April 29, 2012

Intruders (2011)

After a career making TV commercials, Spaniard director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo produced in 1996 the short film "Esposados", debut that earned him multiple international awards, including an Academy Award for Best Short Film. Nevertheless, despite this overnight fame, it took him six more years to make his feature length debut, "Intacto", film that once again won several awards, amongst them a Goya for Best New Director. This fame didn't go unnoticed, and so in 2006 Fresnadillo was hired by British filmmaker Danny Boyle to direct "28 Weeks Later", sequel to Boyle's own post-apocalyptic horror film "28 Days Later...". This success established Fresnadillo as a competent genre director with a great skill to create haunting atmospheres. In 2011, Fresnadillo returned to the United Kingdom to make "Intruders", a Spanish production that has that style so characteristic of Spanish Horror.

"Intruders" tells two parallel stories, the first one takes place in Spain, in which little Juan (Izán Corchero) lives terrified by Hollowface, a mysterious figure that appears in his room. Hollowface doesn't have a face, and by night it enters the apartment where Juan lives in order to steal his face. Juan lives alone with his mother Luisa (Pilar López de Ayala), whom is completely desperate and afraid since she doesn't know how to help her child. Father Antonio (Daniel Brühl),a local priest, gets interested in the case and tries to find out what's trying to posses the kid. Meanwhilem in Lodond, Mia (Ella Purnell) is a 12 years old girl who lives a normal life with her parents John and Susanna Farrow (Clive Owen and Carice van Houten respectively). On her birthday she finds a box with a spell that summons Hollowface, whom will try to steal her face. Both kids will fight their own monster, each in their own way.

The screenplay, by Nicolás Casariego and Jaime Marques tells a story of supernatural horror and fantasy that presents a monster, Hollowface, that recalls the more primal fears. A monster without face, that stands like a Boogeyman stalking in the dark of the room, in the closet, under the bed, among the shadows. The main characters, both children under 12 years old, face different problems but both are psychologically linked to the fear this monster represents. Juan lives alone with his mother, and knows too well the abandonment and loneliness, while at the same time is owner of a great imagination. Mia lives happily with her parents, but she's facing adolescence, finding herself in a point in which she wants desperately to grow up, but this desire affects her close bonding with her father, who still sees her as a child. Both stories are linked with a risky but functional twist, making it an interesting plot, though not without its fair share of problems.

In "Intruders", Fresnadillo shows a solid work of direction, with a well defined visual style and an appropriate handling of suspense, resulting in several sequences of great quality. With the aid of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Fresnadillo creates a different atmosphere for each story: a cold and desolate one for Juan, and a warm though no less creepy for Mia. Chediak's work is remarkable, and he adapts it to that quite Spanish style of atmospheric horror dramas (in the style of "El Orfanato" of Balaguero's cinema), though of course, with Frasnadillo's personal trademarks, which involve a heavy use of steady came that brings an interesting dynamic, in spire of being at times a bit annoying. Perhaps the greatest virtue of "Intruders" is its total lack of pretensions, as director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo makes a story of fantastic horror that moves way from modern visceral shock and gets closer to the atmosphere of a scary tale for before sleeping.

The acting is perhaps the strongest point in "Intruders" starting with the young Ella Purnell, whom as Mia, delivers a remarkable work as a teenager, not exactly a girl anymore, but still not a woman, but whom is troubled as she faces a fear that could be considered childish: fear of the dark. Purnell acts with great naturalness, making a powerful performance that easily steals the film. While definitely not on the same level, the work of young Izán Corchero is also of great quality, though it's worth to point out that in his tale the dramatic weight is on Pilar López de Ayala, who plays his mother. Pilar López gives a solid work, making a restrained, though realist portrait of her paranoid character. On the British side, Clive Owen is effective in his role of overprotective father, though at times Carice van Houten (as Mia's distant mother) is the one who makes a more interesting performance.

While acting is very good, "Intruders" has a somewhat uneven character development, as if suffers from having a quite interesting premise that has not been developed. Certainly, writers Casariego and Marques have developed a fascinating story prone to multiple readings. However, the way the plot has been built is deficient, leaving multiple loose ends forgotten by the time the movie finishes. Just to mention the most obvious one, while the subplot of Father Antonio opens several interesting options, the whole affair is simply left aside without even trying a greater development for the character, leaving him as a mere footnote in the main storyline. The same happens with the trauma that John Farrow experiences at his job, and some other plot holes as well, resulting in a movie that at times feels incomplete. While "Intruders" shows a great quality in its execution, details like those prevent the satisfaction from solving mystery to be complete.

