June 30, 2008

The Hearts of Age (1934)

In 1938, a young actor and theater director named Orson Welles earned notoriety and recognition when his radio play version of H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" was broad-casted, shocking the nation and prompting many studios to notice Welles' talent. This success would take Welles to Hollywood where in 1941, he would direct what is now considered by many critics as the best movie ever made, the influential classic "Citizen Kane". At the age of 26, Welles had already made the movie of his lifetime, and was about to begin a career that despite the many troubles he found (mainly studio interference), managed to produce excellent results. However, "Citizen Kane" wasn't the first time this prodigy had made a movie, as before "Kane" the young Welles made 2 short films that helped him to experiment with the medium. The first one was "The Hearts of Age", a film he did when he was only 19.

"The Hearts of Age" is a surrealist film based on ideas about old age, decrepitude and death. Virginia Nicholson plays an Old Woman, sitting on a bell on the top of a house while a black servant (Paul Edgerton) rings the bell. She seems to enjoy the feeling of the bell moving with her on top as she watches people coming by, and gets angered whenever her servant stops to rest a bit. Soon, a sinister man (Orson Welles) appears, acting exaggeratedly polite to her, and becoming interested in her servant. Soon she discovers that the sinister man is Death, as he begins to do his job with some of the people she has seen. The Lady doesn't seem to care much until he decides to go after her servant, whose death would mean that the bell would stop moving. As she watches how his servant dies, she discovers that she is also on Death's list.

Cryptic and strange, this 8 minutes short film was written by Welles in an apparent attempt to satirize the surrealist movies of Jean Cocteau, or at least that's what he said about it many years later. It certainly follows the style and structure (or lack of one) of the works of surrealists (like Buñuel for example), as the plot is developed in a dreamlike fashion, often illogical and filled with metaphors about the main theme. In this case, theme is mortality, the nature of death and how people reacts to it. The movie also touches the subject of the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards black people that people of his time used to have. While this may sound like a honest attempt to satirize what Welles sees as the pretentiousness of surrealist artists, it never truly achieves that purpose and in the end it feels more pretentious and over-the-top as the movies is attempting to parody.

While of course nowhere near the movies he would make later in his career, "The Hearts of Age" does show two interesting traits that would later become trademarks of Welles' style. First, a highly creative camera-work, which even in this experimental stage already shows that Welles understands the limitless possibilities of cinema and its value to tell stories visually. The second of those traits is his stylish use of editing (sadly something he wouldn't be able to show in many of his movies), which in this films still shows a lot of influence from Soviet montage theory, but that later would evolve into the perfect complement for his cinematography. Something that can also be seen in this short film is that even at the age of 19, Welles already knew what to get from his actors, and had the skill to direct them properly into delivering what he wanted.

Considering the style of the short, this last thing may sound insignificant, but one can't deny that while certainly the movie is nothing more than a mere amateurish experiment, it shows that Welles truly had a prodigious talent despite the lack of a properly written script. The cast is good in their roles, although as written above, the main weakness in in the script. It's not that it's bad (it actually handles symbolism in a remarkable way), it's just that it seems to take itself too seriously for its own sake that it ends up making the film a but boring despite the short runtime. Welles himself considered the movie more an experiment on film-making than an actual film, and watching the results, it's hard to disagree with him, as the technical aspects are far more interesting than the artistic merit of "The Hearts of Age".

Wheter he truly intended to make fun of surrealism or actually failed in an attempt of making surreal art, it is truly an impossible thing to know for sure; but what we do know is that this first movie marked the beginning of Welles' interest in film-making as an extension for his work at the theater. An interest that would transform into an obsession that would become the force behind some of the most significant films in the history of cinema. "The Hearts of Age" is not exactly something amazing, but given its historical importance, it is a required viewing for anyone remotely interested in the career of one of the most important men in film-making: Orson Welles. Weak, confusing and a tad pretentious, "The Hearts of Age" is the proof that even giants started small.


