September 26, 2007

The Gorilla (1939)

During the 20s, murder mystery stage plays were extremely popular at Broadway theaters with plays like "The Bat" and "The Cat and the Canary" being huge hits everywhere. Naturally, film versions of this stage plays began to be produced, and thanks to their spooky sets and intriguing plots, this movies became an enormous influence for the horror films of following decades. Ralph Spence's "The Gorilla" was another of this kind of murder mystery stories that made the jump to cinema, with its first adaptation being made in 1927. What made "The Gorilla" different to the others was the humor it had, as it was more a spoof of the genre than a serious tale of horror. While nowhere near as successful as the other film versions of plays, "The Gorilla" was popular enough to be remade twice, the first time in 1930 and the second in 1939, with the legendary Bela Lugosi.

In this version, Lionel Atwill plays Walter Stevens, a very rich man who receives a letter from a killer who names himself "The Gorilla", threatening to kill him the following night. Worried about his life, Stevens hires three detectives (Jimmy, Harry and Al Ritz) to be with him in the mansion and protect his life. He has also called his nephew Norma (Anita Louise), to whom he explains the situation and what she should do in the case of his death. Her boyfriend Jack (Edward Norris) is with her, and along Kitty the maid (Patsy Kelly) and Stevens' butler Peters (Bela Lugosi), they will remain in the house hoping to find the Gorilla before he manages to kill Mr. Stevens. However, it doesn't seem an easy task to accomplish, as the three bumbling detectives seem to be clueless as where to start looking, and far more afraid of the Gorilla than Mr. Stevens himself.

Adapted to the screen by Rian James and Sid Silvers, this version of "The Gorilla" retains that comedic approach on the mystery stories that the play originally had, however, since the movie is a vehicle for the Ritz brothers (their last film for Twentieth Century Fox), there's a lot more emphasis on the slapstick that this comedy team was famous for. As a spoof on the genre, "The Gorilla" plays with every cliché that this kind of movies had, from the ensemble of different characters forced to spend the night in a dark mansion, to the classic whodunit plot twists that keep the secret of the murderer's identity. Mixing horror, mystery and comedy isn't easy, but Spence's play had a fairly good plot that managed to do the trick. Sadly, this adaptation isn't as successful, as the mix here feels forced and messy, as if the writers weren't sure what to make of it.

Directed by the extremely prolific Allan Dwan, "The Gorilla" features an excellent use of lighting and set design to create a dark atmosphere. Despite the extremely low production values (it was a troubled production due to labor disputes between the brothers and Fox), Dwan comes up with a solid film that at times manages to help to forget the lousy quality of the script. It's nowhere near the level of his other movies, but personally I think that he makes the often incoherent story watchable and funny. While the emphasis is on slapstick, there's still some of the play's wit in the characters played by Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, whom are the perfect counterpart to the brothers' physical comedy. Fortunately, "The Gorilla" lacks the usual sing and dance that made the Ritz brothers famous, as it would had been out of place in Dwan's film.

Unfortunately the performances in "The Gorilla" are pretty much average, as while there are displays of brilliance among some members of the cast, others are simply unremarkable at best. The Ritz brothers have a bit of both sides, as they aren't really bad performers, but while some of their jokes are good (Harry Ritz was indeed talented), most of the times they all feel out of place in the movie. Edward Norris and Anita Louise are pretty average in their performances, with Norris being a very wooden actor in this film. Classic horror star Lionel Atwill plays his character with great skill, but it's not really one of his best roles. The highlights of the film are Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, with the legendary horror star showing that he also had an underrated talent for black comedy as Peters the butler.

As written above, this movie is not exactly an excellent film, as while the original stage play was a witty mix of genres, this version ends up as a poorly built mishmash of styles: it wants to be a proper mystery (and has enough to be one) and a spoof at the same time. Sadly, the addition of the Ritz brothers to the mix doesn't really help anything, as while they weren't really a bad comedy team, their style simply isn't well adjusted to the movie. And it's not really the brothers' fault, as with some more work the script would had been perfect (apparently, the quality of this script was one of the reasons the brothers left Fox). On a completely different subject, the low budget really hurt the film, as while director Dwan and his team did very well with what they had, it really looks pretty poor in some accounts (the Gorilla suit for example).

