February 24, 2011

Ondine (2009)

The sea, source of life and nourishment for humanity since the beginning of times, has been the source for countless stories, myths and legends that showcase how deeply tied we are to it. From the Greek sirens to the Japanese Kappa, a wide variety of water spirits have inhabited the imaginations of many cultures; and the fishing villages of Ireland were no exception. The Irish folklore has its very own aquatic nymph, drawn from the ancient Celtic myths: the Selkies, seal ladies that can temporarily become human by removing their seal coat. Mythical creatures present also in the folklore of Scotland, Wales and other Celtic regions; the Selkies have been the source of stories, songs, novels and of course, movies (1994's "The Secret of Roan Inish" being probably the best well known). In 2009, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who has ventured to the realm of fantasy in movies such as "The Company of Wolves" and "Interview with the Vampire"; went back to his Irish roots with "Ondine", a film that took the Selkie legend to modern times.

"Ondine" is the story of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a recovering-alcoholic Irish fisherman who one day catches a mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his fishing net. Confused and worried by this event, Syracuse tries to help the nearly-drowned woman, but she seems to present amnesia, being unable to remember her origin. Syracuse takes her home and tries to discover why was she in the sea but the woman, who calls herself Ondine, remains evasive, speaks with a strange accent and asks him to hid her from the world. Syracuse obliges to her request, and keeps her hidden in his grandmother's cottage. Back in the village, Syracuse visits his daughter Annie (Alison Barry), a precocious young girl with failing kidneys and wisdom beyond her years, who lives with Syracuse alcoholic ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan). Suspecting that her father is up to something, Annie discovers Ondine at the cottage, and concludes that she must be one of the mythical Selkie women. Syracuse's luck seems to finally have changed for better, but shadows will rise over the fisherman and the lady he found at the sea.

Taking the Selkie myth to a modern day setting, writer Neil Jordan delivers a tale of romance and fantasy, spiced up with the mystery behind the identity of Ondine. With the coast of his natal Ireland as background, Jordan crafts a story that goes beyond the conventions of romantic melodrama and becomes a meditation on the duality of fantasy and reality. Ondine, with her ethereal beauty and disoriented behavior, is by all accounts a mythical creature of fantasy trapped in the village's reality. And to Annie (and later to Syracuse), she becomes a ray of light in the midst of the hardships they both have faced. Luck and fate are powerful concepts in the film, with Syracuse tormented by guilt, a sense of guilt that still haunts him in the shape of Annie's physical problems and his constant "bad luck". It could be argued that "Ondine" is a story of fantasy versus reality, but it's more about using the fortitude found in fantasy to face reality. Jordan's resolution to the mysteries of Ondine add to that concept, albeit maybe not in an entirely successful way.

Pretty much in tone with the screenplay's theme of fantasy and reality, Jordan creates a film that goes from beautifully shot images of natural beauty to the crude and raw portrait of a poor Irish seaside town. A well-known name in Asian cinema (having worked with Zhang Yimou and in every movie by Wong Kar-Wai), cinematographer Christopher Doyle captures the beauty and the darkness of both environments and creates overwhelming atmospheres that, particularly during the night scenes, convey that sense of fantasy in realism that Jordan was aiming for. Is it a realistic fantasy or a fantastic reality? The line is intentionally blurry as, following Annie and Syracuse, one is lead to wonder if Ondine is really a Selkie, but always with a doubt that prevents from fully accepting it. With class and even a certain tenderness, director Neil Jordan toys with this doubt and this mystery to give new life to the Selkies myth. As the conclusion arrives and the mystery grows, a sudden change of tone takes place that somewhat fails to work completely. But more on that later.

Colin Farrell stars as Syracuse, the cynical and lonely fisherman who desperately fights against his luck to put his life back on track. Farrell delivers a great performance, managing to capture the character's mixture of self-pity and guilt-ridden discomfort. This is a character at odds with himself, and Farrell nails it almost perfectly (he exaggerates a bit with his accent, I must say). There's also great chemistry between him and Polish actress Alicja Bachleda, who plays Ondine. Bachleda's work is effective, yet a tad simplistic, specially in contrast to Farrell's and Barry's. She exudes a powerful presence and an otherworldly beauty that nicely fits her character and makes her a force of nature, wild and untamed. However, she's limited (either by herself or the character) to just be there. The real highlight of the film is without a doubt young Alison Barry, who plays Syracuse's curious and witty daughter Annie. Barry steals every scene she's in, and with natural charm and talent becomes a bright spark of life for the film.

Working like a modern fairy tale during the first two thirds of its runtime, "Ondine" explores its themes with a nice slow pace, giving space to some character development and to build up the mystery surrounding Ondine's origins. However, it abruptly shifts gears during its last third, turning to an unexpectedly darker, noirish path that, while original and consistent with Jordan's themes (reality's darkness rearing its ugly head), it's handled rather clumsily; with a conclusion that feels rushed and poorly crafted. Don't get me wrong, it's not the twist per se what's clumsy (Jordan's writing is actually classy in that aspect), but the way it's handled. The sudden change of pace is so extreme that it even feels as if it had been done for a chapter in a TV series with a need to solve every loose ends quickly before the end. Some extra 15 minutes of runtime probably would had helped things to flow smoother. Nevertheless, this is certainly not something that could ruin entirely the movie, just a detail that makes it feel unsatisfying incomplete.

Despite its problems, Neil Jordan's "Ondine" is a beautiful romantic drama that takes the Selkies myth to craft something new and fresh. The way it handles real life difficulties such as Annie's health problems and Syracuse's alcoholic past is powerful, and the actors playing those roles do live up to the challenge. It's kind of a shame that Jordan's narrative gets lousy and hurried by the time it reaches its conclusion, as it truly has built a charming modern fable before that. Nevertheless, "Ondine" is enjoyable enough to survive that and more and, while probably not exactly on the level that could had reached, it's still a nice effort by its own account. In "Ondine", fantasy inspires hope, the longing for a better life and the actual search for it. Isn't that one of myth's purposes too? Jordan nails it in this beautiful, yet flawed, story.


