December 25, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

On April 8, 2009, a gang of four Somali pirates boarded MV Maersk Alabama, a container ship traveling 240 nautical miles off Somalia's coast. At the helm of MV Maersk Alabama was captain Richard Phillips, who had the mission of taking the cargo to Mombasa, Kenia. The situation got complicated when the crew captured one of the pirates and started negotiations to switch prisoners. The pirates secured their escape on a lifeboat, but took Phillips hostage with them. Everything would end in a risky rescue attempt by a team of Navy SEAL snipers. The kidnapping and rescue of captain Richard Phillips soon became international news, and as usual, an adaptation to the big screen began to be developed. Taking as basis captain Phillips' own account of the kidnapping, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea", director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray developed a story with the intention of capturing the intense human drama of the tale. With the simple title of "Captain Phillips" and actor Tom Hanks leading the cast, this attempt isn't really bad, though it's far from amazing.

In "Captain Phillips", Tom Hanks plays the eponymous protagonist, captain Richard Phillips, who takes command of container ship MV Maersk Alabama in the port of Salalah, Oman. His destination, Mombasa, forces him to follow the dangerous route of the Somali coast, where pirate attacks are common place due to the poverty of the region. At the helm of Maersk Alabama, Phillips shows an excessive (bordering paranoid) preoccupation with security, which doesn't help him to make friends with his crew. At the same time, the young Somali pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gathers a crew of four people with the intention of capturing a big ship. Muse wishes to show his skill as a pirate, as he is usually bullied by other pirates from his tribe. On april 8, the lives of Muse and Phillips will collide when Muse's small crew manages to board the MV Maersk Alabama, making Phillips' worst nightmares a reality. Determined to protect his crew, captain Phillips will need to find the courage to face Muse and recover the control of the ship. However, things go seriously wrong when he is taken hostage by the pirates.

Written by Billy Ray (co-scriptwriter of "The Hunger Games"), the screenplay for "Captain Phillips", tries to be not only an account of captain Phillips' story, but to make a study of the relationship between two apparently different characters, captain Phillips and captain Muse. At the beginning, both captains prepare the travel of their lives, Phillips checking his ship while Muse picks up his crew amongst the somali men of his tribe. Phillips faces the mistrust of his crew, while Muse sees himself humiliated by other pirates. Finally, both captains face each other in an endurance test, with Phillips trying to manipulate Muse while the young pirate attempts to show (to his own crew and to himself) that he is the boss and has the situation under control. This focus is interesting in the sense that allows to truly get into the character of Abduwali Muse in a more human way, exploring his fears and feelings, giving him more complex dimensions than what are normally found in typical villains. This attention to the psychology of the characters is without a doubt a great virtue in Ray's screenplay, but it's not enough to sustain the weight of the film.

At the helm of "Captain Phillips" is British director Paul Greengrass, whom isn't really a stranger to make films based on tense stories from real life (as "United 93" demonstrates). In "Captain Phillips", Greengrass gives the film his familiar style based on handheld camera, which gives the movie a tone of documental realism. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's camera truly gets inside every scene in an almost active role, more as a participant than as mere witness of the action, managing to capture the human drama that's developed between the characters. And it's truly the difficult relationship between Phillips and Muse what actually drives the film. Greengrass and Ackroyd (who had previously worked together in "Green Zone" and the afore mentioned "United 93") capture the intensity of this relationship which is formed not only in dialogues, but in sights and silences. However, it's worth to point out that the rhythm of the movie falls flat during the second half of the film, as while Greengrass builds up the tension of the struggle between the crew and the pirates, when Phillips gets kidnapped the film loses steam. Badly.

The performances by the cast are truly the greatest asset of "Captain Phillips", as it's in the acting duel between veteran Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi where the real strength of Greengrass' film truly is. Hanks once again takes his classic everyman role that has given him success through his career. As Richard Phillis, Tom Hanks builds up a character different to the typical hero: he's a common man, arrogant and proud, full of flaws but with a strong determination to succeed. Tom Hanks truly manages to disappear in the character and make him real in a stark and realistic way. Young Barkhad Abdi debuts in the silver scree making a tremendous, high quality job in the role of Somali pirate Abduwali Muse. Director Pual Greengrass, fond to use actors with little to no experience, has the merit of finding and guiding a talent such as Abdi's, who truly captures not only the essence of a character as complex as Muse, but also the spirt of the Somali people, living under oppression and without great opportunities, and finds in piracy a way to survive.