Despite those details, "Intruders" manages to be an entertaining fable of horror in a tone reminiscent to films like Guillermo Del Toro's "El Espinazo del Diablo". Closer to psychological horror to the more visceral one, "Intruders" offers an interesting spin to the fear of the dark. In fact, given the thematics it explores regarding childhood fears, it's odd that the film got an "R" rating in the United States, probably due to the innocent nude scene of Carice Van Houten (in United Kingdom for example, this only meant a more appropriate "15" rating). Anyways, perhaps "Intruders" is a minor work in Fresnadillo's career, but it's at least entertaining.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in April the 19th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.

April 26, 2012

Días de Gracia (2011)

Clash of wills, passions and dreams that are left in the field, football soccer has such a very special charm that has turned it into the most popular sport in the world. And within football, there's nothing like the fascination that's lived during a Wolrd Cup. As traditionally occur in events of this magnitude, crime tends to decrease during the days the World Cup takes place, in some kind of "days of grace" of sorts in which everyone's attention is focused on following the progress of the national team in the World Cup. This phenomenon sets the background for the feature length debut of Mexican director Everardo Valerio Gout, whom after more than a decade of producing commercials and musical videos (not to mention several short films), takes over the big screen with "Días de Gracia", an ambitious project in which two of the most representative elements of life in modern Mexico are brought together: crime and football soccer.

"Días de Gracia" (literally "Days of Grace") consists of three stories that take place during the last 3 World Cups: Korea-Japan 2002, Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. In 2002, Lupe (Tenoch Huerta) is a young police officer trying to do his best despite the rampant corruption and indifference of society. After winning an award for his performance stopping a gang of criminals, Lupe is invited to belong to the team of Commander José (José Sefami), which will take him to the darkest side of his job. In 2006, a man (Carlos Bardem) is kidnapped outside his home, ending up tied and locked in a basement. Tortured both physically and mentally by his captors, he decides to win the trust of Iguana (Kristian Ferrer), the young kid in charge of watching him. Finally, in 2010 ,Susana is a housewife who one day awakes to the news that her husband has been kidnapped. Susana now will have to face the situation and try to keep her family together.

Written by Everardo Gout himself (along David Rutsala), "Días de Gracia" moves between time frames as it weaves the three stories, which are pretty different from each other. By the nature of the situation it depicts, the story of the kidnapped man is of a more intimate and personal drama, to the point of having the thoughts of the character as a narration on the experience. The opposite is the story of Lupe, which is one of greater action as it narrates how the young cop enters the world of corruption and hopelessness that is life of a policeman in Mexico city. In middle ground between these two extremes is the story of Susana, which carries a tone of family drama, charged of heated discussions between her, her brother-in-law and the agent working on the case. With such different elements, Gout builds up a plot that explores three different sides of a kidnapping, as he cleverly plays with time frames to enhance the narrative's rhythm.

As it tends to happen in filmmakers with a background in commercial and musical videos, Gout reveals himself as a director with a big preference for a defined visual style in the film. In "Días de Gracia", Gout and his cinematographer Luis David Sansans develop a distinctive look for each of the subplots. From the arid desolation of 2002, to the cold and claustrophobic confinement of 2006, while going through the neutral balance found in the 2010 plot. However, and while this truly gives the movie an identity of its own, there is a certain excess in the stylization in Gout's visual narrative. As if the director was decided to use any possible camera angle, as long as it looks cool and interesting, without caring if they truly add something relevant to his film. Anyways, it's worth to point out that in the midst of this excess, Gout and Sansans achieve some well done scenes, particularly in long sequences, where Sansans' talent shines.

But the strongest element in "Días de Gloria" is not the cinematography, but its cast, which is one of the most solid ones that a Mexican film has shown in 2011. As Lupe, Tenoch Huerta makes a remarkable performance worthy of recognition; natural and effective as the idealist policeman facing the enormous monster that is crime in Mexico city. Huerta is a revelation of talent, managing to transmit the difficult transformation that his character lives with frightening verisimilitude. Dolores Heredia, playing Susana, is another of the highlights of the cast, as even when her story (2010) is the least developed of the three, Heredia achieves a naturalness and an incredible strength in her performance as a truly desperate housewife. Spanish actor Carlos Bardem once again delivers a notable performance as the kidnapped man of 2006, as without using his face (his character is hooded 95% of his screen time), he truly transmits the fear and pain of his horrifying experience.

In this his feature length debut, Everardo Gout manages to give a fresh vision to a theme that has almost become a common place in modern Mexican cinema (kidnappings). However, he can't stop falling in certain problems that, while not exactly an obstacle to enjoy his film, they do diminish what could had been a greater work. For starters, Gout doesn't manage to escape the shadow of González Iñarritu's "Amores Perros", which is the most obvious reference, in both style and theme, as Gout employs a narrative a bit too similar to the one of the Iñarritu-Arriaga team. Another thing is the fact that Gout falls in a common problem in this style of narratives: one story is considerably weaker than the others. In this case, Susana's tale (2010), which is almost left aside in front of the more interesting (and better executed) ones from 2002 and 2006. The difference between those and the one from 2010 is notorious, and it's sad since not only it was the only story with a strong female character, but it was also a remarkable performance by Dolores Heredia.

