December 31, 2008

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Very few American sitcoms (in fact perhaps none) have had the degree of success as "The Simpsons", the animated show created by Matt Groening that since its debut as a series in 1989, has become not only one of the most influential TV shows ever made, but also an icon of modern pop-culture, and technically a reflection of Western society. Originally a series of shorts that were part of "The Tracey Ullman Show" that chronicled the lifestyle of a dysfunctional family (Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson), the shorts were soon adapted into a half-hour series and so the legend was born. Through the years, the Simpson family won fans around the world thanks to the sharp writing of its stories and its very special brand of satire. A movie was always in plans, but it seemed a dream that would never get materialized. Even when the quality of the scripts began to decay, the dream of a "Simpsons movie" was still there. And now, almost 20 years after the show debuted as a series, "The Simpsons Movie" was released.

Everything begins when rock band Green Day are killed at an accident caused by the pollution in Lake Springfield, which prompts Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) to convince the town to clean the lake. The lake gets considerably cleaner, but a distracted Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) throws the feces of his adopted pig into the lake, with terrible environmental results. Noticing this, Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks), head of the Environmental Protection Agency, manipulates President Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer) to use an unorthodox measure to keep Springfield's pollution contained: to enclose the town in a large glass dome. When Homer is found responsible for the town's doom, the townspeople decide to lynch him, but the Simpsons manage to escape from the dome and head to Alaska. Out of the dome, the family discovers plans to completely destroy Springfield, so Marge (Julie Kavner) and the kids decide to return and try to save it. Homer is against the idea, so Marge is forced to leave him behind. Abandoned, Homer will have to decide what to do to save himself.

"The Simpsons Movie" had been in development for several years, as this wasn't the first attempt to make a movie about the poplar yellow family. The screenplay that eventually became "The Simpsons Movie" began as an idea by Groening that he shared to the team of writers assembled for the movie. Along Groening, 10 writers from previous seasons of "The Simpsons" joined this team, including names such as James L. Brooks, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Mike Scully, Matt Selman and Jon Vitti among others, in hopes of the recapturing the spirit from the "classic" seasons of the show. And more or less they got it right, as the film is certainly an improvement over the current state of the TV series. Stretching the TV format to film, "The Simpsons Movie" has a bit more focus on the plot than on the characters, as it must sustain a narrative beyond the half-hour episode; nevertheless, the whole thing is filled with great comedy that manages to retain the same acid, ironic humor that made the TV series such a cherished show.

Starting as an animator for the first "Simpsons" shorts, director David Silverman has been with the family since the very beginning. Now that he's made himself a career as a filmmaker (with 2000's "The Road to El Dorado" and 2001's "Monsters, Inc." in his resumé), Silverman returns to Springfield to direct the film. Responsible for several of the series' best episodes, Silverman adds to the film an energy that seems to be missing in the later seasons, as well as that care for characterization that was a key factor in his days as a director for the show. As written above, the screenplay focuses a lot more on the story than on characters, but Silverman wisely manages to give them their proper place as he seems to be aware that in the end, it's neither the plot nor the jokes what makes "The Simpsons" great, but the humanity of the characters, and the power of their emotions. For example, in some scenes, Silverman makes the love in the relationship between Homer and Marge more than believable. He makes it almost real.

As in the TV show, the voice cast is really something special, taking the art of voice acting to whole new levels. The familiar voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer are back and showcase the best of their talents in the film. Kavner specially is one special actress, as her performance as Marge Simpson in the film is easily her best job as TV's favorite mom to date. It's really amazing how emotional her performance gets and how natural it seems for her to become Marge. Same could be said of Castellaneta as Homer although to be honest, Kavner overshadows everyone else. The multiple talents of Azaria and Shearer are still at their best, although I found that roles of their characters weren't as big as they should. Albert Brooks is back as another super villain, and once again his presence is more than welcome in the film. As in the show, there are several guest stars that make cameo appearances in the film, like Green Day or Tom Hanks, but fortunately, they don't steal the focus of the film.

Unfortunately, "The Simpsons Movie" is not without its flaws, and a couple of them are pretty bothersome. The first and most notorious is perhaps the expected detail in every adaptation from a TV show: it can't help but being nothing more than an extended episode. Sure, the plot is bigger and more on the narrative of a film, but it's still one big "The Simpsons" episode. Fortunately, it's one good big episode, but those expecting something beyond the usual will be disappointed. And this is related to the second fatal flaw: the unavoidable feeling that a movie as expected as this should had been precisely more than a big, extended episode. "The Simpsons" was breakthrough television when it came out, and even today it's still breakthrough from time to time, so its arrival to the big screen should had been one big event, one unrepeatable chance of taking "The Simpsons" style of comedy to a whole new level. And it seems that the writers decided to play safe and deliver the familiar. They did it really great, but it wasn't the big event it could had been.

And in my opinion, it's that feeling of lost potential what prevents "The Simpsons" from being a masterpiece. It's not a bad film by any means, it is in fact a great comedy, and one that truly recaptures that classic style of "The Simpsons" early years; but it could had been something spectacular, something outstanding, a real classic. Perhaps this is just me nitpicking, but I can't help but feel that "The Simpsons Movie" could had been an unforgettable journey if the makers of the film had dared to break the rules and go beyond what was achieved by the legendary TV show. In the end, "The Simpsons Movie" is a remarkable comedy, and one that no fan of the TV show should miss. But it could had been more. Much more.


Buy "The Simpsons Movie" (2007)

December 26, 2008

2008: Another year that ends

As a quick glance to the archives of the site may prove, here at W-Cinema the main concern tends to be films older than 1970, however, I do try to watch a fair amount of modern movies as well, specially films the releases of the year. Unfortunately, the volume of recent releases I watch is enormously inferior to the amount of older films I watch, but while this year that tendency did not change (to date I've I watched 190 movies this year, and only 16 of those were 2008 films), I managed to build up a humble top 10.

Granted, 16 films are not exactly a good measure of how was the year, specially since most of the films of 2008 that I saw verged towards horror, fantasy and documentaries; but still, I wanted to list these 10 films mainly because I may not be able to fully write about them for a while. By the way, four films on my list were superhero films, and while very different from each other, the four had in common that the story and characters had more weight than the special effects. Perhaps the sub-genre has reached maturity at last:

10) "Hancock"
Badly marketed as a parody of superhero films, "Hancock" was actually more a character study about the concept of superhero and the real implications of a super powered being roaming around the cities. Don't get me wrong, this Will Smith vehicle had its fair share of superhero comedy, but it was more on the style of "The Incredibles" (albeit on a very much darker tone) than on the one of "Super Hero Movie". Peter Berg's film was not without its flaws (including special effects that left a lot to be desired), but "Hancock" was a big surprise for me.

9) "Kung Fu Panda"
I have a soft spot for Dreamworks animated films, but while I have enjoyed their movies probably more than what I should, I've always thought that their overuse of cultural references is a severe flaw that tragically dates their films and eliminates any chance of them existing beyond their release year. Well, "Kung Fu Panda" it's the first of their films that I can see having a lifetime of more than 2 years. A loving homage to Kung Fu films (the whole thing seems as if it had been shot by Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, whom actually lends his voice to a character), "Kung Fu Panda" is an excellent tale of adventure that, without being a masterpiece, places Dreamworks closer to Pixar's level.

8) "Iron Man"
I must admit I wasn't really interested in the film because, while "Iron Man" is one of my favorite characters and Robert Downey Jr. one of my favorite actors, all the trailers that were released showed a film that in my opinion, was nothing but explosions and shallow one liners. Fortunately, I was wrong. True, the film has a good amount of explosions and shallow one liners, but it also has a key factor: complete understanding of the character. Without making any compromise, director Favreau and Downey Jr. portrayal Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, as what he has always been: an arrogant prick. This choice may not make him the friendliest superhero of the bunch, but it made up a good story that hopefully will get even better in the sequels (it's planned as a trilogy).
Review here.

7) "Be Kind Rewind"
In the story of two friends who decide to remake the erased tapes of a rental video store, director Michael Gondry creates one of the best tributes to cinema since "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso". And a funnier one at that too. Jack Black and Mos Def's characters use extremely limited resources to make their movies, but beyond their naiveté, creativity and willpower, what makes them special is the heart they put in them. "Be Kind Rewind" is about the many ways cinema affects those who make the movies, and those who watch them, and makes a strong point about how the importance of money seems to have taken away the magic from movies. Because to the characters of "Be Kind Rewind", films are more than mere entertainment, more than successful blockbusters and box office hits, to them films are part of the collective memory of their culture.

