February 29, 2012

Satanás (2007)

In the afternoon of the 4th of December of 1986, a man known as Campo Elías Delgado arrived to the luxurious Pozzetto Restaurant in Bogotá, Colombia, and after eating, opened fire on the diners in a shooting spree that would later be known as the Pozzetto Massacre. The killing was only stopped when Delgado was shot by the police while he was reloading. It would later be discovered that before the Pozzetto killings, he also had killed three more people, including his own mother. The case shocked Colombia, particularly as the details of Delgado's life began to be made public. Writer Mario Mendoza Zambrano, a former classmate of Delgado, was particularly interested in the case and in the year 2002 published a fictionalized account of Delgado's last days titled "Satanás", in which Mendoza uses the Pozetto Massacre as basis to explore the nature of evil. The novel earned lots of praise in its native country and was soon adapted for a film, which was directed by Andres Baiz and released in 2007 with the same title, "Satanás".

The film opens with a woman named Alicia (Marcela Valencia) who confesses Father Ernesto (Blas Jaramillo) her desire of murdering her children to prevent them the suffering of living in poverty. Father Ernesto tries to comfort her but later, Alicia fulfills her desire, deeply affecting Father Ernesto, who had already in a crisis of faith due to his growing feelings towards his assistant Irene (Isabel Gaona). In the same neighborhood lives Paola (Marcela Mar), a beautiful woman who works at he marketplace, struggling to earn some money. Two friends, Pablo and Alberto (Andrés Parra and Diego Vásquez respectively) propose her to join them in a con to rob wealthy businessmen. Finally, there's Eliseo (Damián Alcázar), a Vietnam veteran and English teacher whom enjoys literature but has never been able to maintain social relationships. Eliseo lives with his mother (Teresa Gutiérrez), who constantly berates his son for his lack of success in life. Eliseo's resentment towards life begins to grow stronger, and his mind is a bomb ready to explode.

Adapted by director Andrés Baiz himself, "Satanás" (literally "Satan") takes several liberties with Mendoza's novel (the main one being the omission of a fourth story, the one of a character named Andrés. It's also set in current times instead of the 1980s), though it remains faithful to the core themes of the story, that is, it's exploration on the nature of evil. The three stories that collide in "Satanás" share the common theme of humanity's inherent evil, with the three characters experiencing different digress of evil, not only in the society they live in, but especially in themselves; not only the evil they suffer or witness, but most importantly, the one they inflict on others. In the story, Eliseo is fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", and the novel's theme of duality, of the evil that's hidden inside every person is echoed in the film, not only in the obvious case of Eliseo, but also in the lives of Paola and Father Ernesto. The different degrees in which they succumb to this inherent evil is the focus of Baiz' screenplay.

As a director, Baiz shows a very competent and polished technique, enhanced a lot by the remarkable work of cinematography done by Mauricio Vidal, which captures a city of Bogotá on the verge of becoming a urban nightmare, reflects the inner conflicts of Baiz' characters. Social inequity is another important theme reflected in Baiz' work, as several times he juxtaposes the wealthy neighborhoods of Bogotá with its decayed ones, again as two different sides of the same coin. The differences between social classes play a major role in the three stories, and Baiz handles this without resorting to cheap melodrama, never betraying the dark tone of his story. Baiz' visual style is polished, but now without a certain degree of gritty realism, which comes up as appropriate given the subject matter of his story. His narrative, dealing with three separated but interconnected stories is unfortunately a bit uneven, as while some of the stories are remarkably developed, others seem forced and even disposable.

The acting is perhaps the film's strongest element, as despite the screenplay's problems, the cast makes a remarkable job in their performances. Leading the cast is Mexican actor Damián Alcázar, delivering one of his best works as the disturbed Eliseo (the analog of real life Campo Elías Delgado). Not only Alcázar shows an acceptable domain of the Colombian accent, he creates a complex character that feels so real in his development that it's frightening. Certainly, Eliseo is the kind of character that could had easily been transformed into an over the top caricature, but Alcázar keeps a restrained approach that makes him believable. Equally restrained is Blas Jaramillo's work as Father Ernesto, the tortured priest with a crisis of faith. Jaramillo delivers a pretty effective work which shines particularly in his interviews with the deranged Alicia. The beautiful Marcela Mar plays Paola, and while her character's story is easily the worst developed of the film, she manages to add a good amount of strength and dignity to her poorly written role, and that's quite an accomplishment.

As written above, "Satanás" is built as a three separated story lines that eventually interconnect at some point. The inherent difficulty of this device is that one or more stories may not be as well structured as the others, and that's precisely what happens in "Satanás". While the story of Eliseo is a powerful deconstruction of what could had been in the mind of a seriously disturbed man, the stories of Father Ernesto and Paola are considerably weaker, particularly Paola's which could had been removed entirely from the film without any problem. Father Ernesto's story presents a truly interesting premise, particularly as he begins to be obsessed with the actions of Alicia, the woman he could not help. However, Baiz fails to exploit the potential of the story and, without any sensation of risk or drama, the story ends up as merely anecdotal. Paola's tale on the other hand, seems to be done for the sake of shocking value, as while her descent into darkness is pretty graphic, thematically is pretty shallow and her connection to the other stories is purely coincidental. And not in a good way.

In his feature length debut, director Andrés Baiz shows great technique and a well defined visual style. Unfortunately, his work with the screenplay is a tad uneven, resulting in a film that while remarkable in many aspects, may feel ultimately unsatisfying. Nevertheless, "Satanás" is a debut that shows that Baiz has the potential for greater things. With great performances by its cast (specialy Alcázar's) and a fascinating premise, "Satanás" is a quite interesting thriller that, taking the Pozzetto Massacre as basis, makes a good exploration of a twisted mind. Perhaps the other stories in the film lack power, but the story of Eliseo is so devastating that it alone makes the film worth a watch.


February 28, 2012

Nekromantik (1987)

Cinema of Transgression, term first used by filmmaker Nick Zedd to describe a movement of independent cinema (of which he was an important member) that took place during the late 70s and early 80s and which had as main trait the fact that it was often shocking or outrageous for the more conventional sensibilities. While the Cinema of Transgression was strictly an American movement, a lot of similarities can be find with the work of a German filmmaker named Jörg Buttgereit and the series of transgressive films he made during the last half of the 1980s. Earning experience by making Super 8 short films, Jörg Buttgereit first experience in a feature length film was his collaboration in Michael Brynntrup's experimental film "Jesus - Der film" in 1986. The following year, he debuted as a feature length director with the film that would define his career as a transgressive filmmaker: "Nekromantik". As the title may suggest, in "Nekromantik" Buttgereit tackles one of society's greatest taboos, necrophilia, the sexual attraction to corpses.

