April 30, 2009

Los Cronocrímenes (2007)

Many times, the idea of science fiction movies is related almost immediately to big budget films that display amazing special effects and a grandiose art design. However, as in its literary form, science fiction is simply about bringing fantastic visions from the future to the realm of possibility, something that despite what most sci-fi movies attempt, doesn't necessarily need flashy visuals. Science fiction stories are still stories, and no matter how amazing the visuals are, if the story is bad, the movie will be bad. So, in the end all that's needed is a powerful, tight, creative, and most important, captivating story. And it won't matter if it's about that classic sci-fi theme that tends to give headaches to writers: time travel. Ever since British author H. G. Wells wrote "The Time Machine", time travels have been a favorite subject for stories, but in film, its complexities make it a hard subject to tackle. But now, Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo demonstrates in "Los Cronocrímenes" that, having a huge dose of imagination, time traveling is not that expensive.

In "Los Cronocrímenes" ("Timecrimes"), Karra Elejalde plays Héctor, a common man who one day, while resting in his backyard, watches through his binoculars a naked woman (Bárbara Goenaga) in the nearby woods. Héctor decides to investigate and is attacked by mysterious man with the head covered in bandages. Hunted by the strange figure, Héctor runs through the woods until he finds a building in which he hides. Inside he finds a walkie-talkie and calls for help. Hs call is answered by a young man (Nacho Vigalondo) located in another building, who instructs Héctor about how to reach him. Followed by the bandaged man, Héctor makes his way to the other building and meets the young man, whom is a scientist. The scientist helps Héctor to hide inside a strange-looking machine, machine that accidentally gets activated sending Héctor exactly one hour in the past. Now, there are two Héctors existing at the same time, so Héctor #1 now must do whatever is necessary to make Héctor #2 follow his steps to keep existing, but the job won't be easy, and crime, is just a matter of time.

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, "Los Cronocrímenes" has as its greatest strength a carefully developed screenplay at its core, in which Vigalondo plays with the time travel concept to build up a clever, complex story that's not only highly entertaining, but also thought-provoking and simply fascinating. By focusing more on the consequences of the travel than on the technology to do it, Vigalondo makes a very believable portrayal of time travel without having to resort to heavy visual effects, as everything is done and explained by the way the story unfolds. Such is the power of a carefully planned storyline, as the plot is so captivating that its verisimilitude is always out of question. Built as a convoluted puzzle that the main character, Héctor, must solve to return to normality, "Los Cronocrímenes" keeps its mystery well guarded until the last frame, handling masterfully suspense and most important, never losing any consistency (something most stories about time travel lack) and always having a surprising twist to add to the plot.

As written above, director Vigalondo forgets about all the flashy visuals that tends to surround sci-fi movies and remains entirely focused on the story. Done with an extremely low budget, the movie is more about the results of the trip than about the trip itself, with the time machine being nothing more than an odd looking industrial artifact. Nothing iconic, nothing surprising, and yet, the power of the story is that strong that despite having one of the less remarkable machines in science fiction, the time traveling in "Los Cronocrímenes" is completely believable. Forced to relay entirely on the story, Vigalondo brings to life his story in a remarkable way by taking great care of every tiny detail on the screen. Playing with touches of noir and horror, Vigalondo creates a thrilling atmosphere of mystery out of the common neighborhood where Héctor lives; and thanks to the great eye of cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano (frequent collaborator of filmmaker Álex De la Iglesia), he manages to take the everyday world to the realm of fantasy without losing any credibility.

Given the importance the story has in the film, the performances of the cast are instrumental for the success of the film, and director Vigalondo truly gets the best out of them. As the main character, Héctor, actor Karra Elejalde is truly superb, carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders with great talent and skill. As a typical man caught in a series of highly atypical events, Karra's performance is excellent and very natural, making this unlikely hero (better said, antihero) a very sympathetic character. Director Nacho Vigalondo himself plays the scientist, a young man whose hurry to test the device will put Héctor in several complications. Vigalondo is very good in his role, portraying the unexperienced, nervous young man with ease. However, I must say that he is easily overshadowed by Karra's terrific work. Candela Fernández plays Héctor's wife Clara and Bárbara Goenaga is the mysterious girl in the woods, characters whom will get involved into the time crimes as Héctor goes back in time. Both are not only beautiful, but very effective in their roles.