6) "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero"
A dedicated fan of wrestling, Canadian director Lee Demarbre decided to follow professional wrestler Ian Hodgkinson, better known as Vampiro, in his tour across Europe to make a film. What he got was more than a simple sports documentary, but a very intimate view on Vampiro, an inside look to what really happens behind the scenes and what probably is the best film about that mix of show and sport that is pro-wrestling. "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero", recounts the story of Vampiro from his troubled youth in his native Canada to his meteoric rise to stardom in Mexico, and then his sudden fall from grace. In the mean time, we see Vampiro preparing his biggest show ever as a promoter, and of course, the tour he did in Europe. With an excellent work of editing, independent filmmaker Demarbre makes of this movie his best work to date.
Review here.

5) "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"
Guillermo Del Toro returns to his favorite comic book character in a sequel filled with lots of action and black humor. Having already introduced Hellboy in the first film, Del Toro uses this sequel to let us know more about the secondary characters, while at the same time keep developing the relationship between the demonic hero and his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz. Still, the most interesting theme is the whole gang's relationship with the world, a world that they are supposed to protect, but that considers them freaks at best, and monsters at worst. While this may sound kind of clichéd, Del Toro's film is full of twists and turns and makes for a thrilling second chapter in the saga of the big red guy.

4) "Niño Fidencio... de Roma a Espinazo"
Directed by Juan Farre, "Niño Fidencio... de Roma a Espinazo" (literally "Niño Fidencio... From Rome to Espinazo") is a Mexican documentary about the different beliefs surrounding the figure of Niño Fidencio, a mystic and healer who lived in a small town called Espinazo in the years after the Mexican Revolution. After his death, his persona has become the center of diverse religious ideas that go from those who think he should be canonized by the Catholic Church to those who consider themselves a new religion based on his teachings. Farre recollects a lot of information about the life of the real Niño Fidencio, and then goes on a very objective overview about the diverse religious and cultural manifestations that take place in the deserted town of Espinazo, where people goes to find spiritual and physical healing. A very complete and tastefully done documentary.

3) "The Dark Knight"
Probably the most discussed film of the year, Christopher Nolan's second "Batman" film was definitely one of the most expected movies of the year, and it didn't disappoint. However, I must say that to me Heath Ledger's performance wasn't the star of the film, to me the movie's real highlights are the Nolans script and Aaron Eckhart. True, this Joker was awesome, but I think that a lot of that comes from the way the story was developed, in the sense that for once the duel between Batman and the Joker is like it should had been in the first place: a duel between a detective and a terrorist, taken to the extreme of course. About Aaron Eckhart, I'll just say that I find his role more challenging that Ledger's and Bale's on the basis that unlike them, he has no mask, no ticks, no extreme personality to explode; and yet he has to make us believe in Harvey Dent. While its politic ideas may be debatable, it's still a remarkably done crime thriller.
Review here.

2) "Wall-E"
Personally, I think this movie is the closest Pixar has been to a perfect masterpiece in its history. There are almost no dialogs in the film, but through the visuals, they have created a story of comedy and romance of a beauty akin to what Charlie Chaplin used to make. Wall-E's attempt to find love in Eve makes the basis of some of the most beautiful and charming scenes in an animated film in a while. Sadly, I think that the last third gets messy as the characters and their love story seem to go the backseat in favor of a more typical conclusion and the somewhat forced inclusion of a social commentary that, while I personally find relevant and truly important, still feels like a terrible stop from what to that point had been a pleasant trip as it has the subtlety of a hammer. Despite this, it's the closest Pixar has been to a perfect film.

1) "Låt den rätte komma in"
Easily the best horror and fantasy film about vampires in quite a long, long time. Straight from Sweden, director Tomas Alfredson comes up with the years greatest surprise, in a beautiful tale of romance and horror that truly blows that soap opera named "Twilight" out of the water. Shot with more imagination than resources, "Låt den rätte komma in" or, "Let the Right One In", is proof that horror genre is not dead, that it's not all about guts and gore, and that with nothing more than creativity and talent, it still can be the source of great artistry.

December 25, 2008

The Night Before Christmas (1905)

On December 23, 1823, an anonymous poem was published on the New York Sentinel that would redefine the American ideas about Santa Claus and his image: "A Visit from St. Nicholas". Later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem describes a man awakening at night after hearing a noise only to discover St. Nicholas arriving to his house to deliver presents for the children. It describes St. Nick 's appearance and "working method", as well as his way of transportation and the names of his reindeer, completing the modern image of the old Christmastide visitor. More than 80 years later, the classic poem would find a new outlet in cinema, which still was a vibrant new art form with a language in constant development. After making the classic "The Great Train Robbery" (cinema's first Western), film pioneer Edwin S. Porter was the prime director at Edison Manufacturing Company, and on his hands fell the job of adapting the beloved poem to the new medium. It would be the first time Santa Claus would appear on the big screen.

Titled "The Night Before Christmas" (which is also another popular name of Moore's poem), the movie begins with Saint Nicholas feeding up his reindeer, preparing them for the big trip. Later, we see him giving the final touches to the toys at his workshop. In the mean time, a family is celebrating Christmas with a dinner, but the kids are already preparing themselves to go to bed, but not without first hanging their socks by the chimney. The kids can't really sleep with all the excitement, and they start a pillow fight, however, sleep ends up taking them all. Just before leaving the North Pole, Santa Claus gives a final checking to his book, and then he flies away on his sled to fulfill his yearly mission. Saint Nicholas arrives to the family's house, where as usual, he makes his way in through the chimney. Inside the room, Saint Nicholas not only delivers the presents into the children's socks, but also using his magic, he makes a beautiful Christmas tree appear along many presents more. The family will find a great surprise the following morning.

It's not clear who adapted the poem (probably Porter himself, but it can't be verified), but what's clear is that "The Night Before Christmas" is more or less a pretty straightforward adaptation of the classic Christmas poem, as it shows Saint Nicholas' visit to a family on Christmas' eve and it even uses bits of the poem as intertitles. The short film also makes some changes and additions, like for example, the scenes detailing Saint Nicholas' preparations for the trip and his work at the North Pole; however, the most interesting change is the fact that the witness of Saint Nicholas' visit is no longer a character of the story (the poem is written in first person, as the recounting of a witness), but us, the audience. Through the camera's eye (proof that it has always had something of a voyeur in it), we become witnesses of the magic of Christmas and, like the character in Moore's poem, not only see St. Nick delivering happiness to the children of the house, but also become his partners in crime.

Director Edwin S. Porter created his version of "The Night Before Christmas" employing the cross-cutting editing style that he had been employed since "Life of an American Fireman" and most notably, in "The Great Train Robbery" (both in 1903). This use of editing makes the film quite dynamical, however, this time the focus is more on the special effects than on the storytelling, and to achieve Saint Nicholas' magic Porter uses all the tricks he knows, and borrows a couple more from the filmmaker he admired the most: Georges Méliès. This is most notorious in the wonderful scene of Saint Nicholas' sled dashing swiftly through the mountains before flying away, which was achieved using beautifully designed models and a clever mechanical devise. The idea of course comes from Méliès' 1904 masterpiece, "Le Voyage à travers l'impossible", where a similar model is used for "The Impossible Carriage". Still, the fact that the idea was borrowed from another film doesn't diminish the merit of a scene like this one, which showcases a lot of talent on the side of the crew.

Many early filmmakers borrowed tricks from each other (Porter's own "The Great Train Robbery" was copied almost frame by frame by Siegmund Lubin in 1904), but Edwin S. Porter was one of the few who could imprint his own style despite of it. The key was that Porter wasn't interested in merely copying a film, but in using a trick or two from one film into a completely different one, often making some improvements in the process. When the movies are based on storytelling, Porter is a great director, but for films based on special effects, Méliès was the one to go. Still, while this time Porter can't beat Méliès' superior artistry in terms of film-making, his rendition of "The Night Before Christmas" is very bit as magical as the poem where it originates. And that's definitely quite an achievement.


Buy "The Night Before Christmas" (1905) and other early holiday films
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

December 21, 2008

Boo (1932)

Whenever someone talks about horror movies of the 30s, the words "Universal Horror" always have to appear sometime during the conversation, as the importance of the movies done by Universal Studios in that decade is simply unquestionable. While Universal Horror was technically born in the 20s, it was in 1931 when it truly became a synonym of high quality fantasy stories, as it was in that year when the two first films of the "Golden Age" were released: Tod Browning's "Dracula" and James Whale's "Frankenstein". Based on classics of Gothic literature, both films became instant hits and transformed their lead actors (Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively) into legends. Due to their great success, the two films quickly entered our pop culture as the ultimate monster films; iconic movies that not only influenced every horror film done afer them, but also became the default idea of Gothic horror. "Boo", a 1932 short comedy film produced by Universal, is an early example of this, as it basically parodies Universal Gothic horror.

