May 28, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

When in 2002 rumors began to be spread about a movie based on Disneyland's classic dark ride, "Pirates of the Caribbean", nobody expected that any good would come out of it. However, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was released and against all odds became a success that surpassed all the expectations. The movie, a tale of fantasy, romance and swashbuckling adventures that chronicled the escapades of a group of 18th Century pirates, earned both critical and commercial praise due to its fresh take on the genre. Due to its success, two back-to-back sequels were announced, both with the same cast and crew of the first film. The first of those sequels was "Dead Man's Chest", a film that while certainly lacked a lot of the original's power, started a new and interesting story arc that has its grand finale in "At World's End".

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" continues where the second part ended: with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) making an uneasy alliance with former foe Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in order to find a way to bring Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) back from "Davy Jones' Locker" the supernatural purgatory for those indentured to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). The urgency of their mission comes from the fact that Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company, has begun to purge pirates from the sea, organizing massive executions in an attempt to control worldwide sea trade. To face Beckett, the nine pirate lords must make up the Brethren Court, but since Sparrow, pirate lord of the Caribbean, was unable to appoint a successor, our friends must bring him back before its too late.

Once again, the film was written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who continue the story arc that began in the previous film with an extremely detailed script that gives closure to many of the plots that were started by the previous two films. To do this, the writers employ a series of convoluted twists and turns that further explore the now complicated relationships between our heroes, who not only must survive Beckett's attacks, but also the consequences of their own choices and betrayals. Unlike the second film, this film is more focused on the characters than on the action scenes, in an obvious attempt to add more character development this time; however, this doesn't mean that the movie lacks in the action department, as there is plenty of it through the film. Of course, the movie keeps good doses of that special touch of humor that has given the franchise a lot of its charm.

As in the previous two installments, director Gore Verbinski takes the helm again and brings this adventure come to life in a very visually appealing way. With an extreme care for details and a great eye for visual compositions, Verbinski creates a sequel that manages to overcome the disappointment of the previous film, returns the story to its roots and concludes the series on a high note. Keeping a good pace despite the long runtime, Verbinski adequately handles the dialog based scenes and the action sequences in a well balanced way (with much better results than in Part 2) that even his extensive use of the remarkable special effects doesn't come off as over the top. It is clear in this film that while a mostly visual director, Verbinski knows a thing or two about film history, as at times he manages to capture the feeling of those classics about pirates with Errol Flynn or Charles Laughton in the main roles.

By now it is more than clear that Johnny Depp's character, Captain Jack Sparrow, is the driving force of the film. Once again Depp becomes the quirky yet charming pirate with great ease and talent, delivering a terrific comedic performance that still remains fun after all those years. Orlando Bloom isn't that lucky, as while he has improved as an actor, the writers have left his character in a third position after Keira Knightley, who in this chapter gets a lot of screen time and carries a considerable part of the film alone. This would be good if it wasn't for the fact that Knightley isn't as accomplished as an actress as those around her, as not only Depp manages to overshadow her, but the combined presences of Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy and Yun-Fat Chow prove to be too much a challenge for her. Among the cast Rush is a real joy to watch, as he steals every scene he is in.

Sadly, despite the many improvements that "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" has over its predecessor, it is also plagued by some of the flaws that brought down "Dead Man's Chest". It's main flaw is probably the enormous dependence the film has on the charm that the character of Jack Sparrow has over the audience. The writers know that Sparrow is a fan favorite, so they put a lot of the film over his shoulders, which results in many great scenes with him, but also in the belittling of the rest of the characters. The convoluted plot will definitely turn some off, but I think that the complex storyline added a lot of much needed character development to the film, specially as it allowed some characters a small chance to shine. Finally, I will only add that the script gets corny and silly at times, but not too much to be a real bother.

While not exactly a great artistic accomplishment, "At World's End" is a roller-coaster of fun that despite its long runtime still manages to be entertaining. It is unknown what is ahead for the successful "Pirates" franchise, but one thing is clear for me: the story arc that began in "The Curse of the Black Pearl" has a find its finale in "At World's End". It may not be an entirely satisfying one but, fans of this series will probably be pleased.


Buy "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (2007)

May 22, 2007

Shadows of the Dead (2004)

Zombies in film have certainly gone a long way since director Victor Halperin directed his Voodoo themed classic, "White Zombie" in 1932. The 1968 release of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" would change the story of horror forever by removing the Voodoo aspects of the zombie concept and reinventing them as mindless beings, driven only by the hunger for human flesh. After that influential classic, zombies became iconic villains of the horror genre and many different explorations on the subject began to be done by future filmmakers, creating an entire sub-genre around the supernatural flesh eaters. One of the most recent variations on the theme has been the idea of zombies being conscious about their condition, with Andrew Parkinson's "I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain" being a good example of this. Carl Lindbergh's "Shadows of the Dead" takes this one step beyond, by adding an interesting twist to the tale.

"Shadows of the Dead" is the story of John (Jonathan Flanigan) and Jennifer (Beverly Hynds), a young couple on their way to spending a nice weekend in a cabin. As they travel through the woods by night, they blow a tire and are left stranded without knowing where exactly they are and without any way to repair their car. The couple decides to spend the night there and fix everything by the morning, however, this is only the begin of their problems as next to their car they find what seems to be a dead body. However, the corpse wasn't really dead, and to their surprise it bites John, infecting him with a strange and unstoppable disease. Hiding in their cabin, it won't be too long until the couple discovers that what John has is not a normal infection, but the early symptoms of a rare disease that will change their lives and their relation forever.

Written by director Carl Lindbergh, "Shadows of the Dead" is a very interesting take on zombie films that attempts to mix the horror and suspense elements of the zombie sub-genre with a more ambitious psychological drama. In the same way that "I, Zombie" did before, "Shadows of the Dead" explores the process of dehumanization of the zombie disease, as the characters begin to experience the rotting of their bodies and an unstoppable hunger for human flesh. However, what makes this film different is the addition of romance to the mix, as unlike "I, Zombie", this movie is based around the relationship between John and Jennifer and how they face the horrors they have ahead. The dynamics of their relationship becomes the main theme of the film, and one could say that more than a horror film, this movie works like a "supernatural drama".

Aware that his screenplay is not one that plays with shock and scares, director Carl Lindbergh opts for a very restrained and subtle approach to the story, focusing on creating an atmosphere of dread that fits very well with the sense of impending doom that fills the character's contaminated lives. Taking advantage of his own budgetary limitations, Lindbergh gives good use to Roderick E. Stevens's minimalistic cinematography to achieve a realistic look, almost documentary, pretty much in the same spirit as Andrew Parkinson's "I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain". While the low-budget certainly hurts the film a lot, the movie showcases some pretty nice looking make-up effects by Frank Jackson and Ryusakae Yamaguchi that Lindbergh uses well; however, while most of this sounds perfect, the movie suffers from two major problems that diminish the success of its other elements.