As mentioned before, that's probably the greatest merit of "Captain Phillips", the achievement of building gip complex characters living in a world that's no longer black and white. The recognition of the humanity of the characters and using this recognition to make a statement: Muse is in the end, a young fisherman with dreams that seem impossible in his reality. However, this is also the origin of a big problem with the drama that "Captain Phillips" unfolds, as the film reaches a point in which the story becomes more interesting from the pirates' point of view. It's not only the fact that Abduwali Muse has been developed as a more sympathetic character than Phillips, but that ultimately the movie is the story of four young pirates facing the strongest army in the world. The matter of Phillips' survival gets overshadowed by Muse's overwhelming tragedy as a man looking for a way out that, like his dreams, is another impossible., And still, despite how fascinating these characters are, Greengrass seems to return to the traditional formula of action films during a climax that seems to remind us that these four are just the baddies and well, deserve their outcome.

Ultimately, it seems that "Captain Phillips" struggle between being two different kinds of movie: on one hand is the poignant drama that portrays a real situation exploring its characters as complex and real human beings, and on the other a tale of survival where it's clear who are the goodies (the U.S. navy of course) and the baddies. In "Captain Phillips", it seems that Greengrass started making the former and the film ended up becoming the latter. In the end, it would seem that the tense conflict between captain Richard Phillips and Abduwali Muse is diluted when the film becomes an unfair duel between four unprepared pirates and the efficient U.S. navy. While technically impeccable and with two truly brilliant performances by Hanks and Barkhdad Abdi, "Captain Phillips" lacks a bit of tact when dealing with the complex theme of Somali piracy and gets lost at sea when it attempts to solve its own identity conflict.


December 16, 2013

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

The history of American cinema is full of great movies that earned great recognition due to the impact of their artistic achievements or technological innovations, that in time resulted in fame for their makers. "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is an exception to this, given the fact that the fame that earned for its creator, Edward D. Wood Jr. was that of being the "Worst Director of All Time". Released in 1959, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" was an independent movie that went unnoticed upon release until in 1980 was discovered by film critics Michael and Harry Medved, whom labeled as "The Worst Movie Ever Made" because of the enormous amount of errors and technical problems the film had. Nevertheless, in spite of this, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" has a strange appealing that makes it different from many other awful film: it has a heart. The cinema of Ed Wood is naive and incompetent, but owner of an extraordinary charm. "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is the legacy of a man whose love for cinema was bigger than his own artistic skill, and that was willing to anything to complete his movie.

According to the film's narrator, the Amazing Criswell (as himself), "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is the true account of the facts of the fateful day where a group of extraterrestrial beings arrived to Hollywood in a flying saucer. It all begins in a funeral, where and old man (Bela Lugosi) mourns the loss of his young wife (Vampira). In the meantime, what seemed to be a routine flight for pilots Jeff (Gregory Walcott) and Danny (David De Mering) becomes a close encounter with the flying saucer. The saucer lands on the cemetery, and at night, the gravediggers are attacked by the reanimated corpse of the old man's wife. The very next day, the old man gets killed in a traffic accident, and during his funeral, the dead bodies of the two gravediggers are found. Inspect Clay (Tor Johnson) from the local police begins his investigation in the cemetery. At that moment, pilot Jeff feels uneasiness about his encounter with the flying saucer, and confesses to his wife that the army required him to keep quiet about it. Soon Inspector Clay faces the reanimated corpses of both the old man and his wife, and becomes part of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Written, directed and produced by Ed Wood himself, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is a bizarre mix between the kind of science fiction stories that dominated the 1950s and the classic gothic horror films that were a huge part of Wood's childhood. So, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" has the typical plot of alien invasion spiced up by reanimated corpses and Bela Lugosi unexplainably dressed as Dracula. The narration by Criswell gives a sensationalist tone to the story, presented as the "true account" of the survivors of the tale, in an attempt to mimic the tone of veracity in police procedural shows like "Dragnet". However, this effort proves useless by the outlandishly bizarre plot, not to mention the ridicule dialogs that verge on absurdity that Wood has given to his characters. "Plan 9 from Outer Space" also mimics the pacifist message of films like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), where the alien invasion comes with the purpose of stopping the human race before it becomes dangerous. The most interesting thing in Wood's screenplay is perhaps the clear anti-statist message the film has: for Wood, the government knows a lot more that what we think.

As mentioned before, the fame of ·"Plan 9 from Outer Space" has its origin in the incompetence in which the film was crafted, as director Ed Wood doesn't seem to care much for matter such as continuity and coherence between his material. So, there are moments in which sky can change from day to night and vice-versa, the actors vary in their dramatic intention (if any), and special effects are done without care and in the lowest possible quality. Nevertheless, it's also clear that Wood knew pretty good what cinema could make, as he is able of portraying a car wreck using only sound, and creating entire sequences mixing what was show on set with archive footage. Wood knows how cinema works, he simply does it with extreme carelessness. Whether this had been the result of low budget or if its in fact an excess of overconfidence, or perhaps a combination of both, is something we can't really know. What can be appreciated is the great interest of Wood in telling an epic story despite having low resources, and his determination to do it no matter what (to the point of substituting Bela Lugosi when the horror icon passed away).