Due Occhi Diabolici (1990) @ Cult Reviews!

Once again, good things are happening at Cult Reviews, that cool website dedicated to the weird, the strange and the shocking of cinema. Horror, exploitation and related weirdness gather there, and after some months of relatively slow output, Vomitron and the Perfesser Deviant are back in the game with more. I was asked to write a piece for the site too, this time about "Due Occhi Diabolici" (or "Two Evil Eyes" in English), that interesting 90s anthology by legendary masters of horror Dario Argento and George A. Romero in which each of them crafts a short film based on one of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories. As you can see, the idea seems amazing, almost a horror fan's wet dream (the fact that Adrienne Barbeau and Harvey Keitel are the stars, and that the make-up is by gore-maestro Tom Savini only enhances it) but, unfortunately, things didn't go as well as planned and the output was far from satisfying. Of course, you'll only see why in more detail by reading the post at Cult Reviews.

This review for "Due Occhi Diabolici" is part of a series of posts dedicated to the Mr. Horror Presents DVD collection. Mr. Horror, aka Jan Doense, is known as the foremost horror guru of The Netherlands and Belgium. The man has built up a well deserved reputation in film journalism, and has been for many years the driving force behind the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival (formerly The Weekend of Terror). He also witnessed the births of The Night of Bad Taste (aka “De Nacht van de Wansmaak“), The All-Night Horror Show and the Dutch fanzine Shocking News (aka “Schokkend Nieuws”). In short, the man knows his stuff, and on the “Mr. Horror Presents” label, he brings together some of his personal favorites: a collection of (modern) horror classics that were previously unreleased on DVD in the Benelux countries. At Cult Reviews, severeal of the movies of the collection have been reviewed lately, including Scott Spiegel's "Intruder", Spanish horror-noir "Nos Miran" and Jeff Lieberman's "Satan's Little Helper". The whole list of reviews can be found here.

Other recent things of interest in the site are Perfesser Deviant's reviews of two modern horrors: Farhad Mann's "Devil's Diary" and Greg Hudson's "Shredder", as well as a piece on 70s' obscure rarity "Sasqua" by the good fellow codenamed "Humanoid Of Flesh". This and more at your favourite site on the weird and the obscure (which now also has a new logo!).

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


February 18, 2011

The Seventh Stream (2001)

Irish mythology is probably not as well known in the world when compared to Egyptian or Greek mythology, due that most of the rich set of myths were lost after the country's conversion to Christianism; however, while the ancient myths of the ancient Celt religion may not have survived the changing times in their entirety, many of its equally rich variety of legends and stories have been preserved and still are part of the Irish culture and folklore. Among this legends, are the tales about the existence of the Selkies, legendary creatures able to transform themselves from seal to humans by shedding their seal skins, and who like to visit fishing towns from time to time in order to interact with humans. More often than not, the Selkies in the stories are female, and deal with them meeting the local fishermen. John Gray's "The Seventh Stream" is a Hallmark television movie based on this particular Irish legend, and since filmmaking is pretty much a modern incarnation of the ancient art of storytelling, this can only prove that old myths are pretty much alive.

Set in Ireland during the early 1900s, the movie is the story of Owen Quinn (Scott Glenn), an aging fisherman who 5 years after the dead of his wife, still can't move on with his life and spends most of his time outside the town's society, practically as an hermit still mourning his loss alone. Times are harsh for the village with fish being scarce and apparently, only his former apprentice Thomas Dunhill (John Lynch) seems unaffected by this. Dunhill has been seen with a strange woman (Saffron Burrows), but Owen doesn't care much to gossips and remains stoic in his isolation. However, one night the woman appears to him in his home, claiming to be a Selkie, and asking for his help to recover her skin. Without her skin, she is unable to return home, and would be bound to land for life. Helping the mysterious Selkie to find her way home, Owen discovers a new way to see life, and before he knows it, he falls in love with the strange woman. But the legends also have said that romances with this creatures of the seas are always doomed.

Written by director John Gray (whom is probably better known by his work on the TV series "Ghost Whisperer"), the story offers a quite faithful to the themes of Irish legends, and really showcases a good representation of these kind of tales. Basically a romantic tragedy (like most of the Selkies' stories in folklore), the film is entirely focused on the character of Owen Quinn, and how his relationship with the Selkie Mairead helps him to open his heart again and discover new sources of happiness in his life. Those changes in Owen begin to get noticed by his old friend, Mrs. Gourdon (Fiona Shaw), who also has feelings towards him. True, none of this is new, and the twists are definitely a bit clichéd by now but, the slow and careful way in which Gray builds up his story (as well as it's beautiful and interesting setting) gives the story a breath of fresh air. Gray's attempt at portraying life in a small Irish fishing town during the early years of the 20th Century in a realistic (though not entirely accurate) way shows that a good and serious effort in research was done.

As a director, John Gray opts for a very straight forward approach to his story, keeping it simple and linear by essentially following the classic conventions of the romance melodrama almost to the letter. This restrained way of filmmaking results in a subtler, classy style that fits naturally with the storyline of "The Seventh Stream". After all, it is the classic way of making melodramas, and director John Gray does show a certain domain of the genre, as all the right notes are there and he drives his movie with an appropriately smooth pace. Unfortunately, this also shows some lack of imagination, as this closeness to the formula for crafting melodramas makes it enjoyable yet predictable; and on top of that, the editing makes quite notorious that this is a movie made for television. Despite this, Gray adds some really good elements to the film, such as the great use he gives to Seamus Deasy's cinematography. A native of Ireland himself, Deasy captures the magic of the Emerald Island in beautiful images that are also quite fitting for the TV screen.