In "Boo", a Man (Morton Lowry) is decided to have nightmares, so following the advice of the Narrator (possibly director Albert DeMond himself), whom considers nightmares as "the cheapest form of amusement", he has a heavy dinner made of lobster and milk, and reads a horror novel before going to sleep. Our hero has read Bram Stoker's "Dracula", so as soon as he falls asleep, he begins to dream the horror of his lifetime. In his dream, he sees Dracula (archive footage of Max Schreck from 1922's "Nosferatu") preying on helpless humans and sucking their blood. To our hero's horror, Frankenstein's Monster (archive footage of Boris Karloff in 1931's "Frankenstein") also appears on his dream, and the Monster is willing to prey on humans too just as the vampire Count does. However, something is not right with these monsters, as their motifs seem rather dubious, or at least that's what the Narrator tries to explain.

Written by Albert DeMond, "Boo" is nothing more than a series of clips from F.W. Murnau's silent classic, "Nosferatu", James Whale's "Frankenstein" and Rupert Julian's "The Cat Creeps", everything mixed but joined together by DeMond's tale of a poor man's nightmare. DeMond's story is merely an excuse to put the clips in funny ways, putting footage on a loop or adding wacky sounds to them. In his narration, DeMond makes fun about the congress and the economical situation of their time, as well as of horror movies in general. It's all in good fun, although certainly the jokes haven't really aged well and now may sound boring and unfunny. While this can be blamed on the fact that humor has changed, in all honestly the jokes weren't that funny to begin with, although some can still bring at least a smile.

Where the movie shines is in it's use of clips from Universal horror films, as DeMond puts them out of context and makes some funny segments by playing with them. Interestingly, DeMond used Murnau's "Nosferatu" instead of Universal's own "Dracula", mainly because Lugosi's vampire was probably too elegant and good looking for his wacky spoof, so he used Max Schreck's interpretation as it was more of a monster. Of great interest is the fact that "Boo" contains what's probably the last surviving footage of Rupert Julian's 1930 horror classic, "The Cat Creeps", a movie that has been missing for years and that it's considered lost by many historians. While out of context and done for laughs, we can see bits of that now legendary film in this little short movie.

While I wouldn't say that "Boo" is a great movie, it's an interesting oddity to fans of Universal's Golden Age of horror movies, as not only it offers the only way to see a slice of "The Cat Creeps", it also shows a different view of those classic movies and how strong was their impact in those early years. Sure, as a comedy it's pretty mediocre (even for laugh tracks standards), but like most of the horror movies done by Universal, this one has a strange charm that makes it special. Not exactly a good film, but definitely a must-see for Universal horror fans.


Buy "Boo" (1932)

December 19, 2008

The World Gone Mad (1933)

One of the most prolific directors in the history of American film, filmmaker Christy Cabanne was in the movie industry for almost 40 years, from his days as an actor in the early 1910s to his final movie, "Silver Trails", in 1948. Assistant to D.W. Griffith, discoverer of Douglas Fairbanks, seasoned director for hire and responsible of many of classic Hollywood's B-movies, Cabanne's career had certainly its fair share of up and downs, and through his life he found himself making films for the major studios as well as for those little companies from the poverty row. Historian Kevin Brownlow named Cabanne as "one of the dullest directors of the silent era", but while that statement is not without its reasons (and it even could be applied to some of his talkies as well), sometimes Cabanne's films were more than cheap canon fodder. One could think that Cabanne's best movies are the ones for the big companies, but actually some of his best are low budget films done for small studios, like 1933's "The World Gone Mad".

In "The World Gone Mad", Pat O'Brien is Andy Terrell, a tough wisecracking reporter whom is close friends with District Attorney Avery Henderson (Wallis Clark) and his office. One night, Henderson is murdered and his reputation ruined as his body is found in his supposed "love nest", however, neither Andy nor Henderson's protégé, the recently appointed Dist. Atty. Lionel Houston (Neil Hamilton), believe such thing of their deceased friend, so both decide to find the killers in order to clean Henderson's name. However, it won't be an easy task, because as Houston begins to dig deeper, he becomes the assassins' next target, so Andy will have to use all his wits and resources (some of which may or may not be entirely legal) to protect his friends and solve the case. Things get even more complicated as Andy discovers that the whole thing seems to be linked to corruption and frauds inside a big company, which happens to be owned by the family of Lionel's fianceé, Diane (Mary Brian).

Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr., "The World Gone Mad" has something few films from the poverty row could enjoy: a really great screenplay. Not only Lowe constructs a truly interesting story of conspiracies and mystery filled with many twists and turns, he also creates a very good array of characters that, while probably stereotypes, are very well defined. Like many of the best crime films of the 30s, Lowe's story has more in common with pulp novels than with classic crime fiction, making it essentially a prototype for the stories that would make films noir of the 40s as it showcases a world rotten by corruption even at the high spheres of society. Its main character, Andy, is not your typical 30s fast talking reporter; sure, at first glance is the archetypal wisecracking hero of 30s mysteries, but he is also a hard drinking tough guy with more in common with the detective role in films noir than with other characters of his ilk. Granted, the plot is a bit too convoluted for its own sake, but it's actually a well constructed one.

As a director for hire, Christy Cabanne was someone able to properly handle low budgets and deliver a movie in time without many problem. And that probably had a lot to do with the fact that Cabanne seems to rarely messed with the screenplay. While this may often result in simple, mediocre movies, in cases like this, where the screenplay is the main star, this style of having no style may be a blessing. Efficiently, Cabanne translates Lowe's screenplay to the big screen without problem, in a simple, yet appropriately straightforward fashion. Having a slightly bigger budget than usual, greater care is taken in terms of art direction and costume design, with cinematographer Ira H. Morgan (a Monogram Pictures regular) capturing Lowe's 30s world gone mad in all its Art Deco glory. Unfortunately, this also has the downside that since Cabanne's style is well, kind of dull, action sequences are not exactly his forte and are a bit sketchy, and besides that, when the plot goes slower the movie drags quite a bit.

Another of the film's highlights are the performances by the cast, which are truly of great quality considering this was just a low budget crime film. As Andy Terrell, Pat O'Brien is simply perfect, making the most of Lowe's intelligent dialog and completely owning his character, resulting in a very natural and believable performance. Like the classic 30s reporters, Andy is funny and witty, but this wisecracking newsman is also willing to get down and do the dirty work when necessary. Neil Hamilton is also good as the young District Attorney Lionel Houston, although in all fairness, he gets easily overshadowed by his cast mates, although that feeling of impotence and naiveté was perhaps intended. As Carlotta Lamont, the film's prototype of femme fatal, Evelyn Brent is great and has very good chemistry with O'Brien (both have a remarkable and very suggestive scene in the dark). The rest of the cast is good enough for the film although Huntley Gordon and Richard tucker are probably the weakest of them.

As written above, the film's main problem is definitely the dull way Cabanne has to bring the story to screen, as while the script is filled with many interesting situation and thrilling plot twists, Cabanne's unimaginative direction almost transforms it into nothing more than just another crime film. "The World Gone Mad" has an enormous potential in both its script and its performances (I can't tell how great O'Brien is in this one), not to mention the bigger budget, but Cabanne merely moves the camera and shoots in a quite boring and uninteresting way. In films like this one, there are always times when the plot moves slowly, often to offer an explanation or something similar, but as I was saying above, Cabanne's film-making make this scenes an enormous drag to the film, making it lose that spark that the characters have. It's not that Cabanne is a bad director (his "The Mummy's Hand" is quite a very good film, and mainly because of Cabanne), but personally, I think that this time he was completely uninterested in the film he was making.

Despite its problems, "The World Gone Mad" is, in my opinion, one of Christy' Cabanne's best films, and one of the most interesting B-movies from classic Hollywood. By some reason, it's often counted amongst horror films, probably because being in the public domain, it tends to be included in movie collections of the genre, however, if there's anything horrific about "The World Gone Mad", is its theme of the destruction of a person employing the power that grants money and social position. Quite an interesting theme, for a poverty row film. Unfortunately, it never reached its true potential, but it could had been a classic.


Buy "The World Gone Mad" (1933)

Watch "The World Gone Mad" (1933)

December 16, 2008

300 (2006)

The Battle of Thermopylae is probably one of the most famous battles in ancient history, as it is often used as a prime example that the size of an army does not decide a battle. The reason for this lays in the fact that in Thermopylae, a small army of roughly 7000 Greek soldiers managed to defend themselves against the biggest army of its time, the Persians, which counted in its ranks more than 2,500,000 soldiers. While this is the main reason behind its importance, the battle has reached mythical status because it was also an example of courage, as when the battle seemed lost, most of the Greek soldiers retreated with the exception of 300 Spartans, who decided to put a tremendous last stand against their enemy. Their courage not only inspired 700 Thespians to join them, but also has inspired many notable works of art, most recently the 1962 movie "The 300 Spartans" and Frank Miller's 1998 comic book "300". Now, Miller's graphic novel is the basis of a new movie about Thermopylae: Zack Snyder's "300".

