July 20, 2011

Top 100 Mexican films, according to "Somos"

"Somos" was a Mexican magazine published by Editorial Televisa during the 90s, which began to focus on Mexican cinema, particularly the films of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (not surprisingly, as Televisa had the rights for most of the films of that period). Through its pages, special editions dedicated to icons of Mexican cinema saw the light, with interesting information and superb still photographs of the likes of Pedro Armendariz, Dolores del Río, Pedro Infante, and even wrestler Santo. On July of 1994, "Somos" celebrated its 100th edition with a special edition called "The 100 best films of Mexican cinema". The list was compiled by 25 experts, including critics such as Jorge Ayala Blanco, historians like Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, and members of the Mexican film industry (such as legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa himself). The magazine was canceled in the early 2000s, but their list remains an interesting compilation of great films, and a great way to start to discover the richness of Mexican cinema.

To compile the list, the only rule was that the production had to be either completely Mexicanm, or at least mainly Mexican, which explains the exclusion of certain critically acclaimed co-productions (such as "Viridiana", which was mainly a Spaniard production). Also, the list tends to forget independent films, and it is centered mainly on the bigger films of the Mexican Golden Age. Of course, not everyone will be entirely happy at the sight of the exclusion of a film, but in the end, this is an attempt worthy of recognition, and as written above, a primer guide to get into Mexican cinema. Finally, it must be remembered that the list was compiled in 1994, which poses the question: what would appear in a new list of similar characteristics?

So now, the top 100 best films of Mexican cinema, according to "Somos" magazine (the year next to the film, is the year of production, not of release):

1. "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" (1935, Fernando de Fuentes)
2. "Los olvidados" (1950, Luis Buñuel)
3. "El compadre Mendoza" (1933, Fernando de Fuentes and Juan Bustillo Oro)
4. "Aventurera" (1949, Alberto Gout)
5. "Una familia de tantas" (1948, Alejandro Galindo)
6. "Nazarín" (1958, Luis Buñuel)
7. "Él" (1952, Luis Buñuel)
8. "La mujer del puerto" (1933, Arcady Boytler)
9. "El lugar sin límites" (1977, Arturo Ripstein)
10. "Ahí está el detalle" (1940, Juan Bustillo Oro)
11. "Campeón sin corona" (1945, Alejandro Galindo)
12. "Enamorada" (1946, Emilio Fernández)
13. "Pueblerina" (1948, Emilio Fernández)
14. "Canoa" (1975, Felipe Cazals)
15. "Los hermanos Del Hierro" (1961, Ismael Rodríguez)
16. "El ángel exterminador" (1962, Luis Buñuel)
17. "Cadena perpetua" (1978, Arturo Ripstein)
18. "El rey del barrio" (1949, Gilberto Martínez Solares)
19. "El esqueleto de la señora Morales" (1959, Rogelio A. González)
20. "Víctimas del pecado" (1950, Emilio Fernández)
21. "Tiburoneros" (1962, Luis Alcoriza)
22. "Distinto amanecer" (1943, Julio Bracho)
23. "Río Escondido" (1947, Emilio Fernández)
24. "La oveja negra" (1949, Ismael Rodríguez)
25. "La otra" (1946, Roberto Gavaldón)
26. "Reed, México insurgente" (1970, Paul Leduc)
27. "Nosotros los pobres" (1947, Ismael Rodríguez)
28. "Salón México" (1948, Emilio Fernández)
29. "Doña Perfecta" (1950, Alejandro Galindo)
30. "Flor silvestre" (1943, Emilio Fernández)
31. "La pasión según Berenice" (1975, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo)
32. "La sombra del caudillo" (1960, Julio Bracho)
33. "Calabacitas tiernas (¡Ay qué bonitas piernas!)" (1948, Gilberto Martínez Solares)
34. "Dos tipos de cuidado" (1952, Ismael Rodríguez)
35. "El vampiro" (1957, Fernando Méndez)
36. "La barraca" (1944, Roberto Gavaldón)
37. "María Candelaria (Xochimilco)" (1943, Emilio Fernández)
38. "El suavecito" (1950, Fernando Méndez)
39. "La diosa arrodillada" (1947, Roberto Gavaldón)
40. "Los confines" (1987, Mitl Valdez)
41. "El gallo de oro" (1964, Roberto Gavaldón)
42. "El Topo" (1969, Alexandro Jodorowsky)
43. "Sensualidad" (1950, Alberto Gout)
44. "El grito" (1968, Leobardo López Aretche)
45. "Danzón" (1991, María Novaro)
46. "Susana (Carne y demonio)" (1950, Luis Buñuel)
47. "Ensayo de un crimen" (1955, Luis Buñuel)
48. "Tlayucan" (1961, Luis Alcoriza)
49. "Ladrón de cadáveres" (1956, Fernando Méndez)
50. "Frida, naturaleza viva" (1983, Paul Leduc)
51. "Los tres huastecos" (1948, Ismael Rodríguez)
52. "El bulto" (1991, Gabriel Retes)
53. "María de mi corazón" (1979, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo)
54. "La noche avanza" (1951, Roberto Gavaldón)
55. "A. T. M. A toda máquina!" (1951, Ismael Rodríguez)
56. "Como agua para chocolate" (1992, Alfonso Arau)
57. "México de mis recuerdos" (1943, Juan Bustillo Oro)
58. "Los caifanes" (1966, Juan Ibáñez)
59. "Macario" (1959, Roberto Gavaldón)
60. "El apando" (1975, Felipe Cazals)
61. "Cabeza de Vaca" (1990, Nicolás Echevarría)
62. "Juego de mentiras" (1967, Archibaldo Burns)
63. "Rosauro Castro" (1950, Roberto Gavaldón)
64. "Esquina bajan...!" (1948, Alejandro Galindo)
65. "Doña Herlinda y su hijo" (1984, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo)
66. "Torero" (1956, Carlos Velo)
67. "Santa" (1931, Antonio Moreno)
68. "Gángsters contra charros" (1947, Juan Orol)
69. "La mujer de Benjamín" (1991, Carlos Carrera)
70. "En la palma de tu mano" (1950, Roberto Gavaldón)
71. "Matinée" (1976, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo)
72. "Amor a la vuelta de la esquina" (1985, Alberto Cortés)
73. "Doña Diabla" (1949, Tito Davison)
74. "Mecánica nacional" (1971, Luis Alcoriza)
75. "Doña Bárbara" (1943, Fernando de Fuentes)
76. "Los motivos de Luz" (1985, Felipe Cazals)
77. "Cronos" (1992, Guillermo del Toro)
78. "Ángel de fuego" (1991, Dana Rotberg)
79. "Luponini (El terror de Chicago)" (1935, José Bohr)
80. "La perla" (1945, Emilio Fernández)
81. "Nocaut" (1983, José Luis García Agraz)
82. "Santa" (1943, Norman Foster y Alfredo Gómez de la Vega)
83. "Los tres García" (1946, Ismael Rodríguez)
84. "Águila o sol" (1937, Arcady Boytler)
85. "El baisano Jalil" (1942, Joaquín Pardavé)
86. "Janitzio" (1934, Carlos Navarro)
87. "Sólo con tu pareja" (1991, Alfonso Cuarón)
88. "Viento negro" (1964, Servando González)
89. "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (1936, Fernando de Fuentes)
90. "Historia de un gran amor" (1942, Julio Bracho)
91. "Escuela de vagabundos" (1954, Rogelio A. González)
92. "La malquerida" (1949, Emilio Fernández)
93. "Las abandonadas" (1944, Emilio Fernández)
94. "Dos monjes" (1934, Juan Bustillo Oro)
95. "La ilusión viaja en tranvía" (1953, Luis Buñuel)
96. "La Cucaracha" (1958, Ismael Rodríguez)
97. "Espaldas mojadas" (1953, Alejandro Galindo)
98. "El automóvil gris" (1919, Enrique Rosas, Joaquín Coss and Juan Canals de Homs)
99. "Una carta de amor" (1943, Miguel Zacarías)
100. "Naufragio" (1977, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo)

