December 28, 2011

La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía (1954)

Having left his native Spain when Francisco Franco became dictator, director Luis Buñuel found himself unable to continue the promising career he had started in France. Luckily for him, he met producer Óscar Dancigers, who offered him to make a film in Mexico. Working for hire within the Mexican film industry, the surreal artist learned to make movies with commercial purposes with low budgets and tight schedules. Nevertheless, this didn't mean that the artistry of Buñuel's craftsmanship was lost in those movies done on commission. 1953's "La Ilusión viaja en tranvía" is probably one of the best examples of this, as it was originated with a purely commercial purpose: Servicio de Transportes Eléctricos, Mexico City's main Tramway company had suffered a lot of bad press due to the tragic collision of two trams (with many casualties) so, the management wanted a comedy film about tramways for public relations. Clasa Films, one of Mexico's biggest studios, took the job and hired Luis Buñuel to direct the film.

"La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" (known in English as "Illusion Travels by Streetcar") is the story of two friends, Juan Godinez (Carlos Navarro) and Tobías Hernández (Fernando Soto "Mantequilla"), better known as Caireles and Tarrajas respectively. Caireles is a mechanic of streetcars, while Tarrajas is a driver, both live in a poor neighborhood in Mexico city. One day, near Christmas, they are informed that their Streetcar, no 133, will be decommissioned, which upsets both friends. That night, they go to a Christmas party and get drunk, and the two friends decide to take Streetcar 133 for a last night ride. Caireles and Tarrajas ride the streetcar through the city and begin to take passengers without charge, but as the next day begins and their drunkenness fades, the two friends realize that they'll get in trouble if they don't take the streetcar back. Weird situations take place as Caireles and Tarrajas try to take the streetcar back, and in the process, Caireles will fix his problems with his girlfriend, the beautiful Lupita (Lilia Prado).

As written above, the story of "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" was provided by Clasa Films, specifically by producer Mauricio de la Serna, though it was adapted to the screen by two of Buñuel's main collaborators: Luis Alcoriza and Juan de la Cabada (along José Revueltas and Mauricio de la Serna himself). The result is a light comedy clearly designed to entertain, but that also has certain touches of irony and social commentary. At its most basic, it's a simple adventure in which the two antiheroes, Caireles and Tarrajas find bizarre and funny situations in their trip across the city. Practically a road movie but enclosed within the city tramway lines, the film is of a somewhat episodic nature, but what elevates it from the rest is the great development its characters has. In "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía", the journey is besides the point, what truly matters are the relationships between the characters: Caireles and Tarrajas' friendship, their enmity with the company and old worker Papá Pinillos, and of course, the romance between Cairles and Lupita.

While "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" was a work done for hire, the film is staggeringly similar to Buñuel's own "Subida al Cielo", and in fact it feels like a more polished and accessible version of that previous film. Like in most of his Mexican films, the commercial constrains of the project brings out the best of Buñuel's craftsmanship, and "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" showcases the master at the top of his game. However, the fact that this film is purely a comedy certainly allowed him to display his taste for irony and his sharp humor. Despite clearly not being his most personal work, there are several touches of his typical obsessions, particularly his jabs at the Church (most prominently the pastorela scene) and the sexualization of Lilia Prado's legs (incidentally, Prado also appeared in the aforementioned "Subida al Cielo"). While a comedy prone to absurd, the film's atmosphere is one of touching realism, with cinematographer Raúl Martínes Solares making a truthful portrait of life of the working class in Mexico City of the time.

As written above, the characters are the heart of the film, and the cast makes the most of this in their performances. Leading the cast as Caireles, Carlos Navarro is pretty good as the down on his luck mechanic who seems apparently unmotivated to make anything with his life. Navarro manages to make a charming rogue of a role that could had been easily an unlikeable character. However, the highlight of the film is comedian Fernando Soto "Mantequilla", who makes the most of his role as Tarrajas. With great charm and skill, Soto steals every scene he is in, showing a vibrant energy and dignity that makes his role more than a mere bumbling sidekick. In fact, there's a certain subtlety that refrains him from being an overacted archetype. And subtlety seems to be the key, as Lilia Prado's performance as Lupita is also subtle in her sensuality. If in "Subida al Cielo" she was a lustful temptress that represented wild desire, in this movie she is the voice of reason that unwillingly ends up in the middle of Caireles and Tarrajas' wild ride.