"300" can be summarized as the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae, as narrated by a Spartan soldier named Dilios (David Wenham) to his fellow Spartans. The story begins with a brief recounting of King Leonidas' (Gerard Butler) youth, and the events that made him the courageous leader he was. Years later, as a Spartan King, he receives the news that King Xerxes of Persia (Rodrigo Santoro) is on his way to Europe, and gives the chance to Sparta to join him in his quest for conquering the world. Prefering to keep his people free instead of paying tribute to Xerxes, Leonidas refuses, and prepares himself to defend his people. However, the Spartan council has been bought by Xerxes, and refuses to allow Leonidas to go to battle with the full Spartan army. Knowing that this will be his people's doom, Leonidas decides to take with him only 300 of his best soldiers and goes to battle the enormous Asian army alone, in what later will be called the Battle of Thermopylae.

Adapted by Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon and Snyder himself, the movie is almost a word for word translation of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which as well was mainly based on Herodotus' writings on the subject. However, this doesn't mean that Miller's work (and therefore the movie) is an accurate history lesson, as Miller's art takes enormous artistic liberties with the story, making his rendition of the Battle of Thermopylae more mythic than realistic, more in tone with the epic poets than with Herodotus' attempt at historical objectivity. While this of course may bother purists, it truly works in the context of the story (being after all, the narration of a soldier), as it's essentially an exaltation of the achievements of a country's army that of course demonizes its enemies. More an action film than a drama about war, the movie focus completely on the event of the battle, which keeps the plot simple but also results in a severe lack of character development.

The film's highlight is definitely the highly stylish visual look that director Zack Snyder uses for his movie, which basically follows Miller's art to the letter. Using the same digital technique than Robert Rodriguez used for "Sin City" (another of Frank Miller's comic books), Snyder brings Miller's graphic art to life in an extremely faithful way taking a lot of care for details, almost putting every frame of the comic book in the big screen. This extremely stylized visual look not only extends to digital backgrounds and special effects, Snyder's movie uses slow motion, great choreographs and a superb art direction to create an operatic narration that, just like in Miller's comic book, accentuates the mythic traits of the story, showing Spartans as super-soldiers and the Persian army as a hellish array of monsters. While of course this is completely inaccurate historically, it fits the story Snyder is trying to tell, although this extreme care for the style often makes him forget to care for the substance.

Now, "300" is without a doubt a great technical achievement and visually, a wonderful film to watch, but it has some major problems deep inside the flashy look, with the performances by the cast being only the top of the iceberg. While Gerard Butler has received a lot of criticism as King Leonidas, he is actually one of the best in the film, and does a really good job with what he has to work (which in all honesty, is not much). If there's any fault in Leonidas' characterization, I'd blame the source material, not Butler. The best in the film is in my opinion, David Wenham, who truly adds a lot of mood and atmosphere to the movie with his narration. He's the only one who seems to capture the feeling of "Epic tale" tthe movie is going for. Sadly, not everyone in the cast was up to the challenge, and one wonders if they were chosen for the part thanks to their physical looks instead of acting talent. Lena Headey, Michael Fassbender and Tom Wisdom are really the main offenders, who make some of the worse parts of the script look even worse with their poor delivery.

Personally, I think that the movie's most serious problem is the overall lack of characterization in the story, which to be fair, is a flaw that comes straight from the source as Miller's simplification of the Battle is what made most of the characters look two dimensional at best. While it is true that Miller remained true to Herodotus and that some lines came straight from his work, it's difficult not to notice how silly some dialogs are, probably the result of a severe misunderstanding of the sources about Thermopylae. True, it's an action film, but a little more of care while developing the script would had been enormously beneficial, because as flawed as it is, Miller's graphic novel had great potential that with some twitching could had resulted in a classic. Another problem of the film is definitely Snyder's complete focus on the visual aspect of his movie. Don't get me wrong, I know that a movie like "300" isn't supposed to be a powerful drama, however, Snyder's visuals tend to get pretty overwhelming, with an excessive use of slow motion that while effective at first, soon becomes a tiring gimmick.

While I do consider "300" to be a flawed film, I must say that it's pointless to judge it in terms of historical accuracy because it never attempts to be accurate and dwells more in the realms of myth. Many have criticized this aspect (as well as Miller's obvious political subtexts) without noticing that "300" is not here to teach or to illustrate, but to simply provide good entertainment, a purpose that despite all its problems, it finally achieves with honors. Granted, that the purpose of the film is only to entertain it's not really a valid justification for a movie's flaws, but what I'm saying is only that the criticism about its historical accuracy is unfair. It's a flawed movie, but not for those reasons. And in the end, that's not that bad.


Buy "300" (2006)

December 07, 2008

I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005)

A lot has been written about "King Kong", the legendary 1933 movie about a giant gorilla and its adventure in the urban jungle that is New York, as there is no doubt that this classic masterpiece, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was a truly important movie in the filed of special effects, as well as in the development of the horror and adventure genres. However, the lives of the people behind this monumental movie are probably as interesting and outstanding as the movie itself, specially when talking about Merian C. Cooper, a man who not only created one of the most powerful stories ever told in a movie, but also was a brave pilot, decorated soldier, successful film producer, pioneer of film-making technologies and most importantly, an all around adventurer. "I'm King Kong", is a documentary about the life and times of Merian C. Cooper, a man who definitely was one of the most outstanding persons in the history of film.

Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the movie deals extensively with the adventurous nature of this man, taking us from his early days at the National Guard, to his years as a bomber pilot during World War I; and later it explores his friendship with Ernest B. Schoedsack, the man who according to Cooper, "taught him everything about film-making". Of course, it also dedicates time to the filming of "King Kong", the movie that would make their names legendary in the history of cinema, however, the focus is more on the man han on the film (as the making of "King Kong" is material enough for another documentary). Using clips from his several movies, the movie brings back many memories of the duo's other classic films like 1932's "The Most Dangerous Game", and it also includes interviews with historians, intellectuals and people who actually met Cooper, like Fay Wray and Ray Harryhausen. "I'm King Kong" even includes several audio clips from archived interviews with Cooper and Schoedsack themselves.

What makes this documentary interesting, is that it is not only based around the making of "King Kong", but instead it covers the Merian C. Cooper's life since he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, until his final days as a film producer in California. Directors Christopher Bird and Kevin Brownlow did a great job in condensing the most important of the many achievements and adventures of Merian C. Cooper. As usual in this kind of movies, it is in the interview section where the most interesting and informative comments appear, and this movie doesn't disappoint, as a through anecdotes and stories we get to know a bit more of the persona of this legendary man. The movie even dedicates a segment to explore how Cooper and Schoedsack met Willis O'Brien, the man behind the outstanding special effects of "King Kong", as well as exploring a bit the process of making them, as explained by O'Brien's alumni Ray Harryhausen.

It is clear watching this movie that directors Christopher Bird and Kevin Brownlow did an enormous research on the subject, as they manage to show clips from almost every film done by Cooper and Schoedsack (from their silent documentaries to their adventure films with sound), and not only that, fortunately many of the prints shown are of excellent quality. There are also many clips from the movies produced by Cooper later in his career, exploring his influence over the works of RKO Pictures (when he was the president), his partnership with John Ford (Cooper produced many of Ford's best and most famous films), and specially, his important position in the development of new technologies (mainly Cinerama). Finally, the opportunity to listen to audio recordings done by Cooper and Schoedsack themselves is another of the reasons that make this documentary a must-see for every fan of this period of the history of cinema.

If the movie has any flaw, it must be the fact that the list of achievements in Cooper's life was so extensive to be properly explored in the 57 minutes that this movie lasts. Proficient pilot, prisoner of war during World War I, adventurer in Poland and filmmaker in the U.S., influential producer and once again to war as commander of the "Flying Tigers" during World War II; there is simply too much to cover in the life of this man that it would take several movies to properly cover his many adventures. Despite this flaw, "I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper" is an extremely detailed documentary that manages to give a nice idea of how was this notable man's life.


