January 28, 2009

Village of the Damned (1960)

One of the most important British science fiction writers of the 50s was without a doubt John Wyndham, whom in a relatively short period between the years of 1951 and 1957, conceived four novels that are now British classics of the genre: "The Day of the Triffids", "The Kraken Wakes", "The Chrysalids", and "The Midwich Cuckoos". The last one of them, 1957's "The Midwich Cuckoos", had a very interesting concept as its major theme: an attack to humanity using one of the elements that a society values the most, its children. Thanks to this original idea and to Wyndham's accessible writing style, the novel became quite popular, securing a movie deal with an American studio the very same year of its publishing. Sadly, the project was considered controversial and shelved, but fortunately, three years later the project was resurrected by the British branch of MGM and with German director Wolf Rilla at the helm and actor George Sanders in the lead role, the year of 1960 saw the novel "The Midwich Cuckoos" became the movie "Village of the Damned".

The movie starts in the British village of Midwich, when suddenly all of its inhabitants, including the animals, fall unconscious by no apparent reason. Also, anyone entering the perimeter around the village loses consciousness as well. The military arrives to investigate the bizarre event, but nothing concrete is concluded. Moments later, the villagers awake, apparently unaffected. However, two months later it is discovered that all women and girls of childbearing age are pregnant. Naturally, this prompts a series of accusations between the villagers, but the real mystery begins when the children are born: all women give birth on the same day and all the children have the same unusual appearance (pale blond hair, almost white). But that's not the only thing strange about them, as they also grow at an unusually fast rate, have a telepathic bond between them, and the most terrifying thing, they possess the ability to read and control minds. To Gordon (George Sanders), "father" of one of the children, it becomes clear that they have an evil purpose in their collective mind.

Adapted to the screen by the prolific writer Stirling Silliphant (as well as by the film's director, Wolf Rilla, and the producer, Ronald Kinnoch), "Village of the Damned" is a relatively faithful adaptation of Wyndham's novel, respecting every major event with one major, and enormously important difference: while in the novel the Children eventually look like teenagers (when they are nine years old), in the film the action takes place when they still look like small children, making the plot's idea of subverted youth to have a more lasting and powerful impact. By keeping the Children's origin a mystery, the writers achieve a greater atmosphere of suspense and horror, as the unnatural force behind the events of the "time-out" achieves by this way the level of major threat to the balance of society. Something remarkable about the screenplay is that, like the novel, the storyline is cleverly devised to make one feel uncomfortable with the whole concept of the film, increasing the paranoia and repulsion caused by having a human child to not be entirely human.

Director Wolf Rilla makes a terrific job in keeping in tone with the atmosphere of discomfort and paranoia that the story has, as his conception of the film has more to do with the elements of horror and suspense than with those of science fiction. With the camera of experienced cinematographer Geoffrey Faithful, Rilla conceives a moody, highly atmospheric tone for the film that highlights the fears and suspicions of the small British village. Shot on black and white, the movie simply oozes atmosphere. Apparently aware that the power of the film was on the intelligent mix of science fiction and horror the screenplay has, Rilla lets the story flow nicely, focusing instead on creating the proper atmosphere for the mystery and suspense that form the backbone of this clever horror tale. While the budget was noticeably limited, it's really amazing what the filmmakers achieved with so little, and proves that director Wolf Rilla made the right choice when he decided to focus on the atmosphere, the acting and the storyline.

The acting is definitely another of the film's highlights, as it's what ultimately takes the film from being another tale of horror and science fiction to a whole new level. As Gordon, George Sanders is effective in his restrained but realistic portrayal of an ordinary man facing the extraordinary. Far from being the typical scientist or military hero of science fiction, Gordon basically represents the common man, which helps to bring the horror closer to home (this is a trademark of Wyndham's work). Sanders is very natural and believable in his performance. However, the real star of the film is without a doubt Martin Stephens, who plays David, Gordon's "son" and apparent spokesperson of the Children's collective mind. Cold and emotionless, Stephens' performance is remarkable as he truly becomes a menacing figure with his serious, adult manner of speech and threatening lack of heart. His performance is even more amazing when one compares it to the very different character he would play (again in an astonishing fashion) the following year in "The Innocents".

The rest of the cast is for the most part effective in their roles, and while at times some cast-members may seem stiff or wooden, it all goes almost unnoticed as the real weight of the film rests on the terrific performances of George Sanders and Martin Stephens. Certainly, the film's disturbing premise had a lot to do with the movie's enduring popularity, but as written above, another key factor in the film's success is definitely the fact that the characters are common people. After years of having "the right people" as heroes (meaning, the qualified professional to solve a certain problem), sci-fi was discovering the value of the everyman as main character, which always has been a key element in horror stories since the beginning. With this I'm not saying that previous sci-fi horror was not worthy of recognition (classic films like 1954's "Them!" are testament of that), but that "Village of the Damned" has more in common with horror than with classic science fiction. The ambiguity of its ending, emphasizing the mystery regarding the origin and fate of the Children, is further proof of this.

Like Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Powell's "Peeping Tom", Wolf Rilla's "Village of the Damned" seems to inaugurate a new era for horror. While obviously with a subject on a completely different tone than those two (movies focused on serial killers), "Village of the Damned" shares their focus on the realistic emotions of the characters and their humanity. Granted, this may not be anything really new for a horror film, but on the science fiction level, it was refreshing. Even when director Wolf Rilla never made anything else as outstanding as "Village of the Damned" (neither before it nor after it), his work behind the camera in this film is worthy of recognition, as in one single movie he managed to create an unforgettable, truly iconic, tale of horror. And that's more than what many horror directors can say.