For further comments on the list (in Spanish) by people from the ITESM college, go here.

July 18, 2011

Tang Shan Da Xiong (1971)

Without a doubt, one of the most (perhaps THE most) influential actors and directors of action films was Chinese American martial artist Bruce Lee. Native of San Francisco, the young Lee began to train martial arts after his family returned to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Lee appeared in several films as a child (mainly because his father was a famous Cantonese opera star), but he abandoned his acting career in favor of studying martial arts. However, when Lee returned to United States, cinema found him again when he was invited to play a role in the TV series "The Green Hornet". As the hero's sidekick Kato, Lee began a career in America as supporting actor and fight choreographer; however, he was unhappy with his lack of lead roles, so once again he returned to Hong Kong. There, he discovered that his popularity as Kato was extremely high, and producer Raymond Chow offered him the chance to star a film about martial arts. "Tang Shan Da Xiong" was the final result and the movie that started Lee's path to become a legend of celluloid.

"Tang Shan Da Xiong" literally means ""Big Brother from the Tang Mountains", but it is better known as "The Big Boss" (and "Fists of Fury in the U.S.). The film tells the story of a young Chinese man named Cheng Chao-an (Bruce Lee) who travels to Thailand to meet his distant cousins, and with the goal of finding a job. After a life of constant street fights, Cheng has promised his mother to not get involved in fights again, and is decided to start a new life at Thailand. Cheng joins his cousins at the ice factory where they work, and soon he finds in them a new family, developing a close friendship with Hsiu Chien (James Tien) and a big affection for the beautiful Chow Mei (Maria Yi). However, things get complicated when one day, two of Cheng's cousins discover that the factory is actually the front for drug traffic. After they refuse to cooperate, they get killed. When Hsiu Chien disappears while trying to find his brothers, Cheng will have to break his Oath in order to unveil the mystery behind the disappearance of his new family.

Written and directed by Wei Lo (who would also discover Jackie Chan), "The Big Boss" meant a breath of fresh air to Chinese martial arts films as it moved away from the historical fantasy themes and instead showed a young hero in a modern, gritty setting. The story has a pretty interesting premise, and showcases a good handling of suspense; also of interest is the fact that it makes the bold move (for an action film) of having the main character out of any fighting during basically the first half of the film, as Cheng must avoid violence at all costs due to his oath. Unlike the majority of martial arts films, there are relatively few scenes of action in "The Big Boss", as the screenplay is more concerned with trying to develop its story (as simple as it is), though it makes a great job at building up the anticipation for the climatic battle. This allows for better character development, specially for Cheng, whom we see not as the perfect hero of classic martial arts films, but as a more human, flawed one.

