January 30, 2012

Torture Ship (1939)

In multiple ways, the rise of the studio system in 1913 paved the way to the consolidation of American cinema as a major film industry, with Hollywood as its capital. During the following decades, the seven "major studios" would define a new era for cinema in the United States, from D.W. Griffith's revolutionary filmmaking to the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, American cinema wasn't only about the majors, as many independent producers were also around, fighting for survival in a very demanding business. The Halperin brothers, Victor and Edward were amongst them, and their 1932 triumph "White Zombie" served as proof that not only Hollywood was able to make good movies. The box office success of "White Zombie" took the brothers to a major studio, Paramount, for which they made "Supernatural" the following year. Sadly, the film's commercial failure took the brothers back to the Poverty Row. The Halperins tried to make another hit, but each of their subsequent attempts failed to capture the magic of "White Zombie". 1939's "Torture Ship" is sadly one of their very worst.

In "Torture Ship", Irving Pichel is Dr. Herbert Stander, a brilliant scientist decided to cure the "criminal mind", but who ends up in trouble for his controversial experiments in human beings. Stander finds an interesting way to keep on working: he transforms a ship into a laboratory, kidnaps several high profile criminals, and sails to international waters in order to experiment with them. Stander's nephew, Lieutenant Bob Bennett (Lyle Talbot) is the ship's captain, and so Stander begins his experiments with endocrine injections. Unfortunately, things will get complicated as the criminals, not exactly happy with being the guinea pigs for Dr. Stander's experiments, decide to take over the ship and begin to plot mutiny. Amongst the criminals is Joan Martel (Julie Bishop), an innocent secretary girl who just happened to work for the wrong people, her boss was Poison Mary Slavish (Sheila Bromley). Bob makes friends with Joan, and soon romance blooms. Sadly for the lovers, Dr. Stander has decided that now he needs to test his experiment in a good man: Bob.

Loosely inspired by a Jack London short story ("A Thousand Deaths", published in 1899), "Torture Ship" begins with a fairly interesting (albeit somewhat implausible) premise. The idea of having several criminals together in a closed space to wreak havoc is not really bad for a horror film, as it potentially offers a group of different characters and situations to explore. Unfortunately, the screenplay by George Wallace Sayre and Harvey Huntley fails to exploit the premise's potential and the result is a trite storyline in which very few interesting things take place. While there's a connection, actually very few remains of London's story, and perhaps a closer approach to the source (which deals with a scientist resurrecting a man) would had increased the appeal of the story. Sadly, the group of characters gathered never become anything more than stereotypes, lacking any development beyond the necessary. Certainly, "Torture Ship" has a couple of clever twists, though the overall sensation is one of missing potential.

Director Victor Halperin shows even less inspiration than in his "Revolt of the Zombies", and crafts his film without any real style or or defined vision. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh (who would become a prolific veteran of Poverty Row films) limits his work to give the proper light and shoot. It's certainly one Halperin most uninspired films in his career, as the story unfolds slowly in long talky scenes of dialog. Unlike "White Zombie", there is not a single attempt to build up atmosphere, and instead the film has a monotonous dullness that makes it tiresome and boring. While at least in "Revolt of the Zombies" Halperin managed to extract some sense of thrill and excitement out from his screenplay, in "Torture Ship" there's nothing but a series of events that just advance the plot without much fanfare. Certainly Victor Halperin wasn't working with a great screenplay to begin with, but the apparent lack of motivation to make something interesting out of the screenplay is appalling.

The tragedy of the screenplay's failure is enhanced by the way a particularly interesting cast is wasted performing it. In this aspect, "Torture Ship" looks like a collection of classic B-movie character actors. Sadly, not even one of them has a nice role to shine. Legendary Irving Pichel as Dr. Stander is for the most part effective in his role as the film's mad scientist, though the role is never anything more than an archetype. The film's protagonist, Lyle Talbot, fails to be engaging as the hero type, though at least there's some commitment in the way he recites his lines. Julie Bishop fares much better, though her character is one of the film's weakest links, as there's not really a reason for her character to exist. Sheila Bromley, Russell Hopton, Wheeler Oakman and Skelton Knaggs are some of the actors playing the criminals, ranging from acceptable to downright mediocre in their work. Skelton Knaggs is one of the better, though like everyone else, suffers from having to work in a poorly developed role.

"Torture Ship" is certainly a film full of problems, so many of them that's actually difficult to believe that it was made by the same team that delivered "White Zombie". It's clear that the budget the Halperins had was low, even lower than in "Revolt of the Zombies", as it's reflected in the almost non-existent art direction the film has. Nevertheless, there are things that can't be blamed on low production values, as there are movies done with the same resources that against all odds still manage to shine. "Torture Ship" doesn't have low budget as its worst enemy, the real problems are an awful screenplay and an uninspired vision. As written above, "Torture Ship" fails at exploiting its premise, and instead delivers a pretty forgettable tale of mad science that fails at being thrilling. It's just simply not interesting. On top of that, Halperin's work is so dull that fails to improve a doomed storyline. Filmmaking is not only about good stories, it's about telling the story in an interesting way. Sadly, Halperin fails miserably in this aspect.

Sadly, the Halperin brothers never again replicated the success of "White Zombie", neither artistically nor commercially, and two more movies after "Torture Ship", director Victor Halperin retired from the film industry. Given the result of "Torture Ship", it's not hard to think that Halperin was already tired of filmmaking, though that's something that perhaps only he could answer. What can be known, is that "Torture Ship" is far from the brothers' best work, and it's one of those Poverty Row films that are perhaps only of interest when digging about the history of independent cinema, as it's cast is a particularly attractive one for historic reasons. Other than that, "Torture Ship" is a strong contender for the title of Victor Halperin' worst movie.


January 26, 2012

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

In 1932, American producers Victor and Edward Halperin released what is now considered as the very first feature length zombie film, the highly atmospheric "White Zombie". Directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi as a powerful necromancer, the film received mixed reviews upong release, but has earned cult status thanks to its eerie expressionist visual design and its ominous atmosphere. Anyways, while modest, the box office was quite big for an independent film and allowed the Halperin brothers a greater budget for their follow up, "Supernatural". Unfortunately, they couldn't repeat the success and the brothers returned to more modest productions. So, hoping to recover themselves, the brothers decided to go back to what had initially worked and make a sequel to "White Zombie". Unfortunately for them, the brothers got into a legal battle with the company that had helped them to finance "White Zombie", which prevented them to promote the sequel, titled "Revolt of the Zombies". Though given the resulting film, it would had been hard to promote it anyway.

Set during World War I, "Revolt of the Zombies" begins on the Franco-Austrian frontier, where Armand Louque has find a priest from Cambodia, Tsiang (William Crowell), claims to have the ability to turn men into zombies. The priest is murdered by General Mazovia (Roy D'Arcy), who wants to create an army of zombies to conquer the world, however, he only gets part of the secret. The death of Tsiang prompts the Allied powers to send an expedition to Cambodia to destroy the secret of the zombies, thinking it may have fallen in the wrong hands. So a group is sent to find the city of Angkor Wat, which suppousedly was built using zombies. Louque is in the expedition, as is his friend Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland), General Duval (George Cleveland) and his daughter Claire (Dorothy Stone). Armand falls in love with Claire, but she in turn prefers Clifford, which hurts Louque's feelings badly. The expedition fails after several accidents take place, but a melancholic Louque stumbles upon the secret. So instead of returnig home, he decides to find the secret and prove himself worthy of Claire's love.

Written by director Victor Halperin himself along writers Howard Higgin and Rollo Lloyd, "Revolt of the Zombies" starts off with a most exciting and intriguing premise: the creation of an army of zombies to fight the war. These zombies are of course, of the classic Voodoo type and not the shambling corpses of modern horror filmmaking. Another interesting element is the fact that Louque, whose arguably the protagonist of the story, is more of an anti-hero, being seduced by the power in his determination to prove his worth. While Clifford and Mazovia are the archetypal hero and villian type of the 30s, Armand Louque moves between sides as the story unfolds. It's an interesting character development that unfortunately never really succeeds as the screenplay is a quite big mess. As soon as the expedition begins, the story focuses entirely on the love triangle, and leaves behind any trace of the horror that was at its roots. Of course, there's the development of Louque as an antihero, but the execution trades horror for melodrama.