Without counting those details, and the afore mentioned stylistic excess that Gout commits, this Mexican-French co-production is a highly engrossing movie that, while not entirely original in terms of them, this is compensated by an interesting visual design and a firm technical knowledge that reveal Gout as a filmmaker with w well-defined cinematographic vision, an explosive sense of rhythm, and a great skill to gather a talented team to back him up. Despite its problems, "Días de Gracia" is a dignified debut for the Mexican director Everardo Gout.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in April the 14th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.

Nueve reinas (2000)

The abrupt end of a life is always a tragedy, particularly in young people, as it leaves the question of what would they do if they were alive. In the case of an artist, this is specially meaningful, even more if the deceased artist was just beginning to get recognition. This is the unfortunate case of Argentine filmmaker Fabián Bielinsky, whom after having made two critically acclaimed movies, died on his sleep from a heart attack, at only 47 years of age. A testament of his talent is the fact that in only two films, Bielinsky managed to develop a distinctive style of his own, different to anything found in the cinema of Argentina at the time. The first and most popular of his two films, "Nueve reinas" ("Nine Queens"), was a crime thriller with a quite particular tone of comedy and irony that ended up winning multiple awards both in its native country and abroad. And not without a reason, as "Nueve reinas"' careful construction truly shows what a real loss was Bielinsky's death.

"Nueve reinas" opens in a small convenience store where Juan (Gastón Pauls), a young con artist, successfully scams the cashier, only to be trapped while trying to perform the same trick twice. Marcos (Ricardo Darín) pretends to be a police officer and takes Juan away. On an alley, Marcos explains to a surprised Juan that he is not an officer, but also another con man. Marcos offers Juan the chance to be his partner for a day, and while Juan is reluctant at first, he accepts as he needs to raise money to help his father in jail. After several successful cons, Marcos receives the call from a former associate, Sandler (Oscar Nuñez), whom asks Marcos help in a rare scheme: Sandler has made perfect counterfeit copies of a rare set of stamps called "The Nine Queens", and was trying to sell them to a rich Spaniard (Ignasi Abadal) who is being deported the following day (therefore unable to check the stamps' authenticity). Sandler was unable to do it alone because of his health, so the pair decides to enter the scheme.

Intelligent, witty, and with a good dose of humor, "Nueve reinas" is a solid thriller in which director Fabián Bielinsky (who also wrote the screenplay) plays with the caper film genre to deliver and entertaining tale of two con men. As the film unfolds, Bielinsky increases the stakes, putting his characters in even more complicated situations with every new plot twist. Nevertheless, while certainly the clever plot that Bielinsky crafts is quite thrilling, but in the most Hitchcocknian fashion, the Nine Queens scam is merely a MacGuffin, as the real magic in "Nueve reinas" comes from the way in which he he has developed the two main characters and their relationship. Particularly since both men are con artists, so trust won't become easily a bargaining chip in the deals between them. However, necessity and casualty has brought them together, the experienced master and the young talent, to take their chances and pull off this ultimate scam.

While certainly Bielinsky's ingenious screenplay is marvelous, his talent as a director is well worthy of recognition too, as he crafts his film with a simple but slick style that suits nicely the casual tone of the film. With a certain grace and elegance, Bielinsky lets the film's plot to unfold smoothly, embracing the audience in its captivating spell, not unlike the scams his characters perform, functioning like a precise clockwork with the perfect timing, the perfect tone. While working with a quite low budget, Bielinsky gives his film a well defined visual style, a bit traditional perhaps yet very attractive. Cinematographer Marcelo Camorino captures the urban setting with an elegant beauty, his camera getting deeply into the streets that make the characters' natural environment. Nevertheless, Bielinsky doesn't use any flamboyant visual style, knowing (like Mamet) that the strength of his movie is in the language the characters talk.

So, given that the screenplay what matters, the actors reciting the lines are of key importance for the success of the film. And fortunately, the acting is one of the strongest elements in "Nueve reinas". Leading the cast as the talented but unexperienced Juan, Gastón Pauls shows a natural charm in his performance, playing the role of the young apprentice with great verisimilitude. However, "Nueve reinas" belongs to the masterful performance of Ricardo Darín, who plays Marcos. As the smooth-talking con man Marcos, Darín commands the screen with power, showing he is a resourceful actor skilled at creating multidimensional characters. Because no matter how good a script is, a bad actor could had ended up making the role looking like the stereotype it may be. A talented one, like Darín, embodies the character and delivers a real person out of it. The rest of the cast, while having much less screen time than Pauls and Darín, they all deliver effective performances, particularly Leticia Bréndice, who plays Marcos' sister Valeria.