Watching "Los Cronocrímenes", it's really amazing to see what Vigalondo and his crew have achieved with so little, as it's safe to say that with this brutal display of imagination, Vigalondo has taken science fiction back to its roots, where what mattered the most were the effects fantastic science had on people, not the fantastic science itself. It is also a film that shows the great importance of having a good script to work with, as it is the simple, yet intensely captivating storyline what drives the movie. Of course, this is not to say that the script is the only worthy element, as definitely every element adds its magic to the whole picture, I'm just saying that having such a terrific basis meant a lot for the development of the film. I must also add that Flavio Martínez Labiano's remarkable work of cinematography does add a lot of atmosphere to the movie because, while apparently simple (everything in the movie is minimalist), his eye perfectly captures the entrance of Héctor into the maddening world of time travel.

Four years after his breakthrough short film, "7:35 De la Mañana" (nominated for an Academy Award, among other awards), director Nacho Vigalondo proves in his feature length debut that his fresh vision and great talent will probably result in greater things in the future. For a career that's just starting, "Los Cronocrímenes" is a good omen of what's about to come from this filmmaker. A deeply entertaining, thought-provoking film, "Los Conocrímenes" will definitely become a cult classic of the genre, as it remind us about what truly matters about science fiction (and well, about movies in general): a good story told well. Like every good puzzle, "Los Cronocrímenes" leaves you asking for more, and even after one knows all the answers, it's still a thrilling story to watch. A must see indeed.


April 14, 2009

Gojira (1954)

Without a doubt, one of the most recognizable figures in the history of modern horror and science-fiction cinema is the nuclear-powered lizard known as Gojira, or Godzilla, the King of the Monsters. One of the ultimate icons of Japanese horror, the giant beast has taken the roles of villain and hero interchangeably through its many incarnations; however, one theme remains a constant in its existence: the destruction of mankind's habitat by a twisted, uncontrolled and devastating force of nature, which Godzilla, symbol of the fears of the nuclear era, perfectly represents. It was in 1954 when the powerful monster first reared its head when, inspired by a tragic naval incident (as well as motivated by the success of 1953's film "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and other films about nuclear-powered monsters), writer Shigeru Kayama and director Ishirô Honda decided to give their own view, a very Japanese view, on the horrors of the nuclear era, very real horrors that their country had experienced first hand. And so, the most formidable of the giant monsters was born: Gojira.

The story begins with the Japanese fishing boat Eiko-Maru, which is attacked by a mysterious flash of light from the water near Odo Island, and is shipwrecked. Two other ships meet the same fate. In the mean time, the fishing community of Odo Island is unable to find any fish, which together with the news of the attacks prompts the locals to remember the legend of Gojira (or Godzilla), an ancient monster god that lives in the sea. Reporters arrive to Odo Island to investigate about the attacks, and that night, the giant monster (Haruo Nakajima) attacks the village, leaving only death and destruction. In the aftermath of the attack, paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) discovers that Godzilla is a giant dinosaur mutated by atomic tests. Meanwhile, Dr. Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) visits her fiancée, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) in order to break off their engagement, as she is in love with Lieutenant Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). But with in her visit she'll also discover that Serizawa has a secret that might be the only chance to stop Godzilla.

As written above, to conceive the story writer Shigeru Kayama found inspiration in the case of the Lucky Dragon, a ship which after straying too closely to a nuclear test site, had its crew severely injured by radiation. Having this as inspiration, it's not surprising that horrors of the nuclear era became one of "Gojira"'s main themes, and the screenplay, by Takeo Murata and director Ishirô Honda himself, follows this concept expanding the idea by adding their own experiences and memories about the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This becomes obvious as not only it's the atomic test what create the monster but the monster's own wave of destruction is akin to the one left by the atomic bomb. The story is essentially simple, and highly influenced by American monster movies, but instead of jingoistic action and adventure, writers gave "Gojira" a huge dose of suspense, and a terrifying verisimilitude, resulting in a darker, almost pessimist tone, in which heroism does exist in people, but not without great sacrifices.

Deeply shocked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishirô Honda brings to life Kayama's giant monster by echoing the devastation that impressed him nine years before. While budgetary constrains forced Honda to shot "Gojira" in black and white, cinematographer Masao Tamai plays this to the film's advantage and creates an ominous atmosphere perfectly in tone with the somber mood the story has. Handling suspense in a masterful way, Honda keeps his monster in the shadows, hidden during most part of the film in order to enhance the effect of its arrival to Tokyo and the following destruction of the city. This climatic scene is effectively built up as a nightmarish vision of chaos, with Godzilla as an implacable force of nature unleashed to finish what the atomic bombs started. Raw and crude, yet full of style and suspense, Honda's "Gojira" succeeds in transforming a man in a monster suit into an apocalyptic vision of nuclear horror.