Agustín Isunza completes the main cast as Papá Pinillos, a retired streetcar worker who is decided to stop streetcar 133 out of loyalty to a company that has forgotten him. In fact, the four characters represent different sides of a sector of Mexican society that seems, like streetcar 133, on the verge of oblivion as the city progresses. The four are working class antiheroes, perhaps they are disenchanted, ignorant, angsty or old, but still, they are the people. It is in this aspect where the magic of "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is, as Buñuel conveys the harsh aesthetic of "Los Olvidados" with the most heartfelt tone of comedy. It's still an exploration of the working class and their tragedies, but trading the cruel pessimism for a certain dose of tenderness that while odd in a Buñuel film, still feels strangely honest in its delivery. Interestingly, for a film made with the idea of give good name to the Tramway company, it does make the company a faceless villain, as Buñuel sides unabashedly with the working class.

Often considered a minor film in Buñuel's canon, "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is one of the best movies he did during his Mexican period. While it certainly lacks the familiar touch of surrealism that his better known French films have, there are elements in the film that makes it particularly valuable. For starters, the time capsule quality the movie has, as it brings back a Mexico City captured in time like few movies of its period does. Also, there's Fernando Soto's brilliant comedic performance, but most importantly, the most remarkable asset of the film is big heart it has, as "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is a film in which Buñuel allows himself to be tender. It could be argued that this is because of the commercial intention of the movie, but whatever had been the cause, "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is a film that oozes magic, nostalgia, and yes, illusion.


December 27, 2011

Él (1953)

Celebrated as one of the most original and influential oeuvres in the history of cinema, the filmography of Spaniard filmmaker Luis Buñuel is a work rich in symbolism and artistry. Certainly, most of the praise focuses on the works Buñuel did in his late career, during his "French periods", dismissing the films done during his Mexican tenure. Nevertheless, while his career in Mexico was marred by low budgets, rushed deadlines and a big necessity for making commercial hits, it was also the period in which the master of surrealism cut his teeth, perfected his style and developed his very particular idiosyncrasies. In short, the period in which Buñuel grew from the young talent of "Un Chien Andalou" to the Surreal artist of "Le Fantôme de la liberté". Within the constrains of the Mexican film industry, the Spaniard master found the way to produce several of the most remarkable Mexican films ever done, and one of his most personal films was a dark melodrama titled simply "Él".

In "Él" (literally "He", but better known in English as "This Atrange Passion"), Arturo de Córdova plays Francisco Galván, a wealthy and respected man who meets an attractive young woman Gloria (Delia Garcés) at Church. Gloria, while somewhat attracted to Francisco, informs him that they can't speak to each other again. Francisco decides to follow her, but then he discovers the reason behind her words: she has a boyfriend, Raúl Conde (Luis Beristáin). Luckily for Francisco, Raúl is an old friend of his, so it doesn't take him much to orchestrate a way to woo Gloria away from Raúl. Gloria falls in love with Francisco, and the two get married quickly, nevertheless, Gloria's married life isn't the happiness she was expecting, as she begins to discover slowly that behind the exterior image of moral rectitude and impeccable behavior, is hidden a dominant and extremely jealous man. Francisco's jealousy begins to reach paranoid levels, and Gloria decides to escape from her situation.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Mercedes Pinto (which chronicled her first husband's mental problems) and adapted by Buñuel himself and Luis Alcoriza (his regular collaborator), "Él" is a sharp study on paranoia and mental degeneration, superbly crafted with a healthy dose of the writers' typical witty black humour. Nevertheless, "Él" is not only a tale about madness, as its multilayered screenplay conveys most of Buñuel's familiar thematic obsessions. Francisco is a wealthy churchgoer who has made for himself a public image of respectability and dignity. Nevertheless, this image is extremely fragile, as the slightest familiarity that Gloria could have with another man triggers in Francisco a violent jealous rage. The screenplay hints that Francisco's jealousy is the result of his repressed sexuality, having dedicated most of his free time to the Church (another of Buñuel's favourite targets). But still, Francisco is far from a simple insanely jealous character, being in fact, a pretty complex and human character.

The film also explores a pretty interesting visual narrative structure, being divided in three sections that allow to dissect the marriage of Francisco and Gloria. The first part details Francisco's courtship and culminates in their marriage, then the film flash-forwards several years into the future and finds a distressed Gloria meeting Raúl again, to whom she confesses her problems in a long flashback that makes the second part of the film. The final part returns to the present (and to Francisco) and details how advanced his madness is and the events that take place once he has found that Gloria has met Raúl again. Skillfully, the master unfolds his tale with a very smooth pace, and treats his subject matter not as a drama, but as a tale of suspense. "Él" is perhaps as close as Buñuel ever got to making a proper horror film. Visually, the movie is a joy to watch, thanks to the remarkable work of cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa, who captures the oppressive atmosphere of Francisco's household with striking angles and an expressionist touch.

Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova, a famous star of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, delivers in "Él" one of the best performances in his career, leading the cast as Francisco Galván, the paranoid husband of Gloria. A popular leading actor of film noirs and complex melodrama, De Córdova was no stranger to playing charming gentlemen with tortured minds, having honed his craft in Mexican classics such as "Crepúsculo", "El Hombre sin Rostro" and "En la palma de tu mano". Nevertheless, it's in Buñuel's "Él" where he achieves perfection, delivering a performance that it's both captivating and repulsive, displaying a range that goes from the highest subtlety to the most violent outbursts. As Gloria, Delia Garcés is equally as impressive, playing the loving wife who has to suffer the irrationality of the man she thought was perfect. In Gloria's meetings with Raúl, Garcés manages to portray the humility and dignity of a woman who feels betrayed by herself and the world.

Perhaps the weakest link is precisely Luis Beristáin as Raúl, whom gets easily caught between the two towering performances of the lead actors. Nevertheless, this isn't really a big deal, given that the story revolves completely around Francisco and Gloria. Wickedly disturbing, but without losing entirely its black humour, "Él" is a powerful deconstruction of the machismo of society, with Francisco having first idealized his future wife Gloria, only to later accuse her mercilessly and irrationally of being an unfaithful wife when they are finally married. For Buñuel, this has its roots in the Church as an institution, as the religious Francisco tries to reconcile his preconceived ideas of woman as a saint and as a sinner, with no middle-ground in between. His unrealistic ideal of perfection gets tarnished when he lets his sexual desire to take over, and thus he proceeds to control by force everything he can, particularly when he feels weak or defeated.

One of the most personal films Buñuel ever did (in fact, he claimed it was the film where he had put the most of himself), "Él" is a masterful depiction of jealousy and paranoia, as well as a testament to the talents of both De Córdova and Garcés. Mixing perfectly comedy, drama and suspense, Buñuel crafts in "Él" a vivid portrayal of mental degeneration. Unnerving, thrilling, and yet delightfully funny, "Él" is a work that manages to work on multiple levels. Knowing that Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of Buñuel, one wonders if the revered British filmmaker got some inspiration from the film while developing his own masterpiece, "Vertigo". Like "Los Olvidados", "Él" is one of Buñuel's Mexican films that rightfully deserves more recognition as a masterpiece of cinema.


December 23, 2011

El Bruto (1953)

Forced to leave Spain when Francisco Franco became a dictator, celebrated filmmaker Luis Buñuel found in Mexico a home and a new opportunity to make movies again. Nevertheless, the movies he had to do in the Mexican industry were far from the experimental surrealism of his initial output, as the Spaniard master had to learn how to make commercial films. Nevertheless, in 1950 the master would return to form with "Los Olvidados" a masterpiece of Mexican cinema that proved that the young maker of "Un Chien Andalou" was still alive and kicking. Sergio Kogan, one of the producers of "Los Olvidados", hired Buñuel to make a film for his wife Rosita Quintana, and the result was "Susana", which began a partnership between them which would also produce two more films: the urban melodramas "Una Mujer sin Amor" and "El Bruto". Starring Pedro Armendáriz and Katy Jurado, "El Bruto" is a film that, while apparently average at first, it actually has a lot of Buñuel's political ideologies hidden beneath its ordinary construction.

"El Bruto" (literally "The Brute") begins with a conflict between the poor tenants of a building and their landlord, Don Andrés Cabrera (Andrés Soler). DOn Andrés wants to sell the land, but his tenants don't want to be evicted. Their leader, Carmelo (Roberto Meyer), encourages his neighbors to fight for their rights. Don Andrés' wife Paloma (Katy Jurado) advices him to simply leave them leaderless. To this effect, Don Andrés calls Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz), a strong worker at Don Andrés' slaughterhouse who is nicknamed "Bruto". Tall and strong, but a tad dimwitted, Pedro is a loyal worker for Don Andrés, whom he considers his mentor, so he accepts the mission that his boss has given him: to scare Carmelo away. Pedro faces Carmelo and beats him, but the frail and sick Carmelo dies from his injury. Don Andrés hides Pedro in his home, where he'll face the seductive Paloma, who becomes quite interested in him. To further complicate things, Pedro will fall in love with Meche (Rosa Arenas), not knowing she's the daughter of the man he killed.