In "Revolt of the Zombies", director Victor Halperin's work seems so tacky that it seems difficult to believe that he's the same man that crafted "White Zombie". While "White Zombie" has atmosphere, depth and artistry, "Revenge of the Zombies" feels like a poor imitation of the typical adventure serials of the time. Certainly, the Halperin brothers were in need for a hit at the time of planning "Revolt of the Zombies", and this need of commercial success may explain the differences between the two films. Having started his career in the silent era, Halperin's "White Zombie" had more in common with the silent German horrors than with big studio talkies. On the contrary, "Revolt of the Zombies" has little silence and instead places more emphasis on big expository dialogs. Also, the dark atmosphere of dread is replaced by the lively jungle adventure, and the horror tone traded for that of a melodrama. Changes that perhaps sounded good to draw more audiences, but that Halperin was just unable to pull off.

The acting is another of the film's problems, though certainly not its greatest one. A young Dean Jagger (years before his Academy Award nomination) plays Armand Louque, probably the film's most interesting character, as he begins the film as a weak willed man often ignored by his superiors, and later becomes the master of the zombies of Angkor. While perhaps the only cast member truly commited to his role, Jagger still delivers an over the top performance as the tortured Louque, brooding as his beloved Claire leaves him for his best friend. Unfortunately, Jagger is not the worst in the cast but the best, as Dorothy Stone, who plays Claire delivers a terribly poor performance as the love interest. Equally weak is Robert Noland's turn as Clifford, who never really stands out and limits himself to just play the archetypal hero on his looks alone. Same can be said of Roy D'Arcy, who looks far from his best years in silent cinema and delivers a poor imitation of Lugosi's character from "White Zombie".

As written above, the difference between "Revolt of the Zombies" and the original "White Zombie" is so abysmal that it's hard to believe that it was made by the same team, and yet it was. Even cinematographer Arthur Martinelli worked on both films with remarkably different results. Certainly, big troubles must have taken place at the top levels of the film's production, as the big decrease of the film's quality was general. Perhaps the root of the problem is in the decision of leaving out the horror tone and atmosphere of the first film, and instead developing the story as a melodrama set in the jungle. In fact, the most celebrated elements of "White Zombie" are left out and traded for bigger versions of its weakest parts. Halperin, who must had been more comfortable in silent cinema, seems lost at directing a sound film, with the characters reciting their lines as if was a theatre. The overall style of the acting is too stagy, as if the film was merely a filmed play. And not even a good play to begin with.

Perhaps one of the most dissapointing sequels of horror cinema, "Revolt of the Zombies" has little of what made "White Zombie" great and a lot of what could be find in any typical adventure serial from the 1930s. Granted, by 1936 times had changed and the existence of the Hays code meant a stricter censorship. However, the problems of "Revolt of the Zombies" seem to be more related to the Halperins' inability to understand their audiences. An inability to see which elements of "White Zombie" worked and which didn't, and a huge neccessity to make a hit. In their desire of making "Revolt of the Zombies" appealing to a broader audience, the Halperins forgot what made "White Zombie" unique and made the sequel a quite generic film.


January 23, 2012

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913)

Know during his lifetime as "The King of Comedy", Canadian filmmaker Mack Sennett was one of the greatest innovators of slapstick in the silent cinema of Hollywood. While also an actor, his greatest contributions were as producer and director at Keystone Studios, were he developed his trademark style of slapstick comedy and launched the careers of a notable group of actors, including Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, the Keystone Kops and most notably, Charlie Chaplin. Having started his career as an actor at Biograph Studios, Mack Sennett's career owed a lot to legendary filmmaker D. W. Griffith, who directed him in several of his early short films. This experienced allowed Sennett to be a first hand witness of the development of Griffith's narrative style. "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life" is a short film in which Mack Sennett actively parodies Griffith, particularly his common topic of last minute rescues. And to do it he had the aid of the most famous race driver of his time: Barney Oldfield himself.

In "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life", Mabel Normand plays Mabel, a young beautiful woman in love with her boyfriend (Mack Sennett). However, a villianous man (Ford Sterling) also wants her, and makes several advances towards Mabel. The young woman rejects him strongly, and this enrages the villain, who decides to kidnapp Mabel and in vengeance, chain her to a railroad track. Then the evil man finds a locomotive and lets it loose in order to fulfill his revenge. When her boyfriend discovers this, he now must has to race to save her before the train kills her. Fortunately for the hero, the famous racer Barney Oldfield is in town, so he asks for the help of the legendary Oldfield to save Mabel's life. So both men jump into Oldfield's Blitzen Benz and race against the train, hoping to arrive to Mabel's spot before the locomotive kills her, in a dangerous adventure that will also involve a group of bumbling policemen, who also are on the race riding a small handcar through the railroad.

As written above, this Sennett production has a lot in common with D. W. Griffith's popular "last minute rescues" in the sense that it's based on the concept of having a trapped victim (Mabel in this case) and a hero running to save her from an impending doom (the train). It's a plot that Griffith had been doing since his earliest work ("The Adventures of Dollie", 1908) and had been perfecting ever since; and in fact, Sennett himself appeared in one of the best know of them: "The Lonely Villa". However, Sennett of course takes everything to the extreme to make a parody of it, with of course the inclusion of the staple of the company (the ineffectual police) and the celebrity of the day (Barney Oldfield). Certainly, the film's a cleverly devised cocktail of thrills, however, what's perhaps the greatest contribution to the history of cinema is one single iconic image: Ford Sterling as a mustahcoid villain tying Mabel Normand to the racetracks. An image so strong that nowadays is more famous than the film that originated it.

As a matter of fact, the image includes the two most talented members of the film's cast: Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand. While the film is suppoused to be a vehicle for Barney Oldfield and has Sennett himself as the protagonist, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" belong entirely to Ford Sterling in his performance as the villanous man rejected by Mabel. In one of his most accomplished performances for Sennet, the original 'Chief Teeheezel'of the Keystone Cops takes the villain role and delivers a classy demonstration of how to properly overact. While the role is certainly an archetype, Sterling makes it his own and creates an icon. The talented Mabel Normand may not have a lot of space to shine in this film, but she showcases the natural charm and flair for comedy that made her a star. Unfortunately, his counterpart (and real life lover), Mack Sennett himself is not a particularly likeable hero, and his performance is quite weak. Barney Oldfield simply plays himself, and for the most part, isn't bad at it.

While there's a group of bumbling policemen on the race too, it's not clear if they are the classic Keystone Kops or a variation on the same theme. Since they are not exactly the stars of the film, it's hard to know (and the ending is particularly gloom for the policemen), though the basis is the same. Nevertheless, the movie is entirely based on the last minute rescue situation that has Oldfield as the star. This is perhaps the root of the film's problems, as neither Sennett nor Oldfield make for good protagonists. While the villain is well drawn, the heroes are very thinly developed. Certainly, Sennett achieves a great thrilling race sequence, following Griffith's technique to the letter and actually adding nicely the comedy elements. Nevertheless, there's some spark missing, and that would be the lack of an appropriate protagonist to balance Sterling's villain, as whenever Sterling is not onscreen, the film goes down. Perhaps making it a proper Keystone Kops film would had helped it.

Anyways, while probably not exactly one of Sennett's best films, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" is without a doubt a movie of hight historical value, as the origin of one of the classic images of cinema. To fans of motor sports, it's also interesting to watch Barry Oldfield on screen, a legend of his time (he was the first driver to run a mile track in one minute flat or 60 miles per hour) who seems to be a tad forgotten in these modern days. While not entirely succesful, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" is still a pretty fun and entertaining short film that in its parodic way, contains one of the best accomplished examples of the classic "last minute rescue" that Griffith had developed.


January 20, 2012

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931)

Though nowadays the name of Harold MacGrath is not exactly well known, during the first decades of the twentieth century he was one of the most popular authors in America. A regular collaborator in several of the major magazines of his time, MacGrath was also one of the first famous authors to write specifically for the big screen, like the lost film "The Adventures of Kathlyn". Such was MacGrath's popularity that several of his short stories and novels were also adapted to Broadway plays and movies. The 1920 novel "The Drums of Jeopardy" is one of the best examples of this, as only two years after its publishing, the novel became a stage play in 1922, and a film in 1923. Nevertheless, nowadays this work is perhaps best known for having its villain's name based on the artistic name of a young British actor who didn't want to be recognized as William Henry Pratt, but as Boris Karloff. Incidentally, in 1931, less than a year before "Frankenstein" made Karloff a superstar, a new version of "The Drums of Jeopardy" was released.