However, I think that Gray's best trait in this film is his direction of actors, as it is their performances what truly make this movie to stand out among the rest of Hallmark films (and perhaps TV movies in general). Scott Glenn is excellent as Owen Quinn, giving the character the necessary emotion and depth required. It could be said that Glenn looks wooden, but I find him really appropriate, as Quinn is not exactly a character prone to show his emotions, and Glenn's stoic and emotionless stance adds presence to his role. Actress Safforn Burrows plays Mairead, the legendary Selkie who will change Quinn's life. While not really amazing, Burrows is effective and makes a good job, despite being a tad overshadowed by other cast members. The supporting cast is also worth of notice, with every actor adding a lot of presence to the characters. Among them there are great performances by Fiona Shaw, John Lynch and Joseph Kelly; but the one who shines the most is definitely Eamon Morrissey as Owen's friend Willy. The perfect portrait of Irish's attitude, Morrissey steals every scene he is in.

Certainly, and considering the lower production values of TV films, "The Seventh Stream" has very good elements going for it: a remarkable work of acting from its cast, Deasy's superb photography and Ernest Troost's wonderful score (indeed better than the average for a TV film); however, it is in the end that faithful way Gray follows the conventions of television dramas what truly diminishes its quality. While Gray makes the most out of his low budget, he can't escape the cheap resource of editing the film in episodic cliffhangers for commercial breaks, and unfortunately, this narrative devise is used in a very exaggerated and obvious way. Instead of enhancing the emotions generated by the film, this ends up spoiling it and breaking the built mood. And as written above, Gray's classicist way of crafting this melodrama is, while indeed elegant and subtle, a bit too obvious and predictable for its own good, resulting in an entertaining yet sadly forgettable. But still, to Gray's credit, those are the only major flaws in an otherwise worthy TV film.

Overall, despite its problems, John Gray's "The Seventh Stream" is a very good story of romance with a beautiful Irish setting that manages to capture the fantasy and romance of the folktales that inspired it. The really great performances by the cast and the wonderful cinematography really make up for the story's clichés and the conventional way the movie was done. Although on a second thought, aren't those clichés what one really wants to find when watching this kind of stories? Gray has a double edged sword in them here, as those expecting clever twists may be disappointed, but those with a taste for classic melodramas will find a film that against all odds, plays the right tones, and delivers exactly what's expected from it. It's not exactly a classic of the genre, but it's a nice and entertaining way to spend a rainy evening.


February 15, 2011

French Kiss (1995)

Usually, romantic comedies are not really taken seriously as they tend to be seen as simple and formulaic fluff meant only to provide light hearted entertainment. Like in action films and horror films, the overuse of the enormous amount of clichés and typical plot devices, has turned the sub-genre into a formula where stories are predictable and the twists glaringly obvious, and all because the genre's basic structure has been done countless times before. While this predictability is definitely a problem, occasionally a movie appears that despite once again following the exact typical pattern of the genre, manages to stand out among the rest; and even when at its core it still is a typical romantic comedy, it shines with a light of its own due to some special magic that could only be described as "charm". "French Kiss" is one of those movies, a film that despite being no masterpiece of cinema, achieves its original purpose without problem: to provide good light hearted entertainment by telling a charming story about two equally charming characters.

"French Kiss" is the story of Kate (Meg Ryan), a young woman who after moving to Canada, where his boyfriend Charlie (Timothy Hutton) lives, begins to make preparations for her future life next to him. However, all her plans crumble when on a business trip to France, Charlie meets another woman, Juliette (Susan Anbeh), and falls deeply in love with her, to the point that he decides to remain in France and cancel his wedding plans with Kate. Deeply hurt by Charlie's decision, Kate decides to overcome her terrible fear of flying and travels to France, decided to recover her boyfriend and continue with her life plan. On the trip she is seated next to Luc Teyssier (Kevin Kline), a somewhat rude yet charming Frenchman with whom she engages in a conversation. This will only be the beginning of her adventure with Luc as the odd Bon Vivant she has met has hidden a stolen piece of jewelry in her purse to get it past customs, and now he wants it back. Problems begin when Kate's purse is stolen, forcing both to work together to recover the stolen purse, and its contents.

Written by Adam Brooks, "French Kiss" certainly follows the basic blueprint of romantic comedies: it chronicles the misadventures of a couple that initially dislikes each other but that after being forced to spend time together begins to discover the growth of a certain attraction between them. At first sight it would seem that it's just another typical romantic comedy (one with the welcomed benefit of a romantic French setting); however, and despite its far fetched plot, writer Brooks makes the story fresh and even believable, and it all surprisingly works in the end. While the romance between two different and apparently incompatible people is the main focus of the film, Brooks also makes some cleverly written scenes playing with the stereotypes French and American people have of each other in small, yet very funny scenes that make one fall in love with his assortment of quirky supporting characters. "French Kiss" is not exactly the definition of realistic, but in the end is this romanticizing of the story what becomes the film's main strength.

Director Lawrence Kasdan takes a straight forward approach to the script, and lets the natural charm of his cast to be the driving force of the film. It is really his work with the actors what makes the story come to life, as he manages to get them to break their archetypal characters and make them more natural and human, resulting in a film a bit more believable and natural than what the script (formulaic as it is) made it to be. Certainly, Kasdan still can't avoid the use of some silly and definitely unrealistic dialogs, but the performances of his cast make everything work to an extent. The real star of the film is Owen Roizman's cinematography, who under Kasdan's direction portrays France's both urban and countryside landscapes with great talent, making the amazing beauty of the country to show off in many scenes. Following Brook's running theme of making jokes about American tourists, Kasdan constructs some visual gags that spice up the love story between Kate and Luc, add some diversity and keep things up and running.

The cast is what really makes "French Kiss" to stand out among similar movies. At the peak of her "romantic comedy phase", Meg Ryan was delightfully charming as the main character, Kate. With her natural charm and talent, this character was definitely piece of cake for her, and she makes what otherwise could be a two dimensional character a bit more enjoyable. Kevin Kline is the highlight of the film, making a very convincing Frenchman in his portrait of Luc. It's kind of a shame that the producers decided to hire a non-Frenchman for the role, but fortunately Kline delivers an excellent performance as the witty crook (while his accent isn't really good, his natural acting made that irrelevant). Timothy Hutton is definitely the weakest link in the cast, as not only his character was badly written, his performance is not really good and looks really out of place in the film. French actors Jean Reno and François Cluzet have small supporting roles, but they truly make the best out of them, with Cluzet showcasing great talent for comedy and Jean Reno completely stealing every scene he is in.