June 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

In the late 70s, friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were two rising filmmakers enjoying the success of their recently released films and dreaming about future projects. It is said that while on vacations, Spielberg told Lucas about his desire of making an adventure film, and then Lucas told him about an idea he had been developing for a while: a story about an adventurer in the style of the 30s serial films that he and Spielberg enjoyed so much. 1981's successful "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was the result of that conversation, and the beginning of the adventures of archaeologist Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford), whom 9 years and two sequels later would become a modern icon of the adventure genre. 19 years after the last sequel (1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"), the year 2008 finds Spielberg, Lucas and Ford returning to the legendary explorer for a new adventure in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull".

Set in 1957, the story begins with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his partner Mac (Ray Winstone) captured by the Soviets and forced to led them to the supposed remains of an extraterrestrial creature located in a military base in the Nevada desert. Betrayed by Mac, Jones manages to escape but fails to stop the Soviets from taking the remains. Because of this incident, Jones finds himself under FBI investigation and so is forced to quit from his position at Marshall College. After resigning from his job, Jones meets Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young biker who informs him that an old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), has disappeared after discovering a crystal skull near the Nazca lines in Peru. Chased by the Soviets, Jones and Williams travel to Peru looking for Oxley, only to discover that after being locked on a mental asylum, Oxley has been kidnapped by the Soviets, who seem very interested in the Professor's discovery.

After many, many years of development (this sequel had been in preproduction several times since 1989), several scriptwriters hired and fired, as well as countless drafts and plot ideas developed, writer David Koepp was the man responsible for the final screenplay for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", adapting it from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson. Remaining in tone with the previous films in the series, this sequel keeps that mix of adventure, fantasy, romance and comedy that has been essential part of the Indiana Jones franchise since the beginning. Of course, things have changed after 19 years and the familiar characters reflect a significant growth but at their core, they remain faithful to the past and their personalities. Also, since the movie is set in the 50s, themes and elements from 50s B-Movies have been introduced, making this sequel a homage to that era just like the previous films payed tribute to the 30s serials.

As expected from director Steven Spielberg, the film is visually impressive and of excellent quality on the technical area. There's a notable conscious effort by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for recapturing the style of the previous films (which by the way, had Douglas Slocombe in charge of cinematography) in terms of look and overall atmosphere; and to a certain extent they succeed, as while of course there are plenty of modern special effects and computer generated images employed, for the most part the movie still has that trademark "Indiana Jones feel" (complete with John William's score) at least on the visual side. But still, something special seems missing from the whole thing, something youthful, and I'm not dissing the cast's age (Ford truly does an impressive job for his age), I'm talking about Spielberg himself, whom while owner of a more mature and perfected style, feels less adventurous, less willing to take risks and at times even unable to recapture that spark that existed on his younger style.

It was a nice surprise to see that almost 20 years after the last time he wore the fedora, Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones and is not afraid of proving it. The role still fits him like a glove, and Ford easily brings back the persona of the iconic adventurer he made a legend. And even nicer surprise was to see old timer Karen Allen returning for another shot and giving her best, becoming one of the highlights of the film (despite having a tragically underdeveloped character). Shia LaBeouf is better than expected as Jones' new partner Mutt Williams, delivering an effective performance and having very good chemistry with Ford. Cate Blanchett plays the film's villain, Dr. Irina Spalko, and while she has lots of fun and tries to make the most out of her role, she can't escape from the poor, stereotypical character she was given. The same happens to Ray Winstone and John Hurt, although at least Winstone fares a bit better than Blanchett as Jones' former sidekick Mac.

Well, as written above, Spielberg does his best to recapture the old spirit, but while visually he succeeds and this film looks exactly as if it had been done right after "The Last Crusade", the feeling is somehow not the same. The problem is not a lack of adventure scenes (there are plenty of them), but a lack of reality in them. Of course, the Indiana Jones films have never been serious or realist, as they have always had a the tongue firmly in cheek, but there was always a sense of danger, of humanity, that made them believable. That's missing here, as one never gets the feeling that the hero "might not make it this time", which was instrumental part in making Jones a human, believable character in the past films. But well, that's not the worst of the film's flaws, it's real problem is that the script is just not that good. Don't get me wrong, it's far better than most adventure films (and I'm not asking for realism), but in its attempt for comedy it sometimes gets absurd, and several characters are so poorly developed that it hurts (mainly the villains).