The first of those problems is without a doubt the acting. While both Flanigan and Hynds have some good scenes and show some talent at times, for the most part the couple seems to be bored and uninterested, delivering their lines with a tone that attempts to sound deep but ends up sounding indifferent. Flanigan is the one with the biggest problems, as since his character is the narrator he's the one in charge of carrying the film, but in his narration he sounds simply uninterested in what he is saying. Hynds fares a bit better, and she manages to make some scenes truly work despite the poor script; but sadly in a film completely character driven, the poor performances end up damaging the final product in an enormous way. Still, the blame should not fall entirely over the actors' shoulders, as to be fair, the script they had to work with wasn't exactly a masterpiece, and most of the acting problems could be traced to the screenplay.

As written above, Lindbergh's take on the zombie genre is interesting and with an enormous potential to explore. While comparisons to the excellent "I, Zombie" can be made, the element of romance in the plot truly adds a new dimension to the story that makes it fresh; sadly, Lindbergh's screenplay fails to exploit that enormous potential and delivers a story that at times attempts to be deep and philosophical, but ends up being slow, boring and simply uninteresting. The problem is that in his attempt to make his horror film a meditation about love and death, Lindbergh uses very poorly written dialog that sounds amateur. While Lindbergh clearly has the talent to direct a good movie (for an indie film, this one looks very good), his flawed script tragically brings down a product with an enormous potential to succeed.

Working on independent cinema is hard, but despite the lower production values, the same old rule for mainstream films applies here: it's harder to make a good movie from a bad screenplay than from a good one. I have no doubts that Lindbergh, Hynds, and the rest of the crew did their best in the making of this movie; sadly, the screenplay was way too flawed to make a masterpiece out of it. Still, if you liked Parkinson's take on zombies in his "I, Zombie", check out Lindbergh's "Shadows of the Dead". Just keep your expectations low.


Buy "Shadows of the Dead" (2004)

May 18, 2007

La Mujer del Puerto (1934)

Through the history of the Mexican cinema, prostitution has been a subject widely explored by filmmakers almost since the beginning, taking the themes beyond the usual archetype of the "hooker with a heart of gold" to the point of almost developing an entire sub-genre out of them. It has been specially in genres such as tragedy and melodrama, where prostitution has been employed the most, as it is in those genres where the dramatic elements of the characters can be exploited the most. It wasn't a surprise that the first sound film made in Mexico was a new version of Federico Gamboa's novel "Santa", the tragic story of a prostitute which had been previously done in 1918 with a lot of commercial success. However, the film that would really take the image of the prostitute to almost mythical proportions in Mexican cinema would be the 1934 movie, "La Mujer del Puerto".

"La Mujer del Puerto" (literally, "The Woman of the Port") is the story of Rosario (Andrea Palma), a young peasant woman who lives poorly with her father Don Antonio (Fabio Acevedo), who works as a carpenter for the town's mortuary. However, tragedy strikes the family when Don Antonio falls seriously ill and is forced to stop working, complicating a lot their financial situation. To make things worse, Rosario discovers that her beloved boyfriend (Francisco Zárraga) is nothing more than a ladies' man who played with her and shows no interest in helping her. This revelation enrages Don Antonio, who then is decided to kill the treacherous man but their encounter will have very tragic consequences for Rosario, as Don Antonio gets killed in their meeting. Without anybody willing to help her, Rosario decides to become a prostitute in the port of Veracruz, but this is not everything that fate has reserved for her.

Loosely adapted from Guy De Maupassant's short story "Le Port", the movie was mainly written by Antonio Guzmán Aguilera and Raphael J. Sevilla (also assistant director), who really added a lot of Mexican flavor to Maupassant's tragic tale by setting the story in the port of Veracruz during carnival time. The writers were also the ones who decided to focus the story on the character of Rosario, the woman of the port, and while it may look at first like an obvious attempt to cash in the enormous success of "Santa", it's truly a decision that benefits the movie by increasing the dramatic potential of the story, as it allows a better exploration of the themes of guilt, pain and sacrifice. However, while the movie excels in its handle of melodrama and really has a great development of the character of Rosario, its narrative feels somewhat uneven, although a lot of this could also be blamed on the directing and editing of the film.

As one of the directors who arrived to Mexico in the early 30s with Sergei M. Eisenstein, director Arcady Boytler brought with him a lot of influence from the Soviet montage theory that Eisenstein had developed, and applied it through the film with several digress of success (sometimes remarkable, sometimes without any apparent sense). With a very good eye for the visual compositions, Boytler shows in "La Mujer del Puerto" a lot of influence from the German expressionist movement, resulting in an excellent use of Alex Phillips' cinematography, who creates beautiful contrasts of light and shadows that perfectly frame Rosario's tragic story and fill it with a powerful and often haunting atmosphere. While the direction of actors wasn't his strongest trait, in this movie Boytler manages to get very good performances by his cast, particularly from his débutant stars, Andrea Palma and Domingo Soler.

The acting by most of the cast is for the most part uneven, but fortunately, the actors in the main roles deliver performances so good that manage to elevate this aspect of the film to new heights. While definitely a bit old for the part, lead actress Andrea Palma is simply amazing as Rosario, displaying a enormous natural talent that makes easy to forget the slightly obvious detail about her age, and ultimately transforms a typically melodramatic character into a mythic and iconic role. The movie was also the debut of another big Mexican star, Domingo Soler, who in his small appearance (as the sailor that falls in love with Rosario) already shows that big charm and enormous presence that would become his trademark in the future. Comedians Arturo Manrique and Jorge Treviño (Panseco and Panque) appear in small roles that, while a bit out of place in the film, manage to be both funny and entertaining.

Now, while Andrea Palma is really divine in the movie, and Boytler gives the film an amazing look, "La Mujer del Puerto" suffers from several flaws that often diminish its worth among other classics from the same period. The main problem is, as written above, the oddly uneven way the story is structured, as it wastes a lot of time focusing on meaningless events (very long scenes of townspeople during the carnival for example) while very few is dedicated to the truly important parts of the plot. While I don't mind the slow pace and the way its used to build atmosphere in the movie, it feels strange and even out of place when compared to the very rushed way the movie ends. The change of pace is very abrupt, and one ends up feeling that something was missing in the whole thing.

Despite those very notorious flaws, "La Mujer del Puerto" is filled with truly otherworldly scenes that are of an almost magical beauty, and that almost manage to erase the negative impact of those flaws. While there were definitely better Mexican movies in the 30s, Arcady Boytler's "La Mujer del Puerto" still has a powerful magic that makes it a gem. Definitely a flawed masterpiece.