Written by Buñuel himself and his regular collaborator Luis Alcoriza, "El Bruto" is by all accounts, a fairly typical urban melodrama of passion and betrayal. Nevertheless, it's actually a multi-layered story that hides several of Buñuel's deeper and most complex idiosyncrasies. Not only "El Bruto" lets loose Buñuel's most Marxist views by having the working class Pedro serving as a pawn of the bourgeoisie, it explores the conflict of Pedro as a pawn of Paloma's desire and specially, of Pedro as a pawn of his own biggest flaws: lust and ignorance. Pedro could be a working class hero, but his sexual desire takes him first to live with a "family of leeches" (his girlfriend's family), to become Paloma's boy toy, which will result in greater problems for him when he discovers love with Meche. The love triangle between Pedro, Andrés and Paloma has certain Oedipal echoes, as its implied that Andres' tutorship of Pedro has had more to do with hidden familiar relationship rather than a purely altruist impulse.

Buñuel's work as a director is remarkable, and while the low budget is notorious, he makes the most of what he's got and carefully builds up the story, unfolding each element of the story skillfully, showing his domain of the visual narrative. The strength of "El Bruto" is in its storyline, and Buñuel gives enough space to develop the characters and enhance the story's impact. In terms of style, "El Bruto" is closer in tone and atmosphere to his 1950 masterpiece "Los Olvidados", as there's an amount of harsh realism in his depiction of life in the slums that his more surrealist pieces lack. This is not to say that the master's touches of surrealism are entirely absent, but in "El Bruto", they are more carefully concealed, kept dormant until the climatic ending, which has a pretty "Buñuelian" moment of surrealism in its epilogue. Cinematographer Agustín Jiménez offers a polished and stylish work that gives the film a noir visual look that's perfectly fitting, as in fact, "El Bruto" works as a film noir of the slums.

The cast is another of "El Bruto"'s greatest strengths, as it includes several of the best Mexican actors of all time. Leading the cast as Pedro is the legendary Pedro Armendáriz, who delivers a remarkable performance as the strong but not very brilliant hero of the film. A famous lead actor, Armendáriz plays a complex figure in "El Bruto", a pawn of forces bigger than himself, belittled by his difficulty to fully understanding his world. Pedro is not an idiot, but his naiveté and ignorance makes him someone easily manipulable. Yet as good as Armendáriz is, it is Katy Jurado whom as Paloma delivers the best performance in the film. Jurado's sensuous and voluptuous figure, coupled with her commanding screen presence makes her an ideal femme fatal, and not only shows her power manipulating Pedro, but also her older husband, Don Andrés. Played by Andrés Soler, Don Andrés is an equally complex character, on one side a ruthless businessman who cares little for the working class, yet he is also shown as a loving son and loyal friend.

This complex duality is the other running theme in "El Bruto", where nothing is really black and white. Each character in the film seems to have two sides, as if Buñuel was stating that despite the appearances, no villain is entirely bad, and no hero is entirely good. Meche, the young daughter of Carmelo, is perhaps the only character whose entirely "pure", as if she represented the grace that Pedro requires to stop being Bruto and become a full man. Once again, duality is present in Pedro as Bruto, because Pedro, dimwitted as he is, knows that Bruto is not a nice name. He is fully aware of his limitations, and begins to resent being seen as nothing more than a brute. As much as he desires Paloma's sexual favors, deep down he knows he is not seen as Pedro, but as Bruto, a thing made to be used. And this is Buñuel's at his most Marxist, as he presents the working class as a property of the bourgeoisie, represented by Don Andrés (heir of an "old money" family) and Paloma (a social climber). His awakening and quest for redemption become the core of this melodrama.

Often dismissed as being one of Buñuel's most ordinary and commercial efforts, "El Bruto" is actually one of the best movies from his Mexican output. While the film has notoriously low production values, there's a lot to enjoy in "El Bruto", as it's one of the films that most represent Buñuel's political leanings. Certainly, the film lacks the visual impact of "Los Olvidados", the charming irony of "Él" and the sharp criticism of "El Ángel Exterminador", but still, this minor gem about an oppressed man looking for his place is an impeccably done urban melodrama. In fact, this severely underrated film just proves that the world of director Luis Buñuel is stretched beyond his better known works in surrealism.