Bela Lugosi having a main role (the last of his career) in "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is another fact that has contributed for the film's unquestionable cult status. At the beginning of the 50s, Lugosi found himself working in countless B-movies to sustain his addiction to painkillers. Meeting Ed Wood, a young filmmaker who considered himself a big fan of Lugosi, meant a brief return to starring roles for the legendary Hungarian actor. Bela Lugosi shot with Wood a couple of scenes for a move that would never be finished, due to Lugosi's untimely death. However, that footage would end up as part of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (albeit without sound). To finish Lugosi's role, Wood hired Tom Mason, who makes a poor impersonation of Lugosi by hiding his face with the cape. Acting, like everything else in "Plan 9" is careless and tacky, though some performers, such as Gregory Walcott do try to make the effort to get a good result. Tor Johnson, Vampira, Dudley Manlove and the Amazing Criswell complete a bizarre cast that's certainly unforgettable, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.

And that's probably the best way to describe "Plan 9 from Outer Space", an unforgettable movie for all the wrong reasons. Everything that Wood wanted to make poignant, ends up as ridicule, and what he wanted to be thrilling, results in absurd fun. Involuntarily, Wood has created an entertaining horror movie that has become a fun genre icon. The reason behind this is precisely the naiveté and utter incompetence in the film's craftsmanship, since probably if the movie was correctly done the story may end up as just another boring run of the mill sci-fi film. And that's something really interesting, as even when the film is plagued of problems, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" is never boring. An achievement that many other films, better done and with bigger budgets, can't say they achieve. It's difficult to consider "Plan 9 from Outer Space" a good movie, yet curiously, it's even more difficult to label it as a bad one, as even when probably the result is far from what director Ed Wood desired when he conceived it, what "Plan 9 from Outer Space" really achieves is probably more worthy.

"Plan 9 from Outer Space" is a movie with a charm quite difficult to explain, as it's images convey a strange fascination. In the movie one can find cheap effects, exaggerated overacting, an absurd screenplay and an weird work of editing, and yet, in the end everything works in such a way that the film remains entertaining from beginning to end. Tim Burton's movie, "Ed Wood" (1994) is a testament of the fascination produced by "Plan 9 from Outer Space". And that's because in away, the making of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" englobes the pain and the glory of making movies, of gathering the talent and resources of a bunch of people (as big or little as they can be) to give life to a dream, to a vision. Ed Wood's vision, a man whose soul was in film despite his talents saying otherwise, is paradoxical in the sense that it completely fits that old statement that the movie is so bad that it's good.


December 03, 2013

Flor de Durazno (1917)

Considered the most important figure in the history of Tango, singer and songwriter Carlos Gardel took the culture of Argentinian Tango across the world, becoming one of the most famous latin american artists at the time of his tragic death (in a plane crash). Of French origin, Gardel spent his childhood at the neighborhood of Abasto, in the city of Buenos Aires, where he began to develop a singing style working at bars and singing at private parties. In 1917, the young Carlos Gardel would make his first recordings, beginning the brilliant career that would take make him internationally famous. Two assets of great importance in the young singer's early success were his great presence and his natural charm, which didn't go unnoticed by the film industry, and that very same year the rising Tango star saw himself debuting in the silver screen. The title of the film would be "Flor de Durazno", an adaptation of the popular novel of the same name, written by Gustavo Adolfo Martínez Zuviría, better known as Hugo Wast. And while the film became a huge box office success, it is far from being the best film in Gardel's career.

"Flor de Durazno" (literally "Peach Flower") is the story of Rina (Ilde Pirovano), a young woman living with her father Germán (Diego Figueroa) in their little farm. Her cousin Fabián (Carlos Gardel) is in love with her, but the young lady has a preference for the young Miguel Benavides (Argentino Gómez), heir of a rich plantation. In time, they grow old, and Fabián manages to conquer Rina's heart, who finally agrees to marry him. Unfortunately, a war forces Fabián to enlist in the army, and so the couple postpones the wedding until Fabián returns. Miguel, now the owner of the Benavides ranch, takes advantage of this to get closer to Rina, using his knowledge and financial position to earn German's trust, as the farmer gets involved in a legal dispute and sees in Miguel a trustworthy advisor. Being now a regular visitor to Germán's farm and with Fabián away, Miguel finds his way to seduce Rina, who ends up pregnant. When Miguel refuses to marry Rina, considering her of a lower social class, she decides to runaway to the capital, where she'll endure misery being alone and poor.