Bu the real star of "Nueve reinas" is without a doubt its director, Fabián Bielinsky, who showcases his talent for storytelling by weaving his tale with great skill. While the plot is relatively simple (the afore mentioned Mamet has produced stories of greater complexity), the way Bielinsky has transformed it into a puzzling tale is just captivating. "Nueve reinas" is a masterful example of how to flesh out a story. By adding the necessary amount of detail to make it interesting and unique, Bielinsky has built up his caper thriller with the same care he would stage a confidence trick: with the perfect timing and the appropriate tone, the adequate rhythm and the right cadence. There are few things that go wrong in "Nueve reinas", as every element plays its role in the puzzle to great effect. Perhaps there's a moment in which the absurdity of the cons is a bit too much, but the dry, deadpan humor that Bielinsky employs keep everything in the right mood.

Sly, ingenious, and owner of a delicious dark humor, "Nueve reinas" showed the talent of a filmmaker that, without any great pretensions, managed to create an entertaining thriller with intelligence and wit. Because it's this intelligence what separates "Nueve reinas" from similar yet banal thrillers, as it allows the film to unfold its story with a style that few have. After "Nueve reinas", Bielinsky was offered the chance of making an American remake, opportunity he refused in order to make "El Aura". The remake, titled "Criminal" was still produced with Gregory Jacobs at the helm. Sadly, Bielinsky died just when his career was on the rise. Watching the triumph that is "Nueve reinas" makes one realize just what a great loss for cinema was Bielinsky's untimely death.


April 20, 2012

[REC]³ Génesis (2012)

In 2007, Spaniard filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza took the found footage concept (popularised by "The Blair Witch Project") to make a zombie film that was named "[Rec]". In this movie, they told the story of a reporter and her cameraman who, while making a coverage about a firefighters unit, ended up trapped in an apartment building infested by people infected with a virus that made them furious monsters. Shot from the point of view of the camera, "[Rec]" made great use f this resource to tell a story filled with suspense and horror that respected faithfully the genre conventions while at the same time was redefining them. The film was an enormous success, and two years later the duo repeated it in "[Rec]²", sequel that added a more action-oriented tone while expanding the background of the first movie. To close the series, both filmmakers have decided to make two films, each director making their piece of the conclusion. The first is the one by Paco Plaza, and it's titled "[REC]³ Génesis".

Unlike the previous two films, "[REC]³ Génesis" begins far away from the apartment building, as the action takes place in a small town where the wedding of Clara and Koldo (Leticia Dolera and Diego Martín respectively) is taking place. To the church arrive the family and friends of the couple, while the event is being taped by cameraman Atún (Borla González). Finally, the ceremony is over and Clara and Koldo are now husband and wife, so the group moves to a mansion where the wedding reception will be celebrated. Uncle Víctor (Emilio Mencheta), apparently drunk, falls from the second floor to the dancing hall, provoking panic in the guests. However, Víctor is not drunk, but infected and is now a monster. To everyone's surprise, more infected arrive to the hall and all hell breaks loose. Koldo and Clara are separated during the chaos, and Koldo ends up with a small group locked in the kitchen. Decided to not leave the place without his wife, Koldo begins a dangerous quest to find his beloved Clara.

Written by Paco Plaza and Luiso Berdejo (writer of the first "[Rec]"), "[REC]³ Génesis" is not exactly a straight sequel to the previous film's plot, but an alternate story, as it begins hours before the events of the first film and takes place during the same nightmarish night. And as an alternate story, "[REC]³ Génesis" is defined by a desire to find its own style, breaking with the tone imposed by the previous installments of the series. For starters, there are more elements of black comedy in "[REC]³ Génesis" than in the more sober previous films. This doesn't mean that horror is abandoned, not at all, but that there is a greater communion of both genre in the plot; and actually, Plaza and Berdejo manage to make of this mix a quite functional one. So much that it truly gives "[REC]³ Génesis" an identity of its own, making it a sharp commentary on modern Spanish society, to the family that gathers at weddings with the purpose of celebrating, gossiping and being hypocrites.

And this rupture with the past that Plaza makes in "[REC]³ Génesis" goes beyond the change in tone: in terms of style, Plaza opts to make "[REC]³ Génesis" in a traditional way, leaving aside the first person point of view that had been the trademark of the "[Rec]" series in its previous installments. While the film begins narrated from the point of view of Atún's camera (and also the one belonging to Koldo's cousin), this is literally abandoned with the destruction of both cameras. However, this isn't done without a reason, as what Plaza tries in "[REC]³ Génesis" is not a personal identification with the situation, but this time, with his characters. Unlike the previous films, in "[REC]³ Génesis" the characters are now of greater importance, as the film is now entirely the story of the couple trying to find themselves in the middle of the zombie chaos. Nevertheless, even when the narrative is of a different style, the work of cinematographer Pablo Rosso (who has worked in the entire series) is again of the highest quality.