It's hard (probably impossible) to judge "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" without comparing it to the previous films in the series, and given the 19 years of separation between this one and the previous ones, a certain bit of nostalgia plays a big role when doing it. So I guess that, avoiding comparisons, the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones saga is quite a good film on its own right. It has lots of flaws, most of them the fault of its poorly constructed script (it seems that after firing writer Frank Darabont, Koepp and Lucas felt rushed to finish it), but it's still an entertaining film. It's not that the film is bad, it's definitely not, but it's just not up to what was expected from Indiana Jones.


June 28, 2008

The Face at the Window (1939) @ Cult Reviews

Well, I'm sorry if I have not been able to post new reviews lately, but once again work and school have conspired to steal my time. However, I have been able to collaborate on a new site that a couple of good friends have set up. The site is Cult Reviews and it's dedicated to, well, as it's name may suggest, cult films, mainly of the horror genre, but also those classic sci-fi films, fantasy movies, Spaghetti Westerns, Kaiju monsters, good ol' exploitation (of every variety), and well, just about any other weird and bizarre film that we may decide.

As written above, I was invited to collaborate there too, so some reviews (more apropriate to their site) may turn up there instead of here. So far two have been published there, one for George King's masterful 1939's film, "The Face at the Window" (starring Tod Slaughter!) and another for Richard Stanley's mix of Western and Horror, "Dust Devil" (this one previously published here some months ago).

So, if things here at W-Cinema seem slow at the moment, check out Cult Reviews in the mean time, I'm sure there may be things you'll love, things you'll hate, and things that you weren't even aware that existed on film. And yes, this was just another tiny bit of shameless self-promotion. But you know you like it.

Buy "The Face at the Window" (1939)

June 15, 2008

Neverwas (2005)

Ever since the adaptation to film of the "Harry Potter" book series, and most importantly, of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "The Lord of Rings" trilogy, the fantasy genre has experienced a very well deserved rise in popularity and a come back to the silver screen. The fact that modern special effects technology allows to make those fantasy worlds to come alive with greater ease and more realism than in the past is definitely another reason for this return to the spotlight, which has resulted in many fantasy films being released on cinema, video and television. Some of those films have been very good or have enjoyed great success, while others have been complete disasters (2006's "Eragon" for example), but in general the genre has proved to be back in form and ready to rumble. Considering that, it would be easy to assume that Joshua Michael Stern's "Neverwas" is one more of the countless fantasy films released these days, but even when the fantasy genre plays a big role in this modest film, "Neverwas" is a lot more than that.

"Neverwas" is the story of Zach Riley (Aaron Eckhart) a promising psychiatrist who decides to leave his academic career and return to his hometown, in order to work at the institution where his deceased father, T.L. Pierson (Nick Nolte), lived years ago. Pierson was a famous novelist, creator of the extremely popular fantasy book series "Neverwas", a children's book about a magical land of the same name. However, due to his mental problems, Pierson's relationship with Zach wasn't really the best. To Zach, working in the institution is something very personal to him, as he tries to understand his father and his problems, however, nothing will prepare him for his meeting with Gabriel Finch (Ian McKellen), a schizophrenic old man who truly believes that he comes from "Neverwas", that he is the rightful king of the land, and that Zach is the only one able to help him return to his kingdom. Finch's insanity touches a nerve in Zach, as he begins to wonder what truth is hidden in this fantasy.