Written and directed by Francisco Defilippis Novoa, "Flor de Durazno" follows with relative faithfulness the plot of Hugo Wast's popular novel, a naturalist melodrama that portrayed the social injustices in the Argentinian countryside. This kind of stories had already found a great success in Argentinian cinema, as proved the classic "Nobleza Gaucha" (1915), film that like Defilippis' movie, took as starting point the conflict between a rich rancher and a humble yet noble gaucho. "Flor de Durazno" follows to the letter this formula, with the humble farmer Rina suffering with stoicism the multiple abuses and humiliations from the wealthy class, having as driving force the undying love she feels for her little daughter. But despite the social theme, the film is pretty conservative, as Rina sees her constant suffering at the city as a penance for the grave sin of falling for Miguel and forgetting Fabián's love, specially since the noble young man remembers her in every trip. The simple plot of "Flor de Durazno" upholds the idea of modern cities as nests of perversion, while the countryside represents purity.

As a film, "Flor de Durazno"'s main characteristic is the simplicity of director Francisco Defilippis Novoa's take on the story, and the agile rhythm in which the story unfolds. Taking full advantage of the natural locations (and the effective work of cinematographer Francisco Mayrhoffer), Defillipis Novoa makes a bucolic portrait of the Argentinian countryside, which is presented as a tranquil place where life is simpler. In contrast, the city is presented as a dirt and chaotic place, where evil hides in every corner and is ready to prey on the dispossessed. Despite the profound simplicity of Defilippis Novoa's use of the camera, there are interesting moments in which the plot turns to Fabián, who sings to remember his land and his beloved Rina. Those moments (that probably where accompanied by a recording of Carlos Gardel's songs) are used by Defilippis to become more lyrical and poetic, moving to the subjectivity of the character's emotions. In his same way, Defilippis occasionally uses cinematic resources like double exposure to illustrate the memories and emotions of his characters.

Without a doubt, the main attraction in "Flor de Durazno" is to watch the debut of Carlos Gardel as a film star but, unfortunately, this first venture of the "Zorzal Criollo" in the film industry leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, silent cinema may not be the best way for a singer to shine (there are rumors of a disappointed Carlos Gardel storming out of the set), and on top of that, his character has pretty much a secondary role during most of the film, as the real star of "Flor de Durazno" is Ilde Pirovano. As Rina, Pirovano carries entirely the weight of the film, and truly makes a commendable job at it, as the young actress moves away from the silent cinema conventions and delivers a more naturalistic performance. The whole opposite is Argentino Gómez' work as Miguel Benavides, who looks terribly hammy in his delivery and makes a caricature of the wealthy villain archetype. The same could be said of the rest of the cast, as the constant through the film is the stagy style of film's early days. Perhaps the only exception (besides Ilde Pirovano) is Diego Figueroa, who manages to give dignity to the role of Germán Castillo.

While the acting isn't really the film's strongest point, of little help is the fact that the screenplay is of an exaggerated simplicity in its development, as the characters are in general a mere collection of classic genre archetypes: the unfortunate victim, her strict father, the wealthy rancher, the wise priest and last but not least, the noble gaucho. Very little is done to develop those personalities in a dramatic way, and director Francisco Defilippis merely focus his efforts in capturing the atmosphere of the story and telling the tale the most efficient way he can. This leaves "Flor de Durazno" as a missed opportunity, that even when it could had served as an exploration of social injustice, ends up as an easy and simple naturalist melodrama where once again the evil rich man abuses of the poor. Of course, a lot of this comes from the very source novel in which the film is based on, as Hugo Wast's novel already carries this and other flaws; but given the novel's commercial success, probably Deiflippis decided to make as little changes as possible to such successful formula.

Like the novel that originated it, "Flor de Durazno" became a huge box office success; however, as mention before Carlos Gardel wasn't too happy with the results. Carlos Gardel would remain focuses on his musical career for more than a decade before trying his hand again in the film industry, as this return would only tai enlace until 1930, when director Eduardo Morera invited him to collaborate in a series of musical short films. Naturally, sound in films was already a reality and that was Gardel's real start as a movie star (silent cinema wasn't the most appropriate way to showcase the talents of Gardel). Despite having some interesting elements, "Flor de Durazno" fails to rise above being a simple rural melodrama. A free adaptation of the novel would be done in Mexico in 1945, this time with Esther Fernández in the role of Rina.