"The Drums of Jeopardy" begins in Czarist Russia and is the story of Dr. Boris Karlov (Warner Oland), a scientist who discovers that his daughter Anya (Florence Lake) has been dishonored by a nobleman and decided to take her life. Vowing vengeance, Karlov discovers that the responsible is a member of the Petroff family, and decides to destroy them. Time goes on and the Bolshevik revolution takes place, the Czars' rule comes to an end and with that the noble families of Russia are being hunted, so the Petroff family has gone to America on exile. Karlov, now a prominent Bolshevik leader, finds and murders the older Petroff, so the two younger brothers, princes Nicholas and Gregor (Lloyd Hughes and Wallace MacDonald respectively) are taken to the mansion of Kitty Conover (June Collyer) to hide under the protection of agent Martin Kent (Hale Hamilton) of the Secret Service. Each time a Petroff is about to die, he receives from Karlov one of the fabled Drums of Jeopardy, cursed gems that signal their doom.

Adapted to the screen by Florence Ryerson (whom years later would be one of the driving forces during the writing of "The Wizard of Oz"), this version of "The Drums of Jeopardy" is a mash up of genres that works like a film divided in two very clearly defined halves. The first half works like a tale of adventure, with Karlov hunting down the older Petroffs mercilessly; while the second half deals with the events that take place inside the mansion, essentially transforming the story into a murder mystery of the style that was so popular at the time. However, what perhaps is the greatest merit of "The Drums of Jeopardy" is its construction of the villain: Dr. Boris Karlov is driven by vengeance, and his thirst for blood transforms him into a quite sadistic foe. Nevertheless, while the character may be drawn as a caricature of a communist, his motivations are still "noble". While not entirely the sympathetic villain that Universal studios would perfect later, at times it kind of points into that direction.

Seasoned veteran George B. Seitz is the man at the helm of "The Drums of Jeopardy", and the fast-packed first half of the film does show Steiz' particular expertise gained crafting adventure serials during the silent era. In simple, yet effective set pieces, Seitz gives life to the threatening menace that Dr. Boris Karlov should represent to the Petroffs, and transforms him into a presence that seems to lurk around every corner. Seitz unfolds his film with a fast, appropriate pace, though later the rhythm slows down perhaps a bit too much for its own good during the second half. While owner of a style that put more emphasis on practicality than on artistry, Seitz does manage to create an entertaining film that makes great use of its budgetary limitations. The cinematography of Arthur Reed (who would make a prolific career in B-movies) has some nice touches, particularly during the second half, which takes place in an old dark mansion and his playing with light and shadows comes handy.

The cast is for the most part good, though it's certainly Swedish actor Warner Oland who's got the best role. As Dr. Boris Karlov, Oland hams it up perfectly, as the role of sympathetic villain allows him several dramatic moments of great quality. Nevertheless, Karlov is also a sadist, and Oland manages to make him creepier by restraining his act at the appropriate moments. It's certainly one of his best performances, as despite not being a complex role, Karlov is a character that allowed Oland to explore different sides of a villain character. As Nicholas Petroff, Lloyd Hughes is appropriate, though not particularly surprising in his turn as the hero of the film. However, his counterpart June Collyer is also another highlight of the film, easily overshadowing Hughes, and every other actor in the film, with the exception of Oland. The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to good, though it's interesting to see Mischa Auer in an early role as one of Karlov's henchmen.

While at first sight it could seem that the only thing that "The Drums of Jeopardy" has to offer is the curious trivia of Karlov's name, it is actually an entertaining thriller that combines with a certain degree of success aspects of adventure serials and the murder mystery subgenres. While the novel has Karlov as an evil Bolshevik kind of character (and director Seitz plays on this by having Oland look like a mix of Lenin and Stalin's images), the screenplay of Florence Ryerson has a certain degree of empathy towards the character, that makes this mad scientist closer in spirit to the Frankenstein monster than to the Fu Manchu kind of character he is supposed to be. And it's in this aspect where Oland's performance finds a gold mine to exploit. One could only wish that "The Drums of Jeopardy" had been executed by most daring hands, as Seitz' directing, which opts to play it simple, doesn't seem to take full advantage of the material he had to work with, and it's perhaps the reason why the film feels more like a missed chance than like an entirely satisfying experience.

Certainly, "The Drums of Jeopardy" has not aged well, specially when one considers the films that were released merely months after it. Universal Studios would change the history of horror cinema with "Dracula" and "Frankenstein", and the world would be introduced to a new style of monsters. Gone were the days of murder mysteries and mastermind criminals (at least in major films, as b-movies would continue churning this kind of films for another decade), and it was now the birth of the movie monster. Films like "The Drums of Jeopardy" were soon forgotten, though in the case of this film, perhaps it would be nice to rediscover this product of its time. If only, to enjoy the remarkable work of June Collyer and Warner Oland.


January 17, 2012

Yira, yira (1930)

Certainly, one of the greatest figures of Argentina is without a doubt singer, songwriter and actor Carlos Gardel. The most prominent figure in the history of Tango revolutionized the culture of his time that despite having died tragically at the height of his career (in a plane crash), his name is the one most often associated with the culture and music of Argentina. Born in 1890, Gardel arrived to Buenos Aires at a very young age, and grew up in the Abasto neighborhood. Like many singers of his time, Gardel began his career working at bars, but soon his singing talent and charming look took him to the studio to make recordings in 1917. That very same year cinema found Gardel, and his talent made its way into the film "Flor de Durazno". Naturally, Gardel's career on cinema didn't make much progress in the silent era, so he focused on singing. However, by 1930 sound in film was now a reality, and so Gardel and cinema met again, in an early series of musical short films directed by sound pioneer Eduardo Morera.

"Yira, yira" (often known in English as "Go round... and round...") is one of those musical shorts, which basically consisted in an introduction to the song and then the execution of the song by Gardel himself. In the case of "Yira, yira", the introduction is done by Gardel and the song composer, the legendary Enrique Santos Discépolo (at the time a young 29 years old man), with Gardel asking Enrique Santos about the meaning of the song. Enrique explains Carlos that the song is about despair, hopelessness and loneliness; to which Carlos answers surprised that such is the feeling he had received from the song. Enrique praises Gardel's singing, though Carlos wonders with a little naiveté if the song's main character is a good man despite the brooding tone. Enrique makes a joke about it, which Carlos doesn't seem to catch at first, though he later does and both men laugh. The film then cuts to Gardel's interpretation of Santos Discépolo's "Yira, yira", with a musical group.

As in most of Morera's shorts, the centerpiece of the film is Gardel's singing "Yira, yira", however, the introductions to the songs, while probably scripted by Morera or Gardel, give a glimpse of the magnetic personality that the famous singer had. In the case of "Yira, yira", the introduction is twice interesting as it showcases Enrique Santos Discépolo, the composer of this popular tango. Whether the dialogs recited were scripted or are in fact improvised is sadly not known, though two things can be noted in the film: the great camaraderie and respect between both artists, and the natural charm and ease in front of the camera that Gardel displays. It's clear that both Morera and Gardel understood very well the possibilities of the film, and thus the image of the singer is carefully detailed in the brief introduction. Gardel is shown as a humble singer, respectful of the composer, and owner of a child-like curiosity. The fact that Morera makes the joke be on Gardel is part of this: Gardel owns the spotlight, but he shares it willingly with his friends. With his people.

Now, the interpretation Gardel makes of "Yira, yira" is one of his best, capturing in his performance the very same feeling of despair and loneliness that Enrique Santos Disépolo was explaining in the introduction. The touch of irony that the song has is not lost, though perhaps a bit diminished by Gardel's strongly melancholic performance, which adds a bit of optimism to the song. Tango singing (specially of Gardel's time) often requires a bit of dramatic emphasis on the voice, not only because of its common themes of loneliness and lost love, but also because of its very rhythm. In this aspect, Gardel delivers a masterful performance, and "Yira, yira" proves that Morera wasn't wrong when he decided that no matter what may had happened in the failed experience of "Flor de Durazon", Carlos Gardel was truly worthy material for cinema. In the introduction, Carlos Gardel wonders if the character is a good man. In his performance, it's clear that when Gardel sings it, the brooding main character is a good man indeed.

