December 28, 2011

La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía (1954)

Having left his native Spain when Francisco Franco became dictator, director Luis Buñuel found himself unable to continue the promising career he had started in France. Luckily for him, he met producer Óscar Dancigers, who offered him to make a film in Mexico. Working for hire within the Mexican film industry, the surreal artist learned to make movies with commercial purposes with low budgets and tight schedules. Nevertheless, this didn't mean that the artistry of Buñuel's craftsmanship was lost in those movies done on commission. 1953's "La Ilusión viaja en tranvía" is probably one of the best examples of this, as it was originated with a purely commercial purpose: Servicio de Transportes Eléctricos, Mexico City's main Tramway company had suffered a lot of bad press due to the tragic collision of two trams (with many casualties) so, the management wanted a comedy film about tramways for public relations. Clasa Films, one of Mexico's biggest studios, took the job and hired Luis Buñuel to direct the film.

"La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" (known in English as "Illusion Travels by Streetcar") is the story of two friends, Juan Godinez (Carlos Navarro) and Tobías Hernández (Fernando Soto "Mantequilla"), better known as Caireles and Tarrajas respectively. Caireles is a mechanic of streetcars, while Tarrajas is a driver, both live in a poor neighborhood in Mexico city. One day, near Christmas, they are informed that their Streetcar, no 133, will be decommissioned, which upsets both friends. That night, they go to a Christmas party and get drunk, and the two friends decide to take Streetcar 133 for a last night ride. Caireles and Tarrajas ride the streetcar through the city and begin to take passengers without charge, but as the next day begins and their drunkenness fades, the two friends realize that they'll get in trouble if they don't take the streetcar back. Weird situations take place as Caireles and Tarrajas try to take the streetcar back, and in the process, Caireles will fix his problems with his girlfriend, the beautiful Lupita (Lilia Prado).

As written above, the story of "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" was provided by Clasa Films, specifically by producer Mauricio de la Serna, though it was adapted to the screen by two of Buñuel's main collaborators: Luis Alcoriza and Juan de la Cabada (along José Revueltas and Mauricio de la Serna himself). The result is a light comedy clearly designed to entertain, but that also has certain touches of irony and social commentary. At its most basic, it's a simple adventure in which the two antiheroes, Caireles and Tarrajas find bizarre and funny situations in their trip across the city. Practically a road movie but enclosed within the city tramway lines, the film is of a somewhat episodic nature, but what elevates it from the rest is the great development its characters has. In "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía", the journey is besides the point, what truly matters are the relationships between the characters: Caireles and Tarrajas' friendship, their enmity with the company and old worker Papá Pinillos, and of course, the romance between Cairles and Lupita.

While "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" was a work done for hire, the film is staggeringly similar to Buñuel's own "Subida al Cielo", and in fact it feels like a more polished and accessible version of that previous film. Like in most of his Mexican films, the commercial constrains of the project brings out the best of Buñuel's craftsmanship, and "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" showcases the master at the top of his game. However, the fact that this film is purely a comedy certainly allowed him to display his taste for irony and his sharp humor. Despite clearly not being his most personal work, there are several touches of his typical obsessions, particularly his jabs at the Church (most prominently the pastorela scene) and the sexualization of Lilia Prado's legs (incidentally, Prado also appeared in the aforementioned "Subida al Cielo"). While a comedy prone to absurd, the film's atmosphere is one of touching realism, with cinematographer Raúl Martínes Solares making a truthful portrait of life of the working class in Mexico City of the time.

As written above, the characters are the heart of the film, and the cast makes the most of this in their performances. Leading the cast as Caireles, Carlos Navarro is pretty good as the down on his luck mechanic who seems apparently unmotivated to make anything with his life. Navarro manages to make a charming rogue of a role that could had been easily an unlikeable character. However, the highlight of the film is comedian Fernando Soto "Mantequilla", who makes the most of his role as Tarrajas. With great charm and skill, Soto steals every scene he is in, showing a vibrant energy and dignity that makes his role more than a mere bumbling sidekick. In fact, there's a certain subtlety that refrains him from being an overacted archetype. And subtlety seems to be the key, as Lilia Prado's performance as Lupita is also subtle in her sensuality. If in "Subida al Cielo" she was a lustful temptress that represented wild desire, in this movie she is the voice of reason that unwillingly ends up in the middle of Caireles and Tarrajas' wild ride.

Agustín Isunza completes the main cast as Papá Pinillos, a retired streetcar worker who is decided to stop streetcar 133 out of loyalty to a company that has forgotten him. In fact, the four characters represent different sides of a sector of Mexican society that seems, like streetcar 133, on the verge of oblivion as the city progresses. The four are working class antiheroes, perhaps they are disenchanted, ignorant, angsty or old, but still, they are the people. It is in this aspect where the magic of "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is, as Buñuel conveys the harsh aesthetic of "Los Olvidados" with the most heartfelt tone of comedy. It's still an exploration of the working class and their tragedies, but trading the cruel pessimism for a certain dose of tenderness that while odd in a Buñuel film, still feels strangely honest in its delivery. Interestingly, for a film made with the idea of give good name to the Tramway company, it does make the company a faceless villain, as Buñuel sides unabashedly with the working class.

Often considered a minor film in Buñuel's canon, "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is one of the best movies he did during his Mexican period. While it certainly lacks the familiar touch of surrealism that his better known French films have, there are elements in the film that makes it particularly valuable. For starters, the time capsule quality the movie has, as it brings back a Mexico City captured in time like few movies of its period does. Also, there's Fernando Soto's brilliant comedic performance, but most importantly, the most remarkable asset of the film is big heart it has, as "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is a film in which Buñuel allows himself to be tender. It could be argued that this is because of the commercial intention of the movie, but whatever had been the cause, "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" is a film that oozes magic, nostalgia, and yes, illusion.


December 27, 2011

Él (1953)

Celebrated as one of the most original and influential oeuvres in the history of cinema, the filmography of Spaniard filmmaker Luis Buñuel is a work rich in symbolism and artistry. Certainly, most of the praise focuses on the works Buñuel did in his late career, during his "French periods", dismissing the films done during his Mexican tenure. Nevertheless, while his career in Mexico was marred by low budgets, rushed deadlines and a big necessity for making commercial hits, it was also the period in which the master of surrealism cut his teeth, perfected his style and developed his very particular idiosyncrasies. In short, the period in which Buñuel grew from the young talent of "Un Chien Andalou" to the Surreal artist of "Le Fantôme de la liberté". Within the constrains of the Mexican film industry, the Spaniard master found the way to produce several of the most remarkable Mexican films ever done, and one of his most personal films was a dark melodrama titled simply "Él".

In "Él" (literally "He", but better known in English as "This Atrange Passion"), Arturo de Córdova plays Francisco Galván, a wealthy and respected man who meets an attractive young woman Gloria (Delia Garcés) at Church. Gloria, while somewhat attracted to Francisco, informs him that they can't speak to each other again. Francisco decides to follow her, but then he discovers the reason behind her words: she has a boyfriend, Raúl Conde (Luis Beristáin). Luckily for Francisco, Raúl is an old friend of his, so it doesn't take him much to orchestrate a way to woo Gloria away from Raúl. Gloria falls in love with Francisco, and the two get married quickly, nevertheless, Gloria's married life isn't the happiness she was expecting, as she begins to discover slowly that behind the exterior image of moral rectitude and impeccable behavior, is hidden a dominant and extremely jealous man. Francisco's jealousy begins to reach paranoid levels, and Gloria decides to escape from her situation.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Mercedes Pinto (which chronicled her first husband's mental problems) and adapted by Buñuel himself and Luis Alcoriza (his regular collaborator), "Él" is a sharp study on paranoia and mental degeneration, superbly crafted with a healthy dose of the writers' typical witty black humour. Nevertheless, "Él" is not only a tale about madness, as its multilayered screenplay conveys most of Buñuel's familiar thematic obsessions. Francisco is a wealthy churchgoer who has made for himself a public image of respectability and dignity. Nevertheless, this image is extremely fragile, as the slightest familiarity that Gloria could have with another man triggers in Francisco a violent jealous rage. The screenplay hints that Francisco's jealousy is the result of his repressed sexuality, having dedicated most of his free time to the Church (another of Buñuel's favourite targets). But still, Francisco is far from a simple insanely jealous character, being in fact, a pretty complex and human character.

The film also explores a pretty interesting visual narrative structure, being divided in three sections that allow to dissect the marriage of Francisco and Gloria. The first part details Francisco's courtship and culminates in their marriage, then the film flash-forwards several years into the future and finds a distressed Gloria meeting Raúl again, to whom she confesses her problems in a long flashback that makes the second part of the film. The final part returns to the present (and to Francisco) and details how advanced his madness is and the events that take place once he has found that Gloria has met Raúl again. Skillfully, the master unfolds his tale with a very smooth pace, and treats his subject matter not as a drama, but as a tale of suspense. "Él" is perhaps as close as Buñuel ever got to making a proper horror film. Visually, the movie is a joy to watch, thanks to the remarkable work of cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa, who captures the oppressive atmosphere of Francisco's household with striking angles and an expressionist touch.

Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova, a famous star of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, delivers in "Él" one of the best performances in his career, leading the cast as Francisco Galván, the paranoid husband of Gloria. A popular leading actor of film noirs and complex melodrama, De Córdova was no stranger to playing charming gentlemen with tortured minds, having honed his craft in Mexican classics such as "Crepúsculo", "El Hombre sin Rostro" and "En la palma de tu mano". Nevertheless, it's in Buñuel's "Él" where he achieves perfection, delivering a performance that it's both captivating and repulsive, displaying a range that goes from the highest subtlety to the most violent outbursts. As Gloria, Delia Garcés is equally as impressive, playing the loving wife who has to suffer the irrationality of the man she thought was perfect. In Gloria's meetings with Raúl, Garcés manages to portray the humility and dignity of a woman who feels betrayed by herself and the world.

Perhaps the weakest link is precisely Luis Beristáin as Raúl, whom gets easily caught between the two towering performances of the lead actors. Nevertheless, this isn't really a big deal, given that the story revolves completely around Francisco and Gloria. Wickedly disturbing, but without losing entirely its black humour, "Él" is a powerful deconstruction of the machismo of society, with Francisco having first idealized his future wife Gloria, only to later accuse her mercilessly and irrationally of being an unfaithful wife when they are finally married. For Buñuel, this has its roots in the Church as an institution, as the religious Francisco tries to reconcile his preconceived ideas of woman as a saint and as a sinner, with no middle-ground in between. His unrealistic ideal of perfection gets tarnished when he lets his sexual desire to take over, and thus he proceeds to control by force everything he can, particularly when he feels weak or defeated.

One of the most personal films Buñuel ever did (in fact, he claimed it was the film where he had put the most of himself), "Él" is a masterful depiction of jealousy and paranoia, as well as a testament to the talents of both De Córdova and Garcés. Mixing perfectly comedy, drama and suspense, Buñuel crafts in "Él" a vivid portrayal of mental degeneration. Unnerving, thrilling, and yet delightfully funny, "Él" is a work that manages to work on multiple levels. Knowing that Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of Buñuel, one wonders if the revered British filmmaker got some inspiration from the film while developing his own masterpiece, "Vertigo". Like "Los Olvidados", "Él" is one of Buñuel's Mexican films that rightfully deserves more recognition as a masterpiece of cinema.


December 23, 2011

El Bruto (1953)

Forced to leave Spain when Francisco Franco became a dictator, celebrated filmmaker Luis Buñuel found in Mexico a home and a new opportunity to make movies again. Nevertheless, the movies he had to do in the Mexican industry were far from the experimental surrealism of his initial output, as the Spaniard master had to learn how to make commercial films. Nevertheless, in 1950 the master would return to form with "Los Olvidados" a masterpiece of Mexican cinema that proved that the young maker of "Un Chien Andalou" was still alive and kicking. Sergio Kogan, one of the producers of "Los Olvidados", hired Buñuel to make a film for his wife Rosita Quintana, and the result was "Susana", which began a partnership between them which would also produce two more films: the urban melodramas "Una Mujer sin Amor" and "El Bruto". Starring Pedro Armendáriz and Katy Jurado, "El Bruto" is a film that, while apparently average at first, it actually has a lot of Buñuel's political ideologies hidden beneath its ordinary construction.

"El Bruto" (literally "The Brute") begins with a conflict between the poor tenants of a building and their landlord, Don Andrés Cabrera (Andrés Soler). DOn Andrés wants to sell the land, but his tenants don't want to be evicted. Their leader, Carmelo (Roberto Meyer), encourages his neighbors to fight for their rights. Don Andrés' wife Paloma (Katy Jurado) advices him to simply leave them leaderless. To this effect, Don Andrés calls Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz), a strong worker at Don Andrés' slaughterhouse who is nicknamed "Bruto". Tall and strong, but a tad dimwitted, Pedro is a loyal worker for Don Andrés, whom he considers his mentor, so he accepts the mission that his boss has given him: to scare Carmelo away. Pedro faces Carmelo and beats him, but the frail and sick Carmelo dies from his injury. Don Andrés hides Pedro in his home, where he'll face the seductive Paloma, who becomes quite interested in him. To further complicate things, Pedro will fall in love with Meche (Rosa Arenas), not knowing she's the daughter of the man he killed.

Written by Buñuel himself and his regular collaborator Luis Alcoriza, "El Bruto" is by all accounts, a fairly typical urban melodrama of passion and betrayal. Nevertheless, it's actually a multi-layered story that hides several of Buñuel's deeper and most complex idiosyncrasies. Not only "El Bruto" lets loose Buñuel's most Marxist views by having the working class Pedro serving as a pawn of the bourgeoisie, it explores the conflict of Pedro as a pawn of Paloma's desire and specially, of Pedro as a pawn of his own biggest flaws: lust and ignorance. Pedro could be a working class hero, but his sexual desire takes him first to live with a "family of leeches" (his girlfriend's family), to become Paloma's boy toy, which will result in greater problems for him when he discovers love with Meche. The love triangle between Pedro, Andrés and Paloma has certain Oedipal echoes, as its implied that Andres' tutorship of Pedro has had more to do with hidden familiar relationship rather than a purely altruist impulse.

Buñuel's work as a director is remarkable, and while the low budget is notorious, he makes the most of what he's got and carefully builds up the story, unfolding each element of the story skillfully, showing his domain of the visual narrative. The strength of "El Bruto" is in its storyline, and Buñuel gives enough space to develop the characters and enhance the story's impact. In terms of style, "El Bruto" is closer in tone and atmosphere to his 1950 masterpiece "Los Olvidados", as there's an amount of harsh realism in his depiction of life in the slums that his more surrealist pieces lack. This is not to say that the master's touches of surrealism are entirely absent, but in "El Bruto", they are more carefully concealed, kept dormant until the climatic ending, which has a pretty "Buñuelian" moment of surrealism in its epilogue. Cinematographer Agustín Jiménez offers a polished and stylish work that gives the film a noir visual look that's perfectly fitting, as in fact, "El Bruto" works as a film noir of the slums.

The cast is another of "El Bruto"'s greatest strengths, as it includes several of the best Mexican actors of all time. Leading the cast as Pedro is the legendary Pedro Armendáriz, who delivers a remarkable performance as the strong but not very brilliant hero of the film. A famous lead actor, Armendáriz plays a complex figure in "El Bruto", a pawn of forces bigger than himself, belittled by his difficulty to fully understanding his world. Pedro is not an idiot, but his naiveté and ignorance makes him someone easily manipulable. Yet as good as Armendáriz is, it is Katy Jurado whom as Paloma delivers the best performance in the film. Jurado's sensuous and voluptuous figure, coupled with her commanding screen presence makes her an ideal femme fatal, and not only shows her power manipulating Pedro, but also her older husband, Don Andrés. Played by Andrés Soler, Don Andrés is an equally complex character, on one side a ruthless businessman who cares little for the working class, yet he is also shown as a loving son and loyal friend.

This complex duality is the other running theme in "El Bruto", where nothing is really black and white. Each character in the film seems to have two sides, as if Buñuel was stating that despite the appearances, no villain is entirely bad, and no hero is entirely good. Meche, the young daughter of Carmelo, is perhaps the only character whose entirely "pure", as if she represented the grace that Pedro requires to stop being Bruto and become a full man. Once again, duality is present in Pedro as Bruto, because Pedro, dimwitted as he is, knows that Bruto is not a nice name. He is fully aware of his limitations, and begins to resent being seen as nothing more than a brute. As much as he desires Paloma's sexual favors, deep down he knows he is not seen as Pedro, but as Bruto, a thing made to be used. And this is Buñuel's at his most Marxist, as he presents the working class as a property of the bourgeoisie, represented by Don Andrés (heir of an "old money" family) and Paloma (a social climber). His awakening and quest for redemption become the core of this melodrama.

Often dismissed as being one of Buñuel's most ordinary and commercial efforts, "El Bruto" is actually one of the best movies from his Mexican output. While the film has notoriously low production values, there's a lot to enjoy in "El Bruto", as it's one of the films that most represent Buñuel's political leanings. Certainly, the film lacks the visual impact of "Los Olvidados", the charming irony of "Él" and the sharp criticism of "El Ángel Exterminador", but still, this minor gem about an oppressed man looking for his place is an impeccably done urban melodrama. In fact, this severely underrated film just proves that the world of director Luis Buñuel is stretched beyond his better known works in surrealism.


December 21, 2011

9½ Ninjas! (1991)

In 1986, Adrian Lyne's erotic drama film "9½ Weeks" was released and, despite getting mixed reviews, the sexually charged film quickly became a tremendous pop culture reference of the decade, thanks not only to the performances of stars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, but to Adrian Lyne's stylish craftsmanship, that resulted in erotic scenes that have become simply iconic. And with the status of iconic pop culture reference comes not only tributes and homages, but also spoofs, and in this aspect "9½ Weeks" has been quite prolific, as most of the stylish set pieces conceived by Lyne have been the subject of a spoof in several films and TV shows: the food scene, the ice, and of course, Basinger's legendary striptease to the sound of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On". Certainly, some spoofs are more intelligent than others, and there are also spoofs that are downright idiotic. Unfortunately, Aaron Barsky's "9½ Ninjas!" (1991) is one film that rightfully belongs to this category.

