February 25, 2008

Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

Very few people in the history of the cinema have left an imprint as deep as Sergei M. Eisenstein, Russian director and film theorist whose ideas about montage changed film editing (and film-making itself) forever. As one of the first to discover the potential of the artistic manipulation of film in order to transmit emotions, Eisenstein transformed film editing from simple chronological cuts to a more expressive language. His third movie, "Bronenosets Potyomkin" ("Battleship Potemkin" in English), is definitely his most famous work and the flagship of the montage theory, as it was in this movie where he was able to fully explore the ideas he had developed initially in "Stachka" ("Strike), his first feature. Many has been written about "Battleship Potemkin", and not without a reason, as this movie lives up to its status of classic like no other.

"Battleship Potemkin" is the dramatization of a real life story, the uprising of the Potemkin's crew against their officers in June 1905. The story begins when in the Potemkin, sailor Grigory Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) and his mates discover that the meat destined for their consumption is rotten and filled with maggots. The sailors protest, but the officers state that the meat is in fact in good conditions and that the sailors will have to eat it. These statements increase the rage of the sailors, who that night refuse to eat the rotten meat, defying their superiors in a blatant display of protest. The next day, the Potemkin's officers decide to execute those who defied their orders, and it's at that moment when sailor Vakulinchuk decides to call for a rebellion. The consequences of the Battleship Potemkin uprising will be enormous, and the first place that feels them is the small city of Odessa.

While the movie was co-written by Eisenstein and three of his collaborators, "Battleship Potemkin" is completely Eisenstein's brainchild, as he devised the movie as an experiment about the effects of his editing technique on the audience. The desired effect was that the audience felt completely identified with the revolutionaries and their cause, while at the same time had feelings of antipathy and rejection to the czar's army, arguably the film's "villians". While this may sound like a very simplistic approach to the story, it is really the perfect devise to Eisenstein's highly visual style of film-making, as what matters in the film are not the characters, but the events happening. Despite being a fictional account of the real life event, Eisenstein's script captures the spirit of the uprising and the ideologies behind it (after all, it was conceived as revolutionary propaganda) in a quite powerful way.

Obviously, Eisenstein's direction is the true star of the movie, as he shows his mastery, not only of montage, but also of cinematography (by Eduard Tisse and Vladimir Popov) and overall visual composition, which give the movie a nearly poetic majesty. It is often said that movies with good narrative should be able to tell its story without sound, and "Battleship Potemkin" proves that statement true with its near perfect visual storytelling that without problems (and with very few inter-titles) transmits its message to the audience. Another interesting trait of the film is how despite the manipulative montage, it feels incredibly realistic, almost as if it was a documentary on the subject. The now legendary Odessa Steps sequence, a monumental achievement in film-making, is done in a tremendously realistic fashion that, as critic Roger Ebert points out, "is often referred to as if it really happened".

To achieve this atmosphere of realism, Eisenstein often used untrained people (and even members of his crew) to play basically themselves in his movies, and "Potemkin" is not an exception, as to most of the actors on screen this meant their only participation in movies. A notable exception is the man playing the movie's most important role, Aleksandr Antonov, who plays rebel sailor Vakulinchuk. Antonov had his debut in Eisenstein's first movie Dnevnik Glumova, and went on to have a relatively prolific career during the following decades. As Vakulinchuk, his performance is quite powerful and very natural, capturing with ease the traits of the legendary rebel and transforming him into a myth. On a side note, directors Vladimir Barsky and Grigori Aleksandrov (Eisenstein's close collaborator) appear in the movie in the roles of the battleship's evil officers.

More than 80 years after its initial release, one can still say that Eisenstein's experiment was an enormous improvement in film editing techniques, and more than that, it was probably the final step to complete the transformation of film into an art form. While the use of film editing to create emotions was of course done with the purpose of using the films as revolutionary propaganda, the use of images and symbolism to create emotions in the audience is hardly objectionable and one could say that it was even necessary for movie to be the expressive art form that is today. Due to all those reasons, "Battleship Potemkin" is without a doubt one of the most important movies ever made, and one that even today manage to bring great emotions from its audiences, as its universal message of freedom is certainly more powerful than any political ideology.

