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)

November 02, 2008

Dead Ringers (1988) @ Cult Reviews!

A few months ago I mentioned Cult Reviews, a young site that, as it's name indicates, it's completely devoted to cult films. Recently it had a major design update, and while slowly, it's stll growing. So, in a new collaboration to Cult Reviews, I made a review for one of my favourite films by David Cronenberg (whom is also one of my favourite filmmakers), 1988's "Dead Ringers". The tale of two identical twins who seem to live as one person, "Dead Ringers" is a fascinating movie that, in my opinion, represents the shift Cronenberg made from visceral body horror to subtler psychological horror of his posterior films.

In the past I have posted there reviews for the british classic from the 30s "The Face at the Window", Richard Stanley's masterpiece "Dust Devil", and Alex De la Iglesia wild black comedy "El Día de la Bestia". Some of the more recent reviews there are the one for Ivan Nagy's "Skinner" (1993) and Robert Madero's "Camp Utopia" (2002), and while not as recent, dear friend Mark's (known as Hieronymos Grost) great review for Pasolini's "Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma" is a nice reading, specially since Criterion just released a new DVD for it.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!

Buy "Dead Ringers" (1988)