August 30, 2007

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

Without a doubt, Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated classic, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", is one of the most famous and influential novels of Gothic horror ever written, as its main theme, the inner conflict between a man's good and evil natures, has inspired countless works and several adaptations to film and stage. Thomas Russell Sullivan's 1887 stage play, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was one of the most successful of its time, and soon found itself as the source for film adaptations thanks in part to the touch of romance that Sullivan added to Stevenson's tale. While the most famous adaptation of this play is without a doubt the 1920's version (starring John Barrymore), that was actually the third time the stage play was adapted to film, with the first version produced in 1908 and the second being this film, made in 1912 by the Thanhouser Company.

In this version, James Cruze plays Dr. Jekyll, a respectable scientist who has dedicated his studies to the creation of a formula to separate humanity's two natures. To test the formula for a last time, Jekyll locks himself in his laboratory and drinks the potion, waiting for the effects to take place. Suddenly, he transforms into his evil alter ego, which takes the name of Mr. Hyde and begins to wreak havoc in town. Hyde takes the antidote to become Jekyll again and cover his crimes, but Jekyll's repeated use of his Hyde's persona begins to take its toll on him, making the transformation to occur without the need of the potion, almost at will. In one of these uncontrolled changes, Hyde murders the town's preacher, who is the father of Jekyll's sweetheart (Florence La Badie). This event makes Jekyll to realize how dangerous Hyde really is, but unfortunately, he no longer has the antidote.

As written above, the basis for this movie is definitely the play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, as the film moves away from the mystery of the novel and takes a more direct approach to the theme of split personalities. The movie touches an interesting theme in the idea of Jekyll becoming "addicted" to being Hyde, only to discover that his constant use of the Hyde persona has made it take over his original personality, almost like a metaphor to drug use. In those years screenplays were rarely used, but it's highly probable that director Lucius Henderson wrote one for the film, as the plot is very well developed considering the short runtime of 12 minutes (just one reel). While the style Henderson uses in the movie is pretty straightforward and a bit stagy, it's not really a bad movie and some scenes (specially the melodramatic ones) are still very effective.

James Cruze, who during the 20s would become a respected director, delivers an effective performance as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His Jekyll is particularly effective, as unlike most versions where the character is the epitome of goodness, Cruze makes him a flawed human in a very convincing way. His Hyde is less convincing, although that's probably because actor Harry Benham also played the character in several scenes Still, to Benham's (and Henderson's) credit, the change between actors is practically impossible to distinguish. Thanhouser regular Florence La Badie appears as Jekyll's sweetheart and she is quite good as the character, although her role in the film is considerable smaller than in the play, as the movie focuses completely on Jekyll's conflict. Interestingly, Thanhouser's child prodigy Marie Eline appears in a brief role as the kid who gets knocked down by Hyde in that classic scene.

While the acting is of excellent quality (as usual with Thanhouser films), the style of the film may come off as too stagy to modern viewers and sadly, the budget limitations do show off in more than one occasion. Still, Henderson makes his movie an entertaining and to an extent, faithful adaptation of Stevenson's novel that will certainly appeal to fans of the classic tale. Lucius Henderson's version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" may not be a mind blowing experience today, and even when compared to other movies of its period (the German film "Der Student Von Prag" comes to mind) it comes off as simply better than average, however, it's by no means a bad movie and I'd even say that it's required viewing for anyone interested in the early years of American horror cinema


Watch "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1912)

August 29, 2007

Only in the Way (1911)

In 1909, a former theater actor named Edwin Thanhouser decided to enter into the rising motion picture business after making a good fortune by managing the Academy of Music Theater in Milwaukee. After moving to New York, he opened the Thanhouser Company, a motion picture studio that enjoyed a good popularity from 1910 to 1917, producing films of great quality in terms of acting, almost on par with those done by Griffith for the Biograph Company. The high standards in the acting of this movies was the result of Thanhouser's involvement, as he was among the first producers to have a strong experience in theater. The 1911 short film, "Only in the Way", is one of the Thanhouser movies were this can be easily appreciated, as while it's far from a masterpiece, the performances are excellent, specially the one by the young Marie Eline, the legendary star nicknamed "Thanhouser Kid".

In "Only in the Way", Marie Eline plays little Marie, the only daughter of a young marriage that seems to be having a bad time. The problems between Mom and Dad begins when Grandma decides to live with them as, while Marie is delighted by the idea, Mom dislikes to have her husband's mother around, as she feels that Grandma will only give her troubles. Marie, who needs the help of a crutch to walk, is very close to her Grandma, and considers her the only friend she has in the world, as like her Granny, she also finds herself at times out of place in her family. Soon after Grandma's arrival, Marie's Mom decides that Grandma must leave, so she asks Grandma to go and live in a retirement home. Marie feels saddened by the news, but soon she decides that if Grandma is an obstacle in Mom and Dad's way to happiness, she must be in the way too, so Marie runs away hoping to live with her Grandma.

Unfortunately, little is know about this early films, so the names of the crew behind the movie are now lost forever. One can assume that in these early Thanhouser movies, Edwin Thanhouser had a lot of creative control, as only after becoming successful he would hire (and credit) writers and directors for his movies. Anyways, what can be said about "Only in the Way" is that the story is pretty well developed considering that it was a 12 minutes long one-reeler. The plot captures nicely the internal conflict of the child, and the consequences that family troubles have on children. The directing of the film is of good quality, nothing really amazing, but very effective and with an excellent cinematography. What really stands out are the performances of the actors, as not only they are of excellent quality, but move away from the stagy style of the early movies and have a natural style (This hints that Thanhouser himself was the director).

As written above, the performances are of a really good quality, looking quite ahead of its time and on par with what Biograph was producing at the time (Griffith's films were a big influence for Thanhouser). Sadly, there are no records on who played who in this movie, except for Marie Eline, who as "The Thanhouser Kid" was one of the early movie stars. The actress who plays Mom is very good, and while due to the limited runtime we get nothing but glimpses of her neurosis, her portrayal is top notch. At the same time, the actress who plays Granny is also very natural in her performance, and the chemistry she has with Marie Eline makes for some great scenes together. Still, "Only in the Way" is completely Eline's show, and she certainly makes the most of it, delivering a terrific performance that even now looks amazing for an actress of her age (she was 9 at the time).

While probably not as well known as the Biograph or the Edison Company films, the Thanhouser short films have some pretty interesting elements that make a good watch for those interested in the history of early American film-making. The Thanhouser Company would enjoy great popularity in the following years after movies like the 1912 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (starring a young James Cruze) and 1914 "The Million Dollar Mystery" (also with Cruze). Sadly, Thahouser films would end its production in 1917, when the film industry was on a depression (and when most of the major studios had already moved to Hollywood). Still, its movies are, while maybe not masterpieces, a small glimpse of how American film-making was being developed in those early years. despite its shortcomings, "Only in the Way" is a good short movie and the perfect introduction to the movies of the Thanhouser company.


Buy "Only in the Way" (1911)

August 28, 2007

The Greatest Directors Ever... according to Total Film

The famous British magazine "Total Film" has released a list of 100 directors which they consider as "the greatest". As always happens with this kind of lists, many personal favorites will be missed, the order of the list will shock some, and a notorious lack of movies in "foreign" (i.e. non-English) languages will take place. Still, I'd say it's a pretty good list (although of course, I disagree with it in many places), mainly because it's not about who's the best but about who has been influential to cinema in general. And I think they got the first spot right.

Here's the Top 10 (with the comments published by the magazine editors), you can check the rest of the list here:

10 David Fincher
The perfectionist
“Some people make movies so they can have a big house,” says Fincher. “Some people do it so they can date Swedish models... If I wasn’t making movies I would be drunk and homeless.” The MTV auteur who segued from Rolling Stones’ and George Michael vids to the fascinating failure of Alien3, Fincher’s do-or-die vision eventually delivered the seminal Se7en, mirrored this year by Zodiac’s more muted but no less intelligent take on fractured masculinity, obsession and loneliness (and, oh yeah, a serial killer). Hardly prolific, but Fincher’s smarts, wit and eye are unsurpassed in his generation; even his popcorn pictures (The Game, Panic Room) are a different league. Always pushing the technical envelope, he matches his meticulousness with mordant humour and a growing sense of humanity. Expect third Pitt hook-up, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, to stun you. Kubrick has an heir.
Picture perfect Fight Club. A beautiful and unique snowflake.

9 Peter Jackson
The ring master
A bashful, only child growing up in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, Peter Jackson latched onto the 8mm camera he was given at the age of eight, forging a small talent that became big.

