April 22, 2008

The Walking Dead (1936)

While definitely a highly talented and extremely versatile actor, Boris Karloff's name will always be linked to the horror genre thanks not only to his classic performance in James Whale's "Frankenstein" (movie that along Tod Browning's "Dracula" started the "Golden Age" of Universal Studios' horror films in 1931), but also to the many other excellent movies he made within the limits of the genre, effectively earning himself a place amongst the horror icons of film history. By the year of 1936, Karloff was at the top of his game, following his performance in the 1935's masterpiece "Bride of Frankenstein" with a series of lesser known, yet highly entertaining gems such as "The Invisible Ray". It would be at this point where his career would take him back to the Warner Bros. Studios, where he had made several gangster films in the past. But instead of making another crime film, he would star in "The Walking Dead", a weird mix of both genres.

In "The Walking Dead", a gang of racketeers conceive a plan to murder Judge Roger Shaw (Joe King), setting up the recently released convict John Ellam (Boris Karloff) for the murder. Ellam is just a musician with bad luck who only wants a second chance to fix his life, but the gangsters' plan is effective and he ends up being sentenced to the electric chair. However, a young couple, Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) witnessed the crime, and know that Ellam is indeed innocent. While their fear of the gangsters' vengeance kept them silent during the trial, they decide to testify before its too late, but sadly, Ellam is executed before anything is done. Fortunately, Nancy and Jimmy are assistants of Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), a renowned scientist who decides to resurrect Ellam using an experimental method. But something is different in the resurrected Ellam now, and justice will be done.

Like many Warner Bros films of that era, the story was written (and probably rewritten more than one time) by a team of several writers under contract, however, Ewart Adamson could be pointed out as the driving force behind it as he also wrote the screenplay for it. Judging by its title and concept, it could be easily assumed that "The Walking Dead" is just another story of reanimated corpses and mad scientists (and the fact that Karloff stars in it adds more to the connection to "Frankenstein"), but this is definitely, a different kind of beast. Not only it includes the typical elements of gangster films , but also adds a different and uncommon view on the "supernatural revenge" theme: it truly plays heavily (and intelligently) with the themes of justice, innocence and guilt. In a very original twist (without spoiling too much), the "monster" acts more like the personification of guilt than like the typical murderous maniac of this kind of stories.

Better known as the orchestrator of the legendary classic, "Casablanca", director Michael Curtiz developed his talent through the 30s working in numerous productions for Warner, where he proved to be an effective and versatile filmmaker. In "The Walking Dead", Curtiz revives the look and style of the German Expressionism he knew at home (he was Hungarian), using the brilliant work of cinematographer Hal Mohr to create a haunting and extremely atmospheric horror film. Playing with lighting, dynamic camera angles and specially with the use of shadows, Mohr and Curtiz make a visually breathtaking film that at times feels like the bridge between Gothic horror and Film Noir. However, the movie is not only just stylish visual flare, as while Curtiz definitely polished his style in this film, it seems like he was aware that Karloff was the real star of the show, as he focuses the film completely on him and just lets the master do his magic.

And Boris Karloff truly shines in this film, as his character allows him to display a wide range of emotions that show what a great talent he was. The most striking feature is definitely how expressive are his eyes, as through them we get to see the inside of Ellam's innocent soul, which seems to serve a hidden, higher purpose. It is truly a powerful performance that could easily rank among his best. As Dr. Beaumont, Edmund Gwenn is more than effective, as he adds a lot of humanity to a role that could easily be another "mad scientist" type of character. However, I feel that Ricardo Cortez (who plays the gangsters' leader, Mr. Nolan) steals all his scenes, despite his limited screen time. I must also add that Marguerite Churchill is not only extremely beautiful, but also a great talent that manages to shine with her own light and avoid being overshadowed by Karloff, Gwenn and Cortez. Not an easy thing to do!