"9½ Ninjas!" begins with the young Joe Vogue (Keaton Simons) receiving strange Ninja lessons from his Master (legendary Gerald Okamura). Little Joe doesn't seem like Ninja material, but his Master's patience and perseverance give results: flash-forward a few years and adult Joe Vogue (now Michael Phenicie) is not only a successful businessman, but also a killing machine. His deadly abilities come handy to save the beautiful Lisa Thorne (Andee Gray) from a gang of criminals who were bothering at the restaurant where Joe was having a sandwich. Lisa immediately falls in love with Joe, and tells her that the gang was actually hired by Arnold Gruber (Robert Fieldsteel), an evil land owner who just bought her building and has been evicting everyone there. Joe decides it's not his business, however, a message arrives that makes him change his mind: Gruber has also bought his building and is evicting him as well. Now that the matter has turned personal, Joe decides to train Lisa and together stop Gruber, but Lisa has also certain skills she wants to teach Joe.

Written by Bill Crounse, John Morrissey and Don Pequignot, "9½ Ninjas!" attempts to spoof both Lyne's "9½ Weeks" and the ninja action films that had enjoyed a huge popularity during the 80s (popularity reflected most notably in Golan and Globus' "Ninja" series and in the "American Ninja" series). Unfortunately, it fails on both accounts. Most of the humour is based on Joe's useless attempts to train Lisa, whom is more interested in taking him to bed than in becoming a ninja herself. While everyone in the film is in awe at Lisa's beauty (and her preference for revealing clothes), Joe seems unaffected thanks to his Ninja focus. In fact, this and other of his strange antics also come to play, such as his strange relation with her mother (also a ninja) and his dependence on a hand puppet called Mr. Ninja (voiced by Paul Jabara). The jokes in the film are of a quite simplistic variety, based mainly on the absurd situations the absurd characters are put into. For a film which claims to be an erotic martial arts action comedy, it's unusually innocent in its humour.

While there are sources that cite producer John Morrissey as the director under the name of Aaron Worth, most take Aaron Barsky as the real director behind the pseudonym. What is beyond any doubt is the fact that whomever had been the responsible of "9½ Ninjas!" did a pretty poor job in bringing everything together. Granted, the source material is an awfully constructed screenplay that doesn't give much room for improvement, but the film's simplistic work of direction seems to had been limited to just framing the scene, giving some encouraging words to the actors and then shooting it. Everything done in the worst 80s TV style. In fact, while released in 1991, it wouldn't be surprising to discover that the film comes from the late 80s, as it does feel older. Anyways, to the film's credit, Spaniard cinematographer Fernando Argüelles (whom would later work in the celebrated TV series "Prison Break") does a more than acceptable job, certainly more than what "9½ Ninjas!" deserves, particularly in the only two scenes when he's required to mimic Lyne's style in "9½ Weeks".

As written above, there is not really a good screenplay material to work with, though some of the cast members in "9½ Ninjas!" manage to do their job with dignity. Magda Harout, who plays Joe's mother Gladys is probably the best amongst them, as she truly adds some spark to her badly written role, and is perhaps the only one in the cast who truly understands comedy timing. In his limited cameo, Gerald Okamura shows a lot more of commitment than most of the main cast members, and along Harout, is probably the only one genuinely funny in his performance. The protagonists, Michael Phenicie and Andee Gray are pretty bad in their roles. Phenicie is good looking, yet lacks the charm and energy to carry the film. Andee Gray is a beauty, but that's the only thing she brings on to her character. Character actor Robert Fieldsteel plays the evil Arnold Gruber, and while there's talent in his delivery, his role is probably the most ridiculous in the film. As a curiosity, Don Stark of "That 70's Show" fame can be seen as Gruber's servant Sledge.

Nevertheless, beyond its raw and simplistic craftsmanship, low production values and poorly talented cast, the real problem in "9½ Ninjas!" originates somewhere else: its terrible screenplay. Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that not even a good director could make a good film from a bad script, and "9½ Ninjas!" is a certain proof of that. Spoofs are supposed to mock, comment or satirize their subject, but in the case of "9½ Ninjas!" this is largely forgotten as the writers merely included stupid or awkward situations in an attempt at absurd comedy. Any attempt at parodying the ninja subgenre or "9½ Weeks" is lost in pointless scenes that seem lifted from a very old TV show. certainly, "9½ Weeks"'s status as an icon of its generation suits nicely to parody, but while "9½ Ninjas!" could had taken a more risqué approach to spoof the exaggeratedly stylish erotic drama of "9½ Weeks", it opts for a quite stupid and childish humour that probably sounded good on paper, but executed was painfully bad.

Certainly, Adrian Lyne's "9½ Weeks", with its oversexualized characters, stylish cinematography and outdated fashion sense is a great material to spoof. It's a complete product of its time, and as such, prone to be the target of the most merciless of parodies. Unfortunately, "9½ Ninjas!" fails at achieving this, and in fact, for a film that claims being an erotic martial arts action comedy, it results being neither erotic, nor thrilling nor funny. A couple of jokes may raise a smile or two, but as a whole, "9½ Ninjas!" is an unfortunate failure for everyone involved. Far better parodies have been done of both martial arts films and that 80s classic named "9½ Weeks".


December 20, 2011

Ravenous (1999)

The decade of the 90s isn't really know for its horror cinema, not even when Wes Craven's postmodern mix of horror and comedy, "Scream", seemed to reinvigorate the slasher subgenre in 1996. Nevertheless, as the decade reached its end, several horror films were released that proved that the genre was still alive and kicking. The independent spirit of "The Blair Witch Project" and the new wave of Asian horror started by "Ringu" paved the way for the renaissance that the genre experienced in the 2000s. Director Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" (1999) was also one of those films, an offbeat horror film that succeeded at being what most of the postmodernist clones of "Scream" failed to be: genuinely creepy and entertaining at the same time. A clever mix of horror and black comedy, Bird's "Ravenous" is a Western film that not only is intelligent and thought-provoking, it also allows itself some real fun thanks to the fresh and unpretentious approach of the film. This movie about cannibalism, is a nice surprise that it's not only a great horror film. It's a great film, period.

In "Ravenous", Guy Pearce plays Capt. John Boyd, a young member of the American Army during the Mexican-American War, who by lucky circumstances ends up becoming a war hero despite a shameful display of cowardice in the battlefield. As a "prize" for his dubious honor, Boyd is sent to Fort Spencer, a small and forgotten fort located somewhere near the Rocky Mountains. There, the troubled Captain Boyd meets the gang of misfits that form the military crew of Fort Spencer: the drug addict Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette), the psychotic Pvt. Reich (Neal McDonough) and the perpetually drunk Mayor Knox (Stephen Spinella). As Boyd tries to get used to his new position, the group receives the visit of a stranger, a lost wandering man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells the group of army men his bizarre story of survival: according to Colqhoun, his wagon train got lost in the Sierras Nevadas and his group reduced to cannibalism to survive. The soldiers at Fort Spencer decide to investigate, and their own horror story will begin.

The debut work of writer Ted Griffin (who has carved himself a name as a screenwriter of thrillers), "Ravenous" deals with the dark and disturbing subject of cannibalism, but the clever way the script is written makes the ride a captivating and intriguing instead of morbid, thanks in part to the great set of quirky and fascinating characters that populate Fort Spencer. While it could be argued that Griffin's use of dark comedy diminishes the impact of the horror in movie, actually Griffin's witty touch of humor and irony is what truly adds the strange offbeat charm the film has; and by making his gang of undesirable misfits a lot more human and likable, Griffin has developed a story that almost works as an ensemble piece. With great character development that challenges twists the typical conventions (for instance, the main character, is truly one big unashamed coward), Griffin's "Ravenous" presents one of the most original stories in modern horror, one that doesn't shy away from dwelling into human's darker nature.

Director Antonia Bird takes a straight forward approach to translate Griffin's screenplay to the big screen, though there's a special focus on the characters that turns them into the driving force of the film and ultimately what separates it from the rest. Bird's "Ravenous" has the benefit of having as assets the remarkable works of cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond and production designer Bryce Perrin. Despite working on a budget, their work manages to make a pretty faithful rendition of the time period in which the story is set. Richmond's cinematography makes great use of the locations (The Tatras Mountains in Slovakia) and develops a nice contrast between the beauty of the natural landscape and the grotesque gore of the events that takes place inside the Fort. But even when the story aims for a graphic orgy of violence, Bird's heavy focus on the characters allow a deeper insight from the story beyond the violence. In "Ravenous", Bird succeeds in making cannibalism both repulsive and captivating.

Leading the cast is Australian actor Guy Pearce, whom delivers a remarkable performance in the difficult role of Capt. Boyd, as his job becomes making likable a character that in essence is really the antithesis of the classic hero archetype. Using more his body and facial expressions, Pearce's presence completely owns the screen even when his character barely speaks at all in the film. However, he is not the only one to shine in "Ravenous", as every member of the cast receives a chance to show off their talents. The highlight is certainly Robert Carlyle, who delivers an outstanding performance as the disturbed Colqhoun, a man driven by his obsession, or better said, by his addiction. The sociopath Colqhoun is a savage force of nature, and Carlyle makes the most of the role without resorting to cliché or caricature. Jeffrey Jones' Col. Hart gives dignity and the touch of black humor to the ensemble cast. And finally, David Arquette, Jeremy Davis and Stephen Spinella deliver restrained yet effective performances that complete this delicious black comedy.