Framed by the big event that is Godzilla's rampage is the story of a love triangle between the main characters; and while definitely the giant monster's brutal attack overshadows such plot with its great impact and overwhelming power, the cast does and overall good job with their roles. Experienced actor Takashi Shimura plays Dr. Kyohei Yamane, a man more interested in studying Godzilla than on destroying it. As the good paleontologist, Shimura adds a certain sense of dignity to the cast, and is remarkable in his portrait of the troubled scientist, torn between his wish to understand the monster and his responsibilities. Nevertheless, even more interesting is Akihiko Hirata's work as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a complex character whose life will get a dramatic change with Godzilla's apparition. Hirata has a very commanding presence that helps him to steal every scene he's in. As Dr. Yamane's daughter, Emiko, Momoko Kôchi is effective in her role as Hirata's counterpart, while Akira Takarada, who plays the man she loves, is the cast's weakest link, being easily overshadowed by Hirata's great performance.

However, as time has proved, no matter how good the cast is (and the cast of "Gojira" is one of the best in any Godzilla movie), it is ultimately the giant monster, Godzilla, whom is the real star of the film. Because even when the Godzilla of "Gojira" is a brutal representation of nuclear horror, it's also a victim of it, and so its fury is mankind's punishment for going too far. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects, while certainly a tad crude and rudimentary to an extent, manage to perfectly compel the terror of Godzilla with the only help of a rubber suit and carefully designed models. Tsuburaya's work may not had been the state-of-art effects director Honda expected, but together with the work by stuntman Haruo Nakajima, it truly created a mythical figure of epic proportions. While far from a perfect film, "Gojira" succeeds in making the unbelievable a reality, as despite lacking great special effects, the whole tone set by the story and the visual style transform the fantastic story of a giant monster into a very vivid nightmare with echoes from World War II.

Nowadays, more than 50 years after the first time Godzilla smashed a city, the big old monster is more a pop culture icon than the terrifying creature it originally was. Years of facing colorful enemies, kitsch alien invaders and cheesy sidekicks have made us forget that Godzilla is a monster, and that monsters were meant to be scary. Watching Ishirô Honda's original vision of "Gojira" is a great reminder that the big G is more than a giant monster: it's an enormous nuclear nightmare. Even when contrasted to the 1956 American re-edited version, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters", this film is really a completely different take on the monster. This is definitely Godzilla: the monster, the destroyer, the legend.


April 09, 2009

The Vampire Bat (1933)

In many ways, it could be said that the horror genre in film was finally born the day Tod Browning's "Dracula" was released back in 1931. And that's because even when it was already a familiar theme in cinematography (being a genre explored by the German Expressionist movement of the 20s), the arrival of sound to film completed the shape of the classic horror movie. Browning's "Dracula" and Whale's "Frankenstein", the two monsters Universal Studios unleashed in 1931 would define the genre and start a "Golden Age" of American horror, a period deeply rooted in Gothic literature, murder mysteries and pulp fiction. Following Universal Studios' great success, many companies began to produce horror films. Majestic Pictures, a studio dedicated to the production of B-Movies, was one of those companies, and released several horror films of an originality and quality a tad superior to the norm. Frank R. Strayer's "The Vampire Bat" was one of those, a movie benefited by the presence of three horror legends: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and none other than Dwight Frye.

In the German village of Kleinschloss, a series of mysterious deaths begin to take place, all having in common that the victims die of blood loss. Dr. Otto Von Niemann (Lionel Atwill), a famous scientist who lives in Kleinschloss, becomes very interested in the case, taking care of the victims while police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) attempts to solve the case. Due to the strange way the people die, rumors of vampirism begin to run rampant through the town, as the police seem to be clueless about what exactly is causing the deaths. While Inspector Karl, his girlfriend Ruth (Fay Wray) and Dr. Von Niemann try to find a rational explanation for the deaths, the town is filled with paranoia, and the villagers begin to murder bats and suspect of everyone. Soon suspicion falls on Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), a simple-minded man with a fascination for bats and who likes to make fun of the people's fears. As the deaths continue and neither Von Neumann nor the police can do anything, Herman will find himself in the middle of the turmoil caused by the vampire bat.