Effective, entertaining, and remarkably original, "The Walking Dead" is definitely another of those lesser known films from the 30s that get overshadowed by the classic movies done by Universal Studios despite being as good (or probably better) than most of them. Personally, I found the movie to be not only beautifully done, but also very intelligent and probably even philosophical, as while it certainly works under the stretches of science fiction, the way it touches themes such as death, fate and innocence is quite interesting in its conception. Some could say that the film hasn't aged well, but it's remarkable the way Curtiz employed his low budget to create a film that looks better than most A-films of its time (Curtiz was always considered an effective filmmaker for working under budget). Despite some minor problems, I think "The Walking Dead" is still one of the best movies from the 30s.

It's a real shame that "The Walking Dead" still remains an undiscovered gem from the decade of the 30s, as it's truly a wonderful and uncommon piece of horror cinema. I assume that this lack of recognition is mainly due to the fact that it isn't a movie one would call as easy to find (at the time I write this review, no DVD for this film has been released), but hopefully, this will change soon and more will discover this highly original and extremely powerful horror. While lesser known than other films by Curtiz, "The Walking Dead" is a film that shows how the talent of this often overlooked director (I think he was definitely more than just a gun for hire) was growing through the decade. A true discovery.


April 20, 2008

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Ever since its initial broadcast, comedy show "Saturday Night Live" has been the launching place for many comedians who use the chance of being in the show as a way to develop their talents and aim for a career on film. As members of the first generation of the show, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were among the very first of the cast to make the jump from the show to the film industry. Although the pair had moderate success at first, Belushi became a modern icon of American comedy in 1978 with John Landis' "Animal House". It was after that success when the two friends decided to make a movie about one of the most successful "Saturday Night Live" characters, the pair of R&B singers: "The Blues Brothers". Being his most beloved creation, Aykroyd began to write the full story of the characters, but ended up with over 300 pages of script. It would be again director John Landis who would take the challenge of transforming Aykroyd's script into a realizable movie.

The movie begins with the release from prison of Jake Blues (John Belushi), co-founder and singer of the Blues Brothers band after serving a sentence for robbery. After being picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), he is informed that the band broke up after his incarceration and that the Blues Brothers are apparently over. However, after discovering that the old Catholic home where they were raised as kids is going to be sold because of its debts, the brothers decide that its their mission, a mission from God, to get the money to save the orphan's house, and that the only way to achieve that goal will be to reform the legendary Blues Brothers band. With this idea the brothers set to find the band's former members, but in their way they'll find new enemies in the form of a Neo-Nazi group, a country band, and a mysterious woman who by some unknown reason wants the two Blues brothers dead.

Written by Aykroyd and Landis, the script is essentially a musical tale that cleverly mixes action and comedy while paying homage to that good old rhythm and blues music that both were so fond of. While Aykroyd's extensive and detailed account of the characters' history has been transformed into a simpler, straight forward plot by Landis, the change is very effective as this way to unfold the story is more in tone with the frank and raw attitude of the brothers. The story is fast paced, as the brothers' tale of redemption is one of high octane energy with powerful musical performances and insane car chases that never make the story boring or tiresome. At its very core, the film's plot is probably simplistic, but making up for the simple plot are the very distinctive and extremely likable personalities of the two main characters, who carry the movie with their charm and a presence that proves that a memorable character is made of more than just a collection of one liners.

In this his fourth movie as a director, John Landis once again demonstrated why he was one of the most promising directors of the early 80s, showing a significant growth in his style of directing comedy that clearly set the basis for his 1981 masterpiece, "An American Werewolf in London". Already a master of the direction of big and complex set pieces, Landis takes this to a new level with the amazing car chases conceived for the film. With a bigger budget than in his three previous efforts, Landis creates an explosive musical that perfectly represents everything that Aykroyd and Belushi conceived as "The Blues Brothers": a celebration of R&B via two characters who really live their music, have that attitude and truly are "soul men". The duo's main trait is the music, and Landis knew this well, so the film is filled not only with the brothers' interpretations of R&B classics, but also the ones by real R&B legends such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway among others.