January 26, 2009

Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894)

It was on a day in 1891 when Scottish inventor William K.L. Dickson surprised his boss, Thomas Alva Edison with his remarkable work in the development of motion pictures. After many experiments, Dickson was now able to capture scenes of real life with his camera, and reproduce them through his invention, the Kinetoscope, as if a fragment of time were preserved in celluloid. Soon, Dickson's Kinetoscope would become an enormous success as a new way of entertainment, with many people eager to pay the nickel that was charged to be able to watch people dancing, or acrobats performing stunts through the "peepshow" of the Kinetoscope. However, the invention wasn't complete, in order for it to capture on film the real life as we know it, sound was needed on the movies. So Dickson kept experimenting and this short experiment, Kinetophone's first film, was the result.

In this experiment, codenamed simply as "Dickson Experimental Sound Film", director William K.L. Dickson stands in front of a recording cone for a wax cylinder (earliest method of recording sound), with his violin on hands, playing a song named "Song of the Cabin Boy". The idea was to record the song into the cylinder at the same time that the camera was recording his movements. In order to show that this was a motion picture, two of Edison's "Black Maria" laboratory decided to do a little dance in front of the camera. Unlike what author Vito Russo claimed in his book, "The Celluloid Closet", this little dance had nothing to do with homosexuality as it obviously is a reference to the environment of loneliness of the lab, akin to the lonely sailors to whom the "Song of the Cabin Boy" was dedicated to (the title Russo suggests, "The Gay Brothers", is actually anachronistic as "gay" had no homosexual connotation in the late 1890s).

Sadly, Dickson was unable to achieve the desired effect, and the Kinetophone never could really produce the synchronized audio with images. While he had the cylinder with the sound and the celluloid with the images, the synchronization of the two elements was not exactly effective, and the sudden appearance of Auguste and Louis Lumière's Cinématographe prompted Edison's team to focus on projecting systems and eventually Dickson left the company. Fortunately, in 1998 Dickson's cylinder with the movie's sound was rebuilt and film editor Walter Murch made a restoration of the experiment as it was intended. Finally, "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" could be heard with synchronized sound, just as its creative inventor had intended. While it was not a successful attempt, this outstanding film is a testament of the enormous genius of the father of Kinetoscope.


Buy "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" and more American early films from 1894-1931

January 24, 2009

Hancock (2008)

Since the publishing of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's influential comic book "Watchmen" in the decade of the 80s, the comic book won importance and recognition as an art form, and the figure of the superhero began to be seen as the complex character it really was. Almost since their conception in the pages of pulp magazines, superheroes have become integral part of modern pop culture on an almost universal level. What started as comic book characters that were basically the evolution of those pulp fiction heroes of late 1800s, has technically become a new mythology, with names such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man taking the place of the ancient Norse adventurers, the classic Greek demigods and other legendary heroes as icons of the values and state of our culture. Their adventures are reflections of our world, with the ideals, fears and vices of our times being imprinted in their pages. Following Moore's dissection of the superhero, writer Vincent Ngo conceived the story of a superhero who has to face the consequences of his acts: John Hancock.

In "Hancock", Will Smith plays the title character, John Hancock, a drunkard vagabond who happens to have superhuman powers such as super-strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly. Living in Los Angeles, Hancock tries to use his powers to save people, but his irresponsible and careless activity often results in severe damages to the city, causing millions of dollars in property damage. Hancock's constant drunkenness, anger management problems and overall bad attitude doesn't help him with this, so he is more hated than appreciated by the people he saves. One day, public relations spokesperson Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) is going home after an unsuccessful meeting in an important corporation when his car becomes trapped on railroad tracks, leaving him facing the imminent collision with a train. Hancock appears and saves Ray, but at the cost of destroying the train and damaging other cars, including Ray's. However, Ray thanks Hancock for his deed, and offers him to improve his public image. This will mean a lot of changes and discoveries for John Hancock.

Written by Vincent Ngo and developed by Vince Gilligan, the screenplay is an interesting view on the question "what of superheroes were real?", focusing mainly on how would their actions affect everyday life. As written above, this view is nothing new in the world of comic books, but for superhero movies is quite original. Having Hancock as a grumpy, cynical and all around disgusting character (the whole opposite of Superman), Ngo also takes a time to wonder about the feelings a superhero would have living in a world where he is basically an outcast. Ngo's original script (titled "Tonight, He Comes") was darker and deeper, but Gilligan's worked comedy elements that toned down the darkness of the story, lightening up a bit. Fortunately (and contrary to what the trailer may indicate), this change of tone does not make the storyline another typical feel-good comedy or a parody of superhero films, but it's actually done with Ngo's idea in mind. The result is a cynic black comedy about superheroes that proves to be intelligent and the opposite of Craig Mazin's "Superhero Movie".

Director Peter Berg also keeps the tone set by the original screenplay, making "Hancock" more than a superhero action film, and instead focusing on the main characters reactions and emotions. While of course there are several action set pieces where Hancock showcases his superpowers and crime-fighting ability (or lack of it), the best scenes of the movie come in the examination Berg makes of the complicated relationship between pessimist cynic John Hancock and the optimistic idealism of Ray Embrey. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler makes a gritty portrayal of Los Angeles that fits well with Hancock's personality, although I must say that I was a bit disappointed by Berg's handling of visual effects. Basically a character study of the superhero archetype, Berg follows John Hancock through his disenchant with the world and subsequent rehabilitation, with Ray Embrey as guide about what the society would expect from a super-powered being. Berg's work with his cast is essential to this, and while tacky at times, it seems that he got it right for the most part.