Offbeat, grotesque and yet captivating, Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" is a pretty original and interesting take on the Western genre in which horror elements are added in an interesting and original way. Mixing elements from Native American folklore, Griffin and Bird have created a story that seems to be an allegory for addiction. The cannibals are addicts to the strength they receive from human meat, and ultimately, each member of the group is fighting for their own survival. Interestingly, director Antonia Bird is a vegetarian, so that can explain the added repulsiveness added to the meat consumption. While definitely not perfect, "Ravenous" is certainly a refreshing film that brings back introspective horror to the spotlight. Beyond the gore and violence, the horror is found in what Capt. Boyd is becoming: he and Colqhoun are not that different, and Boyd's gory journey is basically his way to come to terms with this. If the film has any flaw, it is definitely the somewhat slow pace it has, but that's more a quibble than a problem.

The ultimate human taboo, cannibalism is an act that encompasses uneasy feelings of both fascination and repulsion. From Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" to Ruggero Deodato's classic of exploitation "Cannibal Holocaust", cannibalism has inspired several works of art through history, as it's certainly a complex subject matter that will continue captivating the minds of authors for centuries. In the hands of Ted Griffin and Antonia Bird, cannibalism has resulted in one of the most original and refreshing horror films of the late 90s. A true gem in a decade with very few hits, "Ravenous" is part of those films that closed the 90s with a bang and foretold the horror revival of the 2000s. Grim and slow, but sill witty and funny, "Ravenous"' odd mix of horror and comedy in a Western setting is a terrific addition to the genre.


December 09, 2011

The Runway (2010)

In the 1980s, the small Irish town of Mallow, in County Cork, witnessed an odd story: a Mexican private plane heading to Shannon, Ireland, got lost in the heavy mist and ran out of fuel. The pilot, captain Rubén Ocaña, found the town of Mallow and made a dramatic emergency landing on the town's racetrack. The plane owner, an important Mexican business man, followed his trip and left Ocaña the task to save the plane, which was practically undamaged. Ocaña remained in Mallow until a runway was built next to the racetrack. In the meantime, he became a local celebrity in Mallow and was invited to participate in the town's annual celebration (which were taking place when his plane landed), and the town gathered to witness him fly when the runway was finally finished. The story of the Mexican pilot who landed in Mallow became a fun anecdote, and inspired Irish filmmaker to make a film about it, "The Runway", which only takes the core Ocaña's adventure as basis to tell a story of two different persons who become the best of friends.

Set in the 1980s "The Runway" is the story of Paco (Jamie Kierans), a smart 9 years old kid who lives in the small town of Dromeleen in County Cork, where nothing special ever happens. Paco is the only son of Grace (Kerry Condon), and he has never known his father, though knowing that he is in Spain, Paco is decided to learn Spanish. One night, Paco listens that something has crashed in the hills near his house, and discovers that a plane has made an emergency landing there. The plane has only one pilot, Ernesto (Demián Bichir), who can only speak Spanish, so Paco helps him out and takes him home. Ernesto turns out to be a Colombian pilot, and while he has lived a colorful life, Paco's translation convinces the town of Dromeleen that it's important to help Ernesto return home. The town, stagnated in an economic depression, suddenly finds new life when they receive the mission of building a runway for the plane. And in the meantime, a friendship will born between the tough Colombian pilot and the little kid.

Taking only the concept of a Latinamerican pilot landing in a forgotten Irish town, director Ian Power develops a story that, while being a pretty basic tale of friendship at its core, is imbued with a heartfelt warm and a whimsical tone that elevates it from the rest. Certainly, Ian Power isn't discovering anything new in "The Runway", as the story has all the necessary elements its premise could deliver: the cultural clash and the fish out of water element, the revitalization of the forgotten town, the arrival of a father figure for the lonely kid and of course, a blooming love story. Nevertheless, Power plays all the right notes in his construction of a family comedy, managing to make the movie to feel fresh and vibrant despite its apparently formulaic craftsmanship. And the key for this is the way Power develops his set of characters, the situations they face, and the relationships between them. While Ernesto and Paco are the core of the story, every secondary character receives enough attention to create a well developed group.

The real strength in "The Runway" is found in the great skill director Ian Power shows in his storytelling. With a lighthearted tone and a perfect timing for comedy, Power weaves a charming story of friendship that unveils smoothly in all its simplicity. Like an old time comedies, "The Runway" is made up by a series of improbable situations, beginning with the plane crashing (which as said above, actually happened). And yet, Power avoids making it an artificial or shallow. He grounds it heavily in reality, and while lighthearted, it does briefly touches on the unemployment and boredom lived in the town, as well as in the troubles that Ernesto faces in Colombia. Power gives space to his characters to grow, and that's where this sensation of realism comes. Nevertheless, the highlight of the film is the extraordinary work of cinematographer P.J. Dillon, who gives "The Runway" a beautiful warm look that perfectly captures the tone of the story, and gives the film a decidedly Irish atmosphere.

As written above, the heart of "The Runway" is in its characters, and the cast who brings them to life is particularly of great quality. The young Jamie Kierans shines in the film as little Paco, and makes a remarkable performance for his young age as the kid so eagerly in need of a friend that goes to a great length to protect the foreign stranger. Mexican actor Demián Bichir is also pretty good as the Colombian pilot Ernesto, though he is certainly overshadowed by his young costar. Actress Kerry Condon shines in her role as Paco's mother, showcasing not only her great beauty, but also a natural timing for comedy. Unfortunately, Condon's screen time is very limited, and could had been explored better. Veteran actor James Cosmo plays Sutherland, an old engineer who always gives Paco a hard time, but who becomes more involved with his community when he begins to repair the plane. Another highlight is Donncha Crowley's scene stealing performance as the bumbling mayor of Dromoleen, more interested in public relations than on actually helping.

Ian Power's "The Runway" isn't exactly a groundbreaking comedy film, neither in its visual style nor on its story. It's actually a mix of drama and comedy done in a quite classic style of storytelling; perhaps one a bit too traditional for its own sake, but one that works nonetheless. Originality isn't one of the film's virtues, and yet, this apparent lack of originality is fully compensated by something that can only be described as an enormous amount of heart. In its simplicity, "The Runway" aims purely for emotions, and succeeds in its attempt without any obvious sign of cheap emotional manipulation. Certainly, ever since its origins film has been all about manipulating the viewer's emotions; but director Ian Power, by just letting his characters drive the film, manages to make this manipulation invisible, accessible and enjoyable. It could be said that Power doesn't dare to go beyond with his film to challenge the genre or reinventing the wheel; but in the end, "The Runway" has a defined goal and it achieves it without problem. It entertains.

Lighthearted, whimsical and decidedly Irish, Ian Power's "The Runway" is an old school melodrama about two different souls who find each other and make a bond. It's also a story about a town waking up again, and finally, a tale of breaking cultural barriers. In "The Runway", Power offers an optimist and uplifting story that seems to state that the idyllic Ireland so often seen in movies is not to be found on its landscapes landscapes or its past, but on its people. In the end, the people, regardless of their origin, becomes the center of "The Runway", as a group of unemployed workers help a plane to fly again. "The Runway" is a simple story told in a very simple way, but sometimes simplicity is the key.


November 29, 2011

The Thing (2011)

Released in 1982, John Carpenter's "The Thing" was a suspenseful and somber apocalyptic tale of the first contact with a dangerous and aggressive alien lifeform. A remake of Howard Hawks' "The Thing from Another World" (and itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?"), the film had a cold reception from audiences who preferred Steven Spielberg's friendlier take on aliens: "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial". While it ended up being a box office failure upon release, Carpenter's "The Thing" is nothing short of a masterpiece of horror filmmaking, showcasing Carpenter's talent for handling suspense and some of the most amazing special effects ever done (by Rob Bottin). Twenty nine years later, producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman got the chance to make a remake of "The Thing", but found the task of surpassing it too overwhelming. Instead, production began for a prequel, dealing with the events that precede John Carpenter's film: the initial discovery of the Thing.

Set in 1982, "The Thing" begins with the discovery of a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship buried in Antarctica. The Norwegian scientific team that made the discovery contacts Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to lead the research, and he in turn recruits paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), as the spaceship wasn't the only thing they found: there is also frozen corpse of a creature that seemed to have been frozen after exiting the spaceship. Kate joins Dr. Halvorson and his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and travel to Antarctica to begin the excavation. Taking the block of ice to their station, the crew celebrates the discovery, but the warmth of the base has resurrected the frozen thing and it escapes from its ice prison. The Thing murders a member of the crew, Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind) before it's burned to death by the rest of the team. Nevertheless, while the nightmare seems to be over, Kate discovers that the Thing is still with them, as it's able to replicate any life form. And it could be any of them.

As written above, in "The Thing", scriptwriter Eric Heisserer chronicles what happens before Carpenter's film. Around this premise, Heisserer builds up a story that, while following the pattern of Carpenter's film, it showcases a significantly different scenario. For starters, the story now has a female character in the lead role, which offers a different perspective with Kate being a young woman trying to make herself heard amongst a group of older men who also happen to be from a different country. This difference of nationalities also plays a big role in setting up the mood of distrust between the characters in the story, as it plays on the tension felt between the American and Norwegian members of the team. Heisserer's screenplay recovers elements from Hawk's film, like having scientists as main characters, and the dilemma of being forced to destroy what could be the discovery of the century. This results in a slightly different tone, as less paranoid (the scientists know what they are facing) and with greater emphasis on visceral horror.