Buy "La Mujer del Puerto" (1934)

May 15, 2007

The Devil-Doll (1936)

While he is famous for being the mind behind Universal's 1931 horror classic, "Dracula", director Tod Browning is also often labeled as another of the director who struggled the most when the invention of movies with sound arrived to cinema, smashing the careers of many professionals of the silent medium. One of the best American directors of silents, Browning did struggle with "talkies", but thanks to the enormous success of "Dracula", found himself in a very good position. Sadly, "Freaks", his next film, became so controversial that he lost the favor of the audience and the studios, who were not ready to the tale of the love between a midget and a "normal" woman. While he managed to recover from this, he never had again the commercial success of "Dracula"; a real shame, because in 1936 he directed the film that finally proved that he had understood the benefits of the new sound era: "The Devil-Doll".

In this film, Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, a former banker who was wrongfully accused of fraud and sent to prison for 17 years. In prison he meets another convict named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), an odd scientist who becomes his friend and plan their escape together. After escaping, they hide in Marcel's house, where Lavond discovers that Marcel and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) invented a way to minimize objects, in an attempt to reduce people in order to save space and food. Sadly, the process damages the brains of living beings, reducing them to puppets who can be easily controlled with the mind. Lavond is at first horrified by this insanity, but after the sudden death of Marcel, he decides to help Malita if she agrees to help him in his revenge. Now, disguised as an innocent old lady, Lavond returns to Paris with his devilish living dolls, decided to make those who send him to prison pay for every year he spent without his family.

The story was written by Browning himself, giving his very own spin to the plot of Abraham Merritt's novel "Burn Witch Burn"; however, the screenplay was done by Guy Endore, Garrett Fort and Erich Von Stroheim, so actually very few remains from Merritt's novel in the movie, and it's truly more a Browning film. As usual in his stories, Browning focuses on the misadventures of an outcast, in this case Paul Lavond, who while being the hero of the story, has to resort to brutal crimes to achieve his vengeance, almost like a horror retelling of "The Count of Montecristo". The story unfolds nicely, and despite being more than 70 years old, it still feels fresh and original. This is definitely because the characters of the film are so very well developed that truly feel and act like real complex persons despite the fantasy elements of the story.

Now, the true surprise of the film is definitely Tod Browning's effective direction of the whole thing. While he is revered for his work in "Dracula" and "Freaks", most critics and fans tend to agree that his best work happened in the silent era, as those films (as well as "Mark of the Vampire") have their best scenes in the silent parts. Well, this movie proves that idea wrong, as not only "The Devil-Doll" is heavily based on dialog, it is remarkably well-executed and is definitely on par with most of Browning's best silent films. As usual, Browning mixes horror and black comedy in a delightful subtle way, even referencing his own classic "The Unholy Three" in occasions. Finally, it must also be pointed out that in this film Browning crafts truly impressive scenes with special effects that still look awe inspiring even today.

Of course, not everything is about Browning, as certainly without his superb cast the final result would be very different. Lionel Barrymore is simply amazing as Paul Levond, portraying the tragic figure of the good man consumed by hate, forced to commit crimes to clean his name. Barrymore was a master of his craft, and he proves it in the scenes where he must disguise himself as an old lady. Maureen O'Sullivan and Frank Lawton, fresh from Cukor's version of "David Copperfield", are reunited again, playing Lavond's daughter and the man in love with her. The two of them are very natural, but is O'Sullivan's talent the one that shines the most. Italian actress Rafaela Ottiano gives a very good and scary performance, although the fact that Barrymore's character is the focus of the film limits her screen time quite a lot. Overall the cast is pretty effective, and one of the main reasons of the movie's high quality.

It's a shame that Browning's career was considered beyond redemption after the huge commercial failure of the misunderstood "Freaks", as this movie proves that there was still a lot in Browning to give after mastering the craft of making "talkies". While it's hard to deny the importance and value of both "Dracula" and "Freaks", it is only in this movie where Browning shows a true understanding of the new technology, as while the movie is still very visual, it's at its core a very dialog oriented film, and Browning demonstrates he can handle it. While the story has that feeling of being taken straight from a pulp novel, it's very emotional and dramatic (without being overtly sappy), and it could be said that it's in this movie where Browning finally combines the best of both worlds.

Like most people, I too used to believe that Browning's best days happened along Lon Chaney during the years of the silent era, however, "The Devil-Doll" is a film that has made me reconsider that thought as this movie has everything that made Browning great in the silents, as well as his full domination of the new technology. While definitely nowhere near "Dracula" or "Freaks", this is a "talkie" that shows him at his best.


Mark of the Vampire (1935)

After the commercial failure of his controversial masterpiece "Freaks" in 1932, director Tod Browning found himself in serious problems to find new projects. Browning was a man of proved talent, being the director of some of the best silent films starring Lon Chaney as well as the mind behind the 1931 horror masterpiece "Dracula". However, "Freaks" proved to be too ahead of its time and sadly suffered the prejudices of audiences clearly unprepared for the tragic story of a midget in love with a full grown woman. In this state of disgrace, the studio rejected his projects and instead gave him the job of directing "Fast Workers", a melodrama with former silent superstar John Gilbert. Fortunately, luck was still on his side as in 1935 he was allowed to direct a remake of his successful silent "London After Midnight", a movie that would reunite Browning with Dracula himself: Bela Lugosi.

"Mark of the Vampire" is the story of the tragedy surrounding the wealthy Borotyn family. The patriarch, Sir Karell Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) has been murdered under mysterious circumstances, and soon everyone in town suspects it was the work of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), as these two deceased nobles are rumored to awake by night as vampires and wreak havoc in the small superstitious village. Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) doesn't believe in this, as he suspects there is a more mundane motif for the murder of the rich old man, however, when Sir Karell's only daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan) becomes the vampires' new target, Insp. Neumann will have to join forces with a strange scientist specialized in the occult, Prof. Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) to solve the mystery before someone else gets killed.

As written above, "Mark of the Vampire" is essentially a remake of the now lost classic "London After Midnight", although this time Browning enhances the horror elements of the story by focusing on the couple of vampires and their actions instead of the mystery of the plot. The story is pretty convoluted and very clever for its time, with a nice use of black humor (some even see it as a satire of horror films of it's time) and very surprising plot twists to keep the mystery a secret until the end. Sadly (and like always happened to Browning), the film suffered approximately 20 minutes of cuts by the studio, who disliked Browning's idea of incest as background for Count Mora among other things. Unable to fight the studio (as they were still mad at him for "Freaks"), Browning had to let them cut the film, leading to the creation of many plot holes in the already convoluted story, ultimately destroying most of its effect by enhancing its flaws.

As in most Browning's films, the power of the movie is in the haunting visuals conveyed by this master of silent films, images so powerful that in a way make up for the messed up and disjointed storyline. In fact (and like "Dracula"), most of the best scenes in "Mark of the Vampire" come when nobody talks and only the images are what carry the story. Taking his expressionist influences to the max, Browning makes the figure of the vampire to embody the ultimate vision of irresistible evil, as their unnatural shining in complete darkness makes them diabolically attractive. Browning always struggled with the use of sound, and this problem shows again in "Mark of the Vampire", although the high quality of his cast manage to improve Browning's direction in this "talkie".