The cast is very effective, making the film believable by playing the film straight and avoiding comic book characterizations. Unlike most of his previous work, this time Will Smith plays a character meant to be mean and disliked, and for the most part it's safe to say that he succeeds at it. It would had been easier to play Hancock as a charming modern version of the "noble savage", but Smith proves to be up to the challenge of playing against type. As Ray Embrey, Jason Bateman gives excellent support to Smith, delivering a great performance as the only man in Los Angeles who believes in Hancock. A scene stealer, Bateman shines every time he's on screen and often gets to overshadow his cast-mates. Charlize Theron plays his wife Mary, making a subtler yet interesting performance that in my opinion, gets hurt by a lack of development of her character. Still, Theron makes the most of what she has to work with and pulls off a nice performance as the supporting wife with more than one secret of her own. The rest of the cast is good, but nothing really amazing.

Overall, "Hancock" is a pretty good movie, specially since it tackles an idea rarely explored in films, that of superheroes as human beings. However, the film loses a lot of steam by its second half, as if the writers had lost their train of thought and had not known how to conclude it. Don't get me wrong, there are fine ideas in the final parts as well, but they lack the impact and consistency of the first segment. A bit more of care in the development of the screenplay would had resulted in a more complete conclusion, as the one the film has feels rushed when compared with the first two thirds of the movie. Also, as written above, I found that Berg had serious problems with the visual effects in the film, as personally, I think that, while they are impressive, they are in conflict with the tough, gritty style Berg employs for the rest of the film, as if the visual effects were too shiny, too bombastic for the style of Berg's character study. His directing of visual action scenes is also limited, and he seems to be more comfortable with the directing of his cast.

In the end, "Hancock" is a very good film, but also one that has a lot of missed opportunities. I guess that's the main complain I would have about it, that it has a lot potential that gets lost by a careless development of the screenplay. Or perhaps, given the long time the film was in development hurt the final conception of the whole thing. Whatever may be the case, the result is that "Hancock" offers something different in superhero movies, but also leaves the desire for a deeper, more complex take on the subject. But despite its problems, "Hancock" is a fine surprise, specially since its trailers and publicity made it look like a goofy comedy, when it's the exact opposite: a fine mix of action and black comedy that examines the human behind a superhuman.


January 20, 2009

10,000 BC (2008)

While hardly a filmmaker recognized for great artistry or for making cinema classics, German director Roland Emmerich is certainly someone who really knows how to make a blockbuster. Following the steps of his childhood idols, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Emmerich made himself a name as a master of visual effects-laden movies in his natal Germany, and later in the U.S. with films such as "Independence Day" (1996) and "Godzilla" (1998). After making a change of pace to make "The Patriot" in 2000, Emmerich returned to visual effects adventures with 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow" (a tale on the vein of classic disaster movies). Following the same path, Emmerich decided to make another adventure film and take as his new project an idea of his frequent collaborator, composer Harald Kloser: an epic movie set in the prehistoric era. Along Kloser, Emmerich developed the idea into "10,000 BC", a mix of fantasy and history on the vein of films such as "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986), or more appropriately, the books of Robert E. Howard.

"10,000 BC" narrates the story of the Yagahl, a tribe of hunters living in a remote mountain range. A young Yahahl hunter, D'Leh (Steven Strait), succeeds in killing a mammoth, winning with this the "White Spear" and the right to marry the love of his life, Evolet (Camilla Belle), a young woman with blue eyes who was found one day orphaned in an abandoned camp. But, since his victory was an accident, D'Leh doesn't feel worthy of this recognition. However, his courage will be put to the test when one night, a gang of horse riders (named by the tribe as the "Four Legged Demons") attack their camp, taking many of them, including Evolet, as slaves. To save them, D'Leh, his mentor Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis) and his childhood rival Ka'Ren (Mo Zinal) decide to follow the horse riders to their destiny and rescue their people. A young kid, Baku (Nathanael Baring) also follows them against their wishes, decided to help them in their journey, but the trip will be difficult and dangerous, and will take the Yaghal hunters to discover lands beyond their imagination.

As written above, "10,000 BC" is the brainchild of director Emmerich and composer Harald Kloser, a story in which they attempt to bring to basics the hero's journey pattern as described by writer Joseph Campbell: a young man receives the call to adventure, which takes him away from his land to places where he'll have to learn a lot in order to change and succeed in his mission. The basic core of many heroic narratives, this outline serves Emmerich and Kloser as the backbone for their epic fantasy story. And the key word is "fantasy", because "10,000 BC" is anything but historically accurate. In it, the writers have decided to explore the myth of the hero at its most basic, using their own alternate version of history to present a tale of the expansion of agriculture and the creation of the pyramids, all with nods to Plato's Atlantis. While simple, it's really a neat idea, but unfortunately, the writers fail to bring all these ideas together in a coherent script, and while they aim for something deeper than the usual blockbuster fare, they end up with another shallow movie.