In "Nekromantik", Bernd Daktari Lorenz plays Robert Schmadtke, a timid young man who works at "Joe's Streetcleaning Agency", a company that removes corpses from public areas after the police work is done. While Robert doesn't really enjoy his work, it's the ideal position for him as Robert enjoys collecting body parts and organs, which he takes to his apartment with his girlfriend Betty (Beatrice Manowski), who also shares Rob's fascination with the dead. One day, a body is found in the river, and Robert is left alone to dispose of the body. Seeing this as a one in a million opportunity, Robert decides to steal the body and takes it home, where an excited Betty welcomes the decaying body as the ultimate romantic gift. From then one, Rob and Betty have passionate sex with the corpse, in their necrophiliac version of a ménage a trois. However, things don't go well for long, as Rob is fired from his job after pissing off his boss (Harald Lundt) with his tardiness. A disappointed Betty decides to leave Rob for good, and takes her loved corpse with her, leaving Rob desperate and alone.

More an absurd (and quite black) comedy than a typical horror tale, "Nekromantik" is the story of a twisted mind who finds the delicate balance in which it exists shaken away when his equally disturbed girlfriend leaves him. Told from the point of view of its pathetic antihero, Rob, "Nekromantik" explores initially the disgusting yet initially harmless obsessions of the couple of perverts, pretty much limited to collecting body organs. Betty, perhaps the real necrophiliac of the two, is a very dominant woman while Rob is merely a sad, dependent and very twisted man looking for understanding. With this purpose, Robert gives Betty the ultimate expression of his love: a full corpse for her enjoyment. And when she prefers the corpse over him, to the desensitized Rob it means the loss of the only person in his life that had understood him, and the beginning of the path of destruction (or better said, self-destruction) that writers Jörg Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen (his frequent collaborator) describe in the second half of the story.

And director Jörg Buttgereit doesn't really shy away from showing the twisted world of Robert and Betty in all its grotesque glory. From the initial sequence, Buttgereit shows his taste for the graphic display of guts and gore. The effects, by Jörg Buttgereit, Rodenkirchen and Lorenz himself, are of a pretty acceptable quality, considering the extreme low budget that the production had. In fact, it's actually amazing what Jörg Buttgereit achieves within the scope of his limitations, Like Buttgereit's earlier short films, "Nekromantik" was shot in 8 mm, and while the footage capture by cinematographer Uwe Bohrer is certainly crude, this is actually fitting given the grizzly subject matter. And about the necrophilia, director Jörg Buttgereit keeps things in the thin line between the oddly poetic and the blatantly exploitative. Buttgereit eroticizes the act in order to shock, and succeeds at it by juxtaposing the repulsive with the romantic, and all with a touch of absurd comedy that's fits nicely to the perverse mix.

Unfortunately, the lack of budget and experience is evident, particularly in the performances by the cast. Daktari Lorenz, who plays the film's antihero Robert, isn't actually that bad, but even when he does show real commitment to the project, his lack of experience betrays him from time to time. Beatrice Manowski, who plays his girlfriend Betty, delivers acting of a slightly inferior quality, a bit more artificial in her delivery, though she does manage to transmit the passionate emotions of her character. The rest of the cast is pretty mediocre at best, and while the vast majority of the remaining cast members play bit parts, it's evident that many of them weren't real actors. Harald Lundt, who plays Robert' boss Bruno is pretty stagy in his performance, and the same could be said of Colloseo Schulzendorf, who plays Joe, the owner of the company where Rob works. Certainly, the cast was made mostly of friends, which becomes evident when noticing that even director Jörg Buttgereit himself played a bit part as one of Rob's coworkers.

As can be imagined, "Nekromantik" is definitely not a film for the easy offended, as Jörg Buttgereit's transgressive film doesn't hold back in its grotesque visual imagery. And this is not a flaw, because by taking this exaggerated visual style, Buttgereit's vision remains close to his perverse touch of absurd comedy. In fact, the real flaw of the film is, oddly, the fact that it begins to lose steam as soon as the necrophilia aspect begins to be removed. What I mean is that as soon as Robert loses both his girlfriend and his corpse, the lonely mental deterioration that he suffers through the film's second half is considerably less interesting than the disturbing first half. With the couple element gone, Buttgereit's film loses the initial strength of his themes, loses its direction, and becomes a rambling sequence of events in which an increasingly insane Robert keeps moving around doing increasingly evil things. Certainly Robert's dehumanization is the center of the story, but Buttgereit's vision loses focus without Robert's female counterpart.

Infamous amongst cult films due to its graphic and often disgusting take on its taboo subject matter (which by the way, receives a more traditional approach in 1996's "Kissed"), Jörg Buttgereit's "Nekromantik" is an uncompromising horror film that truly live up to the title of "transgressive art". Jörg Buttgereit is not afraid of offending sensibilities with his film, and he succeeds in making a remorseless and bizarre study of a twisted mind. Certainly, the movie is lacking in the technical aspects (and the mediocre acting doesn't really help), but it's clear that "Nekromantik" is true to its director's very particular style. Absurd, revolting, bizarre and even hilarious at times, "Nekromantik" can be described by a multitude of adjectives, but typical is not one of them.


February 24, 2012

Pociąg (1959)

After World War II ended, the reconstruction of Poland began, and it was during this period of reformation when the occupying Soviet authorities instituted a communist government in the country. This movement found great resistance, but in the end, the People's Republic of Poland was proclaimed in 1952. However, despite its problems, Poland was one of the least repressive states of the Soviet Bloc, and particularly in 1956, the regime was actually liberal. In this period a group of young Polish filmmakers took advantage of the liberal changes and began to tackle important topics regarding their own national character as Poles. This group was named the Polish Film School (Polska Szkoła Filmowa) and had Andrzej Wajda as its leading figure. However, Wajda wasn't the only important filmmaker of the group, another of these innovative directors was Jerzy Kawalerowicz, whom in 1956 released "Cién" ("Shadow"), which reflected entirely the style of the Polish Film School. Two years later, Kawalerowicz made the ambiguous thriller "Pociąg".

"Pociąg" (literally "Train", but titled "Night Train") begins at a crowded train station, where the passengers are getting ready to depart. A man, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), dressed in a suit and wearing sunglasses, rushes to the station and gets a first class ticket for the overnight train to the Baltic Sea cost. Jerzy is decided to spend a time alone, and so he becomes enraged when he finds a young blonde woman, Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) already occupying it. Jerzy wants to throw her out and calls the inspector, but the girl refuses to leave, as she seems to be on the run from something, Before the police is called, Jerzy prefers to forget everything and lets her stay. A young man, Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is desperate to talk to Marta, but she ignores him constantly; however, the young suitor doesn't seem to be what truly worries the mysterious woman. Soon the train departs, and rumour arises that a fugitive, a man who has killed his wife, is on the same train. And everything points to Jerzy as the main suspect.

Written by director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Jerzy Lutowski, "Pociąg" is at its core, a thriller in a very Hitchcocknian vein, complete with a striking blonde surrounded by mystery. However, what the writers actually do is to employ this formula to construct a microcosm inside the passenger car, a microcosm that extends beyond Jerzy and Marta, and includes the relationships between everyone in the cart, from the two priests on a pilgrimage, to the lawyer and his wife, so eager to escape from her marriage with anyone who cares to listen to her. Even the lives of the train workers are explored briefly. Certainly, the search for the murderer is only the MacGuffin for the real drama, the psychological turmoil that consumes the two melancholic souls that share the same compartment. Two different, yet strikingly similar beings on their way to the sea. On their way to meet their fate. The notion of individuality is explored in the story, as both Jerzy and Marta feel like outcasts in their car, seemingly uninterested in belonging to society anymore.

