best ever heard.


Snow White and Pinocchio and Dumbo
are great, but they can’t hold a candle to this.

This is Wizard Of Oz perfection and timelessness, and like the quest for the ruby slippers, so much more complex and enriching than Disney films of the same era.

And more importantly, it’s a demonstration of what animated films do so much better than live action movies: Properly executed, they can engage audiences of all levels and all backgrounds better and more effortlessly that comparable live action films.

Zootopia is a parody of classic 1980s buddy-cop movies, but it is so much better than Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours or Die Hard or The Last Boy Scout.

zootopia-is-an-important-movie-disguised-as-a-comedy-869236 Indeed, crap stuff that would be ridiculously over the top in a live action film is accepted here without breaking the gossamer thin suspension of disbelief.

Zootopia is a funny talking animal cartoon that grown-ups can enjoy without apology, and if one studio can do it, any studio can do it.

This may be the death knell for big budget live action movies.

No, I am not kidding…


Read the rest of this article »

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Let me explain the circumstances behind my re-watching Mad Max: Fury Road so as to better explain my additional thoughts on the film.

Along the way we will eventually drag in
Stephen King and The Horror Of Party Beach.

Soon-ok is a light sleeper, so if the volume on the TV downstairs is above a whisper — particularly for an action film — I run the risk of waking her when I watch movies late at night.

To compensate for the volume being waaaay down, I turn on the closed caption subtitles. This actually makes it a lot easier to track most modern films.

I re-watched Mad Max: Fury Road the night after the last GOP debate. Reading the dialog as opposed to hearing it thunderously shouted at me on a theater sound system sparked a couple of thoughts.

First off, it’s lousy pretentious dialog. George Miller & co get away with it by keeping the pace and spectacle so huge and over-the-top that you only catch a few phrases and ideas tossed out here and there.

Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t do a lot to develop those ideas, and a lot of them (like the entire premise of the movie) would collapse under their own weight if examined too closely, but they go ripping by so fast that when you do catch them they sound Really Important and, like much of the rest of the movie, we fill in vast blank spots on the mental canvas with our own imaginations.

Which is okay:
Mad Max: Fury Road is a popcorn movie and is meant to be enjoyed as a visceral experience.

And as a visceral experience, it is enjoyable.

So call this a post-apocalypse motor-fantasy, not an actual bonafide sci-fi movie, and have a good time.

But reading the dialog made me recognize how much the language of the GOP debates parallels it.

I’m not talking about the weasely obfuscation found in standard issue political / diplomatic discourse, but rather the very specific ways the bulk of the GOP candidates use language. [1]

A fast pulp writer could turn this whole election cycle into a Mad Max pastiche with no real difficulty.[2]

In the film, Immortan Joe uses language not so much to convey information as to trigger responses in his followers.

They literally hear what they want to hear, and a catch phrase tossed out at the right moment will trigger a reaction that Immortan Joe can exploit.

The war boys can not explain their reactions, they can not analyze why they do the things they do. They have been conditioned to respond and respond they will, even when it’s painfully obvious it’s against their own self-preservation, much less self-interest.

In fact, only when Nux thinks of himself as cast out of Immortan Joe’s blessed circle does he take even the most rudimentary steps towards analyzing his own personal situation.

So how does this tie in to big Steve King
and The Horror Of Party Beach?

Well, in his book Danse Macabre[3], King writes about how the lowest forms of pop culture can tap into the cultural gestalt at a basic, more intrinsic, more primal level than high brow art.

Case in point:
When the makers of The Horror Of Party Beach wanted to make a movie about hideous monsters attacking slumber parties full of teenage girls, their explanation of where the monsters came from was a short sequence showing leaky drums labeled “Radioactive Waste” being dumped into the ocean.

An A-production from a major studio on the topic of handling nuclear waste would have taken years to get produced; it would have faced both political and business pressure not to denigrate such an important industry so vital to America’s future. It would have required A Major Star or three as well as Some Very Important Writers and it would be all yak-yak-yak and in the end not a single person would have had their mind changed because by the time said film actually reached said eyeballs, their audience would have predetermined if they believed those liberal Hollywood types or not.