As expected from an early experiment in sound film, Morera's set up is fairly basic, with cinematographer Antonio Merayo framing both scenes (introduction and performance) in a simple yet effective manner. Certainly, Merayo's work is much more interesting when Gardel is singing, though that's perhaps the result of a directorial decision rather than a flaw on Merayo's side. "Yira, yira", along nine other of Morera's short films were later compiled in 1931 to form a longer movie called "Diez canciones de Gardel" or "Encuadre de canciones" (literally "Ten songs by Gardel" or "Assortment of songs"); however, Morera's shorts work much better on their own, as they were intended to be. In this aspect, Morera's Gardel shorts can be seen as precursors of modern music videos. Given the quality of Gardel's performance, and the fact that Morera's succeeded in what he was set to achieve (to prove Gardel could be a major film star), it can be said that his humble experimental short films more than fulfilled its goal.


January 16, 2012

Abismos de Pasión (1954)

With the release of his controversial yet highly influential feature length debut "L'Age d'Or" in 1930, Spanish director Luis Buñuel had already cemented his place amongst the surrealist movement of his time. Unfortunately, the film was banned due to the protests it generated, so Buñuel began to think about the next film. For his next project, he began to work with writer Pierre Unik in an adaptation of a famous novel: Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights". Sadly, the project never took off and instead, Buñuel and Unik began to work in the documentary "Las Hurdes". More than two decades later, Buñuel was now in Mexico working with producer Óscar Dancigers, who had helped him to return to filmmaking after years in exile. In 1954, Dancigers was preparing a comedy starring Irasema Dilián and Jorge Mistral, but the project was suddenly canceled. Still with Dilián and Mistral hired, Dancigers gave Buñuel the chance to make a film if he used those actors in the lead roles. It was in this conditions that Buñuel resurrected his "Wuthering Heights" project.

Titled "Abismos de Pasión" (literally "Depths of Passion"), the film begins in a rich but deteriorated estate located in the Mexican dessert. It is the house of Eduardo (Ernesto Alonso) and Catalina (Irasema Dilián), who live there with Eduardo's sister Isabel (Lilia Prado). Not entirely a happy marriage, the wild temperament of Catalina doesn't seem to get along with the quieter, calm personality of Eduardo, whose biggest passion is entomology. Still, there is relative peace at the household, until one day Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) returns. An orphan raised along Catalina and her brother Ricardo (Luis Aceves Castañeda), Alejandro had ran away tired of being constantly humiliated for his lack of status. Now a wealthy man, Alejandro has returned to buy Ricardo's estate and to see Catalina again. A deep passion exists between Alejandro and Catalina, a passion not unnoticed by Eduardo, who feels threatened by the presence of Alejandro. And this is only the beginning of Alejandro's vengeance.

Like most adaptations of Brontë's classic, "Abismos de Pasión" is focused only on the first half of the novel, though the condensation is far more extreme: it's dedicated only to the events after Alejandro/Heathcliff's return to the estate. Adapted by Buñuel himself, Arduino Maiuri and Julio Alejandro (in his first collaboration with Buñuel), "Abismos de Pasión" is "Wuthering Heights" stripped to its bare bones, to the core of its passion. The past is only mentioned, the future, merely hinted at, what truly matters in "Abismos de Pasión" is the present, in which Alejandro is back and has taken by storm the household of Eduardo/Edgar and Catalina/Catherine. While it could be argued that the script represents only a fraction of the novel, in fact what the writers have achieved is a perfect cinematic summarization of the core themes of "Wuthering Heights". This allows a pretty good development of the characters, not only of the two leads, but also of the microcosm that inhabits the estates.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Buñuel's vision of "Wuthering Heights" is how little it's actually changed from Brontë's novel, and still, it's undoubtedly a Buñuel film. There's truly a perfect marriage between Buñel's idiosyncrasies and his profound respect for the source (explicitly stated in a disclaimer at the beginning). The tone Buñuel conveys is one of depressive decadence, reflected in the stark atmosphere of the Mexican desert. As if it was a limbo, the characters live in the forgotten estate just existing, that is until Alejandro arrives, triggering the passions of both Catalina and Isabel. Without taking sides, Buñuel presents his characters without any sympathy or or apparent romanticism, showing them as the cruel monsters that they are. This is another aspect in which his "Wuthering Heights" rings true: it's a gathering of wicked people, and nobody, neither rich nor poor is free of sin. As in "L'Age d'Or", the theme here is the destructive force that results from repressed passion.

Unfortunately, it's in the cast's performance where "Abismos de Pasión" has its fatal flaw, more specifically, in the lead cast. As written above, Buñuel had no word in the casting as it was imposed to him, and in fact, perhaps with a little more of time dedicated to work it out the result may had been improved. Unfortunately, one element that Buñuel rarely enjoyed in his career was time, and it shows. As the capricious Catalina, Irasema DIlián rings true in intention and presence, and she is indeed a beauty that lights up the darkness of the desert. Unfortunately, the Polish actress is simply unable to hide her heavy accent and ends up lacking verisimilitude as sister of Ricardo and childhood friend of Alejandro (both speaking without accent). As the Heathcliff character, Alejandro, actor Jorge Mistral has some good moments, though he lacks the presence required to carry such a role, and unfortunately, he ends up greatly overshadowed by the supporting cast, who truly rise up to the challenge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the supporting cast is made up of Buñuel's regulars (or soon to be regulars): the impossibly beautiful Lilia Prado (of "Subida al Cielo") plays Isabel, Ernesto Alonso (of "Ensayo de un crímen") is Eduardo, and Luis Aceves Castañeda (also of "Subida al Cielo") is Ricardo. The three of them are remarkable in their turn, but most particularly Alonso, whom makes a terrific work at making his Eduardo/Edgar a frail effete, in love with Catalina, but unable to match Alejandro's passion. This unevenness in the cast is the Achilles' heel of "Abismos de Pasión", as the difference between the lead and the supporting cast is so abysmal that's impossible not to notice it. It's tragic, as it spoils the experience of what could had been one of Buñuel's most symbolic and visually arresting films. While he keeps faithful to Brontë's text, visually the movie is full of Bulñuel's touches, from Eduardo's bug collection to Alejandro's servant reciting the darkest passages from the Bible, not to mention the mysterious behavior of Ricardo's mute son Jorge (the Hareton equivalent).

Despite its flaws, Luis Buñuel achieves in "Abismos de Pasión" the movie that perhaps gets closer to Brontë's spirit in terms of tone and atmosphere. In "Abismos de Pasión" Buñuel seems to understand that Brontë's novel is not Austen, it's raw, harsh, and cruel. There's wild passionate violence in its words, and Buñuel manages to translate it to images in a more accurate way that Wyler did in his polished 1939 version. It's for these reasons that it's so tragic that the cast involved has failed in their performance. A weak couple of lead actors and a heavy Polish accent undermine the foundations of what could had been a masterpiece, and leave it as only as a merely good film. Fortunately, a merely good film from Buñuel is still far more enjoyable than a merely good film from anybody else.


January 13, 2012

Wuthering Heights (1939)

When first published in 1847, Emily Brontë's novel "Wuthering Heights" received mixed reviews from audiences and critics, whom while pretty appreciative of Brontë's talent, were turned off by the novel's ambiguity, grounded on characters driven so much by passion that can be seen as cruel, hateful or unlikeable. Nevertheless, the tale of the unfortunate love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw would later receive its proper reevaluation, and earn its rightfully deserved reputation as a classic of English literature. And like most classics, Brontë's Gothic romance was soon seen as good material for an adaptation to the new medium of cinema. 1920 was the year the earliest version of "Wuthering Heights" was released, directed by British actor A.V. Bramble. Unfortunately, that version is apparently lost now, however, better luck had the following adaptation: a Samuel Goldwyn's production released in 1939. Directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier, this would become the most famous and better known version of Brontë's classic.

Like the novel, "Wuthering Heights" opens with a traveler, Lockwood (Miles Mander) arriving to the estate of the title, looking for a place to stay the night. Lockwood is received in a quite rude manner by the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), but still, he is allowed to stay in an abandoned room upstairs. During the night, Lockwood is awaken by the voice of a woman calling him, and as soon as Heathcliff learns this, he runs away into the cold night. Lockwood remains puzzled, but then the housekeeper Ellen (Flora Roson) begins to explain how is it that "Wuthering Heights" ended this way. It all began when Heathcliff arrived to the estate, a poor orphan boy adopted by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). Working as a stable boy, Heathcliff develops a passion for Catherine Earnshaw (Merle Oberon). However, she can't reconcile her love for Heathcliff with her disdain for his lack of status. Heathcliff leaves broken hearted, and swears vengeance over those who mistreated him for his social status.