This feeling of alienation is perfectly represented in the stylish visual design that director Jerzy Kawalerowicz employs in "Pociąg", which involves a claustrophobic atmosphere of dread beautifully captured by the black and white photography of Jan Laskowski. Working within the small space that the train car allowed him, Kawalerowicz employs tight shots to enhance the overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia that the story has. The black and white photography is used to enhance this, with Laskowski using light and shadows to draw the world in which Kawalerowicz' characters unfold. Andrzej Trzaskowski's music is another element that enhance the desolation in which these group of characters live, as the jazzy score has a powerfully melancholic sound. It's remarkable the way that director Jerzy Kawalerowicz keeps things moving in order to avoid tedium; from the dynamic camera-work that seems to flow through the car, to the smooth rhythm in which the plot unfolds, Kawalerowicz shows in "Pociąg" a great understanding of visual narrative.

As mentioned above, it's not really the plot but the characters what make "Pociąg" a different kind of thriller, and so the performances of the cast become instrumental for the film's success. Fortunately, the cast is of great quality, and with a couple of exceptions, it can be said that it rises up to the challenge. Leading the cast is Leon Niemczyk as the mysterious Jerzy, whom despite his initial desire of being left alone, gradually becomes to open up and show his true self. Niemczyk may not look like a good choice for the role, but as this change takes place in his character, he truly improves his performance. However, the real wonder is without a doubt Lucyna Winnicka, who plays the equally secretive Marta. In a truly complex and ambiguous character, Lucyna displays a wide range of emotions and delivers a masterful performance as the young woman lost in the world. It's also worth to point out the great job that Teresa Szmigielówa does as the Lawyer's wife, never losing any chance to seduce Jerzy.

An apparently atypical film from the Polish Film School, "Pociąg" may seem to lack the political consciousness that became so related to the group's style, however, the fact that "Pociąg" works like an American thriller doesn't mean it avoids the themes that the group explored. In a way, Kawalerowicz uses the night train to represent the Polish society as a while. An allegory of its times, the group of passengers doesn't really accept neither Marta nor Jerzy, to the point that they eagerly jump to the conclusion that Jerzy is the murderer. The individuality of these two characters, expressed in their rejection of society, only makes them suspects of foul play, to the point that their scorned lovers, Staszek and the Lawyer's wife, arrive to the conclusion that there is an illicit affair between them. Ambiguity is a key element in "Pociąg", and one that director Kawalerowicz plays masterfully. Certainly, at times it can get tiresome, particularly as it slows down by the middle part, but all in all, it's a very rewarding film.

Complex, ambiguous, and yet so beautifully crafted, "Pociąg" may be considered a it too Hollywoodish amongst the Polish films of its time, however, director Kawalerowicz certainly exploits the limits and conventions of the genre in a quite interesting and clever way. After the years of the Polish Film School, director Jerzy Kawalerowicz would become worldwide famous thanks to his work in "Matka Joanna od aniolów" (1961) and the superproduction of "Faraon" (1966), however, his early work already shows the great skill and knowledge of cinema language that Kawalerowicz would later display. As a thriller, "Pociąg" results an enormously entertaining film, as a political allegory, a remarkable achievement.


February 23, 2012

Trolljegeren (2010)

Originally a name to describe negatively a jötunn (giants) in Norse mythology, the word Troll evolved in Scandinavian folklore to define not the giants, but a different and very particular class of supernatural being. Varying in size and appearance, trolls became primitive pagan monsters, ugly and simple minded, though often big and remarkably strong. An important element of Scandinavian folklore, trolls have entered popular culture via the fantasy stories inspired by these legends. Being savage and ugly made them good material for villains in fiction, and as such can be seen in fantasy novels ("Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" for example"), role-playing games and of course, movies. While the better known instance of trolls in films may still be the infamous horror films "Troll" and "Troll 2", Norwegian director André Øvredal will hopefully change that with his "Trolljegeren", a remarkable horror film in the now familiar style of "found footage" mockumentary that continues that generation of great Norwegian horror films that have been released since the last decade.

"Trolljegeren" or "The Troll Hunter" begins as a documentary by film students Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen). The group is trying to make a movie about a bear poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen), who has been illegally killing bears. Through the eyes of cameraman Kalle, and with Johanna as sound recorder, Thomas attempts to interview Hans, and uncover him as the bear poacher, but he avoids contact with them. During one night, Hans goes hunting and the three students follow him into the woods, hoping to film him in action. However, they are attacked by a giant monster that Hans insists is a troll. The monster bites Thomas and destroys the crew's car, so Hans helps them return. However, the group wants to know more, and Hans confesses that he is not a bear hunter, but a troll hunter, hired by the government to secretly control the troll's population. Tired of his job, Hans allows the students to film him, hoping that the truth about trolls gets to be known.

As it can be noticed, "Trolljegeren" opens with a premise similar to the 1999 horror "The Blair Witch Project", which also dealt with the found footage of three students that were making a documentary; however, André Øvredal's screenplay (done with contributions of Håvard S. Johansen) is significantly different in tone, as his story is more a cynic comedy about the thankless job of the troll hunter. However, the comedy employed by Øvredal is of a subtler humor, one which finds the laughs not in the vulgar parody of a genre, but precisely in the serious tone in which such outlandish events are treated. Cleverly written and filled with countless references to the trolls folklore, "Trolljegeren" is a mockumentary that actually works its fantasy elements into reality, that builds up its verisimilitude by fleshing out a coherent mythology of its own, and all while at the same time takes a dig at Norwegian government institutions. The clumsiness, carelessness and stubbornness they show is just part of "Trolljegeren"'s very Norwegian self deprecating humor.

However, the most remarkable accomplishment of André Øvredal's "Trolljegeren" is the way he employs the mockumentary genre to capture the sense of wonder that folktales are supposed to have. As written above, Øvredal's intelligent screenplay already plays a big role in this, but it's the execution of it what would ultimately make of break the film. Fortunately, Øvredal succeeds and the result is a mockumentary that truly feels like the real thing. As in most found footage films, the point of view is that of the camera, and what Øvredal achieves is to transmit the very same amazement that the three filmmakers feel when Hans shows them the truth. Their curiosity overcomes their fear, and Øvredal's narrative just keeps on feeding that curiosity. A common flaw of found footage films is that in their search for capture realism, the tedium of real life tends to crept into the film. Not the case of "Trolljegeren", as Øvredal keeps things moving without wasting time and always adding to its story instead of rambling into another direction.