Jackson’s early work – camp splatter movies Bad Taste and Braindead, influenced by George A Romero – segued into the rapturous, teen-lesbian murder tale Heavenly Creatures and the mature, visionary storytelling of The Lord Of The Rings. “It was a giant undertaking,” says Jackson of his three-film, five-year odyssey, “but I consider it a personal film – my film of a lifetime.”

Maybe so, but now that he’s finally laid to rest his obsession with King Kong, a liberated Jackson can funnel his extraordinary filmmaking talents into more intriguing artistic-multiplex synergies – including, he says, a return to his gorehound roots.

First up, Alice Sebold’s ghost-child drama Lovely Bones, the perfect vehicle for his rhapsodic blend of visceral emotion and transporting fantasy.
Picture perfect The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Eleven hours of pure cinematic majesty.

8 Stanley Kubrick
The recluse
Even in death – it’s still hard to believe he’s gone – Kubrick remains a semi-mythic figure, hidden behind a thicket beard, monolithic intellect and the front gates of his Xanadu-like mansion. Bizarrely, he’s greater than any one of his 13 truly unique films. After WWI trench-tragedy Paths Of Glory, Kubrick became less interested in humans than humanity itself, driving actors to hundreds of identical takes in his obsessive search for perfection. Even Dr Strangelove (an original, brilliant, terrifying nuclear comedy that equates military might with big, swinging dicks) and Lolita (sex and power again) reach us through a God-like POV that belongs to him and none of his characters. He fish-eyed Big Questions through some of the most unforgettable spectacles in cinema: 2001’s celestial enigma; The Shining and A Clockwork Orange’s mesmerising horrorshows; Full Metal Jacket’s clinical destruction; Eyes Wide Shut’s end-of-century sign-off. Daring, demanding and unique.
Picture perfect 2001: A Space Odyssey. To infinity and beyond.

7 Ingmar Bergman
The confessor
“At times, the demons can be helpful. But you have to beware. Sometimes they will help you along to hell.”

Ingmar Bergman knew what he was talking about. Survivor of a cracked faith and four broken marriages (a fifth ended when his wife died of stomach cancer), the Swedish auteur made a career out of “the ability to attach my demons to my chariot” (The Seventh Seal, Shame, Scenes From A Marriage, Autumn Sonata, Fanny And Alexander).

And if his chariot’s wheels occasionally threatened to come off, that only helped Bergman work through his crises of creative confidence in movies like Persona and Hour Of The Wolf, positing the artist as charlatan.

Honing his uncluttered style over 60 years and 50-odd films, he shoots his tortured protagonists in looming, luminous close-up, his camera performing keyhole surgery to extract tumorous lies. It is, as critic David Thomson puts it, a “cinema of the inner life”, revelatory in every sense.
Picture perfect Persona. Bergman’s silent scream.

6 Orson Welles
The conjuror
It’s almost forgotten that, apart from the stalled projects, TV ads and ballooning waistline, Welles’ ‘thwarted’ post-Kane career is a roll-call of masterpieces and locked-down classics. Ever the showman mythologiser, Orson was well aware of this. The fabulous wreckage of The Magnificient Ambersons, Shakespearian epic Chimes At Midnight, inky noirs Touch Of Evil and Lady From Shanghai, conjuror’s trick F For Fake… all dance between ambition and failure, truth and illusion, character and destiny, fact and fiction. Welles’ thrill at the possibilities of the medium are palpable, along with his mastery of camera, sound, editing and performance. He was a true genius. And his exhilarating imagination still kicks hardest in that astonishing debut. Greatest lists are nothing but consensus. That Kane keeps topping them means few of us could do without it.
Picture perfect Citizen Kane. Believe the hype.

5 Francis Ford Coppola
The godfather
“Anything you build on a large scale or with an intense passion invites chaos,” said the great lost beard of new Hollywood. He started out small, mind. Plucked from film school by Roger Corman in ’62, on $90 a week, Coppola shot the shocker Dementia 13 in Ireland. Cheap axe-ploitation? Sure, but it kick-started his eclectic career, which sprawls from the claustrophobic intensity of The Conversation to the sun-drunk Finian’s Rainbow. Isolation is a key theme, possibly because at nine, this son of a concert flautist fell ill with polio and had to be kept indoors. After the grandiose Godfather films, excess consolidated his myth and almost destroyed him, financially in the case of One From The Heart and physically in the case of Apocalypse Now. “My film is not a movie,” Coppola said. “It’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
Picture perfect The Godfather: Part II. A journey into the heart of darkness.

4 Howard Hawks
The all-rounder
This one-time car racer made silents in the ’20s but really flew in the talky ’30s. His motto was modest: “Make a few good scenes, don’t annoy the audience.” But he was actually magnificently complex, being a crowd-pleaser who made genre (screwball comedy, westerns, film noir, science-fiction, musicals) pieces his own, a writer of “realistic” dialogue who made non-realist entertainments and a man’s man who directed legendary female performances. He was also a genius talent-spotter, pairing Bogey’n’Bacall – first in classy war romance To Have And Have Not and then in labyrinthine noir The Big Sleep. As ’50s French critics recognised, he was the studio helmer as auteur, the populist as artist. Bringing Up Baby, Red River, Rio Bravo… who can match him now?
Picture perfect Screwy newspaper rom-com His Girl Friday.

3 Steven Spielberg
The universal entertainer
“I always like to think of the audience while I’m directing. Because I am the audience.” From movie brat to movie mogul, Steven Spielberg has never lost the common touch. The first thing he ever saw at the flicks was The Greatest Show On Earth (1952); a couple of decades of home-moviemaking, film school and TV apprenticeship later (Duel was grand enough to go big-screen outside the US), he was the new Cecil B DeMille. And exactly 30 summers after the epochal Jaws, he was still packing in the popcorn-eaters with War Of The Worlds.

But being the most successful director on earth comes with a price: ever since ET (“maybe the best Disney film Disney never made” – Variety), Spielberg has been stereotyped as a sentimentalist, more at home with reassurance than risk. Truth is, he’s rarely rested on those billion-dollar laurels, always looking to evolve his craft despite the constants that recur across his work (absent dads, kids in jeopardy, scores by John Williams).

In fact, finally bagging Oscars for Schindler’s List spurred Spielberg into beginning a drive for complexity rather than complacency, making films like Saving Private Ryan, AI and Minority Report. A trailblazer who works at a phenomenally fast rate – who else could make WOTW and Munich in the same year? – he’s too much of a craftsman to cut corners. “Spielberg has always maintained obsessive quality control,” says critic Roger Ebert, “and when his films work, they work on every level.”
Picture perfect ET The Extra-Terrestrial. Aliens and alienation.

2 Martin Scorsese
The don
Little Marty wanted to be a priest, but he could never square the seminary with his one true religion: movies. So he got busy channelling all that misplaced morality through the lens of a movie camera…

Scorsese has now spent 40-odd years tapping the vein of violence pulsing beneath the skin of the Italian-American dream. Yet still no living director comes close to his delirious cocktail of movie scholarship, blazing technique and the kind of actorly respect that coaxes looming turns from both Oscar-winners and phoner-inners.

Like any lapsed Catholic, he’s obsessed with blood and body, but the ultraviolent rep is just a byproduct of his grand passion: power. “Growing up, I saw power exercised in two ways,” says Scorsese. “The power of the church and the power of the street, which was exercised through violence.”

His films are most thrilling when they mesh the two: street scenes and biblical themes (greed, punishment, redemption). The mob stories (Goodfellas, Casino) unfold in worlds where being ‘made’ is both blessing and curse; where enemies and Godlike ‘bosses’ spare or snuff out life at will.

He’s not married to the mob. There are towering tales of men at war with their own natures (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver), prescient celebrity-cult satire (King Of Comedy), smart biopics (The Aviator). The tardy Oscar nod was a career box ticked, but for Marty, it’s always been about one thing: the movies.
Picture perfect GoodFellas. Stand-out guys.

1 Alfred Hitchcock
The puppetmaster
Hitchcock is cinema. No director has been more manipulative or downright entertaining. “Some films are slices of life,” he noted. “Mine are slices of cake.” His wit and intelligence is there for all to gasp at – but was his heart as cold as some have claimed, including the blonde actresses he allegedly tormented? He likened actors to cattle, insisted on storyboarding every shot, and worked from a gloriously cruel creed (“Make the audience suffer as much as possible.”)

This east-end boy got his break in movies designing titles. His third credited gig as director, 1927’s The Lodger, brought his knack for suspense to the fore. (The film also featured the first of his celebrated cameos).

International acclaim greeted The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and by 1940 he’d debuted in Hollywood with the gothic Rebecca. His thrillers could be dark and demented (Spellbound) or just plain wicked (Rope) but with each picture, his technique grew more innovative...