But The Horror Of Party Beach just chucks a couple of cans into the water, shows a couple of monsters evolving from the muck, and bingo! – next thing ya know they’re attempting to devour and/or mate with teen girls in negligees.[4]

Stephen King’s point was that instead of rationalizing it, the makers of The Horror Of Party Beach just tapped in on something they instinctively knew everybody else instinctively knew: It was not a good idea to dump radioactive waste into the ocean, yet if there was a buck to be made doing so, somebody or some business would do so.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a film about
the end of civilization as we know it.

And, no, not in the obvious manner you think:
On that level it’s just another mindless action movie, and you could change the costumes and the location and the handwaveum and turn it into a Bond film or a Star Wars movie or a Harry Potter adventure and get pretty much the same superficial story / spectacle.

No, it’s not about blowing things up and then people ride really cool junk cars out in the middle of the desert: It’s about the triumvirate of religion / business / defense finally collapsing. It’s about white boys, the staunchest supporters of that triumvirate, finding themselves replaced and superseded and ultimately ignored by a new non-white boy culture.

“It’s the end of  the
world as we know it,”

sang R.E.M.,
“but I feel fine.”

What Miller & co have done, in their brilliantly brainless fashion, is to cut through all the obfuscating bullshit of talking head TV pundits and show what all of us instinctively know: Established organized religion is empty; big business can not even recognize its own self-interest if it doesn’t mean an immediate profit; defense is never about protecting anyone.

There is, like it or not, a new world being born around us. It is a world that, for ill or for good, is going to be much more responsive to the needs and objectives of the non-whites and the non-boys.

Mad Max: Fury Road calls its white boys “half-lifes”. They are recognized even by themselves as being a dying breed, kept alive only by the machinations of Immortan Joe and The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer; kept alive to serve them in exchange for a promise dangled in front of the white boys, a promise neither Immortan Joe nor his ”brothers”[5] intend to keep — in fact, that none of them are actually capable of keeping.

That’s the old world we have let the greedheads build, the one that can no longer be sustained, the one that’s unraveling and in that process terrifying those who bought into the false promises and now live in abject horror that the powerball lottery will be closed before they have their chance to become multi-millionaires.

That is what Mad Max: Fury Road is all about.

It’s not a hopeless message, and it does show a way out for those who have invested heavily in the old system (such as Nux): White boys can recognize that change is upon them and help birth that new world, but instead of trying to dominate it, be prepared to step back and serve it.[6]

So in retrospect, I have somewhat modified
my opinion of Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s a good movie,
but not a great film.[7]

And that’s a good thing, because if it had been any better, if it had been any smarter, it could have never said what needed to be said.

The Faces Of

MMFR Mad-Max-Fury-02


MMFR People-eater-3


MMFR Bullet_farmer03




[1] And I’m focusing very specifically on language use as opposed to the topics purportedly being talked about.

[2] Anybody out there who wants to take that idea and run with it, be my guest.

[3]  Highly recommended, BTW.

[4] The teen (ha! Twenty-somethings!) girls are in the negligees, not the monsters; we had to wait for The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the latter.

[5] Literally? Figuratively?

[6] A lesson audiences seem more than willing to embrace; viz. Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

[7] However, it would make one helluva double-feature with The Hateful Eight.


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Compare And Contrast: TARANTULA vs THE SPIDER


I’ve been asked about a phrase I used in an earlier post re one motion picture being a better film while another was a better movie.

This kind of distinction can be made in any art form, any media, but for English speakers “film” and “movie” describe two ways of enjoying a motion picture.

I could blather on, but rather than discuss the matter in abstract terms, I’ll use two perfect examples to illustrate my point: The giant monster movies Tarantula (Universal 1955) and Earth Vs. The Spider (AIP 1958) a.k.a. The Spider.

CnC TvS a2

They’re similar enough yet different enough to demonstrate my thesis. Both hinge on the same basic plot: Giant arachnid threatens remote community.

But each is significantly different.

Tarantula is a Universal production directed by Jack Arnold, Universal’s go-to guy for 1950s sci-fi. It’s well written, well produced (a B-picture from a major studio), well cast[1], and with good make-up and special effects[2].  The Spider, on the other hand, was a Bert I. Gordon production for AIP. Story is minimal bordering dumb, cast (aside from a pair of stalwart minor supporting characters) is merely adequate, and the effects are not-so-special.