In many ways, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" can be seen as a film of transition, as not only it meant the introduction of Bruce Lee as a rising action star, it was the transition to a new way of making action films in Hong Kong as it was one of the first films by Raymond Chow's new independent company, Golden Harvest. Even when director Wei Lo was already a seasoned filmmaker, "The Big Boss" shows a shift to a less restrained, increasingly dynamic visual style for action (no doubt influenced by its highly energetic young actor). While as written above, the scenes of action are relatively sparse, when they actually take place the style is explosive, fast-packed, and with greater attention to the details of the fight. "The Big Boss" has a very raw look that is probably the result of its low budget, however, this adds a certain dose of gritty realism to the images captured by Ching-Chu Chen's work of cinematography, specially since it also contains a high amount of graphic violence (it is probably the goriest film in Lee's career).

Acting through the film is a mixed bag, with some effective performances and some other being not really good. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Bruce Lee's screen persona oozes a natural charm and vibrant energy that truly fills the screen with his presence. While this is something that had already been hinted by his American work (His Kato in "The Gree Hornet" is unforgettable), it is in "The Big Boss" where that magnetism can be truly be felt at its best, in a lead role. In "the Big Boss", Lee looks pretty natural in his restrained role, still not the fighting machine of posterior films, but more of a common man who just wants to live peacefully, and his talent is showcased in many scenes of Cheng simply enjoying his new found family and struggling with his own vices. The rest of the cast ranges from average to just fine, with James Tien being amongst the best as Cheng's older cousin Hsiu. However, it's fair to notice that the poor dubbing, typical of movies of the era makes a bit difficult to judge the cast's performances fairly.

Amongst the unfortunately brief filmography of Bruce Lee, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" or "The Big Boss" tends to be considered as the weakest of all, and not without some reason. Certainly, it lacks the fast-packed action of posterior movies, and it may even feel slow due to the film's pacing and the way the story is built. As written above, this was one of Golden Harvet's first films, so the low budget is often noticeable. The acting, with the exception of Lee and Tien, is not exactly amazing; and finally, director Wei Lo's odd inclusion of some silly comedic effects feels terribly out of pace in what otherwise is a remarkably violent, dark and gritty action film. Nevertheless, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" should be seen as the first of the revolutionary films that Lee would craft during his career. It is tacky in its craftsmanship, however, it could be seen as the seed of that style of action films that Wei Lo, Bruce Lee and Golden Harvest would keep on polishing, a style that would be further completed in the following Lee's film ("Jing Wu Men", or "Fist of Fury").

To summarize, "Tang Shan Da Xiong", or "The Big Boss", is a terrific film by its own right, filled with suspense and action, and showcasing a pretty good first glimpse of the talents of young Bruce Lee as a martial artist. Its handling of Cheng's oath and the way tension is raised by his decisions are fine examples of pretty good filmmaking, and its explosive climatic battle is a true joy to watch. Together with "Jing Wu Men" ("Fist of Fury") and "Enter the Dragon", a basic film to understand Lee's career and the development of martial arts films during the 70s. It may not be a true classic of the genre as the films mentioned, but "Tang Shan Da Xiong" was just the beginning of the legendary Bruce Lee.


July 15, 2011

Xizao (1999)

When American producer Peter Loehr arrived to China in 1996, he discovered two things in the local industry: a great amount of talent and a lot of difficulties for film distribution. The rising generation of independent cinema was moving away from the lavish historical productions of filmmakers of the so-called "Fifth Generation" (like for example, Yimou Zhang), being more interested in urban realism. Backed by a Taiwanese media company and with the goal of discovering new talent and making independent cinema, Peter Loehr produced the first film of director Yang Zhang, the low-budget "Aiqing mala tang" ("Spicy Love Soup"). After experiencing difficult times finding ways to distribute the film, "Spicy Love Soup" finally was released and became an enormous box office success, launching the careers of several members of its cast and crew. Two years later, Yang and Loher collaborated again in another independent low-budget film, "Xizao" (known in English as "Shower"), a family drama about the clash of modern life and China's ancient tradition.

Centered on a traditional bathhouse for men in Beijing, "Xizao" is the tale of the bathhouse owner Liu (Xu Zhu) and his two sons: Da Ming (Quanxiu Pu) and Er Ming (Wu Jiang). Da Ming, Liu's elder son, is a successful businessman in the southern city of Shenzhen after abandoning his father many years ago, while Er Ming, whom is mentally challenged, helps his father run the bathhouse. One day, Da Ming unexpectedly returns home believing his father has died. However, what happened was merely a confusion caused by a drawing Er Ming had sent to his brother in a postcard. Feeling uncomfortable around his father and brother, Da Ming prepares to return to Shenzhen three days later; but when Da Ming loses Er Ming at the airport, he decides to stay in Beijing until he finds him. Fortunately, Er Ming returns home the following day, though this event opens Da Ming's eyes to the way his father feels about him. So, when old Liu catches a cold and falls sick, Da Ming decides to stay at home and help his family. And he'll discover that the old bathhouse is still alive.