As expected, the performances by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are of an excellent quality. While less over the top than in "Animal House", Belushi's genius for comedy shines through the film in his energetic role of Jake Blues, who is the one who receives the "mission from God". As the laconic Elwood, Dan Aykroyd delivers the subtler comedy in the movie, and shows a complete domain of his character and a great ability to play the straight man to Belushi's explosive Jake. Together the pair make an excellent team that not only deliver fun comedy but also make an outstanding musical duo. While the Blues brothers are certainly the focus of the story, the vast array of guest stars that appear through the film deliver terrific performances when singing (Ray Charles, James Brown), acting (John Candy, Carrie Fisher) or both (the unforgettable Cab Calloway). The musical performances are simply top notch and make the film a really special experience for music lovers.

As written above, the movie is first and foremost a musical homage to Chicago, so those expecting a spoof, a parody, or a laugh riot comedy will definitely find a different kind of beast. This is not to say that there is no comedy, on the contrary, the movie is filled with a good amount of laughs and clever puns, but the focus of the film remains first and foremost on the music. Still, "The Blues Brothers" is not your typical musical, as its fast pace makes it a thrilling ride like no other movie, and probably the features that most perfectly represents this are the amazing car chases that the stunt team developed for the movie. As in a rocking dance of destruction, the cars crash and smash across the streets of Chicago in some of the most incredible stunts on film. Some have criticized the emphasis put on this scenes, but I think that they fit perfectly in the mood and tone of the film, and basically in the attitude of the brothers themselves.

Without a doubt the Blues brothers are two of the best and most famous characters created by Belushi and Aykroyd, and this movie truly makes them justice (although I find the original cut to be slightly better than the extended one). While not the deepest or most insightful movie ever, "The Blues Brothers" is definitely one of the most entertaining ones, and its magic lays in that frank simplicity that surrounds the movie's story. Still, this simplicity doesn't mean it's a stupid comedy (like the many that are out there) or that it's void film, on the contrary, it's quite an intelligent movie that celebrates Chicago and its music like few others. Raw and direct, "The Blues Brothers" is a movie that truly makes Chicago feel like home, sweet home.


Buy "The Blues Brothers" (1980)

April 12, 2008

Profondo Rosso (1975)

In the early 70s, Italian director Dario Argento took the world by surprise with the release of his first three movies, three excellent entries in the "Giallo" genre that had been growing in popularity across the 60s. In only two years, the success of "L' Uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo" ("The Bird with the Crystal Plumage"), "Il Gatto a Nove Code" ("The Cat o' Nine Tails") and "4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio" ("Four Flies on Grey Velvet) turned Argento into the new rising star of horror, and his "animal trilogy" into classics of the Italian thriller. However, after this huge success he decided to move away from the Giallo for a while, and in order to explore something different, he made two TV dramas and a comedy named "Le Cinque Giornate" ("Five Days in Milan"). While this offered him the chance to try something new, it also allowed him to prepare his return to horror with what would be known as one of the best Giallo thrillers ever made: "Profondo Rosso", known in English as "Deep Red".

The film is the story of Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), a British piano player who is spending some time in Italy as a music teacher. One night after work, as he walks towards his apartment, he watches through the building's window of the upper floor and notices his neighbor Helga (Macha Méril) struggling with an unknown man. Helga, a psychic, gets brutally killed almost in front of Daly's eyes, who runs towards the apartment in a futile attempt to save her. After being interrogated by the police, Daly notices that he could have seen the killer's face on a mirror, among a group of portraits on the wall, but he can't remember the face, not even truly figure out what's missing. This thought slowly becomes a terrible obsession for him, so Daly decides to investigate the murder on his own account with the help of the inquisitive reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), however, his obsession becomes dangerous to both of them (and to those who try to help them) as Marcus becomes the killer's next target.

