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.