March 23, 2012

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

From 1949 to 1990, Germany was divided in two different states, Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This as a result of divisions between the Allied powers (UK, USA, France and the Soviet Union) which had been occupying Germany since the end of World War II in 1945. Tensiosn between the West and the Soviet Union broke the allied cooperation and so the country was divided between in two states, one a capitalist country and the other a soviet republic. The city of Berlin itself became divided in 1961, when the Soviet government erected a wall, closing the border and splitting the city. The Berlin wall, symbol of the divisions of the Cold war, marked generations of Germans from both sides of the wall, and its destruction and reunification of Germany borough important social changes that left a powerful imprint in the nation's cinema. The effects of the change from the GDR to the unified Germany inspired filmmakers Wolfgang Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg to make "Good Bye, Lenin!", a film set precisely during those changing times.

The story begins in October 1989, in East Berlin, where young man Alex Kerner (Danie Brühl) lives with his sister Ariane (Maria Simon), his mother Christiane (Katrin Saß) and Ariane's baby daughter Paula. His father left the family in 1978, emigrating to the West side, while his mother remained an ardent supporter of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. One day, Alex is arrested in an anti-government demonstration, an event that makes her suffer a heart attack, falling into a coma. During her coma, the German Democratic Republic she loved and defended with her life is gone, as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the official reunification of East and West into one Germany. Soon the family enters the capitalist world with Alex earning a job installing satellite dishes and Ariane working at a Burger King. 8 months later Christian awakes to a different world, but her physical and mental state are still fragile, so Alex is advised that any shock may cause another heart attack. In order to protect his mother, Alex decides to keep the illusion that her mother's ideal nation is still alive.

Walking the thin line between drama and situation comedy, the screenplay of "Good Bye, Lenin!" (by Wolfgang Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg) tackles a political theme, but it's not really a political satire, at least not a common one. While politics set the background of the story, the core of the film is the family drama in which Alex gets into, as he goes to great extend to perpetuate the lie to his mother in order to protect her. Becker and Lichtenberg build up very interesting situations in which Alex must find a way to keep the lie going on. Not an easy job in a country that quickly begins to be filled with Coca-Cola ads and fast food restaurants, which increases Alex's difficulties with quite funny results. Nevertheless, the writers never really indulge in "Ostalgie" (the nostalgia for East Germany), and in fact, the position they take regarding politics seemed to be actually one of irony and cynicism (neither socialism nor capitalism are endorsed). But still, this cynicism doesn't take away the warmth and enormous heart the film has.

With a very fresh humor and solid visual narrative, director Wolfgang Becker makes of "Good Bye, Lenin!" a heartfelt tragicomedy that's not only charming, but also quite witty. Becker conceives wonderful set pieces to showcase Alex's desperate efforts to keep his mother's fantasy alive. However, as Becker's touch for comedy is remarkable, his talent truly shines in the way he tackles the dramatic side of the story, which he transforms into a quite poignant family melodrama. Certainly, the high quality of his screenplay helps a lot, though certainly, Becker manages to keep a lighthearted tone that remains true to the story without falling in the realms of parody. Because a plot like the one in "Good Bye, Lenin!" could had easily worked as a merciless satire of communism, however, director Wolfgang Becker makes it more a tribute, not to the German Democratic Republic, but to the people that truly believed in its ideals. The work of production designer Lothar Holler is remarkable in the way he recreates the period of the reunification.

Leading the cast as Alex is Spaniard actor Daniel Brühl, whom is clearly the star of the show. Delivering a performance full of energy and charm, Brühl gives life to this caring, yet slightly odd young man determined to keep his mother's dream of a triumphant East Germany alive. The interesting side of Alex is the fact that this deception, which is initially for his mother, begins to become an integral part of his own life as well. And his managing of both his mother's world and his real life begins to take a toll in him. Fortunately, he has recruited in this enterprise the help of his friend Denis, played by a vibrant Florian Lukas whom almost manages to steal the show with his natural talent for comedy. Another scene stealer is Maria Simon, who plays Alex's sister Ariane, as in her limited screen time she delivers nicely some of the best lines in the film. As Alex's girlfriend Lara, Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova is not only beautiful, but provides an effective foil to Alex. And finally, the talented Katrin Saß, who plays Alex's mom, is after Brühl, perhaps the highlight of the film, as with subtle gestures she manages to build up the complex character of the frail mother.

Perhaps the best thing about Wolfgang Becker's "Good Bye, Lenin!" is the way he manages to tackle its political subject without losing the charm or the warmth of his film. And this is mainly because the film never stops being a family drama. Certainly, politics play a major role in the plot, given that Christiane's ardent socialism is contrasted to her children's desire for change (Ariane eagerly embracing capitalism while Alex growing a bit disenchanted by it). However, the neutral, apolitical cynicism that Becker takes about politics prevents the film from taking a side of the political spectrum, and as written above, actually criticizes both economical systems. What matters in "Good Bye, Lenin!" is not whose in power, but the unity of a family, as Alex's insane attempt to create a living dream for his mother ends up uniting his family more than ever. And in this strong emotional core lays the heart of the film.

Witty, clever, and even poignant, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is a terrific tragicomedy that offers a nice portrait of a family living through the difficult years of German reunification. Director Wolfgang Becker has built up a charming film that's not only funny, but also touching without falling in cheap sentimentalism or mere nostalgia. If the movie has any flaw, that would be that's perhaps a bit too long, but other than that, it's a more than enjoyable tale of a family. In fact, despite the fact that it's deeply grounded in the history of a particular country, the story has an undeniable universal appealing. With great irony and a touch of self deprecating humor, director Wolfgang Becker has made in "Good Bye, Lenin!" a film that showcases that change is inevitable, and certainly difficult; but the human bonds are often stronger.