Adapted by two of the most prolific scriptwriters of their time, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, "Wuthering Heights" follows the classic pattern of most adaptations of the story. That is, it focuses entirely on the first half of the book, and omits the second generation's story. This abridged version of the novel is entirely dedicated to detail the passionate love between Cathy and Heathcliff, from its roots in childhood friendship to the way it dooms their adult life. Like the book, it's narrated as a flashback, and a fair share of time is dedicated to source of Heathcliff's anger: his rivalry with Cathy's brother Hindley, his undying love for Cathy, and his grudge against the society that humiliates him due to his lack of status. Certainly, Hecht and MacArthur's screenplay seems more interested in exploring Heathcliff's psychology than Cathy, whose character seems somewhat reduced by this condensation of the source material, less a complex and passionate force of nature and more a merely capricious and passive spoiled girl.

What truly elevates "Wuthering Heights" above the typical costume melodrama of its time, is the remarkable work done by two men: director William Wyler and specially cinematographer Gregg Toland. Wyler's vision of "Wuthering Heights" plays with the ambiguity of the novel, lavish when the characters are young, stark when they are older, truly reflecting the Gothic atmosphere that's present in Brontë's novel. In Wyler's film, atmosphere is the key, and the brilliant work of Gregg Toland plays an instrumental role in building up such a haunting atmosphere. Painting with shadows, Toland creates images of great beauty in "Wuthering Heights", fully capturing the brooding mood of the novel in his depiction of the Yorkshire moors. Wyler's narrative is particularly fluid and dynamic in the way he uses camera movements to wander through Wuthering Heights and its surroundings. All in all, Wyler's technique is impeccable, though the film feels a tad rushed by its last third, probably the result of the condensed screenplay and of course, his famous clash with producer Goldwyn.

The cast's performance is another one of the film's greatest strengths, with a remarkable turn by Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, in his debut in American cinema. While a bit old for the role, Olivier embodies nicely the image of the tortured Byronic hero of Brontë's novel, driven by his unconsumed passion for Cathy and his hatred for those who have scorned him. Olivier's performance is still a bit stagy, though he compensates it with a strong screen presence that often says more than his hammy delivery. As Cathy, Merle Oberon is effective, though nowhere near the level of Olivier's Heathcliff. Certainly her character is a tad underwritten, though Oberon does little to improve this. Quite the opposite is Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Heathcliff's wife Isabella and delivers a magnificent performance as the naive young woman in love with the wrong man. David Niven, who plays Cathy's husband Edgar is also underwritten, though Niven adds elegance and dignity to the role with great ease.

William Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" is a beautifully crafted film that manages to translate to the screen the passion of Emily Brontë's classic novel. However, certain elements prevent the film from being truly a masterpiece. Perhaps the most significant one is the way the screenplay seems to side with Heathcliff, leaving no room to other characters to breathe. The condensation of the novel may have had a hand in this, but it truly affects some elements, particularly Cathy's character, whose change from Heathcliff's loyal friend to ambitious socialité is perhaps too abrupt to ring true, and makes her character much less likable and difficult to relate (a problem since Brontë's characters aren't really likable to begin with). Cathy's husband Edgar is also diminished, and it would have helped to explore more the contrast of the differences between him and Heathcliff, beyond wealth and social status, that could have given more insight into Cathy's actions.

Nevertheless, those are probably minor quibbles result of a contrast with the novel, as such flaws do not really diminish the sheer power of Wyler's "Wuthering Heights". It's certainly a movie that demands to be seen, not only for the celebrated work of cinematographer Gregg Toland, but for the fantastic performance of Geraldine Fitzgerald (an actress often forgotten today). As a version of Brontë's classic, Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" may not be the most fortunate one, but judging it purely as a film, it's certainly up there with the many masterpieces that were released in 1939, often called (and not without a good reason) as the best year in the history of American cinema. Producer Samuel Goldwyn (who added the epilogue against Wyler's objections) considered his favourite, and he had pretty good reasons for that.


January 11, 2012

Suchîmubôi (2004)

In the year 2004, Katsuhiro Ôtomo, writer and director of the enormously influential anime, "Akira" (1988), returned to film-making after almost 10 years since his last directorial effort ("Memorîzu" or "Memories"), with another epic story of action and science-fiction named "Suchîmubôi", literally "Steamboy". In this film, Ôtomo dives into the sci-fi sub-genre commonly known as "Steampunk", stories often set in the 19th century where highly advanced steam machines are the fantastic technology of the time creating alternative history and settings. The Steampunk sub-genre shares many similarities with its "literary parent", cyberpunk fiction, so the idea of having the creator of one of the most celebrated works of cyberpunk fiction, "Akira", tackling a steampunk story is particularly interesting. Ôtomo's background and these similarities between the sub-genres force an inevitable comparison to "Akira", but while "Steamboy" won't revolutionize anime the way "Akira" did, it's one of the best feature length animated films of the decade.

Set in Victorian Britain, "Suchîmubôi" is the story of Ray Steam (Anne Suzuki), a young kid from Manchester who spends his free time working at a factory and inventing steam machines following the example of his father Dr. Edward Steam (Masane Tsukayama) and his grandfather Dr. Lloyd Steam (Katsuo Nakamura), both renowned inventors working in America. One day, he receives a box from his grandfather containing a small spheric steam machine, with explicit orders of not giving it to anyone except to famed inventor Robert Stephenson (Kiyoshi Kodama). The young Ray marvels at the device, and wonders about his grandfather's mysterious instructions. However, soon he finds his answers when he receives the visit of agents from O'Hara, the company where his grandfather works, violently demanding the spheric machine. Ray's grandfather appears too, and helps Ray to escape with the sphere, making Ray to realize that the small machine contains a power beyond his imagination. And everyone wants it.

"Suchîmubôi" is by all accounts a classic example of Steampunk fiction as it takes a historical setting and gives it a spin by adding the element of fantastic super science. Written by Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Sadayuki Murai, "Suchîmubôi" uses the sub-genre's setting and elements to tell a story about science, its possibilities and specially its consequences if handled in a bad way. Ôtomo uses the characters of the Steam family to describe what he sees as the two possible uses of science, and makes a sharp (although heavy handed) criticism to our modern capitalist society. In this way, it shares some of "Akira"'s themes, but "Suchîmubôi" has a decidedly more optimist tone, as it's essentially a story about the birth of modern science (in an exaggerated fantasy way of course) where mankind is still on time to learn the enormous responsibility of using science. Overall it's a pretty straight forward story of action and adventure, but the use of this themes through the movie makes the story really captivating.

As expected, the animation of the film is flawless, with a great (and often unnoticeable) combination of both traditional 2-D and 3-D animation that bring the incredible Steampunk machines to life. The movie has an exiting visual design, mix of real classic Victorian designs and Ôtomo's very own sci-fi style, paying honest tribute to the pulp adventures and Victorian literature that form the basis of the Steampunk sub-genre. Despite his limited output since "Akira", director Katsuhiro Ôtomo's visual narrative seems to be in top form, as "Suchîmubôi" has an exciting rhythm, pretty much in tone with the adventure inherent in the story. And this is another of the differences with "Akira": subtexts aside, "Suchîmubôi" is first and foremost, a tale of adventure, and to this effect Ôtomo keeps a fast pace that for his set pieces. And those set pieces truly showcase Ôtomo's great eye for visual flare, particularly in the epic finale, which is one of the best staged scenes in an animated film of the last years.

The voice work is of great quality, as director Katsuhiro Ôtomo has reunited a particularly strong cast for his film. Anne Suzuki makes an outstanding job as Ray, not only because the character is male (and she is female), but because the character is old enough to his voice be "manly". Suzuki makes Ray very convincing, as the young kid discovering the benefits (and dangers) of science. Masane Tsukayama plays Ray's father, giving a certain dignity and power to the character and avoiding most of the clichés this kind of character tend to have. On the same tone is Katsuo Nakamura, who in turn plays Ray's grandfather. Nakamura's eccentric character is effectively portrayed by the experienced actor, and is one of the highlights of the film. Finally, Manami Konishi plays Scarlett O'Hara, the young heir of the O'Hara company, making this spoiled little brat (by the way, a more than obvious reference to "Gone with the wind") annoying yet likable enough to make her a fine counterpart to Ray.