As written above, the script is plagued with a good share of flaws, and while some are somewhat corrected by the work of Lawrence Kasdan and his cast, there are details that do hurt the film. Like many romantic comedies, "French Kiss" is based on a far fetched situation (perhaps even more so than others), but the problem is not how unlikely is the situation that makes the couple meet, but in the poor initial setting of the story's events. With the probable exception of Luc, the rest of the characters begin underdeveloped, and their personalities and actions feel initially a tad random. Hutton's character is simply badly done and never believable in his choices (a problem, considering that his actions set the plot in motion). Ryan's characters is slightly better conceived, but it does take Meg Ryan's performance to make her real and likable, as Kate is not exactly a sympathetic character to begin with. Don't get me wrong, the story is charming, but it's truly lousy beginning makes obvious that what happens before the trip was written just to justify Kate's going to France.

Light-hearted and charming, "French Kiss" is a very 90s romantic comedy with certain touches of those classic screwball comedies of old, where realism was sent to the backseat and the mix of comedy and romance used to drive the story. The pairing of Ryan and Kline works wonders and achieve moments of genuine fun. While far fetched and formulaic, Kasdan plays the right notes and what results is a major example of how to fully exploit the main themes of the romantic comedy, and create an entertaining film that manages to make those themes to feel fresh and new again. Ultimately "French Kiss" may be far from a masterpiece of the genre, like say "Annie Hall" or "When Harry met Sally" are, but "French Kiss" gets the job done thanks to the charming performances of the cast, and the magic of the French landscapes.


February 14, 2011

Those Awful Hats (1909)

While often considered as one of the most (if not "THE" most) influential filmmakers of all time, American director David Wark Griffith started his career on film in 1908 in a very humble way: as an actor in short films under the orders of film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, at the time head of Edison's Film Studio. Griffith's luck would change soon, as that very same year he was offered the chance to direct shorts for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon fell ill and soon there was the need to find a replacement. Griffith took the job and it was there where he truly fell in love with cinema. In less than a year, Griffith mastered the craft, soon becoming acquainted with medium's many tricks and techniques. 1908's short film "The Adventures of Dollie" was the first amongst his many hits. It wouldn't take him too long to start directing short films of excellent quality, a path that would culminate with the making of his first feature length masterpiece, 1915's movie "The Birth of a Nation".

One of the movies where the young Griffith began to show that mastery he had acquired so quickly was the short film "Those Awful Hats", a 2 and a half minutes movie done with the purpose of being a theatrical public service announcement (probably amongst the first of its kind) to be projected before the movies. In "Those Awful Hats", the action takes place during a typical screening in the nickelodeons of cinema's early years. The audience is enjoying a movie when suddenly, an arrogant gentleman (Mack Sennett) with a top hat enters the room and tries to find a seat for him and her companion. Loud and impolite, the man bothers the public constantly, making impossible to enjoy the show; however, this is not the audiences' main problem, as a group of ladies takes a seat and refuses to remove their big and ludicrous hats, an action that alienates even more the audience. Fortunately, the theater has an interesting and quite effective device to remove such undesirable elements: a giant steel bucket. And fortunately, it also removes undesirable people!.

Ordered by the heads of Biograph to conceive a short movie to tell the females among the audience to please remove their bothersome hats while attending a screening, D.W. Griffith wrote and directed this very creative announcement that is both funny and informative at the same time. Making fun of the big hats that were fashionable in those years, Griffith put on film what many audiences have desired to have at least once, a machine created to remove the troublesome persons among the audience. Using a mixture of special effects techniques (mainly the Dunning-Pomeroy Matte process), Griffith created a film that shows a very early use of the technique that decades later would evolve into the green-screen technique. Not only he managed to put a film within a film, but also created an extremely good effect of a steel bucket pulling out stuff (and persons!) from the audience. Griffith showcases an inventive use of special effects, and also an ability at getting the very natural performances from his cast, as their reactions are believable and the use of slapstick very appropriate.

The gag is simple, but very effective, and it constituted one of the earliest examples of a public announcement devised to be shown before the feature films (a concept still used today in most theaters). While not exactly on the level of many of his better known masterpieces, "Those Awful Hats" is a very funny and historically important short movie that can give us an idea of how was cinema in the past, and how it seems that we as audience haven't changed that much in more than a century of film-making. It is also a testament of the how Griffith was always willing to experiment as all as of the mastery he had achieved in only a year making movies. Despite its short length, "Those Awful Hats" is definitely one of the most enjoyable Griffith shorts, as it shows that the director of Biograph's many drama and adventure films was also able to laugh.


February 13, 2011

El Gran Calavera (1949)

During the last half of the 40s, filmmaker Luis Buñuel was facing difficult times. In exile from Spain after the Civil War, blacklisted in Hollywood because of his communist leanings, and on top of that a box office bomb (1947's "Gran Casino") as his debut in Mexican cinema; future seemed bleak for the surrealist director. The promising artist behind those innovative surreal ventures of the 30s was now, almost twenty years later, broke and unable to find a job. Once again, it would be producer Oscar Dancigers (producer of "Gran Casino") who would help Buñuel to get back on track. Dancigers and legendary Mexican actor Fernando Soler were planning an adaptation of Adolfo Torrado's popular play "El Gran Calavera" ("The Great Madcap"), with Soler acting and directing the film. However, Soler felt that handling both jobs was going to be difficult, so he asked Dancigers to find a director: "anyone". Dancigers called Buñuel and introduced him to a man whom would become one of his closest friends and collaborators: writer Luis Alcoriza.