March 21, 2012

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Ever since his work in Jim Sheridan's "In America" back in 2003, British actor Paddy Considine won international recognition as a rising talent in cinema of the United Kingdom. This reputation was cemented the following year in Shane Meadows' "Dead Man's Shoes", in which Considine showcased his talent to play complex and dark characters. However, Considine was interested in things beyond acting, and two years later, he wrote and produced his debut as a film director: the short film "Dog Altogether". The story of a violent man on the verge of selfdestruction, loosely based on Considine's father, "Dog Altogether" would end up winning multiple awards upon its 2007 release. Four years later, Considine returned to his characters of "Dog Altogether", expanding the story in order to finish a personal portrait of his parents. The result is "Tyrannosaur", a powerful tale of violence, hopelessness and despair deeply rooted in the British tradition of social realism. However, Considine's film also has a lot of heart.

In "Tyrannosaur", Peter Mullan is Joseph, an unemployed widower whose life has been spiraling to despair. Alcoholic and with gambling problems, Joseph kills his dog in a fit of rage, an event that triggers in him an emotional breakdown in which he discovers just how low he has fallen. In his depression, he enters a charity shop, where its shocked owner, Hannah (Olivia Colman), takes pity on him and comforts him with a prayer. A deeply Christian woman, Hannah tries to help and advice Joseph, but the violent man is initially aggressive towards her selfless kindness, disliking what he feels is the ignorance of the upper class. Against all odds, soon they become close friends despite their difficult first meeting. However, Hannah has a dark secret behind her apparently perfect life, as she is mentally and physically abused by her husband James (Eddie Marsan). And as Hannah gets closer to Joseph, he begins to remember his own violent past, his deceased wife and their troubled marriage.

Written by Paddy Considine, "Tyrannosaur" is at first look powerful drama about two troubled souls and the effect both have on each other. It is also a study on anger and violence, particularly domestic violence, which is explored in "Tyrannosaur" with crude brutality. Not only in the obvious case of Hannah, but also in Joseph as a former abuser. Joseph's search for redemption makes the backbone of the film, as he tries to find his way in the hopeless world in which he lives. The Tyrannosaur of the title, while a very specific analogy within the storyline, could also represent Joseph as a savage predator whose existence has been so far defined by violence. However, if Joseph is the backbone, Hannah is the film's heart, as her struggle is a more intimate and quiet one. Through the film, she'll endure a difficult transformation, which writer Considine develops with care and a deep honesty, keeping the naturalist tone without falling in cheap melodrama. The characters are very well defined, and transcend the usual stereotype to become real human beings.

As a director, Paddy Considine showcases a great skill at transmitting the inherent violence of the story through images. Not graphically, but suggestively, the violence is not exactly shown in acts, but in consequences. Considine focuses on the devastation that violence leaves in the lives of everyone. Joseph, Hannah, the little kid across the street and Joseph's late wife, with pure visual language, Considine shows that hope is scarce and violence is everywhere. Not the violence of a war or crime, but one that's closer, intimate, and yet as powerful and destructive. Erik Wilson's work of cinematography captures this gray world with a naturalist touch and desaturated color that's so common in British social realism, however, he avoids the use of shaky cam, having his camera to flow smoothly through this world, with a calm that contrasts sharply with the violence of the film. Where Paddy Considine's talent shines is in his directing of actors, as he brings powerful performances from his cast, which elevates the film from typical melodrama to high class filmmaking.

Because "Tyrannosaur" is a film of actors, as their work is without a doubt the best thing about the film. As Joseph, Peter Mullen reprises the role he had in Considine's first short film. As written above, the characters of "Tyrannosaur" could easily had been stereotypes, but thanks to Considine's writing they go beyond. Mullen takes advantage of this and builds up the complex personality of Joseph, a man consumed by rage and guilt. As he gets older and sees his friends dying, something changes in the violent man, and Mullen gives great power to this transformation. Nevertheless, the real discovery of the film is Olivia Colman's performance as Hannah, the Christian woman at the charity shop. Better known in England as a comedy actress, her performance as an abused woman is simply stunning in every detail. With only subtle gestures, Colman begins to build up a character that unveils herself as the story unfolds, showing a multilayered personality that never feels artificial and on the contrary, is hauntingly believable.

Certainly, "Tyrannosaur" is a film that, given its storyline, could had easily been a cheap melodrama about domestic violence and the differences between British social classes. However, director Paddy Considine imbues the film with a brutal honesty that transform the story into a scream of despair. Many films (specially British social dramas) have presented bleak story lines about working class life, however, Considine succeeds in making a very human work amidst the hopelessness that his story has. As written above, it's not really a graphically violent film, but it's still a difficult film to watch, as Considine makes the violence to be actually felt through the characters. The relationship that Considine establishes with his characters is another differences between "Tyrannosaur" and other similar films, as Considine enters their world as a witness to their lives, but with a great respect for their humanity. There's of course a certain taste for shock, but it's not one that comes for free. Considine doesn't shock gratuitously, he does it because that's life.