Of course, it’s tons o’fun and far more
entertaining than the Universal film.

Now, it’s fair to point out much of The Spider’s entertainment value comes from its campiness (such as twentysomethings playing high school students), but the truth is it’s a much faster paced and exciting movie.

Tarantula offers some handwaveum explanation for its big arachnid[3], The Spider skips all that: Their audience just shelled out sixty-five cents to see a movie about a giant spider so there’s no need to waste time with explanations where it came from.

For that same reason, there’s no futzing around by the characters, wondering if there’s a giant monster on the loose or not: The teen heroes convince their high school science teacher and the local sheriff with remarkable ease and they all go to confront the beast in her cave with a tanker truck full of DDT.[4]

This refreshing head-on approach is what gives The Spider its goofy charm: Twenty minutes into the film and they’re already at a point it takes Tarantula the better part of an hour to reach.

Once they think they’ve killed the damn thing, they drag it to the local high school gym[5]. Of course the monster revives midway through an impromptu sock hop and goes on a low budget rampage through town.[6]

The quality of The Spider’s effects are pretty minimal — mostly a real spider walking in front of a still photo of the live action location — but there’s a lot more of ‘em and they show her doing a lot more than Tarantula ever did.[7]

The Spider’s rampage is a remarkably effective piece of low budget film making and includes one of the really great iconic moments in 1950s sci-fi: A woman gets her dress caught in her car door as the spider bears down on her and in her very realistic hysterical panic doesn’t think to open the door so she can escape.

animated trapped woman in The Spider

Gordon also stretched his budget by showing more of the aftermath of the giant spider’s rampage (i.e., junk and bodies strewn in the streets) before moving on to his climax in which the heroes electrocute the big bug (sic!) in her cave.[8]

Tarantula’s characters (an admittedly higher caliber cast) are adults with boring grown up concerns; they never really connect with the audience. The Spider’s central characters are the teens, and everything in the movie orbits back to their teenage concerns in some fashion. Because of that, they and their problems are much easier to identify with.  Tarantula may do a better job of explaining where its big spider came from, but The Spider sucks us along for the ride.

So, in the end, which is the “better” motion picture?

Oh, c’mon, get serious:
They’re both giant spider movies, and the difference between a really good giant spider movie and a really bad giant spider movie is negligible.

You make movies with your head, and you make movies with your heart, same as any other creative expression. Use both, but if ya gotta go with one over the other, go with your heart.




[1] Clint Eastwood shows up unannounced at the end as the jet pilot who saves the day.

[2] Arnold and his crew recreated the film’s live action landscapes on a sandbox covered with white cloth then guided a real tarantula’s performance by squirting air at it from a rubber bulb. Not only did their tarantula create its own traveling matte, but it threw a realistic shadow when superimposed on the live action footage. Arnold was ingenious in this manner: To simulate water drops hitting The Incredible Shrinking Man’s match box house, he had technicians drop water filled condoms on the set. When asked by Universal’s accounting department why he had purchased one gross of condoms, Arnold’s straight faced reply was “I throw a hell of a cast party.”

[3] Leo G. Carroll was experimenting with making big critters small and small critters big because, hey, science!

[4] The Spider may be dumb but it sure ain’t stoopid.

[5] Because, hey, science!

[6] Which is a hell of a lot more than Tarantula ever accomplished: A few stray cattle and cow boys, a mid-century modern ranch house, and that’s it. She’s a mile or more out of town when Clint finally fricassees her.

[7] Bert I. Gordon — affectionately known as “Mr. BIG” by B-movie fans — is Arnold’s chief rival among sci-fi directors of the 1950s, at least in terms of the number of films he made. Like Arnold, Gordon was a clever innovator of special effects, and while his films may fail due to lack of time, talent, and taste, there’s nothing in the raw materials that prevented them from rising higher. Indeed, when finally afforded an adequate budget and schedule, Gordon produced the entertaining children’s fantasy The Magic Sword. An extra week spent on any of his other films would have made all the difference.