Buy "I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper" (2005)

November 29, 2008

Life of Brian (1979)

Story says that after the enormous success of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a reporter asked the comedy troupe about their next film project. Not really having an answer for that question, Eric Idle answered "Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory" as a little joke, and soon it became their typical answer to questions about the Python's future projects. However, what started as nothing more than a silly joke soon began to be taken seriously by the comedians as an interesting project to make, so they began to work seriously on it as a movie. Still, the end result was not exactly a film about the life and times of Jesus Christ (as reportedly they were unable to find anything to mock about it), but about fanatism of all kinds, taking as a starting point the credulity and hysteria of those willing to follow anyone as a messianic savior. "Life of Brian" was the name of the movie, and as soon as it was released quickly became known as one of the funniest and most controversial works done by the Pythons, and not without a reason!

The movie's plot is, as it name indicates, about the life of Brain Cohen (Graham Chapman), whom is a poor Jewish boy who was born in Bethlehem of Judea on the very same night as Jesus Christ. Years later, Brian is now a young idealist man who has grown up hating the Roman occupation of his country but who has not really done anything about it and instead works at the local Arena selling snacks. One day Brian attends one of Jesus' sermons and among the crowd he notices Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), a beautiful woman who leads him to the rebel group "People's Front of Judea". Brian joyfully joins the rebels, hoping to be able of really making a difference and bring down the Roman Government, but unfortunately, the missions given to him do not exactly end in the best way for the group. Things get complicated for Brian when after a bizarre series of circumstances, he ends up being confused with a messiah, and with this he gains an considerable amount of "devoted followers" that will make his life even more difficult.

The first thing one notices about "Life of Brian" when compared to the Pythons' previous movie is how structured is the plot, as it is now a fully developed story in terms of narrative. I mean, while of course "Holy Grail" had the running theme of King Arthur, it was still a series of sketches tied together by their style and themes. "Life of Brian" shows the Python style of comedy completely adapted to a cleverly written and well structured narrative that, with their usual mix of witty satire and surreal nonsense, showcases their ideas about organized religions as well as the other social themes (government and other political satire for example) they tend to explore in their work. Very fresh and original, the comedy in "Life of Brian" is top notch, keeping that sense of freedom and irreverence and taking what started in their now legendary "Flying Circus" show to a whole new level. Contrary to what could be thought, the structured narrative enhances the comedy instead of limit it, and makes for a more focused piece of work.

Python member Terry Jones takes again the director's seat (without Terry Gilliam this time), and makes the Python's masterpiece come to life, remaining true to its roots without sacrificing the film's structure. While it's obvious that Jones knows that the film's power is in the script and the cast, he allows himself to showcase his love for ancient history and, taking advantage of the budget (and the locations and leftover sets of 1977's "Jesus of Nazareth"), he sets the wacky story of Brian in a lavish and very realist Jerusalem. The sharp contrast between Jones' care for keeping some historical accuracy and the script's bizarre and surreal humor truly adds a lot to the "Pythonesque" atmosphere of the film, as it feels oddly appropriate within the satiric tone of the movie. With a style more focused on the characters than in the visuals, Jones instead of Gilliam was the natural choice to direct "Life of Brian", as its truly the very well constructed characters what makes the movie the jewel of British humor.

And as always, the Pythons are simply superb in their portrayal of the many characters of the movie. Graham Chapman only plays three roles this time, but he is Brian, and as our main character he perfectly portrays the naiveté of the young idealist man. John Cleese is also excellent in the many characters he plays, but specially as the leader of the People's Front of Judea. Director Terry Jones himself appears as, among others, Brian's mother, making a remarkable character with his peculiar falsetto voice. While I can't single out an actor as the best in the film, I must say that Michael Palin's performance as Pontius Pilate is easily one of the funniest of the movie. Finally, Eric Idle gives the icing in the cake as he sings the Python's most famous song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". As Judith, Sue Jones-Davies makes an effective job, although honestly, her part wasn't very well developed as "Life of Brian", like all Python films, were completely focused on the comedians.

If "Life of Brian" has a fault, it would be that it may feel too long to those unfamiliar with Monty Python's style of humor, as its continuous fast pace never gives a moment to rest. That said, this movie is probably the easiest to "get" as it lacks the surreal randomness of "Holy Grail" or the dark cynism of the sketches in "Meaning of Life", so, in a way, "Life of Brian" is the ideal introduction to Python's humor. I can't write about "Life of Brian" without talking about the controversy it met after released, as it was accused by several religious organizations as being blasphemous and disrespectful to God. While the film is indeed irreverent, it is in no way a direct attack to God, Jesus Christ or the Christian teachings in general, as it is more a satire on the extreme way some religious people follow their leaders blindly without really thinking about it. There is nothing blasphemous in the movie, and in fact it is more humanist than disrespectful or irreligious.

Monty Python's style has proved to be one of the most influential in the history of British comedy, and personally I think that "Life of Brian" is the crowning achievement of their career. The brilliant satire they cleverly put in the movie's script is easily one of the best in history of Brisitsh cinema (well, of film in general), and it's as merciless as it is funny. Religious people should not feel offended by it, as it's real target is extreme fanatism. Zany, irreverent and wild, "Life of Brian" can stand proudly as the Python's movie masterpiece, and while sadly they only made one film after this, it's always better to look on the bright side of life and see it as the testament of their genius.


November 21, 2008

Petróleo (1936)

During the first half of the 30s, the situation between oil companies and their workers in Mexico was extremely conflictive, often resulting in strikes, and sometimes even violence. The origin of the tensions between both groups was that the workers demanded better working conditions and basically a whole new collective contract to rule their relationship with the companies. On the other hand, the companies weren't really excited about this and claimed to lack the funding necessary to satisfy those demands. Naturally, public opinion was initially divided on the subject, however, eventually both the Government and the population began to be on the workers' side. In order to fight this, in 1936 the oil companies decided to fund a short educational film as propaganda for their cause, hoping to win back the public's favor as the defenders of Mexican industry. And to make this film they hired the crew responsible of Mexico's biggest box office hit of the year: "Allá en el Rancho Grande".

The result was "Petróleo - La Sangre del Mundo" (literally "Petroleum - The Blood of the World"), a 19 minutes short film that covers the the historical importance of oil and its products in the industrial development of a country. Written by Antonio Momplet and co-directors Arturo S. Mom and Fernando De Fuentes, "Petróleo" is very informative about the whole process of extraction of crude oil and the treatment it gets to produce the rest of its derivatives. However, being a work done with the intention of promoting the role the big oil companies play in the industry, it's origins as propaganda are more than obvious as it spends a lot of time explaining how necessary the companies are for the future of the nation. Granted, the companies had a point in the sense that their technology, funds and experience were invaluable at that moment, but the narration certainly tends to exaggerate their role. However, what's odd about "Petróleo - La Sangre del Mundo", is that despite this, the movie conveys exactly the opposite message.

And that happens because of the way words and images work in the film. As written above, "Petróleo" was directed by Arturo S. Mom and Fernando De Fuentes, whom using the beautiful camera-work by Adolfo W. Slazy, Manuel Álvarez Bravo (later known as one of Mexico's greatest photographers) and Gabriel Figueroa, were in charge of putting images to the words of the oil companies. Now, the oddity in "Petróleo" is that while the narrative talks about the benefits of the companies, the images captured tend to showcase the work of the workers, the common people, putting special emphasis in the nobility of their work, the strength of their collective effort, and the difficulties they have to overcome to produce the "blood of the world". In a purely visual way, "Petróleo" has more in common with the soviet propaganda done by Eisenstein and other Russian filmmakers than with the normal educational shorts about scientific themes. Needless to say, the images in "Petróleo - La Sangre del Mundo" speak more than the film's screenplay.

This contrast between images and words is so carefully organized that it just couldn't be mere coincidence, as it is in fact a cleverly devised blow against the oil companies in which, using their own film, the filmmakers effectively did propaganda for the opposite side. In his memoirs, legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (a convinced socialist) claims full credit of the deed, detailing how by being familiar with the way Álvarez Bravo and De Fuentes worked, he was able to work his ideas into the film without nobody noticing it. While I don't doubt that Figueroa was the mastermind behind it all, I imagine that he must have had the collaboration of De Fuentes, Álvarez Bravo or at least editors Carles L. Kimball or Ulrico Stern, as "Petróleo"'s overtly socialist tone is so subtle and yet so powerful that it just feels like the result of a collaborative work. As expected from the talented set of cinematographers, the images of "Petróleo" are, while probably generic, of great quality and even have a certain beauty.

In the end, the fight between the companies and the workers ended in 1938, when on March the 18th the Government of president Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the petroleum industry. The workers' movement became very popular amongst the population, so even when its probable that "Petróleo" had not been a key factor in that, it could be said that the ideas of Figueroa and company won in the end. Still, while "Petróleo - La Sangre del Mundo" is nothing more than an educational short film (filled with the genre's typical problems, like a terribly dull narration, I must add), the way its images are in a constant fight with the whole film's idea make it a very interesting movie to watch. Given the way things ended, "Petróleo" may not had been the most successful documentary, but as the perfect display of the power of images, it's outstanding.