With a masterful display of talent by Mullen and Colman, "Tyrannosaur" is a shocking social drama about two heavily damaged souls that find some solace in each other. In the hands of many directors, this could had become a tearjerker, but Considine gives the film a very personal touch that makes the film a powerful experience. While it's certainly a film filled with violence, there's a certain human element in "Tyrannosaur" that gives it a different tone, a tone that's more intimate that what any graphic display of violence could had achieved. Considine tries to understand his characters, and by doing so, he makes them real. There's not a condescending towards them, but one of comprehension; not one of judgment, but one of love.


March 16, 2012

John Carter (2012)

In February 1912, the pulp magazine "The All-Story" began the serialization of what would be one of the most influential novels in the history of science fiction: Edgar Rice Burrough's "A Princess of Mars". With the title "Under the Moons of Mars", the magazine began publishing the chapters of this story that mixed elements from the Western and fantasy genres, making it an early work of the planetary romance subgenre. The story became enormously popular and would be finally published in book form in 1917 as "A Princess of Mars". Since its publishing, countless works have been inspired by Burrough's legendary martian adventures, an influence that extends well beyond the realms of science fiction literature as it has touched music, science, comics, and of course, cinema. From the "Buck Rogers" serials to "Star Wars" and "Avatar", Burrough's hero John Carter has been an indirect yet constant presence in film since the beginning. Which is perhaps why when he finally arrives in his own film adventure, 100 years after the novel's publishing date, the result feels a bit outdated.

Titled simply as "John Carter", the movie begins with the arrival of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) to the house of his uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who has just passed away under mysterious circumstances. Edgar begins to read Carter's journal trying to find an explanation for his death. The journal begins with Carter as an ex-Confederate captain who is now looking for gold in Arizona. Carter is found by Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), who wants Carter to join his army. Carter escapes and finds himself in a cave, where after strange events he ends up transported to Mars by a strange medallion. In Mars, Carter finds himself stronger and faster thanks to the planet's low gravity. However, he is captured by a tribe of martian creatures named Tharks. While living with the Tharks, Carter witness a battle between aircrafts piloted by humans, and when a woman (Lynn Collins) falls from one of them during the fight, Carter saves her. She is Dejah Thoris, a martian princess from one of the two warring nations of Red Martians. Carter finds himself again in the middle of a war.

Adapted by director Andrew Stanton himself along Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, "John Carter" remains relatively faithful to the core and spirit of Burroughts' classic; though of course, some elements haven been somewhat updated (keep in mind the novel is 100 years old). The best and most obvious is the fact that the Princess of Mars herself, Dejah Thoris of Helium, is no longer a damsel in peril whose only purpose is to be rescued by a dashing John Carter. She is now an intelligent woman, a skilled fighter and brilliant scientist who not only can put a fight, but also doesn't hesitate to manipulate John for her own agenda. It's quite an interesting and refreshing development for the character. However, unfortunately not everything in this adaptation of "A Princess of Mars" is that good, as the screenplay is plagued with problems, like for example, its episodic tone, in which the characters seem to just go randomly from one peril to another. Something that works nice in adventure novels, but that doesn't translate so seamlessly to film.

The result of this is a disjointed narrative, in which director Andrew Stanton conceives several set pieces of great quality, but that doesn't really work along with enough coherence. Certainly the work of cinematographer Daniel Mindel captures the desert landscape with great beauty and overall director Andrew Stanton's vision of Mars is awe-inspiring (not to mention that the visual effects are impressive); however, while several individual scenes may be remarkable, in "John Carter" the sum of its parts is much less than inspiring. While visually breathtaking, Stanton's polished "John Carter" suffers also from an inability to capture the sense of wonder and naiveté that the novel, as if Stanton had denied the film from its pulp magazine origins, treating it instead as highbrow literature and forgetting that "A Princess of Mars" is first and foremost, a fun story. On a lesser note, it also doesn't help the taming down of the novel's violence and sensuality inherent in Burroughs' tale to please the family oriented Disney.

The cast is for the most part of great quality, with the unfortunate exception of Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter himself. Kitsch certainly looks the hero part, but his performance is considerably inferior to those around him that despite being the protagonist he is often overshadowed. The revelation of the film is certainly Lynn Collins, who truly takes advantage of her character's development to display her talents. As written above, the Princess of Mars is now a complex character, one that's truly torn between the love for her people and her wish for independence. Collins doesn't limit herself to look beautiful, she commands the screen and delivers a performance that truly deserved a better film. Samantha Morton voices Sola, a Thark whose shunned by her tribe after found helping Carter. It may say a lot about Kitsch' performance when Morton with her voice alone makes for a more believable character. Mark Strong plays the villain, Matai Shang, ruler of Zodonga determined to marry the Princess of Helium to finally conquer the nation.

As written above, while there are many elements to praise in "John Carter" there are perhaps more than, if not entirely disappointing, they are at least unsatisfying. The already mentioned episodic narrative of the film is perhaps its greatest problem, though it also hurts the fact that while some characters are well developed, others are quite poorly done. In fact, the real villains of the film are left in the greatest of ambiguities. Certainly, a certain degree of ambiguity is often welcomed in a character, but in "John Carter", it's excessive, to the point of being just unexplained. This all may sound bad, but to make things worse, the real enemy of Stanton's "John Carter" is not even anything in the film per se, but the fact that 100 years after its initial publishing, the adventures of John Carter of Mars don't really look fresh anymore. Given that anything from "Buck Rogers" to "Avatar" has been touched by Burroughs' novel, Andrew Stanton's rendition of it can't help but feel ironically derivative.