Now, director Roland Emmerich can be accused of many things, but setting up poor shows is not one of them, as in "10,000 BC" once again he demonstrates his vision to create spectacular scenes of fantasy for his alternate version of prehistory. Greatly influenced by the work of writer Robert E. Howard, Emmerich conceives a world in which shades of real prehistory form the basis for the vast array of fantastic tribes that inhabit this tale about the supposed dawn of civilization (hunters, warriors, Pygmies, and a fantasy proto-Egyptian culture). In all honesty, Emmerich makes quite a visually rich epic film, and at times he even manages to create thrilling sequences of action and adventure that help to cover up the screenplay's notorious problems. Unfortunately, this time his mastery with special effects seems to not had been on his side, as for a movie based mainly on the impression caused by its visual effects, "10,000 BC" features a mediocre work in this aspect. Also, Emmerich directing of his cast is pretty average, as he seems to prefer his camera to his actors.

As written above, the acting in the film is pretty uneven, but I don't mean it's entirely bad, what I mean is that the cast doesn't seem to be playing their characters on the same line as a team. For starters, a D'Leh, Steven Strait plays the the traditional unlikely hero who becomes a legend, but he acts too "modern" for the story. It wouldn't be bad if only Strait wasn't s bland as he is during most of the film, although this could be blamed to the writers. On the other hand, Cliff Curtis plays D'Leh's mentor Tic'Tic as if he was on a more serious film. I must say that Curtis does make a great job as Tic'Tic, but in contrast with Steven Strait, he feels out of place. If only the rest of the cast was on Curtis' level, the film would had been vastly improved. As Evolet, Camilla Belle is pretty bad, as other than looking impossibly beautiful on screen, her talent seems to be very limited, as she delivers her lines without real confidence. Still, Joel Virgel is probably the most balanced in the cast, as his performance as warrior Nakudu is always in tone with the rest of the film.

However, I think that such details about the characters are not entirely to blame on the actors, but on Emmerich's hand with them and of course, in the way the film was written. This last point is where a lot of the film's flaws fall, in my opinion, as it seems that two general ideas were colliding at the time of developing it: to make it a serious fantasy epic and to make it a simple adventure film (aiming to be a summer blockbuster). I'm not saying that both concepts are mutually exclusive, but I do feel that Emmerich and Kloser failed at reconciling both ideas in one screenplay. But still, while the plot has its flaws (starting from the film's bizarre geography), the concept is pretty interesting, what really damages it is the poor way the characters are conceived. Granted, it's supposed to be the hero's journey taken to basics, but even when the characters are supposed to be stereotypes, some work could be done with them to improve the screenplay. I won't even get into detail about its contrived ending, which definitely is another huge problem in it.

Personally, I must admit that I have a soft spot for Roland Emmerich's films, specially the ones he made in the U.S.. I found "Universal Soldier" (1992) and "Independence Day" (1996) to be good mindless fun, and I honestly consider "Stargate" (1994) to be a flawed masterpiece. I also liked "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) more than what I probably should, and while "The Patriot" wasn't really my idea of a good film (far from it), actor Jason Isaacs really shone in that one. But despite that, I don't think that I'm biased when thinking that "10,000 BC" has been unfairly maligned and that it isn't as bad as the criticism it has received may indicate. Granted, it's far from the movie it could had been (and that missed potential is probably the film's greatest crime), but while it fails as a serious fantasy epic, I think it's not bad, but simply put, just mediocre.


January 14, 2009

The Amazing Mr. X (1948) @ Cult Reviews!

Once again I have written a review for Cult Reviews, that site devoted to horror and cult cinema that offers me a space to write from time to time. This time the film in question is Bernard Vorhaus' "The Amazing Mr. X" (1948), a very interesting thriller that fuses horror with the style and topics of film noir in quite a remarkable way. It is the story of a phony spiritualist played by Turhan Bey (known for his work in "The Mummy's Tomb") and his intrusion in the life of a rich widow (played by Lynn Bari). It's quite a surprise, but unfortunately, the film also suffers from some problems, but well, you'll find a more detailed opinion about it on the site.

Cult Reviews also offers a very fun review of that little gem of comedy and horror named "Teeth" (2007), an interesting overview of the indie exploitaiton flick about vomit and other fluids called "Slaughtered Vomit Dolls" (2006), and a trip back to the 80s with Charles McCrann's "Toxic Zombies". Also, for the first Cult Reviews features a full length movie, "Dementia 13", and I'm told that other films in the public domain will have a showcase there in the future.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


January 08, 2009

Oliver Twist (1948)

After having begun his career as a director by the hand of writer Noel Coward (adapting three of Coward's plays into successful films), British filmmaker David Lean moved to a classic author of English literature for his next project: Charles Dickens. The novel chosen for his next film was "Great Expectations" and, released in 1946, the movie became a great success, and soon began to be celebrated as one of the best film versions of a Dickens novel. Still, it wouldn't be the only time David Lean would tackle a work by the popular writer, as two years later Lean re-assembled his team and produced a new adaptation of one of Dickens' most popular books: "The Adventures of Oliver Twist". It wasn't the first time "Oliver Twist" had been taken to the big screen, as in fact it had been adapted several times since the early days of cinema; however, since the arrival of sound only one adaptation had been made (in 1933), but it was a forgettable mediocre film, leaving "Oliver Twist" without a proper adaptation. David Lean's film would change that forever.