November 18, 2008

Allá en el Rancho Grande (1949)

In more than one way, 1936's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" was the film that inaugurated the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. It was not only the country's first huge box office hit, but also the first Mexican film to be exported to foreign markets and the first to win an international prize (Best Cinematography at Venice in 1938). Still, it was a bittersweet victory for its director, Fernando De Fuentes, because its tremendous commercial success proved him that audiences preferred music and light comedy over his previous, darker, more complex and more personal films (his three wonderful films about the Mexican Revolution for example). While his great skill and talented vision kept aiming for great artistry (and even achieved it, as 1943's "Doña Bárbara" proves), his work remained mostly in the commercial side of cinema, making a series of musical comedies with popular actor Jorge Negrete. In fact, along Negrete he would revisit Rancho Grande in 1949, in a color remake of that very first hit, "Allá en el Rancho Grande".

"Allá en el Rancho Grande" ("Over at the Big Ranch") is the story of José Francisco (Jorge Negrete) and Felipe (Eduardo Noriega), friends since childhood at the Hacienda of Rancho Grande. Felipe has inherited the ranch, and makes his good friend the farm manager of Rancho Grande. José Franciso is secretly in love with Cruz (Lilia Del Valle), an orphan who has been working as a maid for José Francisco's godmother Ángela (Lupe Inclán) since they arrived to Rancho Grande. Ángela has never liked Cruz and always treats her bad, so now that he is the farm manager, José Francisco is decided to marry her in order to take her somewhere else. All he needs is money, so he goes to another ranch to compete in a horse race. In the meantime, Ángela needs money too so, knowing that Felipe likes Cruz a lot, she conceives a plan to get the money she needs and get rid of Cruz at the same time. This will unleash a series of misunderstandings that will put Felipe and José Francisco's friendship to the test.

This remake of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" uses essentially the very same screenplay the original did, which was written by director Fernando De Fuentes and Antonio Guzmán Aguilera, based on a story by Guzmán Aguilera and his sister Luz. This means that other than a few minor changes, those familiar with the original won't find anything new in this aspect, as even the dialogs are almost exactly the same in both versions. Filled with all the basic elements of the very Mexican sub-genre of "Comedia Ranchera" (literally "Rancher Comedy"), the Guzmáns' original story took the always popular theme of a rural love triangle and gave it a tone of light comedy, playing with music, folklore and classic Mexican stereotypes to make it an idealized, romantic vision of Mexican identity. And despite being clichéd and predictable (like the original), the story works, mainly because of the way the characters (as stereotyped as they are) interact with each other and the gags and emotions that result of those interactions.

Not only De Fuentes' second version of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" used the same script, it was also almost a shot by shot remake of it. However, the major difference between them are that the remake was conceived with the idea of giving major importance to songs and the color technology achieved by Cinecolor. Having directed Mexico's first color film (1942's "Así Se Quiere en Jalisco"), De Fuentes was familiar with the process, so he decided to take advantage of color and make this version a bit more stylish, moving away from the slightly more natural vision of the original and instead using Carlos Toussaint's production design and Jack Draper's cinematography to achieve a lavish, more idealized vision (this is quite notorious in two scenes: the cockfight and the march at dusk after it). Unfortunately, the version I watched was in black and white, but even seen without color De Fuentes' intentions are very obvious as the scenes are planned to showcase this colorful vision of Mexico.

As written above, music also gets a bigger role in this film, and that's definitely because of the presence of Jorge Negrete. A remarkable talent, Negrete once again delivers an effective performance as farm manager José Francisco, proving again with his natural charm and extraordinary singing ability why was he called "El Charro Cantor" ("The Singing Charro"). Sadly, Negrete faces a problem that his great talent alone can't overcome: his age. It's not that he fails to deliver, the problem is simply that Jorge Negrete is just a bit too old for the role, and in this case, it shows. José Francisco's main traits are a mix of bravery and naiveté, and Negrete is just too old for showing them in a natural way. If he was 10 years younger, he would had been the perfect lead actor for "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (if only he had been in the original). Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't as consummated or effective as Negrete, and at best, are mere inferior copies of the original cast's performances.

While Negrete manages to deliver, Eduardo Noriega is wooden and stiff as Felipe, lacking the class and presence the character required. Even if he (like Negrete) does look like a real Charro, his work is pretty mediocre, easily overshadowed by the rest of the cast. As Cruz, Lilia Del Valle doesn't feel natural in her role, looking forced and at odds with her character. If there's anyone besides Negrete who manages to do a good job, that's comedian Armando Soto "Chicote", whom truly makes his character his own, despite playing the most stereotyped of all. Given the uneven performances by the cast, it seems as if De Fuentes was more focused on the visual look of the film than in his cast, but that's not the film's worst problem. The real problem is that, like Negrete, 1949's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" simply feels old. Being a shot by shot remake of the film that started it all, the movie's gags are tired and the whole thing clichéd, as in only 13 years the "Comedia Ranchera" became the ruling genre of Mexican cinema, and this film was like a step back in time.

Personally, I'm not against the idea of remakes, as I think that they are often good chances to do things differently or improve failures, but I also think that to do this is harder than it seems. De Fuentes' second version of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" had a good basis (to add color to a classic story), but he failed to see that the technological update wouldn't be enough for a genre like comedy, which tends to be in constant change, and that the same jokes and situations would feel old and tired very quickly on a second time. Still, the remake of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" has the merit of having some of Negrete's best interpretations, although it's a shame that like De Fuentes' colorful vision, they get wasted on a remake that's just slightly better than your average "Comedia Ranchera".


Buy "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (1949)

November 15, 2008

Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936)

During the post-production of "Vámonos Con Pancho Villa!", Mexican director Fernando De Fuentes found himself in serious problems that threatened not only the release of his most recent and ambitious film, but also his career as a filmmaker. While his epic about the Mexican Revolution had support from the government, it had gone over-budget and to make things worse, the government wasn't exactly happy with De Fuentes' critic view on the revolutionary movement. The fact that his previous films (amongst them the superbly done "El Compadre Mendoza") weren't exactly hits complicated everything even more. This situation forced De Fuentes to take one last chance to save his career while his masterpiece awaited for a release date: he decided to make a film with the sole intention of winning back some money. And he made it with a success beyond what anybody could have expected. 1936's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" would become Mexico's biggest box office hit and the film that started the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

At the Hacienda of Rancho Grande, José Francisco (Tito Guízar) and Felipe (René Cardona) have been friends since childhood, when José Francisco and his sister Eulalia (Margarita Cortéz) moved with their godmother Ángela (Emma Roldán) when they became orphans. With them came Cruz (Esther Fernández), another orphan who had been living with them, being the godchild of José Francisco's late mother. Felipe is now the owner of Rancho Grande, making José Francisco the farm manager as his old friend is by far his most trustworthy employee. José Francisco is secretly in love with Cruz, who has always been considered to be nothing more than a servant by Ángela, although Ángela's permanently drunk "husband" Florentino (Carlos López "Chaflán") cares for her and treats her like a daughter. Things get complicated for Felipe and José Francisco when a series of misunderstandings put their friendship to the test after Ángela notices that Felipe likes Cruz as well. And all this happens "Allá en el Rancho Grande" ("Over at the Big Ranch").

While hardly an original plot (rural love triangles have been popular themes in Latin American cinema since the silent era), the story by Antonio Guzmán Aguilera and Luz Guzmán De Arellano had a strong dose of light comedy that made the film a lot lighter and more accessible, element that along the omnipresent use of folk music and whole rural theme resulted in the creation of one of the "most Mexican" genres: the "Comedia Ranchera" (literally, "Rancher Comedy"). Essentially a romantic comedy, "Allá en el Rancho Grande" has a set of characters that, while definitely idealized stereotypes, work together perfectly in conjunction in the romanticized world of the "Comedia Ranchera", that world where honor, love and friendship were far more important than money or social classes. Maybe "Allá en el Rancho Grande" wasn't really the first attempt of making a romantic comedy set in an Hacienda, but Antonio and Luz Guzmán's story was definitely the first to fully use the genre to give flesh to that idyllic idea of Mexican identity that was the "Comedia Ranchera".