Lionel Barrymore is very good as the eccentric Prof. Zelin, and while he receives some bash for giving an over-the-top performance, I think his acting is right on the money, as he is not a serious Van Helsing, his character seems to be wicked, almost as wicked as the monsters he fights, so his hammy touch is, in my opinion, very appropriate. Lionel Atwill shines as Insp. Neumann, bringing a sense of dignity to the film as the stoic hero who is forced to work with what he considers as superstitious fools in order to fulfill his mission. Borland and Luogsi are simply wonderful as the almost silent vampires, relaying mostly on gestures to convey their emotions. Jean Hersholt, Donald Meek and Ivan Simpson have nice turns in supporting roles, with Meek and Simpson delivering some nice comedy that seems to parody stereotypes of horror films of its time.

Sadly, the film (or what was left of it) suffers from many flaws that effectively make the brilliant parts of it look bad, leaving the final product as simply a slightly better than average 30s movie. Not only the cuts done by the studio ruined the storyline, as being honest, Browning's talent wasn't as fond of talkies as it was of silents. Browning was a genius of black comedy, but this skill couldn't translate well to sound movies and often his attempts of comedy look too over-the-top for the overall mood of the movie. To make things worse, the performances of Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth (the main romantic couple of the movie) are atrociously poor, paling in comparison to the work of the rest of the cast.

"Mark of the Vampire" is a very good film of Browning's short post-"Freaks" career, as despite being plagued by many problems, it still works as a nice tale of mystery and horror. It is definitely not the typical vampire movie, and a number of factors make me to be willing to believe that Browning intended this to be a satire than a proper horror (for example the fact that vampires are silent and humans are very talkative for example). While certainly not a masterpiece, it is a fine film to watch despite its troubled upbringing.


May 14, 2007

Legally Blonde (2001)

When a young Amanda Brown attended Stanford Law School, she discovered that the life of a college student at a highly competitive private university had a kind of problems a bit different than the ones she thought she would find there. While her academic performance at Standford wasn't bad, she found a very hostile and antisocial kind of intellectual elitism among the students, that made school almost a hell for her easygoing, ditsy and somewhat naive personality. During those years at college, Brown wrote many letters to her friends, writing about her funny (and not so funny) experiences on campus in order to find something nice out of them. Soon, the letters became the basis for her first novel, "Legally Blonde", and later, the novel became the basis for a fun movie that would become one of the embodiments of "Girl Power".

"Legally Blonde" is the story of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a young and spoiled valley girl who after graduating from University, seems to be heading for the perfect life after she marries her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). However, destiny has a surprise for her: Warner decides not to marry Elle, as he thinks that her style is too frivolous and vain for his plans to become a politician after attending Harvard Law School. Brokenhearted and disappointed, Elle decides that in order to recover Warner, she needs to prove him that her life can be more than shopping and beauty salons, and that she can be as intelligent as he is. So with that in mind and and exceptional LSAT score, Elle travels to Harvard determined to become one of the top students in her class. In Harvard she'll find not only difficult classes, but also the hostile and skeptic reception from the rest of the students.

Remaining relatively faithful to Brown's novel, "Legally Blonde" joyfully plays with the typical conventions of chick flicks and gives them a nice (and much needed) twist. Avoiding the usual stereotypes of the teen comedy, the screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith succeeds in that it is not only funny, but also witty and surprisingly intelligent. Like the source novel, "Legally Blonde" is more than a romantic comedy about winning back a boyfriend, it is ultimately a tale of self-discovery about a woman decided to surpass what was expected from her and become better without stopping from being herself. While silly at times, the story never loses its charm thanks to an assortment of funny and well developed characters that turn this piece of fluff into a very funny and respectable comedy film.

In this his first feature length film, director Robert Luketic takes the wise decision of taking a restrained approach and simply letting his cast do the magic. This simplistic take on the story works for the best, as by keeping the film focused entirely on the characters and the story, Luketic avoids teen comedy's clichéd devises such as over-the-top physical comedy or the abuse of toilet humor. In fact, this focus often brings back good memories of those fish out of water comedies of old, but with of course, a very sleek and modern approach that benefits from the good dose of post-feminism (and fortunately, not overtly preachy) that carries the source novel. While not exactly a very original work, some credit must go to Luketic for managing to get some remarkable performances by his cast in this his debut as a director.

Now, the true highlight of the movie, and probably the best reason to give this film a chance is without a doubt Reese Witherspoon's performance as Elle Woods. As the determined blonde of the title, Witherspoon is delightful and shows an extraordinary talent for comedy, having lots of fun while making her character a very real and sympathetic person, far from the stereotypical Valley girls that are often used as stock villains in teen comedies. As her former boyfriend Warner, Matthew Davis has some nice scenes, but he is completely overshadowed by co-stars Luke Wilson and Selma Blair. Wilson showing off his natural comedic talent and Blair making a nice performance as Elles's rival. Jennifer Coolidge and Holland Taylor appear in supporting roles that only improve the film's charm with their great performances.

If one approaches "Legally Blonde" expecting some deep and insightful comedy, the disappointment will be, without a shadow of a doubt, of truly enormous proportions. However, taking on account the lack of pretensions of this movie, it becomes a very funny experience that never gets boring despite its complete lack of realism in its plot. In fact, one could even say that the film's big and only problem is the fact that despite its twists, the story ends up as predictable for the very nature of the fish out of water style of comedy (underdod beats obstacles against all odds). Still, while the ending may be predictable, it's everything in between what truly matters, so "Legally Blonde" makes up for that flaw with very funny jokes and the great performances by its cast.

"Legally Blonde" is not a comedy masterpiece, and without Witherspoon, it probably would lose a lot of its charm, nevertheless, it's joyful play on the genre's typical stereotypes, together with its nice message and why not, its unabashed silliness, make it an extremely attractive and charming comedy for those days when mindless entertainment is preferred over complex film-making. Reese Witherspoon makes what otherwise would be typical fluff, into almost comedic gold, and "Legally Blonde" is legally good.


May 11, 2007

Young and Innocent (1937)

Whenever one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock films, it's almost impossible not to think about his famous Hollwood period where he directed a series of movies considered among the most important American films in history. Due to this powerful reason, his early British work is sadly often forgotten despite of having an enormous importance in the development of his style and a quality sometimes as high as his American films. Of the films of that period, 1937's thriller "Young and Innocent" is a very special case, as despite being an excellent movie, it's often ignored as is overshadowed by the movies that were done before and after it: the popular "Sabotage" (1936) and the classic "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). Nevertheless, "Young and Innocent" is an excellent thriller, that represents another step in the development of Hitchcock's favorite theme: the innocent man on the run.