"El Gran Calavera" tells the story of Ramiro de la Mata (Fernando Soler), a rich widower in a perpetual state of drunkenness, whose alcoholic ventures often end up with him being unable of remembering what has happened. The state of near unconsciousness in which he spends most of his time has allowed Ramiro's family to exploit him and making him finance everything they want. Ramiro's offspring Eduardo and Virginia (Gustavo Rojo and Rosario Granados), his older brother Ladislao (Andrés Soler) and also Ladislao's hypochondriac wife Milagros (Rosario Granados), are all literally parasites exploiting Ramiro to the point that his company approaches bankruptcy. This prompts Ramiro's younger brother Gregorio (Francisco Jambrina) to take action and conceives a plan to bring Ramiro back to sobriety: his family will pretend to have been driven to poverty due to his alcoholism. Facing the threat of bankruptcy and the idea of having their lifestyle finished, Ramiro's family decides to go along with Gregorio's plan, but a change of events will soon make them face real poverty.

Adapted to the screen by Luis Alcoriza and his wife Janet, "El Gran Calavera" is a quite light-hearted comedy of manners that even when apparently harmless, it does contain its fair share of social criticism hidden behind the laughs. With the contrast between social classes as the background for most of the comedy, it's easy to label "El Gran Calavera" as a fierce social criticism towards the bourgeoisie (specially since Buñuel is involved); however, the Alcorizas' storyline is more a criticism towards laziness and ignorance (and alcoholism while we are at it) than anything else. Certainly the rich bourgeoisie end up the worst, with Ramiro's family being spoiled and lazy but, the poor are also far from being noble. The real nobility, according to "El Gran Calavera", ultimately comes from the mix of knowledge and hard work, represented by poor yet hardworking Pablo (Rubén Rojo), Ramiro's brother Gregorio (a wise psychologist), and by Ramiro himself, whom we discover was a skilled businessman and successful self-made man before turning to alcohol.

While once again working as a hired gun, Buñuel certainly must have found the subject closer to his sensibilities than his previous venture with Dancigers in "Gran Casino". The conflicts between social classes found in "El Gran Calavera" and the dissection it does of both the wealthy and the poor (light-hearted perhaps, but still sharp) are themes that Buñuel had been exploring since the 30s, and so this time he plays them for comedic purpose with good results. Toning down the surrealism (but never really abandon it, as the first and last scenes will show) and with a more urban style, Buñuel finally makes his more complete fictional film since his 1929 debut, "Un Chien Andalou" (though considerably less influential). Later Buñuel commented that his understanding of what he calls "normal cinema" was developed while shooting "El Gran Calavera". If we take "normal cinema" as "conventional narrative cinema" then yes, it does show him with greater domain of the craft, and finally able of making the movie his own without betraying neither himself nor the story.

Acting through the film is of great quality, as while the genre and style call the cast for overacting, it never really feels exaggerated, and fits naturally within the near satirical tone Buñuel gives to the story. Naturally, it's mainly Fernando Soler's show, and he truly makes the most of it. As Ramiro, Soler goes from bumbling drunken buffoon, to a wisecracking Groucho-like wit, and then to the strong patriarchal figure that made him an icon in Mexican cinema. As Ramiro's brother Ladislao, Fernando's real life brother Andres Soler delivers a solid performance, and along Maruja Grifell (who plays his wife Milagros), are the comedic highlight of the film, both being appropriately hammy and explosively over-the-top. The younger cast is not as lucky, but for the most part they make a good job. Gustavo Rojo plays another over-the-top character, Ramiro's son Eduardo, but unlike Grifell and Soler, he is more annoying than funny. Finally, Rosario Granados as Virginia and Rubén Rojo as Pablo are the romantic couple of the film, and while effective, at times they lack passion as a couple.

Buñuel's second venture in Mexican cinema is certainly a more successful one than his previous "Gran Casino". For starters, the Alcorizas' story is better built and has a lot more energy, with every character receiving enough time to get to like them. True, they are initially a bunch of typical stereotypes in a typical fish-out-of-water scenario, but the way the story unfolds (and Buñuel's directing of his cast) make them fresh and new again, almost realistic and natural. On the down side, despite the film's charm, it can't avoid some of its problems. Some actors do feel at times too theatrical, and overall the overacting style used in the film may not be everyone's cup of tea. Also, Ezequiel Carrasco's work as cinematographer is good but clearly uninspired, a shame since the story goes to different settings (from Ramiro's mansion to the miserable apartment building he takes his family) that could had been enhanced with a better work. In general, the film's production values are clearly lower than in "Gran Casino" but, to his credit, Buñuel makes the most out of them, relays on his cast and overall builds up a better film.

Certainly, "El Gran Calavera" is nowhere near the work Buñuel would make later so, it would be easy to dismiss it as a light-hearted comedy done for hire and of interest for Buñuel's fans only; however, despite its many shortcomings, "El Gran Calavera" truly has a certain magic and special charm that make it a quite enjoyable story to watch y its own means. Closer to Buñuel's idiosyncrasies, "El Gran Calavera" is a return to the social criticism that Buñuel loved in his films, although here we have him making of Ramiro an oddly sympathetic portrait of a member of the bourgeoisie. The film became a huge success when released, and helped Buñuel to build a good reputation as a responsible and hard-working director, able to work efficiently with limited resources. It would be thanks to this success that Buñuel became finally able to make a film of his own choice. And his choice would be to make what's now considered amongst the best Mexican films of all time: "Los Olvidados".


February 10, 2011

Gran Casino (Tampico) (1947)

The political climate in continental Europe during the 30s was quite convoluted and the rise of Nazism in Germany and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War meant the exile for many of its inhabitants. Amongst them was Spaniard filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who moved to the U.S. and found a job in the dubbing department of Warner Brothers. Blacklisted for his communist ties and unsatisfied with his job, Buñuel accepted an invitation by old friend Denise Tual, to direct a film for her husband, producer Roland Tual, in Mexico. Thanks to Tual, Buñuel met French producer Oscar Dancigers, another refugee who had escaped from World War II in 1939. Dancigers had established in Mexico an independent film production company that found some success during World War II. Tual's project was canceled but Dancigers wanted to work with Buñuel, so he offered him a job directing a musical film with two of Mexico's most popular stars: Mexican singer Jorge Negrete and Argentinian singer Libertad Lamarque. "Gran Casino" was the film that inaugurated Buñuel's Mexican period.