Working again with the team of writers that penned his previous film "Spice Love Soup" (Shangjun Cai, Yi'nan Diao and Fendou Liu, plus Xin Huo), director Zhang Yang conceived in "Xizao" what is basically the story of a man rediscovering his past, rekindling with the life he wanted to abandon in his youth. The urban, modern businessman that Da Ming represents, detests the environment represented by his father's traditional job, and utterly abhors abhorring the idea of continuing with the business. The return to the bathhouse will take him to learn the true importance of his father's job, something he had considered obsolete. It could be said that the relationship between father and son is "Xizao"'s main theme, however, it would be better to state that "Xizao" is about the estranged relationship between Da Ming and his past as a whole. His inability to understand his brother Er Ming is another reflection of this, as is, to a lesser (though no less important) extent, his inability to relate to the problems of the bathhouse's small community.

While this sounds like a deep serious film, director Zhang Yang actually takes a light-hearted approach to his story, making it more of a comedy with Da Ming being a fish out of the water in his father's bathhouse. However, Yang's comedy is always respectful with its subject matter, and he crafts his film with great subtlety, handling marvelously the themes of family and progress. In "Xizao", Zhang Yang opts for a realist style, and uses Jian Zhang's great work of cinematography to truly capture the homely and warm environment of the traditional bathhouse to great effect. Yang's narrative is simple, restrained, as he lets his story flow without much visual flare. And yet, this simple way of telling his story suits nicely the atmosphere of the friendly micro-verse that is contained within the walls of the bathhouse. The way Yang develops each one of the subplots that take place inside the bathhouse is remarkable, as not only it truly builds up the sense of witnessing a community vibrant with life.

Nevertheless, this aura of reality would not be possible without the remarkable work of acting that the main cast delivers in the film. The naturalistic approach Yang takes for his film extents to the performances of his cast, with Wu Jiang shining in his performance as the cheerful younger brother Er Ming. Portraying Er Ming's disability with a sheer honesty and great respect, Jiang creates a well-rounded character that truly transmits the spirit of the film. Certainly, Jiang steals the film with his impressive performance. As his older brother Da Ming, Cunxin Pu is quite effective and natural, and despite having a somewhat unlikeable character, it's not difficult to feel identified with his rediscovery of family life. In his final role before retiring from film, actor Ding Li delivers a moving performance as old master Lin. His scenes with Jiang's Er Ming are filled with a highly emotional charge, yet never verging to the excessively melodramatic. The rest of the cast is pretty effective and natural, looking almost like real people being filmed.

One of the greater strengths in Zhang Yang's "Xizao" is the great balance it has in its elements. There is a perfect equilibrium between the comedy and the drama, between the old and the new. Almost echoing the very same equilibrium that the character of Da Ming so desperately needs. Interestingly, there is a balance even in the handling of its themes, as even when "Xizao" could had easily stick to a patronizing, conservative view of "old days were much better", instead it opts for a stance that conciliates the old with the new, as if saying "progress is good, but without forgetting the roots". Also of note, is the treatment of the bathhouse as a gathering place for people, for building and fostering relationships between people and purification. In "Xizao", the bathhouse is a place that purifies not only the body, but also the soul. Given its familiar storyline, the film is a tad predictable to a certain extent; but Zhang Yang manages to make the film a ride so pleasant, that it's lack of originality can be forgiven.

Through its light-hearted humor and warm charm, "Xizao" delivers a powerful and moving story that avoids the trap of cheap melodrama or dull pretentiousness. And yet, it is a piece that is as thought-provoking as it is fun. And it is also another proof that without visual flare or great production values (the film was done with an extremely low budget), an amazing movie can be made. It is not even a complex plot or an exceedingly original concept. All that is needed is the proper visual narrative for the story, and for "Xizao", the slow, subtle style that director Zhang Yang employs is all that this story requires. In all its simplicity, "Xizao" delivers its message with a profound beauty and astounding charm.


July 13, 2011

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)

 In the year 2000, famed anime producers Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and Mamoru Oshii released a short anime film that showcased revolutionary animation and a stylish visual design: "Blood: The Last Vampire". A tale of action and horror directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, "Blood: The Last Vampire" became one of the most popular and successful anime films of all time, earning worldwide praise because of its innovative animation and haunting atmosphere. Its popularity was big enough that soon talks began about adapting the short film to a live action feature length movie with William Kong ("Wo hu cang long") as producer and Ronny Yu ("Huo Yuan Jia") as director. Several changes took place and in the end, "Blood: The Last Vampire" ended up becoming a Chinese-French co-production with filmmaker Chris Nahon ("Kiss of the Dragon") at the director's seat. Unfortunately, the new incarnation of "Blood: The Last Vampire" resulted having nothing of what made the original good, and having instead a lot more of what prevented the original from being a true classic.

"Blood: The Last Vampire" is the story of Saya (Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun, using the English screen name Gianna Jun), a four hundred years old demon hunter. A half human-half-vampire, Saya was trained as a samurai and uses her supernatural abilities working for a secret organization named "The Council", which has been hunting demon vampires for centuries. Saya's relationship with The Council is a difficult one, and she only helps them out of a personal desire for revenge, as the ancient vampire Onigen (Koyuki) murdered her father. In the early 1970s, The Council takes Saya to U.S.-occupied Japan, sending her undercover as a student in Kanto High School near the Yokota Air Base. At school she saves Alice (Allison Miller), the general's base's daughter, from being killed by two classmates (Masiela Lusha and Ailish O'Connor), whom are actually vampires in disguise. Alice is shocked by the sight of Saya butchering her classmates and asks her father, General McKee (Larry Lamb) for help. Alice will soon discover that Saya is actually the only one who can help her.