Given that his character is the subject of the documentary, Otto Jespersen receives countless moments to shine as Hans the Trollhunter. Certainly, the movie's weight is on him, and in a subtle, restrained style, Jespersen remarkably builds up a very natural and realistic portrait of the tired hunter. Several scenes consists of interviews to Hans, and it's in those scenes in which Jespersen is shown at his best. Often with only his body language he transmits the melancholy of the hunter, dissatisfied with his job and hoping for a quieter life. Glenn Erland Tosterud, who plays the interviewer and director of the documentary, is probably the weakest amongst the film's cast, though he makes up for his lack of skill with a natural charm and strong presence. Way better is Johanna Mørck, who plays sound recorder Johanna, whose character grows as the events of the film unfolds. Tomas Alf Larsen has the difficult job of being the point of view as he plays cameraman Kalle, though fortunately he rises up to the challenge and delivers an effective job.

Another highlight of the film is Hans Morten Hansen's brief but substantial performance as Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen), head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board, and the one that's chasing the crew in an attempt to prevent the secret to go public. In fact, there are many things to praise in this humble low budget wonder from Norway, which after "Villmark", "Naboer" and "Død snø" has proved to be a fountain of a new and refreshing generation of horror films. From the clever cynicism of its screenplay to its great performances, and even the remarkable (for the budget) special effects that display trolls in all their somber glory. As written above, the serious tone in which such an absurd premise is taken only adds up to the subtle black comedy of Øvredal's film, and the mix of comedy and horror works pretty nicely for the most part. Perhaps the film's biggest problem is simply the fact that it can't help but feeling derivative due to the overuse of the found footage device, however, amongst these kind of films, "Trolljegeren" is a winner.

Perhaps the best way to describe "Trolljegeren" is captivating. What initially begins as a boring student documentary about illegal hunting soon evolves into a dark trip full of wonders. Of pretty dangerous wonders by the way, as director André Øvredal doesn't back from the original myth: trolls aren't cute, trolls are monsters, very dangerous monsters. "Trolljegeren", for all its satirical humor and sheer absurdity, it's still at its core a true return to the original horrors of fairy tales, to that mixture of terror and fascination that surrounds all the good horror stories of the world. More than a decade after "The Blair Witch Project" kick-started the boom of found footage films, "Trolljegeren" puts an ironic twist to the premise of three film students in the woods and delivers a vibrant and exciting documentary on supernatural wildlife.


February 15, 2012

Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (1912)

Amongst the early animation pioneers, the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz stands as one of the most revolutionary animators of all time, as his work in puppetry and stop motion animation has proved to be enormously influential. Born in the Russian Empire (in what is now Lithuania) Starewicz entered animation while working at the Museum of Natural History in Kovno, back in 1910. Trying to make short educational documentaries for the museum, Starewicz found himself unable to film a battle between two stag beetles, which as nocturnal creatures weren't too keen of the lighting needed for filmmaking. An inspired Wladyslaw Starewicz decided to recreate it through stop motion animation and the result was "Lucanus Cervus". To this first puppet animation with insects followed many more, which earned Starewicz international acclaim thanks to the great care he put to his animation. Amongst his oeuvre, his most famous films remain his shorts with insects, of which the best known is a funny masterpieces titled "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" or "The Cameraman's Revenge".

In its barely 12 minutes of runtime, "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" tells the tale of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, a normal looking marriage between insects. However, behind the apparent happiness of the Beetles household, Mrs. Beetle is having an affair with another insect while Mr. Beetle is at work. As soon as Mr. Beetle leaves the house, she calls her lover, an artist, to spend the afternoon with her. Nevertheless, the cuckold husband Mr. Beetle isn't exactly an example of fidelity himself, as he leaves work early to visit his favorite club, "The Gay Dragonlfy", where his mistress (a Dragonfly) sings and dances. However, a Grasshopper is also in love with the beautiful Miss Dragonfly, which results in him getting beaten by Mr. Beetle. However, Mr. Beetle doesn't know that the Grasshopper is a filmmaker, and he films Mr. Beetle's extramarital affair in order to have his revenge. Going back home, Mr. Beetle finds his wife's lover and also beats him out. After his violent outburst, Mr. Beetle decides to forgive Mrs. Beetle and takes her to the movies, not knowing that the cameraman is ready to show his film.

Written and directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz, "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" is apparently a pretty simple story about an adulterous couple (in fact a common topic in short comedies of the era), however, there's more than just that in Starewicz' film, as the movie also presents the possibility of film as evidence of an act. Cinema as a weapon of sorts as in a way, Mr. Grasshopper's camera becomes the instrument of his revenge revenge on Mr. Beetle. In his writing, Starewicz also shows a taste for irony in his sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of the social values of his time. This is best represented in the moment when Mr. Beetle discovers his wife's infidelity, as the cuckold husband becomes furious and, after beating the lover, shows his "generosity" and forgives his wife, even when it's already clear that he is not really an innocent beetle. Certainly, her posterior violent outburst is not caused by her husband's infidelity, but by his blatant hypocrisy.

However, beyond the film's touch of comedy (which is great), what truly makes "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" a remarkable movie is without a doubt the innovative use of puppet insects to tell the story. In "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" can be fully appreciated the great amount of care that filmmaker Wladyslaw Starewicz put into his projects, not only in the extraordinarily detailed props and costumes built for the movie (to the point that the Beetles wear boots), but in the extremely fluid stop motion animation he achieves. It's almost as if the insects were really riding motorbikes or operating a camera. Also, using purely visual narrative, Starewicz manages to give personality to his insects, he fully humanizes them in remarkable ways. This isn't an easy feat, because since Starewicz' puppets are real insects, they obviously lack facial expressiveness, so what Starewicz does is to use their actions to tell who these people are, showing an enormous understanding of cinema as a storytelling medium.

As written above, the work of Wladyslaw Starewicz would give the Russian filmmaker international acclaim, and the chance to keep improving his technique. Eventually, Starewicz would experiment with many other styles, including directing live action films (like "Noch pered Rozhdestvom"). The October revolution would briefly pause his career, as he and his family fled to Paris. It would be in France where Starewicz would polish his style and move towards a more surreal vein. Of great influence for animators across the globe, Starewicz' "Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora" remains a testament of its maker's great imagination and his great domain, not only of stop motion animation, but of cinema's purest visual narrative.


February 13, 2012

Efpeum (1965)

The decade of the 1960s was a decade of many social changes across the globe, as a new generation was rising to find its place in history. Inevitably, such changes would be reflected in the arts, and in the case of cinema, in many places it meant the closure of an era, such as the decline of the American studio system or the end of the so-called Mexican "Golden Age". But it also meant the beginning of a new one. A renewal of ideas of sorts, reflected in the New Hollywood and the French Nouvelle Vague. In the South American country of Venezuela it meant the arrival of a new generation of filmmakers eager to break with the realist tradition of Venezuelan cinema. Amongst this new generation of filmmakers was Mauricio Odremán, a writer who had been working at several production companies and whose first produced screenplay was the 1964 film "Isla de Sal". Deeply interested in surrealism and metaphysics, Odremán reflected his ideas in a short film written and directed by him: Venezuela's first science fiction movie, "Efpeum".