However, the creation of this extremely folkloric view of the Mexican identity wasn't only credit of the writers, and it could be said that the real mastermind behind it was director De Fuentes himself. This is kind of a sad irony, as after making three movies where he demythologized the story of the Mexican Revolution, De Fuentes' "Allá en el Rancho Grande" built a brand new mythical Mexican identity almost singlehandedly. With great care for style, De Fuentes brings the Guzmáns' story to life in a quite honest, natural and realistic way, which is notable since the whole story is ultimately artificial in its romanticized view. It could be said that De Fuentes made the story timeless, recreating reality by making real the whole new myths of the Mexican identity. A lot of this comes thanks to the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who begins to develop the lavish, dreamlike style that would represent the Mexican identity in the celebrated films of Emilio "El Indio" Fernández (whom by the way, appears as an extra, specifically a dancer, in this film).

One of the best things about "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is how effective the cast's performances are. It's not that they are great displays of talent, but the fact that everyone is just perfect for their respective role. while not exactly the traditional image of the Mexican Charro, Guízar and Cardona fit nicely in De Fuentes' romantic vision of life at the hacienda. Already famous for his singing roles in American Westerns, Guízar became the first singing Charro of Mexican cinema, paving the way for posterior idols such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. Besides his singing ability, Guízar shows a very natural naiveté that works nicely in the role of the young and honorable Charro. At the same time, Cardona (who would later become a director) gives his character a certain degree of elegance and class very much in tone with his position as the owner of Rancho Grande. The beautiful Esther Fernández is also excellent in her role, although is is comedian Carlos López "Chaflán" who steals many of the film's scenes.

Given its openly commercial intentions (and the huge extent it fulfilled them), "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is often overshadowed by De Fuentes' Revolution Trilogy and considered a minor gem, only worthy due to its big historical importance. However, I personally think that such downgrading is a bit unfair, as while it's definitely nowhere near the quality of De Fuentes' more recognized films, "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is a remarkable film that successfully achieves what it intends to do. One could say that such justification is not valid, as what "Allá en el Rancho Grande" attempted was just to deliver good jokes and good songs in order to deliver enjoyable entertainment, but I think that what De Fuentes, the Guzmáns and Figueroa did in this light comedy goes beyond. Just like the American Western had began to rewrite the American myths, the "Comedia Ranchera" genre that De Fuentes' movie inaugurated began to create a new mythology of the Mexican rural world, a mythology that despite being unrealistic, was at its core still sincerely Mexican.

Along the Revolution Trilogy (1933's "El Prisionero Trece", 1934's "El Comparde Mendoza" and 1936's "Vámonos con Pancho Villa!"), "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is essential viewing in order to understand not only the career of this influential director, but also the way the Mexican film industry developed after its release. Seeing how "Vámonos con Pancho Villa!" failed at box office while at the same time this movie was breaking all records was very symptomatic; however, De Fuentes (and posterior directors) would learn later that commercial success wasn't in conflict with artistic merit, and over that lesson the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema was built.


Buy "Alla en el Rancho Grande" (1936)

November 12, 2008

The White Darkness (2002)

As one of the first places where the Europeans began the colonization of the Americas, what would later be known as Haiti received a vast influence of the many cultures that arrived after Columbus. The main influence came from the African slaves that were brought to the island when Haiti became a French colony, and since the colony had continuous arrivals of Afrinca-born people, the African roots remained strong. Just like what happened in Brazil and New Orleans, the African religions got fused with elements of French catholicism, and the result of this syncretism was Vodou, Haiti's very own tradition of the ancestral African religions. "The White Darkness" is a documentary about this fascinating faith that has survived to this day in Haiti as a major religion that plays an important role in Haitian society.

Directed by Richard Stanley, "The White Darkness" is a journey through Vodou with their practitioners as guides. Stanley interviews real followers of the Vodou faith and lets them do the explanations on what their religion is and what isn't. Unlike other documentaries, there is no narration here, and it's basically the images and the interviews what do the talking, allowing a real, objective and unbiased point of view about the religion. The documentary focuses on the modern Vodou religion, its ties to its African past, and its importance in modern Haiti. Finally, the relations of Vodou practitioners with other religions are explored, as well as the negative views that Christian missionaries have about the native Haitian faith, and the political impact this views played during the island occupation by foreign (mainly U.S.) peacekeeping forces.

"The White Darkness" is filled with very interesting footage of actual Vodou rites, that show the fervor of the Vodou followers and the roots of the religion as the result of the mixture of cultures. Some images may be shocking (real animal sacrifices and ecstatic dances are part of Vodoun) to Western audiences, but "The White Darkness" treats its subject with a lot of respect and doesn't attempt to be sensationalist about it. It is actually this respect for Vodoun what makes the documentary an interesting work, as by letting the actual practitioners of Vodoun religion (including healers, musicians and Vodoun priests) explain their beliefs, the movie not only achieves to give deep insight on the Vodoun religion, but also a very warm and human feeling, as the movie takes away every rumor and misconception about the religion and shows it as what it is: a powerful display of human faith not very different than better known religions.

Director Richard Stanley really did a great job at putting together "The White Darkness", as not only the movie really shows his commitment to the subject, but also his talent to give it a consistent narrative. Divided in short segments tied by a common theme, the interviews are very clear, and Stanley shows an excellent use of images to tell their message. Cinematographer Immo Horn, who has been Stanley's frequent collaborator since his debut in "Voice of the Moon", shows once again his remarkable work behind the camera with wonderful images that bring the spirit of Haiti and its people alive. His camera captures the amazing beauty of the country and its people, as well as the spirit of its culture, really bringing the whole feeling of their faith to the screen. The excellent score by Simon Boswell is the icing of the cake and Stanley uses this elements to create a haunting and beautiful portrait of a religion that has its roots in one of the oldest traditions of the world. It's truly an outstanding work that show the talent and versatility of Stanley (who is probably better known for his excellent horror film "Dust Devil") behind the camera.

Overall the movie is a remarkable documentary about an interesting, and rarely discussed topic. While it could have benefited of a longer runtime, Richard Stanley makes the most of his material and offers an unbiased and objective portrait of an often misunderstood religion. The very refreshing human focus that "The White Darkness" takes on its subject definitely sets it apart from other documentaries, as it avoids paternalist or condescending attitudes in favor of an open and unbiased take on the Haitian spirituality. As Richard Stanley's film offers a look on Vodoun from the point of view of its practitioners, "The White Darkness" is an invaluable movie for sociologists and in general those interested in discovering more about the mysteries of this ancient religion. A really fascinating film.


Buy "The White Darkness" (2002)

November 07, 2008

Der Sudent Von Prag (1926)

Without the shadow of a doubt, the German expressionism was one of most important artistic movements of the twentieth century, specially for cinema, as it was on the rising film industry where it left its deeper impact. With its stylish art direction and highly atmospheric cinematography, German expressionism revolutionized cinema in many ways, thanks to the work of very talented people like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Karl Freund and Hermann Warmand. Right at the center of the movement was Czech actor and director Henrik Galeen, whom after directing (along Paul Wegener) one of the movement's earlier examples ("Der Golem" in 1915), dedicated most of his career to the writing of screenplays for several of its greater glories (Murnau's "Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens" for example). In 1926, Galeen returned to directing, recruiting several famous names (Günther Krampf and the aforementioned Warmand, among others) in order to remake Paul Wegener's first movie: 1913's "Der Student Von Prag".

In "Der Student Von Prag" ("The Student of Prague"), Conrad Veidt plays Balduin, a young student always troubled by his constant lack of money (which he thinks prevents him from fulfilling his big ambitions), but who has built himself a reputation as the best fencer in all Prague. One day he comes across an odd man who calls himself Scapinelli (Werner Krauss), who finds out about his ambitions of wealth and love. But Scapinelli isn't a normal man, so while Balduin and other students are spending the time at the countryside, Scapinelli uses his powers to make Countess Margit's (Agnes Esterhazy) horse to go crazy. Balduin notices the danger and saves the Countess, falling in love with her in the process. Unfortunately, she is going to marry her cousin, Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg (Ferdinand Von Alten), so Balduin really doesn't have a chance against him. It is at this moment when Scapinelli reappears, and promises Balduin infinite wealth and the Countess' heart. But everything comes with a price.

The original film was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers as a horror version of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson" with the addition of a certain Faustian touch. Written by director Galeen himself, this remake follows very closely the original storyline, but adds a lot more of character development, something that was sorely missed in the original (technology and budget weren't on the filmmakers' side, so the original's runtime was extremely short) and that's truly an improvement over it. This addition makes the story a lot more compelling, as Galeen takes time not only to explore the horrible consequences of Balduin's pact with Scapinelli and the loss of his reflection in the mirror, but also his personal decadence and paradoxical loneliness as wealthy man, and how this sudden change of luck doesn't bring the happiness he expected and begins to transform the ambitious young fencer. It probably sounds clichéd and overtly moralist now, but Galeen handles his topic with a great elegance akin to Gothic horror.