During one stormy night in Victorian England, an unknown pregnant woman arrives to a parish workhouse. There, the woman gives birth to a boy, but dies moments later, leaving the child a orphan and under the care of the Poor Law. The boy grows up and is named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies), and on his ninth birthday, he is taken to work at the workhouse like the rest of the children. Living in starvation, the kids chose one of them to ask for more food, and luck puts that task on Oliver's shoulders. The boy's petition causes an uproar, and it's decided to offer Oliver as an apprentice. Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), an undertaker, decides to take Oliver with him, and for a moment the future looks bright for the young boy. Unfortunately, the jealousy of Mr. Sowerberry's other apprentice, Noah Claypole (Michael Dear), gets him in trouble and forces him to move to London. In the big city, Oliver will join a group of juvenile delinquents lead by an old man called Fagin (Alec Guiness), discover the dark side of London as well as the truth about his past.

Adapted to the screen by Stanley Haynes and David Lean himself, this version of "Oliver Twist" is considerably darker than the previous ones, following the novel's spirit by putting more emphasis on the grim reality of Oliver's life than on the comedy (although it does keep Dickens' humor) or the tenderness of the title character. In fact, Oliver is made less cute, less sweet, still a tragic victim, but a more realistic one. Unlike previous interpretations, this Oliver could be every working, vagabond child; because even when Lean keeps the Oliver's natural nobility and his secret the main plot of the story, the darkness of London streets and its inhabitants seem to be the focal point of the story, as a great deal of character development is done with them. While a relatively faithful version of the novel, it takes more liberties than previous versions, mainly in the omission or reduction of certain subplots and characters, although this was probably done to put more attention to the "main set" of characters in "Oliver Twist".

Now, where the film shines is without a doubt in the amazing way Lean brings to life Dickens popular story. Using the remarkably beautiful work of cinematography done by Guy Green, Lean creates a powerful, haunting vision of Victorian London that, while being a highly stylish mix of grim film Noir and nightmarish expressionism, it still makes a wonderful portrayal of the novel's world. This may sound like a contradiction, but it works: against all odds, the exaggerated, Gothic darkness of Lean's London makes a perfect combination with the novel's grim realism and the city's urban decadence. Taking care of every detail, and giving inventive uses to the camera, Lean and Green make of every scene, of every image a work of art, possessing a beauty that's almost supernatural. Certainly, set designers T. Hopewell Ash and Claude Momsay also deserve recognition for their excellent work. But even when the visual beauty of the film is already a testament of Lean's skill, his work with the cast is also commendable, as he brings memorable performances from most of them.

The son of writer Jack Davies, young John Howard Davies was a newcomer to cinema when he was casted as Oliver, and brought a natural charm and naiveté to his performance as the little orphan. As Fagin, Alec Guiness appears in one of his most celebrated and hotly debated roles. Guiness creates a very interesting villain, whom is at times jovial and cheerful with "his children" but who can also be ruthless and cruel. Perfectly embodying his character, Guiness delivers a masterful performance, although at times his Fagin feels a tad clichéd. As the imposing Bill Sikes, Robert Newton is simply amazing, as he makes a complex character out of a role that tends to be downplayed as a tough brute. Specially in the last third, Newton truly makes Sikes' emotions to shine through his eyes. Same could be said of Kay Walsh (Lean's wife at the time), whom despite being a bit old for her role, is remarkable as Nancy and makes the perfect counterpart to Newton's villain. A young Anthony Newley appears as the Artful Dodger, marking the beginning of the actor's bright career with a great performance.

Personally, I tend to agree with the general consensus of this being "the definitive version" of Dickens' novel in the sense that, while it has taken great liberties with the source novel, it's the one that remains the most loyal to its spirit. One interesting, and notorious thing about Lean's "Oliver Twist" is that while other versions cast the title role with cuteness, sweetness or innocence in mind, in Lean's film John Howard Davies looks, if anything, melancholic. An overwhelming melancholy that hides more than what it tells is the trademark of Lean's Oliver, and that melancholy extends to the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the film found problems with distribution, as some had problems with Alec Guiness' performance as Fagin, which was seen as antisemitic. I think that the problem was that, while it's a terrific performance, at times it feels too much like a caricature, which some have interpreted as antisemitic due to its uses of stereotypes. Personally, I don't find it offensive in any way, but it does feel a bit stereotypical at times.

While he's certainly better known for his work in some of Hollywood's most amazing epic films (such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago"), the early British films by David Lean are already proof of his great talent as a director. 1948's version of "Oliver Twist" is one of the better examples, as it's a film that by using a well-known story, creates one of the most beautiful works of art done in black and white photography. Haunting, dark, and wonderfully atmospheric, this version of "Oliver Twist" is, like Lean's "Great Expectations", one of the best adaptations of Dickens ever done. Comparing this film to the previous sound version, one not only notices how much had the art of cinema advanced in 15 years, but also how a film can change when it's a talented eye what's behind the camera.


January 06, 2009

Oliver Twist (1933)

As one of the most popular English authors of all time, Charles Dickens has had his work adapted multiple times to the big screen, almost since the very beginning of cinema. "The Adventures of Oliver Twist", one of his most famous novels, was brought to the big screen more than 10 times during the silent era, the most famous of them being the one directed by Frank Lloyd with Lon Chaney as Fagin and Jackie Coogan in the title role. The arrival of sound to cinema in 1927 changed the industry in many ways, as while the technology was met with disbelief by artists, audiences loved it, and soon it was discovered that sound certainly had new storytelling possibilities. As expected, the arrival of sound brought new versions of literature classics, which was a popular choices as the new technological advances made possible to actually listen to famous dialogs. So, in 1933 "Oliver Twist" returned to the big screen in a "talkie" version of the novel directed by William J. Cowen for the independent studio Monogram Pictures. Unfortunately, the results of this venture left a lot to be desired.