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (son of famous Dutch producer Matthijs van Heijningen), this new take on "The Thing" goes to a great extent to replicate the look and atmosphere of Carpenter's film. In this aspect, the work done by production designer Sean Haworth and cinematographer Michel Abramowicz is remarkable, as they fully capture Carpenter's visual look. Like Campbell's novella, "The Thing" is a tale of isolation, and director van Heijningen captures this element nicely, particularly by having Kate alone with a dozen of men who may be against her. Van Heijningen adds his own touch with the shift in tone the screenplay demands: his horror is not fueled by paranoia, but by the horrid vision of the monster. The scientists' battle against the alien is a more direct affair and the Thing itself, this time designed by Michael Broom, is a formidable creature done by a mix of practical effects and CGI. Unfortunately, this approach comes with the bane of showing a bit too much of the monster for its own good.

The cast in "The Thing" is remarkably good, with May Elizabeth Winstead doing a great job leading the cast. As Kate Lloyd, she conveys the right mix of natural charm and strong presence her character requires, and she does a great job in making believable the development of her role from confused newcomer to the leader of the group. Ulrich Thomsen is equally as good as Dr. Sander Halvorson, the leader of the expedition, who feels his position threatened by Kate's leadership. Joel Edgerton plays American pilot Carter, a Vietnam veteran not really convinced with the way the scientists are handling the situation. Edgerton is a tad weak in his role, though certainly his character wasn't as developed as the others. Jørgen Langhelle who plays Lars (incidentally another soldier) is the polar opposite. Stealing every scene with his portrayal of the pragmatic Lars, Langhelle is a highlight of the film. As the other female in the team, Kim Bubbs is effective, though her character also suffers from being underwritten.

This lack of development in the characters is perhaps one of the film's problems, as some of the team members are left as mere stock characters meant to be canon fodder for the alien. Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest problem "The Thing" has is the existence of Carpenter's "The Thing" itself. Making a prequel of a masterpiece is a difficult task, and Van Heijningen certainly deserves kudos for making such a brave effort in delivering the film. He certainly succeeds in capturing perfectly the visual style of Carpenter's movie. Nevertheless, unlike its title character, Van Heijningen's "The Thing" isn't really an entirely perfect duplicate of the remarkable 1982's film. The shift in tone is a welcomed change, as is the female lead character; however, Van Heijningen's decision of showing a lot of his Thing may not be entirely fortunate. It's not that the monster doesn't look good (it does), but like all monsters, the more it's exposed, the less scary it becomes. And that's something Carpenter knew well.

On a lesser note, Van Heijningen's version of "The Thing" shows a certain American patriotism that feels a bit unnecessary; however, this is also something that could be traced back to Hawks' version. As it is, Van Heijningen's remake/prequel of Carpenter's "The Thing" can be seen as a heartfelt homage to two classics of horror cinema, and one that truly succeeds in actually being a fitting companion piece to the film it pays tribute. Certainly, Van Heijningen's film may not be entirely a true original, but it succeeds in bringing something different to the table, and in its use of suspense and graphic horror, it's easily one of the best horror films of this second decade of the century. Maybe not a perfect replica, but a remarkable attempt nonetheless.


November 25, 2011

The Changeling (1980)

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft once wrote "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Perhaps nothing represents best this notion than ghost stories, as since immemorial times, the mystery of death is one that has always been both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Naturally, ghost stories found their way into film, and so ghosts and hauntings have been part of cinema since Georges Méliès's short films in the 1890s. Given their settings, ghost stories are definitely a mainstay of Gothic horror in film, and have been the basis for several of the subgenre's greatest masterpieces (Wise's "The Haunting" and Clayton's "The Innocents" to name just two). Peter Medak's 1980 film "The Changeling" continues this long tradition of ghost stories in a Gothic horror vein, by having at its core an ominous haunted mansion, and the terrifying journey that its latest inhabitant must endure in order to solve the mystery behind some serious ghastly disturbances.

"The Changeling" is the story of John Russell (George C. Scott), a successful musician and composer who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic car accident while on a winter vacation. Still mourning his loss but hoping to rebuilt his life, Russell moves to Seattle in order to teach music at the local university, and leases a huge abandoned mansion that belongs to the Historical Society, hoping to find the quietness to compose again. The mansion, named the Chessman House, is enormous in size and supposedly has been empty for twenty years. However, Russell begins to experience a series of supernatural events that make him begin to wonder if he is truly alone at the house. Noises and other occurrences point out to the presence of a child who lived there a long time ago. While reluctant at first, Russell decides to investigate the mystery in order to find peace for both him and the ghost, and begins to discover the secrets of the Chessman House's past and the mysterious events that took place there.

Based on a story by Russell Hunter (and supposedly based on his real experiences living in Cheessman Park, Denver), the movie was written by William Gray and Diana Maddox, who cleverly built a captivating tale of mystery that slowly unfolds as Russell's investigation takes place. Putting the genre's conventions to good use, the writers follow closely the classic Gothic pattern for ghost stories, keeping an appropriate balance between the horror and the mystery. And mystery is the key of "The Changeling"'s screenplay, as the plot is filled with many twists and turns that build up a story that works like a hybrid between detective fiction and horror film, with Russell being akin to a hardened tough guy on a difficult case. This focus on Russell's research is perhaps "The Changeling"'s main departure from its otherwise classicist approach, but it's one that truly makes the story very interesting, particularly because of the and the fact that the main characters are very well developed, elevating the story from its formulaic origin.

Director Peter Medak creates an enormously atmospheric movie that really takes good advantage of the story's decidedly Gothic style. With a superbly elegant and classy work of cinematography by John Coquillon, Medak perfectly uses his location to make the Chessman House itself an important character in the movie. It's not only a mere set, Medak makes it an extension of the presence that lives with Russell there, much like director Robert Wise did decades before in the legendary classic "The Haunting". And as in Wise's film, Medak's "The Changeling" succeeds in making a horror movie where the terror comes from simple and mundane objects instead of complicated special effects. In "The Changeling", a red ball can be a more terrifying element than any monster. Medak plays with what's unseen and unknown to create horror at its purest sense. The great focus placed on mystery and suspense is classic Gothic horror, and the film's heavy atmosphere of dread and somber tone truly make it a proud heir of the ghost stories that precedes it.

Better known for his remarkable performance in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Patton" (1970), George C. Scott once again shows his enormous talent as the tortured composer John Russell. Scott's acting feels natural and realistic, easily making his character come to life with an honest charm that makes hard not to feel identified with him. Certainly, Scott's image fits nicely in the film's context, as he creates a character tough enough to the task, yet sensible, fragile and wounded. George C. Scott's real life wife Trish Van Devere plays his character's counterpart, Claire Norman, a member of the History Society and the one who helped Russell to get the house. In a character that easily could had become a cliché, Van Devere delivers a natural performance that enhances the film's subtle mix of realism with dark fantasy, and while her screen time is considerably smaller, her performance is effective. The film has also great performances by Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh and John Colicos in the supporting roles.

Overshadowed by the better known horror films that were released in the same year (namely Kubrick's "The Shining" and Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust"), Medak's "The Changeling" has many elements that make him one of the "forgotten" great horror movies of the 80s. With its classicist style and ominous Gothic atmosphere, it's certainly a throwback to a subtler kind of horror, more disturbing and unnerving than graphically shocking. In terms of style, Medak's "The Changeling" could be seen as the polar opposite to Spielberg and Hooper's "Poltergeist" (another great ghost story of the 80s), as both films tell the story of a haunted house, but with completely different craftsmanship. Restrained and simple, "The Changeling" may feel slow at times, particularly as it unfolds it's complex plot (which at times may be too complex for its own good); however, the slow pacing only enhances the suspense and tension built by director Peter Medak and ultimately benefits the movie as a whole.

"The Changeling" remains Peter Medak's most accomplished and remarkable film, as while his return to horror in "Species II" wasn't really bad, it was far from the supreme achievement he did in this film. Classy, subtle and restrained, "The Changeling" offered a modern take on the classic style of ghost stories, and left a mark that did found echo: the famous Japanese horror "Ringu" clearly borrowed certain elements from "The Changeling"'s plot and tone. With its haunting atmosphere of nightmare, superb work of cinematography and its appropriate slow rhythm, "The Changeling" is a worthy heir to the style of Gothic ghost stories that directors Wise and Clayton seemed to perfect in the 60s. A remarkable modern Gothic.


November 22, 2011

Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (1990)

After the success of his 1988 film "Ariel", Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki produced the movie that would gave him international recognition: "Leningrad Cowboys Go America". A bizarre road movie about the misadventures of a Russian rock band in America, "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" would become a landmark in Kaurismäki's career. However, after this success, Kaurismäki decided to return to the themes he had previously explored in "Varjoja paratiisissa" and "Ariel", the stories of the underdogs, the losers, the dispossessed members of the working class who struggle everyday in the coldness of Helsinki to find something close to happiness. Titled "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" and released in 1990, the movie completed a thematic trilogy along "Varjoja paratiisissa" and "Ariel", which is now known as "The Proletariat Trilogy". Nevertheless, while similar, "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" is a bit different to the other two films, as it's one of Aki Kaurismäki's darker films.

"Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" or "The Match Factory Girl", is the story of Iris (Kati Outinen), a young lonely woman living a dull and monotonous life in Helsinki. Working at a dead-end job in a match factory, and supporting her uncaring mother (Elina Salo) and her forbidding stepfather (Esko Nikkari), whom she gives most of her meager salary. There's little joy in Iris' life, who spends her free time reading cheap novels and attending to nightclubs, hoping to meet the man of her dreams. Unfortunately, this never happens, and her social life is a disaster. One day she saves enough money to buy herself a new dress, much to the displeasure of her family who wants her to return it. Iris keeps it anyways and goes out, finally finding a dance partner in Aarne (Vesa Vierikko). They spend the night together, though Aarne thinks she is a prostitute and their relationship doesn't end well. When Iris finds out that she's pregnant, things get even worse, but she is also read to take revenge on the world.

