Thursday, June 29, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural, season 12 (2016-2017); One-Punch Man, season 1 (2015)

The boys get their mammy back in this season. Mary
Winchester's return met some mixed response from fans of
the show, but I thought she was fine, if not exactly the
strongest secondary character we've ever seen on the show.
Supernatural, season 12 (2016-2017)

In its dozenth (I just made that a word) season, Supernatural maintains a steady pace, if not exactly reaching the heights of its peak years in seasons 2 through 5.

At the end of season 11, Sam and Dean had once again thwarted Earth's destruction, this time by reuniting God with his long-lost sister, The Darkness. This sent the sibling deities off into the sunset, also leaving behind Sam and Dean's mother, whom God had resurrected as thanks.

Season 12 sets things up fairly quickly. Lucifer has managed to get out of his cage once again. However, being rather weak, he is hopping from one human vessel to the next, wreaking any havoc that he can in a rage against not having his father, God, around to torment any more. As Sam and Dean try to track down Satan, they also meet members of the British Men of Letters, who combat monsters using much more calculating and unforgiving methods. As the Winchesters first deal with the Men of Letters, Lucifer manages to impregnate a woman with what is known as a "Nephilim" - a half-angel/half-human abomination which has the potential to destroy everything on Earth. These two primary plot points converge when the British Men of Letters decide to exterminate all American hunters just as Lucifer escapes his bonds and attempts to oversee the birth of his unholy son.

This season was a decent one that is among the stronger batch of the post-season 5 bunch. That said, my enthusiasm for the show has waned enough that I'm not completely sure that I'll go out of my way for next season. Perhaps only now, after a full seven seasons which have failed to fully return to the excitement that I had during the show's outstanding first five, I think I'm ready to turn the page and leave it behind. Part of this is because this season was actually solid, by its own standards, but still wasn't enough to stoke complete enthusiasm in me.

Having Lucifer as one of the primary villains this season was
not the most inspired choice. It also didn't help that he was
written a bit more for comedy than the power and menace
that made him such a strong force back in earlier seasons
of the show. 
This season saw the return, utilization, and even unfortunate deaths of some strong side characters. There were a few hunters whom we've seen before, including the banshee-hunter Eileen and the witches Alicia and Max Banes. Seeing such capable and fun characters show up is reminiscent of early seasons when we had great characters like Rufus and Gordon. This season also featured a handful of gutsy, unexpected turns in the plot, in which characters were killed or perhaps simply didn't play the roles which one might have expected. And as always, there was a decent amount of humor sprinkled throughout.

And still, some quintessential elements continue to be lacking. Using Lucifer as a primary nemesis again simply feels like treading water and going over old ground. And not doing it particularly well. The original incarnation of Lucifer was such a fantastic, slow-burn over the course of nearly three seasons, and it had no small amount of menace and tragedy surrounding it. And when the Morning Star was finally able to appear in his full glory, there was a terrifying power to it. Now, however, Lucifer is often not much more than a sarcastic counter-point to Crowley. Sam Pellegrino can certainly play snarky and sarcastic very well, but I've never felt that it was the best fit for the original vision that this show had of Lucifer - one of the most calculating, powerful, and awesome figures in the entire mythology. This season simply uses him mostly as another comedy piece, for the most part.

This is one of a few signals to me that the show-runners are spinning their wheels a bit. Yes, they are doing it well in ways that are usually true to the main characters and that are often satisfying to long-time fans. But the show doesn't seem to be willing to push any more boundaries or really shake anything up anymore. Because Misha Collins and Mark A. Shepperd are attractive presences, they are simply never going to be killed off (even when their characters have deserved it time and time again). These and some other aspects of the show have become, in my view, just stale enough that I may just leave it alone from this point.