November 24, 2013

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

It could be stated that the 70s were a tough time for the legendary Hammer Film Productions, as after ruling the 60s with their trademark brand of lavish Gothic horrors, their classic formula was beginning to show its age, and on top of that, times were changing, and the company began to face strong competition from the new breed of grittier, edgier films that appeared in that decade. "The Vampire Lovers" is an attempt to spice things up a bit by adding an even stronger dose of eroticism to the Gothic horrors the studio was famous for. Ever since the release of "Dracula" (1958), Hammer Films had subtly played with eroticism in their productions, but "The Vampire Lovers" would be a step ahead. The experienced Roy Ward Baker (of "A Night to Remember" fame) was put in charge of the movie, but it would be the introduction of one of the studios' most iconic actresses, the gorgeous Ingrid Pitt, what would turn the film into a cult classic. This free adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic Gothic novel "Carmilla", is rightfully, one of the best Hammer films, not only of their late period, but of all time.

In 19th century Styria, a remote region in Austria, a series of deaths amongst the villagers brings back the ancient rumors of vampires, specially when Laura (Pippa Steel), the niece of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), falls sick to the same strange disease that it's killing the villagers. Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), the daughter of a Countess, is living with the General's family as a house guest, after General Von Spielsdorf agreed to have her under his care while her mother is away. Laura quickly befriends Marcilla, who does everything she can to comfort young Laura. Sadly, all is in vain and the beautiful young girl dies. The mysterious Marcilla, vanishes from the General's home without leaving a trace. Several weeks later, the disease returns to the region, this time affecting Emma Morton (Madeline Smith), the daughter of a British nobleman (George Cole) who doesn't believe in vampires. However, Emma has a friend that looks after her, a young woman named Carmilla, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the disappeared Marcilla. Death has arrived to the Morton's house.

While scriptwriters Harry Fine, Tudor Gates and Michael Style do take some liberties with "Carmilla"'s plot, "The Vampire Lovers" is actually one of the most faithful adaptations to Le Fanu's novel, in the sense that it remains true to the novel's spirit and its balance of sheer Gothic horror and classy eroticism. The plot is quite well developed and there's an interesting attempt at building up a new mythology separated from Hammer's Dracula films. Also, the story plays nicely with suspense remarkable, as even when the story is told from the point of view of the "antagonist", the tension (both sexual and non-sexual) is always at the upfront. Keeping a balance between horror and eroticism is hard, but "The Vampire Lovers" manages to make a vivid portrait of those important aspects in the nature of the vampire myth. Carmilla is a temptress and a predator, a wild force of nature that, true to the vampire iconography, represents chaos and wilderness. What's interesting is how despite the outcome of the fight between the vampire and the civilized men, the vampire is always treated as the most charismathic figure.

The experienced Roy Ward Baker (who had already done a film for Hammer, "Quatermass and the Pit" in 1967) brought to Hammer Film Productions his extraordinary ability to do wonders with limited resources, a trait that suited like a glove the lavish look of the low budget horror films that made Hammer famous. What director Roy Ward Baker gives to the film is certainly class, a certain subtlety and elegance in his use of the camera that work wonders for the eroticism inherent in the story. While this subtle approach may seem restrained, it actually enhances the eroticism of several scenes, as what's implied is often more tempting than what is shown (and it's shown a lot). Despite the low-budget, the movie looks very good, as Roy Ward Baker makes an excellent use of his resources allowing him to create nightmarish scenes despite the budget constrains. An instrumental figure in this is cinematographer Moray Grant, who employs his talents to give the film a haunting atmosphere of dark fantasy that fits nicely with the Gothic tone of the story. "The Vampire Lovers" is one of the best looking horrors from the Hammer house.

It's more than clear that "The Vampire Lovers" is basically a star vehicle for the beautiful Ingrid Pitt, and she truly makes the most of the chance. As the lead character, Carmilla, Pitt is simply breathtaking, and not only because of her imposing beauty. Pitt manages to create a character that's both seductive and terrifying, alluring and destructive, the very essence of the horror tale. With her powerful screen presence, Ingrid Pitt carries the film with ease and creates an iconic figure in the process. And her strong personality makes a pretty good contrast with the innocence portrayed by actress Madeline Smith as Emma Morton, her counterpart in several scenes. Smith makes a fine job in her role, but her character is sadly a tad underdeveloped and ends up as just another damsel in distress (the real star is Carmilla of course). Kate O'Mara delivers another of the great performances of the movie as Mme. Perrodot, a governess infatuated by Carmilla's power. George Cole, Douglas Wilmer and the legendary Peter Cushing complete the cast, bringing excellent support due to their experience and great talent.