Probably the film's biggest flaw is that it's simply not "Akira", meaning that given that Katsuhiro Ôtomo's 1988 movie was such an important landmark in the history of anime, the expectations generated by "Suchîmubôi" were probably impossible to live up to. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that "Suchîmubôi" is a bad movie, it's simply a different experience than "Akira". In a way, "Suchîmubôi" is a simpler tale than "Akira", but this doesn't mean it's less remarkable. "Suchîmubôi"'s epic scope, apparent optimism and upbeat, colorful atmosphere doesn't mean it's only for kids. It simply reflects the timeframe in which it's set. A time where science is seen as the future, with great optimism and faith. And yet, despite this optimism, deep inside "Suchîmubôi" deals with the same dark subject that "Akira": Man must learn to use the science before it's too late. In this aspect it could be seen as a prequel of sorts (set several centuries before) to the world of "Akira", as the science in "Steamboy" seems to be getting advanced at a very fast pace.

In the end, the only real flaw of the movie is that despite having a runtime of 2 hours, the film feels rushed, and leaves one wanting for more; as if Ôtomo had not been able to condense his story in a tighter way, and often it seems that the plot is too complex for its own good. Anyways, while certainly less impressive than "Akira", there's a lot to enjoy in "Suchîmubôi", which stands as a fine piece of animation by its own merit. Director Katsuhiro Ôtomo spend almost 10 years conceiving and developing "Suchîmubôi", and the effort certainly payed off. With its excellent animation and captivating story, "Steamboy" is an excellent introduction to Katsuhiro Ôtomo's work. It's not going to change anime again, but Ôtomo's movie is still definitely one of the best.


January 06, 2012

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

 One of the greatest misconceptions about the horror film genre is that it is a clichéd, predictable and juvenile entertainment based entirely on sex, blood and gore. Certainly, there are a lot of horror films that would fit that description without problem (and without shame), but the fact is that horror films go beyond that. And that misconception is so deeply ingrained in the mainstream audiences that often when a great horror film appears ends up as being labeled as a "thriller" instead of a horror movie, as if horror films were by default unable to present intelligence and quality. But they do, and a great example of a brilliant horror film that breaks that popular misconception about the genre is Adrian Lyne's 1990 masterpiece, "Jacob's Ladder". After having earned commercial and critical acclaim with "Fatal Attraction" (1987) and with a good reputation as maker of sexually charged thrillers, director Adrian Lyne tackled a much darker theme in this existential venture into psychological horror.

"Jacob's Ladder" is set in 1975, and is the story of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) a Vietnam war veteran who works as postal worker and is trying to start a new life with his girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) after his ex-wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) divorced him. However, his sanity begins to fade as he is troubled by horrible hallucinations and increasingly severe flashbacks to his days in the war, his previous marriage, and the years before his little son Gabriel (Macaulay Culkin) died. The visions of monsters and the return of the horrors of the war start to become dangerous to Jacob as the hallucinations get more real each time. Jacob is contacted by one of his former Army friends, Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who tells him that he is also having hallucinations. As Jacob's mind shatters, he also suffers mysterious threats to his life, and the murder of Paul gives ground to the theory that everything is the result of the Army's experimentation on the soldiers. However, there's something more in Jacob's soul.

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin, "Jacob's Ladder"'s hallucinatory trip to madness is easily one of the most captivating and vivid portrayals of the horror of insanity ever put on film, and most of the film's success is thanks to Rubin's cleverly devised script. Complex and multi-layered, Rubin takes Jacob through hell and back in his quest for an explanation to what is happening to him, but given the unpredictable nature of his mental condition, there is never an only answer to the bizarre series of events that happen in his life. Reflecting his particular interest in metaphysics and spirituality (a constant theme in his career, as exemplified by "Ghost"), Rubin explores ideas about life and death, and the nature of the soul. However, the tone and atmosphere of "Jacob's Ladder" is somewhat darker than in his other works, though without losing its symbolism. While the complex narrative may sound a bit too ambitious and contrived, Rubin makes it work and the final result is one of the most original movies (not just horror) ever written.

Know for his stylish visual narrative and strength in developing characters, director Adrian Lyne does a remarkable job (one of the best in his career) at giving life to Bruce Joel Rubin's story of insanity and horror. Particularly impressive is the camera experimentation to create the unsettling effects of the hallucinations, a visual imagery that proved to be highly influential ("Jacob's Ladder" is credited as an important influence on the "Silent Hills" videogames for example) due to their disturbing nature. The film's atmosphere as a whole is one of unnerving decay and disorder, meant to reflect the deteriorated state of Jacob's own mind. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball delivers his most accomplished work and captures the urban chaos of New York with great skill, adapting gracefully to Lyne's stylish vision and transforming the city into a nightmarish world in which nothing is what it seems. Lyne keeps the symbolic nature of Rubin's screenplay, sustaining the ambiguity, but without losing the story's humanity and soul.

The cast delivers a great job in "Jacob's Ladder", but certainly the highlight of the film is Tim Robbins, who plays the tortured Jacob Singer. In one of the best performances of his career, Robbins is simply perfect as Singer, capturing masterfully the inner horror of a man betrayed by his own mind. Playing insanity without resorting to clichés, Robbins transforms himself into the troubled soul of Singer and proves that he is certainly a vastly underrated actor. Cuban-American actress Elizabeth Peña is very good as Jacob's girlfriend Jezzie, giving an effective performance in its subtlety, though her character feels somewhat limited. However, it's worth to point out that the film is entirely focused on Jacob, so there's not much space for other actors to shine. In fact, the only other actor who manages to do it is Danny Aiello, who appears in a small but very important role as Jacob's chiropractor and only friend Louis, who acts as a spiritual guide in Jacob's attempt to understand his experiences.

"Jacob's Ladder" is definitely one of the most original films of the 90s, due not only to it's brilliant storyline, but also to the way Lyne crafted the film in a simple yet very effective way. Certainly, the film does contain some plot twists that may not be that original anymore, however, the beauty of "Jacob's Ladder" is in the stylish way the challenging complexity of the script unfolds. It's also remarkable how Lyne manages to keep the spirituality that's the focus of Rubin's screenplay, as the film has a powerful supernatural atmosphere that enhances the feeling of Jacob's world blurring the line between reality and insanity. The conspiracy thriller aspects are another good touch the story has, that Lyne allows himself to explore, but without losing the focus on the film's theme: Jacob's struggle with his own demons. Like the Biblical Jacob (that inspired themes of the film), Jacob Singer struggles with something beyond himself, and Lyne makes of this struggle a haunting experience.

The terms "psychological thriller" and "psychological horror" are used very loosely in recent times, however, "Jacob's Ladder" is a movie that truly represents what psychological horror is. With its delightful mix of mystery, suspense and horror, Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder" is a masterpiece of horror that serves as the perfect example of a story that uses horror to explore limitless possibilities. Perhaps its only flaw is that it hasn't aged that gracefully (it looks like a true product of the 80s, though that's perhaps a flaw of Lyne's visual style as a whole); nevertheless, the strength of the story is still as captivating as when released. As a film that explores the horror of conspiracies, "Jacob's Ladder" is a true horror gem.


January 05, 2012

Ángel caído (2010)

Through the history of Mexican cinema, with its penchant for stylish melodrama and musical comedies, full fledged ventures into the fantasy genre have been scarce, almost a rarity. Granted, the Mexican film industry has produced some of the best horror films in the world, and the Mexican culture has a long standing literary tradition of magical realism that has found its way into Mexican cinema in one way or another; however, to find more traditional subgenres of fantasy is particularly rare. Aside from the surreal work of Jodorowsky and Rafael Corkidi, there have been very few examples of purely fantasy films ("Zurdo" and "Historias del Desencanto" come to mind). It is because of this scarcity that the effort of newcomer director Arturo Anaya is particularly admirable, as he debuts with an ambitious fantasy film titled "Ángel caído", which is based on the first of a series of fantasy novels he wrote. Now, the effort and Anaya's determinations are without a doubt admirable, unfortunately, the end result well, not so much.

The story of "Ángel caído" (literally "Fallen Angel") begins in Italy, when a baby is taken to an orphanage by the police. Years later, the baby is now a young kid named Liutprando (Emiliano Zurita) or Liut for short. One night, a demon arrives to the orphanage searching for Liut, but the kid is miraculously saved by his Guardian Angel and taken to an isolated monastery in Greece. At the monastery, Liut is welcomed by brother Angus (José Alonso), a wise monk who explains Liut his true origin: he is a Sephyro, a half-human half-angel with supernatural powers. Liut is shocked at the revelation, but there's more, he also has inherited a mission from his father: to find the Sword of Fire, the legendary Sword that Liut's father used as Guard of the Garden of Eden. With this in mind, Angus begins to train Liut, who becomes a young man in the process (Sebastián Zurita). A clue is hidden at the University of San Rafaello, so Liut enrolls to find it. However, Luzbel the fallen angel (Carlos Cacho) is waiting for him.