This all may sound as if Andrew Stanton's "John Carter" was a bad film, but it's not. In "John Carter", Stanton goes to great lengths to create an epic adventure that could properly pay tribute to the books he enjoyed as a kid. Unfortunately, his noble attempt fails as his loyalty to the literary source couldn't translate well into a proper cinematic narrative. It's certainly an entertaining film, no doubt about it, but it's far from being the classic tale of science fiction that the original novel meant for literature. To summarize, "John Carter" is not a bad film, it's perhaps simply a disappointing one. The proper translation of the adventures of John Carter of Mars is still yet to come.


March 14, 2012

The Devil Inside (2012)

Ever since the release of "The Blair Witch Prject" in 1999, the subgenre of "found footage" films has grown exponentially, specially in the horror genre. This narrative device, consisting in presenting the movie as the discovered recording of an event by its dead or missing protagonists, suits nicely the horror genre, as not only it gives the film a certain degree of realism, its first person perspective can create a more visceral and personal horror. Over the years, the found footage narrative has been used to tackle many subgenres of horror cinema, from ghosts ("The Blair Witch Project") to zombies ("[REC]"), and everything in between, some with more success than others. The theme of exorcism, the casting out of demons, has also been tackled in found footage films; and given the controversial nature of the act of the exorcism and the difficulties of it, it could be said that it's the perfect material for a film of this sort. Unfortunately, William Brent Bell's uneven found footage film "The Devil Inside" could be labeled as proof that it's not.

"The Devil Inside" begins in October 30, 1989, when Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) murders three members of the clergy in her house while they were practicing an exorcism on her. Given the nature of the triple murder, the Catholic Church intervenes and Maria becomes confined to a Catholic hospital in Rome. Twnety years later, Maria's daughter, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) decides to make a documentary about exorcism, in order to find out what happened to her mother, whom she barely remembers. To this purpose she is joined by filmmaker Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama), whom is an atheist, but it's interested in filming the ritual. Their first step is to travel to Rome, where Isabella enrolls in a seminar about exorcisms and meets two priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth). After Isabella confesses her reasons to take the course, Ben and David tell her that they actually perform clandestine exorcisms to cases rejected by the Church. Isabella and Michael join the priests in their exorcisms, hoping they can help her mother, who still shows signs of possession.

Written by director William Brent Bell himself and his regular collaborator Matthew Peterman, "The Devil Inside" is built as the edited footage captured by the multiple cameras set by Michael, as they follow Ben and David in their clandestine exorcisms. As written above, the concept of a found footage film about exorcisms is pretty interesting (and one that 2010's "The Last Exorcism" also tackled), and in fact the writers do begin with a solid premise. Unfortunately, that initially solid premise gets slowly dismantled piece by piece as the story unfolds, as the writers seem unable to develop the group of characters they have gathered and instead present a series of derivative scenes that are rarely scary. In movie, a certain suspension of disbelief is always required, particularly in those of the fantastic genres; however, Bell and Peterman's screenplay presents situations where basic common sense is conveniently and unbelievably lost. And for a story where the selling point is the supposed veracity of the tale, this becomes quite problematic.

Director William Brent Bell doesn't do much to improve such a failed screenplay, and limits his vision to an attempt to replicate realism. Unfortunately, such attempt gets marred by his constant rehash of the usual clichés of demonic possession films. Which wouldn't really be a problem (it's impossible to escape the shadow of "The Exorcist"), if it wasn't for the fact that Bell uses them in the most obvious fashion, without trying to give them a twist or two. The found footage concept fails to catch the intended realism, and the work of cinematographer Gonzalo Amat gets lost in a truly messy work of editing. To make things worse, Bell falls in the common problem of films attempting to capture realism: the tedium of real life. A basic element of mockumentaries in general is that as outlandish their premises are, they still should feel like a real documentary. "The Devil Inside" fails to convey the interest, the sense of wonder that real documentaries would capture. And the result is a boring movie.

The performances from the cast are also problematic, as in general, they feel terribly amateur. Given the style of the film, it's clear that most of the lines may had been improvised, but there's never the feeling of authenticity in the actors that would give strength to the improvisation. With one big exception: Suzan Crowley's performance as Maria Rossi. In the scene where Maria finally meets her daughter, Crowley displays such a commanding presence that her performance alone makes what neither the director nor the photographer achieve: give the movie tension. Truly a powerful performance, and one that's tragically lost in the middle of the mess known as "The Devil Inside". The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre (Fernanda Andrade) to downright awful (Ionut Grama), though not everything should be blamed on the actors, as the characters are barely anything more than mere stereotypes. An attempt is done to provide some backstory for the roles, but in the end, the cast members are stuck at playing stock characters.

"The Devil Inside" is a deeply flawed movie, but it does have several good points. For starters, the initial sequence where Maria Rossi's crime is told via news footage truly sets a very good atmosphere. Sadly, such atmosphere gets lost during most of the subsequent scenes, to never fully be captured again. The much debated ending is actually appropriated for a found footage film, and perhaps the only logic consequence of the film's events. However, the problem is that "The Devil Inside" doesn't really have much logic during its entire development and no real empathy is built with its characters (whom are barely described despite having several documentary-style interviews), resulting in an ending that comes up as unsatisfying as barely the characters begin to get interesting when it all ends. As written above, the sudden ending it's perhaps the most appropriate finale for a found footage film, but in short, "The Devil Inside" just doesn't earn its right to end this way.