[8] This is an example of the rule of three in low budget film making: Always try to get a minimum of three key scenes out of each major location; this stretches the budget and shortens shooting time.


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Hateful Eight poster 2

Here’s the conundrum that will prove the make-it-or-break-it for many film goers:
This movie is so far over the fncking top in terms of violence / gore / rape / language / race that many in the audience will throw up their deflector shields and refuse / be unable to see what Quentin Tarantino is doing with the material.

‘Cuz boy howdy, has he got one really major significant-to-our times theme here, and his refusal to pull any punches is 100% germane to getting his point across.

You may not like what you see but
dadgumbit, you gotta see this!!!

Our boy Quentin is tackling the issue of race in America in The Hateful Eight, and he’s doing it in a classic context: The American Western.

Or more specifically: The Episodic American TV Western Bottle Show.[1]

If I wanted to be clever, I could work out an elaborate allegory in which So-and-so represents such-and-such element of modern American society but Tarantino is too good a writer / director / film maker for any simplistic analysis that.

There are no good guy heroes in this movie.

The closest to virtuous characters are a handful of extraneous supporting players who simply aren’t onscreen long enough to show if they have any negative qualities.[2]

Everybody else has character flaws that would
fuel a dozen Shakespearean pastiches.[3]

It’s some time after the Civil War.[4] Ex-Union calvary officer Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) strikes an uneasy alliance with rival bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) to deliver outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the ex-Confederate sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins) for hanging, only they’re snowed in at a way station with Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and ex-Confederate General Sandy Smithers.

Murder / mayhem / horrendous violence ensues.[5]

And while the above mentioned cast constitutes our Hateful Eight, there are also nine more characters (plus three corpses) who round out the story.[6]

Even the best characters have woeful flaws,
and even the worse have some redeeming feature.

And as was true re McClintock!, The Hateful Eight is a contemporary story set in the Old West, and as such it offers a contemporary view on contemporary society filtered through the lens of the past.[7]

Tarantino the writer drops more N-bombs in this movie than any other he’s made, but in the context of the story and characters (at least two ex-Confederates and several overt white racists) they do not seem to be gratuitous.[8]

And, man, does he ever tackle the issue of race head on. Bounty hunter Warren is at best tolerated by Ruth, Mobray, and stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks), Sherriff Mannix despises him but will obey the law, Gage pretty much ignores him, but Domergue and Smithers shower him with almost non-stop abuse.

Which is fine, because Warren certainly holds them in equal contempt.

But Warren is no turn-the-other-cheek type; as the story unfolds he’s depicted unflinchingly as a non-heroic (as opposed to being an anti-hero) thug different from Domergue and others only because he is clever enough to stay just inside the boundaries of the law.

Mannix comes across as an idiot and a bigot, and while his racial bias never entirely vanishes, he does manage to (painfully; very painfully) acquire some belated smarts by the end of the movie and an appreciation for what others may have gone through.

Ruth is the closest thing to a hero among the Eight, but he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

And he is brutal — gawd, is he brutal! — to Daisy Domergue.

I honestly don’t know how to react
to her treatment in the film.

On the one hand, the physical abuse ladled on her would be appalling even if applied to a man; on the other, if any character is so irredeemably evil as to deserve such abuse, she’s the one.

Tarantino avoids plot asides that a lesser writer would waste spend time on; instead of teasing out several small plot reveals, he just drops them full out in plain view.[9]

I keep coming back to the race theme, because that’s pretty much what this movie is about. Even the semi-Pollyanna-ish flashback of a seemingly racially enlightened group is marred by the later revealed fact that one of them, despite their jolly good nature, is just as terrible a bigot in their own way as Mannix, Smithers, and Domergue.

And that, in an oddly perverse way, is the common unifying humanizing feature of all the characters, even — or rather, especially! — the very worse.[10]

These are not hagiographic heroes
ala Roy Rogers and Gene Autry or
even John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

Hell, Eli Wallach as Tuco would be a step above them in terms of basic human decency / compassion / virtue!

But that is Tarantino’s point: Who are we to judge?

Even the best can be pretty despicable, but even at their most detestable worst we can say, “I can understand why you’d think / say / do that” without actually agreeing to their POV.