Adapted by Chris Chow (writer of Yu's "Huo Yuan Jia"), this new version of "Blood: The Last Vampire" retains the basic core storyline of the anime film and adds diverse subplots and backstory to the film's characters. Certainly, the lack of any depth or backstory was one of the biggest flaws in the original "Blood: The Last Vampire", and Chow makes a commendable attempt at expanding the storyline in order to give some reasons and motives to the characters' actions. However, Chow's take at filling the holes in the unfinished story of the original "Blood: The Last Vampire" is not entirely a successful one. Chow abuses of tired clichés of the genre, and does it in a rather simplistic and cheapening manner. There are positive ideas, like the addition of Alice, which allows a greater development of Saya's personality; however, the convoluted plot is still plagued by holes and the bad habit of making Saya a flawless, practically invincible protagonist. Along with the lack of a strong villain, this results in a really unengaging story.

French director Chris Nahon shows off a vibrant, highly energetic visual style that is quite attractive visually, however, his narrative style is sloppy and fails to fully develop the film's concept. Granted, Chow's screenplay is not without its problems, but it is ultimately Nahon's directing what gives the final blow to "Blood: The Last Vampire". To be fair, Nahon does capture the stylish look and dark atmosphere of the anime, and recreates quite faithfully the original's action sequences. Hang-Sang Poon's work of cinematography actually gives the movie a distinctive personality of its own, and Clint Mansell's score is a highlight of the film. However, Nahon fails to translate Chow's screenplay to visual storytelling, and when it expands beyond the anime's plot, Nahon's tacky narrative seems to prefer flashy action scenes over advancing the plot and, while the action scenes do feature great work of choreography, it all gets messy thanks to some of the worst CG visual effects in a film of this caliber.

The performances by the cast range from very good to dreadful, and unfortunately this can be witnessed first-hand in the work of lead actresses. Gianna Jun is a joy to watch, and actually puts up a good effort as the demon hunter Saya. Without saying much, the young actress can express a wide variety of emotions, and also showcases talent for action sequences. On the other hand, Allison Miller delivers a pretty poor performance as Alice, and transforms what could had been an interesting role into a quite stereotypical token character that only serves as simplistic foil for Gianna's character. The difference between them is abysmal, and their lack of chemistry can be felt. Japanese actress Koyuki, who plays Onigen, is pretty much in the middle, delivering a pretty average performance, though to be fair, hers is the worst developed character, a mere caricature of what a villain should be. Irish actor Liam Cunningham gets wasted in a similarly underwritten role. The rest of the cast is pretty average as well.

If the original "Blood: The Last Vampire" lacked a proper story, Nahon's version lacks proper storytelling. More interested in crafting acting sequences, Nahon fails to give space to his characters, and leaves Chow's already convoluted screenplay an even more confusing mess. Despite his visual flare, Nahon is unable of letting the story flow visually, resorting to expositive dialogs and lengthy flashbacks to advance the plot. Still, Chow's screenplay is not without its fair share of flaws, the main one being the lack of a remotely interesting villain. The vampire demon Onegin sounds like an interesting character, but it is flatly developed and ends up being a quite lifeless entity no better than the other ninjas and vampires that are killed. Alice, a character that could had given great depth to Saya, becomes an underused element that seems to serve only to act like a damsel in distress, waiting for Saya to save her. The convoluted plot involving the CIA, the Council and the army is too carelessly developed and seems to be there to fill space.

Unfortunately, Chirs Nahon's "Blood: The Last Vampire" has more flaws than virtues, as it wastes an original concept in a quite typical action film with horror elements that adds nothing new to the genre (neither the original anime did, but at least it had an innovative work of animation). Certainly, the film has some good assets, particularly Gianna Jun's performance and the remarkable work of stunt choreography in the fight scenes. Sadly, it's not enough to save the lousy narrative and messy storytelling that plagues Nahon's "Blood: The Last Vampire". The myth of the vampire has inspired a vast amount of stories and interpretations, and probably will keep inspiring many more. Sadly, Nahon's "Blood: The Last Vampire" is not the one to look for a good action-packed vampire story.


July 12, 2011

Blood: The Last Vampire (2000)

Since the 1970s, Japanese animation experience a tremendous growth in popularity thanks to the worldwide success of artists like Osamu Tezuka, Go Nagai and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Anime, the Japanese word for"animation", became the de facto term for the Japanese style of animation, and a synonymous for its very particular visual characteristics and wide array of thematics. Manga, the extremely popular Japanese comics, have been the source for countless anime films and TV series, thanks to the fact that adaptations of popular manga often guarantee an already captive audience. However, near the end of the 20th century, producer Mitsuhisa Ishikawa decided that instead of following that route, he wanted an original concept. To do it, he recruited famous anime producer Mamoru Oshii (of "Kôkaku kidôtai" fame), and settled on a concept by Kenji Kamiyama. With director Hiroyuki Kitakubo on board, the project became "Blood: The Last Vampire", a horror short film intended to break new ground in its genre. And, more or less, it did.