Since the release of "The Blair Witch Project", found footage films have come and go, some truly displaying inventive uses for this narrative device, and most discovering that yes, found footage is cheap to make, but extremely difficult to make right. "The Devil Inside" is sadly one of those films, a movie that fails to develop its premise and resorts to the cheap surprise scare (which gets so obvious that it's no longer a surprise) to generate emotion, a device Bell had previously overused in his teen slasher "Stay Alive". And sure, surprise scares do work, but its effect is one of so brief duration that when it's not accompanied by good atmosphere or an entertaining story, the sensation is one of being cheated. "The Devil Inside" is sadly an example of a good premise thrown straight to hell.


March 12, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Since the very first public projection in 1896, cinema has seen innumerable developments through its history; however, none has been as defining as an industry as it was the arrival of sound to film in 1927. While experiments to add sound to motion pictures were as old as cinema itself, it would be the release of Warner Bros.' "The Jazz Singer" what would change the medium for ever. Fascinated by the use of synchronized sound, audiences made the movie a hit and the studios realized that the future was on the "talkies". This would begin a traumatic process of adaptation in which many legendary careers would crumble to pieces while new stars would rise to the top. This is difficult era is the period in which Michel Hazanavicius' film "The Artist" is set, as a heartfelt homage to the art of silent cinema and its stars. But French director Hazanavicius doesn't just set his film in the silent era, he also has crafted "The Artist" as a film straight from the last years of the 1920s: silent.

"The Artist" begins in 1927, at the premiere of George Valentin's (Jean Dujardin) latest film, "A Russian Affair". Valentin, a major star of American film industry, enjoys his success as part of Hollywood royalty. Outside the theatre, when Valentin is posing for pictures, a young woman named Peppy Miller (Bérenice Bejo) accidentally bumps into him. The candid photo that the reporters take of them will mark the beginning of her rising star. Peppy begins to audition for films, and after getting a part as a dancer, her path crosses Valentin again. Fascinated by her charm, Valentin demands her to have a bigger role in the film, against the wishes of studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman). With this role, Peppy's career begins to move slowly forward stardom. Two years later, Zimmer announces that silent films will stop being produced in favor of talkies. Valentin refuses to work in talkies, and decides to finance his own silent film. While Valetin's star begins to fade as time changes, Peppy will become the new Queen of Hollywood during the sound era.

With a screenplay by director Michel Hazanavicius himself, "The Artist" is an old school melodrama that combines drama, romance and bits of comedy to chronicle the fall of silent star George Valentin in contrast with the rise of Peppy Miller, while at the same time unfolds the relationship that begins to grow between them. The result of an extensive research, Hazanavicius's screenplay is full of references and homages to the history of cinema, starting with the character of George Valenting himself, whom is a pastiche of silent stars Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. However, while "The Artist" is certainly aware of its nature as a homage, Hazanavicius doesn't take the route of mere parody, and instead remains faithful to the classic melodrama style that was so prevalent during the silent era. "The Artist" is clearly the work of a cinephile to cinephiles, a nostalgia piece, and while it certainly doesn't cover anything new (the classic musical "Singin' in the Rain" deals with the very same theme), the magic is not in its plot, but in its craftsmanship.

Because the charm of "The Artist" is in its daring return to the silent era style of filmmaking, with Hazanavicius returning to a purely visual narrative (though a couple of scenes does make use of sound for dramatic effect), replicating the tone and look of the classic Hollywood films of the 1920s. This replication involves a superb work of cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman, whom uses beautiful black and white (in Academy aspect ratio of course) to bring to life this tale of a bygone era, as if it was done with the technology available at the time. The whole production design (by Laurence Bennett) goes to a great length to replicate the silent era, however, beyond the mere technical aspects of the film, what truly captures the style of silent cinema in "The Artist" is simply Hazanavicius' fluid narrative, which as written above, it's based entirely on the visual, with a great economy of intertitles and a great knowledge of cinema's language. It's certainly a gimmick, but a gimmick that's very well introduced into the film's structure.

Acting is of course, instrumental in the recreation of silent era filmmaking, as certainly the way actors performed in those years was considerably different at the kind of work done today. As movie star George Valentin, French actor Jean Dujardin is remarkable, channeling the persona of Douglas Fairbanks to his character, Dujardin makes a terrific performance as the famous star unable to adapt to the changes. "The Artist" is Dujardin's show, and he truly makes the most of it. Bérenice Bejo plays his counterpart, Peppy Miller, the vibrant young actress who becomes the new Hollywood star as Valentin's days reach their end. Charming and full of energy, Bejo has a great charm that truly fits her role, which seems to be inspired by a young Joan Crawford. While overshadowed by Dujardin, Bejo does give her role a certain degree of class and youthfulness that suits the character like a glove. The rest of the cast is for the most part effective, though certainly their time on screen is considerable inferior. Dujardin and Bejo are the stars, and Hazanavicius makes the most of them.

However, amongst the supporting cast, it's worthy to point out the remarkable performance of James Cromwell as Clifton, Valentin's loyal butler. Cromwell imprints his role an enormous amount of dignity and expressiveness, that he perfectly transmits his character's emotions without anything else than his eyes. Cromwell's work is truly one of those little details that make "The Artist" rise from the usual variety of melodrama and make it more meaningful. Because as written above, there's really nothing new or original in "The Artist"'s storyline as it is, which echoes not only the aforementioned "Singin' in the Rain", but also classics like "A Star is Born" and "Sunset Blvd.". In this case, it's the details what truly matter, as it's there where the heart of the film is. Details like the minimal yet clever use of sound, the charming performance by Uggie the dog, and of course, the cinephilia, that cinephilia so deeply imbued in every shot. Without a doubt, "The Artist" is Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent era.

