The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Review

Directors: Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch

Genre(s): Adventure, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 66 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What’s the world’s oldest surviving feature-length animated movie? Something by Disney? Nope, that honor goes to a silent German film by the name of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (originally titled “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed“) from 1926. The story is about young, fearless Prince Achmed setting out to restore order to the land after a devious magician crashes his father’s birthday bash. This picture uses silhouette animation (think stop-motion shadow puppets) to transport viewers to far away worlds. Home video releases are color-tinted.

This fairly short (only 66 minutes long) classic has visuals that are nothing short of entrancing. It’s certainly nothing like any other movie from…well, any time period. The silhouettes are surprisingly detailed, and almost every character, despite being little more than a shadow puppet, has a distinctive look. In addition to its astounding appearance, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is greatly aided by an energetic musical score by Wolfgang Zeller.

Based on old Arabian fairy tales, this feature has a timeless quality to it that keeps it fresh after all these decades. There is some swashbuckling action and some special effects that made me wonder “how did they do that?” The only time the pacing threatens to lag is when Aladdin shows up (yes, Aladdin and his magic lamp are here) and explains his backstory. It certainly doesn’t kill the film, but these flashbacks slow things down just a tad. Just a tad.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is definitely no musty museum piece. It’s amazing from its character introductions at the beginning to its hair-raising finale. I’m not sure how much kids will enjoy it, considering it’s silent and all (despite bombastic music), but people who’re accustomed to pictures with no spoken dialogue will be floored. This one comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Halloween (1978) Review

Director: John Carpenter

Genre(s): Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Slasher films are often derided as trash cinema, but the first entry into the Halloween series is one of the few that is beloved by both audiences and critics. 1978’s Halloween didn’t invent that subgenre, but it did do more than any other movie to popularize it. After fifteen years of being locked up in a mental hospital for murdering his sister (Sandy Johnson), Michael Myers (Nick Castle, Tony Moran, and Will Sandin) escapes and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois…to kill again. Brace yourself, because this is one great horror picture.

Halloween was made on a low budget, but the film never feels limited by this. This is all about terror and menace coming to familiar locations, as Michael Myers stalks the inhabitants of a small town (no haunted castles or sweaty South Seas islands here). Speaking of Myers, the filmmakers do an excellent job of keeping him offscreen or at a distance to maximize the impact of the instances when he does strike.

The musical score by the movie’s co-writer/director, John Carpenter, is simply iconic, although a few bits of music do feel stuck in the 1970s. It helps the flick truck along nicely. There’s little-to-no pacing issues, as this is a lean, focused production (it’s only 91 minutes long, so there’s no time for monkey business). For a slasher picture, the violence is surprisingly restrained, meaning that the squeamish are invited to watch this one as well.

Halloween works well because of how brutally simple it is. Even viewers skeptical of watching a horror movie about a madman walking around murdering people may want to give it a chance. It really doesn’t have a high body count, but manages to wring just about as much tension and suspense from its subject matter as is possible. It’s a rightly famous film that spawned a lengthy franchise.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Kongo (1932) Review

Director: William J. Cowen

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Four years after the silent West of Zanzibar (1928) was released, a sound remake, titled Kongo, was sent to theaters. This forgotten gem ups the macabre and salacious content of the original, making it one of the more boundary-pushing films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period in the early 1930s before the Production Code started being enforced). This twisted tale is about a magician living in Africa named “Deadlegs” Flint Rutledge (Walter Huston) plotting his vengeance on Gregg Whitehall (C. Henry Gordon), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a brawl and ran away with his wife. This one’s so nasty (for its time) it sometimes gets classified (incorrectly, in my opinion) as a member of the horror genre.

Like the original movie, West of Zanzibar, Kongo is all about its depraved, slimy atmosphere. Like fellow Pre-Code adventure film Island of Lost Souls (1932), it has the stench of sweat and cruelty all over it. One notable aspect of this one is Walter Huston’s sleazy performance. Check out that scar on his cheek that resembles one of the facial markings that the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) would have.

Kongo is based on a 1926 play of the same name, and, yeah, it sometimes shows. The action rarely leaves Huston’s character’s African compound or its immediate surroundings. When it does leave this setting, it’s sometimes footage reused from West of Zanzibar. Still, it’s a pulpy movie that doesn’t really feel as claustrophobic as this might lead you to believe.

As with the silent original, I can’t exactly recommend this one to everyone, as the depiction of native Africans is problematic and bound to offend many. However, those who can overlook that aspect will be rewarded with one of the best motion pictures of the Pre-Code period. It’s not quite as taut as the shorter West of Zanzibar, but it is more lurid, so I guess I prefer this version by a hair.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

West of Zanzibar (1928) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This seedy adventure-melodrama predominately set in Africa is one of the more entertaining movies of the silent era. A magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney) seeks revenge on Crane (Lionel Barrymore), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a fight and stole his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon). Even if you don’t think that you’d like a silent movie, this engaging picture runs only 65 minutes long, so, if you ever come across it, I’d recommend watching it.

West of Zanzibar thrives on its sweaty, grimy atmosphere. It’s an old Hollywood movie, but it’s certainly not nice and clean. Lon Chaney is in firm control of the film, expertly playing a vengeance-driven man who has no command of his legs. He’s both pathetic and evil. The competent musical score from an uncredited William Axt keeps things moving along smoothly and may make you forget that what you’re watching is silent.

This drama is based on the 1926 play Kongo, so it occasionally has a stagey nature to it, but it’s forgivable considering how dynamic and fast-paced the storytelling is. The story itself is superb, both capturing the imagination and repelling the audience with its drunkenness, ritualistic sacrifice, implied prostitution, murder, paralyzed villain, etc. If you think silent films were all about silly, Charlie Chaplin-esque antics, you need to watch West of Zanzibar.