He's not exactly the most intimidating hero, but Saitama's
domination has bored him into an apathy usually reserved
for teenagers and French philosophers.
One-Punch Man, season 1 (2015)

I haven't watched a Japanese anime series in ages. Back in my high school and college days, I absolutely loved the classic movies like AkiraFist of the North StarVampire Hunter D, and several others. And when I lived and worked in Japan for a couple of years, I used the popular kids' show One Piece to improve my Japanese language skills to an extent. That was nearly 15 years ago now, and I haven't watched an anime TV series since. So imagine my surprise when the ol' Netlflix algorithm kept suggesting this unknown mini-series from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Less than two minutes into the first episode, my attention was firmly grasped. By the end of the 23-minute pilot, I was chomping at the bit to convince my wife, who enjoys the odd anime show here and there, to watch it with me the next day. She did, and we were both fairly well hooked.

The show follows Saitama, a virtually unstoppable force of heroism. Thanks to rigorous training, Saitama has acquired strength and speed that allow him to fell the mightiest of evil foes with literally no more than a single blow. Sounds great, right? Well, Saitama's problem is that his domination over the forces of evil has done nothing to assuage the deep depression and apathy which he feels. For him, defeating a 500-foot tall, city-destroying monster is no more satisfying than eating a bowl of tepid ramen for breakfast. Herein lies more than a little of the show's humor. As he effortlessly crushes immensely powerful enemies, Saitama is often mentally checked out and lost in existential musings about the purpose of it all. He sometimes even spends these short, one-sided battles lamenting the fact that he has missed a sale at his local grocery store, or pondering some other mundane daily task.

This aspect of the humor runs through other elements of the show, as well. One-Punch Man relishes the opportunity to parody and mock the many silly tropes of fantasy superhero (and especially anime) stories. Whether it's the exhausting expositional monologues, the tired origin stories, or characters calling out the names of their signature "super moves" while in the middle of combat, the barely-engaged Saitama has no time for any of it. His effortless and apathetic domination of foes who are putting in maximum effort to both fight and posture only frustrates his enemies all the more, providing yet more solid humor.  Series creator and writer, known only as "One," uses the show to perfectly balance his love of anime tropes with wonderfully lampooning the silly names, costumes, and braggadocio almost always found in the genre.

Saitama, with just a few of the oddball and even sometimes
cool heroes he baffles with his inexplicable strength and
utter lack of posturing.
Much to my delight, there is actually a really entertaining, rollicking arc to the show. It's not completely tight or serialized, but there is continuity from one episode to the next, and it culminates in a three-episode multi-parter that builds towards some really fun fights between heroes and monsters of various freakish abilities. It actually gave me flashbacks to when I would watch those aforementioned classic anime movies from the '80s and '90s and really enjoy the epic battle scenes between fantastically powered beings.

This was a great find, and one I'd recommend to anyone who's ever enjoyed anime. I'm not completely sure of how the second season (already announced) could live up to this first one, but I'm more than willing to tune in and find out.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Retro Duo: Excalibur (1981); The Fountain (2006)

Excalibur (1981)

Director: John Boorman

This was probably the third or fourth time I've seen this movie over the last 20-odd years. The over-the-top nature of it just gets more and more obvious, though it is still arguably the best film version of the Arthurian legend out there.

Drawing mostly from Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century novel Le Morte d'Arthur, the film is an abbreviated and lavish telling of how Arthur Pendragon came into being, obtained the mythical sword Excalibur to become King of England, and oversaw the unification and defense of the country in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The movie goes all-in with the melodrama, with nary a character speaking in anything less than florid epigrams or acting in any way less than the grandest of gestures. When one takes half a step back from it all, it can come off as rather silly, pompous, and pretentious. If, however, one gets wrapped up in the movie, it can, much of the time, actually be as grand as it attempts. This is in no small part due to the fact that we are dealing with one of the oldest, best-known myths of Western civilization.

