October 13, 2010

House of Usher (1960)

The wonderful reference book Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies, edited by Aaron Christensen, contains an essay on "House of Usher" written by yours truly, going in further detail about the film, its making, and my personal experience in discovering this wonderful masterpiece of Gothic horror. Be sure to check it out!

By the end of the decade of the 50s, producer and director Roger Corman had been enjoying a relatively successful career with his many low-budget horror films that filled the drive-ins of the time with memorable titles such as "It Conquered the World" (1956), "Attack of the Crab Monsters " (1957) or "The Wasp Woman" (1959). While not always memorable, his work was effective, cheap and most of the times very entertaining, earning him a ; however, Corman decided that it was time for a change. Instead of making two low-budget black and white films, he decided to make one color feature film with better production values. The result of this risky bet ended up being one of his most successful films and probably among the best horror films ever done: the fantastic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic novel "The Fall of the House of Usher". Titled simply as "House of Usher", this film would begin a series of movies based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, most of them starring legendary actor Vincent Price in roles that would make him a horror icon.

"House of Usher" film tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), a young man from Boston who arrives to the desolate Usher mansion looking for his fiancée Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), as she left him in Boston shortly after being affianced with him. Looking for answers, he discovers that both Madeline and her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) seem to be affected by a mysterious malady. While she has become catatonic, Roderick has developed an extreme sensitivity in his audition, making noise extremely painful to him. Roderick explains that this is only the beginning of the ancient Curse of the Usher family, that states that every member of the family will spread evil and suffer from insanity until death. It is because of this belief that Roderick forbids the marriage between Madeline and Philip, as he has decided to end the Usher bloodline and curse once and for all. Philip doesn't believe in Rodericks' words, but in the murky swamps that surround the House of Usher, he'll discover that behind every legend there is a little bit of truth.

Written by Richard Matheson (whom also penned the classic horror novel "I Am legend"), the film does a great work at mixing several of the most representative elements from Poe's short stories in order to create an entertaining and frightening film. While not a strictly faithful adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, Matheson captures in his screenplay the main Gothic themes of the Poe's writing. The added angle of romance does not undermine the horror atmosphere of dread that the film has, and actually suits well the Gothic tragedy of the Usher clan despite being a tad simplistic. While it could be argued that moving the focus from Roderick to Madeline could betray Poe's intentions, Matheson keeps Roderick an interesting figure on his own right, and not simply a horror villain. Since the plot revolves around the characters, Matheson spends enough time to develop each one of them, slowly setting the stage for the terrific finale where they'll face each other in a superb climax. Although the story takes its time to unfold, the slow pace is rightfully justified by its very rewarding ending.

When one thinks of Roger Corman, its inevitable to think about the many low-budget films of average quality he has done through his long career; however, 5 seconds into the film and one begins to wonder if they are really the same person. This film is so beautifully shot and so carefully crafted that it really shows how much Corman cared for this particular project. While still with a budget considerably lower than the big studios' productions, Corman shows that he actually knows more about the filmmaking craft than just how to save costs, and with real artistry creates a series of set-pieces that are both haunting and attractive at the same time. Seasoned cinematographer Floyd Crosby creates images of great beauty in brilliant widescreen color, making the most out of Daniel Haller's lavish sets without sacrificing the Gothic atmosphere of the story. "House of Usher" perfectly captures the melancholy, the fears and the madness of the short story and creates a frightening Gothic tale of horror in film. It was a risky bet indeed, but one that was worth every cent.

After a long career starring in low-budget films or having mere supporting roles in bigger productions, Vincent Price appears at his finest portraying Roderick Usher with tremendous power, chewing the scene with his great presence and charming personality. His overtly dramatic performance fits perfectly in the movie and it made him a horror icon forever. Certainly his performance could be labeled as overacting, but Price adds a lot of personality to the role of Roderick, giving him a mix of classy subtlety and eccentric antics that enhances the atmosphere of abnormality and madness that surrounds the House of Usher. With this, Price makes Roderick our guide to the insanity. While nowhere as great as Price, Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey make very effective co-stars and actually manage to add a lot to the film. Damon is quite good as the lead character, determined and heroic in his tragic quest; and while Fahey's melodrama is a bit over the top (even more than Price), she puts up a fine performance that's up to the challenge.