One morning, writer Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is taking a walk along the seaside cliffs to clear his mind when he makes a gruesome discovery: the dead body of actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) washes ashore. As he runs to call an ambulance he is seen by two young swimmers who begin to believe that he is the murderer and call the police. As he returns to the crime scene, Tisdall is arrested as a suspect and taken to the station; but while at first Tisdall is confident that it's all a mere misunderstanding, soon he finds himself in a predicament: he had met Christine Clay and she left him a large sum in her will, giving him a motive to be the killer. Without any way to prove his innocence, he escapes in order to find the real killer and clear his name. On the run, he'll find Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), a young woman who begins to believe him, even when she is the daughter of Col. Burgoyne (Percy Marmont), the man in charge to find him.

Written by Hitchcock regular collaborator Charles Bennett (with Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong), the movie is very loosely based on "A Shilling for Candles", one of the Alan Grant series of novels by Josephine Tey. The adaptation is not faithful, as what happened was that the writers took only the chapters where Tisdall is a fugitive and built their movie from that (it doesn't even include Tey's signature character, Inspector Alan Grant). What is left, is a similar story to "The 39 Steps" (also penned by Bennett), but where the romantic comedy elements and the relationship between the couple get a more prominent role than the adventure and suspense of the previous classic. The dynamics between the characters is what sets this movie apart, as the main characters have remarkably well developed and have some nice jabs at some screwball comedy during the movie that gives it a charming tone.

As written above, "Young and Innocent" is essentially a thriller on the vein of "The 39 Steps", but while the tone of this story is considerably lighter, the Master manages to shows off his dominion of suspense through the film. Brilliantly using the excellent cinematography by Bernard Knowles, Hitchcock creates some of his best shot scenes among his British work, with a very clever uses of camera-work and miniatures that make this movie one of his most visually pleasing films. However, Hitchcock knew that in this story the characters were the star, so while many of his "camera tricks" shine through the movie, he never lets the visual effects to overshadow his actors, and keeps an excellent balance between the action sequences and the dialog-ridden scenes. While it certainly feels a tad unpolished when compared to other movies from that period, it has plenty of that special something that can only be described as "Hitchcocknian magic".

In a film like this, based entirely around the personalities of the characters, the performances by the cast are a key factor in the success of the movie, and fortunately this cast doesn't disappoint. Derrick De Marney is quite effective as our innocent man on the run, Robert Tisdall, delivering his lines with a charming wit that forecasts the characters that Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant would play years later. However, who really shines in the movie is the beautiful Nova Pilbeam, as Tisdall's unwilling partner in crime, Erica Burgoyne. Previously seen in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much", Pilbeam shows off her natural talent in one truly remarkable performance. Edward Rigby has a small yet quite funny role in the film, and he makes an extraordinary display of his talent for comedy. The supporting cast is good too, and includes nice performances by well-known actors Percy Marmont and Mary Clare.

While in many ways this movie could be considered a minor gem in Hitchcock's career, it has enough interesting elements that make it an important movie. The film's blend of suspense and humor wasn't new to Hitchcock, who always liked to spiced up things in order to break the tension, but "Young and Innocent" took this one step forward and set the basis for many of the Master's future films. In fact, in many ways "Young and Innocent" could be seen as the companion piece to "The 39 Steps", in the sense that many years later, Hitchcock would take elements from both in his masterpiece "North by Northwest". As many critics have already pointed out, the witty figure of Derrick De Marney's role has a lot in common with Cary Grant's suave character from that movie.

While definitely not a perfect movie, "Young and Innocent" is a nice movie to watch, as its charming wit never fails to be amusing. It certainly feels dated by today standards, but despite its old age, it still is a thrilling tale of adventure and comedy. Sadly neglected as a classic from this period, "Young and Innocent" is definitely as good as most Hitchcock films. Fans of Hitchcock should not miss this one.


May 10, 2007

Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)

In 1888, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison had an idea that would serve as the basis to what we now call "movies", that idea was the Kinetoscope and soon a new source of entertainment would be created by the wild imagination of Edison's team. According to history, Edison heard rumors about the invention of motion pictures (they were indeed invented in 1888 by Louis Le Prince in Leeds, England) and quickly his mind began to craft his very own devise to achieve the same effect. Edison figured out that the images had the illusion of movement because they were sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter, and soon put the conceptual idea on paper; however, it wouldn't be Edison who would transform Kinetoscope from an idea to a reality, the man in charge of the project would be one of Edison's most rusted workers, a Scottish man named William K.L. Dickson. The series of short films codenamed "Monkeyshines" were Dickson's first attempts to produce motion pictures.

The "Monkeyshines" films were three experimental movies shot in the Edison laboratories in order to test Kinetograph, a camera invented to shot the movies that would appear in the Kinetoscope. With the collaboration of William Heise (who would become a prolific director of Kinetoscope films), Dickson shot one of Edison's workers in front of the camera doing gestures and movements. As actual experiments of their work, this movies do not have a plot or a theme, and only consist of Edison's workers moving in front of the camera to see if their images were captured. Due to age and the poor quality of this early experiments, it is impossible to know who appears in each movie, although it is often considered that G. Sacco Albanese is the one appearing in "Monkeyshines, No. 1". (some say that it is actually John Ott, but the debate continues)

While it was never released to the public (Dickson's second movie, "Dickson Greeting" has the honor of being the first American movie to be shown), "Monkeyshines, No. 1" is indeed the very first movie shot in the United States, marking the birth of the Kinetoscope and the beginning of the age of cinema as entertainment. After this monumental invention, Dickson would dedicate his most of his work in improving his machine (including an attempt to add sound!) although he also started making the kind of short films the people wanted to see in what was now known as "The Peep Show machine". While not exactly real cinema, William K.L. Dickson's amazing invention would be another big step ahead in what would culminate in 1895, with the Lumière brothers' invention of the Cinématographe.


Alatriste (2006)

One of the most popular figures in modern Spaniard literature is definitely Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who since the late 80s has produced a long string of successful novels touching a wide variety of genres such as adventure, thriller and historical novels. Without a doubt, his most popular character is Alatriste, who originated in the book "El Capitán Alatriste" and has appeared in 5 novels after his debut. Being his response to the lack of treatment of the Spanish Golden Century in history books, "The Adventures of Captain Alatriste" have conquered many fans thanks to its accurate portrayal of the history of Spain and the mix of action, adventure and romance in its narrative. Considering the popularity of the character, it was not a surprise that a movie adaptation began to be considered, however, what is indeed a surprise is the sadly poor quality of the resulting product.

Set in 17th century Spain, "Alatriste" is the story of Diego Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen), an aging soldier who after serving in the Flanders War makes his living working as an assassin for hire. His life has a sudden change when one day a young boy named Iñigo Balboa (Nacho Pérez) arrives to his house with a letter. In the letter Alatriste discovers that Iñigo is the son of Lope De Balboa (Alex O'Dogherty), one of his good friends at Flanders and who asked him to protect Iñigo before dying under the enemy fire. While he knows that his way of life is not the most appropriate for this job, he takes Iñigo under his care, decided to fulfill his promise. The movie chronicles many of the adventures that Alatriste lives in Madrid, including the meeting of the love of his life, his problems at the King's court and specially his often difficult relation with his "adopted son", Iñigo.

