Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (Mark Lewis, 1988)
Feeling the need for an excursion to the Southern Hemisphere, where summertime is in full swing right now? You could hardly do better in under an hour than this hilariously sobering documentary about a pest-control experiment gone horribly awry in Queensland, Australia.
Billed upon initial release as “National Geographic meets Monty Python,” Cane Toads tracks the historical proliferation of these non-native amphibians, beginning with their introduction from Hawaii in 1935 as an intended predator to the cane beetle. Unfortunately, the cane toad is nocturnal and the cane beetle diurnal, so never the twain did meet. With no natural enemies having evolved in Australia that can cope with its toxic skin glands, the toad population boomed, squeezing a number of native species out of their accustomed ecological niches.
Cane Toads also explores conflicting public perceptions of the invasive critters among Australians. Some folks go out of their way to run them over with their cars, while others feed them cat kibble. An adorable toddler dresses up one of the rubbery-looking toads in baby clothes. And there’s apparently a whole criminal subculture of Aussies who get high on dried toad skins, rolling them up and smoking them like joints.
This is far and away the funniest documentary that you are ever likely to see. Highly recommended, if you can get your hands on it. Cane Toads: The Conquest, a much longer sequel – in 3-D, no less – was released in 2010, but I’ve yet to view it.
The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Can a movie shot almost entirely in brutally glaring desert sunlight be classified as a film noir? For my money, The Wages of Fear can: The shadows in which its narrative lurks dwell within the deepest hearts of men twisted by greed. While Clouzot is probably better-known among US audiences for his bloodcurdling 1954 murder mystery Les Diaboliques, The Wages of Fear is arguably his masterpiece; taken together, the two movies clearly illustrate why the director is sometimes dubbed the “French Hitchcock.”
I’ve never seen an action movie that outperforms The Wages of Fear as an edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle thriller. The tale is set in a grubby border town in South America – presumably Venezuela – where desperate men with dicey pasts tend to wash up, seeking work with the American-owned petroleum company that controls the local economy. Most of them are unemployable but can’t afford to leave the country, so they drink and gamble and whore and start fights to pass the time.
Then one day, a disaster strikes that promises escape for a “lucky” few: Four truck drivers are recruited to transport containers of nitroglycerine across rutted, washed-out backcountry roads to help put out an uncontrollable oil-well fire. Large rewards are offered, and soon we are getting to know those four drivers intimately as they pick their way slowly along the treacherous route. Yves Montand stars.
Pretty much everyone in the movie behaves badly, and outcomes bear little relationships to what a particular character might deserve. And yet we come to care about them, since their peril seems so real and so unrelenting. The Wages of Fear is a brilliantly dark, gritty, terrifying, rather misanthropic film that will make you feel very glad to be curled up safely on your couch with merely a blizzard on the way.
Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)
What’s more comforting on a cold winter’s day than a nice hot bowl of noodle soup? For college students, instant ramen is a necessary evil: the cheapest fare that can be easily cooked in a dorm room. But for people living in Japan, noodle houses are where the average working person goes for lunch. Though they’re classifiable as affordable fast food, ramen, udon and their kin are held to much higher culinary standards than the ubiquitous American burger.
Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is a Japanese widow who is struggling to run her late husband’s noodle shop and to protect her young son from the neighborhood bullies. Things aren’t going well when truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) walks into the shop like a gunslinger pushing open the swinging doors of a saloon, gets drawn into a fight and ends up determined to help the proprietress learn to make a peerless bowl of broth and a perfect batch of noodles.
Tampopo was marketed as “the first ramen Western,” and the stylistic borrowings from the spaghetti Western genre are amusing; but the fun doesn’t end there by any means. This movie is an extended meditation on food and the roles that it plays in the human comedy. Itami repeatedly deviates from the main plotline to take the audience on side excursions, related only in their depiction of how our lives are organized around eating. The movie is packed with sly, sometimes absurd humor, as a housewife dutifully rouses herself from her deathbed to make one last meal for her family before expiring, or a gangster and his moll explore the erotic potential of various foodstuffs in a fancy hotel room. It’s a charming little gem of a film that will make you laugh, warm your heart and probably make you hungry as well.
Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968)
Okay, so Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is the iconic, artsy Beatles film that all the critics adore, and I can’t fault it. But when my spirits need a lift – like on a very dreary winter’s day – the Beatles movie that I turn to time and time again is Yellow Submarine. Not that I’ve kept count, but I’ve probably watched it more times than any other movie, period. The narrative is a minimalistically simple fairy tale/heroes’ journey, but its eye-popping psychedelic animation, gloriously upbeat songs and infectious good humor never fail to adjust my attitude in an upward direction.
At the time that Yellow Submarine came out, animation as a cinematic artform was in the doldrums. Walt Disney had died two years earlier, leaving The Jungle Book (1967) mostly in the can, followed by quite a few years of subpar animated products from the Disney studios like The Aristocats. Animated feature films were largely of the low-tech Rankin/Bass and Hanna/Barbera ilk. The Golden Age of animation seemed to be well over. Then this pseudo-Beatles project came along, incorporating the Pop Art design ideas of Heinz Edelmann and Woodstock’s own Milton Glaser and employing a variety of animation techniques – including old-fashioned rotoscoping in the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence. It all felt fresh and new, and gave the art of animation a much-needed shot in the arm, for which we should all be thankful.
Mostly, though, Yellow Submarine is just positive-thinking fun. The beautiful artistic Pepperlands that humans try so hard to construct keep coming under attack from “newer and bluer Meanies,” and it remains incumbent upon us who still believe in the power of love and music to leave the theater – or our winter-bound cabins – singing. Watching this movie is a reminder of all we have to lose, and what we must do to preserve it in times of adversity. “All Together Now!”