Hitchcock was at his peak in the ’50s and early ’60s: Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds were playful masterpieces that disorientated and indicted the voyeuristic audience; North By Northwest is perfect; and nowhere in cinema is the rug pulled out more dramatically than when Janet Leigh decides to freshen up in Psycho...

Sure, after the sexually charged Marnie in 1964, his creativity waned. But so what? There’s more deviancy and daring in one frame of his ’50s films than most directors manage in a lifetime.

And Hitch just pips Marty to the top spot because, as our eight-page special shows, he may be long gone but his influence lives on...
Picture perfect Vertigo. Hitch scales new heights.

- Source:

August 21, 2007

The Craft (1996)

Since its origins in the "beach films" of the 50s and 60s, the so-called "teen film" genre has been the target of much criticism despite its constant popularity among the audiences. A lot of this comes from the notorious tendency of teen films to be nothing more than clichéd stories done to cash in the popularity of celebrities or fashionable trends, and sadly teen horror, source of most of the worst horror films ever made, is a main offender in this aspect. However, not every horror film aimed to teenagers is dumb, as there have been movies that actually use the conventions of its genre to actually make something interesting and creative with it. Brian De Palma's classic, "Carrie", is probably the best example of this, as it intelligently uses teenage angst as source of horror. While nowhere near De Palma's masterpiece, Andrew Fleming's "The Craft" walks on the same lines with relative success.

In "The Craft", Robin Tunney plays Sarah Bailey, a troubled teenage girl with suicidal tendencies who has recently moved with her family to Los Angeles in order to have a fresh start. In her new school, she meets Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Nancy (Fairuza Balk), three outcast girls who have an interest in the occult and actually are practicing witches. Sarah is invited to join their group after Bonnie notices that Sarah seems to have the real supernatural powers of a natural witch, and after she joins them in their rituals, they discover that with her help they are able to achieve things beyond the normal witchcraft. With this real magical power, the four girls begin to solve their respective problems and everything seems to be perfect, until the ambition for more power overwhelm them, and they discover that everything has a price.

Based on a story by Peter Filardi, "The Craft" was written by director Andrew Fleming and Filardi himself. It is essentially a teen drama with a touch of supernatural horror that, while predictable in its storyline, feels fresh and original thanks to the interesting plot that Filardi creatively develops. What makes it interesting is the amount of research that the writers put on the screenplay, as they based the rituals the characters practice in real witchcraft practices that followers of nature-based religions perform (obviously with exaggerated results); and what's most important, the angle they take on the story is not meant to be disrespectful to followers of those religions, but presents it as a philosophy as valid as any other faith. Of course, it's hard to escape the clichés of teen dramas, but Filardi never fails to make the story entertaining thanks to a good amount of character development.

Director Andrew Fleming takes a very straight forward approach with "The Craft", following to the letter the typical conventions of the teen movie genre, with a dose comedy thrown to good effect, a very modern atmosphere and a polished visual look (courtesy of Alexander Gruszynski's cinematography) designed with the MTV generation in mind. While at first sight this may sound unoriginal, it actually adds to the film's charm, as the overall feeling that results as the horror elements begin to enter the story is one of a teen drama gone to the dark side. The special effects aren't really amazing but they work effectively and even today look pretty good and convincing. Fleming's directing of his cast is another of the elements that make the film good, as nearly everyone gives at least a good performance that helps the film in some way.

As written above, the performances by the cast are something that makes the movie to stand out, starting with Fairuza Balk, who as the lonely and angry Nancy becomes easily the best actress in the cast. Going over-the-top as her character gets more power, Balk makes a villain that is as delightfully insane as she is sympathetic. Robin Tunney is a effective as Sarah, but her performance feels kind of weak when compared to Balk and even Neve Campbell (the fact that as the hero, her character is probably the most clichéd doesn't help). In the supporting roles, Neve Campbell and Rachel True are very good, specially Campbell who despite the relatively small size of the role shows why she would be the one whose career would rise in the following decade. Skeet Ulrich and Christine Taylor also appear in supporting roles with good results, although Ulrich seems to have troubles with his role.

It would be easy to dismiss "The Craft" as just another teen horror film like the many weak movies the genre spawned in the late 90s, but even when it may not be a classic, "The Craft" has a lot going for it that makes it stand out among the rest. True, the story is predictable, disjointed at times, and truly loses some steam at the end; but the way Filardi plays with the moral conflicts between the characters as well as that of being an outcast and having magic powers is pretty interesting. That element together with the fact that it offers a different (and at the time fresh) view on witchcraft and nature-oriented religions makes "The Craft" an interesting and entertaining movie. Still, one has to remember that "The Craft" is first and foremost a supernatural teen drama, so anyone expecting a straight forward horror film will probably be disappointed.

Despite its many flaws, "The Craft" is definitely one of the best American horror movies of the 90s, showing a true understanding of the 90s pop culture and a disposition to play with both the horror and teen movie genres. Sadly, few horror films followed this movie's path and most of the rest of the teen horror movies for the MTV generation ended up having the worst qualities of the genre. It's not "Carrie" but still, "The Craft" is one of the good ones.


Buy "The Craft" (1996)

August 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

More than 10 years after the publication of the first book in the "Harry Potter" series, there's no doubt that J. K. Rowling's fantasy novels are on the way of becoming classics of the genre due to its imaginative world and its captivating story, which has gone from simple tales of adventure to darker and more complex themes as its main character, the young wizard Harry Potter grows up. The fourth installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" began this maturing process, as in that book our hero discovered that fighting against evil, embodied in the figure of Lord Voldemort, wasn't a child's game, as the forces of evil do not hesitate in killing innocents. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", fifth novel in the series, continued and expanded this transformation, and naturally, the movie adaptation followed the same path.

As usual, we find Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) spending the summer at the house of his hateful relatives, the Dursleys, however, something feels different this time, as even when he was the one who discovered that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) had returned, nobody, not even his good friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), had attempted to get in touch with him. Harry suspects something strange is going on, and his suspicion gets confirmed when a group of Dementors attack him and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling), forcing him to use magic to save him. After this event, Harry is informed that he is now expelled from Hogwarts, however, the Order of the Phoenix, a group of elite wizards lead by Harry's former professor Alastor Moody (Brendan Gleeson), appear at the Dursleys' house to take Harry away. It seems that Harry's fifth year has started a bit earlier this time.

Replacing Steve Kloves as scriptwriter for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is writer Michael Goldenberg, who faces the mammoth challenge of adapting Rowling's longest book to film. As any fan of the series should expect, details from the novel had to be omitted, but it must be said that Goldenberg manages to create a script that despite the omissions remains true to the story's spirit by keeping the core themes and staying faithful to the main plot. One of the key elements of the novel's plot is Harry's angst, and Goldenberg manages to successfully explore this aspect in his screenplay, devoting a great deal of it to the developing of Harry's character (something missing in the previous installment). Sadly, this has the consequence of limiting the screen time of the rest of the characters, as even major character such as Ron and Hermione get reduced screen time in this occasion.

As the new person in the director's seat, David Yates wisely decide to keep a sense of continuity between films and follows the same dark visual style that has been part of the series since the third installment ("Prisoner of Azkaban"), keeping the film in tone with the more mature challenges the characters face now that they have grown up and the evil's presence is stronger. A major theme in the movie is how the life at Hogwarts is affected by the many political conspiracies to hide the fact that Voldemort has returned, and fortunately Yates manages to pay enough attention to this aspect without taking the focus out of the main characters. While Yates does give his film a very fast pace, he manages to make the story easy to understand even to those unfamiliar with the novel and the many details that weren't included in the adaptation.

One of the most noticeable things in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is definitely how much has Daniel Radcliffe improved as an actor, as after many years of being the weakest link in the young trio, he finally shows up a considerable development and a real domain over dramatic scenes. Of course, it helps a lot that the script is almost entirely dedicated to his character, although sadly, this also means that Emma Watson and specially Rupert Grint receive almost zero chance to shine, although both make great performances despite this. The rest of the supporting characters suffer of this same thing as well, although Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson and specially Alan Rickman deliver remarkable acting despite the short screen time they have. However, the highlight of the film is Imelda Staunton's acting as Dolores Umbridge, as she delivers what's simply an unforgettable performance.