And the worst of the lot can be seen as genuine psychopaths, greedily sucking up all life around them, spitting (literally!) on everything others hold near and dear.[11]

As Ruth says roughly midway through the movie:
“You only need to hang the mean bastards,
but the mean bastards need to be hanged.”

In the end, the film’s point is that for all the friction generated between / amongst the protagonists, they are ultimately on the same side, fighting for the same cause, and being oh so subtly manipulated by antagonists who hate for no other reason than it feels so damn good.

Highly recommended, but when you go see it, go prepared. The last part is Quentin Tarantino’s most gruesome grand guignol finale ever.

Oh, and by the way,
it’s a Christmas movie.

Hateful Eight animated

[1] Tarantino explains the origins of The Hateful Eight was his fascination in old TV Westerns in which an outlaw would take the cast hostage in one of the established interior locations, and the next 30-60 minutes would be spent engaged in psychodrama until the heroes finally turn the table on the baddie/s. Shows like that are referred to as “bottle shows” in TV parlance because they use mostly series regulars and existing sets instead of spending money on anything new. Producers frequently turn to bottle shows when schedules and budgets grow tight.

[2] And at least one of their number is an out & out bigot.

[3] And forgive me if this veers into spoiler territory, but the only major Hollywood production with a more nihilistic ending involved an army of apes invading a city of mutants in a futile attempt to stop Charlton Heston from blowing up the whole fncking planet.

[4] And the film occupies that weird alternate history / reality of all of Tarantino’s other movies, including Inglorious Basterds. Lincoln may not have been assassinated, John Wilkes Booth may have been chased down by bounty hunters, the South may have unconditionally surrendered yet not gone through Reconstruction, but the Red Apple tobacco brand is available for public consumption.

[5] I’m going to strive to be as spoiler free as possible, so that means pretty much all of act two (i.e., after the intermission in the road show presentation) is off limits. Lemme just say (a) holy crud, nobody dies easy and (b) at least three chimpanzees survived for Escape From The Planet Of The Apes.

[6] And Tarantino hizzownsef as the uncredited narrator of part two.

[7] Does that mean The Hateful Eight may not age gracefully? It’s possible, though I hope that’s not the case and as with McClintock! it will be viewed as both a product and a commentary of its times.

[8] Though if that’s the sort of thing that can annoy you, it will annoy the livin’ fnck out of you during the course of the picture.

[9] Which paradoxically turns out to be the freshest thing he could do with them. We expect a character to hide the fact they’ve been lying about an important letter; we do not expect him to confess to it almost immediately upon being questioned, or for another character to read the letter as true even when they know it to be a fake!

[10] And if you think Daisy Domergue is the worse, you’ve got another think coming.

[11] Even, ironically, when those near and dear things are proven to be false.

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Spoilericious THE FORCE AWAKENS Review / Speculation


The Force Awakens is the first
cringe-free Star Wars movie
since The Empire Strikes Back.


“The Force awakens” can mean
“the Force itself wakes up” or
“the Force wakes up others.”


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B-Western Round-Up


Western Classics 50 Films

Like many others in my generation, I grew up watching old B-Westerns on TV.  Hopalong Cassidy was my favorite, narrowly beating out the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers (though I loved them as well).

When a friend informed me he’d purchased Classic Westerns: 50 Films, I felt I had to give it a try, too.  What follows are the films as I viewed them in the order they play on the DVDs.  Although I’m calling this a B-Western Round-up, there are some Italian Westerns and a few Hollywood A-Westerns than fell into public domain included as well.

The round-up starts after the jump.

(Will I do this next year with other megapacks?  Maybe, I dunno…)

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tangerine poster

Tangerine is this year’s I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-Christmas-movie.

A story of two Hollywood street hustlers on Christmas Eve, it has everything you could want in a holiday film: Inventively obscene language, rampant prostitution, startling displays of nudity, and horrifying-yet-hilarious street violence.

And compassion.

And loyalty.