As mentioned before, the story is focused entirely on Clara and Koldo, and the actors who play them truly make a remarkable job in their roles. The star of the show is without a doubt Leticia Dolera, who plays Clara, creating a complex and multidimensional character by using mainly her physical presence. Going from a frail and shy woman to a fully determined zombie killing machine (chainsaw included), Dolera makes of Leticia a truly iconic character. And with great subtlety (and thanks to the screenplay by Plaza and Berdejo), this transformation never feels forced or out of place, on the contrary, it's fully in character as she's a woman who has been waiting her life for this moment and won't let anyone to take it from her. Slightly inferior is Diego Martín, who plays Koldo, as unlike Dolera, in his performance there are moments in which Martín does feel a tad wooden in his role. However, in general, his work is up to the challenge, perhaps not in Dolera's level, but not really bad.

As can be seen, "[REC]³ Génesis" is at the same time so different and also so similar to the previous films, that could generated mixed feelings about it. On one side, "[REC]³ Génesis" keeps pretty much coherent towards the already established mythology of the series, and it even explores more into the nature of the infected people. Also, Plaza doesn't hold back in creating wonderful scenes of graphic violence in which beauty and horror are combined in front of Pablo Rosso's camera in an extraordinary way. Nevertheless, the rupture in tone and form with the previous two films leaves a strange feeling at first, as if despite the title and the zombies, this "[REC]³ Génesis" wasn't really very "[Rec]" after all. Certainly, it's admirable how Plaza tries to make his story to have a different flavor, nevertheless, perhaps he may had gone a bit too far in his attempt. What is truly commendable is the fact that Plaza has created in "[REC]³ Génesis" sequences that surely will become icons of modern Spanish horror.

In the end, it could be stated that "[REC]³ Génesis" is two things at the same time: a brilliant horror comedy about zombies, and a somewhat unsatisfying "[Rec]" installment that perhaps would work better with a different, unrelated title. But well, those are perhaps mere details, as what matters is that in "[REC]³ Génesis" Paco Plaza proves to be an original filmmaker, with great knowledge about the horror genre, and delivers a masterful lesson in combining black humor with raw gore. Fun, entertaining and even moving, "[REC]³ Génesis" may not be very "[Rec]", but it's actually pretty good.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in April the 14th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.

April 19, 2012

[Rec]² (2009)

Found footage as a narrative style became quite popular after the release of "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999. This narrative device, which consists in presenting the film as the discovered evidence of a story, soon found many filmmakers willing to experiment with it, sometimes with bad results, but also sometimes with remarkable ones. "[Rec]", a Spanish horror film directed y Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, and released in 2007, rightfully belongs to this last category. Essentially a zombie film, "[Rec]" narrated the story of a reporter and her cameraman as they end up trapped in a building where people had been infected with a disease that transformed them in voracious cannibal monsters. Narrated from the point of view of the camera, the film managed to translate successfully the tension and intensity of the horror film to a first person narrative. Not surprisingly given the film's success, talks for a sequel began quite soon, and Balagueró and Plaza returned to the apartment in 2009 for "[Rec]²".

Beginning right after the first "[Rec]" ended, "[Rec]²" opens up outside the building, where Dr. Owen (Jonathan D. Mellor), an official from the Ministry of Health, enters the quarantined apartment building along a four-man Special Operations team. They all have cameras mounted on their helmets, plus one of them, Rosso (Pablo Rosso), carries another camera to document the findings. At the building, Owen and his team face off the infected people, and Owen decides to employ prayer to stop them, revealing he is actually and agent from the Vatican sent to get a blood sample from patient zero, the Medeiros girl. At the same time, a man (Pep Molina) is trying desperately to enter the building. He is the father of Jennifer, the girl from the first "[Rec]"; and he manages to convince one of the firefighters (Juli Fàbregas) to help him enter. Three teenagers, Tito, Mire and Uri (Pau Poch, Andrea Ros and Àlex Batllori) follow them, not knowing that they are about to enter a nightmare.

In "[Rec]²", writers Balagueró and Plaza are now joined by Manu Diéz in an attempt to make a story that expands upon the mythology set by the first film while at the same time moves the plot to a different direction. For starters, "[Rec]²" firmly establishes demonic possession as the root of the infection, enhancing the religious undertones that the first movie only hinted at. This angle is particularly interesting, as the writers develop the theme into a captivating set of myths that give the "[Rec]" series a well defined identity of its own. Also, and as expected given the fact that the protagonists are now members of an elite tactical team, action takes a greater importance in the story. While the first "[Rec]" was based on the suspense of the reporters discovering the unknown, "[Rec]²" is now based on whether the soldiers will accomplish their mission. The way the writers have tied the film to the first one is also clever, though the addition of teenage characters for comic relief is one terrible mistake.