An obligatory entry in almost every book on the history of cinema, "Battleship Potemkin" is a movie that even today, more than 80 years after its conception, keeps being not only a thrilling an entertaining story, but also as fresh and influential as when it was originally released. Some would accuse it of being manipulative propaganda, and while they are probably right, in the end, what film is not manipulative?

Watch "Bronenosets Potyomkin" (1925) - Unrestored

February 23, 2008

Academy Awards: The typical post

As most movie buffs already know, tomorrow is the day of the 80th Academy Awards ceremony, the famous day of the Oscars. Hated by many, but still widely seen across the globe, I think the Academy Awards are, while not a good indicator of good art, they are definitely a great indicator of the mainstream audiences' taste through the history of American cinema. Then again, what else could be expected of a prize created to celebrate the American Film Industry? However, and despite its clearly commercial origins, there have been truly outstanding movies that have won the little golden man, and that still can be considered a classics many years after their triumph (many however, are doomed to well deserved oblivion, and what better proof of that when the lists of "worst Oscar winners" contain only movies from the 80s to the present). In the end, the list of winners is only that, a list of the preferences of the American film industry when talking about, well, the American film industry (which is why, despite its bizarre rules for competition, the Foreign Language category seems to be the only one where art triumphs over popularity).

Anyways, since this was the Oscar's 80th anniversary, I decided to check its history and see how many winners I had seen. To my surprise, there are many winning films that for one reason or another, I haven't been able to check. Some with tremendous reputation (can't believe I haven't seen "All About Eve") others that, as I said above, seem to have been forgotten quickly after winning ("Out of Africa" anyone?). Well, of the brief list of Oscar winners I've seen, and in risk of losing whatever reputation this humble blog may still have, here are 10 among the very few I've seen that I consider my favorites (not necessarily the best):

10) Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)
Forever remembered as "the film that stole Scorsese's Oscar", I think that Kevin Costner's epic Western is, despite what Marty's fans may say, a worthy choice for winning the prize. It's beautifully done, and I must say that Costner shows a good skill at directing the film (a skill I haven't seen in him after this). I know it can get tedious at times, but sometimes I think I prefer this one over "Goodfellas". Well, I told you this could be disappointing.

Buy "Dances with Wolves" (1990)

9) The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)
Some say this is nothing more than a sleek and polished advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous but hey, if all propaganda was as superbly done as this one, the world would certainly be a happier, if not better, place. Ray Milland's performance is definitely what makes this one a winner, he is so natural in his acting, so believable, so frighteningly human that it's hard not to feel identified with him. Pure class.

Buy "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

8) Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen)
Hey, I told you this was about favorites. Avildsen & Stallone's story of triumph is probably the most clichéd incarnation of the line "a story about the power of human will", but still it's so, I don't know, special that I find myself unable to not fall under its spell. For this movie alone I'm willing to forgive every turd that Sly has given us through his career. Sometimes we all want to be Rocky.

Buy "Rocky" (1976)

7) Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
Often attacked by Salieri fans who feel that the story is unfaithful to the historical facts regarding the relationship between composer Antonio Salieri and whom is probably the most brilliant composer of all time, Wolgang Amadeus Mozart, the truth is that (in my opinion), the movie is not about solving the mystery of Mozart's death, but to ponder about the nature of genius, and specially, of envy. I haven't seen the "Director's Cut" of the film, but the theatrical was in my opinion, almost perfect.

Buy "Amadeus" (1984)

6) Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
The only Hitchcock movie that won an Oscar, that would be reason enough to include it on a list of curiosities, but the movie is not only a Hitchcock movie, it is one of his best, and considering that he wasn't completely in charge of it, it's amazing that his style just shines through it, impossible to hide. This Gothic melodrama delightfully moves from sweet romance to psychological horror in a manner that would prove to be quite influential to Val Lewton's brand of horror at RKO. Judith Anderson is easily one of the most unforgettable characters in any movie. Period.