Written by Bernardino Zapponi and Dario Argento himself, the film's plot revolves around the solving of the mystery while putting special attention to Marcus' obsession with the missing clue he may have caught the night of the murder (In fact, it almost could be said that the whole murder mystery is a device to explore the obsession theme). While Argento is famous for preferring surrealism to logic when writing his screenplays, the story in "Profondo Rosso" is carefully constructed and takes advantage of every element of the Giallo genre to tell it's mystery. And mystery is the key of the film, as the secret of the killer's identity is exploited to the max in order to create wonderful set pieces of suspense and horror. The care taken to develop the characters is another of the things that make "Profondo Rosso" to stand out among similar films, as not only Daly's obsessions are explored, but his relation with Gianna becomes an interesting source of romance, quirky sparks of comedy, and as expected, lots of suspense.

By the time he directed "Profondo Rosso", Dario Argento was already an specialist on the genre, a master of his craft with a defined style, and the whole look of the film demonstrates it. With his excellent visual composition and inventive use of the camera (with great work by cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller), Argento shows that he knows how to build up suspense and tension in the audience; and together with the excellent make-up by Giuliano Laurenti and Giovanni Morosi, Argento creates some of the most inventive murder scenes ever put to film. It's all about style, as Giallo films are famous for making an art of the the composition of murder scenes, and in "Profondo Rosso", Argento takes that idea to the next level. It all has a quite surreal atmosphere, akin to having a beautiful looking nightmare. The extremely effective score by Giorgio Gaslini and the band "Goblin" is the icing on the cake, as it completes the unnatural haunting atmosphere that the whole film has.

Leading the cast is David Hemmings as Marcus Daly, in what seems to be almost a reprisal of his role in Antonioni's 1966 film, "Blowup" (which was most definitely another of Argento's inspirations). Hemmings is excellent in his role, and effectively portrays Daly's own descent into darkness as he gets more involved with the killings. Argento's regular collaborator Daria Nicolodi stars as Gianna Brezzi (in her first work with Argento), an interesting role because the character demands her to downplay her beauty in favor of the awkwardness and quirkiness of the role. Nicolodi is charming, and very natural, making hard to not fall in love with her character, the typical wisecracking reporter of mystery films. The rest of the cast includes many interesting characters (everyone is a suspect here), and the supporting actors do a very good job. Gabriele Lavie is specially great as Carlo, a tortured alcoholic pianist who is probably the most likable character of the film.

While definitely one of the best Giallo films ever made, "Profondo Rosso" is not exempt of flaws, at least in my humble opinion. The most noticeable I found was the fact that at times the plot kind of drags, wasting too much time in details that do not advance the plot. This makes the long runtime feel even longer than it should, and due to this some audiences may feel the film is boring (in fact, I would even say that the American cut, often titled "The Hatchet Murders", has a better flow, despite being censored). Fortunately, this doesn't happen too often and it's more a minor quibble than an actual flaw. Another detail that bothered me was the bad dubbing the film has, and I don't mean the English dubbing, the original Italian work of audio is really bad, and diminishes the value of many of the performances due to bad synchronization between audio and voice work. However, this was pretty much the standard of Italian productions of those years, as having a multicultural cast forced them to use dubbing most of the times.

As one of the modern masters of horror, Dario Argento's career is one of enormous value for horror fans, and among his many works, "Profondo Rosso" is an essential one. A remarkable work of style and technique, "Deep Red" is a movie that simply grabs you and doesn't let you go until it ends, making an excellent experience and a good companion piece to Argento's follow-up, the masterpiece "Suspiria". The Italian Giallo style of horror thrillers is certainly an acquired taste, but I'd say that if one has to see a Giallo film, it definitely must be this one. What master Mario Bava started with "La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo" (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) in 1963 is taken here to perfection by Argento. Without a doubt "Profondo Rosso" is one of the best murder-mystery films ever made. A true jewel.