It would be very easy to dismiss "The Vampire Lovers" as just an erotic film about lesbian vampires, particularly now that the theme of lesbianism in vampire films has been overdone, but this movie truly offers a lot more than that. For starters, it's a horror movie centered around its characters, with Carmilla at the center, playing with the rest of the characters as pieces of a game of chess. The atmosphere plays an even more important role in "The Vampire Lovers" than in usual Hammer films, as Roy Ward Baker aims for an aura of romanticism for the movie. Certainly, the low budget is at times noticeable and it may lack the dynamism and energy of the Hammer films directed by Terence Fisher, but this approach to the vampire film was not only daring and refreshing in its time, it was the next step in the road that Hammer had been taking the vampire film since "Dracula" (1958): the vampire was not only a monster, it was an attractive monster. Roy Ward Baker's version of "Carmilla" began its own "subgenre", becoming the main influence to the many subsequent erotic films about vampires that were done across the world.

The 70s would prove to be a difficult time for Hammer Film Productions, as in order to keep up with the times the company would begin to produce all sorts of variations to its horror films. Some would be set in modern times, while other would be bizarre combinations of genres ("The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires", mix of Gothic horror and martial arts is a perfect example of this). Nevertheless, "The Vampire Lovers" is one of the forgotten gems of that period in Hammer history where experimentation was needed to survive. In the case of this film, the experiment worked, and two more films were done in this model, making what is now known as the "Karnstein Trilogy" (with the films "Lust for a Vampire" and "Twins of Evil"). Despite its problems, "The Vampire Lovers" can be considered amongst the best Hammer films, not only of the late period of the company, but of all its history.


November 23, 2013

7 Women (1966)

Widely regarded as one of the greatest masters in the history of cinema, American director John Ford left a remarkably rich legacy through his long and prolific career in the movies. While chiefly known as a director of Westerns (a genre to which he contributed several masterpieces such as "Stagecoach", "My Darling Clementine" or "The Searchers", to name a few), John Ford's body of work shows a quite versatile filmmaker, able to tackle very diverse types of stories. Unfortunately, that other side of Ford's oeuvre has left a bit overshadowed by the great success of his classic Westerns, but nonetheless it's an interesting facet that's well worthy of checking out. The perfect example of this is "7 Women", the film that closes John Ford's career as the last feature-length fiction film that he would do in his life (his final work would be a documentary, "Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend" in 1970). Being a movie completely focused on a group of female characters, it would seem that this movie is a tad unusual for the legendary director of Westerns, but the truth is that this is actually the perfect farewell from one of cinema's masters.

Set in Chine, in 1935, "7 Women" deals with the tribulations that are lived by the staff at a Christian mission in a remote region in the north of China. Lead by the strict Ms. Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the staff consists of Andrew's assistant, Ms. Argent (Mildred Dunnock), professor Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and his wife Florrie (Betty Field), and last but not least, the young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). At the mission there's the expectation for the arrival of the new doctor, as the situation in the region is difficult with the rumors of attacks by the notorious bandit Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki). However, to the shock of everyone at the mission, the new doctor is actually a woman, Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), and it doesn't take much time before Dr. Cartwright's cynicism and open despise for religion collides with the Ms. Andrews' authoritarian personality. Despite this, Dr. Cartwright will prove to be of great help, having to deal with problems such as Mrs. Pether's advanced pregnancy, and the outburst of plague amongst the mission's population. However, her greatest challenge will come with the arrival of Tunga Khan to the mission.

Written by Janet Green and John McCormick, "7 Women" is an adaptation of a short story titled "Chines Finale", written by Norah Lofts (the story had already been adapted to television as part of the "Alcoa Theatre" TV series in 1960). The core drama in "7 Women" is centered mainly in the conflict between Ms. Andrews and Dr. Cartwright, using the contrast between their strong personalities as the basis to make a study on morality, religion and the relationship between them. While for Ms. Andrews' eyes the ways and behavior of Dr. Cartwright are irreligious and immoral at all accounts, ultimately the actions of the tough newcomer begin to prove themselves far more useful for the mission than the strict discipline preached by Ms. Agatha Andrews. As it can be seen, "7 Women" isn't much of an epic adventure in an exotic land, but an intimate character study where the conflicting personalities of the 7 women of the title are dissected, as when adversity comes knocking to their door, they must learn to collaborate despite their multiple personal differences.