As written above, "[Rec]²" sees the series moving to a more action-oriented kind story, and in terms of style this is reflected in the frantic the narrative has. The new gimmick is the use of helmet-mounted cameras, giving the opportunity to see what each member of the special unit sees. In practical terms, this allows for a perspective similar to first person shooter video games, which works pretty good in the context of the new tone the film has, which has traded suspense for action (though the result is as tension-filled as the original "[Rec]"). In fact, the change from suspense to action is comparable to what James Cameron did in his sequel to "Alien". Once again cinematographer Pablo Rosso is placed inside the action, this time as a member of the special units (naturally, the one carrying the bigger camera), and while his work is perhaps difficult to appreciate (given the fast rhythm of his shaky cam), once again he has constructed a somber claustrophobic atmosphere in this apartment building.

Acting in the film is effective, though nothing really surprising. Perhaps it's because the characters aren't well developed, or the fact that now many of them have a camera, but there isn't really any performance that could leave a lasting impression. That is, only until Manuela Velasco returns as reporter Angela Vidal and steals the show. As Dr. Owen, Jonathan D. Mellor is good, though perhaps a bit overacted in his role of the Vatican agent willing to do anything to complete the mission. Óscar Zafra, as the leader of the Special Units team, has a commanding presence but the rest of the team members lack a personality of their own. Pep Molina fares better as Jennifer's father, desperate to save his family, not knowing about the horrors that have been unleashed inside the building. The three teenagers, Andrea Ros, Alex Batllori and Pau Poch are pretty poor in their performances, and represent perhaps the weakest element in "[Rec]²".

While in many ways Balagueró and Plaza have succeeded in this expansion to their original hit, "[Rec]²" has also some flaws that bring it down a bit in terms of quality. Certainly, the expansion to the "[Rec]" myths that the film does is a pretty clever twist to the zombie concept, as the religious themes of demonic possession make for pretty interesting interpretations to the movie. However, the inclusion of the three teenagers subplot is somewhat tacky, as it breaks from the mood established in the film, not to mention that the characters are poorly developed and badly acted, ending up as an annoying addition to the plot. Truly a tragically failed attempt at comic relief, as the film would be a lot better without them. As written above, the characters aren't that well developed, a trait it shares with the predecessor, though at least the first "[Rec]" had an iconic figure in Angela Vidal. Sadly, "[Rec]²" isn't that lucky in this aspect.

Despite its problems, "[Rec]²" is a worthy addition to the series, specially due to the fact that directors Balagueró and Plaza have managed to expand their concept without losing the edge and intensity the original had. The change from suspense to action is a nice move, and given the fact "[Rec]²" is about expanding the rules set by the first film, it was perhaps the logical development of the first person concept. Granted, the film is a tad inferior to the original, but it's still a powerful and captivating experience that continues the storyline and unveils more information about the virus. With a claustrophobic atmosphere and fast-paced action, "[Rec]²" is a worthy entry in Spanish horror.


April 17, 2012

[Rec] (2007)

The second half of the 1990s brought a new generation of Spaniard filmmakers that seemed decided to redefine the face of Spanish horror. 1995's "El Día de la Bestia" (by Alex de la Iglesia) and 1996's "Tesis" (by Alejandro Amenábar) paved the way to new horror films that shared a quite distinctive style and a very Spaniard identity. The debuts of directors Jaume Balagueró ("Los Sin Nombre") and Paco Plaza ("El Segundo Nombre") could also be counted in this New Wave of Spaniard horror, and from the very start it's clear that both filmmakers have many things in common (for starters, both films were based on Ramsey Campbell's stories). The two of them would work together on "OT: La película", a documentary about the TV show "Operación Triunfo", and from then on a partnership was born. Given this background, it's not surprising that Balagueró and Plaza's subsequent collaboration would end up being a mix both horror and documentary: a found footage film titled simply "[Rec]".

"[Rec]" consists of the footage captured by reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso), as the two of them end up in the middle of a nightmare. It all begins with Ángela and Pablo visiting a local fire station in Barcelona, where they are making a story on the night shift firefighters. Suddenly, the unit receives an emergency call from an old apartment building and leaves, taking the two reporters with them. However, as they arrive they find the building surrounded by police officers, and inside, some of the residents have gathered at the lobby, while screams can be heard upstairs. Firefighters Manu (Ferran Terraza) and Alex (David Vert) join two policemen (Vicente Gil and Jorge-Yamam Serrano) and go upstairs, followed by Ángela and Pablo, and what they find is an aggressive old lady (Martha Carbonell). The old lady bites one of the policemen, and ends up shot by his partner. Downstairs, they discover that the building has been sealed, and that they have left trapped inside. And they are not alone.