The story is the foundation of so much high fantasy. A savior figure is born of blood and sorcery, eventually obtains a magic sword, and forges and era whose name will ring through the centuries. To tell such a story in film, a director needs to swing for the fences, and John Boorman did just that. He brought in a ton of great British and Irish acting talent, including then up-an-coming young actors like Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Niesen, and Helen Mirren, to name just a few. The actors were well-schooled in larger-than-life performances, which fit a film such as Excalibur to a tee. Again, some of it is campy, both intentionally and accidentally, but it's still quite fun. The stand out is Nicol Williamson, whose bombastic, vibrato delivery of his lines as the legendary sorcerer Merlin shows the correct level of ridiculous joy in the role.

One's take on the visuals will depend on how well they can suspend disbelief and look past the limitations of the effects. Certainly, compared to what had been and would eventually be done with advanced makeup, computer effects, and much larger budgets, this 1981 movie will seem cut-rate. But Excalibur has a look that is very much a cohesive representation of what Boorman wanted to do, and it can be very effective much of the time. Through vivid lighting, highly burnished armor, and some trippy visual distortions, many sections of the movie feel just as dreamlike and hallucinatory as a 1,500-year-old myth should feel.

The movie does, admittedly, take some patience and a certain mental state to enjoy. Some scenes can drag, and it does rely on a certain familiarity with the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. If one has those things, though, then this 35-year-old flick will hold up nicely for you. From what I've read of Guy Ritchie's most recent crack at the Arthurian legend, you may be in the mood for a more successful cinematic take on the entire affair.

The Fountain (2006)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

One of my absolute favorite movies, despite being its noted director's least-known film.

Darren Aronofsky, known best for his award-winning movies The Wrestler and Black Swan, as well as his controversial adaptation in Noah, was an immediate critical darling with his first two films, the dark, intelligent, and edgy Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Following that second film, he took several years to create The Fountain, easily his most ambitious movie to that point. He was initially given a sizable budget to bring his impressive vision to life, and mega-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were lined up to star in the picture. However, after several unexpected changes, Aronofsky was left to make alterations that led to using Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the main roles, and the film having to be made on half of its original budget. The film met very mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office.

I did not see the movie until a couple of years after its lackluster performance in theaters. When I did, though, I was completely blown away. Knowing nothing about the movie, I took in this visually stunning narrative puzzle that did not offer clear, direct answers. The images were mesmerizing, and the acting was so affecting that the movie stayed on my mind for days afterward, as my brain tried to put all of the pieces into place. While I couldn't completely penetrate all of the components of the movie and how they fit together, I was incredibly moved by the themes which I could pick up on, and their conveyance through the impressive and iconic images.

Because I feel that part of one's enjoyment of this movie is in seeing it and allowing it to reveal itself to the viewer, I won't give a complete synopsis but rather a basic description, even though the movie is now over a decade old. It tells three stories in three different time periods: one is of a Spanish conquistador on a desperate mission from his queen, another is of a modern neuroscientist seeking to find a cure for brain tumors, and the final is of a mysterious traveler, moving through space in a glass bubble housing himself and a tree. Explaining much more than that would rob any new viewers of the potential joy of working out the film's connections for themselves.

This recent viewing was my fourth, and each viewing increases my enthusiasm for the film. Across his six feature films, Darren Aronofksy has shown himself to be an exceptionally thoughtful filmmaker who pays extremely close attention to detail. He clearly takes pride in creating tight, carefully-crafted pictures in which little to nothing is out of place, either narratively or visually. This can be seen in his other movies, from his debut Pi to his most recent, Noah. But perhaps in no other film was his dedication to symmetry and cohesion brought to fruition the way that it was in The Fountain. This is why I have enjoyed it so many times. Even after I had worked out the non-linear and less-than-obvious narrative, I was able to drink in the stunning visual imagery running through the entire movie. Between the lighting, sets, costumes, and overall cinematography, many of the scenes and sequences are, by themselves, works of visual art which could be studied in isolation. Movies such as this, which continue to offer engagement viewing after viewing, are rare for me.