Despite its low budget, "House of Usher" has an astounding visual design that definitely proves that Corman was more than just a maker of cheap B-movies. Crossing the line that separates the artisan from the artist, Corman crafts a haunting tale of Gothic horror pretty much in the vein that the British company Hammer began to do in the late 50s. However, there are differences between both styles: Corman's take on Poe (perhaps in part because of its source material) has a greater focus on the surreal imagery of madness than on the wild sensuality of the monster (which is one of the key elements that made Hammer horror to stand out). Essentially, while Hammer focus on the monster, Corman's Poe films focus on the atmosphere of horror and dread. if the film has any taint, I think that it would be the fact that even for the standards of its time, the movie is a bit too slow as it takes its time to present the story. Also, it is definitely not a graphic scare fest, so perhaps someone expecting the opposite may find the film a bit dull or boring.

"House of Usher" is a remarkable Gothic film that relays more in its characters, as well as in the atmosphere and suspense rather than in graphic scares and thrills. A key film in the revival of Gothic horror that took place in the late 50s and early 60s, "House of Usher" showcases a brilliant work of cinematography and one of Vincent Price's finest moments. However, I guess that the most important thing about "House of Usher" is not only that it's a beautifully done film, but the fact that it's probably one of the movies where it's more apparent that filmmaker Roger Corman deserves more credit as an artist than what he usually receives.


October 08, 2010

Seres: Génesis (2010)

Almost since its humble beginnings, Mexican science fiction films have been a territory populated by the exploits of mad scientists, sexy space invaders, schlocky robots and wrestling monsters of all kind; building up a filmography that has seen movies with definitely more heart than budget, and a naive charm that makes up for its notorious lack of production values. Certainly, films like Rogelio A. González' "La Nave de los Monstruos" or René Cardona's "Las Luchadoras vs el Robot Asesino" were not aiming for hard science fiction but just for an entertaining mix of adventure, comedy and the occasional robot. Of course, there have been serious sci-fi films in Mexican cinema, but unfortunately, most of those attempts tend to be, at best, exercises of involuntary humor (there are exceptions of course, such as 1958's "El hombre que logró ser invisible"). In the year 2007, Mexican filmmaker Ángel Mario Huerta decided to make another attempt at serious sci-fi with "Seres: Génesis" and finally, three years later, the final result of that attempt is released.

In "Seres: Génesis", Gonzalo Vega plays professor Owen, recognized scientist and head of Owal Technologies, a leading industry in the development of technology, which has been collaborating with the United States government in a secret project. This project involves archaeological research in the Mayan region of Mexico and is being coordinated by Section B, which is Owal Technologies' secret division. Graco (Manuel Balbi) is the archaeologist in charge of the investigation, but his efforts are interrupted when a series of strange paranormal phenomena begin to take place in the city, forcing him to stop the work and return to Owal, where he'll be reunited with his old flame, Mariel (Alejandra Barros), whom is now Section B's Director. At the headquarters, professor Owen informs Section B about the situation, the presence of extraterrestrial beings on Earth, and presents the new member of the team: seasoned hunter Vega (Arturo Delgado). Now, Graco will join Vega, mathematician Martin (Humberto Busto) and biologist Emma (Liz Gallardo) in their hunt for the extraterrestrial beings.

Written by Armando Guajardo and director Ángel Mario Huerta himself, "Seres: Génesis" is a tale of mystery, adventure and science fiction pretty much in the vein of "The X-Files". Taking as basis the popular concept of ancient civilizations being visited by extraterrestrial beings, Huerta and Guajardo chronicle the efforts of Section B for uncovering the secret behind a recent increase of alien abductions and UFO sightings. Unfortunately, what seemed to be a good chance to explore classic themes such as conspiracy theories, alien invasions or close encounters; ends up being a half-baked mix of those elements that feels unpolished as it doesn't seem to go anywhere with them. while there could had been room for mystery and suspense within the story, any chance for that gets wasted as things are solved easily with scenes of poorly written dialogs. One big part of the problem is that there is barely any character development at all (some characters, such as Emma, are even irrelevant), so it becomes difficult to get involved with the adventures of Section B.