Buy "Profondo Rosso" (1975)

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April 05, 2008

Santa (1932)

In 1927, Alan Corsland's "The Jazz Singer" was released and being the first feature-length movie with sound, cinema as a medium was changed forever. And the change would be of global proportions as the technology to produce and distribute "talkies" became available in the rest of the world. In 1929, sound films arrived to Mexico, with several theaters offering sound films so, attempts began to be made to produce the first Mexican "talkie". However, the Mexican film industry wasn't in the best conditions at the time, as not only it faced the powerful competition from Hollywood, the country as a whole was still finishing its recovery from the Mexican Revolution, so it wouldn't be until 1931 when the first Mexican sound film started production. Thanks to the efforts of producer Juan De la Cruz Alarcón and writer Carlos Noriega Hope, an adaptation of Federico Gamboa's most popular novel, "Santa", became the very first Mexican "talkie".

Like the novel, the film is the story of Santa (Lupita Tovar), a very beautiful young woman living in the small poor town of Chimalistac. One day a group of soldiers arrive to the town, and Santa meets Marcelino (Donald Reed), a gallant officer who quickly seduces her with his charm. The two begin to see each other constantly, but when the soldiers leave, Marcelino goes with them and leaves Santa brokenhearted and dishonored. When her very conservative family discovers this, they reject Santa and so she leaves Chimalistac and moves to Mexico City looking for a job. It is there where she discovers a whorehouse and decides to become a prostitute. In her new life, she discovers the pleasures of being a highly paid prostitute, but also the loneliness and the loss of her innocence. Between the love of the fiery matador "Jarameño" (Juan José Martínez Casado) and the humble blind pianist Hipólito (Carlos Orellana), her journey will be difficult.

Adapted to the screen by Carlos Noriega Hope, the movie remains relatively faithful to the novel, albeit of course, most of the darkest elements have been either omitted or subtly toned down. Knowing his audience, Noriega Hope transforms Santa's tragedy into a more romantic version of it. It's still a dark tale of a woman's downfall, but it's elements of melodrama are enhanced and a lot more emphasis is put in her search for happiness. Still, while quite melodramatic at times, "Santa" plays with its emotions nicely and it shows that Noriega Hope definitely knew how to hit the right notes when working in this kind of stories, as singlehandedly establishes many of the themes and ideas that Mexican melodrama would follow for years after it. His characters are basically archetypes, but with very well defined personalities that make them less cartoony, more human, and so their journey becomes a more captivating emotional trip.

Brought to Mexico by producer De la Cruz, Antonio Moreno was a very experienced actor in Hollywood's silent cinema (and his career would span more than 40 years) who was hired to helm "Santa" more for his fame as an actor and knowledge of the new technology than for his work as a director, as this was his second film as a filmmaker. Despite this lack of experience in the director's chair, Moreno creates an effective film that follows the romanticism of its script. In fact, Morneo recognizes that the strength of the movie is in the screenplay and his actors, so he basically lets the story flow. This may sound unoriginal, and at times it's certainly uninspiring, but Moreno had important collaborators who helped him to transcend his own stagy silent style and make something beyond: cinematographer Alex Phillips, musician Agustín Lara and editor Aniceto Ortega. Three great talents that certainly added a lot to this production in their respective fields.

As written above, one of the greatest strengths of "Santa" is in the performances of its cast, in fact, I'd say that it's the single most powerful element of the film. Lupita Tovar and Carlos Orellana (in his first film role) truly own every scene and deliver two of the best performances in Mexican cinema. Like Moreno, Tovar was another exportation from Hollywood (she was in the Spanish version of Universal's "Dracula"), and here she shines not only for being a beauty, but because she truly becomes her character, and portrays Santa's descent into tragedy with an unbelievable realism. But if Tovar is great, Orellana is simply awesome as the blind pianist Hipólito, as his very emotional performance transforms what could be cringe-worthy melodrama into excellent dramatic scenes of high quality. The rest of the cast is less outstanding (Donald Reed is pretty bad), but to tell the truth, the movie rests entirely on Tovar and Orellana's performances.