December 21, 2011

9½ Ninjas! (1991)

In 1986, Adrian Lyne's erotic drama film "9½ Weeks" was released and, despite getting mixed reviews, the sexually charged film quickly became a tremendous pop culture reference of the decade, thanks not only to the performances of stars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, but to Adrian Lyne's stylish craftsmanship, that resulted in erotic scenes that have become simply iconic. And with the status of iconic pop culture reference comes not only tributes and homages, but also spoofs, and in this aspect "9½ Weeks" has been quite prolific, as most of the stylish set pieces conceived by Lyne have been the subject of a spoof in several films and TV shows: the food scene, the ice, and of course, Basinger's legendary striptease to the sound of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On". Certainly, some spoofs are more intelligent than others, and there are also spoofs that are downright idiotic. Unfortunately, Aaron Barsky's "9½ Ninjas!" (1991) is one film that rightfully belongs to this category.

"9½ Ninjas!" begins with the young Joe Vogue (Keaton Simons) receiving strange Ninja lessons from his Master (legendary Gerald Okamura). Little Joe doesn't seem like Ninja material, but his Master's patience and perseverance give results: flash-forward a few years and adult Joe Vogue (now Michael Phenicie) is not only a successful businessman, but also a killing machine. His deadly abilities come handy to save the beautiful Lisa Thorne (Andee Gray) from a gang of criminals who were bothering at the restaurant where Joe was having a sandwich. Lisa immediately falls in love with Joe, and tells her that the gang was actually hired by Arnold Gruber (Robert Fieldsteel), an evil land owner who just bought her building and has been evicting everyone there. Joe decides it's not his business, however, a message arrives that makes him change his mind: Gruber has also bought his building and is evicting him as well. Now that the matter has turned personal, Joe decides to train Lisa and together stop Gruber, but Lisa has also certain skills she wants to teach Joe.

Written by Bill Crounse, John Morrissey and Don Pequignot, "9½ Ninjas!" attempts to spoof both Lyne's "9½ Weeks" and the ninja action films that had enjoyed a huge popularity during the 80s (popularity reflected most notably in Golan and Globus' "Ninja" series and in the "American Ninja" series). Unfortunately, it fails on both accounts. Most of the humour is based on Joe's useless attempts to train Lisa, whom is more interested in taking him to bed than in becoming a ninja herself. While everyone in the film is in awe at Lisa's beauty (and her preference for revealing clothes), Joe seems unaffected thanks to his Ninja focus. In fact, this and other of his strange antics also come to play, such as his strange relation with her mother (also a ninja) and his dependence on a hand puppet called Mr. Ninja (voiced by Paul Jabara). The jokes in the film are of a quite simplistic variety, based mainly on the absurd situations the absurd characters are put into. For a film which claims to be an erotic martial arts action comedy, it's unusually innocent in its humour.

While there are sources that cite producer John Morrissey as the director under the name of Aaron Worth, most take Aaron Barsky as the real director behind the pseudonym. What is beyond any doubt is the fact that whomever had been the responsible of "9½ Ninjas!" did a pretty poor job in bringing everything together. Granted, the source material is an awfully constructed screenplay that doesn't give much room for improvement, but the film's simplistic work of direction seems to had been limited to just framing the scene, giving some encouraging words to the actors and then shooting it. Everything done in the worst 80s TV style. In fact, while released in 1991, it wouldn't be surprising to discover that the film comes from the late 80s, as it does feel older. Anyways, to the film's credit, Spaniard cinematographer Fernando Argüelles (whom would later work in the celebrated TV series "Prison Break") does a more than acceptable job, certainly more than what "9½ Ninjas!" deserves, particularly in the only two scenes when he's required to mimic Lyne's style in "9½ Weeks".

As written above, there is not really a good screenplay material to work with, though some of the cast members in "9½ Ninjas!" manage to do their job with dignity. Magda Harout, who plays Joe's mother Gladys is probably the best amongst them, as she truly adds some spark to her badly written role, and is perhaps the only one in the cast who truly understands comedy timing. In his limited cameo, Gerald Okamura shows a lot more of commitment than most of the main cast members, and along Harout, is probably the only one genuinely funny in his performance. The protagonists, Michael Phenicie and Andee Gray are pretty bad in their roles. Phenicie is good looking, yet lacks the charm and energy to carry the film. Andee Gray is a beauty, but that's the only thing she brings on to her character. Character actor Robert Fieldsteel plays the evil Arnold Gruber, and while there's talent in his delivery, his role is probably the most ridiculous in the film. As a curiosity, Don Stark of "That 70's Show" fame can be seen as Gruber's servant Sledge.