At the helm of "Seres: Génesis", director Ángel Mario Huerta feels focused more on displaying the special effects of the film instead of building up a consistent narrative. The problems in the screenplay are carried out to the film's narrative and the movie ends up having an inconstant rhythm that goes from frantically quick to dully slow and back. Huerta's handling of the cast also feels really lacking, as the performances vary from good to downright bad; although it must be said that his action set pieces, while unfortunately scarce, are quite well done. Cinematographer Alejandro Cantú's work is appropriate, but nothing really spectacular, though he makes good use of the digital technology. Nevertheless, praise must go to the visual effects team that, for the most part, do make the most out of the budget and create some of the best effects seen in Mexican cinema. Probably Huerta lacks in narrative style and the directing of his cast, but the director truly made good use of the special effects for the film.

As written above, the performances in "Seres: Génesis" are pretty much sub-par, with two notable exceptions. Experienced actor Gonzalo Vega as professor Owen truly captures the sober image of dignity and power that the intellectual character requires. With talent Gonzalo Vega manages to make a clichéd ridden father figure into a believable, realistic character. Young Humberto Busto is the other exception in the film, playing mathematician and passionate ufologist Martin. With a very natural delivery and charming attitude, Busto truly gives life to the eccentric mathematician, despite the poorly written dialogs his character recites through the film. Certainly, one of the highlights of the film. The rest of the main cast is pretty much average, with Manuel Balbi and Arturo Delgado fitting the roles of action heroes without great impact. Alejandra Barros and specially Liz Gallardo have little to do, given their poorly developed characters that barely appear.

While a highly ambitious project done probably with very good intentions, "Seres: Génesis" suffers of a major problem that prevents it from being the science fiction it aims to be: its lack of an engaging storyline. While director Ángel Mario Huerta does achieve for brief moments that magic of capturing the imagination, for the most part the film feels tiring and even boring. The interesting concept of ancient civilizations making contact with extraterrestrials feels shallowly explored. Being the beginning of a trilogy, it would be expected that "Seres: Génesis" wouldn't show everything in the first installment, but Huerta went completely to the other extreme and the movie ends with the feeling of it being incomplete. Not with the desire of wanting to know more, but with the void of having seen something edited or unfinished. Ultimately, "Seres: Génesis" commits the sin of failing to properly introduce this universe, to captivate with it, or making it interesting. This could prove to be problematic for the next installments in the story. Perhaps a little more care in the development of the screenplay would had saved the film from feeling lost without direction.

Aiming to capture the look and style of Hollywood's big budget science fiction, "Seres: Génesis" also captured the worst of Hollywood's flaws, specifically the related to the storyline, as it clearly favors the display of its amazing visual effects over any try at character development. Since "Seres: Génesis" has more dialog than action scenes, this flaw is even more noticeable. With the release of "Seres: Génesis", Francisco Laresgoiti's "2033" and other Mexican sci-fi projects, year 2010 seems to be the year where science fiction once again attempts to rise in a national filmography that historically has neglected it and relegate it to low budgets and precarious production conditions. Nevertheless, the lack of heart in both "2033" and "Seres: Génesis" makes one wonder if those schlocky contraptions, seductive aliens and cardboard monsters of old Mexican films may have had more soul than their modern counterparts.


September 17, 2010

Nos Miran (2002) @ Cult Reviews!

It's been a while since I wrote somehting, and that's quite unfortunate because, while life has taken me to different and ejoyable activities lately, I kin do fmiss writing about cinema. Fortunately, this month I could finish a piece for that cool website that allows me to write from time to time: yes, I'm talking once again about Cult Reviews. On this ocassion I wrote about "Nos Miran" (2002), one of the generation of Spaniard horror films that came during the last decade (and that fortunately, still is alive and kicking). Written by the remarkable Jorge Guerricaechevarria and directed by newcomer Norberto López Amado, Nos Miran" is a mix of horror and film noir about an obessesed detective looking for dissapeared people. Naturally, his dark past comes again to haunt him. Classy and tastefully Gothic in that sober vein that Spain's modern horror handles so well, this is a nice film to watch on a rainy night. You'll find more detail on the review at Cult Reviews of course.