The movie was written by director Agustín Díaz Yanes himself, and sadly, this is were things start going wrong for the movie, as Díaz' script is an example of what not to do when adapting a series of books. Instead of focusing on one of the many books to build up the story (or making a new adventure), Díaz Yanes opts for condensing the plots of 5 books into one single script, moving from event to event without giving the proper time to develop the details behind the stories. While this still may sound like a fan's nitpicking, it is actually a major problem in the film, as the script lacks a proper narrative to tie every event in the movie, leaving the feeling of an incomplete work or a lack of care in the development of the screenplay. Without a cohesive narrative, it doesn't matter how good the characters are or how interesting the setting is; the result ends up as boring, and often incoherent.

The terrible quality of the script contrasts enormously with the excellent work of production done in the film, as it is really one of the best and most realist portraits of 17th Century Spain committed to film. While his script is of an awful quality, as a director Díaz Yanes shows a great skill directing actors in complex set pieces, as well as a nice use of Paco Femenia's excellent cinematography and Benjamín Fernández' art direction. Focusing on the characters, Díaz Yanes seems to avoid the traits of epic adventure (odd considering the source novels) in favor of human drama, resulting in an extensive use of closed spaces to tell his film and portray the decadence of Spain in those years. Despite this focus, there are some brilliantly choreographed (by the legendary Bob Anderson) sword fights through the film that help to spice up things from time to time.

Díaz Yanes' best trait is his direction of actors, and in this aspect he doesn't disappoint, getting very good performances from most of his cast. Viggo Mortensen takes the lead role of Alatriste with courage and dignity, and shows his great versatility and talent. While his Spanish has some minor problems, he delivers a convincing performance against all odds. Unax Ugalde plays the adult Iñigo, although he is not nearly as convincing as Mortensen is in his character. The women in the movie are truly the film's best feature, with Elena Anaya and Ariadna Gil delivering bests performances of the movie as the mysterious Ángelica De Alquézar and actress María De Castro respectively. Juan Echanove and Eduardo Noriega have small but important roles as Alatriste's friends, with Echanove making a terrific job portraying poet Francisco De Quevedo.

Considering the many excellent things that "Alatriste" has to offer, the terrible flaws in its script become even more tragic as serve as proof that without a good screenplay the movie simply doesn't work. While by the second act it kind of gets on focus and the problem is somewhat corrected, the story never stops feeling like a series of disjointed vignettes without any connection other than the main characters, as the motifs and reasons for every adventure end up either unknown or are explained on a very superficial way. I know a movie should not be compared to the book it's based on, but in this case it is obvious that Díaz Yanes' mistake was to try to put 5 different books into one movie. This ambition destroys what otherwise could had been the best swashbuckling adventure in many years, as no matter how amazing the movie looks or how good the actors are in their roles, the movie feels simply incomplete.

"The Adventures of Captain Alatriste" are excellent adventure novels, as not only they offer an accurate portrayal of the period, but also have really interesting characters and wonderfully thrilling story lines. Sadly, "Alatriste" the film only keeps that care for historical accuracy as everything else is thrown out of the window by Díaz Yanes. While I'm sure fans of swashbucklers will like it, I'm also sure that it could had been better, a lot better.


KM 31: Kilómetro 31 (2006)

Through the history of Mexican cinema, the horror genre has undergone a somewhat irregular development, as even when some excellent masterpieces of horror have been done at times, most of the times the horror movies done show more heart than talent, and even if the intentions are good the final product tends to lack quality in more than one aspect. To make things worse, the total production of horror movies has always been far below than the desired one, and even in the better days of Mexican cinema, horror was often relegated. Due to this reasons, it's always interesting whenever a new Mexican horror movie gets a release, as it's a new chance to make things right and redeem the genre once and for all. That's the reason why the brand new horror film, "Kilómetro 31", gathered so much hype on the days before its release, and while it certainly wasn't the horror film to save the genre, it has some good things going for it.

While driving one night through the forests near Mexico City, Agata Hameran (Iliana Fox) has a terrible accident on kilometer 31 in which she loses her legs and falls into a coma. After that horrible night, her twin sister Catalina (also Iliana Fox) begins to feel a strong psychic connection with her sister, as Agata seems to be screaming desperately for help. Haunted by horrible nightmares and ghastly visions, Catalina decides to investigate what exactly happened that night on kilometer 31, hoping to end the pain her sister is suffering. So, with the help of her best friend Nuño (Adrià Collado) and Agata's boyfriend, Omar (Raúl Méndez), Catalina begins an investigation that will lead her to the mystery behind the strange series of accidents that have happened on kilometer 31 since the construction of the highway.

Written by director Rigoberto Castañeda himself, the story of "Kilómetro 31" is an interesting reworking of many of the most iconic Mexican folk legends and ghost stories all mixed up into one single plot that while certainly modernized, retains that Mexican flavor that makes those legends so enjoyable. He also borrows many elements from the popular New Wave of Asian horror cinema that started in the late 90s, and attempts to adapt them into his own ghost story with some success, resulting into an interesting tale of mystery and horror. While the concept and back-story of the movie are quite interesting and really very well constructed, Castañeda's screenplay has a lot of problems in the development of its main story and its characters, mainly in the poor way most of the dialogs are written and the way the story gets unnecessarily complicated as a result of Castañeda's attempt to mix so many classic stories into one.

As a director, Castañeda has a great eye for visual composition, and is able to create a very atmospheric movie pretty much in the style of "Ringu"'s director Hideo Nakata. However, unlike the Japanese movies that inspired him, Castañeda is more adept to use his many special effects, and he doesn't waste a chance to show off the excellent work of his visual effects team; in fact, through the film he seems to be more comfortable directing the special effects scenes than his human actors, and as a result, he doesn't manage to get a good quality in the cast's performances. Honestly, the work done by both the makeup department and the digital effects department is simply remarkable, probably the best work ever done in the history of Mexican cinema; however, Castañeda seems unable to find a balance and often overuses them in excess.

As written above, the performances of the cast are nothing amazing, and truly hurt a film that certainly deserved better. As the Hameran sisters, Iliana Fox makes a very weak and unsympathetic lead character, almost like one of her characters in Mexican soap operas. Oddly enough, her character is one of the better written in the film, but she seems unable to pull off something good out from it. Spaniard actor Adrià Collado plays Nuño, making a very good performance and delivers the best acting in the film. As Agata's boyfriend, Omar, Raúl Méndez is simply good, nothing special, but considering the bad writing of his character, one could say he did a great job. Carlos Aragon and Luisa Huertas appear in minor roles, Aragon having a nice turn as Officer Ugalde and Huertas delivering a terribly bad performance (like Fox, in a very soap opera style) as the Old lady that guides Catalina.