"Blood: The Last Vampire" is set in 1966, a couple of months before the Vietnam War, in the American Yokota Air Base located in Japan during the American occupation. A mysterious young girl, Saya (Youki Kudoh), enters the Yokota Air Base posing as a high school student but in reality, she is actually the secret weapon of an organization code named Red Shield. Armed with a katana, Saya's mission is simple: to destroy the vampire monsters known as Chiropterans. Saya's abilities as a vampire hunter come from the fact that she is the only remaining original vampire, and her relationship with Red Shield is more a partnership against a common enemy than a true collaboration. Agent David (Joe Romersa) is Saya's contact with Red Shield, and only human she respects. At school, Saya discovers that two of her classmates are vampires, and are plotting to take over the Air Base. Naturally a massive battle between the monsters and the vampire hunter begins, with Red Shield agents and the U.S. Air Force getting in the middle.

With a screenplay written by Kenji Kamiyama and characters designed by Katsuya Kerada, "Blood: The Last Vampire" brings a quite different take on the vampire myth, with the Chiropterans being monsters of unknown original able to transform into demonic bat-like creatures of great strength. The real vampire of the film is Saya, the sword wielding vampire hunter whose origins remain a mystery. In fact, this is actually one of the film's problems: basically everything is clouded by mystery, and not much is explained in the film's 48 minutes. Kamiyama's concept is certainly interesting, a young girl wielding a katana happens to be the last known real vampire, and is hired (used?) by the government to destroy the Chiropterans. Unfortunately, that is basically all that is known about the subject. What is known, is that Saya is unbelievably good at her job, and the battles she has with the Chiropterans are certainly the film's highlight. "Blood: The Last Vampire" is a highly dynamic action-packed film, but the mystery, while intriguing, is also a tad unsatisfying.

Where "Blood: The Last Vampire" succeeds is in the stylish visual aspect it has. Director Hiroyuki Kitakubo creates a haunting work of art with a very attractive visual design. Combining traditional and digital animation, the artwork in "Blood: The Last Vampire" is impressive, specially during the action sequences, which showcase a dark, gritty violence that still retain a certain beauty in their conception. The visual composition and overall mise-en-scène is particularly good. The music, by Yoshihiro Ike, adds a lot of atmosphere to the movie, fitting nicely the dark tone and atmosphere that Kitakubo was aiming for. However, the top-notch work of animation and Kitakubo's visual imagery are not enough to make for the lack of development the story has. It is true that often good stories are the ones that are kept simple, but "Blood: The Last Vampire" takes this simplicity to the extreme, and what results is a superbly animated piece that lacks the substance that would give a better constructed story.

The problem is that basically, Kamiyama and Kitakubo introduce a wide array of concepts that, while interesting, are never fully developed. From the mysterious Chiropterans to Saya's origins, not to mention Red Shield's real motives and the nature of its relationship with Saya, everything remains shrouded in mystery; and while this works nicely at keeping the intrigue high during the film's runtime, the lack of a proper conclusion leaves everything as a very unsatisfying mess. No answers, no solutions, just stylish and impressively animated action. Even the possibility of political commentary (given that the film is set in U.S.-occupied Japan) gets forgotten as are the several subplots that are hinted by the film. On a more positive note, the voice acting is particularly good, with Youki Kudoh delivering a very good performance as Saya. Interestingly, "Blood: The Last Vampire" was not dubbed, but actually produced almost entirely in English (as more than half the characters are American).

Unfortunately, "Blood: The Last Vampire" ends up being a mixed bag. The animation is flawless, and the visual design is quite attractive and interesting. But a the same time, in terms of story is a bit lacking and ultimately unsatisfying. The fact that it is a short film has nothing to do with this, as more care should had been taken to condense and develop the concept even in the shorter runtime. Because as it is, it can't help but feeling like an unfinished concept. Granted, a quite cool, original and interesting one, but still an unfinished concept in spite of that. Certainly, "Blood: The Last Vampire" has more positive elements than negative, but it still is a proof that amazing animation is not the only thing necessary for a great anime. The story is still essential.


July 11, 2011

Dead-End Drive In (1986)

The release of George Miller's "Mad Max" in 1979, and its sequel in 1981, inspired a whole new geneation of science fiction films set in dystopian post-apocalyptic worlds where vast desolated landscapes and brutal violence was the norm. While some of the most famous of these films were Italian ("2019 - Dopo la caduta di New York" being a prime example), the trend extended to other latitudes. Australia itself, the origin of "Mad Max", produced "Dead-End Drive In" by British filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. While Trenchard-Smith is probably not a big house-hold name (not even for B-movie fans), he has build up a filmography that, while probably not exactly of high quality in technical terms, it's certainly offbeat and never lacking originality ("The Man from Hong Kong", the Nicole Kidman vehicle "BMX Bandits" and his entries in the "Leprechaun" film series are testament of this). In "Dead-End Drive In", probably his best film, Trenchard-Smith along writer Peter Smalley construct one of the best Australian b-movies. A cult classic of science fiction.