Things may seem slow nowadays at Cult Reviews, but there's always somehtig there to discover. I must rcomend Perfesser Deviant's review of the 70s flick "Blood Stalkers" in his quite particular style. Also, Mr. Vomitron writes about one of my favourite modern films, "Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien", a beautifully done French thriller on the most Hitchcocknian style. Truly a superb work of art, and Mr. Vomitron's arguments seem to go on that way too. Check out his review. Finally, Coventry writes about a 2010's movie, "Srpski Film" ("A Serbian Film"), an extreme horror film that could literally be described as that hideous label Americans like to use: "torture porn". But well, according to good ol' Coventry, if "Hostel" is torture porn, then a new label must be created for "A Serbian Film", which seems to be extreme just for the sake of it. Coventry gets in more detail in his review. Finally, the full length movie available right now is the 1959's version of "The Bat", directed by Crane Wilbur. Personally, I prefer the silent version, but it's still worth to check it out.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


April 10, 2010

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

One of the most famous short films in the world is definitely Luis Buñuel's debut, "Un Chien Andalou" (literally, "An Andalusian Dog"), and not without a reason, as this 16 minute film's influence extents beyond the cinema and is considered a milestone of the surrealist movement of the late 20s. After watching Fritz Lang's "Der müde Tod" in 1921), Buñuel became fascinated with cinema, and decided to learn as much as possible about it. He became acquainted with filmmaker Jean Epstein and began to work with him as an assistant in Epstein's "Mauprat", and also looked for work in every production he could. Through this experiences, Buñuel not only learned the technique of filmmaking, but also met some of the cast and crew that would help him in his first experiment. 1929 saw the release of the brainchild of director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí, "Un Chien Andalou", which has become an enormously influential work of art, necessary to understand the work of these two masters of surrealist art.

Conceived as a series of scenes without an apparent order, the film has no explicit plot and instead it follows a dream logic where the "dreams" share only actors, characters, themes or motifs, without being explicitly "connected". This logic (or lack of logic) makes the film very much akin to Freudian free association, as while there is no apparent link between the scenes, a subliminal bond exists between them, making "Un Chien Andalou" an visual experiment that expresses the dreams that its creators had. The surreal scenes include the famous scene where a woman's eye is slit by a razor blade, an androgynous woman poking at a severed hand in the street with her cane and ants emerging from a man's hand. It's definitely a pure and raw form of surrealism that attempts to provoke feelings and emotions with its images rather than with its storytelling. It is not that he film lacks any meaning, but that such meaning is expressed in symbols, not with words. It is because of this domain of image and symbology over any traditional plotline that "Un Chien Andalou" has been labeled as a precursor of modern music videos.

Due to its nature, the film depends on the visual impact of its images, and Buñuel manages to make the most of his resources giving the scenes a haunting beauty and a powerful impact to its meaning. It was not only a surrealist statement, "Un Chien Andalou" was also Buñuel's experimenting with film and learning a lot in the process. Cinematographer Albert Duverger, whom first met Buñuel on Epstein's film "Mauprat", employs a quite dynamic technique for its time; and with clever use of lighting, creates an unsettling atmosphere that conveys that aura of mystery and fantasy that exists in dreams. Following the film's dream logic, one could say that Duverger and Buñuel achieve to make the movie flow from dream to nightmare and viceversa. Rich in symbols (that may or may no thave any real meaning) and full of haunting images, "Un Chien Andalou" is certainly one of the movies in which the visuals carry the sense of story in its most extreme form. While unsettling at times and definitely aggressive, the movie is a joy to watch even when the experience is more akin to watch moving canvas rather than a movie the way we are used to it.