As written above, anyone expecting a faithful adaptation of the books will be sorely disappointed. To expect the level of detail Kloves and director Chris Columbus had in the first two films is simply pointless, but that doesn't mean Yates and Goldenberg are not talented, one has consider that since "Prisoner of Azkaban", Rowling's seres has grown bigger and deeper than the first two books. True, it's sad not to see some of the most famous scenes of the series in the movie, but what Yates and Goldenberg have done is still impressive as the movie does exactly what the novel did in a flawless way: it gives depth to the characters and completes their transition from kids to teenagers. In fact, the movie's real problem is that it's a bit too fast paced for its own sake, with the events happening at times too quickly to be noticed. I'm sure nobody would complain if 20 extra minutes were added to help slow the pace a bit.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" may not be an adaptation as faithful as hardcore fans would want, but in the end the approach the filmmakers have taken since the third chapter has given the series an identity of its own. This fifth installment is a great addition to the series, as it delivers perfectly the intended message: Harry Potter is not a kid anymore, and his biggest challenge awaits ahead.


Buy "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (2007)

August 16, 2007

Bottles (1936)

In 1929, Walt Disney Productions began to produce one of the most influential series of short films of all time, "Silly Symphonies". Unlike Disney's other famous series of shorts ("Mickey Mouse"), the "Silly Symphonies" shorts wasn't about the company's famous recurring characters, but were more about experimenting with new techniques and styles of animation. This approach made "Silly Symphonies" very popular, and soon other animation teams began to follow that approach, like Warner Bros' "Merrie Melodies". Among the best of the shorts influenced by "Silly Symphonies" was definitely "Happy Harmonies", a series of musical short films created by former WB employees, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, which was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced in Technicolor, "Happy Harmonies" showed a technical proficiency at times as good as the shorts by Warner and Disney, and 1936's "Bottles" is a good example of this.

The story of "Bottles" is pretty simple: During a dark stormy night, a Druggist is working late making what seems to be a new kind of poison, as the bottle has its top shaped as a skull. The druggist falls asleep, and at this moment, the Bottle of poison comes alive, using a potion to shrink the druggist to the size of a bottle. The druggist awakes, shocked after being magically miniaturized, but his shock becomes marvel as he discovers the secret world of his bottles, who by night come alive and begin to sing. Baby bottles crying in harmony, dancing Scotch whiskey, and two bottles of salt water who dance like sailors are just some of the many bottles who participate in the dancing and the singing with the druggist. However, not everything is fun and party, as the deadly bottle of poison has a secret plan for the druggist, and recruits the witch-hazel and the Spirits of Ammonia for his evil scheme.

Like most of the "Happy Harmonies", the movie was written and produced by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with the music and the songs written by their regular collaborator at MGM, Scott Bradley. As usual in their cartoons, the movie is based on the concept of inanimate things coming to life, in surreal experiences where the inanimate things sing, dance and behave as real persons. Anyways, inn "Bottles" they show a lot more of imagination and wit in the creation of the characters, as while at times the link between the bottle and their persona is pretty obvious, there are a couple where the connection between them is a very creative and unexpected one. The comedy is done in lighthearted fun, although the plot about the Poison bottle has a nice touch of the horror as it's filled with a good dose of suspense. Finally, Bradley's songs are fantastic, and some of the best in an MGM cartoon.

Produced in wonderful Technicolor, "Bottles" is a beautifully looking cartoon that makes excellent use of the variety of colors that the Technicolor process allowed director Hugh Harman to use. Harman brings Bradley's song come alive in remarkably well designed musical numbers where the highly detailed bottles (resembling popular brands of those years) act like singers and dancers in the film's choreographs. The visual look of the movie retains the same style that Harman and Ising had been developed since their years at Warner Brothers, with very fluid and dynamic animation and, as written above, carefully designed characters. Also, given the horror elements of the story, the directors add a nice touch of Gothic atmosphere to the movie that works perfectly within the film, with the serious looking "monster bottles" making good contrast with the "good" bottles.

While there's a lot to praise in "Bottles", it also carries with what was the bane of the musical "Happy Harmonies" films done without Bosko, their signature character: the plots were pretty much the same. So, even when "Bottles" does include some of the cleverest character design of all the "Happy Harmonies" films, when one has seen a film from this series, the rest will invariably look like repetitive. However, if one can get past these flaw, "Bottles" is a very rewarding cartoon, as it manages to play on the many stereotypes of the culture of 1930s without being insulting or disrespectful in any way (as some other short films from those years were). Showing a remarkable use of the Technicolor process, "Bottles" is all about good fun, good music, and of course, a few scares.


August 14, 2007

Der Student Von Prag (1913)

One of the most important artistic movements in the history of cinema was without a doubt German expressionism, the highly atmospheric style of film-making developed during the 20s in Berlin. Classic movies like "Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari." (1920) and "Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens" (1922) were the most famous direct results of this movement, and while the movement didn't have a long life, its enormous influence over cinema can still be felt today, specially in the horror genre. One of the key figures of this style would be director Paul Wegener, director of 1920's "Der Golem, Wie Er in die Welt Kam", as in his debut as a filmmaker, seven years before the making of that classic, he was already making experiments with expressionism in film. That early prototype of German expressionism was incidentally, another horror film: "Der Student Von Prag".

"Der Student Von Prag" ("The Student of Prague"), is the story of Balduin (Paul Wegener), a student with the reputation of being the best fencer in Prague, but who always find himself with financial troubles. One day, Balduin rescues the beautiful countess Margit (Grete Berger) from drowning in a lake after her horse drop her by accident. Balduin falls immediately in love with her and tries to see her again, but soon he discovers that he'll have to compete with her rich cousin, Graf Von Schwarzenberg (Lothar Körner), who also wants to marry her. Knowing that he can't offer her much, Balduin wishes to be wealthy, and this is where a sorcerer named Scapinelli (John Gottowt) enters the scene. Scapinelli offers Balduin infinite wealth in exchange of whatever he finds in his room. Balduin accepts the proposal, only to discover in horror that what Scapinelli wants is his reflection in the mirror.

Loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson" and the classic legend of "Faust", the story of "Der Student Von Prag" was conceived by German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers, a master of horror literature and one of the first writers to consider scriptwriting as valid as any other form of literature. Written at a time where cinema in Germany was still being developed as an art form, "Der Student Von Prag" shows a real willingness to actually use cinema to tell a fully developed story beyond a camera trick or a series of scenes. Like most of the scriptwriters of his time, Ewers screenplay is still very influenced by theater, although "Der Student Von Prag" begins to move away from that style. While a bit poor on its character development (specially on the supporting characters), Ewers manages to create an interesting and complex protagonist in the person of Balduin.

While "Der Student Von Prag" was Paul Wegener's directorial debut and Stellan Rye's second film as a filmmaker, it's very clear that these two pioneers had a very good idea of what cinema could do when done properly. Giving great use to Guido Seeber's cinematography, the two young filmmakers create a powerful Gothic atmosphere that forecasts what the German filmmakers of the following decade would do. Wegener would learn many of the techniques he would employ in his "Golem" series from Seeber and Rye. Despite having very limited resources, Rye and Wegener manage to create an amazing and very convincing (for its time) visual effect for the scenes with Balduin's reflection (played by Wegener too). Already an experienced stage actor at the time of making this film, Wegener directs the cast with great talent and also attempts to move away from the stagy style of previous filmmakers.

As Balduin, Paul Wegener is very effective and probably the best in the movie. It certainly helps that his character is the only one fully developed by the writer, but one can't deny that Wegener was very good in his role as the poor student who loses more than his mirror reflection in that contract. John Gottowt plays the sinister Scapinelli with mysterious aura that suits the character like a glove. Few is said about Scapinelli in the film, but Gottowt makes sure to let us know that he is a force to be feared. The rest of the main cast is less lucky, with Grete Berger being pretty much average as countess Margit, and Lothar Körner making a poor Graf Von Schwarzenberg. However, it must be said that Lyda Salmonova was pretty good in her expressive character and Fritz Weidemann made an excellent Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg, showing the dignity that Lörner's character should have had.

Considering the movies that were being done in those years in other countries and the fact that its remake (made 13 years after this film) is superior in every possible way, it's not difficult to understand why "Der Student Von Prag" hasn't stood the test of time as well as other early films. The movie's main problem is definitely its extremely low budget, as it resulted in the film being considerably shorter than what Ewers' story needed to be fully developed. This makes the plot feel a bit too vague at times, or even incomplete, as if there was something missing in the narrative (of course, there's also the possibility that the existing print is really incomplete). However, "Der Student Von Prag" is a very interesting early attempt at a complex tale of horror and suspense in film that, while inferior to what other filmmakers were doing at the time, left a powerful impression in history.

As the direct predecessor of the German expressionist movement, it's hard to deny the enormous importance that "Der Student Von Prag" has in the history of German cinema, probably in the history of cinema in general. It may look dated even for its time, but considering the limited resources its director had, it's truly better than most films from that era. As the movie that started Paul Wegener's career, and with that German expressionism, "Der Student Von Prag" is a must see for everyone interested in this slice of film history.