In this his last feature-length film as a director, John Ford shows his masterful skill behind the camera at giving life to Lofts' story with a very appropriate and interesting subtlety. As mentioned before, despite the exotic location in which the story is set, "7 Women" works more as an intense drama of a more intimate variety, so director John Ford adapts his very particular style to really get into the microcosm that the mission represents. Ford leaves aside any attempt at visual flare (though Joseph LaShelle's work as cinematographer is brilliant) in favor of a greater focus in his characters. With an agile visual narrative, Ford portraits the mission's staff with great detail carefully developing their different personalities to the plot's benefit. In the end, Tunga Khan's attack is just another excuse to take to the limit the conflict between Ms. Agatha Andrews and Dr. Cartwright. Certainly, the main conflict was one of great interest for Ford, as even since his earlier classic, "Stagecoach" (1939), he had treated the complex theme of hypocrisy in religion's morality.

Naturally, given that "7 Women" is a film focused entirely on the relationships between the characters, the performances by the cast take a greater degree of relevance for the film's success. Fortunately, the acting in "7 Women" is of a superb quality, starting with Anne Bancroft completely taking over the screen as the witty Dr. D.R. Cartwright. While reportedly Bancroft wasn't the first choice for the role, her work is simply outstanding, managing to capture the complex personality of her character, a woman hardened by the frustration of living in a men's world. Her counterpart, Margaret Leighton, makes a fabulous job as Ms. Agatha Andrews, the strict and devoted leader of the mission. What's interesting about Leighton's performance is that she manages to avoid making of her character a caricature, as she conveys the complex subtleties that make her character human. Young Sue Lyon makes an acceptable job as Emma, who finds herself divided between her loyalty to Ms. Andrews and her admiration to Dr. Cartwright, whom she begins to see a role model (to Ms. Andrew's dismay).

At first sight, it would seem to be strange that director John Ford, whom basically helped to create the iconography of the wild west in his Westerns, would take the job of crafting a movie starring almost entirely women. However, "7 Women" is a film that in its themes is actually closer to John Ford's cinema than what one could thing at first: for starters, as in many of Ford's celebrated classics, "7 Women" deals with the conflict of different personalities forced to be together by the circumstances. Besides, Dr. Cartwright's has a lot in common with Ford's cowboys, being clearly outside the "normal" standards upholder by the proper "civilization". Cartwright is strong, smart and independent, so she means a direct threat to the concept of discipline and submission understood by Andrews (whom by the way, has a lot of sexual repression). The role that plays religion is also interesting, as Ford makes of "7 Women" a criticism to the hypocrisy of an arrogant, holier-than-thou attitude that judges based on moral prejudices instead of in the acts of sacrifice.

Certainly, such conflict was of great importance for Ford (a Catholic), given that "beliefs vs. acts" is a major argument between Protestants and Catholics. Now, "7 Women" isn't a movie absolutely without flaws (the most notorious being the fact that's pretty obvious that the film was shot entirely on a set), nevertheless, said flaws are completely overshadowed by the film's many virtues. Due to its unusual characteristics, "7 Women" is usually forgotten when discussion John Ford's filmography but, given its themes and style, the movie actually summarizes perfectly the totality of the work done by this great filmmaker. Gifted with great visual beauty, and intelligent screenplay and superb performances, "7 Women" closes masterfully the career of the legendary filmmaker. And if there's a doubt about it, one just has to check out the final scene of the movie, which is a farewell equally as beautiful as melancholic. The farewell of a master.


Asylum (1972)

When talking about 70s British horror, the obvious reference is of course the classic gothic horror films produced by Hammer Film Productions during that decade. Nevertheless, Hammer Films and their monsters weren't the only horrors coming from the United Kingdom at the time. Inspired by the success of Hammer Films in the horror genre, Amicus Productions began to produce their own genre films in a similar visual style (in color, and often with the same cast), though with several obvious differences: while Hammer was making period gothic horror films, Amicus set its films in contemporary times, and instead of gothic horror the Amicus films were mostly anthologies, portmanteau horror films consisting of four or sometimes five short horror stories linked by a common theme or frame story (inspired by the British classic, "Dead of Night"). "Asylum", released in 1972 and directed by Roy Ward Baker (whom already had spent a time at Hammer, directing "The Vampire Lovers" in 1970 among others), is a perfect example of the kind of horror films that Amicus would be producing during the 1970s.

"Asylum" (also known in the U.S. as "House of Crazies"), takes its title from the fact that its framing tale is about a physician, Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), whom arrives to the asylum of the title for a job interview. Dr. Lionel Rutherford (Patrick Magee), the man who is conducting the interview, decides to put Martin to test: one of the inmates at the asylum is Dr. Starr, the former head of the Asylum who lost his mind after a complete mental breakdown. Dr. Martin will have to interview the inmates at the asylum and identify which one of them is actually Dr. Starr. If he manages to recognize him, Martin will get the job. So, Dr. Martin gets into the asylum, meeting each patient in their solitary confinement cells and listening to their tales. Patient Bonnie (Barbara Perkins) will tell a tale of ambition and voodoo, while tailor Bruno (Barry Morse) will reveal his bizarre experience with a quite special fabric. Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) will detail her cherished friendship with the mischievous Lucy (Britt Ekland), while Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom) will talk about a terrifying experiment with soul transference.