The film is hard to understand, and ambiguous enough to the point that probably only Buñuel and Dalí knew exactly what it was supposed to mean. However, that's probably the point of it, to create emotions rather than to simply transmit them. As he states in his autobiography ("My Last Sigh", 1983), the film was made with the intentions that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted". In the way that Dalí made his paints, Buñuel crafted his entrance to the artform that would become his life. While one could nitpick the production values of the film (or the acting, which at times is a bit awkward), the whole artistic meaning of "Un Chien Andalou" minimize those problems to the point of making them irrelevant. The whole dreamlike imagery that Buñuel and Dalí have created in this short film trascended the normal way of storytelling, and finished to create the surrealist cinema. It's not a movie easy to like, but it's certainly one impossible to forget,

"Un Chien Andalou" is definitely one of Buñuel's most important films, not only viewing it globally, as a landmark of the surrealist movement; but also on a personal way, as the many things Buñuel himself learned during the process of making it had an enormous influence over his career. While both Buñuel and Dalí feared a bad response from the public, "Un Chien Andlou" became quite popular, and became the beginning of Buñuel's promising career (a career that was unfortunately put temporarily on stand by because of the Spanish Civil War). Original, thought-provoking and enormosuly ambiguous, this short film is a must-see not only for Buñuel fans, but also for everyone interested in film as an art form.


February 24, 2010

District 9 (2009)

Since the year 2007, rumors began about a movie adaptation of the popular video game, "Halo". It soon became official that Peter Jackson would produce the film, and that a South African newcomer named Neill Blomkamp would be at the helm of the project. Despite not having experience in feature-length films, Blomkamp had already established himself as the most appropriate director for the movie after his "Landfall" trilogy of short films based on "Halo" gave him critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the "Halo" project couldn't be launched and the movie version of the popular video game collapsed during preproduction. However, producer Peter Jackson still wanted to give Blomkamp a chance, and decided to produce an adaptation of one of Blomkamp's earlier short films, the sci-fi mock documentary "Alive in Joburg" (a six minute short film about stranded aliens facing xenophobia). Expanding the themes and style of "Alive in Joburg", the end result was one of the most original science fiction films of the last years: "District 9".

In "District 9", a major event has changed the history of South Africa: in 1982, a large alien spaceship became stranded above the city of Johannesburg. Inside the spaceship was found a large group of members of an extraterrestrial species who are given asylum on Earth. Years go by and things in Johannesburg get complicated as the aliens enter the already convoluted social situation of the country. Ostrasized and hated (and derogatorily referred to as "prawns"), the aliens live in poverty and engage in criminal activities. After human protests, the aliens are confined to a government camp inside Johannesburg, called District 9, which despite massive police presence, soon turns into a slum. More than 20 years after the aliens' arrival, a private military corporation named Multinational United (MNU) takes the task of relocating the 1.8 million aliens to a new camp, District 10; and field operative Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the man in charge of the mission. And literally, it'll be a mission that will change his life.

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, "District 9" uses comedy and science fiction to explore themes such as xenophobia with a sharp and intelligent humor. Given its setting, it's obviously a commentary on the Apartheid era, the forced evictions and the segregation that was lived in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. "District 9" begins following the style of Blomkamp's original short film, "Alive in Joburg", as it opens as a documentary about the relocation of the aliens and the mysterious fate of Wikus van de Merwe. As the story unfolds it moves back and forth from the documentary to the actual events of the relocation, uncovering what exactly happened to Wikus van de Merwe during the mission. With the perfect mix of humor and intelligence, Blomkamp and Tatchell built up a story that transcends science fiction and becomes a powerful character study filled with interesting twists and surprisingly, a lot of heart. If there's anything to criticize, it probably would be that the film certainly lacks subtlety when it comes to showcase it's political message.

As written above, "District 9" moves from the documentary about the eviction, to the actual development of the events, so the film is presented in two different, yet complementary styles. The documentary side is given a very realist look, akin to Blomkamp's "Alive in Joburg", complete with footage from MNU's operation and interviews with those involved. The actual story of the film receives a more traditional treatment, yet Blomkamp keeps the realism by employing mainly a hand-held technique, very much on the "cinéma vérité" school of thought, as it's all done to transport the audience to the story, as if it was truly, news footage. It's certainly a risky decision, but Blomkamp makes it work with the instrumental aide of cinematographer Trent Opaloch, whom employs digital cinema to achieve this realism in a fantastical tale about extraterrestrials. Julian Clarke's work of editing is worthy of praise, as it keeps the movement from the documentary style to the action film at a quite dynamic and natural rhythm.