And love.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is barely out of jail when friend & fellow street hustler Alexandra (Mya Taylor) informs her that her fiancé / pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan).

tangerine 0 0Alexandra (Mya Taylor, left) dropping her 
bombshell on Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez).  
All hell breaking loose in 5…4…3…2…1…

This sets off the erratically bi-polar Sin-Dee on a one-transgender woman mission of vengeance to track down Mickey and confront Chester with her. Alexandra tags along, first trying to calm Sin-Dee down, but also trying to promote her own one-person show at a local bar later that night.

Add to this basic Frankie & Johnny mix –

  • (a) Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a roving cabbie who pines for Sin-Dee and hopes to keep his wife from finding out,
  • (b) Ashken (Alla Tumanian), his vengeful mother-in-law who has found out about his dalliances with transgender hustlers, and
  • (c) a third complication which we’ll refrain from mentioning as it’s a spoiler

– and Tangerine rockets off on a howling funny erratic roller coaster ride which, like all good roller coasters, convinces us at times it’s about to fly off the tracks but in reality is always skillfully and deliberately operating exactly as intended.

Big kudos to writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, co-photographer Radium Cheung, their production team, and the remarkable cast, especially Rodriguez and Taylor who brought a lot of their own real life experience and insight to the production. The sassy but savvy minority sexual nonconformist is a well established trope in films and drama now, threatening to become a full fledged stereotype. Rodriguez and Taylor occasionally get close enough to that trope to wave and yell hello from the other side of the street, but they never actually embrace it.

The relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra shows how diametrically opposite personalities can find solace and companionship in one another. Alexandra, for all her street cred, at heart harbors a bittersweet yet very conventional ambition, and despite her failure to gain traction towards her ultimate goal she never seems foolish in her pursuit.

She wants a very conventional form of success and acceptance, and one senses she would cheerfully leave the street far behind if she could find even a modicum of success as a performer.

Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the most outrageous street hustler since Pam Grier’s Charlotte, the gold standard of psychotic street hustlers from 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx. If Rodriguez was not able to lace Sin-Dee’s anger and hurt with inventive humor, she would have been as terrifying as Grier was.

But despite her intense emotional pain, Sin-Dee will not abandon a friend, and even though she’s kidnapped Dinah and is en route to confront Chester (via public transit!), she nonetheless finds time to drag her hostage into the bar where Alexandra is singing so as to support her friend’s performance to a room full of barflies.

Tangerine“Hi, I’m kidnapping you to force a
possibly violent confrontation with
my boyfriend, but first let’s stop and
watch my girlfriend’s set at this bar.”
Sin-Dee with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan.)

Indeed, not only has Sin-Dee compassion for her friend, but she even shows compassion to Dinah, helping her clean up a bit and become more presentable for their inevitable confrontation with Chester.

And in the end, when she is feeling at her worse — abandoned, shamed, betrayed, friendless — she finds Alexandra genuinely cares about her, and is literally willing to give her the shirt off her back (or rather, the wig off her own head) to comfort her.

The film intercuts between that and Razmik sitting in his brightly lit apartment, his life and marriage not exactly destroyed but certainly irreparably damaged, and Dinah facing one of the emotionally coldest and bleakest Christmas Eve’s imaginable, and let’s us know what is truly important in our lives. It strips away all the surface distinctions that we get hung up on and let’s us see people relating to others as people, not objects to be used.

Merry Christmas indeed.

Now, some will wonder why I’m celebrating a grim & gritty / down & dirty film about low lifes instead of more upbeat / happy / zesty holiday fare ala White Christmas.

And I love White Christmas.
It’s a family favorite we
watch every year.

But the big difference between White Christmas (specifically) and other films like it is that they very rarely touch on real life.

White Christmas is a good counterpoint to Tangerine: It also deals with betrayal and trust and compassion, and like Tangerine ends up with an affirmative scene.

But it’s also a fantasy, wholly unrealistic, a lifeless product of the studio system that, while absolutely entertaining on the surface, really doesn’t carry a very deeply resonating meaning.

Yeah, it turns out Rosemary Clooney
could trust Bing Crosby after all,
huzzah huzzah,

But there was nothing real about their on-screen personas, nothing real about the characters they played.

They were perfect happy characters with perfect happy lives that had Some Whacky Complications but in the end everything turned out even more perfectly happier than everything that had happened before.