As stated above, "Dead-End Drive In" is set in a post-apocalyptic future, after the world's economy collapsed, and chaos runs rampant through the land. Australia is turned into a violent wasteland where the unemployed youth uses the street as a battlefield and the law is forgotten. As a measure to fight the chaos, the restructured government has devised a plan to regain control of the situation: problematic youngsters, violent gangsters, the unemployed, the undesirable and other social rejects are to be sent to Drive-Ins transformed into concentration camps. At the drive-in, the inmates are kept controlled using unlimited fast food, modern music and a constant string of movies. Basically, giving them everything a youngster may want. Crabs (Ned Manning), a young man in this world, is trapped inside the drive-in along his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry), but instead of becoming a conformist member of the nihilistic youth, Crabs has decided that he'll fight the establsihment and escape the teenage wasteland no matter the cost.

Hidden under the guise of another "Mad Max" clone that mixes post-apocalyptic sci-fi with horror, "Dead-End Drive In" actually contains a very well conceived plot with a stunningly sharp social commentary included. Based on a story by Peter Carey (better known as the author of 1988 best-seller "Oscar and Lucinda"), "Dead-End Drive In" is basically, the tale of a fight against conformism. In the film, Crabs is trapped in an apparent paradise where he could basically do nothing but eat and watching films, but instead he chooses to fight back and try to escape from the Drive-In and to return to his family. At the same time, Crabs begins to see how everyone else, including his girlfriend Carmen, begin to conform and accept this "paradise". But as in Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World", the apparent "paradise" that is the drive-in is false, and for Crabs, the only thing worth fighting for is real freedom. Certainly, the screenplay lacks character development, as it tends to become more a statement of ideals than a true story.

Stretching the budget to the max, director Brian Trenchard-Smith manages to create very well done scenes with the very few resources he has. With the eye of cinematographer Paul Murphy's camera, Trenchard-Smith makes great use of his locations and constructs a very atmospheric world of desertic heat by day, and neon madness by night. A true post-punk atmosphere if there ever was one (the New Wave soundtrack simply confirms this). However, while its intended message is not exactly subtle, "Dead-End Drive In" is far from being a serious film, as it is packed with an overtly irreverent tone, high-octane action and a healthy dose of humor. Still, the film remains focused on its message and commetary on present-day society, as racist, conformist and violent as the cynic youth depicted in the film. "Dead-End Drive In" is not a horror movie in the strict sense of being a scary movie, but it is haunting in the sense that even when it is a fictitious scenery, it is not hard to believe that humanity will behave the way the conformist teenager do in the film.

The cast, made-up of faces of Australian television is nothing too amazing, but for the most part get the job done. As Crabs, Ned Manning is actually very good, as he makes a spot-on portrait of a common young man trapped unfairly in a living tomb. Manning makes his character very likable thanks to his natural charm and everyman attitude. Certainly, if a different aproach had been taken, probably the film woulnd't work that much, as it is Manning's unlikely hero (he is definitely no Mad Max) what makes the film. Natalie McCurry, playing Crab's beautiful girlfriend Carmen is also an important character, as hers is basically the other half of the coin, being the one who begins to lose hope in Crabs' idea and starts to behave just as the rest of the cattle. McCurry adds her beauty and charm to the character, though her performance is not as good as Manning's, and at times feels a tad forced. The rest of the cast is as a whole good, nothing really bad, but unfortunatelly, nothing truly memorable as well.

As written above, one of the biggest flaws in "Dead-End Drive In" is that often it seems to leave character development in favor of stating the film's social commetary. At times, more than a real character, Crabs becomes simply the embodiment of an ideal, an archetype without a realistic personality. "Dead-End Drive In" is, while witty, not exactly subtle in its commentary, and its characters suffer a tad because of this. However, Trenchard-Smith's work of directing and Manning's natural talent are what often manage to avoid the worst of this this and make Crabs a likeable character with more personality. Another problem is the sad fact that the film looks terribly dated after all these years. With its New Wave soundtrack and post-punk fashion, the film has that decidedly 80s look that can't come up as "futurist" anymore. It is stuck in its pop fashion as a product of its time, and can't avoid to look old. Anyways, the movie still manages to be quite entertaining and some effects (like the use of explosives) still look great after 20 years.

As a product of its time and one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of its time, "Dead-End Drive In" is a very interesting curiosity that proves to be more than a cheap "Mad Max" rip-off. Unfairly forgotten after all these years, "Dead-End Drive In" is a cult classic that deserves a bit more of recognition. It is far from being perfect (and as said above, has not aged well), but it offers an interesting take on the subgenre that surprisingly, gives good food for thought without any attempt at being pretentious. With its 80s atmosphere, high-speed action and sharp social commentary, Brian Trenchard-Smith's tale of post-apocalyptic madness and fashionable conformism still delivers the goods. Wild, irreverent and darkly humorous, this tale of a fight against the establishmen is a terrific (though hopefully not prophetical) vision of the future.


July 10, 2011

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Probably one of the most famous fairy tales is that of "Little Red Riding Hood", the classic tale of the little girl and the wolf, rooted in European folklore that dates back to the 14th Century. From Perrault's version to the one by the brothers Grimm, there have been countless retellings of the story, all retaining the very basic concept: a girl walks through the woods to deliver food to her grandmother, and faces a wolf who wants to eat her. Multiple interpretations and reworkings have been done as well, with some taking the story as a rite of passage, as a metaphor for natural cycles, and as parable of sexual awakening. This last theme has been the basis for many works of fiction in the last century, like Angela Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" (and subsequent movie version of the same name), and Steven Sondheim's musical "In the Woods". Filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke, director of teen drama films like "Thirteen" and "Twilight", tackles this aspect of the fairy tale in the dark fantasy film "Red Riding Hood". Unfortunately, without good results.