Also known as "Tampico" (the place the film is set), the movie is set in the early years of the twentieth century and tells the story of friends Gerardo (Jorge Negrete) and Demetrio (Julio Villarreal), two prison cell-mates who after escaping from prison, find job in an oil company owned by Argentinian José Enrique Irigoyen (Francisco Jambrina). Irigoyen is an idealistic entrepreneur, but his plans go against those of Heriberto (Agustín Isunza), local gangster and owner of the Grand Casino of the title. Heriberto kidnaps and murders Irigoyen, but the two friends decide to not let Irigoyen down and stand aside his benefactor's ideas, keeping things going at the oil company. Things get more complicated when Irigoyen's sister Mercedes (Libertad Lamarque) arrives and suspects that Gerardo and Demetrio are involved in her brother's disappearance. Her investigation takes her to get a job at the Grand Casino while Demetrio disappears as well. It'll be up to Gerardo to discover the truth and win Mercedes' heart. And sing a variety of tunes while he's at it, or course.

Taking Michel Weber's novel "El Rugido del Paraíso" ("The Roar of Paradise") as basis, the screenplay was written by Mauricio Magdaleno, who had already penned several quite popular Mexican films. By all accounts, "Gran Casino" is pretty much a basic musical melodrama in the style that had been popular in Mexico since 1936's classic "Allá en el Rancho Grande": underdog hero faces the rich and corrupt villain in a rural setting, confusion arises between lovers and there's lots of singing. True, this formula was nothing new, and by 1947, it was already starting to die in front of the noir-inspired urban melodramas of the 50s; however, there is a certain theme in Magdaleno's screenplay that gives this old story some sparks of interest: the political angle of the oil topic, which carries a subtle anti-capitalism theme. Mexico nationalized oil in 1936, and "Gran Casino" initially seems to follow the official idea that private oil companies were evil. Nevertheless, the movie's final answer is to literally blow away the problem about oil.

Basically working for hire with a strictly commercial goal, a formulaic storyline and two popular stars to work with, director Luis Buñuel crafts his film effortlessly and remains for the most part faithful to the typical structure of the musical melodrama. However, even amidst the constrains of the movie's purely commercial intentions, the surrealist artist found places to express his very own idiosyncrasies. The most famous and noticeable of these little touches is probably the surreal way the Trío Calaveras appears out of nowhere to serve as backup chorus for Jorge Negrete's character in every song (surprising even him). Another would be the way Buñuel toys with the political angle of the story. Taking thinly veiled jabs at capitalism and even Nazism; Buñuel seems to make oil and politics ultimately unimportant for our very human characters, in an apparent preference for anarchism. There is also a complete rejection to sentimentalism, so passionate kisses are avoided, resulting in a film that plays like a melodrama, but at the same time is also the antithesis of melodrama.

As written above, "Gran Casino" was conceived specially to feature the talents of stars Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque. Both respected singers and actors, their performances in the film result effective and appropriate. Nothing spectacular, but both get the job done without problem. As Buñuel himself stated later, the idea was to get them to sing and sing a lot, so their talents are exploited to full effect in several musical numbers that showcase their quality. Unfortunately, they never sing a duet in the film (strange, being this a musical with romance), although this may be part of Buñuel's choice to avoid sentimentalism. The rest of the cast is for the most part good, with Meche Barba standing out as the sultry femme fatal of the Casino. She truly gives her role a strong presence that certainly, leaves a lasting impression (considering how limited her character is, that's quite an accomplishment). Also worth of notice is the comic timing of Fernande Albany as the perpetually drunk French refugee Nanette.

Unfortunately, despite having all the ingredients of classic Mexican musical melodramas, Buñuel's "Gran Casino" fails to convince and ends up an unsatisfying experience. And the reason is ultimately that yes, it has everything it should have (beautiful songs, great singing, good performances, Jack Draper's ace cinematography, bits of suspense, action and comedy... well, everything), but it never goes beyond its own unoriginal commonness. True, Buñuel's touches are scattered through the film, but only as brief occurrences, as if cowardice or boredom (probably the latter) prevented him of going any further with it, leaving the feeling of an effective yet ultimately uninspired piece of work. By 1947, musical melodramas in rural settings (the "Comedia Ranchera") were old news, and Mexican audiences' preference was verging towards urban settings in dramas, noir thrillers and even comedies. Also, it's worth to point out that while their performances are really good, both Negrete and Lamarque look a tad too old for their roles, something specially noticeable in Lamarque's case.

Given its place in Buñuel's career as a completely mainstream commercial film between his early surrealist works and the success of "Los Olvidados", it's easy to dismiss it as a mistake in the master's filmography (the fact that it flopped at the box office does not help). Nevertheless, there are good things to appreciate in "Gran Casino", particularly the singing of both Negrete and Lamarque, and Jack Draper's work of cinematography. Granted, that may not be enough, but it's something. Personally, I think that amongst its flaws, the worst thing that "Gran Casino" has against it is the reputation of Buñuel himself, which makes the unoriginality of this little musical to feel a worse crime than what it is. In the end, "Gran Casino" is by no means a bad movie, just a quite average one. But it was only the beginning of Buñuel's career in Mexico.


February 08, 2011

The Big Sleep (1946)

Considered as a classic example of the film noir genre of filmmaking, Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" is famous not only for the complexity of its convoluted plot, but also for the high quality of its dialogs (and its rapid fire delivery) as well as the legendary coupling of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Oddly enough, the movie's most famous traits were not in the film's original version, and became the result of a series of changes and additions Hawks did to the film after the main shooting ended. The original version had less romance, and a better explained plot; it was only after the success of the two stars as a couple that it was decided to add more scenes between them, and the final version of "The Big Sleep" as we know it was born. Time proved that the changes were worthy, as now that both versions are available it is easy to pick a favorite. This review of "The Big Sleep" is based on the 1946 final version, as it's hard not to prefer the explosive pairing of Bogie and Bacall over the less convoluted original (but definitely less fun) cut.