August 12, 2007

The Son of Kong (1933)

In 1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, two former adventurers working in the film industry, created one of the most amazing movies of all time in "King Kong", a grandiose spectacle of horror, action and fantasy about the adventures of a filmmaker (played by Robert Armstrong) in a mysterious island where he finds Kong, a giant ape who is captured and taken to New York in order to be exhibited as "The Eight Wonder of the World". What Cooper and Schoedsack created in "King Kong" was something more than a movie, it was pure magic, as few images in the history of cinema remain as powerful as the scene of Kong standing at the top of the Empire State Building. Given the enormous success of the film, the studios demanded a sequel to be produced immediately, so Cooper and Schoedsack found themselves forced to repeat the hit with a lower budget and tighter shooting schedule.

A month after the events of "King Kong", former filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is constantly in trouble because of the numerous lawsuits following the destruction that Kong, the giant ape he brought to New York, made during his failed escape. Fortunately, his old friend, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), invites Denham to join his new crew and sail to South Asia, where they can make a living and recover from their financial problems. During one of their trips, they find the man who sold Denham the map to Skull island, Helstrom (John Marston), a former captain who convinces them that there is a treasure in Skull island, secretly planning to steal their ship. Determined to find the treasure, Denham decides to return to Skull island, but the adventure won't be easy, as he'll have to deal with a stowaway girl named Hilda (Helen Mack), Helstrom's evil plans, and the Son of Kong.

Ruth Rose, who wrote the screenplay for the original "King Kong", is also in charge of the screenplay for this sequel, and she keeps exactly the same thrilling mix of genres that made the first one so special. However, there are significant changes in the tone of the film, as in "The Son of Kong" she takes a more lighthearted approach and also makes the offspring of the famous giant ape a heroic character. As odd as it may sound, there's a lot of character development in this movie, mainly in the figure of Carl Denham, who through the movie goes from his well-known ambitious persona to a man who learns to respect the beasts he once considered as nothing more than living gold mines. As in the first film, Rose manages to inject a notable dose of realism to the story despite its fantasy touches, without a doubt the result of her own life as an adventurer along her husband (Schoedsack).

Director Ernest B. Schoedsack returns to the detector's seat in this sequel and once again he gives the movie that gritty realism product of his years as a documentary filmmaker. The amazing special effects by Willis H. O'Brien also return, although due to budget and time limitations, their appearance is tragically limited this time. It is mainly because of this reason that this time the actors receive more chances to show their talents. Schoedsack's directing of his cast is pretty effective, and manages to handle his cast as good as he does his special effects. While Merian C. Cooper limits himself only to produce the film, his taste for magnificent epic action sequences can still be felt in the movie, particularly in the grand finale at Skull island, where he delivers as many thrills as his budget and schedule allowed him.

The acting in "The Son of Kong" is actually effective, and at times even better than the one in the film (granted, Kong was the true star of that classic). Robert Armstrong is wonderful as Carl Denham, making his character's personal transformation a very believable process, as he never loses his wit and charm. Helen Mack is one of the film's highlights as Hilda, as she delivers an excellent performance as the young woman who has lost everything and decides to join Denham's adventure. I'm tempted to say that Mack makes a better protagonist than Fay Wray, but honestly, their characters are too different to compare. As the malicious Helstrom, John Marston is very good, never too over-the-top and surprisingly, very human in his role as the film's "villian". Finally, Frank Reicher gives a dignified performance as the good old Captain Englehorn, making the best out of his role.

Despite its many good elements, "The Son of Kong" often gets labeled as "underwhelming" and receives severe criticism because it fails to live up the expectations the original "King Kong" made. Personally, I think that such criticism, while certainly valid, it's a bit unfair, as considering the limited budget and time that Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose had to complete a new film, the result is of good quality, and while of lesser magnificence, it make a fine conclusion to Carl Denham's story. Even the fact that writer Ruth Rose decided to focus on lighthearted comedy instead of thrilling horror can be seen as a wise move, as it finally gave Kong what many wanted him to receive in the original: compassion. True, it's sad to see a movie with great potential to suffer because of lack of time and budget (O'Brien's special effects get even less screen time this time), but it wasn't really as bad as its reputation says.

While "The Son of Kong" is by all accounts a good and entertaining movie, it certainly pales in comparison with its predecessor's greatness, as "King Kong" casts a shadow that's simply too difficult to overcome. However, if one is willing to forgive the film's problems, one'll find a terrific tale of adventures in the same spirit as the original. This is not "King Kong", but it's still a fun ride.


Buy "The Son of Kong" (1933)

August 10, 2007

Dracula (1958)

After the enormous success of 1995's classic mix of horror and science-fiction, "The Quatermass Xperiment", the relatively small studio named Hammer Film Productions decided to dedicate most of their productions to the fantastic genres. A sequel to "Quatermass" quickly entered into the studio's plans, but it would be another movie what would become a success even bigger than "The Quatermass Xperiment" and the birth of what is now known as "Hammer Horror": Terence Fisher's "The Curse of Frankenstein". Thanks to its use of vibrant colors and daring (for the time) sexual undertones, Fisher's reinterpretation of "Frankenstein" renewed the interest in horror films and set the basis for a new style of Gothic horror. A style that would be perfected in Fisher's next movie for Hammer, another reinterpretation of a classic of Gothic literature, Bram Stoker's "Dracula".

In this version of the famous novel, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is a librarian who arrives to Count Dracula's (Christopher Lee) castle to work. At the castle, Jonathan finds a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who asks him to help her escape from Dracula's enslavement. Jonathan agrees, but she is not a normal woman, she's a vampire, an undead creature who preys on humans to feed on their blood. This doesn't surprise Jonathan, as he is actually a vampire hunter determined to kill Dracula, who is an ancient and powerful vampire. Unfortunately, his plan goes wrong and ends up bitten by Dracula, transforming him in the very thing he was going to kill. Days later, Harker's friend, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives looking for his friend, but finds him as a vampire and is forced to kill him. However, this is only the beginning, as now Dracula has Jonathan's fianceé Lucy (Carol Marsh) as his next target.

Like "The Curse of Frankenstein", the screenplay for this movie (titled "Horror of Dracula" in the U.S. to avoid copyright infringement with Universal's film) was written by Jimmy Sangster, who makes a considerably different story than the one done in Tod Browning's movie. For starters, this time Van Helsing is not only the one with the necessary knowledge to hunt the monster, but also a proficient fighter and overall a more active character than before. Count Dracula has also been reinterpreted, as Sangster takes the sensuality of the vampire one step beyond, and enhances his aggressive brutality without diminishing the Count's classy elegance. A notable trait in Sangster's script is the considerable amount of development he gives to his characters, as while the plot a bit simplistic, he makes us really care about the protagonists while at the same time making Dracula a fascinating creature.

Once again, Terence Fisher's directing is what elevates this work from a good story to a great movie, as in "Dracula" he seems to take everything that made "The Curse of Frankenstein" a hit to the next level, resulting in the definitive example of Hammer Horror. With Bernard Robinson's beautiful art direction and Jack Asher's excellent cinematography, Fisher creates an atmospheric Gothic nightmare in bright colors that even today remains as fresh and influential as it was the day it came out. Fisher's use of color in horror here is even more calculated, as also uses them to shock and terrify as exemplified by his fixation with the bright red of blood. This time Dracula is a real monster, and Fisher makes sure to make him the ultimate predator, however, his seductive image is kept intact as Fisher plays on the Victorian sexual repression with subversive subtlety.

One of the best elements in this version of Stoker's novel is definitely the acting of the cast, which is for the most part of an excellent quality. The stars of "The Curse of Frankenstein", Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, appear here in the roles that made them legends. As Dracula, Christopher Lee shows his very powerful presence, making a terrifying portrayal of the undead monster that almost equals Lugosi's classic performance. On the other hand, Cushing truly is the star of the film with the magnificent display of talent he gives as Dr. Van Helsing. Personally I think that nobody has given a better performance as Van Helsing than the one Cushing does in this movie. However, the movie is not only about Cushing and Lee, as Michael Gough truly shines in his role as Arthur Holmwood, Lucy's brother forced to join Van Helsing's battle against Dracula in order to save his family.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, with great performances by Melissa Stribling as Arthur's wife Mina, and the aforementioned Carol Marsh and John Van Eyssen, who make the best out of their certainly small roles. Credit must go to Fisher's directing of his cast as well, as he really seems to get the best out of each one of the actors, making "Dracula" one of the best acted movies of the ones Hammer produced. In fact, if there's a flaw in this Gothic masterpiece, that would be that sadly there isn't enough time to fully enjoy each one of the diverse characters that Sangster, Fisher and the cast have created in this movie. Just like any other story with multiple film versions, it's hard to resist the temptation to pick a "best version" of "Dracula", specially when two highly celebrated films (this one and Browning's) are among those adaptations.