This one comes highly recommended, being an excellent example of sharp, economical storytelling. Would I recommend it to everyone? Not quite. The picture’s depiction of native Africans is bound to offend many viewers, so consider yourself warned. If you can excuse that, I’d say “check it out,” along with its sound-era remake, Kongo (1932), where Walter Huston plays the Chaney role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Raid: Redemption (2011) Review

Director: Gareth Evans

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 101 minutes (rated cut), 102 minutes (unrated cut)

MPAA Rating: R (rated cut), Not Rated (unrated cut)

IMDb Page

The Raid: Redemption (originally titled “Serbuan Maut“) is famous for being a cut-to-the-chase action movie that offers little in the way of plot, simply letting various shootouts and martial arts duels do the talking. The story of this Indonesian-language film is pretty bare-bones. A team of cops, including our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent on a mission to clear a large Jakarta apartment building of criminals. Action junkies will not want to miss this one.

While relatively video-gamey, The Raid is packed with some of the most intricately-choreographed fight scenes that theater screens have ever witnessed. They’re truly some of the best ever. The unconvincing computer-generated blood is sometimes a distraction, but it’s a minor flaw. There are a couple of suspense-oriented sequences, because, well, I suppose it can’t be all action.

The action star here is Iko Uwais, who also helped choreograph the fights, and this guy is bound to become one of cinema’s greatest martial arts actors. Wahyu, played by Pierre Gruno, looks like the Indonesian Lee Marvin. I just thought I’d point that out. While this humorless movie is little more than an excuse to show off incredible action, there are a few complications in the plot to keep things fresh. Make no mistake, though, there is almost nothing but virtually non-stop combat here.

The Raid‘s appeal to people who aren’t interested in elaborate fight scenes is almost non-existent. However, action fans will find a treasure trove of hard-hitting, stunt-laden sequences of ultra-violence. Personally, I generally prefer action movies with more characterization and drama, but The Raid is a nice change of pace (and this picture’s pace is turbo-charged). There’s an appealing simplicity to it.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

High Noon (1952) Review

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In 2008, the American Film Institute named High Noon the second greatest American western movie of all time as part of their AFI’s 10 Top 10 retrospective (The Searchers [1956] was named number-one). It’s not my second favorite (or overall favorite) western ever made (although I do like it a lot more than The Searchers), but this film basically lives up to the hype. The story is about Wild West marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) on his last day as a lawman before retirement and his first day as a married man (his wife being Amy Fowler Kane [Grace Kelly], a pacifist Quaker). However, he must soon organize a posse to help him confront a gang of outlaws planning on killing him at noon.

This is one of cinema’s most famous tales of courage and cowardice. It’s all about integrity, heroism, and standing one’s ground against the forces of darkness and apathy. Gary Cooper’s towering performance (which he won an Oscar for) is what keeps the picture together. He’s greatly aided by Dimitri Tiomkin’s exemplary musical score, which also took home an Academy Award. The feature has two action scenes, a livery stable fist fight and the final shootout, both of which are more realistic than sensationalized.

If I had to find a fault with this psychological western, it would be the subplot involving Cooper’s character’s ex-lover, Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), which distracts from the flick’s otherwise laser focus. These scenes don’t add much to the experience, and, in my opinion, probably should’ve been written out of the movie. Sometimes it seems like they were included to pad the film’s (admittedly short) runtime in order to further the picture’s taking-place-in-real-time shtick. I could be wrong, of course.

High Noon is rightfully lauded as a classic, thanks to its performances, thought-provoking subject matter, music, cinematography, and generally taut pacing. This is a landmark film because it showed a western hero who was vulnerable and sometimes even scared and because it focused more on drama and escalating tension than on the shoot-’em-up antics and hyper-macho posturing that were common in the genre. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Lee Van Cleef as Jack Colby, a member of the villainous gang, and Jack Elam as Charlie, the town drunk.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Review

Director: Gregory La Cava

Genre(s): Drama, Fantasy

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The depths of the Great Depression were desperate times, and many looked to political radicalism for salvation. This sentiment is reflected in the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, which tells the tale of a hack politician named Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) who becomes President of the United States. After an automobile accident, he becomes possessed by an angel and transforms into a dictator to solve the country’s problems. The movie is cheering for him every step of the way. Yes, this is a motion picture that actually exists.

This is a flick that celebrates strongman tactics, yet I hesitate to call it “fascist” like many reviewers do. The film’s ideology lacks the violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, Social Darwinistic, xenophobic palingenetic ultra-nationalism that real fascism revolves around. I don’t agree with Gabriel Over the White House‘s politics, but its beliefs seem to be closer to general authoritarianism than the fascistic or communistic strains of totalitarianism that were threatening to take over the planet at the time of its release (not that that makes it okay). It really goes nuts when the United States decides to get foreign governments to repay their debts.

This piece of propaganda is described as a “must-see curio” by the DVD case, and I agree. Released the same month that Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the President of the United States, American faith in democracy was perhaps at its nadir due to the devastation caused by the Great Depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt would restore the nation’s faith in its institutions without resorting to dictatorial methods, proving that the regime envisioned by Gabriel Over the White House was unnecessary.

This political drama, released during the Pre-Code era in the early 1930s before the enforcement of the Production Code, is a doozie. Sure, its ideas are wrong, but it’s very entertaining, with lofty dialogue and the occasional moment of action. It needs to be seen by more people to show just how close many of the countries of the Free World came to succumbing to dictatorship during the 1930s. This is an important historical document.

My rating is 8 outta 10.