In "The Big Sleep", private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) makes a visit to Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an old handicapped man who has a case for him. Sternwood tells Marlowe that he wants him to take care of the gambling debts of her younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), as she is being blackmailed by a bookseller named Geiger (an uncredited Theodore Von Eltz). Marlowe takes the job, but before leaving he is confronted by Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who wants Marlowe to find out what happened to their former employee (and her father's friend) Sean Regan, who simply disappeared under mysterious circumstances a month earlier. Marlow finds Geiger and follows him home, but the plot thickens when he finds Geiger dead in his home, killed by a mysterious man and Carmen in the crime scene out of her mind while high on drugs. A hidden camera with an empty cartridge is in the crime scene and soon Marlow will discover that Geiger's death is only the tip of the iceberg. And it all seemed like a simple blackmail case.

Based on Raymond Chandler's influential novel of the same name, "The Big Sleep" is definitely one wild ride to a dark world filled with gangsters, femme fatals, pornographers and drug addicts; in simple words, the epitome of the Film Noir kind of stories with the character of Philip Marlow achieving his status as one of the genre's biggest icon. The script (by the excellent team of William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) follows closely the novel's story, but of course, with some additions, most of them being the exchanges of dialogs between Bogart and Bacall, added in an attempt to further exploit the couple's popularity with the audience. It is in this series of dialogs where the true magic of "The Big Sleep" is, as with the focus turned to the relationship between the couple, it becomes more enjoyable to navigate through the complex ambiguity of the plot. Now, this is not to say that the plot is boring, on the contrary, the delightfully perverse darkness of the complex plot in "The Big Sleep" is a top notch example of the dark worlds of film noir.

As usual, Howard Hawks' direction is direct, natural and straightforward, with the dialogs having major importance. Hawks lets the dialogs flow and drive the movie, while at the same time remaining true to the Noir style of its hard boiled source novel. It is easy to notice that Hawks considered the characters to be more important than his story, as the film focuses entirely on their actions instead of the results of those actions. It is this style what makes the film work, as he makes sure that the many supporting characters of the film receive a moment to shine in scenes of great emotion and juicy lines of dialog. However, Noir is also, a very visual style, and in this aspect Hawks doe snot disappoint, making "The Big Sleep" virtually a textbook of how to make a movie in the Noir style; with the excellent cinematography by Sidney Hickox being a major highlight of the movie, and the subtle yet appropriate score by Max Steiner creating the proper atmosphere of decadence that runs through the film as Marlowe gets deeper and deeper inside this dark world.

Being that the screenplay makes the characters the main focus, the performances by the cast are essential for the film. Bogart's portrayal of Raymond Chandler's best-known character, Phillip Marlowe, easily ranks as one of the greatest icons of the Film Noir genre, in a legendary performance only equaled by Lauren Bacall's Vivan Sternwood. Bacall's Vivian may not look as strong as other "Hawksian women" at first sight, but Bacall makes her a vivid force of nature. Bogie and Bacall's chemistry on screen was explosive, and Hawks knew exactly how to use it for his benefit. "The Big Sleep" is certainly one of the best (if not THE best) film with the legendary couple. As many have pointed out, Martha Vickers is a highlight of the film, stealing every scene she is in with her delightful portrayal of the wild spoiled brat Carmen Sternwood. A remarkable group of actors make the supporting roles of the film to come alive, each one of them adding their talents to the movie with excellent results. Dorothy Malone and Elisha Cook Jr. stand out among the rest by stealing the small scenes they appear.

The overtly complex plot may be considered by many as a flaw of the movie, specially as it is quite hard to follow at first and may even give the feeling of running through a constant series of plot holes. However, this ambiguous way of unfolding the story is just another device Hawks uses to keep the story character driven. It may seem at first that Hawks doesn't care too much for the plot, but this overtly complex puzzle reflects what Marlowe himself is experiencing, and in many ways makes the audience to identify with the detective and his work trying to solve the mystery of who is blackmailing who. In the end, what Hawks seems to go after is in building a relationship between Marlowe and the audience, with his case and his relation to Vivian getting more and more complicated each time. So, it is not the actual case what matters, but its effects in the characters. True, it is certainly difficult to follow the plot at first, but the way Faulkner and company have written the script certainly makes up for this difficulty.

Probably "The Big Sleep" may not be everybody's cup of tea, with its ambiguous story, dark cynical tone and overall bleak view on the world; however, I personally think that anyone interested in the history of cinema should give it a try. Granted, it's not an easy view, but it's a quite rewarding one. There's a certain magic in the Bogart-Bacall pairing that's captivating even to these days, and the whole visual style, classy and obscure, just oozes unadulterated noir. It also showcases some of the best performances by Bogie and Bacall ever and shows director Howard Hawks, that famous Jack-of-all-trades of Hollywood, proving his talent and versatility in the Film Noir genre. It certainly would be advisable to check the original cut as well, if only to get a different take on the film as a whole. Filled with unforgettable characters, "The Big Sleep" is one of those films that truly have earned a place amongst those movies one can simply label as: A real classic.


February 07, 2011

Le président en promenade (1896)

In 1895, the debut of the Lumières' Cinématographe truly marked the beginning of a new era of entertainment, and the birth of a new art form. Edison's Kinetoscope was already well known, so the idea of motion pictures wasn't really new; however, the major difference between the Kinetoscope and the the Cinématographe was that the former was an individual experience and the latter a collective one. Their first movies consisted mainly of images from everyday life in movies named "actuality films", which depicted life as it is and technically were the precursors of modern documentaries. Soon the demand for more movies for the Cinématographe grew, and the brothers began to train camera operators to send all over the world, in order to produce more actuality films with scenes from across the globe (and of course, to take their invention to other markets). Mexico, under the rule of president Porfirio Díaz, was one of the first countries to welcome the Lumières' new creation, and cinematographer Gabriel Antoine Veyre was the man in charge of taking cinema to the Mexican lands in 1896.