Stunning images like this one will likely amaze and baffle
upon one's first viewing. Once it is put into the greater context,
though, its meaning takes on even greater value.
I'm also a sucker for a soundtrack with mournful string instruments, especially when it sets the mood for a romance. And this story is a romance of considerable quality. Amazingly, I am no particular fan of romances, but The Fountain balances what could have been overly sentimental elements with an intelligent, creative narrative device that I find immensely engaging.

It's no great mystery to me why this movie never quite caught on with a wider audience. It hardly follows any standard Hollywood movie tropes: it asks more than a little from its viewers, it is a deeply emotional tale, and it's grand theme is not one that is likely to put a great pep in anyone's step, so to speak. This is, of course, why I love it so much. So much, in fact, that I have a difficult time imagining any point in my life when I won't be able to take several rewards from each future viewing. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New(ish) Releases: Captain Fantastic (2016); Elle (2016)

Ben, leading his kids into a misguided adventure. As admirable
as much of Ben's philosophies and teachings are, the flaws
become more apparent as the movie progresses.
Captain Fantastic (2016)

Director: Matt Ross

Highly interesting and rather unique tale which allows the extremely versatile Viggo Mortensen to shine brightly.

Mortensen plays Ben, an ideologue of such extreme dedication that he has been raising his five children completely off the grid for nearly two decades. In the woods of the American Northwest, he leads his children go through regular training in order to sharpen their physical, mental, and spiritual health. They exercise vigorously, read classical and modern literature, engage in thoughtful and highly intellectual debates, and they exhibit the kind of empathy and concern that Ben sees ignored far too often by commercial America. At a glance, the family seems in many ways like a miniature example of the perfect commune. Much of this is thrown in disarray, however, when they learn that Ben's wife, the mother of the five children, has died. The circumstances around the death are not immediately clear, but it forces Ben and the kids to leave the forest and make a road trip back into the "real" world of modern conveniences and excess. As they re-enter this world, we start to see certain cracks in what at first seemed like a perfect little universe of Ben's and his wife's creation. This becomes especially apparent when Ben and the kids come into contact with Ben's in-laws, who have always found Ben to be a deranged and even abusive influence on their daughter and grandchildren.

Ben leads his kids during their rigorous, daily physical
training. In addition to working their bodies, he also works
their minds by having them read tons of high-end literature
and play instruments of their choosing.
This movie was surprisingly thoughtful and balanced, which is impressive given that it deals with a subject that can very easily get romanticized and be presented in extremely biased ways. The idea of raising one's children free of the avaricious nature of consumerism and any perceived problems of organized religion is noble, and one that more than a few people have attempted or fantasized over for decades. Could someone actually do such a thing, with the right attitude, work ethic, and genuine care for the children they are raising? Captain Fantastic initially paints an attractive portrait of someone's success in this arena. Simply seeing how it might be done is fairly compelling on its own, and the skills Ben's children exhibit are impressive, often because they raise very relevant questions about the current education system in the U.S. and people's attitudes towards what constitutes life's necessary lessons. How does one raise not just a knowledgeable person, but one who can think critically about how to be a "good" person?

While the educative themes explored in the movie are certainly thought-provoking, the dramatic element is also what provides us with the complexity that enhances the film. Once Ben and his children have to interact with mainstream society, we eventually see that his utopian vision for his children is in some ways unrealistic and in other ways downright negligent. Fortunately, by the end of the movie, we are not left with easy answers as to whether Ben's ways are completely correct or incorrect. Rather, we are left with a portrait of an extremely unique man and his children - one which can inspire in many ways but is clearly not meant as a manifesto for those tempted to run off and raise their kids away from the rest of humanity.