As written above, "Ángel caído" is a film written by director Arturo Anaya, adapted from his own novel “Ángel Caído Sephyro, el canto segundo”, though given the long time of production the film had, it's difficult to say what happened first, either the film or the novel. The story can be divided in two parts, the first one chronicling Liut's childhood and his training at the monastery, and the second and main section of the film is dedicated to his time at the University and his battle against Luzbel's minions. While the setting is the real world, "Ángel caído"'s secret world of demons and angels grounds the story in the field of the fantasy epic film. At its core, Arturo Anaya follows closely the classic monomyth pattern to unfold his story, which is largely centred around Liut's heroic journey. An element of fish out of the water is added in the secodn half, as Liut's upbringing at the Greek monastery is put in contrast to the modern world at the University of San Rafaello, embodied in his dorm room neighbor Paul.

Despite working with an extremely low budget, director Arturo Anaya opts for a heavy use of special effects in his film, and surprisingly, many of them actually look fine. However, at times it feels excessive, not only in the sense that its low production values become notorious, but also as the amount of digital enhancement tends to darken too much the work of cinematographer Juan Castillero. "Ángel caído" is a case of digital cinematography being damaged in postproduction. While undoubtedly a bold effort, "Ángel caído" showcases the limitations of the unexperienced Anaya, not only in purely budgetary terms, but as a director. The story's pacing is quite uneven (the work of editing is pretty poor), often reaching extremely slow points only to follow it with sequences that seem rushed. Anaya's tacky visual narrative, which seems greatly influenced by television, doesn't really capture the epic feeling that his story pretends to have, and feels more apt for a TV series.

The cast is one of the film's weakest elements, though two cast members truly shine in their roles. Unfortunately, they aren't the protagonists, as Sebastián Zurita and Laisha Wilkins, Liut and Persefone respectively, aren't really that effective. Wilkins, though owner of a natural beauty, fails to be convincing as she doesn't seem to be fully into the project. On the contrary, Zurita shows passion and commitmet to his heroic role, but his skills aren't up to the challenge and ends up wooden and emotionless most of the time. Now, the two actors who truly give their best are José Alonso and the young Luis Caballero. As the monk Angus, Alonso is pitch perfect as the wise old man of this journey, and he steals a couple of scenes with his sharp comedic timing. Playing Paul, Caballero excels in his performance as Liut's spoiled rich friend, and truly gives life to the second part of the film with a vibrant performance full of energy. The rest of the cast is pretty average, and while Humberto Zurita shows his skills, he is reduced to a boring and clichéd role.

In fact, boring and clichéd are adjectives that unfortunately, extend to many other aspects of the film, as "Ángel caído", as laudable as it is as a low budget epic fantasy, it's marred by problems bigger than its low budget. In fact, while low budget could serve as an excuse for its technical problems, the real failure in "Ángel caído" is in a more basic, yet neccessary element: its story. Anaya's story is not only derivative and unoriginal (to be fair, most fantasy epics sadly have this same problem in one degree or another), it's also pretty thin in its development and lacks engaging main characters. While Anaya has done a good job in creating his mythology (borrowing from Christian Catholic elements), the human conflict is missed in his drama, and the virtuous Liut ends up being an uninteresting one-dimensional character. A shame, as the world and premise of "Ángel caído" certainly sound with the potential to make a remarkable work in the fantasy genre.

In the end, while the film does have certain flaws in its visual look, the special effects are pretty good looking for a film of its budget. In this aspect Arturo Anaya's team truly excelled, but unfortunately, the excuse of low budget can't save the film from it's fatal flaw, a problem that hamrs both big Hollywood films and indie features: it's poor excuse for a story. Unoriginal, unengagin, derivative and lifeless, "Ángel caído" is guilty of the worst sin a movie (regardless of budget) can commit: to be boring. As a bold venture into a genre largely forgotten by the Mexican industry, Anaya's "Ángel caído" is enormously admirable. As an epic fantasy film, it's a tragic failure. Hopefully Anaya will do better next time, because the very few good things in "Ángel caído" are truly good.


January 04, 2012

Muerte al invasor (1961)

In 1961, a CIA-trained group of Cuban exiles launched an attempt to overthrow the recently formed Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The operation, codenamed operation Zapata, was supported by the US government and involved landing the beaches of Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), east of the Zapata peninsula in Cuba. The invasion was unsuccessful, as the Cuban armed forces defeated the invaders within three days. The failed invasion had as main consequence a much stronger nationalism and greater support for Castro's government in Cuba. This conflict later became known in Cuba as The Battle of Playa Girón (Battle of Girón beach), and in the US as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Given the great importance that Cuban government gave to cinema, the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográphicos (ICAIC) sent a team of war correspondents to cover the event. Amongst them was Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who constructed a short documentary film about the invasion for the ICAIC's newsreel of Santiago Álvarez: "Muerte al Invasor".

"Muerte al Invasor" (literally "Death to the Invader") is composed of the images captured by Gutiérrez Alea and his team of cameramen: Mario Ferrer, Pablo Martínez and Julio Simoneau. The narration, quite probably written by ICAIC director Alfredo Guevara and voiced by Julio Batista, details the events of the invasion, chronicling the three days of battle while at the same time glorifying the efforts of the Cuban people and its leaders. Given its nature as a documentary meant for a newsreel, its propagandistic goal is more than evident, with the defeated invaders constantly labeled as traitors and oppressors from previous government. The US support to the invaders is also a point discussed extensively in the film, noting the US' effort to overthrow the Cuban socialist government, and describing the covert nature of the operation as an example of imperialist treachery. In fact the film's subtitle describes the invasion as an imperialist aggression. "Muerte al Invasor" is certainly a film with an agenda, so subtlety is not one of its assets.

There has been much debate about who was actually behind the creation of "Muerte al Invasor", with supporters from both Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez claiming sole credit for the film. The film does show early signs of both directors' styles: traces of Álvarez' innovative "nervous montage" can be felt through the film, while on the other side, the images that make up the documentary have the distinguished style of Gutiérrez Alea. And speaking of the images, the images captured on the film are not only of great historical interest, there is a certain raw beauty in some of them that truly portray the spirit of a nation defending itself. Forgetting the jingoistic narration and without taking a political side, those images speak a lot about a young nation that still believed in an ideal, and fought for it. The eloquence of the images in "Muerte al Invasor" give ground to the argument for Gutiérrez Alea as the sole director, but in the end, this newsreel piece may have as much contribution from him, as from Álvarez and even Guevara.

As written above, "Muerte al Invasor" was clearly conceived as a propaganda piece, with its latent glorification of the Cuban nation and its relentless demonization of the imperialist invaders. And this is perhaps the weakest side of the film, as despite the power of its images, the narrative is slow and even dull. Narrator Julio Batista's lack of emotion doesn't help to this, as he remains calm and monotone in his speech, akin to the narrator of a science documentary. As a propaganda piece, it does fulfill its purpose, but it somewhat lacks the vibrant energy of Soviet or posterior Cuban propagandistic cinema. The film's true strength, is clearly in its images and montage, which showcases the talents of its makers and offers a glimpse to their posterior careers. The contrast in quality between the images on film and the written narration is so big that the film could easily work better without the narration. The eye of the young Cuban cinema was enough to tell the story of their victory, no need for added glorification.

"Muerte al Invasor" may not be the best example of the cinema of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez, though it's certainly a quite interesting film to watch to notice the development that took place for both two filmmakers, later celebrated stars of the Golden Age of Cuban cinema. In a film like "Muerte al Invasor", which clearly has its defined goal and political agenda, it's always difficult to separate the politics from the film, but in this case, whether one agrees or not with its arguments, one thing is clear: with their images and montage, filmmakers Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez have truly captured the face and spirit of a young nation finding itself.


January 03, 2012

Sky High (2003)

After spending some years making independent projects with limited budget, Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura became a household name after the international success of his epic mix of action and horror titled "Versus" back in the year 2000. The recognition earned by "Versus" allowed Kitamura to keep displaying his talent in action films like "Alive" and "Aragami", movies where he continued demonstrating his fresh and very dynamic style clearly influenced by the Japanese comic books (Mangas). Kitamura's style would reach a peak in his epic "Azumi", a martial arts film based in the manga of the same name, which could be considered as a masterpiece of his style. "Azumi" that many of his followers consider a masterpiece. After "Azumi", Kitamura directed several chapters of the popular TV series "Sukai hai", a tale of fantasy and horror also based on a manga. In the meantime, Kitamura directed a movie to serve as a prequel to "Sukai hai": an action film titled simple "Sky High" (the English name of the TV series).