Nevertheless, beyond its raw and simplistic craftsmanship, low production values and poorly talented cast, the real problem in "9½ Ninjas!" originates somewhere else: its terrible screenplay. Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that not even a good director could make a good film from a bad script, and "9½ Ninjas!" is a certain proof of that. Spoofs are supposed to mock, comment or satirize their subject, but in the case of "9½ Ninjas!" this is largely forgotten as the writers merely included stupid or awkward situations in an attempt at absurd comedy. Any attempt at parodying the ninja subgenre or "9½ Weeks" is lost in pointless scenes that seem lifted from a very old TV show. certainly, "9½ Weeks"'s status as an icon of its generation suits nicely to parody, but while "9½ Ninjas!" could had taken a more risqué approach to spoof the exaggeratedly stylish erotic drama of "9½ Weeks", it opts for a quite stupid and childish humour that probably sounded good on paper, but executed was painfully bad.

Certainly, Adrian Lyne's "9½ Weeks", with its oversexualized characters, stylish cinematography and outdated fashion sense is a great material to spoof. It's a complete product of its time, and as such, prone to be the target of the most merciless of parodies. Unfortunately, "9½ Ninjas!" fails at achieving this, and in fact, for a film that claims being an erotic martial arts action comedy, it results being neither erotic, nor thrilling nor funny. A couple of jokes may raise a smile or two, but as a whole, "9½ Ninjas!" is an unfortunate failure for everyone involved. Far better parodies have been done of both martial arts films and that 80s classic named "9½ Weeks".


December 20, 2011

Ravenous (1999)

The decade of the 90s isn't really know for its horror cinema, not even when Wes Craven's postmodern mix of horror and comedy, "Scream", seemed to reinvigorate the slasher subgenre in 1996. Nevertheless, as the decade reached its end, several horror films were released that proved that the genre was still alive and kicking. The independent spirit of "The Blair Witch Project" and the new wave of Asian horror started by "Ringu" paved the way for the renaissance that the genre experienced in the 2000s. Director Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" (1999) was also one of those films, an offbeat horror film that succeeded at being what most of the postmodernist clones of "Scream" failed to be: genuinely creepy and entertaining at the same time. A clever mix of horror and black comedy, Bird's "Ravenous" is a Western film that not only is intelligent and thought-provoking, it also allows itself some real fun thanks to the fresh and unpretentious approach of the film. This movie about cannibalism, is a nice surprise that it's not only a great horror film. It's a great film, period.

In "Ravenous", Guy Pearce plays Capt. John Boyd, a young member of the American Army during the Mexican-American War, who by lucky circumstances ends up becoming a war hero despite a shameful display of cowardice in the battlefield. As a "prize" for his dubious honor, Boyd is sent to Fort Spencer, a small and forgotten fort located somewhere near the Rocky Mountains. There, the troubled Captain Boyd meets the gang of misfits that form the military crew of Fort Spencer: the drug addict Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), the psychotic Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough) and the perpetually drunk Mayor Knox (Stephen Spinella). As Boyd tries to get used to his new position, the group receives the visit of a stranger, a lost wandering man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells the group of army men his bizarre story of survival: according to Colqhoun, his wagon train got lost in the Sierras Nevadas and his group reduced to cannibalism to survive. The soldiers at Fort Spencer decide to investigate, and their own horror story will begin.

The debut work of writer Ted Griffin (who has carved himself a name as a screenwriter of thrillers), "Ravenous" deals with the dark and disturbing subject of cannibalism, but the clever way the script is written makes the ride a captivating and intriguing instead of morbid, thanks in part to the great set of quirky and fascinating characters that populate Fort Spencer. While it could be argued that Griffin's use of dark comedy diminishes the impact of the horror in movie, actually Griffin's witty touch of humor and irony is what truly adds the strange offbeat charm the film has; and by making his gang of undesirable misfits a lot more human and likable, Griffin has developed a story that almost works as an ensemble piece. With great character development that challenges twists the typical conventions (for instance, the main character, is truly one big unashamed coward), Griffin's "Ravenous" presents one of the most original stories in modern horror, one that doesn't shy away from dwelling into human's darker nature.