Watch "Rebecca" (1940)

5) The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
I remember reading the novel and thinking "the movie can't be this powerful". And it was. The movie that took Michael Cimino to the stars is simply, one truly great movie. I know De Niro is the main character, but in my opinion, it is Walken who steals the film. I'm probably too biased in this one, cause I loved his character in the novel, but his scenes in Vietnam are heartbreaking. Cimino would never be able to make a movie like this (or some would say, the studios didn't let him), but this is enough to grant him a place in history. Damn.

Buy "The Deer Hunter" (1978)

4) Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
Sometimes it's easy to think "how is it that a film as commercial and influential as 'Star Wars' never won an Oscar?", but then the memories of "Annie Hall" come to mind and the answer is "of course, it was impossible". I'm not as versed in Allen's work as I should be, but I can't deny that this is one genuine brilliant comedy. If only all the romantic comedies were like this.

Buy "Annie Hall" (1977)

3) Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
I just love this film. Despite being one of the most imitated, parodied and referenced (like "Psycho", it seems that everyone is born knowing the plot these days), "Casablanca" is still a film difficult to forget. What a collection of performances, Veidt, Rains, Lorre, Bogart and of course Bergman, unforgettable Bergman. "Here's looking at you, kid".

Buy "Casablanca" (1942)

2) The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
One of the most typical answers to the question of "what's your favorite Oscar winning film?". Of course, the other typical answer is "The Godfather", but hey, it's not surprising, both are wonderful movies that have hold up well through the years. "Part II" is a great sequel, and some (me included) consider it a greater achievement than the first one. Whatever Ford Coppola was eating, drinking or sniffing in the 70s, he needs more of that now.

Buy "The Godfather" Trilogy

1) Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Who would have thought that the newcomer in 1955's B-movie "Tarantula" would become one of the best directors of the last times. After becoming an icon in Sergio Leone's Westerns, Eastwood began what seems to be like a quest for finding the core of the genre, and he finally found it in "Unforgiven". This is the movie that, in my opinion, elevated him to the level of Ford, Leone, et al.

Buy "Unforgiven" (1992)

February 22, 2008

The Sealed Room (1909)

After not having much luck at selling his screenplays to the new movie industry during the first decade of the 20th Century, in 1908 playwright D.W. Griffith got the job that would make him a legend: he was hired by the Biograph Company as a director of movies. It wasn't really what Griffith had expected when he decided to enter the movie business, but he accepted the job, and in less than a year he became Biograph's most successful director thanks to his original approach to film-making and the wild inventive of his narrative. Many years later, he would direct "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, the movie that would revolutionize film-making and make him one of cinema's first recognized authors; however, a lot of what would make him a great filmmaker can be found in the many short films he made for Biograph Company in the early years of his career. 1909's "The Sealed Room" is one of those, and also one of the few horror movies of that very first decade of the 20th Century.

"The Sealed Room" is a story set in the 16th Century in which a Count (Arhtur V. Johnson) has built a windowless room in his castle. It is a small yet nice and very cozy room, as it is meant to be used to enjoy the love and company of his wife, the Countess (Marion Leonard) in a more private way. However, the Count doesn't know that his wife is not exactly faithful, as she is infatuated with the Minstrel (Henry B. Walthall) at Court, with whom she is having an affair. As soon as the Count gets busy with his own business, the Countess calls the Minstrel and both lovers go to enjoy the Count's new room. When the Count returns, he discovers she is missing and begins to suspect, finally discovering the two lovers in his room; but instead of making a scene, he prefers to remain hidden as he decides that there is a better punishment for his unfaithful wife: to seal the windowless room with the couple inside.

Written by Griffiths' regular collaborator Frank E. Woods, "The Sealed Room" takes elements from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and mainly Honoré De Balzac's "La Grande Breteche" to create a haunting Gothic melodrama based on the themes of treachery and sadism. Despite having a runtime of 11 minutes, Woods' screenplay develops the story in a very good way, and plays remarkably well with the horror elements of the story. While a melodrama at heart, Woods focus on the character of the Count and his sadism creates one of the best horror characters of these early era. "The Sealed Room" is definitely a very simple and basic story, but Woods handling of the dark and morbid thematic of its plot makes the story a very entertaining film that was very different than most Griffith's melodramas.