"Efpeum", which actually stands for "Estructura Funcional para Encontrarse uno Mismo" (literally, "Functional Structure to Find Oneself"), begins at the University, where an Architect (Samuel Roldán) is giving a lecture about his new idea: a building, or better said, a structure that more than serving as a housing project could actually help its inhabitants to transcend this dimension. The audience explodes in laughter and the Architect is humiliated and leaves the University. He wanders around, until he is told that there's a man who can help him, an Alchemist (Carlos Guerrero). The Architect meets the Alchemist and explains his project, and proposes him to combine their knowledge in order to create EFPEUM. The Alchemist agrees somewhat reluctantly, and the two begin their work. The two of them have differences, but soon the Architect begins to learn the way of the Alchemist, who begins to consider the Architect as his equal. The arrival of the Alchemist's partner Andreina (Bertha Mantilla) will make them become one.

As can be imagined by the plot, Mauricio Odremán (who wrote the screenplay) uses the conceptions of science fiction in "Efpeum" as the way to express his metaphysical and philosophical beliefs. Basically, "Efpeum" is to the science fiction genre what Jodorowsky's "El Topo" is to the Western. In fact, while in terms of style there is no apparent influence from the Chilean filmmaker, thematically Odremán's "Efpeum" covers topics that are pretty similar to the ones explored by the director of "The Holy Mountain". In "Efpeum", Odremán implies the search for a higher state of mind, and represents two viewpoints in the film's two main characters. The Architect, symbol of reason, pursues knowledge and has the willpower to achieve the project, though his view is narrow due to what society has taught to him. The Alchemist, represents a knowledge closer to nature, a freedom the Architect lacks. However, both are needed to transcend, and the catalyst for this is the female figure, Andreina, and in sexual union the three of them become one.

Visually, Mauricio Odremán's film is a very symbolic work, in which the imagery captured by cinematographer Tony Rodríguez is of a quite allegoric nature. The world of Odremán is a desolated land, in which the human figures seem to be alone looking for meaning, while the University has an oppressive architecture, reminiscent of the German Expressionist style. In his vision of future, Odremán contrasts nature and science, echoing the themes of his screenplay, and this duality is played through the film in its many different set pieces. The narrative is disjointed, though not incoherent, and it follows several stages in the relationship between the Architect and the Alchemist as EFPEUM is being constructed and Andreina appears in their lives. Through the film, Odremán uses sound in pretty interesting and strange ways, aiming to disconcert and disturb in some way. However, the most bizarre of this is his use of romantic ballads to narrate passages of the story (for example, a love song to EFPEUM opens the film), which is quite odd to say the least.

The performances by the cast are a bit stagy, though given the allegorical nature of "EFPEUM", it's probably meant to be this way. Still, it's perhaps the film's weakest element, as the work is unfortunately of a mediocre quality. The only saving grace is Samuel Roldán, who plays the Architect, carrying the story with a natural charm and a certain dignity that makes the outlandish film a tad more believable. Sadly, it can't be said the same about fellow cast-members Carlos Guerrero and Bertha Mantilla. Guerrero, who plays the Alchemist, is too hammy in his role, and even given the nature of the film his work looks out of place. As the mystic Alchemist, Guerrero unfortunately makes more a parody of his role and diminishes the power of the film. However, even worse is Bertha Mantillo, who plays the Alchemist's partner Andreina. While Andreina is meant to represent the sensuous being, an unleashed magic in pure form, her performance is too wooden to be taken seriously, and sadly feels more like a robot than like the wild force of nature she should be.

As can be seen by now, Mauricio Odremán's "Efpeum" is not exactly the typical science fiction tale, it's more a full expression of its maker's metaphysical ideas. An allegoric exploration of themes in which the message between lines is far more important than the actual story. As written above, given its surreal take on philosophical themes, the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky could be a considered a close relative to Odremán's film, and as such, this 30 minutes short film is equally as cryptic. However, "Efpeum" suffers of several problems that somewhat difficult its enjoyment. Not only the afore mentioned low quality of the performances is off putting, what's perhaps the greatest problem in Odremán's film is how badly it has aged. And this is not about any technical issue, but about Odremán's abuse of distorted pop culture elements, particularly his use of very 60s romantic ballads, which with time has stopped from being daring or avant-garde and has become pure kitsch.

Certainly a product of its time, "Efpeum" belongs to the most reactionary style of filmmaking of the 1960s. Completely beyond of any classification (certainly, the science fiction genre is only the one that seems to describe it best), Mauricio Odremán's film is one that despite not having aged that well, still can be a fascinating glimpse to the mind of its maker and the topics that interested him. Of great historical importance, this first Venezuelan science fiction film can be difficult to appreciate given its allegorical nature and crude style, though it's still a fascinating example of Latin American surrealism.


February 10, 2012

La última muerte (2011)

During the first decades of the 21st century, there has been a certain Renaissance of genre films in Mexican film industry, which since the 1980s seemed to had relegated them to the straight-to-video market. Granted, the occasional horror film managed to crept into a theater (Del Toro's "Cronos" for example), but for the most part, the New Mexican Cinema of the 90s consisted almost exclusively of social dramas or black comedies. Despite this, new Mexican genre films began a slow yet consistent return to the big screen in the 2000s, from horror ("KM 31: Kilómetro 31" in 2006) to fantasy ("Ángel caído" in 2010), showing that there is a new generation of filmmakers decided to try new things for Mexican cinema. Science fiction, a genre that produced some of the most bizarre Mexican films of the 60s, returned in 2009 with Francisco Laresgoiti's "2033", which was followed in 2010 by Angel Mario Huerta's "Seres: Genesis" and now David Ruiz' "La última muerte". Unfortunately, the results have not been the best so far.

"La última muerte" (literally "The last death") is set in the near future and begins in the woods, when a storm is about to begin. Dr. Jaime Alexanderson (Álvaro Guerrero) is packing stuff at his cabin, as he is in the middle of a divorce from his wife Sofia (Claudette Maillé). Going outside during the storm, Alexanderson finds a young man (Kuno Becker) lying unconscious near his cabin. Alexanderson decides to help and takes him home. When he awakes, the young man is unable to recall anything, not even his name, all he can remember is the name "Mónica". He is also in great physical pain, so Alexanderson decides to take him to a hospital where his friend D. Helmut (Carlos Kaspar) checks him. They discover two important facts about the mysterious man: he is chronically ill and he doesn't exist in the Global Persons Database. Alexanderson will discover that while the man supposedly doesn't exist, everyone is after him, and soon they'll find themselves running from the police as they try to figure out his identity.

Director David Ruiz himself is the mind behind the screenplay (written in collaboration with Alexis Fridman, Gaël Geneau, Fernando Rovzar and Patricio Saiz), and makes of "La última muerte" a futuristic thriller in which Alexanderson, driven by his desire to help, leaves his quiet life determined to find out who is actually the young man. Unlike what the poster may indicate, it is actually Dr. Alexanderson who drives the story while the unknown man is more like a plot element, a MacGuffin; and this is quite interesting as having a mature middle-aged man as the protagonist of the film isn't that common nowadays. This unlikely choice for a hero allows Ruiz to explore different themes, as Alexanderson's willingness to help the young man is rooted in a desire to finally do something right in his life, something to balance all his mistakes (such as his failing marriage). For Alexanderson, helping this man becomes ultimately a purpose, a way of finally achieving something. Unfortunately, Ruiz' script fails to exploit this element as its messy storyline is poorly developed, with several holes and inconsistencies.