In "Red Riding Hood", Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a young woman living in the small village of Daggerhorn, in the dark times of the middle ages. A rebel and free-spirited woman, Valerie is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), against the wishes of her parents Cesaire (Billy Burke) and Suzette (Virginia Madsen), who have promised her to the wealthy blacksmith Henry (Max Irons). Valerie dislikes Henry, and plans to run away with Peter. Unfortunately, she is forced to put her plan on hold when her older sister Lucie is found killed by the Wolf, a creature who has terrorized the village for years. The townspeople had been offering a monthly sacrifice to the Wolf in exchange for peace, so this murder is a breach of that pact. A group is formed to hunt the Wolf, but while the men succeed in killing a big wolf, Henry's father Adrian (Michael Shanks) is killed in the venture. Still, the townspeople celebrate the killing, but a recently arrived witch hunter, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), tells them that the real Wolf is not dead, the real Wolf is one of them.

Written by David Johnson, "Red Riding Hood" transforms the classic fairy tale into a story of romance and fantasy with horror undertones, with the little red riding hood becoming a strong willed young woman whose greatest ambition is to be free and run away from the village she lives. Certainly, the premise is an interesting one, with Johnson building up a coming of age story borrowing elements from horror and fantasy in order to give a new spin to the familiar plot points of the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale. Johnson's employs these elements to craft a story about finding freedom, with Valerie fighting her way out to win the freedom of being with whomever she wants, living wherever she wants, and ultimately, just being the person she wants to be. Valerie's desire for freedom (emotional, sexual and intellectual freedom), seems to be perfectly suited for teenage drama but, unfortunately, Johnson's blending of genres tries to be many things at once, and the result is a messy plot that ultimately fails to be everything it tried to be.

Nevertheless, "Red Riding Hood" problem is not so much its screenplay (problematic, but not entirely bad), but the execution of it. Director Catherine Hardwicke helms the film right after her commercially successful adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's supernatural tale of teenage romance "Twilight" and it would seem that Hardwicke tried to reproduce, letter by letter, the very same formula. Hardwicke's handling of the screenplay feels tacky, with a lack of care in balancing the diverse elements of the story, and a self-aware desperation to be cool and attractive to teenage audiences. The horror elements fail to be menacing, while the teenage drama fails to be convincing. Hardwicke's narrative is visually impressive (something to be expected, given her experience as production designer) but sadly, void of any attempt of developing the story. The remarkable work of cinematographer Mandy Walker is probably the film's biggest asset, as it does create a haunting atmosphere of fantasy that suits nicely the creepy, Gothic tone the story has.

Acting through the film is a mixed bad, whereas while some cast members do deliver effectively, others are downright bad in their performances. Leading the cast as young Valerie, Amanda Seyfried is quite good in her portrayal of the free-spirited red riding hood. In the movie, Seyfried showcases her talent and actually brings an intensity and convincing realism to her character. Unfortunately, her male counterparts are the complete opposite, with Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez delivering the film's worst performances. Irons appears weak and misguided in his delivery, as if he was either uncomfortable or indifferent to the movie. Former model Fernandez is downright bad, looking wooden and stiff, unable to portray any emotion other than posing to the camera. Whereas Seyfried delivers natural emotion, Fernandez delivers a quality below high school plays. On the older side of the cast, Gary Oldman overacts in what could be one of his worst performances ever, while Julie Christie's talent gets wasted in several scenes of limited screen time.

Certainly, the lack of a strong male actor to serve as counterpart to Amanda Seyfried's character wouldn't be a problem if romance played a smaller role in the story; but since the romantic triangle is such an integral part of the story, Fernandez' awful work and lack of chemistry with Seyfried are a stab through the heart of "Red Riding Hood". However, while a lot of the blame can be put of Fernandez, it is ultimately Catherine Hardwicke's poor execution what sinks the quite promising premise of "Red Riding Hood". Granted, the film is a visual marvel of design, with vibrant colors and a lavish work of cinematography on its side, but Hardwicke seems more concerned with delivering an attractive product to the teenage audiences that the the film ends having no soul. It's not that making a commercial film is bad (there are countless examples of the contrary), but "Red Riding Hood"'s consciously desperate attempt to look cool and hip results in the movie feeling artificial, shallow, and mediocre.

It's sad that a premise as promising as "Red Riding Hood" resulted in such an uninteresting movie; as even when David Johnson's convoluted mix of horror, fantasy and teenage angst was probably trying to be many things at once, with a greater care it could had resulted in an interesting twist on the classic "Little Red Riding Hood" tale. It certainly had many things to offer, like a strong female character, a nice mystery and a haunting setting. Unfortunately, the direction the film took opted to transform it into a pretty shallow movie of pretty faces, cheap teenage drama and a stylish visual design designed to please the crowds that fell under the spell of "Twilight". Catherine Hardwicke's second venture into supernatural teenage angst is not a bad film, just a quite mediocre one.