In "The Sealed Room", Griffith uses his talents to experiment with tension and suspense in a different way than his usual. While he often played with editing to create thrillers that excited his audience, in this movie his focus was to create desperation and horror, playing with the inherent feeling of claustrophobia that the source stories had. It is interesting how the story starts as another of his melodramas and slowly the pacing becomes faster as the horror themes begin to dominate the plot, culminating in his great use of editing for the final scenes. Not being a movie where camera tricks are essential, what shines the most in "The Sealed Room" is Griffith's talent to direct his actors, as the legendary filmmaker manages to bring the best out of his cast with his usual natural style far removed from the staginess that was the norm in his day.

As usual, the cast was comprised of usual collaborators of Griffith, starting with Arthur V. Johnson as the Count. Johnson gives a great performance and truly conveys the character's transition from loving husband to sadistic monster. His performance is not without a touch of overacting, but actually that adds realism to the character's exaggerated personality. As the Countess, Marion Leonard looks very good and is also very effective in her acting, conveying a natural charm that makes hard not to sympathize with her in her treachery. Finally, the legendary Henry B. Walthall appears as the handsome Minstrel, and while far from being one of his best performances, he manages to give a proficient acting that also adds a nice touch of comedy to the film. While not of real importance to the plot, it's nice to see other members of Griffith's stock company in the background, like his wife Linda Arvidson and a young Mary Pickford as nobles at Court.

While not exactly a masterpiece, "The Sealed Room" is a notable exercise of editing to create suspense and tension like Griffith used to do in those days. The movie has very good set design and while of a very low budget, Griffith's care for details makes it look very convincing and works perfectly along with his directing style. The change of focus to horror makes it to stand out among other of his films from that era, and Johnson's performance as the sadistic Count makes it worth a watch. While Griffith will always be remembered for his highly influential (and controversial) "The Birth of a Nation", the early short films he made before it really give a good idea of the development of the techniques and the style that would make him a legend. Simple yet elegant, "The Sealed Room" is a fun movie to watch and one of the few horrors of the first decade of the 20th Century.


Buy "The Sealed Room" (1909) and more of Griffith's Biograph Shorts

February 21, 2008

El Fantasma del Convento (1934)

For the Mexican film industry, the decade of the 30s brought the opportunity to finally grow up and develop after almost two decades of living under an unstable political climate. It also meant the arrival of sound to film-making, which offered new opportunities to give a Mexican identity to the country's cinematography. In those difficult early years of the sound era, director Fernando De Fuentes was one of the most important filmmakers and a true pioneer who set the basis for many of the classic elements of Mexican cinema. In 1934, De Fuentes joined Juan Bustillo Oro (later a famous director on his own account) to direct together one of their best films, "El Compadre Mendoza"; interestingly, after making that movie, the two directors decided to make each a fantasy film: Bustillo Oro made "Dos Monjes", and De Fuentes directed "El Fantasma del Convento".

The film is the story of Alfonso (Enrique del Campo), his best friend Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro) and Eduardo's wife Cristina (Marta Roel); three friends who during a trip through the woods get lost by night. As they look for a way out of the forest, they find a mysterious monk (Victorio Blanco) who offers to take them to the ancient monastery where the Order of Silence lives. At the monastery, the abbot (Paco Martínez) offers them food and a bed to sleep, but the group finds that strange things take place at the old convent. As an explanation, the Superior tells them that the convent is haunted by the ghost of a monk who made a pact with the devil to steal his best friend's wife. The abbot's story only increases the fears of the friends, particularly Alfonso's as his hidden affair with Eduardo's wife and the guilt he feels will come at play in a nightmarish night.

Written by De Fuentes, Bustillo Oro and Jorge Pezet, "El Fantasma del Convento" is essentially, an attempt to bring the very rich tradition of Mexican ghost stories to the silver screen by bringing the legends to the present (Mexico in the 30s). The clash between the naiveté of modernity and the dark secrets of the past is at first sight the main ingredient of the movie, but in reality the plot is more a character study than a horror film, basing the horror and suspense on the characters' psychology. Since the relationships between them are the main focus of the film, the three characters are very well developed, specially Alfonso, whose personal demons arise after listening to the abbot's tale, which seems to be a metaphor for what goes in his mind. It's all set up as if the horrors of the monastery were a catalyst for Alfonso's descent to hell and back.