One of the most remarkable things about the 1926 version of "Der Student Von Prag" is definitely the cinematography by Günther Krampf (and an uncredited Erich Nitzschmann), which possess a haunting beauty that suits perfectly the melancholic, tragic mood the story has. Directoy Galeen gives great use to the cinematographer's work, creating a very dynamic film that moves away from the usual staginess of silent films thanks to his excellent camera-work and the fluid pace in which the story unfolds. While less stylish (and a lot more naturalistic) than the most representative films of German expressionism, Galeen's movie still follows many of the conventions of the movement, and in fact uses it to showcase the changes in Balduin's life: the warm, yet melancholic scenes of nature for Balduin's previous life in contrast with the cold and oppressive designs of his house when he becomes wealthy. Despite being less visually striking than other German films from the same period, Galeen and Krampf give it a style of its own.

One of the most interesting things in "Der Student Von Prag" is to see reunited the two main stars of 1920's "Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari": Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. Veidt is definitely the highlight of the film, as his performance as the taciturn Balduin is excellent and an example of perfect casting. He truly transmits the melancholy and bitterness of the young fencer blinded by ambition, and in a couple of scenes he also showcases nice skills at fencing (though it's true that editing helps him a lot). As the mysterious Scapinelli, Werner Krauss is quite effective, although perhaps a bit hammy. Still, this isn't really a bad thing, since he relays mainly on his powerful screen presence to portray the maleficent sorcerer. Romanian actress Elizza La Porta is a nice surprise (it was apparently her first film), as her performance is quite fresh and adds a light touch to the dark melodrama. Agnes Esterhazy isn't as lucky, although while probably mediocre, her performance isn't that bad.

Since the first version of "Der Student Von Prag" has the historical importance of being not only a prototype of German Expressionism, but also one of Germany's first horror films and Paul Wegener's debut as a director, it tends to easily overshadow its more polished remake, something that I consider a bit unfair, as in my personal opinion, I consider it the superior version of the two. As written above, it's the cinematography what sets the film apart, as it features several great scenes that demonstrate that Galeen and crew had a very good understanding of the possibilities of cinema. One of those scenes is when Scapinelli uses his powers to drive the horses crazy, as using Krampf's cinematography and editing to enhance Krauss' performance, Galeen creates a quite poetic and macabre moment of great suspense and strange beauty. Unfortunately, the film is not without its problems, the main of those being that the film has several scenes where the fast pace suddenly stops and the story begins to drag a bit.

Overshadowed by its historically important predecessor and by the fact that Murnau's fantastic "Faust - Eine Deutsche Volkssage" was released the same year, Henrik Galeen's version of "Der Student Von Prag" is definitely a forgotten gem of silent German cinema that definitely deserves a lot more of attention as another of those highly influential films that paved the way for modern horror in the sound era. It's probably not the most representative of the movies of the German Expressionist movement, but it's cast and crew alone make it essential viewing for anyone interested in that period in the history of cinema. While probably not the masterpiece it could had been, "Der Student Von Prag"'s haunting beauty is impossible to forget.


November 03, 2008

Evil Dead II (1987)

After three years of production, in 1981 three enthusiast young men finally saw their efforts crowned with the release of their very first movie: "The Evil Dead", a wild and imaginative horror film that quickly became a classic of the genre. Director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell found a bright beginning for their respective careers in the enormous success of their modest independent film, so they decided to move forward despite the critical acclaim and the audience's claims for a sequel to "The Evil Dead". Raimi and Tapert followed "The Evil Dead" with "Crimewave", but the film wasn't really the success they expected and the terrible reception it had threatened their young careers. This failure made them reconsider the offer of a sequel, so, with the financial aid of writer Stephen King (who had helped to get "The Evil Dead" noticed), the three friends decided to return to the cabin at the woods to continue the adventures of Ashley J. Williams, better known as Ash.

In "Evil Dead II", Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) go to a cabin in the woods in order to spend a romantic weekend, but their plans are ruined when Ash plays a mysterious tape where an archeology professor (previous owner of the cabin) recites passages from an ancient book. The recording is an invocation that unleashes the forces of evil hidden in the woods. Linda gets possessed by evil, so Ash has to kill her to survive the night. Trying to escape, Ash discovers that the bridge has been destroyed, so he's forced to return to the cabin in order to hide from the demons. In the meantime, Linda's corpse is back from the grave, so Ash must destroy her again, losing a hand (and his sanity) in the process. Now, two archaeologists, Annie (Sarah Berry) and Ed (Richard Domeier), arrive to the cabin with the help of Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie DePaiva), and noticing Ash's mental state, they assume that he killed Linda and Annie's parents. But the evil dead still roams the woods.

Developed with a more comedic tone than the original film, "Evil Dead II" owes a lot to writers Scott Spiegel (one of Raimi's childhood friends) and Sam Raimi's taste for slapstick comedy, mainly the one found in the work of The Three Stooges. Still, the fact that "Evil Dead II" is less straight horror than its predecessor doesn't mean it's a more restrained film, as while done in a tone of black comedy, the movie is as grotesque and irreverent as the first film, and it could be said that the non-serious approach allowed the writers' imagination the chance of flying with even more freedom, specially when writing the series of torments Ash must endure at the cabin, as comedy allows them to make of them a surrealist nightmare without fear of making it too absurd. The characters are better developed this time too, specially Ash, whom is no longer the cardboard stereotype of the first film and finally develops a personality of his own, as the horrors of the cabin make him a hardened cynic with a bit of a maniac.

Dynamic and explosive, Sam Raimi's camera-work is once again the star of the film, as just as he did in the first film, Raimi (giving great use to Peter Deming's cinematography) transforms the camera into a character, representing the forces of evil that haunt the rest of the characters. Raimi keeps the action going through the film at an appropriately fast pace, without giving the characters (and the audience) a minute to rest. This works perfectly, considering the very tongue-in-cheek tone of the film as it makes the movie feel like a thrilling roller-coaster that doesn't have an end. As written above, the comedy tone doesn't mean that "Evil Dead II" is a softer movie than its predecessor, as Ash's dark adventure still packs a good dose of grotesque imagery, gory violence and bizarre events courtesy of the special effects team (that included KNB founders Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger), which really made a great job in bringing to life Raimi's nightmarish vision.

Probably one of the worse (if not the worst) things in the first "Evil Dead" was the acting, which while not really bad, was pretty much amateur and showcased the lack of experience of the performers. In "Evil Dead II", there's a nice improvement in this department, although with one exception, it's nothing too amazing. That exception is definitely Bruce Campbell, who greatly develops his character and makes it larger than life. While the writers do deserve some credit, it is actually Campbell who makes Ash to be unforgettable, as beyond his words and actions its his whole persona and mannerisms what makes him a quite unique character. No wonder he became a horror icon after this film. The rest of the cast is quite effective, although as written above, nothing too surprising. Sarah Berry is quite good as Annie, although Richard Domeier doesn't give his best work as Ed. It's worth to point out that Dan Hicks and Kassie DePaiva are very funny as their two "guides".

While often considered a remake of the first film, "Evil Dead II" was conceived as a sequel since the very beginning, with the events of "The Evil Dead" shown as flashbacks, however, since legal reasons prevented Raimi from using footage from the first film, he had to shot the scenes again. Unfortunately, budgetary constrains forced him to make it extremely simple, cutting the rest of the characters leaving only Ash and Linda, which is why at first sight it seems to be a remake. In many ways "Evil Dead II" is a big improvement over the first film, as it showcases a better cast, higher production values and a more experienced crew; however, at the same time it feels somehow less original (well, that's natural in sequels) and it's definitely less groundbreaking than Raimi's first venture. The shift to comedy is another difference that may turn off someone expecting another "ultimate experience in grueling horror", but personally I don't think that's too much of a change, as the original already had its fair share of tongue-in-cheek black comedy.

Given its differences, fans tend to be divided about which "Evil Dead" is the best. I think that the answer is ultimately up to the person's tastes, because honestly, both are remarkable horror films that truly show the promising talent Raimi had in those early films. Personally, I prefer "The Evil Dead" over this one, mainly because I just think it's fresher and has the charm of being the result of an inexperienced crew doing the best they can; however, "Evil Dead II" is indeed a worthy sequel, that with its clever script, powerful directing and unforgettable performances definitely make one horror film that has to be seen to be believed. Raimi concluded Ash's adventures with "Army of Darkness", a movie that, while less fortunate than the first two "Evil Dead", had the same wild spirit that made the series a cult favorite. "Evil Dead II" may not be the ultimate experience in grueling horror, but hey, it's got Ash, and that's all you need.


Buy "Evil Dead II" (1987)