While covering the same themes and obsessions as the other two films in the "Proletariat Trilogy", "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" represents a notorious break in terms of tone, as this time, Kaurismäki's trademark brand of dry comedy is downplayed and leaves room to a truly bleak and depressive tragedy. Like other Kaurismäki's anti-heroes, Iris lives with an iron-clad stoicism, facing the constant abuses from the people around her. However, for Iris there is no love or hope to inspire her, as the world seems to pretend that she doesn't exist. As if she was just another machine in the match factory, her life passes day after day in the same monotonous pattern. Heartlessness is common in Iris' world, and yet, amidst the big atmosphere of melancholy and despair, there are still brief glimpses of Kaurismäki's deadpan humor through the film. His comedy is not absent in "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö", just hidden, waiting to deliver a masterful lesson in irony that's the icing of the bleak cake that is "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö".

The dialog in "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" is minimal, yet remarkably efficient. Everything that needs to be said is said, not a single line is wasted, and if images alone can tell the story, then so be it. It is certainly a case of "less is more", a supreme triumph of simplicity in storytelling, as the minimalist approach Kaurismäki employs, as cold and distant it may look, surprisingly proves to be no less expressive than flashier visual styles. This minimalism, that Kaurismäki had been perfecting with each work, can finally be seen at its best in "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö", which reveals the Finnish director as a master of composition. With sparse camera movements, Kaurismäki conceives a visual narrative that's as efficient as it is economical, making of "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" to be almost a purely visual tale. The work of cinematographer Timo Salminen, Kaurismäki's regular collaborator is worthy of praise, as he captures the bleak gray world of Iris' Helsinki with realism and a certain degree of tragic beauty.

Yey, as remarkable as Kaurismäki's work of directing is, a huge part of the triumph of "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" is due to the effective performance of Kaurismäki's muse Kati Outinen as the match factory girl, Iris. In role completely different to the one she played in "Varjoja paratiisissa", Outinen truly creates a haunting portrayal of a tragic woman. With subtle gestures and deeply expressive eyes, Outinen says a lot with her silence, and in that expressive silence, she makes Iris to stand for every abused women, regardless of nationality. Perhaps even for every abused people, regardless of sex. As Aarne, Vesa Vierikko is equally great, making a painfully realist character that could had easily been nothing more than a mere archetype. In fact, most characters in the film could had been mere archetypes if it wasn't for the actors who play them. Case in point, Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari, who play Iris' parents. Particularly Esko Nikkari offers a remarkable performance that, like the film itself, says a lot in very few lines.

While certainly "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" offers a colder and darker vision compared to his previous films, Kaurismäki still remains a humanist in "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö", as while the film showcases a series of humiliations that Iris survives with naive stoicism, there is never a hint of miserabilism in the treatment. It's all frank and honest in its portrayal, something that could be seen as distant and harsh on Kaurismäki's part, but that it's actually a compassionate view without any trace of artificial dignity. This becomes clear as Iris begins to plot her revenge. Kaurismäki's dispossessed ones are never examples of "nobility in poverty" and in fact, Iris' tragedy slowly begins to show its true colors as a Kaurismäki comedy. The blackest, the bleakest, the most depressive and melancholic one, but a comedy at heart. The comedic turn that this tragedy makes is not a cheap one, it's not a betrayal to the tone set by the rest of the film, it's more like Kaurismäki's bittersweet irony raising up a wry smile.

Somber, depressive, yet powerfully evocative, Aki Kaurismäki's third part of the so-called "Proletariat Trilogy" may be a difficult film to watch, but it's certainly one that leaves a strong impression. "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö" of "The Match Factory Girl", bears all the trademarks of a Kaurismäki minimalist film taken to the max: sparse dialog, slow rhythm, minimal camera movement. Everything is there, as a final statement of his thoughts about the reality of Finland's underdogs as he sees it. It's a harsh view, but an objective one. void of cheap romanticism, Kaurismäki's view on the dispossessed is, despite all the bleakness, a humanist one. Certainly the fate of Iris, the match factory girl is hard. But for a moment, she may be able to raise a smile.


November 18, 2011

Ariel (1988)

With a calm and candid twist on the romantic comedy called "Varjoja paratiisissa" ("Shadows in Paradise") released in 1986, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki began to leave his mark in the history of cinema, developing his very particular style of deadpan delivery and ironic melancholy. After making a modern noir reworking of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in 1987 (titled "Hamlet liikemaailmassa"), Kaurismäki returned to the themes of social alienation and absurd misery that he had previously explored in "Varjoja paratiisissa". The result was "Ariel", the second installment in a thematic trilogy about Helsinki's dispossessed that has been known as "the Underdog Trilogy", "the Losers Trilogy" and more famously, "The Proletariat Trilogy". As those names may imply, the central characters in those films belong to the working class, and their stories explore their struggles in the difficult economic panorama that resulted after Finland liberalized its economy. And all done in Kaurismäki's distinctive brand of black comedy.

In "Ariel", Turo Pajala plays Taisto Karurinen, a chain-smoking coal miner in his 30s who has spent all his life in the rural town where he works. When the mine is closed, Taisto's father (Erkki Pajala), also a miner, gives his 60s Cadillac to Taisto and commits suicide, but not before advising his son to leave the town. Taisto gathers his life savings and heads to the big city, Helsinki, looking for a better future. Nevertheless, the capital doesn't really give Taisto the best of welcomes, as soon after arriving he ends up beaten and robbed. Without job and without cash, Taisto's wanders through the city looking for a job, which he fortunately finds on the docks. Taisto's life then becomes a routine of day labor work and night rock n' rolling at a club, but everything changes when he meets Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), a divorced mother of a young kid (Eetu Hilkamo) with who he begins a relationship. Seems like luck is finally smiling to Taisto, but things ain't easy for the dispossessed, as soon Taisto gets jailed for a crime he didn't commit.

Written by director Kaurismäki himself, "Ariel" is basically a tale of bad luck as Taisto's life often finds itself set back by the forces he can not control. From the closure of the mine he worked to his arrival to prison, "Ariel" is a story of hopelessness and absurdity at its most Kafkian sense. But unlike the works of the great Austro-Hungarian writer, Kaurismäki's stories are imbued by a bittersweet sense of compassion shaped in the black humor that's deeply rooted in them. There is no pessimism in "Ariel", just a honesty that seems to answer with stoic indifference the many setbacks and bad jokes of life. Taisto, the Kaurismäki anti-hero, finds himself stripped of everything upon his arrival to Helsinki, and yet, in this tragedy he finds himself self-confident for the first time. The self-confidence of someone who has nothing else to lose, and everything to win. With sparse, yet carefully constructed dialogs, Kaurismäki builds up a set of unforgettable characters that become the heart of this relatively simple story of love, crime and bad luck.

As a director, Aki Kaurismäki refines the stark visual style of "Varjoja paratiisissa", which in its austerity contrasts the harsh and cold atmosphere of Finnish urban landscape with the warmth that brings the people who live in it. There's a greater emphasis in the film about the state of Finnish economy, not explicitly stated, but implied by the subtleties of the characters' actions (and emphasis not found in the other films of the Trilogy). Kaurismäki's regular cinematographer, Timo Salminen, captures the bleakness of Helsinki's streets and nightlife, and nicely frames the hopelessness of Taisto's struggle. Salminen finds a strange beauty in the alleys, bars and docks of Helsinki, that shines naturally, without idealizing them. Kaurismäki's narrative is more polished than in his previous film, perfecting the slow pacing and the deadpan delivery of his comedy. Certainly, his timing is more precise this time, as in "Ariel" there's a greater emphasis on finding the humorous side of the absurdities of life.

Acting in the film is of great quality, with Turo Pajala leading the cast perfectly capturing the spirit of Kaurismäki's style. With great ability, Pajala manages to deliver his character's stoicism with enormous subtlety and style. There's a great naturalness in Pajala's performance that helps to make easier to enter into Kaurismäki's style. Subtlety is the key in Pajala's performance, and it's remarkable what he achieves with minimalist gestures and strong delivery. Unfortunately, Susanna Haavisto isn't that lucky, and her performance as Taisto's love interest, Irmeli is just average. Instead of subtle, she feels a bit forced and artificial in her delivery. Kaurismäki's regular Matti Pellonpää appears as Mikkonen, a convict who helps Taisto to break from prison. A familiar face in Kaurismäki's body of work, Pellonpää once again makes a good performance, perhaps a tad limited by the seriousness of his character, but ultimately fitting as a counterpart to Taisto's naiveté.

The rest of the cast is effective, and particularly worth of notice is young Eetu Hilkamo's performance as Irmeli's son Riku, who truly steals every scene he is in. All in all, "Ariel" is a strong entry in Kaurismäki's cinema, a mature work that displays a more developed stage of the minimalist style that the Finnish filmmaker had been experimenting since his debut. All of Kaurismäki's themes and obsessions appear in "Ariel", from its absurd take on irony, to its depressive working class setting, it's all there, as a statement of the direction that Kaurismäki was heading his work at that point. And for this reason, the same problems present in his cinema appear again in "Ariel", particularly the difficulty that may present his offbeat and highly idiosyncratic deadpan comedy. Deliberatedly slow and contemplative, the stark minimalism of "Ariel" could be off-putting to audiences expecting a more traditional comedy. It's certainly, an acquired taste. Nevertheless, "Ariel" has in Turo Pajala an actor with enough charm to make all work.