Set in the early 1800s, the story begins with the birth of a child at a workhouse and the subsequent death of his mother. Since there is no information about the mother, the orphan is named Oliver Twist (Dickie Moore) and taken by the workhouse under the Poor Law. When Oliver is nine years old, he's taken to work at the workhouse with other children, where he continues his life of constant hunger. One day, Oliver dares to ask for more food, causing an uproar at the workhouse that threatens his safety there, so, decided to find better fortune, Oliver runs away and heads to London. On his way to the big city, the small orphan finds a curious companion in Jack Dawkins, a juvenile pickpocket better known as The Artful Dodger (Sonny Ray). The Dodger takes Oliver to his "employer", an old Jewish man named Fagin (Irving Pichel) who organizes a gang of young criminals whose specialty is to steal handkerchiefs, wallets and other goods in the streets of London. Taken by Fagin as a new member, Oliver will discover life on London streets, as well as the secrets of his past.

The screenplay, written by Elizabeth Meehan (who has 1928's "Laugh, Clown, Laugh", amongst her credits), this version of Charles Dickens' popular novel is a very direct and straightforward adaptation, in the sense that while some subplots and characters are either omitted or drastically reduced (like Oliver's days with Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker), the core of the tale remains exactly the same. While there are versions that focus completely on the character of Oliver and his innocence, taking Bill Sikes as the story's main villain (due to him being a far more imposing figure than Fagin); Meehan opts for making her film revolve around Oliver relationship with Fagin and his gang, to the point that it's one of the few films where Fagin's destiny is seen completely. In this aspect, Elizabeth Meehan makes a nice adaptation as she attempts to give more character development to the story's villains, although her work with the dialogs isn't really good (probably due to lack of experience in "talkies"), and at times, it seriously hurts the film.

However, it is William J. Cowen's work as a director what probably hurts the film more in the end. Being the husband of popular scriptwriter Lenore J. Coffee, Cowen had a brief career in cinema in the late 20s and early 30s, making only five movies (and one short film), including 1932's jungle horror, "Kongo". Unfortunately, his version of "Oliver Twist" doesn't have a lot going for it, as while Meehan's screenplay is not really bad, Cowen's film-making seems to be completely void of any creativity as the director limits himself to just shot what the screenplay says and nothing more, often with awkward, and extremely stagy results. Granted, budget and time constrains were definitely a problem (wouldn't surprise me that most of the budget had been used in getting Moore and Pichel), but the rather rushed and simplistic way Cowen makes the movie a mediocre result. Still, while Cowen may not give the best use to J. Roy Hunt's appropriately gritty cinematography, to his credit he manages to recreate convincingly Dickens' world of social injustice.

Still, as if Cowen's mediocre style of directing wasn't enough to damage the first sound version of "Oliver Twist", the performances of the cast are the final nail in the film's coffin. But, before going over what's really bad about the cast, I must first mention the only memorable thing about Cowen's "Oliver Twist", which stands out like a desert rose: Irving Pichel's performance as Fagin. In the middle of a sea of mediocrity, Pichel delivers a terrific performance as the Jewish old man who has made an art out of training juvenile criminals. While not a Lon Chaney or an Alec Guiness, Pichel does make a great impression as the legendary character, and is probably the only one with any idea about acting in the film. As the old man Fagin, he is charming, and at the same time menacing, capturing Dickens' famous character without making it a caricature. Quite a talented man, Pichel worked in "Oliver Twist" only a year after debuting as a director with the remarkable mix of horror and adventure, "The Most Dangerous Game" (codirected with Ernest B. Schoedsack).

However, the rest of the cast is far from being half as good as Pichel. Well, to be fair child star Dickie Moore is actually not that bad, and while definitely chosen by his angelic, innocent look, at times he does manage to give a convincing portrait of Oliver Twist. A bit stiff and wooden in his performance, Moore may not be the best Oliver Twist, but at least he gets the job done. Something that cannot be said of Sonny Ray, who is probably, the worst Dodger of the silver screen. Not only Ray was too old to play The Artful Dodger, he seems to lack any ability to convincingly deliver his lines, and is often overacted to the point of getting tiresome. Easily, the worst thing about the film. William 'Stage' Boyd (not to be confused with the star of "Hop-Along Cassidy") isn't anything special as Bill Sikes, and plays him as any other stereotypical brute. Known for his constant drug and alcohol problems, it's probable that 'Stage' Boyd wasn't at his best condition. Popular actress Doris Lloyd manages to make an acceptable job as Nancy, despite also being considerably old for the role.

For being the very first sound version of "Oliver Twist", William J. Cowen's film is quite disappointing, specially as it throws away a nice script by Elizabeth Meehan and Irving Pichel's great performance. Mediocre at best, and awful at worst, 1933's version of Charles Dickens' novel is not the most memorable film from the 30s (although it did start a brief fad of making films about Dickens' novels), and the world would have to wait until 1948 to watch a proper sound version of the novel in the British movie directed by David Lean. In the end, Cowen's film has very few interesting things, and since it's neither very good nor very bad, unfortunately, it's just one more of the forgettable mediocre titles of the first decade of sound.