However, while as scriptwriter Ruiz has many shortcomings, it is as a director where his talent truly shines, as the visual narrative of "La última muerte" is a pretty slick and attractive one. An experienced director of music videos, Ruiz proves himself a resourceful filmmaker with a clear and well defined style, as well as a keen eye for visuals. Ruiz' vision of the future is notoriously grounded in realism, the technological advances of his future are subtle and purely utilitarian, closer to the world of "Gattaca" than to the one of "I, Robot". Through the camera of cinematographer Juan José Saravia, director David Ruiz gives his film a naturalist style, avoiding as much as possible the need for complex special effects (though there are a couple of scenes of unnecessary CGI) and aiming for a believable (and frighteningly probable) idea of the future. Sadly, for all of his technical skill, Ruiz doesn't manage to save the film from it's messy screenplay, and the result is a well narrated bad story.

The acting is of an uneven quality, with some pretty good performances and others that are downright mediocre. Álvaro Guerrero, who plays Dr. Jaime Alexanderson is pretty good in his role for the most part, pretty convincing as a man of science trying to solve this big puzzle that he found in his cabin. He adds a certain amount of gravity to the role that it's fitting, and his turn from meek man of science to a major player in the conspiracy is quite natural and believable. As the unknown man, Kuno Becker has solid moments as this confused and gravely ill man who finds himself at the center of everything. Unfortunately, his character is pretty limited by the screenplay and the result is uneven. The rest of the cast is pretty mediocre, and particularly poor are the performances of Alexandra de la Mora and Carols Kaspar, who play Dr. Alexanderson's best friends. Perhaps a saving grace is Carlos Bracho, who appears in a small but quite important role as millionaire entrepreneur Wilkins.

With its stylish visual look and remarkable camera work, "La última muerte" is a very well done movie in purely technical terms. However, it suffers from major problems in its screenplay, problems that director David Ruiz is unable to avoid. For starters, it's hard to understand the motivations that set the plot running. Certainly, it is hinted that Dr. Alexanderson's marital problems steam from guilt over the past, but it's an element that soon gets forgotten and left unnecessarily ambiguous. Another thing is that the story spends its time building up a certain dynamic between characters, and on the last third their acts begin to contradict themselves. It's clear that there was an attempt to make a big twist in the plot, but it feels too forced and lacked verisimilitude. Another thing is the inclusion of characters that suddenly become irrelevant (Manolo Cardona's character for example, in which a great work of acting is wasted). Sadly, it becomes obvious that the screenplay could had been benefited of the same care as the visual look.

David Ruiz' "La última muerte", while showcasing excellent production values and a high technical quality (not to mention a promising talent in its director), suffers from having a thinly developed screenplay that leaves more questions than answers, and not in a good way. While the premise is certainly interesting, the lack of consistency and the holes in the plot hurt the resulting product, which ends up as an unsatisfying film that never really takes off. In an industry that had forgotten science fiction for decades, it's refreshing to see attempts like "La última muerte". David Ruiz' film showcases that there's the talent to make a great looking science fiction film. It only needed a better done story.


February 08, 2012

The Third Man (1949)

There are movies that posses a remarkable technical excellence. There are also films that are simply just quite entertaining. And of course, there are movies of great artistic value too. And films that fully summarize the values and ideas of the time when they were made. And then there are films that truly encapsulate all that and more, that are so finely done that transcend their time, genre, nationality and are in fact real celebrations of that very human pleasure that is storytelling. Films that go beyond fulfilling the honorable goal of entertain and actually inspire. Those are masterpieces. And Carol Reed's "The Third Man" is one of those films. Produced in 1949, right at the beginning of the Cold War, "The Third Man" is a remarkable gem of filmmaking that more than 50 years after its release it still remains a captivating tale of mystery. A landmark of the broad thriller genre. The British Film Institute names it the best British film of the 20th Century. As pompous as that title may sound, it may actually not be that far from the truth.

"The Third Man" begins in Vienna, after Wolrd War II, where the city has been divided between the Allied forces. To the occupied city arrives American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an out of luck writer of pulp fiction, specifically Westerns, who has been offered a job by his childhood friend, Harry Lime. As soon as Martins arrives, he discovers that Lime was killed in an accident, ran over by a car while crossing the street. At Lime's funeral, Martins gets to know Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), and tries to figure out what happened in the last days of his dear friend. Martins begins to meet some of Lime's friends in Vienna, such as Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) and Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), who were with Lime when the accident took place. He also meets Lime's girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli) and becomes fascinated with her. Inside Martins, the suspicion that Lime was killed begins to grow, specially when he finds out that at the time of his death there was a third man present. Martins will have to find out the identity of the third man.

Written by celebrated author Grahamn Greene (who famously wrote it initially as a novel in order to develop the plot. The novel was subsequently published), "The Third Man" is a cleverly written story of mystery with a captivating plot full of twists and turns, and a remarkably well done set of characters. However, while the interesting complexities of the plot are a joy, the gem of Greene's screenplay is the dialogs, which are literate and intelligent, but never overdone or artificial. Also, while deeply imbued by the conventions of film noir, "The Third Man" is notable in its subtle and elegant touches of comedy, that permeate the film with a very distinctive British tone. But behind its thrilling plot and its classy style, there are several themes that Greene explores that allow multiple readings of the film. For starters, it's ironic and frank disbelief in a peaceful post-War era is evident, but it's in the bittersweet way "The Third Man" deals with the topics of friendship and betrayal where the heart of the film is.

Certainly, the quite distinctive visual style of "The Third Man" is another of its highlights, with director Carol Reed crafting a breathtaking thriller that it's pure cinema. While certainly Greene's screenplay is a joy, the purely visual elements that Reed conjures in "The Third Man" enhance the atmosphere and take full advantage of cinema as a narrative medium. The work of cinematographer Robert Krasker is of great beauty, with the extensive use of Dutch angle shots and an Expressionist lighting style generate an atmosphere of tension, reflecting the alienation felt by Martins, whom by all accounts is a stranger in a strange land. The use of real Vienna locations for exteriors gives the film a gritty realism, pretty much in tone with the harshness of its plot. And yet, as mentioned above, Reed imbues his film with a darkly comedic tone of irony that fits the cynicism of his characters. With subtlety, he makes them captivating without softening in any way the impact of their lurid story.

The work done by the cast is simply amazing, showing the talents of the many excellent actors gathered in the film. Leading the cast is Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, perfectly capturing the nervousness and naiveté of this pulp writer eager to make it big in Vienna. Interestingly, Martins is far from a traditional heroic character, lacking the courage and determination of the classic archetype, but compensating it with wit and a good heart. A good heart that could be his doom. As his childhood friend and the origin of the mystery, Harry Lime, the legendary Orson Welles portrays the opposite of Martins, a man so sure of a presence so big that dominates the screen even when he is not even there. The discovery of what happened to Lime will have great effects in Martins' character. As Lime's girlfriend Anna, Italian actress Alida Valli is not only beautiful, but also owner of an equally strong presence. This is another interesting element, as her character is certainly more dominant than Martins, and yet, still devoted to Lime.