Personally, I prefer Browning's 1931 version over this one, however, Terence Fisher's "Dracula" is a masterpiece of Gothic horror as good as the one by Universal, and my choice is based more on personal preferences than on any superiority in terms of quality. Thanks to Fisher's masterful directing and the amazing performances of its cast, "Dracula", or "Horror of Dracula" as it's known in America, easily ranks among the best movies that came out of the legendary Hammer Film Productions, and simply one of the best horror movies ever made.


Buy "Dracula" (1958)

August 09, 2007

A shameless bit of self promotion: Horror 101 - The Book

Many moons ago, I was invited by a dear friend of mine, Aaron Christensen, to collaborate in a strange yet interesting project he had been developing alomst since we met each other at the IMDB forums: a book about the most influential films in the history of the horror genre. I was surprised by the idea, mainly because he had decided to choose me, but also because it seemed so impossible to coordinate a project of this magnitude among horror fans. However, after months of hard work, me, Aaron, and 76 like-minded comrades from many different places, finished working on what was now called, "Horror 101: The A-list of horror films and monster movies", a book collecting essays on 110 classic films. I did the essay concerning Roger Corman's "House of Usher" and the one about both versions of "The Fly", and I truly appreciate that Aaron had picked me back when this was still just a horror fan's dream.

Well, here it is, by the fans and for the fans, "Horror 101: The a-list of horror films and monster movies". If you are interested in what does the book contain, click here to learn more about this little project, it'll take you to our current myspace site. Those able to go to the "Horrorfind Weekend" convention at Baltimore, Maryland be sure to visit Aaron, who surely will be there creating as much buzz as possible about the book.

Hasta los Huesos (2001)

Through the history of Mexican cinema, animated films never had a really strong presence until the decade of the 80s, when the relative success of José Luis Moro's "Katy" (a co-production with Spain) renewed the interest in animated films. Granted, there had been many attempts of making animation before, but there was never a real tradition of animated films in the Mexican film industry. Still, the country's many economical troubles stopped the development of animation once again until the 90s when the films by Carlos Carrera ("El Héroe") and the team of René Castillo and Antonio Urrutia ("Sin Sostén") proved that there was still talented animators in Mexico working independently. The 21st century has brought once again a renewed interest in Mexican animation, with many new films done in its first decade. Castillo's second film, "Hasta Los Huesos", it's among the best of this new generation.

"Hasta Los Huesos" begins with the burial of a recently deceased man (Bruno Bichir). In a lonely afternoon, the undertakers carry his coffin while his widow cries hopelessly and a kid who was passing by watches the whole scene. After the coffin has been buried, the man suddenly awakes, however, he is not really alive, as the passage to an underground world opens at the bottom of his coffin. The man falls through the passage and lands in what seems to be a strange stage. As he gets up, he notices that he is now in some kind of bohemian bar where everyone is a skeleton and it seems that the party has just started. Confused, the man walks to the bar, bothered by a worm that keeps biting him and sad as he realizes that he is now dead. As a drink is served to him, a beautiful woman's voice begins to sing, it's the Catrina (Eugenia León), Death herself, who is here to help him understand that to be dead is not so bad.

Known in English as "Down to the Bone" (although it's not an exact translation), "Hasta Los Huesos" was written by director René Castillo himself, who inspired by the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, built up a story that thematically could be considered as a loose sequel to his previous film. While "Sin Sostén" was about a man choosing to die, this film deals with the theme of accepting death, as our hero here refuses to accept that death has already taken him away. Like in his previous film, Castillo uses a lighthearted tone of comedy to deal with this dark and melancholic subject, and once again he succeeds in creating a charming bittersweet fable that culminates in a fantastic use of the haunting traditional Mexican song titled "La Llorona" ("The Crying Woman"). Through its 12 minutes of duration, the plot unfolds nicely, and without dialogs (other than the song lyrics), Castillo manages to tell more with images than with words.

"Hasta Los Huesos" follows the same style in both character and set design that Castillo used in his previous film, but this time the result looks a lot more polished, with an even more fluid animation and more complex movements. The cinematography is again in charge of Sergio Ulloa, who once again makes a wonderful job in capturing Castillo's macabre fantasy world with great skill. Clearly inspired by the Day of the Dead festivities, the visual look of "Hasta Los Huesos" has a distinctive Mexican touch that gives the movie a special charm, as Castillo's vision of the underworld resembles the visual style of such celebrations, mainly the zinc etchings by Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. Despite the macabre themes, "Hasta Los Huesos" is certainly less dark than "Sin Sostén", as Castillo seems to prefer comedy over drama and have a more optimistic view of life this time.

With an astonishing visual look, beautiful music (performed by Mexican rock band "Café Tacuba") and a cleverly written story, "Hasta Los Huesos" is a wonderful animated movie that gives a glimpse of what animation in Mexico could become one day with the appropriate support, and that "New Mexican Cinema" can be more than urban dramas and touch genres such as fantasy and horror. Together with filmmaker Antonio Urrutia, René Castillo proved that clay animation wasn't out of the wave of new Mexican cinema that came out in the 90s. Three years later, Castillo returns and creates a masterpiece that infinitely surpasses what he achieved in his first short. Hopefully, his talents will create a feature length animated movie someday, as if "Hasta Los Huesos" is an indication of the future of Mexican animation, the future looks good.


August 08, 2007

Sin sostén (1998)

Despite its troubled history, Mexican cinema has had a long and interesting life since the first motion picture was shown in the country back in 1895. While it has been the source of several masterpieces and the industry where many directors and cinematographers showed their talents, Mexican cinema hasn't had a regular development and the lack of presence of animation in Mexican films is the best example of this. Through its more than 100 years of history, very few animated films have been released, as the few artists that dedicate their talents to this style find little aid to develop their projects. However, lately this seems to be changing and film animation is beginning to grow in the country. One of its most ardent supporters has been René Castillo, who along director Antonio Urrutia, debuted in 1998 with the clay animation short film "Sin Sostén".

In "Sin Sostén" (literally "No Support"), is the story of what happens the night a man decides to kill himself by jumping from the apartment building where he lives. Sad and disappointed with his life, our hero climbs to the top of the building in the middle of the night and prepares to jump. As he climbs up by the fire escape, some neighbors are awaken by the noise he makes but few realize that this man is serious in his intention. At the top of the building, only the images of two giant billboards witness his actions: the cowboy in the cigarette's advertisement, and the voluptuous model in the one for lingerie. After contemplating the sexy figure of the model for the last time, or hero jumps, but the model doesn't want him to die, so she comes alive and asks the cowboy to use his lasso in order to help her save the poor guy.

Written by directors René Castillo and Antonio Urrutia, "Sin Sostén" is a very good black comedy that, with a nice touch of fantasy, manages to be very funny despite the sad themes it explores. While the plot is very simple, it makes an interesting point on how our hero, despite living in a highly populated city, can only find comfort and help in the fictional persons of the billboards while his neighbors only watch him jump to his death with indifference. Exploring themes such as loneliness and hopelessness in a comedy is hard, but Castillo and Urrutia make it work smoothly without many problems, developing a charming, yet bittersweet story filled with many good gags and some unpredictable plot twists that give it a different style. It's also worth to point out that "Sin Sostén" also means "without brassier" in Spanish, making a double-entendre that nicely gives away the mood of this short film.

Both Castillo and Urrutia make an excellent job directing this movie, with Castilo focusing on the animation process and Urrutia commanding the narrative of the film. The artistic work done by Castillo's team is simply gorgeous, with a very fluid animation and a very appropriate character design that suits nicely the touch of fantasy the film has. The influence of modern clay animators like Henry Selick can be felt, but with Sergio Ulloa's excellent cinematography, Castillo gives the movie a very Mexican touch, creating an atmosphere that, while fantastic, still feels like the Mexican urban landscape. However, if Castillo's work of animation is the heart of the film, Urrurita's directing is the soul, as his subtle handling of the different emotions in "Sin Sostén" (not unlike what he did in his previous work, 1996 short film, "De Tripas, Corazón") is what makes the film so special.

It took the directors a year and a half to finish the movie, but in the end all their efforts were worthy. In a country without a real tradition of film animation, "Sin Sostén" proved that it wasn't late for Mexico to begin one, and that there were many talented animators interested in taking their art to cinema. While Urrutia went on to direct his first feature length movie (2002's "Asesino en Serio"), René Castillo followed "Sin Sostén" with another animated short film, 2001's "Hasta Los Huesos" (again with Sergio Ulloa), a movie in which he took what he did in this film to the next level. It'll be nice to see how Mexican animation develops in the following years. Melancholic, yet strangely optimistic, this bittersweet short tale of fantasy is a short film that definitely deserves to be seen.