Taisto's journey, from his rural town to the depths of prison, isn't really any different from an epic adventure of grand scale. The hero of the tale still must sort out all kind of problems and win the favors of goddess Fortuna. The minimalist scale of this epic is only representative of what's probably the core of the Proletariat Trilogy: surviving this life is already a matter of heroism. The misadventures of Taisto, product of an apparently interminable streak of bad luck, feel all the more realist and human. Without cheap philosophy or arrogant pretentiousness, in this second exploration of the world of the dispossessed director Aki Kaurismäki uncovers the bittersweet glory of the common man.


November 17, 2011

Varjoja paratiisissa (1986)

In the early 1980s, cinema of Finland experienced a grand renovation, as a new generation of young filmmakers erupted to reinvigorate the Finnish film industry. At the head of this new era were the Kaurismäki brothers, Mika and Aki, whose film "Valehtelija" (released in 1981, directed by Mila and written by Aki) represented both a heartfelt tribute to the French New Wave and a rupture with the Finnish old-guard. Two years later Aki Kaurismäki debuted with the feature length film "Rikos ja rangaistus", an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel "Crime and Punishment". Its follow up, the absurd comedy "Calamari Union" gave more insight about Kaurismäki's idiosyncrasies, but it would be in his third film, "Varjoja paratiisissa" where the Finnish director would fully establish the path his vision of cinema was taking. The first part of a thematic trilogy (collectivelly known as the Proletariat Trilogy), "Varjoja paratiisissa" is an introduction to the bleak black comedy of Kaurismäki's Helsinki.

Known in English as "Shadows in Paradise" (the literal translation), "Varjoja paratiisissa" is the story of Nikander (Matti Pellonpää), a shy and lonely garbage man living in Helsinki. One day and old co-worker Esko (Esko Nikkari) proposes him to join a new company he is starting, and while Nikander accepts, the project is finished when Esko dies of a sudden heart attack. This event begins to affect Nikander, and gives him the courage to invite Ilona (Kati Outinen) to a date. Ilona is a supermarket clerk, lonely like Nikander but with the aspiration of leaving Helsinki for good. The date goes wrong and a melancholic Nikander gets drunk and ends up in jail, where he befriends Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen), who later joins Nikander as a garbage man. Ilona loses her job at the supermarket, and decides to begin an on-again off-again relationship with Nikander, whom is surprised by this. However, this is only the beginning for the stoic garbage man, who harbors dreams of stop being a loser.

"Varjoja paratiisissa", written by Kaurismäki himself, is at its most basic, the story of a lonely man looking to give some meaning to his life. Romance ends up playing a central part in the plot, but "Varjoja paratiisissa" is by no means a romantic comedy, or at least, not one in the traditional sense. Nikander, the protagonist, has spend his life just existing, until the dead of his old co-worker triggers an urge to do something else in life. An impassible stoic man, Nikander tries, fails and tries again without making a big fuzz about it. On the other hand, Ilona's more desperate attempts to improve her condition make her a more impulsive character. Their pairing is odd, and their relationship a difficult one, but in the end, most couples in real life are this way. Love, in the bleak world of Kaurismäki, isn't the solution for the problems, but it certainly helps to make easier the handling of the absurdities of life. Kaurimäki's view of the underclass is neither condescending nor harsh, just bittersweet.

The tone of "Varjoja paratiisissa" is decidedly ironic, with Kaurismäki preferring deadpan delivery for his comedy instead of a more overstated or energetic one. This simplistic low-key approach, which would become one of Kaurismäki's most familiar trademarks, is strangely fitting in the gray coldness of Helsinki that the director captures through the camera of Timo Salminen (Kaurismäki's regular cinematographer), which oddly, gives a warm feeling to this coldness. In a way, Salminen captures the warmness of humanity, who struggles through the absurdities of life looking for meaning. The struggle itself seems to be the point in "Varjoja paratiisissa", which finds its humor in its characters' apparently pointless and pathetic quests. And yet, there's neither cynicism nor condescension in Kaurismäki cinema, but a more honest naturalist contemplation of the absurd. Ultimately, the quests prove to be neither pointless nor pathetic, as amidst all the depressive bleakness, there's always some enlightenment.

Playing an extrapolation of the character he played in Kaurismäki's earlier "Rikos ja rangaistus", actor Matti Pellonpää delivers a subtle, yet remarkable performance as the stoic Nikander. Practical yet naive, introverted yet courageous, Nikander is a man full of contradictions, and Matti Pellonpää manages to create a painfully realist portrait of Kaurismäki's perennial underdog. In his deadpan delivery, there's a great sense of honesty that permeates everything he says, and that prevents his performance from looking artificial or rehearsed. As Ilona, Kati Outinen is also a great asset of the film, as with simple gestures and mannerisms, she manages to transmit the great bleakness of Ilona's world, and her the struggle to survive it. The eyes of both Pellonpää and Outinen synthesize the underlying themes in "Varjoja paratiisissa": Nikander's stoicism and Ilona's desperate depression are reflected deeply inside their eyes. Also of notice is Sakari Kuosmanen's highly charismatic performance as Nikander's friend Melartin.

The stylish aesthetic of Kaurismäki's cinema is at the same time its greatest asset and its most difficult problem, as it is certainly an acquired taste. The deadpan delivery and the bleak outlook could easily be taken as dull or tedious, and in fact the slow pacing that Kaurismäki gives to "Varjoja paratiisissa" makes it reach at times a point of boredom. Certainly, Kaurismäki's style was not yet entirely developed at this stage, and this is best reflected in the uneven slowness of its pacing, which can get tiresome. While realist in its approach, the bleakness of its atmosphere may not be that accessible on the first instance, and may take a while to get the black humor that lays underneath its brooding tone. Nevertheless, once one gets past the initial shock, the charm of Kaurismäki's subtle comedy begins to be more notorious as the characters reveal themselves. With its simple story, the heart of the story is in the characters themselves, whom in their big humanity reflect hwo strangely funny can tragedy be.

While far from a masterpiece, "Varjoja paratiisissa" or "Shadows in Paradise", is an important film in Aki Kaurismäki's cinema as it's where his distinctive style began to shine. As part of the Proletariat Trilogy, it introduces the themes that would be better explored in the posterior films ("Ariel" and "Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö"), and while it's brooding, melancholic pacing can be tiring, it offers a Kaurismäki willing to take risks to deliver a more honest work. Flawed, but enormously interesting, "Varjoja paratiisissa" may be a difficult film to like (perhaps Kaurismäki cinema in general is this way), but it's also one that offers a strangely warm joy found in the cold difficulties of life.


November 16, 2011

Una mujer sin amor (1952)

In 1951, Spanish director Luis Buñuel returned to the spotlight when he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes film festival for the Mexican film "Los Olvidados". Nevertheless, while this success allowed him greater control over his future projects (reflected in 1952's "Subida al Cielo"), the Spanish filmmaker still had to work within the constrains of the industry, an industry dedicated to its audience. The same year Buñuel released the surreal comedy "Subida al Cielo", he also made a more traditional melodrama dedicated to satisfy the commercial demand. That film was "Una mujer sin amor", which went on history as the movie that Buñuel disliked the most amongst all the film in his career. Certainly, the film's origins weren't really the best, as producer Sergio Kogan (who had previously employed Buñuel in "Susana") wanted to have another hit and asked Buñuel to simply copy André Cayatte's film version of Guy de Maupassant's "Pierre et Jean". Naturally, Buñuel didn't, and the result was perhaps the least Buñuel of the Buñuel films.

In "Una mujer sin amor" (literally, "A woman without love"), Rosario Granados plays Rosario, a young and beautiful woman married to an old antiquarian, Don Carlos Montero (Julio Villarreal). Their marriage is difficult, as Don Carlos is a dominant man, prone to scolding both his wife and son Carlos (Jaime Calpe). One day he is particularly harsh with his son, and the boy runs away from home, being found the following day by an engineer named Julio Mistral (Tito Junco). Don Carlos and Rosario are very grateful, and soon Julio becomes friends with the Montero family. Rosario and Julio begin an affair, as she confesses that she has never loved her husband, having married Don Carlos just for his money. Julio tries to convince her to run away with him to Brazil, but she refuses. Twenty years later, Carlos (Joaquin Cordero) and his younger brother Miguel (Xavier Loyá) have graduated from medical school, but suddenly, the Montero family receive the news that Julio has died in Brazil, and left all his money to Miguel. Carlos, begins to unveil the secrets of his mother.

As written above, "Una mujer sin amor" is a new version of Guy de Maupassant naturalist novel "Pierre et Jean", adapted to the screen by Jaime Salvador with dialogs by Buñuel's regular collaborator Rodolfo Usigli. Taking "Pierre et Jean"'s storyline as the basis, Salvador builds up a traditional melodrama centered in the person of the Mother. In Mexican melodrama, the figure of the sacrificed mother became a recurrent archetype, as an idealized moral center willing to suffer the misdemeanors of both her husband and her children due to her incommensurable love. An archetype that Buñuel turned upside down in "Los Olvidados" with the character of Pedro's Mother. However, in "Una mujer sin amor" the archetype is played seriously and becomes the focal point of the film in a consummately traditionalist manner. Not as a parody, not as a satire, but for real, a classic family melodrama of the most refined variety. But still, beneath the reverential traditionalism, the story lends itself to certain touches that makes it stand out amongst the rest.