Acting through the film is quite good, with Sharlto Copley (whom produced and starred Blomkamp's "Alive in Joburg") delivering a terrific performance as Wikus, the model officer whom gets involved in the amazing events that take place during the eviction of District 9. Copley makes Wikus a very human character, and even when it's certainly difficult to like him initially (as Wikus is written as a flawed human being, not the typical hero), Copley's charm and presence truly makes it work. The way the character grows and is developed, while a tad clichéd, doesn't feel as forced as could had been. Another face from "Alive in Joburg", Jason Cope, appears not only as Grey Bradnam, but also as Christian, the alien. Cope's job as the extraterrestrial creature is noteworthy, as while the visual effects alone are already amazing, his performance is truly the icing of the cake and give the creature a heart. Finally, David James makes a great turn as Koobus Venter, the chief mercenary sent to hunt extraterrestrials at District 9. As the main villain, James is certainly extraordinary.

Perhaps "District 9"'s greatest asset is just how fresh it feels amidst most of the recent sci-fi films released by major studios. With a relatively low budget, Jackson and Blomkamp take the genre back to its roots and use it to offer insight about a particular situation of the human condition. While it has the subtlety of a hammer, "District 9"'s exploration of xenophobia and segregation in South Africa (and the world) makes for an interesting discussion; and the way Blomkamp employs comedy to make his statement is cleverly unusual and fun. In a way, a film like "District 9" (which has a political agenda, an anti-hero as main character, and a visual style that moves back and forth from documentary to action film) is not exactly an easy story to sell, and even less simple to make properly; but with creativity and talent, Neill Blomkamp and his team managed to create this little gem with a modest budget and without sacrificing its edge. Subtle or not, with an agenda or not, "District 9" exists entirely as its makers wanted it to be, and it's one hell of a ride, in terms of entertainment.

Fresh, clever and fun, "District 9" is a powerful masterpiece of science fiction that hopefully, will go on in history as one of the genre's first true gems of the 21st century. What Blomkamp and his crew achieved here is worthy of praise, as without a big budget, they have created a terrific work that certainly shows that science fiction can be more than typical space operas and merchandising gold mines, that it still can be used to deliver a message or to state something. Together with Duncan Jones' "Moon", and even Cameron's "Avatar" and Abrams' "Star Trek", Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" points to a resurgence of science fiction with a purpose, with a soul.


January 26, 2010

Alive in Joburg (2005)

During the year of 2009, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp saw the release of his first feature-length project, the science fiction film "District 9", an interesting mix of mock documentary and action film that narrated the attempt to relocate a race of extraterrestrial creatures stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dealing with themes such as xenophobia and segregation with humor and intelligence, "District 9" was a breath of fresh air for the science fiction genre and launched Blomkamp's career to new heights. The interesting thing is that the origins of "District 9"'s concept go back as far as to 2005, when Blomkamp directed the short film that would make him to get noticed: "Alive in Joburg". Produced by Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copley (whom would later star in "District 9"), "Alive in Joburg" is a six minute short film where Blomkamp first explored the idea of a mock documentary about stranded aliens facing xenophobia. A lot of what "District 9" is can be seen in "Alive in Joburg", as it's the first step in Blomkamp's promising career.

Shot in documentary style, "Alive in Joburg" is set in Johannesburg in 1990, in the middle of the apartheid era. Only that to make things worse, a large group of extraterrestrial refugees have arrived to the city, leaving their large spaceships hovering above the city. Initially welcomed by the humans, the extraterrestrial population soon becomes a social problem in the already conflicted Johannesburg. Whole owners of weaponry and technology superior to humans, the aliens have frequent clashes with the police, and engage in a lot of the city's crime. Like a real documentary, "Alive in Joburg" attempts to explore the aliens' perspective as well, hinting that aliens may have this behavior after being segregated and forced to live in terrible conditions. There are also interviews with the human population of Johannesburg which show how the aliens are seen as a plague, specially since they are in conflict with the already segregated black-population of the city. Tension grows when it is discovered that the ships steal resources from Earth to survive.