Due to its very noticeable similarities, "Kilómetro 31" could be considered a direct heir of that popular brand of Asian horror, as often through the film Castañeda shows the enormous influence those movies had in him. This is of course, a double edged sword, as due to his overuse of the conventions and clichés of Asian horror, Castañeda could easily be seen as a director without a style of his own and limited only to copy what has proved to be successful in Asia and the United States. The extreme reliance on special effects and jump scares to make his film "scary" is one major problem the movie has, as often those devises break the good atmosphere that Castañeda manages to create thanks to Alejandro Martínez' excellent cinematography (who clearly has improved his work).

In the end, there is no doubt that "Kilómetro 31" is a work of excellent quality in its production, and with the intentions of being the horror movie to resurrect the Mexican horror genre, however, it's obvious that the intentions of making it "hip", "cool" and therefore commercially successful got in the middle of the making, resulting in an often derivative movie. It's a flawed film, but it's a nice effort that hopefully, will inspire more Mexican filmmakers to give a chance to horror. A final word of advice: if you hated Asian ghost stories, stay away from this film.


May 09, 2007

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)

In 1888 the city of Leeds, in England, became part of history of cinema as the place where the first movies were made. It was the place where a French inventor named Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince successfully tested his invention for the first time and created the first moving images in history. Of course, history often credits either Thomas Alva Edison or the Lumière brothers as the inventors of cinema, and not without a reason, as they were the first who made public exhibitions of movies; however, it was Louis Le Prince who shot the first movies a couple of years before Edison and the Lumières. Sadly, Le Prince would die under mysterious circumstances shortly after this monumental achievement (in 1890), and so, being unable to offer public demonstrations, his name was soon forgotten when film was presented by other inventors. Despite this tragic turn of events, it's never late to give the proper credit to Louis Le Prince as the father of cinema.

In the first movie ever, "Roundhay Garden Scene", Le Prince captured his wife's family on a day at the garden, as they walked and moved in order to test his camera. For his second experiment, Le Prince went to Leeds Bridge, and shot a 2 seconds of the traffic crossing the bridge. The carriages pulled by horses are captured by Le Prince's camera in what could be considered as the very first documentary in history, as it shows another typical day at the Leeds bridge. Obviously, Le Prince's intention was to capture real moving objects to prove that his invention was not fake, so what better way to do it than filming the traffic? Despite its extremely short runtime, this movie is quite interesting as it's a small glimpse to life in the late Victorian era, almost like a time machine to a past that now, more than 100 years later feels very distant.

Watching this movie (as well as "Roundhay Garden Scene") today is a strangely mystifying experience, as while in its short runtime barely nothing happens, the fact that before this movie there wasn't anything, that this was the very first time a movie was made, gives the film an almost supernatural atmosphere. The experiment was successful and cinema was born. It's a tragedy that Le Prince didn't live to see how his invention would grow, and never witnessed his invention becoming an art form and a new way of entertainment. While he never saw the magic of Georges Méliès's movies, or the narrative methods of Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith, Le Prince showed the bridge. Edison, Lumière, and the rest of the pioneers would follow him and change history for ever.


Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

The name of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is not listened often when talking about history of film, as the strange circumstances surrounding his death and the troubles his work found after his disappearance covered his achievements with a cloud of mystery; however, it is probably the most important person in the history of film-making, as Le Prince was the man responsible of the very first recording of motion images on film. A dedicated inventor, Louis Le Prince started experimenting with film as early as 1881 (years before Thomas Alva Edison or the Lumière brothers), and by 1886 he was almost ready to take the big step, as he built his first successful movie camera. Someday around October 1888, Le Prince captured on film what would become the world's first motion picture: a family scene in a garden of Roundhay, Leeds, during his time in England. Cinema was born in that garden.

The now legendary 2 seconds short features his son Adolphe walking across the garden while the family of Le Prince's wife, the Whitleys, move on the background, probably wondering if what their son-in-law is doing will work. And it work marvelously, as the images of that day at the garden were captured, and finally the photographs were moving. Sadly, "Roundhay Garden Scene" was also tainted by tragedy, as Sarah Whitley, Le Prince's mother-in-law died just ten days after the shooting of the movie, so probably she was not able to see her image moving in the background of the scene. Considering the enormous importance of this invention, it's easy to wonder why isn't the name of Le Prince better known, and why are Edison and the Lumière brothers credited as the cinema inventors.

The reasons behind this apparent forgetfulness are many, but the most important is the fact that tragically, he died before making his first public demonstration, and was not alive when the legal battles over the patent of the invention began. The mysterious death of Le Prince put him out of the picture and by the next decade, the names of Edison and the Lumières would become the ones related to film-making. While history credits Auguste and Louis Lumière as the fathers of cinema, it would be fair to give Louis Le Prince part of the credit, as while the brothers indeed invented cinema as we know it (they were the first to make public demonstrations), it was Le Prince's invention what would truly be the beginning of all. The shiny day at Roundhay garden that Le Prince captured in this film, is a fitting symbol for the shiny future that cinema had ahead.


The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

During most of the decade of the 30s, the United States lived under the shroud of the Great Depression, a decade of unemployment and high poverty that would changed the face of the country forever. While the entire country suffered the effects of the Depression, the inhabitants of the prairie lands had to face an extra difficulty: the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a terrible ecological disaster that destroyed many farms in the area of the Great Plains, and forced people to migrate looking for better working conditions. The difficulties and social problems that those migrants had to endure in this sad chapter of history became the inspiration for John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath", a book that quickly became a classic due to its powerful depiction of the era. Soon after it's release, plans for a film adaptation began to be made, and the man who would bring the novel to the screen would be none other than John Ford.

In "The Grapes of Wrath", Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, a young man recently paroled from prison who is traveling to his family home in Oklahoma. When he arrives, he discovers that the farm is deserted and the only person he can find is Jim Casy (John Carradine), the former preacher of his community. Together they decide to go to the house of Tom's uncle John (Frank Darien) looking for the Joads, and it's there where they find them packing their belongings as they get ready to move. The Joads explain Tom that the bank has foreclosed their farm, and that they are moving to California looking for work and a better life. While he is not supposed to leave the state by the conditions of his parole, Tom decides to join his family and convinces Jim to go with them in the long and arduous trip to California. However, things won't be as easy as they thought they would.

Adapted to the screen by Nunnally Johnson, "The Grapes of Wrath" takes on the spirit of John Steinbeck's novel and delivers a harsh, crude and very realistic portrayal of poverty during the Dust Bowl. Despite not being an exactly faithful adaptation of the novel (changes were done due to censorship), the movie remains true to that powerful and very human essence that the novel had, and it could be said that Johnson distilled the themes of the novel and made an unabashed story free of any political compromises. While this kind of stories often suffer literary embellishments, "The Grapes of Wrath" avoids stereotypes and shows humanity as it is, with all their vices and virtues. It is the excellent development of the main characters what gives that very human touch to the story, as it really shows a real understanding not only of Steinbeck's novel, but also of the real social situations that inspired the book.

