Chandu the Magician (1932)

This is easily my favourite early talkie-film. The dashing Frank Chandler, alias Chandu the Magician (Edmund Lowe), must use his secret yogi training in order to save the world from the evil rival magician, Roxor (Bela Lugosi) who has kidnapped brilliant scientist, Robert Regent, to take over the world. This movie has everything you might want, magic, intrigue, amazing sets…

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And, of course all of your Bela Lugosi needs.

This has all of the gorgeous opulence of 30s films – the sets are large and beautifully crafted, with fantastic special effects (both practical and added through film techniques). I can honestly say that the effects stand up and impress – I can only imagine what it would have been like to see this when if first came out – at a time when things were rough for just about anyone, it would have been real dynamite.

Also – there are some super sweet costume changes.

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Approaching evil Egyptian living statues? Sorry I was just busy rocking my pith helmet, thank-you.

All joking aside, the costumes are phenomenal – luxurious fabrics, stunning “exotic” silhouettes – I can imagine all the work to sew on all of those shiny little paillettes… Amazing! Mostly, this film is beautiful to look at, so it should come as no surprise that you can see it’s visual influence in Doctor Strange comic books – especially in the early, Steve Ditko era. The visual effects, like size changes and ghostly figures are a triumph of the best technology of the era, and can definitely be seen in later film work, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola makes nods to old-fashioned film effects in many of his earlier films, but that’s a whole other discussion).

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The performances are also great. You can see the influence of silent film in the pantomime-like movements, dramatic staging, and the performances of iconic film tropes like the “young ingenue” Betty-Lou, the drunken sidekick Miggles, the sultry foreign princess Nadji,  and the always enjoyable scene-chewing evil of Bela Lugosi as Roxor. The writing is also quite good, with an interesting parallel between advances in science versus the magic of Chandu. With colour films, we really have lost the kind of symbolic play of light and darkness in movies.

This is a great adventure picture, which makes full use of all the cinematic tricks to pull the audience in. Altogether, I would say that this is a very accessible piece to any sort of viewer – not just for a fan of the oldies.

Machete (2010)

I liked Machete well enough the first time that I saw it. In many ways, the film does a great job of spoofing current American border policies, and uses the 70s Exploitation genre without getting too cute with fake distressing on the film or other gimmicks. Characters use cell phones (except Machete. ’cause “Machete don’t text”), and are trying to break into internet stardom (Lindsay Lohan, as April), or brought low by surreptitious recordings, so it feels current and lively.

And yet, there were some things that stuck out to me, and not in a good way

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Stop looking at me like that, Danny Trejo!

The problem is mostly Jessica Alba (Sartana). Her performance is totally dull, even when she jumps onto a car to whip up an angry mob. She is very pretty, but… it’s either that she takes sequences too seriously when it should be funny (like when she is boxing ), or she doesn’t commit to a serious scene (like the aforementioned “the border crossed us” crowd scene). She just pouts her way through the film, without ever making an impression. It’s actually a shame, because there is a cut scene where she plays her own twin (a raunchy, slutty alter-ego) that plays much better than so many of her more “important” scenes.

In many ways, Alba’s interactions with Michelle Rodriguez (Luz) reflect their parallel career paths as “Latina” starlets. Jessica Alba has made it into the mainstream, playing non-Latina, blockbuster roles (Sin City, Fantastic Four), becoming both a household name and big earner, whereas Michelle Rodriguez plays some variation on “tough Latina chick with guns” in every film, regardless of it’s success. Alba is the cop, the one who follows the rules, while Rodriguez is part of a secret network to help newly arrived immigrants. Significant to this vein is also that fact that Alba does not sleep with Machete, whereas Rodriguez does. In this way, Alba is portrayed as not being a “true” Latina, a sell-out compared to the hardened Rodriguez. Maybe this was part of the director’s intention, to highlight these parallel careers in Hollywood.

With that said, there are many nice touches throughout the film, like the hired goons waxing philosophical on their own attitudes towards migrant laborers. Or the use of the rallying cry “if not us, then who?” Even the chop shop fleet of low-riders makes for a fun piece of spectacle. There’s also the use of the image of undocumented immigrants as “parasites” in the discourse of the corrupt Senator, that is really not far from the current tone in Republican rhetoric – but also is seen to deteriorate over the course of the film, such as the Senator’s final speech talking about the “Frito Bandito on the loose,” and culminates when the Senator is held prisoner by White extremists.  Another interesting image is the repetition of American characters vomiting, sickened by violence and drugs, as contrasted with those happy few that have integrated with the immigrant community, like the American dishwasher trying to learn Spanish from the other kitchen staff. In this way, Machete is an Exploitation film for the exploited, taking revenge. These clever moments make Machete a film worth watching, but the sequel, sadly, lacks any spark of intelligence.

Everything that was fun and subversive in Machete falls flat in Machete Kills. What was a fun, campy film with tongue-in-cheek nods to current events turns into a revolving door for desperate stars trying to look hip and relevant, like Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Lady Gaga, Vanessa Hudgens, and Sofía Vergara. These actors are all falling all over themselves to be debauched and debased in Machete Kills, trying to convince us of their credibility rather than entertaining. I guess we’ll have to wait and see on Machete in Space.