While definitely "The Gorilla" is far from being a classic on the level of earlier Lugosi films, it's by no means a completely bad film, and it's certainly unworthy of the bad reputation it carries today. Sure, it's hard to get used to the Ritz brothers' style of comedy, specially when it's badly written as it is here, but even when it's not comedy classic, "The Gorilla" does deliver good entertainment. It's worth a watch, if only to get a glimpse of a different side of Bela Lugosi.


Buy "The Gorilla" (1939)

September 14, 2007

Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)

Ever since it was conceived by French writer Gaston Leroux in his novel, "The Phantom of the Opera", the tale of a disfigured musical genius who roams the Opera house has become one of the most famous horror stories of all, and the inspiration of many films. Without a doubt, the most famous of those films was Rupert Julian's "The Phantom of the Opera", produced by Universal studios in 1925 with Lon Chaney as the Phantom. That classic adaptation would be one of Universal's biggest hits of all time, and not only in America, as literally in every country it was shown it became very popular. In one of its showings, the film was seen by a young Chinese filmmaker named Weibang Ma-Xu, whom fascinated by Chaney's performance, conceived his very own version of the story and titled it "Ye Ban Ge Sheng", literally, "A Song at Midnight".

The story is set in an old theater, where many important actors performed once, but that now is abandoned as rumor says that the ghost of famous singer Song Dangping (Shan Jin) roams the place. One night, an acting troupe arrives, hoping to have success in such a famous theater. However, they all end up disappointed when they see the sad state of disuse in which the theater is right now. Despite this, they begin the preparations for their debut, and young singer Sun Xiaoou (Chau-Shui Yee) is chosen to play the lead. Xiaoou retires to practice alone, as he has troubles to sing the part correctly, and it's at this moment when he hears the ghost of Song Dangping, who appears to teach him how to sing. With the aid of the ghost, Xiaoou is a success, but when he tries to thank his master, he discovers the secret behind the ghost of Song Dangping.

As written above, director Weibang Ma-Xu wrote "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" as a reinterpretation of "The Phantom of the Opera"'s story, however, he only took the concept of the deformed musical genius and created his very own tale out of it. "A Song at Midnight" is essentially, a tragic romance with horror elements, as the plot focuses on the Phantom's inability to be with the woman he loves (played by Ping Hu) and his decision to use his disciple to interact with the world he lost. It's a really fresh take on the concept, as it truly keeps the spirit of the story while at the same time adapting it to the Chinese culture. Ma-Xu plays skillfully with mystery and suspense, as he unfolds the details of the story with the care of an artisan. It's pretty obvious that he loved the concept a lot, as his development of both plot and characters is remarkably good.

Interestingly, the idea of the story wasn't the only thing Ma-Xu adapted from Western film-making, the style Ma-Xu uses in "A Song at Midnight" is also clearly inspired by Universal horror movies of the 20s and the 30s (mainly "Frankenstein" and "Dracula"). With the excellent cinematography by Boqing Xue and Xingsan Yu, together with a slightly expressionist set design, director Ma-Xu creates an ominous gloomy atmosphere of mystery and magic that really sets the mood for this story of horror and romance (most of the scenes are set at night). Naturally, the film has many limitations due to budgetary reasons, however, Weibang Ma-Xu inventively manages to create a very powerful film that looks great despite his limited resources. I also must say that the work of make-up for this Phantom is simply excellent.

The cast is pretty effective in their performances, and despite the natural melodrama of the story, there's little overacting in the film. In his debut on film, Chau-Shui Yee (who would become a big star in the 40s) is very good as the young Sun Xiaoou, and while he looks a bit wooden at times, he truly had a natural presence in front of the camera. As the tragic anti-hero Sing Dangping (Shan Jin) is simply excellent, managing both the fearsome and the vulnerable sides of his character with a great ease and control. It's impossible to know if the singing voices of their characters are those of Shan Jin and Chau-Shui Yee, but their work is simply masterful. Ping Hu plays Li Xiaoxia, Sang Dangping's lover, and while she looks beautiful in her role, she is prone to overacting just a bit too much for her own sake, although it's not really a problem.