In the supporting cast, the same high quality is found, particularly in the work of Trevor Howard, who plays Major Calloway, and Ernst Deutsch, who is the mischievous Baron Kurtz. Each one of them has more than a moment to shine, as the script grants them enough room to breath and grow. Stylish and irremediably mesmerizing, it's hard to say anything about "The Third Man" that it's not a praise, as everything from Greene's intelligent screenplay to the haunting score composed by Anton Karas (entirely on a zither) seems to be in the right place to make "The Third Man" a timeless classic. In fact, the film's high quality has resulted in the common error of attributing the film to Orson wells, though he has gone on record as saying that the film is entirely Reed's enterprise. And this is nowhere clearer than in the film's ending, which diverts from Greene's plan. Against the writer's protests, Reed (with the support of producers Korda and Selznick) made the change and the result was one of cinema's best finales for a film.

In the end, Carol Reed's "The Third Man", more than an influential film, it's a film that summarizes everything that cinema is. If Orson Welles' own "Citizen Kane" marked a revolutionary innovation in cinema language in 1941, Carol Reed's film shows a polished, distilled form of those innovations fully applied in its narrative style and visual design. In many ways, this 1949 film closes a decade of multiple changes as a true modern film. It's still bears the mark of a traditional thriller, but enriched by its noir aesthetic and its sly cynicism, "The Third Man" already points out the direction cinema would take in the future. Certainly, the title of "best film" is entirely subjective, but "The Third Man" has everything to support an argument for it.



February 06, 2012

Drive (2011)

In 2005, when the novel "Drive" by crime fiction writer James Sallis was published, it quickly caught the interest of producer Adam Siegel, who was fascinated by the nameless protagonist of the story. Unfortunately, the project struggled to enter production, and while it was nearly done in 2008, the project ultimately fell though. Two years later, "Drive" returned to life when actor Ryan Gosling signed on to the project and was allowed to choose the director for the film. His choice was Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, the mind behind the British biopic "Bronson" and the successful Danish crime trilogy "Pusher". Having already proved to have a talented hand to direct deep and complex action films that go beyond the norms of its genre constrains, in his American debut Refn once again twists the genre in a retro style movie that has more in common with the quiet existentialism of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime cinema than with the Hollywood school of action films. Not that it doesn't boast it's American influence as well.

In "Drive", Ryan Gosling is a mechanic with great driving skills who works part time as a Hollywood stunt driver and moonlights as a getaway driver. Prefering to work anonymously, this Driver never tells his name, not even to Shannon (Bryan Cranston), owner of the garage where he works and who sets up his other jobs. Shannon plans to enter the racing business and borrows $300,000 from a mobster, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), to buy a stock car race with the intention of having the Driver racing it. One day the Driver helps his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) when her car has trouble, and soon becomes good friends with her and her young son (Benicio). They live at the apartment next door while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. When Standard is released, the Driver discovers that a gangster named Cook (James Biberi) is after Standard, and that he'll hurt Irene and Benicio if Standard doesn't rob a pawn shop for him. The Driver decides to help Standard in the job as a getaway driver, but things will go horribly wrong.

Adapted to the screen by Iranian scriptwriter Hossein Amini (of "The Wings of the Dove" fame), "Drive" is a quiet, melancholic exploration of loneliness embodied in the characters of Irene and the Driver, whose solitary lives find a certain peace as they meet each other. In many ways, Amini's screenplay echoes Western classics, specially "Shane", with the Driver finding solace from the violence and savagery of his life in his encounter with Irene and Benicio. Like a gunslinger, or better said, like a wandering knight, the silent Driver is certainly an outlaw willing to work for the right price, but still always under his very own set of rules, a strict and chivalrous moral code of his own. The story as it is, it's far from original, but rather than focusing on the actual action scenes, Amini spends a considerable amount of time developing his characters and their relationships. And by focusing on the human side of the story, Amini manages to transform his characters from basic archetypes to multidimensional and complex beings.

However, what sets "Drive" apart is actually the work of director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brings Amini's screenplay to life in a tight, stylish way that success in both displaying his particular influences without simply copying. If Amini's screenplay echoes "Shane", Refn's visual conception owes a lot to Jean-Pierre Melville's crime films, specially "Le Samouraï", which influences the brilliant world of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel as well. Sigel captures the Los Angeles scenery with a vibrant style that strips it away from all the Hollywood glamour and leaves its only with its gritty harshness. "Drive" has a distinctive retro 80s style, from the title sequence to its electro-pop soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. In Refn's vision, music plays a heavy role to set the mood, and Martínez' music conjures perfectly the melancholy of the Driver's solitary life. But beyond mere aesthetics, Refn's classy narrative shines in the way he uses silence to express. In Refn's film, the looks between his characters say more than lengthy lines of dialog.

Another highlight of "Drive" are the quite effective performances done by the cast. As the Driver, Ryan Gosling is restrained and calm, and in his face expression nicely evokes the sensation of melancholy that drives his character. It is a character that says more with his actions than with his voice, and Gosling manages to rise up to the challenge. Carey Mulligan plays Irene, and she truly adds a lot of charm to the movie. Her role is a bit limited, done like a moder embodiment of the lady in distress that inspires the hero to act. However, Mulligan does shine on occasions, particularly when her eyes meet Gosling's. Nevertheless, as good as Gosling and Mulligan are, the real gems are in the supporting cast, beginning with Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the Driver's boss who has never really been lucky at anything and whose dreams of making it big have never come to fruition. Albert Brooks, acting against type, delivers a masterful performance as mobster Bernie Rose, showing the best acting in the film. The always reliable Ron Pearlman is equally effective in his minor, yet important role.

Quiet, melancholic, and highly atmospheric, "Drive" is a quite atypical action films that feels like a throwback to a different style of filmmaking. And this is not a surprise, given the countless references Refn's film does to the crime films he loves. However, "Drive" is more than a pastiche of homages, as Refn does more than just limiting himself to mere name dropping, he actually crafts a film with a distinctive personality out of the homage. Nevertheless, as remarkable an achievement as "Drive" is, a couple of things prevent the film from being the masterpiece it could had been. For once, the film makes an unusually cartoonish display of violence at one point that it's just so over the top that unfortunately breaks the mood that had been built up to that point. Don't get me wrong, the film is violent since the beginning, but it's at the important moment when the Driver reveals his nature, when Refn goes a bit too far with his outburst. It's not that graphic violence is bad per se, but it feels out of place given the tone the film has.

Stylish, refreshing and full of energy, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" is a polished and slick update to the action film by bringing back a bit of the depth and gravitas the genre used to have in the past. In a way, "Drive" is a film of romanticism, which is common in crime films, though in the case of "Drive", it's not a Romanticism in the sense of a glamorization of crime, but in the idealization of the human nature (Director Nicolas Winding Refn has gone on record saying that "Drive" works as a folk tale). The characters in "Drive", from the ruthless mobsters to the silent driver, all seem to aspire to improve their conditions. In the case of the Driver, that would mean to find a purpose and be a real human being.