Combining elements of crime film and Gothic horror, writer Edward T. Lowe Jr constructs a surprisingly original tale of mystery in which the secret behind the deaths is the source of a plot filled with twists and turns in which paranoia and suspicion become the central themes. A skilled author of convoluted mystery plots, Lowe plays with the genre conventions and crafts a nice mix of different elements (from sci-fi to traces of proto-noir) that make "The Vampire Bat" to be more than the style of Gothic horror that was the norm amongst low budget productions of the time. While sticking to the popular archetypes of the genre, Lowe fleshes out his characters with interesting details that make them to stand out above the norm. Particularly interesting is Inspector Karl's struggle to keep the townspeople's superstitions at bay when himself is unable to find a rational explanation for the mystery. This battle between the rational and the supernatural becomes a major theme in the film, as it begins to hurt the friendship between Insp. Karl and Dr. Von Niemann.

Seasoned craftsman Frank R. Strayer is the man at the helm of "The Vampire Bat", and once again, he gets the job done with his simple yet effective style, although "The Vampire Bat" features some of his most imaginative work. More a hired-gun than a stylish director, Strayer has never been known as a stylish artist, but in "The Vampire Bat" there are a couple of memorable moments where Strayer, along cinematographer Ira H. Morgan, truly capture the story's style, mix of Gothic horror and pulp fiction. It helped a lot that to his fortune, Strayer was able to work in some of the sets of Universal's 1931 classic, "Frankenstein"; because he really makes the most of that chance by recreating the expressionist look and some of the ominous atmosphere that James Whale's movie had. It's clear that Strayer was asked to mimic the Universal films, but given the originality of the screenplay and the quality of his cast, "The Vampire Bat" resulted in something more than a mere copycat, as it's dark plot allows Strayer to make scenes a tad more terrifying than what was seen in those classics.

The work of the actors in "The Vampire Bat" is quite better than the average found in most low budget horrors from the same era, with the main reason for this being the fact that it has a great cast that even A-productions would envy. Leading the cast is a young Melvyn Douglas, whom truly commands the film with a charming personality and good natured humor that suit well his role as the film's "hero". While the screenplay may not have the best dialogs ever written, Douglas makes an adequate, and very professional job with it. Horror icon Lionel Atwill appears as Dr. Von Niemann, and once again Atwill delivers his trademark work as eccentric scientist. However, Atwill (and to be fair, everyone else as well) is overshadowed by Dwight Frye's remarkable turn as Herman. While at first glance it may look like a retreat of his work as madmen in "Dracula" and "Frankenstein", Frye's work here has far more depth, being able to steal the spotlight now. Fay Wray is good as Karl's girlfriend Ruth, but her character is not exactly the most challenging of all.

With such an impressive cast and a great original idea at its core, "The Vampire Bat" has many elements that make it quite an interesting view. Unfortunately, it also has several things that make it fail from reaching its enormous potential. For starters, while writer Edward T. Lowe Jr has built a very interesting plot, his work with dialog is at times kind of poor (unlike for example, his stylish crime film "The World Gone Mad" of the same year), resulting in a loss of credibility that terribly hurts the mood of the story. Also, the attempts at comic relief feel forced, awkward, and even copied from James Whale's "Frankenstein". But still, I think the biggest disappointment is how director Frank R. Strayer fails at transforming an interesting screenplay into an interesting movie, as even when he does create a couple of thrilling moments full of atmosphere, most of the time the movie just flows without any real style. To summarize, "The Vampire Bat" is a bit unmemorable in the sense that it lacks that special something that makes a film rise above the norm.

But even when it's definitely not the great movie it could had been, "The Vampire Bat" is still an interesting curiosity that certainly is worth a watch. Done in order to follow Universal's success, "The Vampire Bat" became experimental ground for Lowe's style of pulp fiction and resulted in a very different kind of beast. It's a shame that a mediocre work of directing damage a interesting concept (and one with a great cast), but fortunately, it's not as bad as it could had been, just definitely not as great as it should had been. Quirky, odd, and different, "The Vampire Bat" is a horror film about vampires that take the concept to a whole different direction. Now this is the kind of movie that should be remade.

Watch "The Vampire Bat" (1933)