Director Antonia Bird takes a straight forward approach to translate Griffin's screenplay to the big screen, though there's a special focus on the characters that turns them into the driving force of the film and ultimately what separates it from the rest. Bird's "Ravenous" has the benefit of having as assets the remarkable works of cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond and production designer Bryce Perrin. Despite working on a budget, their work manages to make a pretty faithful rendition of the time period in which the story is set. Richmond's cinematography makes great use of the locations (The Tatras Mountains in Slovakia) and develops a nice contrast between the beauty of the natural landscape and the grotesque gore of the events that takes place inside the Fort. But even when the story aims for a graphic orgy of violence, Bird's heavy focus on the characters allow a deeper insight from the story beyond the violence. In "Ravenous", Bird succeeds in making cannibalism both repulsive and captivating.

Leading the cast is Australian actor Guy Pearce, whom delivers a remarkable performance in the difficult role of Capt. Boyd, as his job becomes making likable a character that in essence is really the antithesis of the classic hero archetype. Using more his body and facial expressions, Pearce's presence completely owns the screen even when his character barely speaks at all in the film. However, he is not the only one to shine in "Ravenous", as every member of the cast receives a chance to show off their talents. The highlight is certainly Robert Carlyle, who delivers an outstanding performance as the disturbed Colqhoun, a man driven by his obsession, or better said, by his addiction. The sociopath Colqhoun is a savage force of nature, and Carlyle makes the most of the role without resorting to cliché or caricature. Jeffrey Jones' Col. Hart gives dignity and the touch of black humor to the ensemble cast. And finally, David Arquette, Jeremy Davis and Stephen Spinella deliver restrained yet effective performances that complete this delicious black comedy.

Offbeat, grotesque and yet captivating, Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" is a pretty original and interesting take on the Western genre in which horror elements are added in an interesting and original way. Mixing elements from Native American folklore, Griffin and Bird have created a story that seems to be an allegory for addiction. The cannibals are addicts to the strength they receive from human meat, and ultimately, each member of the group is fighting for their own survival. Interestingly, director Antonia Bird is a vegetarian, so that can explain the added repulsiveness added to the meat consumption. While definitely not perfect, "Ravenous" is certainly a refreshing film that brings back introspective horror to the spotlight. Beyond the gore and violence, the horror is found in what Capt. Boyd is becoming: he and Colqhoun are not that different, and Boyd's gory journey is basically his way to come to terms with this. If the film has any flaw, it is definitely the somewhat slow pace it has, but that's more a quibble than a problem.

The ultimate human taboo, cannibalism is an act that encompasses uneasy feelings of both fascination and repulsion. From Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" to Ruggero Deodato's classic of exploitation "Cannibal Holocaust", cannibalism has inspired several works of art through history, as it's certainly a complex subject matter that will continue captivating the minds of authors for centuries. In the hands of Ted Griffin and Antonia Bird, cannibalism has resulted in one of the most original and refreshing horror films of the late 90s. A true gem in a decade with very few hits, "Ravenous" is part of those films that closed the 90s with a bang and foretold the horror revival of the 2000s. Grim and slow, but sill witty and funny, "Ravenous"' odd mix of horror and comedy in a Western setting is a terrific addition to the genre.


December 09, 2011

The Runway (2010)

In the 1980s, the small Irish town of Mallow, in County Cork, witnessed an odd story: a Mexican private plane heading to Shannon, Ireland, got lost in the heavy mist and ran out of fuel. The pilot, captain Rubén Ocaña, found the town of Mallow and made a dramatic emergency landing on the town's racetrack. The plane owner, an important Mexican business man, followed his trip and left Ocaña the task to save the plane, which was practically undamaged. Ocaña remained in Mallow until a runway was built next to the racetrack. In the meantime, he became a local celebrity in Mallow and was invited to participate in the town's annual celebration (which were taking place when his plane landed), and the town gathered to witness him fly when the runway was finally finished. The story of the Mexican pilot who landed in Mallow became a fun anecdote, and inspired Irish filmmaker to make a film about it, "The Runway", which only takes the core Ocaña's adventure as basis to tell a story of two different persons who become the best of friends.