As written above, "The Artist" is a film based on a gimmick. What sets it apart is basically the unusual choice of making it a silent film. However, being that the feat is done by a cinephile, the experience becomes a joy for film savvy audiences. Certainly, this could also be a flaw, as perhaps audiences not so keen to silent cinema may not feel entirely related to the film's narrative style (it's decidedly a film of style over substance). But anyways, as gimmicky as it is, "The Artist" succeeds in making of its gimmick its greatest asset, becoming truly a silent film instead of just one replica. Hazanavicius' talent certainly has a hand in this, but perhaps the secret for this is in the heart that's been put into the film.


March 09, 2012

Der Student Von Prag (1935)

During the 1920s, German cinema experienced an artistic development that had its roots in the Expressionist movement that had been explored in architecture and painting. Films such as "Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari" (1920) and "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922) showcased the trademarks of the movement: a stylish and geometrical art direction, use of low-key lighting and the embrace of psychological themes. Expressionism was about the expression of the inner side, as opposed to a mere representation of the reality. Though short-lived, the movement left an enormous influence in cinema, particularly in the horror genre, which found in Expressionism the perfect style for its nightmarish worlds. The American horror films of the 30s are perhaps the best example of this, mainly because of the fact that key members of the movement who had moved to America were behind the camera. However, they weren't the only ones. In Germany, veteran director Arthur Robison attempted to update a classic story of the silent German Expressionism: "Der Student von Prag".

Set in the 1860s, Balduin (Anton Walbrook) is a young and gallant student, a dreamer whose greatest pleasure is to have a good time with his friends at the inn's tavern and compete with his friend Dahl (Fritz Genschow) for the affections of Lydia (Edna Gryeff), the innkeeper's niece. However, everything changes one day, when the group is celebrating Lydia's birthday, as that day the famous opera singer Julia Stella (Dorothea Wieck) stops by the inn, and casually offers the group a brief display of her talents. Amazed by the singer, the young Balduin immediately falls in love with her, but to his misfortune, she is always surrounded by the cream of the crop of society, people like the rich Baron Waldis (Erich Fiedler), so the poor student Balduin thinks he has no chance. It's in this moment when the mysterious Dr. Carpis (Theodor Loos) enters the scene, and promises Balduin the status he desires. However, by accepting this deal Balduin will become a pawn in Dr. Carpis' revenge against Julia.

The original version of "Der Student Von Prag" was written by author Hanns Heinz Ewers as a horror version of Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" and the Faust legend. Director Henrik Galeen's remake was more refined, but nonetheless faithful to Ewers' story. This version, written by Hans Kyser and director Arthur Robison himself, makes several important changes to the original tale. The most obvious are the fact that Balduin's love interest is no longer a member of the royalty but a famous singer, and the link between Dr. Carpis and Julia, inexistent in previous versions. The figure of Dr. Carpis receives considerable development, no longer being only a Mephistophelian figure, Dr. Carpis acquires a defined motivation and becomes a true villain in Robison's "Der Student Von Prag". However, the truly most important change is subtler: the fact that Balduin loses more than his reflection in the bargain, he loses his identity, his personality, his dreams. Robison's "Der Student Von Prag" is certainly closer to Wilde's "Dorian Gray" than to Poe's "William Wilson".

A veteran from the years of German Expressionism ("Schatten - Eine nächtliche Halluzination" being his most famous film), director Arthur Robison gives his version of "Der Student Von Prag" an ominous atmosphere of dread thanks to the great work of cinematographer Bruno Mondi (another Expressionist veteran), who captures the story of Balduin in a style that quite appropriately, becomes progressively darker as the story unfolds. Reflecting the changes to the plot, Robison's film is less an Expressionist nightmare and more a Gothic tragedy, with the emphasis now on the psychological horror instead of the visceral one. For this effect, Robison carefully develops the story of Balduin's damnation, giving enough space for the characters to grow (even the secondary ones), all with a slick and elegant visual narrative. His "Der Student von Prag" lacks the remarkable visual flair of Galeen's version, but instead Robison gives his movie a quite appropriate somber tone of ambiguity, with the nature of Dr. Carpis' power over Balduin left in the dark.

The acting is one of "Der Student von Prag"'s strongest elements, as it has several great performances from its cast. As the tortured Balduin, Anton Walbrook (still known as Adolf Wohlbrück) makes a remarkable job at portraying the change in Balduin's soul. Beginning the film as a carefree young lad, his character's obsession with Julia grows and takes him to make the pact with Dr. Carpis, which seals his fate. Without the help of any make up or special effects, Walbrook manages to create two very different personalities for his character, and often without saying a word: his facial expression telling all that's needed to known about the inner struggle for Balduin's soul. The beautiful Dorothea Wieck plays Balduin's love interest, Julia, and her work in the role is also of great quality. Wieck achieves to create an equally complex character, as her Julia is as guilty as Carpis of Balduin's ruin. Half Mephistopheles and half Svengali, Theodor Loos' Dr. Carpis may not be a physical imposing figure, but the strength he gives to his voice creates a convincing Gothic villain in the film.