While an interesting example for early Chinese horror, "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" is sadly far from being a masterpiece, as there are several details that prevent this film from being perfect. Contrary to what could be expected, the film's main problem is not caused by the low budget, but by the strange pace the film has at times. What I mean is that often the story flows at a good pace but suddenly it gets slowed by long scenes of Chinese opera that, while of great beauty (and very interesting to foreigners), damage the pace the story has and can be boring to people not expecting this (In a way similar to Universal's 1943 remake of "The Phantom of the Opera"). Other than that, the movie is an excellent Chinese entry into the early horror genre, and those with a fondness for Universal horror films from the 30s will find a movie very much akin to their tastes.

Sadly, when it was initially released, "A Song at Midnight" struggled to be taken seriously because Chinese critics considered it was "too American" for a Chinese film. Fortunately, audiences reacted better and it is now one of the most famous horror films in the country (so much that Ma-Xu directed a sequel in the 40s, the Shaw brothers made a remake in the 60s, and recently Ronny Yu has done another version in the 90s). Fans of Asian cinema, this movie was the beginning of all.


Buy "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" (1937)

September 12, 2007

Transformers (2007)

To most kids growing up in the 80s, the word "Transformers" had one very special meaning: fabulous vehicles able to transform into giant robots. And when I say "most kids", I don't mean only American kids, as this concept, created by the Japanese toy company Takara, became truly a worldwide phenomenon when in 1984 the American company Hasbro launched the "Transformers" toy line with a captivating back-story. What started as a toy line became a full fledged epic tale detailing the adventures of the Autobots, a group of heroic Transformers who protected Earth from an evil faction of their own people who called themselves Decepticons. More than 10 years later, "Transformers" remains a popular concept, and proof of that is the fact that filmmaker Michael Bay has directed a live action film about it. Sadly, the result is far from being more than meets the eye.

In "Transformers", Shia LaBeouf plays Sam Witwicky, a young high school student whose biggest wish is to own a car in order to impress his beautiful classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). Unfortunately for him, all he can afford is an old rusted Camaro with a tendency to fail at the most inappropriate occasions. One night, he watches his car move by itself, and he follows it to a junkyard, where it transforms into Autobot Bumblebee (Mark Ryan). This won't be the last of his surprises, as after this discovery, he'll be chased by another autonomous vehicle, a police car. Bumblebee manages to save Sam and takes him to his fellow Autobots. Their leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), explains Sam that this is only the beginning of a new chapter in their constant war with the Decepticons, but that Sam has the key to something that could end it once and for all.

Developed by writers John Rogers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenplay for "Transformers" essentially moves between two main stories: the constant war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and Sam's coming of age story. In fact, this last theme becomes the most important of the two, as the film focuses a lot on Sam's friendship with his sentient car, Bumblebee, as well as his wish of being Mikaela's boyfriend. Several more subplots are added, some very interesting and some pretty pointless, but unfortunately, the writers do a poor job in tying everything together and the result is a convoluted story that feels awkward in its poor balance of action and comedy. The writer's attempt to develop their character is certainly commendable, as they truly manage to humanize them in a fairly believable way. Sadly, it's not good enough to save the script.

As usual with Michael Bay films, his style "Transformers" is more eye candy than real storytelling, as he puts a lot more emphasis on fast moving action scenes filled with special effects than in the story the writers delivered for him. Of course, I know it's obvious that the special effects of the giant robots is the movie's main selling point, and they are the reason the movie was made in the first time; however, Bay's trademark quick-cut style of editing together with his shaky camera-work make very hard to fully appreciate the work of the special effects team, as Bay seems to believe that to make a dynamic action film he needs to keep the camera constantly moving without a real reason. If there's something to praise in Bay's directing, that would be his decision of making the Transformers look the most realistic possible, as it adds a lot to the epic nature of the storyline.

The acting in the film is pretty much average, with Shia LaBeouf making a very effective performance as Sam, although he is in no way remarkable or outstanding. Mikaela Fox is sadly of the ones who make an awful job, as in this movie she proves that she was only hired because of her looks, not because of any real talent. On the other hand Josh Duhamel is truly one of the highlights of the movie, and one of the few who really adds a lot of power to the film. Hopefully Duhamel will become a rising action star in the future. In a nice detail, Peter Cullen reprises his role as the voice of Optimus Prime, and once again gives his character that the powerful presence it had in the cartoon. Unfortunately, that can't be said of Hugo Weaving, whose great job as Megatron's voice gets lost by an overuse of sound effects in his voice-work.