The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

In 1934, during the boom of British cinema, businessman William Hinds, decided to enter the industry and create his own film company, "Hammer Productions Ltd.", where he would produce several movies before being forced into bankruptcy due to the end of the industry's bonanza. Along with partner Enrique Carreras, Hinds became a film distributor, but that wasn't really the end of Hammer's history, as many years later, Carreras' son James joined Hinds' son Anthony and together with their parents, resurrected Hammer Film Productions in 1949. The next two important events in Hammer's history were the hiring of director Terence Fisher in 1951, and the enormous success of 1955's horror film, "The Quatermass Xperiment", as they would play important roles the company's future. While Hammer was preparing "Quatermass 2", they gave Terence Fisher the chance to resurrect Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", and Hammer Horror was born.

In "The Curse of Frankenstein", Peter Cushing plays Baron Victor Frankenstein, who after losing his family at a young age, hires scientist Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) as a mentor. Along Krempe, the young Baron develops his enormous genius for science, becoming great friends and colleagues as he grows up. During one of their experiments, they discover a way to bring a dead dog back to life, an amazing discovery that excites both scientists as it could be of enormous use for medicine. However, Victor wants to go further, and decides that the next step is the creation of life. Krempe refuses to help Victor in that experiment, but decides to stay in the house to protect Victor's cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court), who has arrived to marry Victor, unsuspecting of her fianceé's experiments. The Baron's obsession with his experiment will prove to be more dangerous than what Krempe thinks.

The screenplay for this new version of Shelley's classic was written by Jimmy Sangster, who had previously written "X: The Unknown" for Hammer the previous year. Unlike what happens in Universal's 1931 classic adaptation, the plot is completely focused on the Baron's figure instead of on the creature, which gives a new and fresh angle to the story, as it explores Frankenstein's obsessions and how they begin to consume his life. To achieve this, Sansgter adds a lot of human drama and character development that at times makes the film more a Gothic tragedy than a typical horror film, but even when limited, Sangster's use of suspense is still pretty effective. It still isn't exactly a straight adaptation of Shelley's novel, but Sangster's screenplay does offer an interesting idea by not making the Creature a misunderstood monster, but the literal symbol of Frankenstein's failure and corruption.

Anyways, while Jimmy Sangster's screenplay is indeed worthy of recognition, it was really Terence Fisher's work as a director what ultimately gave Hammer horror it's true face. While already an experienced director by the time he made "The Curse of Frankenstein", Fisher found in Hammer's horror films the creative freedom that allowed him to explore new realms in this reinterpretations of old classics. His care for details in set design and costume design give the film a great look that equals the one of movies with bigger production values, and using vibrant colors, he puts a special emphasis on blood for the first time. There are also several sexual overtones in the film that give the movie a different style to previous incarnations of the novel, an element that Fisher would take further in posterior movies, specially in "Dracula" and "The Curse of the Werewolf".

"The Curse of Frankenstein" is also the film that introduced two of the most important actors in the horror genre since the days of Universal's movies: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. As Baron Frankenstein, Cushing delivers an outstanding performance that can be considered among the best in the history of the genre. Making a fascinating character out of the unsympathetic Baron is not easy, but Cushing succeeds remarkably and completely makes the movie his own. Lee has a considerably smaller role as the Creature, but while "Dracula" would be the movie where he would shine the most, here he delivers a powerful performance as the Monster. As Frankenstein's mentor, Paul Krempe, Robert Urquhart is pretty effective and makes a great counterpart to Cushing's Baron. Hazel Court is less successful as Elizabeth, although it's not really a bad performance at all.

It's hard not to think about comparing Fisher's interpretation of "Frankenstein" to the legendary movie made by James Whale 26 years before for Universal, but really, in the end it's a pointless exercise as both movies are so different from each other (and different from Shelley's novel) that there's no proper way to compare them. While one has a powerful story of a misunderstood monster (played brilliantly by Boris Karloff), the other is a tale of ambition and obsessions where the monster is nothing more than the ultimate result of Frankenstein's evil, so it's impossible to tell which one is the best of the two. What can really be said about "The Curse of Frankenstein" is that it suffers from an extremely slow pace that may turn off some viewers, although as the story unfolds, this slow pace does pay off in the end and helps to build up a perfect Gothic atmosphere.

An enormously successful film, "The Curse of Frankenstein" began the style of Gothic horror that would later be labeled as "Hammer Horror". With Fisher at the helm, Hammer would become a great influence in how the genre was developed through the 60s, giving it new life and pushing the boundaries of the era. While maybe overshadowed by Fisher's posterior masterpieces, "The Curse of Frankenstein" is still one of the best tales of Gothic horror that have appeared on the silver screen.


Buy "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957)

August 06, 2007

The Omen (1976)

As the dominant faiths of the Western hemisphere, the Abrahamic religions (mainly Christianity and Judaism) have played an important role as source of inspiration for many art forms through the centuries. In the narrative arts, they have inspired all kinds of stories, as their cosmology is so complex that can be used in almost everything, from moral fables to epic tales. Obviously, they have also inspired many horror stories, mainly because the three have a definitive personification of evil in the figure of the Devil, which makes an excellent villainous character due to its many different traits. Naturally, the Devil and its followers have been villains in horror films since almost the beginnings of cinema, however, it was during the decades of the 60s and 70s when three of the most influential horror movies about the Devil were made: "Rosemary's Baby", "The Exorcist", and "The Omen".

"The Omen" begins in Rome on June 6, 1966, when American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) receives the news that his new son has been stillborn. Devastated by the news, Thorn worries about how will this affect his wife Katherine (Lee Remick), so when he is offered the chance to adopt a newborn baby whose mother died giving birth to him, he accepts and decides not to tell a word to his wife. Years go by and everything seems happy for the Thorn family, with Robert quickly ascending in the political arena while his son, named Damien (Harvey Stephens) grows up apparently normally. However, on Damien's fifth birthday, his young Nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself mysteriously in front of everyone. This will be only the first of many strange events surrounding Damien, making Robert begin to suspect that there's something unnatural in his son.

Written by David Seltzer, "The Omen" mixes drama, horror and suspense by mixing cleverly an apocalyptic theme with a concept that was very popular in horror stories during the 60s and the 70s: the "evil child". While obviously inspired by the success of "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby", Seltzer gives to his story a new angle closer in spirit to movies like "Village of the Damned", as in "The Omen", the kid is not a victim or a tool of the supernatural evil, but truly the embodiment of evil. Due to this, Seltzer wisely bases most of the movie's drama around the dilemma that consumes Damien's father, who can't help but see innocence in his beloved son, as well as in the consequences of his doubts and his search for answers. This serious approach, together with strong character development, give the film a powerful sense of realism, which in turn truly makes it a haunting experience.

With "The Omen", director Richard Donner had the first major success of his career, and it's not difficult to see why, as while Seltzer's script is truly inspired, credit should go to Donner as the man responsible for "The Omen"'s overall style. Knowing that the strength of the script lays in the realism of its human drama, Donner keeps a restrained style in "The Omen", and handles the supernatural themes with a subtle elegance that helps to create a haunting atmosphere of dread that fits nicely within the apocalyptic theme of the film. While all we see is a little child, Donner skillful use of Gilbert Taylor's cinematography and the eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith, makes it seem as if it was truly the beginning of the end of the world. Donner's directing of his cast also plays an instrumental role in this, as he brings out strong and realistic performances out of them.

Leading the cast is Gregory Peck, delivering a terrific performance as U.S. ambassador Robert Thorn, the unsuspecting adoptive father of the Antichrist. As usual, Peck gives his character a lot of humanity, as well as his commanding presence. While Peck is initially a bit wooden in his performance, this kind of fits nicely in his role as an upcoming politician who must take the most difficult decision a father has to face. As Thorne's wife Katherine, Lee Remick is equally as effective as Peck, playing Damien's troubled mother with great realism. However, it is Billie Whitelaw who steals the movie as the sinister Mrs. Baylock, Damien's new nanny who is completely willing to do whatever is necessary to help Damien to rule the world. Whitelaw's performance is truly haunting, and while a bit over-the-top at times, she portrays one of the best horror villains of the 70s.