Written by director Joshua Michael Stern, "Neverwas" is a movie that basically tells a story that's been told a lot of times (a man coming to terms with the memory of his late father), but at the same time is the story of a man discovering fantasy again through the eyes of someone who seems to live it every second of his life. In his story, Stern takes this two main subjects and using fantasy literature as the background he creates a moving tale that seems to give an odd spin to the fantasy genre, as while in many fantasy stories, children enter magical fantasy worlds (real or not) to escape from the horrors of real life, the main character in "Neverwas" is a grown up man who has been escaping from fantasy as a whole as he considers it to be closely linked to his father and his world. Stern handles the mystery of his story in a great way, as like Zach, one keeps the whole movie wondering if the world of Neverwas that the quixotic eyes of Gabriel Finch see is real or not.

In this his debut as a director, Joshua Michael Stern has created a charming tale of discovery that while not exactly a revelation or a landmark in film-making, is simply a nicely done drama that pulls all the right strings without misses a note. While Stern's visual style is young, kind of typical and still heavily influenced by TV movies (where his career as a writer started), there's a lot of creativity in the creation of the film's visual design, as with the great aid of cinematographer Michael Grady, Stern reflects in his movie the blurry and subtle line between dramatic realism and magical fantasy that his story handles. Philip Glass's score is another element that adds power to this mix, as Stern gives good use to it through the film. Despite dealing with fantasy elements, "Neverwas" is first and foremost, a character study, so director Stern lets his cast to become the main focus of the film, apparently aware that the real strength of the story is in the plot and the characters.

And that makes the performances of the cast of big importance, as a great deal of the weight of the film is over their backs. As Zach Riley, Aaron Eckhart is quite good and manages to carry the film well, although sadly he is often overshadowed by his cast-mates, particularly Ian McKellen and a surprising Brittany Murphy. Sir Ian McKellen completely steals the show as Gabriel Finch, a man who may or may not be completely delusional, as he makes quite a tender performance out of his character. As Maggie Blake, Brittany Murphy is remarkably well, and as written above, tends to overshadow Eckhart despite not being the main character of the film. Refreshingly, she makes believable and natural what could had been an unidimensional role. As Zach's father, Nick Nolte has a brief but substantial role in the film, although nothing really impressive. On the other hand, Jessica Lange and William Hurt have very small roles but they showcase their talents effectively in them.

For some reason, "Neverwas" didn't receive a proper theatrical release, ending as a straight to DVD film in what's probably another case of bad merchandising. Anyways, while this is not exactly a masterpiece of film-making, this little gem is quite an interesting take on the fantasy genre. Contrary to what its poster may suggest, "Neverwas" is not a fantasy film in the vein of "Harry Potter", but a fantasy about those who create fantasies. To expect the opposite is probably the best way to be disappointed with it, and that kind of expectation is definitely the film's worst enemy. With more experience, filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern may have had better results but considering his limitations, "Neverwas" is a very good way to start a career. Granted, he falls on many of the typical melodramatic clichés of the this kind of story, and a couple of times the story gets a bit too far fetched for its own right, but overall "Neverwas" is a fine film that definitely deserved better than what it got.

While not technically a typical fantasy film, "Neverwas" is definitely an excellent film for fans of the genre, as it explores the worlds of those who craft the fantasy stories we love to read and experience on film. In a way, this story has been told many times in the past, but "Neverwas" manages to feel fresh and even original at telling it. It may not be the most amazing movie of its kind, but it's a charming hidden treasure that definitely delivers a great story and nicely serves to have a good time. Hopefully, director Joshua Michael Stern will have better luck in his future projects and more will be seen coming from his side because if "Neverwas" is any indication of where he's going, it seems that there's work to do, but there's also the talent to do it.


Buy "Neverwas" (2005)

June 04, 2008

Morricone live

I had the opportunity of experiencing the legendary Ennio Morricone directing several of his classic musical masterpieces done for film. He visited my country (Mexico) last May and on the 29th he came to my city. Only one word could describe the show: "glorious". Or at least it was for me. Naturally, I nearly cried when "The Ecstasy of Gold", composed for Sergio Leone's 1966 classic "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was played (and he played it one more time as an encore!), although I must admit that the best part was when the orchestra played music from "The Mission".

Bravo maestro! Glorious!