Written by Balagueró, Plaza and Luiso Berdejo, "[Rec]" is by all accounts, a zombie film of the modern variety. That is, the risen dead are ferocious and fast. The clever twist is not on the story, but on the execution of it, as the movie is told from the point of view of the camera. Now, what sets "[Rec]" apart from most found footage films, is the fact that this narrative device is cleverly put to work in the film. Certainly, at its core the story may just follow the usual path of zombie films, but the new perspective given by the camera point of view is quite suspenseful and fresh. Also, they way the story justifies this has a bit more of verisimilitude than most films in the same vein, as by having two ambitious reporters as the main characters, it truly helps to explain the voyeuristic mentality that makes them keep filming. Perhaps "[Rec]" could be blamed of being thin in character development, but this is an exemplary case of a film based entirely on style over substance.

Because "[Rec]" is all about style, with directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza pushing the found footage genre to the limit by making a horror film that truly evokes the sensation of watching a real catastrophe. The intensity, the adrenaline, the despair, everything is there to give the feeling of being in the middle of a war zone, and it works. Instrumental for this is without a doubt the remarkable work of cinematographer Pablo Rossi, who plays the cameraman while actually shooting the film. Perhaps this detail, apparently insignificant, is what adds this verisimilitude that "[Rec]" has that other similar films lack: the cinematographer is not an outsider to the action, but himself is in there, controlling the camera and taking the audience to the dark apartment where ancient secrets are being held. While simple in terms of plot, "[Rec]" is an interesting exercise in style, an attempt of bringing the horror to a first person point of view and an experiment in making the horror film an experience.

Another key element for the success of "[Rec]" is the highly energetic performance of Manuela Velasco as reporter Ángela Vidal, who carries the film with strength and a natural charm that allow her to create a character that, while not being exactly likable (Angela is unscrupulous at best) manages to still be interesting to see. While her character may be simple, Velasco creates a very well defined identity for her role, and manages to transmit the sense of danger that her character lives through the chaotic night at the apartment. The rest of the cast is for the most part as good as Velasco, despite the fact that most play the classic archetypes of horror films. Ferran Terraza, as Manu, is quite effective as firefighter Manu, whom becomes the de facto leader once the building is put to quarantine. However, the best amongst the supporting cast is Maria Lanau, who plays the hysteric mother of Jennifer, a little child ill with what her mother claims is tonsillitis.

As written above, "[Rec]" is a film in which the execution is the key. While its plot doesn't sound like the most original horror film written (more than once it falls in genre clichés), it's magic and its power are in the way Balagueró and Plaza have narrated the story. While zombie films with first person narrative aren't new (2006's "The Zombie Diaries" being an earlier example), "[Rec]" is perhaps the first that manages to pull off the degree of verisimilitude and realism that found footage films attempt to convey. What "[Rec]" lacks in character development, it compensates with the adrenaline-rush that it has in its storytelling, which is intense, energetic and vibrant; truly transmitting the horror of being in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Instead of channeling Romero's "Dead" films, what "[Rec]" evokes are disaster documentaries and news reports, and for a mockumentary that aims for realism, that is high praise.

In "[Rec]", directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza have achieved to deliver a found footage film that succeeds in telling its tale with disturbing realism and a haunting atmosphere. This two filmmakers have understood the possibilities of first person narrative, and have successfully translated the intensity of the modern zombie genre to this narrative device with great power. Thanks to the great acting from the cast and Pablo Rossi's incredible cinematography, the illusion of realism is achieved despite the film's fantastic premise, and ultimately "[Rec]" becomes a haunting roller-coaster of horror that never loses its high speed rhythm until the very end. In this sense, more than just a horror movie, "[Rec]" is an experience.


April 13, 2012

The Bloody Olive (1997)

Film noir, French for "black film", describes a very particular kind of crime dramas that originated in the early 40s and had very distinctive traits. For starters, thematically they had connections to the hardboiled school of crime fiction that began during the depression, this results in stories with greater cynicism and a taste for morbid themes. However, perhaps the most distinctive trait of the film noir was the low-key lighting in its cinematography, which played with hard shadows in the style of German Expressionism. This stylish cinematography, result of having low budgets to work with, became a staple of Films Noir, and while the classic period of the genre ended in the 50s, its visual style has inspired countless homages and tributes ever since. It certainly inspired a young filmmaker from Belgium, Vincent Bal, whom used a distinctive film noir visual style to make a comedy short film shortly after finishing film school. The title? "The Bloody Olive".