An interesting update on "Der Student von Prag", Robison's film has in its favor an intelligent screenplay, a stylish technique and a collection of great performances. The twist that writers Kyser and Robison have given to the story is particularly meaningful, as it does give a new readings to the story. While in the past the result of Balduin's deal was that his mirror image gained life of its own (becoming a doppelgänger), in Robison's film the loss of his mirror image represents the loss of the best in him. The sentimental dreamer (as he is called in the film) becomes a cynic man twisted by greed and obsession. While he's still the young handsome student on the outside, his personality has been transformed by the powers granted by Dr. Carpis, eager to fuel Balduin's ambition to achieve his evil purposes. As a film made during the Nazi regime, it does make for an interesting parallel to the changes that were taking place in German society in the years before World War II.

One of the last films produced before all film production in Germany became subordinated to the Reichsfilmkammer, Arthur Robison's version of "Der Student von Prag" is more than a mere sound remake of a famous tale, it's a great horror film by its own right. Full of symbolism and of great technical quality, the 1935 version of "Der Student von Prag" has been unfairly forgotten, often overshadowed by its silent predecessors; however, it's probably the best version of the tale. "Der Student von Prag" would be Robison's last film before his death (he would not live to see it released), and also one of the last films Anton Walbrook would do before leaving Germany. In a way, "Der Student von Prag" marks the end of an era of German cinema.


March 07, 2012

La Revolución de Juan Escopeta (2011)

From 1910 to 1920, Mexico was immersed in a series of armed conflicts known collectively the Mexican Revolution, as they resulted in major social changes and as a whole formed the most important sociopolitical event in Mexican history of the 20th century. It all began with the uprising of Francisco I. Madero against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had been in power for almost 35 years. Madero's rebellion was followed by many leaders across the country (like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata), and their Revolution succeeded in ending Díaz' regime in 1911. Unfortunately, that would only be the beginning of the Revolution, as the conflicts between the rebels would continue with General Victoriano Huerta's betrayal and eventual coup d'état. This period of history would mark generations of Mexicans, and naturally, cinema would reflect its relevance. Jorge A. Estrada's "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is a film set right in the middle of the conflict, but what makes it even more interesting it's the fact that it's an animated film, in an industry that rarely produces animated movies.

"La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" (literally "The Revolution of Juan Escopeta") is set in 1914, during the battles against Victoriano Huerta's army. It's the story of a young kid named Gaspar or Gapo (Ulises Nieto) to friends. Gapo lives with his mother (Dolores Heredia) in a small mining town named Mineral de la Luz, as his father has died and his brother is away, having joined Pancho Villa's army. One night, Huerta's army arrives to town while Gapo is playing in the countryside, and when he returns he finds his house robbed and his mother dead. Gapo is taken by Huerta's army in order to recruit him by force, but he is saved by a mysterious gunslinger named Juan Escopeta (Joaquín Cosío). Escopeta is heading north, and when Gapo learns this he decides to join Escopeta, as his brother's army is there. Escopeta reluctantly accepts, and the two begin a journey through the Mexican heartland, which they will try to cross despite the constant battles between Huerta's army and the rebel forces. And to make things worse, another gunslinger is after Escopeta's head.

Written by director Jorge A. Estrada himself, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" follows essentially the classic pattern of a road movie in which two very different characters, the idealist Gapo and the tough Juan Escopeta, will learn to work together and an unlikely friendship is formed. All with a quite appropriate Western setting. Perhaps it's not the most original plot line, but an interesting element is the fact that Estrada builds his story around several historical moments of the Mexican Revolution, as the two travelers find themselves involved in some of its major conflicts such as the Battle of Zacatecas. While not without problems, Estrada succeeds in developing convincingly his two main characters, whom through their epic adventure also struggle with their very own personal dramas. Gapo, eager to follow his brothers' steps, faces the reality of a war that keeps taking lives; while Juan meditates about his mercenary ways and rediscovers humanity in his relationship with Gapo, to whom he becomes a father figure.

Director Jorge A. Estrada's visual narrative is traditional yet effective, unfolding his story at a nice rhythm, balancing the mix of comedy, drama and adventure that makes the core of the plot; and all without betraying its Western roots, which are constantly felt not only in the visual imagery, but in the way it tackles more mature themes, after all, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is set in the middle of a war. In fact, while an animated film aimed towards a younger audience, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" doesn't shy away from serious topics, with Gapo discovering that the reality of war is very different than the games he played with his friends. Unfortunately, while Estrada displays good skills as a storyteller, the work of animation done in the film is mediocre at best, downright awful at worst. The film is a classic 2D animation, with some CG enhancements; but while the character design is for the most part good, the quality of the animation is very poor in almost every aspect.

As a saving grace, the quality of the voice acting is for the most part quite effective. As the young Gapo, Ulises Nieto is good in the role of a young boy about to discover the world. Perhaps some of his expressions sound anachronic, though that's more a failure on the screenplay than on his acting. However, it's Joaquín Cosío whom steals the film as the taciturn gunslinger Juan Escopeta. A character that's more about attitude than anything else, Cosío achieves to give a well defined personality to the tired gunslinger. Bruno Bichir plays Cuervo, the mysterious gunslinger who's after Escopeta, and while his performance is good, it does get a bit over the top at times. Julieta Egurrola has a brief but important role in the film as a lonely nun protecting an abandoned church, and her voice work is pretty good. The rest of the cast is effective, though certainly less impressive. Perhaps the weakest link amongst the main cast is Dolores Heredia, who delivers a pretty poor performance as Gapo's mother.