"Sky High" is the story of detective Kohei Kanzaki (Shosuke Tanihara) and his bride Mina Saeki (Yumiko Shaku), and how their lives get shattered when on the day of their wedding, Mina is brutally killed by the mysterious serial killer that Kanzaki was trying to arrest, a criminal who removes the hearts of his victims. Now, Mina goes to the Gate of Rage, the place where the souls of all the murdered people go to make an important choice: whether to go to Heaven and expect the next rebirth, return to the Earth as a ghost, or to curse the killer and go to hell with him. Mina has 12 days to decide, but in the meantime, she decides to attempt to help Kanzaki to regain sanity, as Kanzaki is now decided to kill the assassin even if that means going to Hell for his sin. While this happens, Kanzaki has not only discovered the identity of the killer, but also the purpose: the killers need to obtain six hearts from the Guardians of the Gateway of the Afterlife to open the Gate of Rage.

As written above, "Sky High" was conceived as a prequel to the TV series "Sukai hai", so Kitamura's "Sky High" is basically the introduction to the extensive plot of "Sky High", the manga by Tsutomu Takahashi. The screenplay, by Kitamura's regular collaborator Isao Kiriyama, starts off with Kanzaki's attempt for revenge over Mina's death, but also spends its time focusing on Mina's own story at the Gates of Rage, as she contemplates what to choose for her afterlife. In this way the two main "genres" are defined, with Mina's side being more a fantasy horror story while Kanzaki's works like a crime thriller, complete with twists and turns as the main villain's identity and motivations are revealed. To this effect, Kiriyama's script is very well detailed and spends a good time into developing its characters and establishing the concepts that become familiar in the TV series. Nevertheless, behind the violence and horror, "Sky High" is a tale of romance, and it's this emotional aspect is what sets it apart.

As expected, once again Kitamura displays his mastery of the visual flare as the film is filled with his trademark energetic camera-work and remarkably done action set-pieces. Kitamura gives flesh to Kiriyama's screenplay in the same way as if he was drawing a comic book, giving chance to his imagination to fly by keeping true to the essence of the "Sky High" story. While "Sky High" is considerably less violent graphically than Kitamura's previous films "Versus" and "Azumi", this choice fits the stylish concept of the film, as despite all the visual eye-candy, it remains focused on the relationship between its two main characters, and an excess in gore would feel out of place. In fact, this focus on the characters is the film's greatest strength, as it allows to give more consistence to the fantastic situations the characters live, and give meaning to their actions. In "Sky High", Kitamura succeeds in balancing out the action and the romance in a natural and believable way, without sacrificing one element to benefit the other.

The cast ranges from average to very good, and this divergence in quality is certainly one thing that lessens the power of "SKy High". Nevertheless, for the most part it could be said that "Sky High" has a mostly effective cast. Leading the cast, Yumiko Shaku delivers a pretty good performance as Mina, and proves to be a good dramatic actress, not only a pretty face. However, her action scenes seemed a bit weaker when compared to other actors in the film. Shosuke Tanihara, who plays the tortured detective Kanzaki delivers the best acting of the movie, as he carries the film with a great attitude and a believable delivery of the part. It wouldn't be wrong to call Tanihara's performance the true heart of the film. Finally, Kitamura's regular collaborator Takao Osawa is excellent as the mysterious Tatsuya Kudo. As written above, the rest of the cast is mostly good, but nothing really spectacular, although the action scenes are excellently choreographed and performed.

While certainly "Sky High" has many of Kitamura's trademarks to its full potential, it's unfortunately not one of his masterpieces, as it contains a great deal of the usual flaws in Kitamura's cinema. As beautiful as it is in visual terms, "Sky High" is a bit overlong, mainly due to the excessive detail that writer Kiriyama gives to the story. Unlike "Azumi" (also scripted by Kiriyama), where the epic approach of the story suited a long and detailed script, "Sky High" relatively more intimate story feels unnecessarily long, and at times it seriously drags a lot. Perhaps a better work of editing or more concise scriptwriting could had improved the film a bit, as it would seem that the film gets a bit lost in the creation of its own mythology. Perhaps it's that "Sky High" seems to take itself too seriously at times, or perhaps Kiriyama tried too hard to synthesize the world of "Sukai hai" in the film. Anyways, despite its problems, "Sky High" is by no means a bad film, just perhaps one certainly that could had been a lot more.

In the end, Ryûhei Kitamura's "Sky High" is a very recommended movie, not only for die hard Kitamura fans, but for those with a taste for intelligent action films. The touches of horror and fantasy give the story a lot more depth and make it stand out among the many martial arts movies out there. It certainly offers an interesting and thought-provoking view on the after life, and contains several set pieces that display the remarkable talent for visuals that director Ryûhei Kitamura has. While a bit too long, "Sky High" is actually a very good, albeit flawed, film that can deliver great entertainment when watched on the right mood. It's certainly a fine introduction to "Sukai hai", which is probably what its producers intended in the first place.


January 01, 2012

The usual New Year post (Top of 2011)

Once again, a year ends and another one begins, and with that comes new things, new life events, new problems, new triumphs, and of course, new movies. The fabled year of 2012 is upon us, and so it's time to look back and see what did the year of 2011 left us. Personally, 2011 was a great year, not only W-Cinema seemed to resurrect (somewhat) and deliver more reviews, but I also may have learned a thing or two about life in the process. Life is good.

Back to movies, given that realistically, nobody can truly get a full grasp of what's released during in the year (because of different release dates for different countries or limited availability), I decided to make three lists. One dedicated exclusively to the Top of 2011 as per tradition in W-Cinema (that is, based on the original release date, meaning the IMDB date). Another to detail my theatre experience (since I live in Mexico, expect several films of 2010 in the list, which didn't arrive until the last year). And finally, a list chrinicling the discoveries I made during the year, that is, films from any other year that I just happened to watch for the first time during this year that ends.

Naturally, with every list, you may agree or disagree with it, but whatever be the nature of the feeling this humble lists incite in you, don't be afraid to stop by and comment. Opinions are greatly appreciated. An now, the lists:

Top films of 2011
I couldn't decide what to place in first place, if Woody Allen's heartfelt tribute to the City of Lights, or Verbinski's animated homage to Sergio Leone. In the end, I opted for Allen, as his "Midnight in Paris" is a superbly done exericise in comedy that is always intelligent, witty and charming. Pretty much what used to be Allen's trademark in the past. Is this a return to form? A new masterpiece? I don't know, it's not. But it's certainly a remarkably enjoyable film. Oh, and I did not find "The Tree of Life" as amazing as it claim it is.
1) Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)
2) Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski)
3) Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo)
4) Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)
5) Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)
6) The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)
7) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt)
8) Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig)
9) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird)
10) The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

At the theatre 2011

My theatre experience, as expected, shows a lot of 2010 at the top places. The reason of this is simple: most of the best films of a given year that I see, are not seen during that given year. Four 2010 films appear at the top, and still, I have the feeling that they could probably end up not being the best of 2010. Who knows? Perhaps there's an unknown film from the Eastern bloc that I'll end up discoverying in the following years... Yes, once again I fell under the spell of Darren Aronofsky, but I don't mind to admit that "Black Swan", as unsubtle and loud as it is, is a film that works for me. But then again, "The Kids Are All Right" could also had been #1, so between both films, the decision was purely arbitrary.
1) Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
2) The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)
3) 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
4) Copie conforme (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
5) Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)
6) Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski)
7) Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo)
8) Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)
9) Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)
10) The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)

Discoveries of 2011
While I try to watch more modern films and recent releases, there is a lot in the history of cinema that I still have not discovered yet. This year gave me 10 films that simply left me breathless. It may sound preposterous, but the previous two lists have nothing on these 10 true masterpieces of cinema. Each one of them a landmark of filmmaking that rightfully earned its place in history. From the stylish "Laura" to the enigmatic "Zerkalo", each is a very well recommended movie to learn just how truly great an art form that humble invention call cinema can be.
1) Zerkalo (1975, Andrey Tarkovskiy)
2) Viskningar och rop (1972, Ingmar Bergman)
3) Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)
4) Nazarín (1959, Luis Buñuel)
5) Fort Apache (1948, John Ford)
6) Les quatre cents coups (1959, François Truffaut)
7) Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)
8) Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel)
9) Ladri di biciclette (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
10) Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)