Writer Robert Bloch (author of the novel "Psycho", adapted to the screen in 1960) takes on the scriptwriter duty in "Asylum" taking as basis four of this short stories, to which he adds the asylum theme as framing story for the film. While the use of a framing story as bookend for the rest of the tales is a pretty common device in Amicus Productions' anthologies, the fact that Bloch uses the asylum motif gives the movie a quite particular identity of its own, as it allows the tales to move between the more realistic horror to the realm of pure fantasy with great ease, as after all, these are the stories of a group of mad people. Two major themes appear in each one of Robert Bloch's stories: the animation of inanimate objects, and the concept of identity and its deviations. This one ultimately echoes through the whole film, as the framing story involves Martin trying to discover whom amongst the inmates is actually Dr. Starr in disguise. however, this theme ends up a bit forced in the framing tale as it0s obvious that at least two of the interviewed inmates are too young to be seriously considered as candidates to be Dr. Starr.

By 1972, director Roy Ward Baker was already considered as one of the most experienced filmmakers in the United Kingdom, having directed classics as "Morning Departure" (1950) and "A Night to Remember" (1958). While working at Amicus Productions meant lower budgets, Baker already had the talent and experience to do more with less, and "Asylum" shows this at its best. If there's something inherent in anthology films is that, by their own nature, they have the tendency to be uneven in terms of the quality of the stories that conform them, and sadly, "Asylum" is no exception. However, director Roy Ward Baker manages to lessen this a tad by keeping an equal degree of quality and stylistic coherence through every story. While the tales may shift in tone, the visual style that Roy Ward Baker keeps through the whole film gives the movie an ominous atmosphere of uneasiness, of dark abnormality that benefits the film a lot. So, even if Robert Bloch's screenplay is no the strongest element in "Asylum", its impeccable manufacture certainly is.

Like most of the movies released by Amicus Productions, the cast is made up of a mixture of legendary stars of the horror genre (Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom), and young rising artists looking for the chance to shine (Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling). The result, as in every portmanteau film, varies from tale to tale, though in general the acting in "Asylum" is of great quality. On one hand there are haunting performances, as the ones by Mores and Cushing in "The Weird Tailor", in which both actors manage to capture perfectly the slightly hammy tone that a tale of dark supernatural fantasy like this one demanded. On the other side, Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling aren't as fortunate in their tale, which moves in the terrains of psychological horror. While the story where they work, "Lucy Comes to Stay", is perhaps the dullest of the four, a better work by the two actresses may had meant a significative improvement. Patrick Magee, who plays the sinister wheelchair-bounded Dr. Lionel Rutherford in the framing story, makes a terrific work as the authoritarian and devilish doctor.

Despite some rather mediocre performances, "Asylum" doesn't have its weak spot in the acting department, as the cast as a whole makes an effective job. The film's weakness is perhaps hidden deeper in the Robert Bloch's screenplay. As mentioned before, it's common in anthologies that some of the stories are less functional than the rest, and that's unfortunately the case in "Asylum", as while "The Weird Tailor", "Frozen Fear" and the framing story are brilliant and quite interesting, "Mannikins of Horror" and particularly "Lucy Comes to Stay" fail to reach that level. The case of "Lucy Comes to Stay" is specially interesting as its plot is some sort of variation of the one in "Psycho" (so it's not a strange territory for author Robert Bloch), though set in a more youthful atmosphere that doesn't match the solemn way the story is developed, making it feel a bit slow and dull in comparison to other stories from "Asylum". A similar case is the problem of "Mannikins of Horror", as it has a quite interesting premise that would had benefited from a less campy, and more serious and somber tone.

While of a budget considerable lower than the gothic horrors of Hammer Film Productions (and that's saying something), Amicus Productions' anthology films could be as interesting or more than some of its rivals' horror movies, and "Asylum" is perhaps the best proof of that. While it may not be the best work of writer Robert Bloch, the movie benefits enormously from the masterful way director Roy Ward Baker crafts the movie, as well as the classy work by cinematographer Deny N. Coop, who manage to return that mysterious and somber atmosphere of classic gothic horror to the very modern contemporary England. It's a perfectly done mix of the old and the new. Despite being lesser known than the movies from Hammer Film Productions, it's worth to discover the oeuvre of Amicus Productions, and "Asylum" is a great way to start.