As one can easily imagine, "Alive in Joburg" is a commentary on the apartheid era that took place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, as well as on the social problems that are still relevant in the country. Focused on the humans' reaction to the aliens, the documentary consists mainly on brief interviews with the inhabitants of the city, in which we get a glimpse of the social conflicts that arise between the extraterrestrial refugees and humans. Director Neill Blomkamp never fails to maintain the realist style of his movie, and that's precisely the reason of the success of his satire: the serious tone of the film increases the reality of the story, and since "Alive in Joburg" is mainly a reflection of what happens in South Africa, it's not difficult to imagine that the events that take place in the movie are exactly what would happen if such thing happened in real life. Between the interviews there are "news footage" scenes that depict life in Johannesburg after the extraterrestrial arrival, where their technological advantages can be appreciated.

Showcasing a great work of visual effects (by Blomkamp himself), these scenes are truly amazing, mainly one in which an alien wearing an armor fights two police officers. Considering Blomkamp's background as a professional animator, it could be easy to think that "Alive in Joburg" is an exercise to show off his skills with visual effects, but the short film truly has a value beyond nice visual effects, as Blomkamp's use of the mock documentary genre to offer social cometary is worth mentioning. While perhaps a bit too preachy for its own good, "Alive in Joburg" is still a good example of an intelligent use of comedy and science fiction to carry a message in a short film. Flowing at a nice rhythm, the work of editing done in the film is quite good, and truly captures the feeling of a real informative documentary. The performances in the film are for the most part good, although it's safe to say that "Alive in Joburg" is more an exercise in storytelling for Blomkamp than one about directing actors.

Fresh, original and full of charm, "Alive in Joburg" was the short film that paved the way for Blomkamp, as not only it took him to direct the "Landfall" shorts (three short films done to promote the release of the "Halo 3" video game), but when the "Halo" movie project fell, Blomkamp developed the world of this short film into his feature-length debut, "District 9". Perhaps "Alive in Joburg" is not a perfect film, but considering its ambitions, its limitations and what it ultimately achieved, it's really amazing what producers Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copley, along director Neill Blomkamp managed to do with it. Truly the proof that all that's needed is to have imagination and talent.


January 01, 2010

Good bye 2009: A Top 10

Well, 2009 is gone, and as expected, it's time to talk about the good films the year brought with it. At W-Cinema, the focus tends to be on older films, movies released prior to 1970, but during the last year, I tried to watch as many 2009 films as I could. While it wasn't really a good amount of movies, it was an improvement over previous years, and probably this time I have a better idea of how was 2009, in terms of film. Granted, there are many films I have not seen, specially from countries outside the U.S., and some sound so promising that could even enter this list, in the future. I have not see yet "Zombieland", which being a horror film is quite attractive to me. Also, I have not seen Turkey's "Nefes: Vatan sagolsun", a war drama that looks incredibly interesting. The Coens' "A Serious Man", Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox", and Reitman's "Up in the Air" are another three films that are receiving a lot of buzz, and probably will be on the Academy Awards this year. Finally, I also have not seen the documentaries "Home", "The Cove", and "Los Que Se Van".

Anyways, from the few 2009 movies I could catch, here are what I consider the 10 best. It seems that the sci-fi genre has returned and is here to stay.

10) "Inglorious Basterds" (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

9) "Up" (2009, Pete Docter & Bob Peterson)

8) "(500) Days of Summer" (2009, Marc Webb)

7) "El secreto de sus ojos" (2009, Juan José Campanella)

6) "Coraline" (2009, Henry Selick)

5) "Moon" (2009, Duncan Jones)

4) "Mary and Max" (2009, Adam Elliot)

3) "Antichrist" (2009, Lars Von Trier)

2) "District 9" (2009, Neill Blomkamp)

1) "Avatar" (2009, James Cameron)

...and welcome 2010.