"El Fantasma del Convento" is a very atmospheric movie that effectively combines the very rich tradition of Mexican ghost stories with the eerie, surreal atmospheres of American Gothic horror of the time. Like De Fuentes' previous film, "El Prisionero Trece", it also showcases the big influence that Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein left in Mexico after his visit to the country, with De Fuentes using clever editing and a surprisingly dynamic camera-work (by Ross Fisher) to convey the ominous atmosphere of claustrophobia that the characters feel. De Fuentes portrays the bizarre descent to madness of his characters as a progressive incursion into a surreal world, climaxing in a wonderfully nightmarish scene where he makes the most out of his limited special effects. Max Urban's music is the icing of the cake in the creation of a powerful film of almost supernatural beauty.

While the main characters are very well portrayed by the cast members, the supporting cast seem to be made of actors without real training, or at least too used to the silent style of acting. Enrique Del Campo is quite effective as Alfonso, the brave and extroverted young man trapped in a love triangle with the his best friend's wife. As the apparent leader of the group, he is very convincing and manages to carry the film without effort. Marta Roel is also very good as the tempting Cristina, more than happy with the idea of abandoning her shy and cowardly husband for his brave and manly friend. As Eduardo, the most introverted of the group, Carlos Villatoro is excellent in a subtle performance as the naive man, unaware of his wife's unfaithfulness. Paco Martínez is quite creepy as the abbot, although sometimes it seems like he overacts a tad too much.

If the film has any real problem, it would definitely be the fact that it's not really well known, as it is certainly a very unusual movie for its time. Void of any kind of comic relief, "El Fantasma del Convento" is first and foremost, a tale of horror, and De Fuentes make sure to keep things serious to maintain the mystery and suspense of the story. Due to this, the film is a bit slow, although due to the very subtle way the story unfolds (things are often told rather than shown), it truly works better this way. Granted, the acting may not be the best in a Mexican film (some of the actors playing the monks seem to be reading their lines from cue cards), and the low budget is very notorious at certain key points; but despite all its shortcomings, "El Fantasma del Convento" is a remarkable horror film that with nothing more than style and intelligence, manages to create a story quite ahead of its time.

After 1933's "La Llorona" (the first Mexican horror film), "Dos Monjes" and "El Fantasma Del Convento" finished the job of giving a Mexican flavor to the horror genre, effectively starting a brief yet very interesting early "Golden Age" of Mexican horror. While best remembered for their more commercial posterior work, the contribution of directors De Fuentes and Bustillo Oro to the development of Mexican cinema are enormous, as their constant exploration of diverse themes makes them two of the most important of the pioneers of the early days of Mexican film-making. With its very unique somber tone and its focus on its characters' psychology, "El Fantasma del Convento" is easily one of the most interesting horror films of early Mexican cinema (and of the whole decade of the 30s in general).


February 19, 2008

La Llorona (1933)

While several movies of importance were made in Mexico during its silent period, it could be said that Mexican cinema wasn't really born until sound arrived to the country's filmography, as it was only when the ability to record sound became available that Mexican cinema literally found a voice of its own. 1932 saw the release of the very first Mexican "talkie", Antonio Moreno's "Santa", and its success paved the way for the further development of the Mexican film industry. With a culture rich in legends and folklore, it wasn't a surprise that fantasy and horror genres began to be explored by the young industry, and appropriately, the very first Mexican horror movie was based in what is definitely Mexico's best known ghost story: 1933's "La Llorona", the crying woman. And the man in charge of making the legend a reality was legendary Cuban director Ramón Peón.