January 04, 2009

Oliver Twist (1922)

When cinema was growing and developing itself as a new storytelling art beyond documentaries or vaudeville acts, classic novels were brought as source for stories in the way of theater. As one of the most popular English novelists, Charles Dickens was one of the very firsts to have his works adapted to cinema. His second novel, "The Adventures of Oliver Twist", became the first of his writings to be adapted to the screen in 1897. Titled "Death of Nancy Sykes", it was nothing more than a filmed sketch of a theatrical representation of said scene, but it was only the beginning of "Oliver Twist"'s career on cinema. More than 10 versions of "Oliver Twist" were done in the silent era, many of them sadly lost, but fortunately, one of the most interesting ones still survives to our days: Frank Lloyd's 1922 adaptation titled simply, "Oliver Twist". What makes this movie interesting, is it's remarkable cast, which includes George Siegmann, child actor Jackie Coogan as Oliver, and the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces", Lon Chaney, as Fagin.

Near his ninth birthday, a small orphan boy named Oliver Twist (Jackie Coogan) is brought to a workhouse under the terms of the Poor Law. There, the hungry Oliver survives with little food, until the boys decide to ask for more. Oliver is the one chosen to do this, but his request is met with an uproar, and it is decided that Oliver should leave the workhouse and become an apprentice for someone else. Mr. Sowerberry (Nelson McDowell), an undertaker, takes him and for a while everything seems to get better for Oliver, but due to the jealousy of Mr. Sowerberry's other apprentice, Noah (Lewis Sargent), Oliver finds himself once again alone and on the road to London. It is on his way to the big city where Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, better known as The Artful Dodger (Edouard Trebaol), a young pickpocket who takes Oliver to meet his "benefactor", an old Jewish man named Fagin (Lon Chaney). But Fagi is not a "good old gentleman", as he actually organizes a gang of juvenile delinquents. Under Fagin's wing, Oliver will discover life in London's streets.

Adapted to screen by Harry Weil and director Frank Lloyd himself, this version of "Oliver Twist" is generally faithful to Dickens' novel, including some subplots that posterior adaptations of the novel would ignore. Technically a condensed version of the book, the screenplay is completely focused on the character of Oliver Twist, which is certainly to be expected, but the problem is that unfortunately this leaves little room for development of the rest of the characters. This is probably because this "Oliver Twist" was conceived as Jackie Coogan vehicle with the idea of repeating the success of Chaplin's "The Kid" in mind. In many ways, Coogan's "Twist" is written as a retreat of his character in the Kid, designed to showcase Coogan's great talents and to make Oliver Twist a boy as cute and lovable as was the Kid. This results in a version of "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" that puts more emphasis on sweetness and tenderness, but a sweetness of the Hollywood kind, a tad artificial and far from the novel's natural sweetness found in the grim streets of London.

While the screenplay tends to downplay Victorian London's darkness and its impact in the story, director Frank Lloyd's makes sure of remember it for us thanks to the great work of cinematography done by Glen MacWilliams and Robert Martin. Lloyd creates a very atmospheric view of London, one that truly captures Dickens' urban world in all its grim splendor despite moving a bit from realism to a more stylish visual design with certain nods to German expressionism. Known for his great care for details, Lloyd makes great use of Dickens' symbolism through the film, and follows the novel's concern for the great problems faced by the lowest social classes (which in the 20s were still similar to an extent); also, taking advantage of a screenplay that focuses on Oliver's sweetness and nobility of heart, Frank Lloyd creates set pieces of great emotional power. Lloyd showcases his great hand at directing actors as he bring the best out of his cast, not only Coogan and Chaney, but particularly Gladys Brockwell, who plays Nancy.

Child actor Jackie Coogan is pretty much at the top of his game as the title role in "Oliver Twist", although the script basically demands him to do a somewhat diluted version of his character in "The Kid". Despite this, Coogan was really a prodigy of acting, and while he showcases many of the same tricks he employed in Chaplin's film, his talent manages to flourish at times and makes quite a convincing Oliver Twist. Nevertheless, the gem of the film is watching Lon Chaney as Fagin, where he delivers once again a magnificent performance as the leader of the juvenile criminal gang. It is sad that the script gives him little to do, because as Fagin, Lon Chaney is quite an impressive figure. Almost as impressive is George Siegmann's Bill Sikes, whom really complements Chaney as the story's ruthless and tough villain. As written above, Gladys Brockwell is the film's great surprise, as her performance as Nancy is truthfully moving and remarkably powerful. Her untimely death in 1929 is truly a tragedy.

Despite being a film done as a vehicle for Jackie Coogan, Frank Lloyd's version of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" is quite an interesting film for a number of reasons. Certainly, it's cast is the most obvious reason to watch it, but also Lloyd's use of cinematography and art direction is quite an achievement. But still, a couple of things stop this film from being "the definitive version" of Dickens' famous novel, the first of them being exactly one of the movie's main selling points: Jackie Coogan. It is not that Coogan is a bad actor (in my humble opinion, he's probably the best Oliver Twist ever after, tied with John Howard Davies of course), but his enormous fame played a major role in making the film essentially about Coogan, and not about Twist. What I mean is that the rest of the characters have not much to do, being overshadowed by the weight given to Coogan's role. Another problem is that the film tends to drag a bit, not only because of the scenes done to showcase Coogan, but also because of the writer's decision of including as much of the novel as they could.