It's pretty easy to criticize the many inconsistencies between the movie and the biblical sources that inspired its main plot, however, to label the film as pretentious or inaccurate in its portrayal of Christian imagery would be pretty ignorant and ultimately pointless, as "The Omen" never intends to be a representation of any biblical story or theological prophecy, as it's only a fictional tale of horror and suspense inspired by them. What truly can be criticized about the film are the small but numerous plot holes that appear from time to time through the film, certainly minor yet noticeable problems that could had been easily avoided with a bit more of care in the development of the script. The movie's extremely slow pace doesn't help in this, as while it allows Donner more development for his characters, it also makes the movie be a bit boring at times.

It's difficult not to compare this movie to "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist", as the fact that "The Omen" was obviously inspired by those two masterpieces of horror is hard to ignore. But even when it may come as inferior when compared to those classics, "The Omen" still is one of the best horror films produced by a major studio during the 70s, thanks in part to the classy style Donner added to the film. It's true that "The Omen" hasn't aged well, but more than 30 years after its release, it remains a powerful and haunting experience.


Buy "The Omen" (1976)

August 03, 2007

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

During the 30s and the 40s, movie serials were a very popular way of storytelling in movies because its episodic nature suited perfectly the development of low-budget action-adventure films. Under this format, a vast array of genres was exploited (westerns, crime fiction, and science fiction) in stories where a hero would fight a villain across the chapters, with a cliffhanger between every episode. Science fiction was specially popular, with titles like "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" becoming instant classics of the genre due to their action packed story lines and the inventive use of special effects. Almost 70 years after their release, sci-fi movie serials are still part of our popular culture and a proof of their legacy is Kerry Conran's ode to 30s' science fiction, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow".

Set in a fantastic alternate version of 1939 New York, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" chronicles the story of Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young news-reporter doing a research about the mysterious disappearances of renowned scientists. In her investigation, she meets Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter), a former colleague of the missing scientists who informs her that a man named Dr. Totenkopf is behind the kidnappings. Just before Jennings can explain her more, an army of robots arrive to the city and begin to attack the city prompting the police to call for Joseph Sullivan (Jude Law), the Sky Captain and his Flying Legion. While the Flying Legion manages to stop the attack, it won't be the last, so the Captain decides to investigate about his enemy before the next attack; problem is, the only one with information is his ex-lover Polly, and they broke up three years earlier.

As written above, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" was written by director Kerry Conran as a homage to the 30s and the sci-fi serials and comic books he enjoyed as a kid, and as such, it borrows a lot from those action-adventure movies of old in terms of mood and thematics. It's quite obvious that Conran knows and respects his sources, as the script captures the serial's style in an extremely faithful way, even to the point of homaging screwball comedy in the relationship between the two main characters. True, the plot is pretty simple as it's basically a typical 30s tale of adventures where a hero and his girlfriend team up to save the world from a megalomaniac super-villain. However, Conran adds a bit of irony and tongue-in-cheek humor that help to modernize the film in the same way that Steven Spielberg did with his "Indiana Jones" series of films.

While the story may be typical, it's in the direction and in the visual department where "Sky Captain" truly shines, as Conran does his best to create his futuristic vision of 1939 in all its glory. Shot entirely against blue screen, the majority of the sets and the background were all computer generated, allowing the designers an enormous amount of freedom in the designing of the visual style of the movie. Mixing the Art Deco style from the 30s with the visions of the future that 30s sci-fi offered at the time, director Conran and cinematographer Eric Adkins truly capture the feeling of a pulp novel with many visual homages to 30s movie serials and a wonderful photography that makes the movie feel like an authentic movie from that time period. The special effects done in the movie are simply awesome, and take full advantage of the digital film-making employed by the crew.

The cast is for the most part good, with Jude Law delivering an excellent performance as Joe Sullivan. Dashing and pretty natural, Law seems to understand the tongue-in-cheek approach that director Conran took for the film and has fun with it, creating a memorable character on the lines of pulp heroes like Doc Savage or Ace Drummond. Gwyneth Paltrow is definitely less fortunate in her delivery, but overall her performance has received a lot of unjustified bashing. True, she is definitely on a more serious tone than the rest of the characters, making her character look a bit too dull at times, but there are moments when her comedic delivery works just perfectly. Giovanni Ribisi has a supporting role that as usual is transformed into a memorable character by his great performance, and Omid Djalili appears in a small comedic role that also adds a lot to the film.

Despite being extremely faithful to the style and atmosphere of 30s serials, this faithfulness proves to be a double-edged sword for Conran, as this approach certainly limits the audience who would truly understand and like his movie. Don't get me wrong, this is by no means a difficult to "get" high brow movie, what I mean is that it certainly helps to be aware of the movie serials' style in order to catch the many tongue-in-cheek homages of the film. The main problem of the film is that taken out of context, it looks corny, simplistic and anachronistic, as it ends up suffering from the same problems that filled movie serials (clichéd situations and two-dimensional characters). On a different matter, one would have hoped a bit more of characterization for the supporting roles, specially Angelina Jolie and Ling Bai's characters, who are quite important for the story but hardly receive any development at all.

Visually stunning, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a proof that digital film-making can be used in intelligent and creative ways to construct impressive worlds that would be impossible to recreate with normal set design. While certainly not a film I would recommend to anyone, it is certainly an excellent movie for die hard fans of sci-fi, specially those who enjoy the thrilling adventures of the likes of Buck Rogers and Ace Drummond. A flawed gem, this inspired work of sci-fi proves that there is still life in the genre, and that all its needed is a bit of imagination.


Buy "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" (2004)

August 02, 2007

El Héroe (1994)

During the first half of the decade of the 90s, Mexican cinema experienced a resurgence that seemed to point to a new "Golden Age". The critical and commercial success of movies like "Sólo con Tu Pareja", increased the optimism about the future of Mexican cinema, but sadly, the severe financial problems that the country suffered in 1994 made the survival of the "New Mexican Cinema" far more difficult than expected. Among the filmmakers of the "New Mexican Cinema" generation who managed to keep working through the 90s was Carlos Carrera, a prolific director of short films whose 1991 feature length debut was the remarkable "La Mujer De Benjamín". After the mediocre results his second movie, "La Vida Conyugal", Carrera returned to short films and produced "El Héroe", the animated short film that would give him worldwide praise.

Through its 5 minutes of duration, "El Héroe" (literally "The Hero") tells the story of a common everyman who lives in Mexico City and has to constantly face the different problems of the asphalt jungle. In a typical subway station, he witnesses the daily human drama of the urban citizens, often hidden inside the anonymity of the masses. Corruption and indifference seems to be overtly present, with pickpockets happening in front police officers without any problem. While waiting for the next train, our hero sees a lonely teenage girl with a sad look in her face standing too close to the edge, waiting eagerly for the next train. Realizing that the girl is going to jump, our hero decides to stop her and begins to walk towards her. Walking through the human wall with enormous difficulty, he manages to stop the girl from jumping, but there is a surprise for our hero in the end.

Written by director Carlos Carrera himself, "El Héroe" is a bleak and depressing story that obviously has social indifference as its main subject, however, it also touches several other themes, such as urban decay and its corruptive effects on society, specially the dehumanization and ultimate loss of identity of people living in the big cities. Of course, Carrera takes a very extreme approach in his representation of the urban nightmare, however, while his take on the subject is certainly exaggerated, his portrait of the city as a corrupting environment has a considerable dose of realism as it is a powerful reflection of what was the reality of Mexico during the 90s. While there is only one word in the whole movie, Carrera develops his characters with considerable skill, product of his extensive experience in making short animated movies.

Before making his first feature length film, Carrera made himself a name as director of high quality short films, and "El Héroe" was one of Carrera's personal projects that he had been preparing since his days as a student in the 80s. Since budgetary reasons disabled him from making it with actors on real locations, Carrera decided to return to his roots as an animator and made it an animated movie. While this would seem to make the film less realistic, it's actually the opposite, as by exaggerating the darkness of the urban landscape, Carrera actually makes it feel closer to home. His visual design is simply wonderful, as he makes the haunting and grotesque images look beautiful; and thanks to his excellent use of color, he manages to capture perfectly the atmosphere of decadence and nostalgia that fills every minute of his story.

While many people do not consider short films as "proper movies", they are actually an art form as valid as feature length films, and Carrera's "El Héroe" can be considered a masterpiece of that specific medium. Not only it shows that a lot can be said in a few minutes, the fact that there has never existed an animation industry in Mexico makes Carrera's work even more impressive. It took Carrera many years to create this project, but in the end, the movie was worth the effort, as "El Héroe" would win the Golden Palm for short films at Cannes that year. Thanks to the attention he won with this success, Carrera had the chance to keep showing his talent as a filmmaker and his career survived the difficulties that Mexican cinema faced in the 90s. Despite its short runtime, "El Héroe" ranks easily among the best movies that the "New Mexican Cinema" gave in the 90s.