It's also worth mentioning just how excellent the acting is. There are many familiar faces in the film, but the primary actors - Viggo Mortensen and the five younger actors who play the children - are exceptional. Mortensen even got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which was completely deserved. He and the other performers did a great job in bringing this provocative, funny, and touching story to life. I highly recommend it.

Michele arms herself against future attacks. While she is clearly
a victim in several ways in this story, hers is a very complex
and often disturbing psychology. This despite her often calm
veneer as a successful, professional woman.
Elle (2016)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Think of this as one of Pedro Almodovar's uncomfortable, controversial movies, but without the vibrant colors. Or much of the dark humor.

The story begins with a most awful act - a brutal rape of Michele LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) in the victim's home. Her assailant briskly leaves after this heinous violation, leaving Michele to pick up the pieces. Strangely, she does not call the police, but rather simply cleans up the broken glasses in the house, takes a shower, and goes to bed. She then continues the morning, going through her typical routine. Over the succeeding days, Michele's initial veneer of indifference shows signs of wearing down: she starts doing some simple detective work in order to try and learn the identity of her assailant. Along the way, we learn that Michele's father was a mass murderer who killed over 20 people when Michele was only 10 years old. He is also due for a parole hearing soon. All the while, lines between sex and violence become more and more blurred, especially once Michele discovers the true identity of her rapist.

Elle is a very well-done, calculating, and bold film very unlike any other movies I'd seen from director Paul Verhoeven, which include Robocop and Starship Troopers (he also directed Showgirls and few other glossy, campy good times). This film, though, is more akin to something I would expect from the aforementioned Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps even Lars Von Trier. Michele is, quite simply, not a terribly likable protagonist. For reasons that are not completely her fault, it is often painful to see her interact with her son, employees, mother, and even her lovers and closest friends. She is obviously smart and sophisticated, but she is also often distant, aloof, and calculating. While she is clearly the victim of the rape, her reaction to it is at first baffling. As the story progresses and we learn more about the horrors in Michele's background, her responses become a bit more understandable, but no less upsetting and disturbing. In short, she is complicated, which makes for an engaging tale.

The acting is incredible. Isabelle Huppert was rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, as she displays the nuance that the character demands. She is clearly the show, and worth the price of admission. All of the other technical aspects of the movie are spot-on, with intense, almost crime-procedural segments broken up by slower, more thoughtful and sometimes more sinister scenes during which a viewer can find themselves getting pulled into the dark labyrinth of the mind of Elle and some of those around her.

As well-made as the film is, it is hardly one that I need to watch again. While it clearly tells the story it sets out to tell with excellence, it is a very disturbing one that I am not altogether comfortable subjecting myself to more than once. People who prefer more straightforward, black-and-white stories, where it is clear who the heroes and villains are will most likely not appreciate Elle. However, people who enjoy narrative and emotional complexity, and are not put off by highly uncomfortable situations, would do well to give this movie a shot. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) [Spoiler-Free]

Director: Patty Jenkins

It's not exactly the greatest movie you'll ever see, but Wonder Woman proves that the people behind DC's extended film universe might actually know how to allow a decent movie to be made.

Wonder Woman is the fourth in DC and Warner Brothers's "Extended Universe" (DCEU) of movies featuring characters from popular comic books. Anyone who has happened to read my reviews of the first three films - Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad - knows that I found all three of those films either mediocre or just plain bad. Arguably the worst of the three, Batman v. Superman, had very few saving graces, one of them being the introduction of Gal Gadot (pronounced "gah-dote," by the way) as Diana Prince, or Wonder Woman. Her screen time in that film was relatively limited, but memorable, and it seemed to present Gadot as a good casting choice for the Amazonian heroine.