In purely technical terms, "Una mujer sin amor" is impeccable. The greater production values allowed Buñuel to create one of the most lavishly realized films of his Mexican period. Gunther Gerszo's production design shines through the camera eye of seasoned cinematographer Raúl Martínez Solares, which works efficiently in the upper-class urban atmosphere of the story. Buñuel's visual narrative is at its best, as within the constrains of the melodrama genre, he succeeds in crafting a film with a strong identity of its own. It is certainly a typical melodrama, but one that stands out by the undeniable level of its craftsmanship. And yet, as traditional as the film is, it has its particularities. For starters, the story moves away from the brother's rivalry and remains focused heavily on the mother, Rosario. While Carlos drives this second half of the film, it's always Rosario's story what's being told. Not for nothing the title changed from "Pierre and Jean" (the sons in Maupassant's story) to "A woman without love".

As the woman without love of the title, Argentine actress Rosario Granados is remarkable as the sacrificed Rosario, a woman torn by a complex mixture of feelings: her regret for having married Don Carlos without loving him, her love for Julio, and her love for her sons. A woman with a lot of love to give, but who opts to repress her bigger love, her love for Julio. As in her previous film with Buñuel ("El Gran Calavera" in 1949), Granados once again displays a natural talent and strong screen presence. More experienced now, Granados also showcases a certain bittersweet subtlety that distances her from classic mother figures of Mexican melodrama. As her son Carlos, the young Joaquín Cordero is a highlight of the film, easily overshadowing Xavier Loyá, who plays his younger brother. As the elder Don Carlos, Julio Villarreal is delightful, building up a character that can go from nice to hateful in a whim. Titu Junco is sadly the weakest link, as his tenure as the engineer Julio isn't really a satisfying one.

Impeccably done, and beautifully looking, if "Una mujer sin amor" has a flaw is precisely how typical it ends up being. The fact that it's a work by the master of surrealism Luis Buñuel, only enhances the feeling that the film lacks that spark that the legendary Spanish filmmaker puts in his surrealist works. Certainly, "Una mujer sin amor" tackles themes that had been previously explored in countless melodramas, not only Mexican, but in general. In this aspect, there's nothing new, nothing fresh, no groundbreaking narrative structure, no outlandish visual style. Not even the black humor, so characteristic of Buñuel is present here. As it is, it's by all accounts just a film done for the paycheck. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be fair to dismiss "Una mujer sin amor" as quickly as Buñuel himself does, because within its genre, "Una mujer sin amor" is a film full of great style and a classy atmosphere. Certainly not what is expected from Buñuel, but it even makes a case for the independence of women, with Rosario's final speech taking a jab at traditionalism.

Closer in spirit to the cinema of Alejandro Galindo than to Buñuel's own filmography, it's not hard to see why Luis Buñuel dismissed "Una mujer sin amor" as his worst film: it's certainly the one that has less of his idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, while its decidedly commercial purpose may overshadow its artistic value, the merit of "Una mujer sin amor" is the high level of craftsmanship that Buñuel had achieved by that point in his career. After having learned the hard way how to make commercial films for the Mexican industry, and having returned to glory with his masterpiece "Los Olvidados", the genius of Buñuel was now unleashed and found its way to shine even in the most typical and traditionalist story lines. It's impossible to deny that many directors would be proud to have "Una mujer sin amor" as their worst film.


November 15, 2011

Die Nackte und der Satan (1959)

After World War II, cinema in Germany, like many other industries, entered into a difficult period of reconstruction during the occupation of Germany by the Four Powers. The Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, had now access to cinema from around the world, and the American industry saw this as an opportunity to conquer the new market. Another problem for the film industry of West Germany was the fact that most of the country's film infrastructure, the legendary UFA studios, were in East Germany. Still, by the 1950s the film industry of West Germany kept a slow but consistent recovery, though it mainly produced what was soon called the Heimatfilm ("homeland film"), a very German genre of family dramas. The great popularity of these films gave the impression that the cinema of West Germany was a very provincial industry, though there were exceptions. An notable exception to this norm was "Die Nackte und der Satan", an offbeat horror film with a distinctive style echoing the glory days of German Expressionism.

In "Die Nackte und der Satan" (literally "The Naked and the Satan", but known in English as simply "The Head"), Michel Simon is Dr. Abel, a famous surgeon who has developed a serum that keeps alive dead tissue. However, Dr. Abel isn't that well and requires a heart transplant. His team, comprising Dr. Ood (Horst Frank) and Dr. Burke (Kurt Müller-Grad), is set to perform the operation. Unfortunately, things go awry with the transplant, but Dr. Ood decides to keep going. Dr. Burke protests but is murdered by the sinister Dr. Ood, who then proceeds to decapitate Dr. Abel in order to keep his head alive with his serum. The mad Dr. Ood is decided to help Irene Sander (Karin Kernke), a young hunchbacked lady he desires. To do it, Dr. Ood will perform a head transplant using the technology developed by Dr. Abel, who witness everything, horrified as he finds himself without a body. Lilly (Christiane Maybach), a dancer at the Tam-Tam bar, is the selected candidate to become the new body for Irene.

Written by Victor Trivas (who also penned Orson Welles' "The Stranger" and was nominated for an Academy Award for it), "Die Nackte und der Satan" certainly has an outlandishly grizzly premise. With its themes of head transplant and the isolation of a living head, it's difficult not to compare Trivas' story to the cult classic "The Brain that Wouldn't die" (1962); however, there's a great difference in tone between both films, as unlike its American counterpart, Victor Trivas' "Die Nackte und der Satan" is played as a more serious affair. The theme of degenerate human experimentation resonates strongly, with the duality of having the beneficial healing of Irene being grounded on the vicious actions of Dr. Ood. Duality is also present in Lilly, a beautiful model with a dark past akin to the classic archetype of a femme fatale. There's also, a greater emphasis on eroticism in the story that's surprisingly daring for its time, making of "Die Nackte und der Satan" a sexually charged thriller underneath its horror visage.

Also directed by Victor Trivas (who had not directed a film since 1935), "Die Nackte und der Satan" has a decidedly somber atmosphere, enhanced by a visual aesthetic that's reminiscent of the years of German Expressionism. This is not surprising, given that collaborating with production designer Bruno Monden was Hermann Warmm, the man responsible for the striking look of classics of the movement such as "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" and "Der müde Tod" (not to mention Dreyer's "Vampyr"). Through the camera of Georg Krause (another veteran of German cinema), director Trivas creates a moody piece that feels delightfully straight from a pulp novel. Despite their relative low budget, Trivas and his crew achieve in giving the film a dark beauty that fits nicely with its bizarre premise. Like the screenplay, Travis doesn't play his story for cheap thrills, and opts for a serious, darker approach that gives the movie an unsettling tone, enhanced by the surprising (considering the low budget) visual effects by Theo Nischwitz.

The cast in "Die Nackte und der Satan" is actually good, with Horst Frank delivering a strong, retrained performance as Dr. Ood. Crtainly, the character is the archetypal mad scientist of horror films, but Frank doesn't let himself loose with it and instead begins to build up the raving madness of Dr. Ood with welcomed subtlety, until the climatic ending. In her debut, Karin Kernke is for the most part good, as Irene, though oddly, she seems to lose her edge when her body is revealed. German sex symbol Christiane Maybach is quite natural and vibrant as Lilly, channeling bits of Marlene Dietrich's hardened persona in her persona. Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest surprise in "Die Nackte und der Satan" is to see legendary French actor Michel Simon (famous for Renoir's "La chienne" and "Boudu sauvé des eaux", as well as Vigo's "L'atalante") playing the kind Dr. Abel, reduced to just a head by Dr. Ood's evil. Simon is effective, though certainly his work is limited due to the real paralysis he suffered at the time of shooting.

In many ways, "Die Nackte und der Satan" feels out of time, not in tune with the cinema of the 1950s, but imbued by the atmosphere of a bygone era. The expressionist set design, the pulp novel atmosphere, the amorality of the characters, the theatrical acting; by all accounts the film could had been done in 1931. The presence of Michel Simon, Warmm and Krause just seem to confirm this, and this plays like a double-edge sword for the film, as while it gives the movie a nice ominous atmosphere, it also gives it an archaic visual look, as if it was a movie released 40 years too late. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the film is entirely stuck in the past, but it's definitely not exactly avant-garde anymore. Also, the fact that the film was done with a limited budget also plays a major role in the final result, as the film's shortcomings are enhanced by the lack of production values. Though production designer Hermann Warmm was not unfamiliar with budgetary limitations, the visual look is a tad cheapened by this.

In the end, it's hard not to think about "Die Nackte und der Satan" as something other than as an offbeat curiosity. With its heavily expressionist design and the ominous atmosphere it conveys, "Die Nackte und der Satan" is an interesting discovery for fans of German Expressionism. The serious approach that director Trivas takes on the story, results in a quite different film that could be expected given its strange premise, and actually plays like an intellectual version of one of those Mad Scientist horror films of the 30s. Decidedly a truly atypical entry in the cinema of west Germany of the 1950s, "Die Nackte und der Satan" is a tale of grizzly body horror that feels frozen in time. A bizarre curiosity, old fashioned perhaps, but bizarre indeed.


Poster of the French release.