Personally, the biggest problem I have with "Transformers" is not that it's bad (it is not), it is that it could had been a lot better given the elements Bay had to work with. I'm not saying the script is a masterpiece, as it seriously lacks focus and fails at mixing comedy and action, but the approach director Michael Bay used in the film only made it feel even more mediocre than what it is. While the movie has a wonderful visual look (no doubt thanks to Bay's experience making commercials), his frantic editing and sloppy narrative diminish the quality of Mitchell Amundsen's cinematography and the special effects team's masterful work. I won't deny that there are instances where his style works perfectly, and that the movie gets really entertaining in more than one occasion, but I couldn't help but feeling that I was watching a long commercial instead of the epic battle of robots that the advertising promised.

"Transformers" is one of those movies that provide instant entertainment and give the impression of being pretty cool, but end up feeling shallow when one begins to seriously think about them. That's probably the best advice to enjoy "Transformers": not to think too seriously about it, as ultimately it is as shallow as a TV commercial. It's a fun movie with great special effects and some good performances, but it's not the great action movie that it could had been.


Buy "Transformers" (2007)

September 06, 2007

Les Cartes Vivantes (1904)

Few persons have meant as much to the history of cinema as Georges Méliès, the now legendary French stage magician that revolutionized film-making with his enormous narrative creativity and his many discoveries and inventions in the field of special effects. As a member of the first audience that experienced the Lumières' first screening, Méliès discovered cinema and immediately realized the enormous potential it had as a narrative art. During the following 15 years, Méliès would become one of the most important producers of movies, and he went from making amusing "gimmick movies" (films about Méliès making an impossible magic trick) to creating some of the most amazing stories of those years, using his skills to enter the genres of horror, fantasy and science fiction. By the year of 1902, Méliès was focusing more on his major projects than on "gimmick movies", but he still made several ones to test some new tricks. 1904's "Les Cartes Vivantes" was one of those shorts.

As usual in his "gimmick films", "Les Cartes Vivantes" (literally, "The Living Playing Cards") is about a Magician (Méliès) performing an amazing magic trick. This time, the trick involves a simple deck of playing cards, and a large cardboard that resembles a blank card. The trick begins with the Magician making one card grow bigger, to the size of a book. Then, by simply throwing the card towards the cardboard, it becomes an enormous version of the card the Magician threw. As if that wasn't enough, the Magician transforms the giant card (a 9 of Spades) into the card of the Queen of Hearts. With that card on the cardboard, the Magician proceeds to to make the image come alive by transforming the drawing into a real life Queen of Hearts who walks out of the card. To finish the trick, he returns the Queen to the card and decides to transform the card into the King of Clubs; but the trick may be really on him.

As written above, for Méliès this kind of short films were more than a way of having a fresh and original catalog of movies in his theater, they were a chance to test new or improved tricks and special effects he could later use in his major projects. "The Living Playing Cards" is a prime example of this, as it is composed of many of the tricks that Méliès had used in many previous occasions (dissolves, multiple exposures and several editing tricks), but the way they look in this movie is considerably better than when Méliès used them for the first time. When one watches the movies Méliès did before 1901, the effects look marvelous but primitive; "The Living Playing Cards" is the direct evolution of his talents, and it's easy to notice that his work of editing has improved considerably since his early years. His use of props and set design to build up an atmosphere has also improved, and he captures perfectly what his real performances as a magician would had been.

Honestly, there's nothing really remarkable in "Les Cartes Vivantes" besides its amazing display of special effects, but like every Méliès film, it has a special magic that makes difficult not to enjoy them. Méliès had an enormous charm as a performer, and despite the shortcomings of the technology of his time, he really knew how to use cinema's potential to entertain his audience the best he could. While in the end, "The Living Playing Cards" may not be anything more than a "gimmick trick", one has to remember that in 1904, the legendary Méliès was preparing his most ambitious project to date: that often forgotten masterpiece named "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", better known in English as "The Voyage Through the Impossible".