February 02, 2012

De dødes tjern (1958)

To global audiences the name of Norwegian writer André Bjerke may not be entirely familiar, but in his native country, Bjerke was one of the best known artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century. A prolific writer and translator, Bjerke was a man of many talents, including being a renown chess master and a TV personality; however, his best work was when writing crime fiction. His mystery novels (written under the pseudonym of Bernhard Borge), particularly those starring psychoanalyst Kai Bugge are ranked amongst the best in Norway, and are based on the concept of using psychology to solve crimes. The second of these novels, "De dødes tjern" is the one considered as his masterpiece, and since its publishing in 1942 has enjoyed of great popularity in Norway. "De dødes tjern" also became the very first of Bjerke's novels to be adapted to cinema, though this would only happen until 1958, with director Kåre Bergstrøm at the helm. The resulting film was Norway's first full-fledged entry into the horror genre, and still is considered a masterpiece. And not without a reason.

"De dødes tjern", known in English as "Lake of the Dead", is the story of 6 friends and their trip to a cabin located deep in the Norwegian forest. The group includes crime writer Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad) and his wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), lawyer Harald Gran (Georg Richter) and his fianceé Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), literary critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke) and psychologist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl). The group expects to find Lilja's twin brother Bjørn at the cabin, but when they arrive, they find no sign of him and the cabin apparently abandoned. Lilja gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong, and when they find Bjørn's dog dead and some of his clothes near the lake, everything points out to a suicide, which becomes specially creepy when officer Bråten (Øyvind Øyen) recalls the story of the house: years ago a man named Tore Gråvik killed his sister and her lover before drowning himself in the lake. It is said that his ghost still haunts the cabin, and the anniversary of the murders is just three days away.

Adapted by director Kåre Bergstrøm himself, "De dødes tjern" is essentially a tale of horror and mystery in which the characters try to figure out what really happened to Liljan's brother. Officer Bråten thinks it was a suicide, while Harald Gran is convinced it was a murder. Bugge and Mørk agree with the suicide theory, though both come from very different ideas: the psychoanalyst attempts to discover what took Bjørn to kill himself while Mørk begins to consider the possibility that it was actually the spirit of Tore Gråvik what possessed Bjørn to fulfill his curse. Since his wife is more concerned about caring for Lilja's mental breakdown, the cowardly though good natured Bernhard ends up in the middle of everything, no longer sure if he should trust his friends or not. And the joy of the story is precisely that through Bernhard, each theory begins to be dissected, and what Bjerke and Bergstrøm ultimately achieve in "De dødes tjern" is to explore a clash between both science and magic.

Nevertheless, while the story is certainly a captivating piece, the real highlight of the film is how director Kåre Bergstrøm manages to make it both hauntingly beautiful and increasingly terrifying at the same time. With a brilliant work of cinematography by Ragnar Sørensen, Bergstrøm transforms the Østerdal forests into a nightmarish world in which the characters, isolated in the cabin, enter to the dark side of the human soul as they begin to unveil what exactly happened there. Mystery is a key element of "De dødes tjern", and director Bergstrøm keeps a quite appropriate ambiguity through the film, borrowing elements from film noir and supernatural horror to create a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty, where every answer brings another question to the mystery. As in french director Jacques Tourneur's 1957 masterpiece, "Night of the Demon" (of which this movie bears more than a passing resemblance in tone), the horror of the uncertainty is exploited to the max, in a subtle and classy way in which atmosphere is everything.

Another highlight of "De dødes tjern" is the great work of acting done by a that makes the most of such a great screenplay. Leading the cast is Henki Kolstad, playing Bernhard Borge, who's basically the audience's eyes as the mystery develops. While certainly a relatively simpler man than his intellectual friends (to whom he is a foil), Kolstad keeps his performance restrained and natural, never overacting, not even when his character demands him to be a bumbling fool. Bjerke's perennial detective, Kai Bugge, is played with great conviction and dignity by Erling Lindahl, who adds a certain degree of malice to his Bugge, in tone with the film's ambiguity. Writer André Bjerke himself plays the cynic Mørke, and while he is certainly one of the weakest links, his work is not really bad, if only, a bit overacted. Henny Moan delivers a remarkable performance as Liljan, in a challenging role due to her character's emotional breakdown. The beautiful Bjørg Engh plays Bernhard's wife Sonja, and actually makes of her character a strong woman thanks to her screen presence.

Visually breathtaking, "De dødes tjern" is a brilliant exercise in how the correct use of atmosphere can truly enhance a horror film, as while there is nothing particularly graphic, the movie never fails to be an unsettling work of art; and its use of light and shadows, sounds and silences truly show the talent of director Kåre Bergstrøm. Of great interest is the natural and believable way the characters behave, as they always remain true to their beliefs. And what they believe becomes the central point of the movie, as each one of them has a conception of the truth, and solving the mystery also becomes a way to find out who was right. Certainly, there's a lot of things to praise in Kåre Bergstrøm's horror film, but sadly not everything is perfect. The film hasn't aged that good, and this is obvious not in its outdated special effects (which are overshadowed by the film's greatness), but in its talky conclusion in which everything is explained in a long monologue (akin to "Psycho"). It's certainly a product of its time.

Haunting, eerie, and yet so beautifully poetic, "De dødes tjern" is an unfairly forgotten gem that truly deserves to be better known outside its native Norway (where as written above, it's considered amongst the best Norwegian films ever made). After all, it's really interesting to watch the recurrent concept of a group of people in a secluded cabin to receive a Gothic treatment, particularly when its done with such care as this one. With its haunting Gothic atmosphere, brilliant cinematography and its cleverly written screenplay, Norway's first foray into the horror genre ends up being a true masterpiece of filmmaking. In Tourneur's "Night of the Demons" it's said that evil "it's in the woods", this Norwegian classic takes that statement literally.


February 01, 2012

New blog: "El Cine es Sueño"

After thinking about it alot, I have decided to open up a new blog about cinema. Only this time it'll be written in my mother tongue, Spanish. The thing is, when W-Cinema started, it all began by two things: a desire for sharing my love for the movies, and a manner of practicing English while doing it. It all evolved into this current blog, with some reviews written whenever I can. However, as years have gone by, I have been thinking about the possibility of now improving my Spanish, in the sense of improving my writing on Spanish. That's the origin of "El Cine es Sueño".

Paraphrasing the title of Calderón de la Barca's famous play, "El Cine es Sueño" is basically W-Cinema in Spanish. The name change results on a distaste for having a blog named "W-Cinema-Esp", or "W-Cinema-MX". It just didn't sound right to me. But the content will be basically done in the same style. Several reviews from W-Cinema will be translated to "El Cine es Sueño" (hopefully all), and later, films will be reviewed in both sites. What I mean is that this new blog doesn't mean activity in W-Cinema will stop. It may slow a bit from the fast rythmn that I was carrying in 2011, but it will not close. At least, not in the immediate future.

With nothing else to announce, please, if you have W-Cinema in your links, make some room for "El Cine es Sueño" as well. I promise it'll be worthy.