Estrada's "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" has many remarkable elements to its favor, beginning with a truly inspired screenplay that actually develops its characters and story without limiting itself to just looking cool or being funny. Granted, it has some moments of tedium, and at times it does feel a tad episodic, but as a whole, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is a very engaging tale of friendship and loyalty. In fact, it's so good that it's actually a real tragedy how awful the quality of the animation is. Developed by Animex (creators of "La Leyenda de la Nahuala"), the work of 2D animation is mess that never really rises up to the level the screenplay deserved. And it's not really a problem in Estrada's directing, as in terms of narrative the film flows nicely, with Estrada picking the right angles to tell his story. The problem is simply in the execution of the animation, which seems to had been done cheaply to save money. To the point that makes one wonder how much better the film would be if it had been a live action movie and not an animated one.

Animated films are scarce in Mexican industry, a filmmaking technique that has never been fully explored, not even during the years of the so-called "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema". In recent times, this has changed and more and more Mexican studios are making attempts at producing an animated film. Unfortunately, the real classic of modern Mexican animation has not been produced yet. "La Revolución of Juan Escopeta" could had been this classic, but while it had a good screenplay, it just lacked quality in everything else. It's sad, because many times it's in the screenplay where most films have their Achilles' heel. In the end, if one manages to ignores the awfully quality of the animation, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" will reveal itself as a truly engaging and entertaining story.


March 05, 2012

Oni (1972)

Bunraku, a traditional form of puppet theatre, captivated the mind of a young Kihachiro Kawamoto, who decided to dedicate his life to the fine art of puppet making. However, it would not be the only thing that would fascinate the young Japanese artist. Years later, Kawamoto would discover the works of legendary Czech filmmaker Jirí Trnka, whose work in stop motion animation impressed Kawamoto so much that the puppet master decided to learn the craft. Kawamoto began working with another legend of animation, Tadahito Mochinaga, and later he traveled to Prague and met his hero, Jirí Trnka himself, in order to perfect his craft. Trnka would suggest Kawamoto to find inspiration in his own culture, and so combining what he learned from the Czech master with his background in Bunraku theatre, Kawamoto would produce several short films in which he would show Japanese culture to the world. "Oni", released in 1972, is the third of these independently produced short films that would earn Kawamoto a place in the history of animation.

"Oni", which can be translated as "Devil" or "Demon" (name in which the film is known in English) is the story of two brothers who live in the mountains with their old mother. The brothers are hunters, and their mother is very ill and frail due to her age. One night the two hunters decide to go deep into the woods in order to hunt deer. The brothers set traps for their prey, which they intend to kill with their arrows. While the younger of the brothers is setting up a trap near a tree, a pale white hand comes from above and grabs him from the hair, pulling him into the crop the tree. In panic, the captured hunter calls for help, and his older brother arrives with his bow and arrow ready to shoot. The shoot is difficult, but the hunter manages to save his brother, as the arrow severed the arm that was holding him. The two brothers check the amputated arm and discover it's a demon's arm. They decide to return home and take the arm with them. When they finally get home, the two hunters will make a shocking discovery, when they find that their mother is hurt, and her arm amputated.

As in most of his early shorts, the story of "Oni" was written by director Kihachiro Kawamoto himself, taking inspiration from ancient Japanese folklore. In "Oni", Kawamoto presents a fable which explores two main concepts: the fear and respect to the spirits of the woods, and most importantly, the fear of old age. In Kawamoto's "Oni", when age becomes too much for old people, they become demons willing to eat their own children. The demon in "Oni", originally a frail woman weakened by her old age, becomes a monster in order to devour her sons. However, while Kawamoto could make his story a full fledged horror tale, he actually makes of "Oni" a tragedy. After the horror has been overcame, what is left is an ominous sense of sadness. The woman's transformation is not only a horror, but a tragedy. It's not treated as something she willingly wants, but something that actually possesses her and dehumanizes her. This dehumanization of old people with age may be a commentary on the mental degeneration that old age can bring.

In "Oni", Kawamoto displays his craft at his best, showing not only his roots at Bunraku theatre, but also the great influence that Noh theatre had in his formative years. "Oni" works like a Noh play, though certainly, Kawamoto's film is anything but stagy. The camera-work is highly dynamic, and by creatively playing with light and shadows (work of cinematography by Minoru Tamura and Ken Yoshioka), Kawamoto gives his story a surreal atmosphere that suits perfectly the story's narrative style, which works like an ancient fable. In "Oni", Kawamoto creates one of his most impressive puppets in the Oni herself, which is based on the Japanese artistic representations of the demons. The stylish demonic face looks impressive when captured by the camera of Tamura and Yoshioka. The film is silent, and the story is narrated in intertitles. However, this aren't intertitles as those of classic silent cinema, but dynamic texts that move and fade following the film's visual design, flowing with its rhythm, being themselves an integral part of the film.

Visually breathtaking, and full of a haunting beauty, Kihachiro Kawamoto's "Oni" is a powerful fable that displays perfectly the craftsmanship of the legendary puppet maker. With its surreal cinematography and its brilliant music (a score in the traditional way by Seiji Tsuruzawa), "Oni" is almost like watching the traditional Japanese art forms come alive through the magic of cinema. Melancholic and ethereal, "Oni" is more than a supernatural horror film, it's a powerful drama that in barely 8 minutes presents the tragedy of losing oneself in old age. After "Oni", Kawamoto would continue working in several short films of the same style, in which he would tackle classic themes of Japanese folklore, creating several masterpiece of stop-motion animation in the process.