And that’s fine in a film that is just light entertainment; we certainly don’t need to be stretching our intellectual muscles over a movie designed to shoehorn as many Irving Berlin songs as possible into a single production.

But while the characters’ conflicts symbolized similar problems audiences might face, there is precious little in White Christmas itself that people then or now could recognize in their own lives.

It’s like a Saturday Evening Post illustration come to life: It pretends to depict reality but in actuality it’s a highly stylized interpretation of same.

Tangerine, on the other hand, may exaggerate reality by cramming so many wild incidents into a single night, but it never depicts anything, no matter how outre’, that doesn’t seem to be 100% authentic.

Which is what makes the reconciliation and forgiveness and compassion at the end so refreshing and — heaven help us — heartwarming.

It doesn’t ring of triteness,
but of real, genuine feeling.

A further word on Tangerine, this wholly unrelated to the dramatic aspect of the picture.

tangerine behind the scenes shot

O’Hagan and Rodriguez preparing to shoot
a scene with photographer Radium Cheung and
writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker (right).  
[photo by Shih-Ching Tsou]

Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhone 5s Smartphones* and that should have traditional production companies and major studios defecating cinderblocks. It gets in and among its characters with astounding ease, and people familiar with the Hollywood / Highland / Santa Monica Blvd area where the film was shot will be amazed at the versatility of the production.

Seriously, you’ve got a film that looks as good as any other low budget feature, and accomplished entirely on a device you are probably already carrying in your pocket. Tangerine had a $100,000 budget, but in a big part that’s because they were filming with permits in Hollywood; I can imagine a production with less scruples and / or shot in a less media savvy area costing but a tiny fraction of that.

What in means in terms of film & media production is that there’s now literally no bar to entry except the imagination and ability of the film maker/s & casts.




* Wikipedia notes “They used the FiLMIC Pro app, a video app (to control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs (to capture widescreen). They also used Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee to capture smooth moving shots.)”


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As Walter Kerr pointed out in his great book on The Silent Clowns, we may never know, much less appreciate, the full loss of film culture from the silent and early sound era.

Hampered by both a physical medium that was simultaneously explosive and corrosive, and by an attitude towards the intellectual property as an ephemeral quantity, little effort was made to preserve films from the first half century of movies, and in particular once sound came in, from the silent era.[1]

As a result, we have entire oeuvres of work of performers / directors / writers / studios that are lost forever to the mists of time. People whom we know existed from press clippings and movie magazine articles and the stray lobby card or film still, but of whom we have no examples of their work.[2]

One such oeuvre, thought lost but now happily restored, are the Musty Suffer films of Harry Watson Jr.


Watson was part of the comedy team of Bickel and Watson, but before he began treading the vaudeville and burlesque boards he was a clown for Ringling Brothers.

Like many early vaudeville comics[3], he became involved in the burgeoning movie industry in the early nineteen-teens.

His first turn as perennial put-upon Musty Suffer was Keep Moving in 1915; by the time the series ended he had done thirty short films as that character and seven non-Musty one-reelers as well as supporting roles in 4 feature films. He alternated between knockabout screen comedies and the Broadway stage, apparently retiring from show biz in 1930 at age 54. He lived another 35 years, dying in Canada in 1965 at age 89.

The Musty Suffer series are referred to as “forgotten but not lost”. As Library Of Congress blogger Mike Mashon reports:

In 1947 the Library of Congress acquired the George Kleine collection of 456 film titles as well as stills and correspondence. Kleine was a pioneer motion picture producer and distributor who’s not well known today but was an important part of the early American film industry. He was the “K” in Kalem [one of the early film distribution companies and] produced and released his own independent productions, a mix of dramas and comedies made primarily in the northeast (his offices were in New York City), and many of which utilized performers from the “legitimate” and vaudeville stages.

The film elements and stills in the Kleine Collection are held at here at the Packard Campus. Some of the motion picture holdings are in 35mm, but most of them are 16mm reduction master positives derived from the original 35mm nitrate elements acquired in 1947….