"La Llorona" begins in modern day Mexico (in the 30s), at the birthday party of the son of Dr. Ricardo De Acuna (Ramón Pereda) and his wife Ana (Virginia Zurí). Everything is fun for the kids, but Ana and her father Don Fernando De Moncada (Paco Martínez) are worried about an ancient curse that hangs over their family, in which is stated that the first son of a Moncada will die horribly as a child, victim of "La Llorona". As a man of science, Ricardo doesn't believe in this, so Don Fernando begins to narrate the dark origins of the legend, beginning with the story of Ana Xicontencatl (Adriana Lamar), a noble princess of Aztec heritage who gets romantically involved with a womanizing Spaniard named Rodrigo De Cortéz (Alberto Martí) in the times of Colonial Mexico. However the Moncada curse goes beyond the years of Spanish rule over Mexico.

Adapted to the screen by two legendary figures of early Mexican cinema, Carlos Noriega Hope (of "Santa" fame) and Fernando De Fuentes (who would become a famous filmmaker on his own right), "La Llorona" is based on a story by A. Guzmán Aguilera which is essentially the narrative of the two most famous variations on the legend of "La Llorona", framed by a modern tale of mystery and horror, making technically a collection of three stories linked by the legend. Being the most famous of the two versions, the first story is the one that gets developed the most, although both versions are done in way that denounces machismo and racism as source of pain and eventually madness, although both as well fall in the trap of being overtly nationalistic tales. The framing story is done in the popular style of 30s murder mysteries, and while less deep than the two legends, it's still very entertaining.

Cuban director Ramón Peón began his career in Mexico with this movie after making several classics of Cuba's silent period (like 1930's "La Virgen De la Caridad"). Like most directors of the silent era, Peón is a very visually inclined filmmaker, more focused on the atmosphere of his images than on the lines recited by his cast (which end up feeling very stagy, even for its time). As the movie is episodic in nature, each "episode" is done with a very distinctive flavor of its own, with a stagy style of period melodrama in the main segment, a grittier American style for the framing story, and a surreal minimalistic style for the final version of the "Llorona" legend (very interesting despite its short runtime). Peón barely uses special effects in his movie, but when he does they are subtle and very well done, and while kind of primitive, they fit the folktale mood that the movie carries perfectly.

The cast is effective, although as written above, the style of acting is too stagy for its own sake, and the way some actors recite their lines makes one think that their lack of experience damaged the movie more than it should have. Ramón Pereda is excellent in his double role (first as Dr. Ricardo, and later as Captain Diego in the colonial segment), and is definitely the best actor in the film. as his wife, Virginia Zurí is very good too, but her character is sadly underdeveloped. As Princess Ana, Adriana Lamar has the best chance to shine in the film, but she is extremely wooden and seems to feel uncomfortable (it was her first movie) through the film. Alberto Martí is deliciously evil, and makes an excellent "villian" in his segment. Interestingly, legendary Chilean actor Alfredo del Diestro has a brief cameo in the film, and a young Antonio R. Frausto can be seen in a couple of scenes.

While a very worthy first venture within the horror genre, "La Llorona" is not without its faults, and those steam mainly from the natural lack of experience (or understanding) of sound in films. The main problem is the extremely stagy style the movie has at times, which together with some average acting (sometimes too melodramatic, sometimes too wooden) makes it seems as if Peón was thinking his movie as a silent and not as a talkie. Granted, this not exactly a big problem, and its easily understandable considering the time it was made and the fact that sound was a new invention in Mexican cinema, but still, it takes a while to get used to its stagy style. Despite its problems, "La Llorona" has the seeds of the elements that in time would become the Mexican horror genre, most notably that fascination with the past (in this case, colonial Mexico) that always takes place in Mexican horror in one way or another.

"La Llorona" may not be the best horror movie of the 30s, but as the very origin of the Mexican tradition of horror film-making (and one of Mexico's first talkies) is of great interest and importance. Ramón Peón's mix of horror and melodrama was a hit, and it started a brief but amazing era of Mexican horror. The way this movie showed "La Llorona" legends was very popular, and years later writer Carmen Toscano turned it into a play, which would later become the basis for the 1960's version of "La Llorona". Maybe this movie is not really perfect, as its many merits tend to be overshadowed by its flaws, however, one this is sure: its legacy is one of great importance, and one that will never die.