In 1939, John Ford was in one of the best periods of his career, having directed "Stagecoach", "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along the Mohawk" in less than 12 months. "The Grapes of Wrath" would also be shot the same year, being the culminating work of that extraordinary series of masterpieces. While Ford was better known for his legendary westerns and larger-than-life heroes, "The Grapes of Wrath" was in many levels a very personal movie for him, so he basically took Steinbeck's novel and completely made the story his own. Framed by Gregg Toland's wonderful cinematography, Ford brings to life the Joads' story in a way that mixes his own style with a focus so realistic that almost feels like a documentary. Without excessive sentimentalism, Ford tells in this movie a very human tale of survival, so universal that could easily be related to any group of people migrating due to poverty.

While Ford and Toland deserve a lot of the credit, the movie wouldn't be the same without the extraordinary performances of the cast. Leading the cast is Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, delivering one of his best works of acting in his portrayal of the young man. Considering his performance in Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln", one could say that Fonda's career reached legendary status under Ford's direction. While Fonda's work is worthy of praise, two actors actually manage to overshadow him in this movie: Jane Darwell and John Carradine. As the idealist preacher Jim Casy, Carradine makes a terrific job in what's probably the story's most interesting character, completely embodying Casy's persona in an atypical role for him. Like Carradine, Jane Darwell makes a wonderful job (probably her finest) as Ma Joad, and without a doubt she truly deserved that Academy award she received for her performance.

As written above, the movie has several considerable differences with the novel (specially the second half), so fans expecting a complete translation of the book will be a bit disappointed. However, Johnson and Ford did a wonderful job in the adaptation than while considerably different beasts, both the movie and the novel carry the same spirit and the message that Steinbeck tried to give in his book. Interestingly, producer Darryl F. Zanuck also saw the film as a personal project and certainly his involvement helped the movie to get away from censorship as most as possible. While the film has indeed some flaws (most famously the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a minor character), it's hard to diminish its value due to them, as the beauty of its craft is so big that they can be easily dismissed.

With a haunting atmosphere, a beautiful visual composition, and superb performances by his actors, Ford created one of the first masterpieces of the 40s and one of the finest American movies ever made. While already a celebrated director by the time of its release, this movie consolidated Ford as a master of his craft. Despite their differences, John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" truly carries the spirit of Steinbeck's novel, as well as the ghost of Tom Joad.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Very few artists have done as much for the thriller genre in film as British director Alfred Hitchcock, who not only was a pioneer of many of the techniques that would become widely used nowadays, but also across his career he literally invented a great amount of the rules that would shape the genre. While his career didn't seem to have started on the best way (his first movie, "The Pleasure Garden" was a failure), after the success of "The Lodger" in 1927, Hitchcock would become one of the most popular young directors in the United Kingdom, and it wouldn't take him much to be recognized worldwide. That recognition came in 1934, when his thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much" was released, becoming his most acclaimed and successful movie to date and the one that would make him to be noticed by Hollywood. Not only this movie would introduce Hitchcock to America, it would also introduce one of cinema's most important actors: Peter Lorre.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" begins in Switzerland, where Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on a winter sports holiday with their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). The reason for their visit is that Jill competes in a target shooting competition, and a family friend, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) competes in a skiing event. During a dinner, Bernard is murdered by an unseen shooter, but before dying he informs the Lawrences about a conspiracy to kill an important diplomat in London. The Lawrences are confused at first by the spy's revelation, but soon the confusion becomes a preoccupation, as the conspirators have kidnapped their daughter Betty in order to keep them quiet. Now the Lawrences know too much, and that knowledge may cost them their daughters, but while unable to tell the police their situation, the couple decides to find their daughter themselves.

The screenplay for "The Man Who Knew Too Much" was written by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson, although it was based on a story co-written by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis and Charles Bennett. While the writing of the film was a cooperative effort, it is Charles Bennett's style the one that's shown the most through the story. Bennett's plays and screenplays became the basis of many of the most representative Hitchcock thrillers, and one could say that along with the Master of Suspense, he shaped the genre in its early days. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" includes many of Bennett's trademarks such as criminal spies, their political conspiracies and the innocent people that are dragged unto them; all spiced up by a very British humor that makes the whole thing even more enjoyable.

While by 1933 Hitchcock already had made several remarkable films, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is probably the first of his movies that truly can be considered as an emblematic Hitchcock film, as his style is finally shaped in this movie. Taking the best of Wyndham-Lewis and Bennett's story, Hitchcock brings to life a captivating tale of adventure and mystery that literally takes its innocent characters to the darkest alleys of London. Visually, the movie is a joy, as with the excellent work by cinematographer Curt Courant, Hitchcock shows the influence of German expressionism in his work and creates wonderful images of striking contrast between light and shadows. His dominion of suspense shines in many scenes of the film, particularly in an impressive sequence that serves as climax of the movie, where Hitchcock takes full advantage of the introduction of sound to movies.

The performances by the actors are of an excellent quality, with Leslie Banks leading the cast with his charming presence and very British wit. His ability to mix drama with comedy makes his character a very real and likable person, that portrays remarkably the everyman placed in an uncommon situation. While Banks truly makes a great job, the real star of the film is the amazing Peter Lorre as the leader of the conspirators. In this his first work in English, Lorre shows off his enormous talent and steals every single scene he appears in, a remarkable task considering this was his first movie in English and that he had to learn his lines phonetically. Edna Best is good, albeit nothing spectacular; quite the opposite are Frank Vosper and Nova Pilbeam, who make an amazing work considering their limited screen time. Hugh Wakefield has a very funny supporting role where he masterfully displays his talent for comedy.

When most people hear about "The Man Who Knew Too Much", the instant memory is often that of Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day trying to recover their kidnapped son in the 1956 version of the movie. That is because Alfred Hitchcock decided to remake this classic in color and with the benefits of being a more experienced filmmaker and having a bigger budget to do it. But even when the Master himself prefer the remake, personally I think that the original movie is the superior version. True, the 1934 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is not a perfect film, it has an irregular pace (at times too slow, at times too fast) and its plot has some very unlikely situations; however, it has a great charm and a powerful style very difficult to ignore. It is certainly dated by today's standards, but while the remake is technically superior, this one has a heart.

After making this movie, the Master's career would only go higher and higher, as the next year he would follow the success of this film with another legendary masterpiece, penned again by Bennett: "The 39 Steps". It has been quoted many times that Hitchcock named this underrated movie, "the work of an amateur", as he stated his preference towards the 50s remake, but here I must disagree with the Master, as personally I think that this is the version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" that should be seen.