… film historians Steve Massa and Ben Model, one of our silent film organists at the Packard Campus Theatre, took an interest in a series of oddball comedy shorts produced by Kleine called “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer…”

Ben produces DVDs of rare silent comedies from his own 16mm collection. The Library recently signed an agreement to co-brand a series of DVD releases with him, the first of which is The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, now available…

While the best of the series are available on two delicious DVDs from Model and Massa’s Undercrank Productions, there are also three Musty shorts[4] available for perusal on YouTube:

Musty-Suffer-in-Out-Of-Order-1916-silent-film-score-by-Ben-Model-YouTube-Google-Chrome-592015-80639-PMMusty Suffer 6

The restorations are scrumptious and the look of the films is so modern I thought at first they were an elaborate present day hoax.

Nope, they’re for real — or perhaps I should say, “for surreal”.


Because the great appeal of the Musty Suffer series is the bizarre, virtual live action cartoon sensibility it brings to the screen. The gags are funny, fast paced, well timed, inventive, and flawlessly executed. Produced by George Kleine and directed by Louis Myll, the films have a very contemporary look to them compared to other films made between 1915 and 1917.

There are subtle camera moves to emphasize gags, dynamic angular staging as opposed to the usual “proscenium arch” head on / right angle approach, an astonishingly sophisticated bag of optical tricks for the era, and far more use of close ups than was common at the time.

The reason for the latter can be attributed to Watson’s astonishing capacity for gurning (i.e., the art of mugging by distorting one’s face to comical extremes).

To make sure audiences got their money’s worth, the producers of the Musty Suffer series made sure Harry Watson’s rubbery face was seen closely as he milked his reaction to each gag.

musty maxresdefault

And in a way, that may have ended up
working against the series’ long term success.

Other silent comedians — notably Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton (a.k.a. The Great Stone Face) — famously underplayed their reactions, inviting the audience to project more of their own emotions onto their characters and, as a result, enticing them to invest more closely in their on screen personas.

Watson’s reaction shots as Musty are
worthy of a Tex Avery or John Krisfaluci cartoon:
They are about as subtle as a hand grenade in a cloister.

Musty Suffer Harry_Watson,_Jr

And while they’re fun and get a good laugh from the audience, they also put some distance between the viewer and the character.[6]

Luckily, Watson remains engaging enough as a performer to overcome this, and his extreme reactions are in perfect balance with the extreme situations Musty Suffer finds himself in.

Musty Suffer 15

There were three series of Musty Suffer short subjects, each featuring ten one-reel episodes. While they didn’t rely on cliff hangers, they could be regarded as a serial insofar as one episode would frequently pick up where the previous one had left off.

According to film historian Anthony Balducci:

Responding to a special invitation from the Kleine company, exhibitors and reviewers arrived at Broadway’s Candler Theatre on November 14, 1915 for a trade showing of a five-reel comedy called Keep Moving… Those who attended the event became the first members of the public to be introduced to a foolish tramp named Musty Suffer. It must be clarified, though, that the tramp doesn’t begin Keep Moving as a tramp and he isn’t even called Musty Suffer at first. He is a prince in the wacky land of Blunderland (we know the place is wacky because the king and queen travel around the throne room on roller skates). The prince has a fateful encounter with a fairy tramp… The fairy agrees to transform the prince into a humble tramp so that he will be free to explore the wide world. It is now that he adopts the name Musty Suffer and he finds that, as his new name suggests, he must perpetually suffer while learning the harsh ways of the world.

The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer and The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer 2 are available thru Amazon.

…and a tip of the hat to
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
for hipping me to this fabulous series.




[1] Kerr observes that ironically the older silent era films are more likely to be preserved than the latter ones, as some studios tended to feel they should make some effort to preserve the earliest examples of the medium.

[2] And because of the incessant ballyhoo nature of movie press releases in those days, no objective way of judging the quality or import of one artist against another. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everybody is the greatest star in the celluloid firmament, then nobody is the greatest star in the celluloid firmament.

[3] i.e., lacking all shame and pride.

[4] Yikes! There are two words that should not go together!

[5] A hobo clown wearing a tutu. Ya gotta see it to believe it.

musty and tramp fairy 1431638335_1

[6] A similar criticism has been leveled against Jerry Lewis’ style of comedy.

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