With a runtime of barely 11 minutes, "The Bloody Olive" begins with a married couple, Werner and Mylène (Frank Focketijn and Veerle van Overloop respectively) preparing themselves for Christmas. The couple finishes the Christmas tree and is seen getting ready for the dinner, when suddenly, the doorbell rings. The visitor is Sam (Gene Bervoets), Werner's business partner and a good friend of the couple, whom arrives with a bottle of wine for them. However, Sam doesn't look like he's having fun, and accuses Werner of being stealing from the company. Sam claims he has proof, so Werner reacts by shooting his partner in front of a shocked Mylène. Werner explains that there wasn't really another way to do it, and that Sam's death can easily be explained as self-defense. But things aren't always easy, specially in films noir, and to everyone's surprise, Sam gets up not being really dead yet. This is only the beginning of a series of betrayals that prove that in film noir, nothing is what it seems.

"The Bloody Olive" has its origins in the 1994 graphic novel "Imbroglio", by French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim; however, director Vincent Bal takes the plot and fully adapts it to better blend into the film noir style he attempts (the novel, while also a jab at noir, has less emphasis in this, and in classic Trondheim fashion, the characters are anthropomorphic animals): and all without losing the black humor of the comic book. Certainly, it could be argued that "The Bloody Olive" is a one-joke short film (perhaps the bane of ), and that would be right in a way. Fortunately, director Vincent Bal elaborates on the joke with great skill, and in fact achieves a smooth transition from straight crime drama towards the absurd black comedy that "The Bloody Olive" truly is. The story unfolds at a nice pace, which begins slow in classic melodrama fashion and then gets increasingly faster as secrets are unveiled. Nevertheless, the true highlight of "The Bloody Olive" is its craftsmanship.

And this because its actually in the way that Vincent Bal and his team replicate the film noir style where the magic of "The Bloody Olive" is. As written above, the film is faithful to its source, however, Bal's decision of replicating the film noir aesthetics is more than appropriate as it transforms what originally was a fun yet simple parody ("Imbroglio") into a heartfelt tribute to the noir genre. And instrumental for this is the work of both cinematographer Philippe Van Volsem and Art Director Gert Stas, who make a remarkable achievement in bringing to life the somber vision of director Vincent Bal. From the low-key lighting to the somber atmosphere, "The Bloody Olive" is just perfect in its representation of film noir style; and actually this faithfulness ultimately serves for comic effect, as the contrast between the absurd of its story with the careful replication of the noir style results in a tongue-in-cheek homage to the most morbid excesses of film noir.

The acting in "The Bloody Olive" is particularly good, with each cast member doing their best to replicate the melodramatic tone and fast delivery of the 1940s acting. Actress Veerle van Overloop (of 1995's Dutch film "Antonia") plays Mylène, Werner's loving wife whom results to be more dangerous than any weapon. Van Overloop shines in her role, moving nicely between the two extreme female icons of film noir: the loving wife and the femme fatal. With her natural charm and her strong screen presence, she ends up being probably the best performer amongst the cast. Frank Focketijn plays her husband Werner, and also makes a pretty effective job as the sly Werner. Focketijn allows himself to go over-the-top at times, but he's never out of place and displays a great skill at comedy. Finally, Gene Bervoets plays Sam, and while he is a tad inferior to his co-stars, Bervoets isn't really bad, perfectly channeling the tough guy persona so typical of films noir.

Cleverly developed and brilliantly done, this little tribute to film noir is a quite amusing piece of work. In making an adaptation of a popular comic book, director Vincent Bal has gone beyond and delivers a quite enjoyable movie that not only remains faithful to its source, it actually builds up from there to create a heartfelt homage to a classic genre. Certainly the visual design is the film's strongest element, but it's also commendable the way Bal adapted the original comic book to suit his needs. The reconstruction of the period is excellent for a low budget film, and it does feel right at home with the films noir of the classic period. Still, this doesn't mean that "The Bloody Olive" lacks any problems, it has its fair share of flaws; the main one of them being perhaps the fact that in the end, it's still a one-joke film. Fortunately, director Vincent Bal's has focused greatly in his craftsmanship to make it an enjoyable experience. Yes, "The Bloody Olive" is a film of style over substance, but done right.

A lot of the charm of "The Bloody Olive" comes not from being familiar with the story, but from being familiar with the conventions of film noir, as the classic elements from those classic crime dramas can be found in an exaggerated form in "The Bloody Olive". Vincent Bal's film is perhaps an example of how an adaptation can be inventive with its source: while Lewis Trondheim's comic is fun by itself, Bal's film neither replicates it nor exaggerates it, it merely uses it as the basis to make a slightly more ambitious comedy. In "The Bloody Olive", director Vincent Bal proves that with talent and lots of imagination, an unforgettable movie can be done in the short format.