The feature film gives us Diana's full back story, starting with her life as a young girl on the paradisical island Themyscira, a place populated by the warrior women Amazons. The Amazons all seem to have supernaturally long life and physical strength, owing to their heritage as descendents of the ancient Greek gods. They remain isolated and cloaked from the rest of the world, however, as they are meant to serve as a line of last defense against an ancient foe of humankind. By unfortunate coincidence, the outside world eventually encroaches on Themyscira, during the final days of World War I. Upon learning of the horrible war happening outside of her safe cocoon, Diana leaves her home in order to track down the ancient Greek god whom she believes is responsible for the massive carnage of "The War to End All Wars."

The movie does a nice job of weaving a classic origin story within a larger framework of commentary about mankind's predilections for violence. The presentation of "Paradise Island" is just as visually stunning as you would hope of a big-budget, summer blockbuster, and the unfolding of Diana's backstory is handled well enough, even if there is nothing especially novel about it. The warrior women of the Amazon are presented as a considerable force, without being too heavy handed, or particularly creative, about showing it. As it should be, the fact that they are women is mostly coincidental, and more emphasis is placed on their abilities and unique place in the larger world. Diana's transition into a grimy, real world in the grips of a brutal war is conveyed well, with the contrast in color tones and costumes accentuating her shift from her idyllic, vibrant, and isolated home island into the chaotic and stark real world. However, the movie avoids a glaring flaw of its predecessors...

A major problem with the previous DCEU movies has been an overly dark tone that overwhelms nearly everything else about the pictures. Especially in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, the grim seriousness sucked nearly every last ounce of fun out of the movies. Wonder Woman deftly avoids this issue. While it does include the deeper themes of war, violence, and human compassion, the movie never loses sight of the fact that it is a superhero fantasy, and that fantasies are meant to be more than a little fun. Striking the balance between having a serious message and providing some entertainment isn't easy, but director Patty Jenkins pulls it off admirably.

Diana looks on in horror and rising fury at the carnage of
the first World War. Gadot brings highly credible emotion to
the picture, making her arguably the one element of the
movie that is truly standout.
Then there's Gal Gadot. It is difficult to imagine a better person to have played the single most famous female superhero in comic book history than Gadot. Obviously, she's gorgeous. Let's just agree that stunning looks don't hurt. But even more than that, she strikes just the correct tones that the story requires. Diana Prince is meant to be innately tough, capable, and trained as a warrior. Gadot conveys all of these characteristics and skills very convincingly (it came as little surprise for my wife and I to learn that she was a combat instructor in the Israeli army for two years). Just as important is how she portrays Diana as an idealistic, compassionate defender of the weak. This could easily have devolved into sentimentality or sappiness in the movie, but it never does. Instead, it all feels about as organic as a superhero fantasy can feel. This leads to more than a few moving sequences wherein the action on screen bears some legitimate emotional heft, even if the action itself hardly every rises above being passably entertaining.

I've alluded to a few less-than-oustanding elements of the film, but I can't say that I found anything to be a serious flaw. No, the dialogue isn't as crisp or clever as it probably could have been, but it's fine, even offering some solid chuckles along the way. The action isn't as engaging or kinetic as what we've seen in Marvel's last two Captain America movies, but it's mildly captivating at points. The overall story does, while offering some thoughtful themes, essentially become a fairly standard mano-a-mano punchout between Wonder Woman and the main adversary. All of these aspects fell short of being excellent, but they also never sunk to the sometimes-laughable shortcomings of the first three DCEU movies.

For popcorn movies like this, I gauge my enjoyment of them by asking myself whether I will ever watch it again. For Wonder Woman, my answer is that I probably will, but most likely not in the theater. While I did really enjoy seeing it for the first time, I don't see it as being a movie that offers the same entertainment returns upon repeat viewings. Whatever the case, it's great to see an action/adventure movie about a female character done right and strike a real chord with audiences. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Before I Die #601: The Unknown (1927)

This is the 601st movie I've seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Tom Browning

Boy, for a film produced in 1927, this was one sick, twisted look at a diseased mind. It was also surprisingly compelling.