"Le président en promenade" (better known by its Spanish title "El presidente de la republica paseando a caballo en el bosque de Chapultepec" or "The president riding his horse in Chapultepec forest") was one of the first amongst Veyre's shorts made specifically about president Díaz. It showcases the president riding his horse through Chapultepec (a still popular walk in Meixco's capital) and arriving to a place where he meets a soldier. They exchange words and then the president seems to wait something. Later, Díaz returns from where he came followed by the group that was apparently waiting for him. Several other citizens are seen walking through Chapultepec forest in an otherwise normal day in the city. Díaz seems to really understand the impact that cinema could have in the audiences so, aware that this film was to be seen across the globe, Díaz rides his horse in front of the camera, in an imposing and knightly stance with the dignity of a great ruler. Like most of the Lumières'actuality films, Veyre's had this done in one single take without moving the camera.

President Porfirio Díaz had been ruling Mexico since 1876, in what effectively was a dictatorship, nowadays known as the Porfiriato. Those were years of a totalitarian control of power, suppression of opposing media, and several other injustices; however, those were also years of great progress and economic development for the country. This progress was a direct result of Díaz' desire of bringing modernity to Mexico and his openness to industrial and technological inventions. Naturally, cinema attracted him so, his government welcomed Gabriel Veyre and the Cinématographe with open arms. During his visit, Veyre captured many scenes of Mexican life, staged what could probably the first Mexican fiction movie ("Un duelo a pistola en el bosque de Chapultepec", or "A duel with pistols at Chapultepec forest") and followed president Díaz in his everyday life. Díaz seems to have enjoyed this films so much, clearly understanding the value of cinema in public relations, so there are many scenes of Díaz walking, riding, working, essentially making the president the very first star of Mexican cinema.

Like many other countries, Mexico fell under the spell of the Cinématographe, and Veyre's visit captured the imagination of many businessmen and artists in the country. Cinema, like many other inventions, was welcomed and supported by the government and soon, the public's demand was greater than the offer. This resulted in the birth of Mexican cinema, with the distributors being forced to make their own material when the French one proved to not be enough. Mexican Reolution of 1910 put an end to Díaz' government and borough greater changes to the country. Certainly, Díaz' regime had many problems and shortcomings; however, while the dictator and his regime may not had been the best for most Mexicans, credit goes to Díaz for having helped in the birth of Mexican cinema, and for being Mexico's first movie star.


February 01, 2011

Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (1933)

Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, considered now a master of cinema and one of the greatest artists of surrealism, had quite a troubled career during his first 10 years as a director. Having worked closely with Jean Epstein as assistant director, Buñel debuted in 1929 with the short film "Un chien andalou" ("An Andalusian Dog"). The innovative, surreal short film (written by Buñuel and painter Salvado Dalí) faced great controversy on its release, but that was nothing compared to Buñuel's follow up: "L'Âge d'Or". Funded with the aid of French nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles and released in 1930, "L'Âge d'Or" ("The Golden Age") was a fierce and merciless attack to social conventions and the Catholic Church under the guise of an experimental comedy. Not surprisingly, the response against it was even larger, to the point that the Police of Paris effectively banned the film. After this controversy, Buñuel returned to Spain, where anarchist Ramón Acín decided to fund Buñuel's next project. This project turned out to be 1933's "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan".

"Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" (known in English as "Land without Bread") is basically an exploration of the region of Las Hurdes, in Extremadura, Spain. The short documentary depicts the life in this high mountain region, as the crew moves from town to town, showcasing the difficulties the inhabitants face in this hostile region, which get worse due to the state of misery in which they live. Poverty, hunger and disease haunt the villagers, and their only way they have to face those demons are their own set of superstitious beliefs (which sometimes turn up to be remedies of even worse consequences). Buñuel's travelogue moves from one bleak image to another, covering the way the inhabitants of Las Hurdes live, die, work and try to find some solace amidst the darkness. Education, farming and health care in Las Hurdes is showcased as deficient, as the film is actually a harsh attack to the government's policies. While originally a silent film, a narration in French by Abel Jacquin was added afterwards, that describes the events depicted in a very grim and detailed manner.

Given Buñuel's reputation as a master of surrealism and creator of oniric images, the idea of a documentary crafted by him sounds a bit strange; however, in "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan", realism and surrealism collide and result in a powerful hybrid vehicle to deliver Buñuel's message. Written by Buñuel along Rafael Sánchez Ventura and Pierre Unik (who were assistant directors), "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" was inspired by Maurice Legendre's study of the region's inhabitants. This very real ethnographic work served as basis to the surreal vision of misery that is "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan". A bleak world so real that ultimately feels unreal, enhanced by Buñuel's eye becomes surreal. Surrealism in "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" exists, and is present not to create fantasy, but to accentuate reality. To exaggerate it, to mercilessly use the documentary format to make a point because, "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" is anything but objective. Already a true master of visual symbolism, Buñuel uses images the way Soviet filmmakers used montage.

Of course, there is a certain degree of truth in the film, people of Las Hurdes in those years did live in extreme conditions and poverty and disease were the norm; however, Buñuel carefully has selected (or even created) the appropriate images and the necessary words to bring out the emotions in his audience, to transmit that bleak atmosphere of Las Hurdes and, most importantly, to deliver profoundly his arguments. And those arguments are quite harsh: that the people of Las Hurdes are primitive ignorants prone to superstitions and inbreeding (an stereotype as old as Lope de Vega), and that the government does nothing to improve their condition. Pretty strong accusations in the middle of the political turmoil that was prevalent in Spain during the 30s (Civil War would soon begin in 1936). And the way Buñuel delivers it is quite powerful: Eli Lotar's cinematography captures the misery of Las Hurdes with real documentarian eye, and it is Buñuel's editing and narrative what makes those images transcend reality.

The bold decision of making "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" was not without its consequences: the film was banned in Spain since its release until Spanish Civil War began. Ramón Acín, the producer, was killed by fascists in 1936 because of his anarchist activities. Buñuel, like many Spaniard artists and intellectuals of his time, decided to move to America, escaping from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Buñuel would not direct a film until 1947. After a brief season in the U.S., Buñuel traveled to Mexico, and it would be in Mexico where Buñuel's talent would bloom again. Visually strong, and highly inventive, "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" is a documentary film ahead of its time, and a movie that shows the growing talent of Luis Buñuel.