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)