September 04, 2007

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Given that it's nowadays regarded as one of the most famous classics of French literature, it's not surprising that Gaston Leroux's Gothic novel, "The Phantom of the Opera", has become the source for many adaptations to film, stage and other art-forms. The immortal story of the deformed musical genius who terrorizes the Opera Garnier while helping a young soprano to become the main singer is definitely now an icon of Gothic literature thanks to its mix of horror, mystery and romance. Producer Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, saw in this combination the potential for a classic movie, and decided to make it the ultimate spectacle. To accomplish that feat, he hired director Rupert Julian (who had just completed "Merry-Go-Round") to helm the movie, and for the main role, he casted none other than the "Man with a Thousand Faces", Lon Chaney.

Set in 1890s Paris, "The Phantom of the Opera" is the story of young soprano Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who with the help of an unknown tutor, has gone from being part of the chorus to become the understudy of Carlotta (Virginia Pearson), the Prima Donna. On the first night of Opera's new season, Vicomte Raoul De Chagny (Norman Kerry) assists to the show in order to see Christine, whom he loves very much. To Raoul's surprise, Christine tells him that their relationship can't continue as it gets in the way of her career, and that she must follow her tutor's orders in order to become the best singer in Paris. As this happens, strange letters have arrived to the Opera House's new management, demanding that Christine must sing the main role instead of Carlotta. Fear begins to spread among the crew of the Opera House, as it is believed that the Phantom of the Opera is more than just a superstition.

Adapted to the screen by Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock and the usual army of writers that would write and rewrite the many treatments of the script, the 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is surprisingly one of the most faithful to Leroux's novel. While numerous posterior versions (from Universal's own 1943 remake to the famous musical version) have played mostly on the romance aspect and the tragedy of the title character, the screenplay for this movie remains true to the novel's origins in Gothic literature and keeps the story of the Phantom deeply rooted in the horror and mystery sides of the story. The Phantom is sympathetic, yes, and the love triangle is still present, however, here he is also the complex murderous sociopath who's closer to what Leroux intended him to be. A touch of comedy is added to the script, although never too much to deviate from the atmosphere of the story.

While now is considered a classic movie of the silent era, "The Phantom of the Opera" had an extremely troubled production, with almost five persons attempting to transform the story into a watchable film. Director Rupert Julian created a lavish production, with expressionist influences and atmospheric cinematography; but since he did not got along with Lon Chaney, it was "the Man with a Thousand Faces" who had to deal with the directing of actors. Due to poor reviews, director Edward Sedgwick was assigned to "rebuilt" the film and added the movie's comedy touch. In the end, editor Maurice Pivar saved the day by getting the best from the many different ideas and combining them into one single movie, so it's probably thanks to him that we have a great film in this early American attempt at creating Gothic horror with a slight expressionist touch.

As many have said before, it is ultimately Lon Chaney's performance what makes this version of Leroux's story to be so wonderful and enjoyable. Wonderfully over-the-top, Chaney truly becomes the misunderstood monster he plays with great talent and powerful presence, to the point of overshadowing everyone else in the cast. Still, the beautiful Mary Philbean manages to deliver an effective performance as Christine Daae, portraying the character's naiveté in a very natural and believable way. Sadly, the same can't be said about Norman Kerry, whom as Raoul is definitely the weakest link in the cast. Arthur Edmund Carewe makes a short yet very important appearance as the mysterious Ledoux, and while small, he makes his role a very memorable one. Snitz Edwards is the film's main comic relief, and while annoying at times, he gets the job done.

But there's something even more memorable than Chaney's performance and the amazing art design in "The Phantom of the Opera", and that is the incredible make-up that Lon Chaney himself designed for his character which is probably the best one he ever did in his prolific career. Despite being limited by the technology of his time, Chaney designed with great creativity the now iconic "skull face" of the Phantom, just as monstrous and grotesque as Leroux intended it, proving once and for all why he earned the nickname of "The Man with a Thousand faces". Still, not everything is perfect in this movie, as while editor Maurice Pivar certainly did a wonderful job at the titanic labor of putting everything together, at times the fact that it was made by many different directors can still be felt in the pacing of the film, but still, it's unnoticeable for most part of the film.

This adaptation of "The Phantom of the Opera" is often considered as the best, and while that probably has more to do with the fact that there hasn't been a "definitive version" yet, one can't deny that this classic of the silent era has stood the test of time like few movies in history. Granted, Chaney gave better performances in other movies, but with his terrific make-up and the wonderful art design (which looks awesome in the Technicolor sequences), this version of Leroux's novel is a must-see for every fan of Gothic horror.


Buy "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925)