Set in the 1980s "The Runway" is the story of Paco (Jamie Kierans), a smart 9 years old kid who lives in the small town of Dromeleen in County Cork, where nothing special ever happens. Paco is the only son of Grace (Kerry Condon), and he has never known his father, though knowing that he is in Spain, Paco is decided to learn Spanish. One night, Paco listens that something has crashed in the hills near his house, and discovers that a plane has made an emergency landing there. The plane has only one pilot, Ernesto (Demián Bichir), who can only speak Spanish, so Paco helps him out and takes him home. Ernesto turns out to be a Colombian pilot, and while he has lived a colorful life, Paco's translation convinces the town of Dromeleen that it's important to help Ernesto return home. The town, stagnated in an economic depression, suddenly finds new life when they receive the mission of building a runway for the plane. And in the meantime, a friendship will born between the tough Colombian pilot and the little kid.

Taking only the concept of a Latinamerican pilot landing in a forgotten Irish town, director Ian Power develops a story that, while being a pretty basic tale of friendship at its core, is imbued with a heartfelt warm and a whimsical tone that elevates it from the rest. Certainly, Ian Power isn't discovering anything new in "The Runway", as the story has all the necessary elements its premise could deliver: the cultural clash and the fish out of water element, the revitalization of the forgotten town, the arrival of a father figure for the lonely kid and of course, a blooming love story. Nevertheless, Power plays all the right notes in his construction of a family comedy, managing to make the movie to feel fresh and vibrant despite its apparently formulaic craftsmanship. And the key for this is the way Power develops his set of characters, the situations they face, and the relationships between them. While Ernesto and Paco are the core of the story, every secondary character receives enough attention to create a well developed group.

The real strength in "The Runway" is found in the great skill director Ian Power shows in his storytelling. With a lighthearted tone and a perfect timing for comedy, Power weaves a charming story of friendship that unveils smoothly in all its simplicity. Like an old time comedies, "The Runway" is made up by a series of improbable situations, beginning with the plane crashing (which as said above, actually happened). And yet, Power avoids making it an artificial or shallow. He grounds it heavily in reality, and while lighthearted, it does briefly touches on the unemployment and boredom lived in the town, as well as in the troubles that Ernesto faces in Colombia. Power gives space to his characters to grow, and that's where this sensation of realism comes. Nevertheless, the highlight of the film is the extraordinary work of cinematographer P.J. Dillon, who gives "The Runway" a beautiful warm look that perfectly captures the tone of the story, and gives the film a decidedly Irish atmosphere.

As written above, the heart of "The Runway" is in its characters, and the cast who brings them to life is particularly of great quality. The young Jamie Kierans shines in the film as little Paco, and makes a remarkable performance for his young age as the kid so eagerly in need of a friend that goes to a great length to protect the foreign stranger. Mexican actor Demián Bichir is also pretty good as the Colombian pilot Ernesto, though he is certainly overshadowed by his young costar. Actress Kerry Condon shines in her role as Paco's mother, showcasing not only her great beauty, but also a natural timing for comedy. Unfortunately, Condon's screen time is very limited, and could had been explored better. Veteran actor James Cosmo plays Sutherland, an old engineer who always gives Paco a hard time, but who becomes more involved with his community when he begins to repair the plane. Another highlight is Donncha Crowley's scene stealing performance as the bumbling mayor of Dromoleen, more interested in public relations than on actually helping.

Ian Power's "The Runway" isn't exactly a groundbreaking comedy film, neither in its visual style nor on its story. It's actually a mix of drama and comedy done in a quite classic style of storytelling; perhaps one a bit too traditional for its own sake, but one that works nonetheless. Originality isn't one of the film's virtues, and yet, this apparent lack of originality is fully compensated by something that can only be described as an enormous amount of heart. In its simplicity, "The Runway" aims purely for emotions, and succeeds in its attempt without any obvious sign of cheap emotional manipulation. Certainly, ever since its origins film has been all about manipulating the viewer's emotions; but director Ian Power, by just letting his characters drive the film, manages to make this manipulation invisible, accessible and enjoyable. It could be said that Power doesn't dare to go beyond with his film to challenge the genre or reinventing the wheel; but in the end, "The Runway" has a defined goal and it achieves it without problem. It entertains.

Lighthearted, whimsical and decidedly Irish, Ian Power's "The Runway" is an old school melodrama about two different souls who find each other and make a bond. It's also a story about a town waking up again, and finally, a tale of breaking cultural barriers. In "The Runway", Power offers an optimist and uplifting story that seems to state that the idyllic Ireland so often seen in movies is not to be found on its landscapes landscapes or its past, but on its people. In the end, the people, regardless of their origin, becomes the center of "The Runway", as a group of unemployed workers help a plane to fly again. "The Runway" is a simple story told in a very simple way, but sometimes simplicity is the key.