The movie centers around Alonzo (Lon Chaney) - a circus freak without arms whose act consists of his using his feet to throw knives and shoot a gun at a female assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford). Alonzo has a deep love for Nanon, but a competitor for her affections is the macho strongman of the circus, Malabar. As much as Alonzo would love to take Nanon as his own, he is keeping two deep secrets: one is that he does, in fact, have both of his arms, which he keeps tightly strapped to himself when in public. The other is that he is a serial murderer and thief who uses his circus character as cover from the police. Alonzo does, eventually, have one arm surgically removed, in order to both cover up some evidence of a past crime and to become closer to Nanon, who has a severe dislike of "grabby" men and their invasive hands. After convalescing from this procedure and returning to Nanon, however, Alonzo discovers that she has fallen for Malabar and plans to marry him. Alonzo, in a quiet rage, attempts to sabotage one of Malabar's dangerous performances of strength. His assassination attempt is foiled, though, when Nanon jumps in to assist Malabar, forcing Alonzo to sacrifice himself to save her.

When I look back at the list of great movies of the silent era, which was about to hear its death knell when The Jazz Singer would be released later that year, The Unknown stands out as a bold and shocking gut-punch to mainstream sensibilities. While other popular films such as Metropolis, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunrise had taken on some dark subject matter, they were done with a certain high-minded artistry or at least couched within more familiar and comforting settings. The Unknown, however, takes as its focus a truly dark and warped character, placed within the odd and inherently creepy setting of a traveling circus, and has him thinking black thoughts and committing dark deeds throughout the story's length. Five years after The Unknown, director Tom Browning would direct Freaks, which is very similar in tone and setting, and would eventually become his most famous (infamous to some) movie. This earlier work can be seen as the prototype for a certain brand of horror movies and even TV shows  that would come many decades later (it put me in mind of a few Tales from the Crypt episodes from the 1990s). For this, it has to be recognized as trailblazing.

The tale is, typically of the silent era, rather thin in terms of character depth or sophistication. Yes, there is some sinister mystery and morbid curiosity generated by Alonzo's dual nature as a deceitful murderer while also showing a fierce desire for Nanon. But it's not as if his love is anything more than a greedy desire to possess her, just as he wishes to possess the goods of those whom he robs and kills. The other primary characters - Nanon and Malabar - do actually show a dash of development, but it is of a rather sentimental variety.

Crawford as the assistant, Nanon, and Chaney as the sinister
Alonzo. Chaney, usually covered in makeup for his starring
roles, knew how to put on a wicked gaze.
A major saving grace of this movie, and what makes it still watchable today, is the performance of Lon Chaney. This was only the second Chaney picture I've ever seen (the first being The Phantom of the Opera), but he was mesmerizing. Chaney was known for being a makeup guy, but he actually had a face that was full of character on its own, made of of striking angles, strong bone structures, and dark, deep-set eyes. It was a face made for evil leering, and leer he does in this movie. It reminds me of how there aren't enough "star" actors today who have faces with actual character, but instead the handful of true leading men are handsome in fairly generic, universally appealing ways. It's been far too long since we've had a Lon Chaney or a Humphrey Bogart become a leading actor who can carry entire movies.

It bears mentioning that one other little detail may urge potential viewers to give this movie a shot: it's running time of a mere 50 minutes. There is really no dilly-dallying here. From the jump, things get moving and stay moving. This is probably how such movies should go. When a story is predicated on fairly simplistic characters, despite being in odd setting and in the midst of shockingly horrible deeds, the strange novelty can wear off quickly (I'm thinking of Rob Zombie's wacko horror movies like House of a 1,000 Corpses and the like).

Certainly ahead of its time, The Unknown still has an eerie, fringe and cult quality to it that fans of schlock horror are likely to still enjoy. It won't be for everyone, to be sure, but film historians and devotees of the genre are sure to find some value in this 90-year old rarity.

That's 601 movies down, only 586 films to go before I can die.