Frank Lloyd's 1922 adaptation of "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" may not be "The definitive version" of the cherished novel (that may still be David Lean's 1948 version), but it's still one of the best done and most interesting of them. Granted, it really doesn't achieve the huge potential it has (one could only wonder how much could some tuning on the script may have helped it), but director Lloyd manages to create a film that's true to Dickens' spirit while at the same time being a product designed to sell Coogan's image one more time. It may not be the most impressive film of the silent era, but for the joy of watching Coogan and Chaney, this "Oliver Twist" is certainly a winner.


January 01, 2009

...and a new year begins!

Well the year 2008 is gone now and so it's time to reflect about what happened through the year and wonder about what the new one will bring. Hopefully, it'll bring us great cinema, whether that means newly released movies on the big screen or newly released films on DVD, I won't mind. As long as it's great cinema. Will this be the year when Tod Browning's "London After Midnight" (1927) gets discovered? Nobody knows, but 2008 brought us the release on DVD of the most completer versions of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922)and of course, the discovery of some of the missing footage of "Metropolis" (1927) in Chile promises a new DVD for 2009. In the mean time, we can only hope.

The big screen was pretty good last year, while I wasn't really watching the newest releases, the critics I respect and follow covered pretty good films (that I'm sure I'll check later this year) that seem to prove that cinema is not dead, on the contrary, it's quite alive and kicking. I've already published my humble Top 10 of year 2008, which isn't much considering that out of 200 films I saw last year, only 16 were 2008 releases. Anyways, this time I'm publishing two brief lists: out of the 200 films I saw, here are the Top 15 discoveries I made in the year, as well as the Worst 15 discoveries of the year.

Let's start with the rotten eggs first:

15) Love Wrecked (2005, Randal Kleiser) 5/10
14) The Mummy's Curse (1944, Leslie Goodwins) 5/10
13) Moving Target (2000, Paul Ziller) 5/10
12) Virus (1980, Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso) 5/10
11) La Mujer murciélago (1968, René Cardona) 5/10
10) The Devil's Daughter (1939, Arthur H. Leonard) 4/10
9) Night of the Blood Beast (1958, Bernard L. Kowalski) 4/10
8) Spontaneous Combustion (1990, Tobe Hooper) 4/10
7) La Momia azteca contra el robot humano (1958, Rafael Portillo) 4/10
6) Scared to Death (1947, Christy Cabanne) 4/10
5) El Hombre de Blanco (1994, René Cardona Jr.) 4/10
4) Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934, Marshall Neilan) 3/10
3) Teenage Zombies (1959, Jerry Warren) 3/10
2) Rats - Notte di terrore (1984, Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso) 3/10
1) Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966, Harold P. Warren) 1/10

Topping the list is the legendary "worst film of all time", Harold P. Warren's 1966 turd, "Manos: The Hands of Fate" , which I must say lives up to its hype. It's truly beyond awful. Italy makes its way to the top with Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso's "Rats - Notte di terrore", which really has one wacky ending. The 50s nuclear era appears in #3 with "Teenage Zombies", which is pretty boring, same as our #4, 1934's obscure and racist tale of voodoo, "Chloe, Love Is Calling You". Mexico makes its entrance on #5, with a clone of 1986's "The Hitcher" called "El Hombre de Blanco".

Now, the discoveries:

15) El Esqueleto de la Señora Morales (1960, Rogelio A. González) 9/10
14) The Unknown (1927, Tod Browning) 9/10
13) The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson) 9/10
12) Dellamorte Dellamore (1994, Michele Soavi) 9/10
11) El Libro de Piedra (1969, Carlos Enrique Taboada) 9/10
10) Låt den rätte komma in (2008, Tomas Alfredson) 9/10
9) Pedro Páramo (1967, Carlos Velo) 9/10
8) The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976, Clint Eastwood) 9/10
7) The Searchers (1956, John Ford) 9/10
6) The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale) 9/10
5) El Hombre Sin Rostro (1950, Juan Bustillo Oro) 9/10
4) Santa Sangre (1989, Alejandro Jodorowsky) 10/10
3) M (1931, Fritz Lang)
2) Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) 10/10
1) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford) 10/10

Well, a lot of those films are well-known classics that I just discovered this last year. One of my favourite direcors, John Ford, keeps surprising me, not with his most famous film ("The Searchers", which also made the list), but with "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". I have no words to describe it other than "perfect". I was able to finally see "Citizen Kane", a film that, like all famous books, everybody talks about it but few have really seen. As a fan of 30s cinema, it was for me an eye-opening experience, as to me that film meant the ending of 30s style and the birth of modern cinema. Speaking of the 30s, I manages to catch Lang's "M", and was enormously pleased with it, not only because of its extremely awesome technic, but with Peter Lorre's performance. Easily one of the best of all time. To my surprise, my native country, Mexico, made the top 5 twice: #5 with Juan Bustillo Oro's remarkable mix of Film-Noir and Horror, "El Hombre Sin Rostro", and with Alejandro Jodorowsky's nightmarish "Santa Sangre". I must say that "Santa Sange" was a surprise, because I had talked about Mexican horror in October, making a list and all, and barely a week after publishing that I was watching a Mexican horror film good enough to top all the listed films. Finally, I was glad to find a 2008 release so good to make the Top 10, "Låt den rätte komma in" or "Let the Right One In".

In the end, 2008 was a very good year, and here's hoping that 2009 gets even better.