"Santa" is a very good film to watch, even today, more than 70 years after its release, but like most "first" things of something, there are problems that one has to consider due to it being the first of its kind. Like most early talkies, "Santa" has a stagy style reminiscent of silent movies that often feels add, and definitely outdated. Although to its favor, I must say that Moreno uses effectively the talents of Phillips and Ortega to overcome this the best he can, and in fact "Santa" feels less "silent-like" when compared to other early Mexican talkies (1933's "La Llorona" for example). While sparsely, Moreno and Ortega use an editing style very influenced by Soviet cinema (Sergei Eisenstein had visited Mexico a few years before and left a huge mark in the country's cinema), and together with Phillips' cinematography it gives the movie a smooth flow that takes the film out of its staginess. "Santa" may not be the best of those early Mexican talkies, but it's quite better than what one would expect from it.

While not the first adaptation of the novel (it was done in the silent era in 1918), many critics point out to this version as the origin of the "fallen woman" archetype in Mexican cinema (further explored in "La Mujer del Puerto" in 1934) and of many classic elements of Mexican melodrama. I'm not really sure if it is the true origin of those rules, but "Santa" certainly is a movie that helped to consolidate them, as it definitely made of Gamboa's "heroine" more a victim than how she was in the novel. More the kind of victim that has served as main character in Mexican cinema for many years after "Santa"'s release. It certainly established a highly successful formula, as the film was a hit when released on 1932. As the first sound film made in Mexico, the tragedy of Santa is quite a powerful melodrama and an interesting and historically relevant film to watch.


April 04, 2008

L' Arroseur arrosé (1895)

On December 28, 1895, thirty-three people were witnesses of history being written as the very first audience of the Lumières' Cinématographe, an innovative device that was able to project motion pictures on a screen. Motion pictures were not new for the people gathered on at Paris's Salon Indien Du Grand Café that day, as Edison's Kinetoscope (the "Peep Show") was a popular form of entertainment; however, nobody in the room was prepared to see the images projected on the screen to move as unlike the Kinetoscope, the Cinématographe allowed the movies to be seen by an audience. 10 short films shot by August and Louis Lumière were shown that historic day, most of them depicting everyday scenes like people walking out of the Lumière factory or playing cards, but one among those 10 short films was different: "L' Arroseur Arrosé", the first comedy film.

"L' Arroseur Arrosé", literally ("The Sprinkler Sprinkled"), is basically about a practical joke committed by a mischievous boy (Benoît Duval) to annoy a Gardener (François Clerc) who is working with his plants in Lyons. The movie begins with the Gardener watering his vegetables when the boy steps on the hose he is using to water the plants. The Gardener is surprised as the water stops flowing so he inspects the nozzle to find out what's happening. As he checks it, the boy releases the hose and the water continues flowing, spraying the gardener as it comes out of the hose with strength. Surprised by this, the Gardener quickly realizes that he's been tricked, but the boy responsible escapes running away in order to avoid being caught. The Gardener decides to chase the boy in order to punish him for his actions.

When compared to the other 9 movies shown on that first screening, "L' Arroseur Arrosé" always stand out as it was remarkably different from any of the other movies in the sense that it wasn't an "actuality film", but the very first staged fictional comedy shot on film. The Lumière brothers had a preference for documentaries (actuality films) as they weren't really interested in other uses for their invention besides the scientific documentation of real life events; so it is because of this reason that the creation of "L' Arroseur Arrosé" is truly a real oddity among Lumières' movies. Anyways, not only is this movie special for those reasons, it is also one of the best looking of the 10 (and one that has survived almost intact to this date), with the brothers showing a great early use of cinematography to frame the film.

In its barely 50 seconds of duration, "L' Arroseur Arrosé", opened the way to slapstick and pantomime in film, as the movie showed that it was possible to use the new invention to make pure entertainment, and that there was an extremely high unused potential in the Cinématographe. It wouldn't be too far of a stretch to claim that comedy films were born in this movie. While the reasons behind the inclusion of this film among 9 documentaries is odd, it was quite probably that this was the film that inspired a notable member of that first audience to make fictional movies aimed to entertain: Georges Méliès, who would later become a famous filmmaker on his own (and would direct a remake of this very film too).


Buy "L' Arroseur arrosé" (1895) and other films by the Lumière brothers and other early cinema pioneers