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La cruz del diablo (1975)
From the reading of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer's legends in my adolescence, I have the memory of subtle and romantic stories about death, with apparitions, monks and strong presence of the Spanish landscape. Three of these stories served as the basis for «The Cross of the Devil» which was the last film directed by John Gilling, British filmmaker remembered for his low budget films of all genres: adventures, police, pirates and, above all, terror. Of these, I fondly remember two Hammer Films productions, in which he made the most of his plots and budget: «The Reptile» and «The Plague of Zombies.» By the early 1970s Gilling was in retreat and had not shot a feature since 1967. However, when he visited Spain to film some material, his friend Paul Naschy, the well-known Spanish horror film actor, asked him to direct his adaptation of three short stories by Bécquer, probable reserving for himself the role of the villain. At the end, the actor did not make the film, but Gilling filmed Naschy's screenplay (or Jacinto Molina's as he is credited), an adaptation that takes equal parts from «El miserere», «El monte de las ánimas» and «The Cross of the Devil» , which gives title to the film. Here the simplicity of Bécquer's direct prose is replaced by an intrigue full of subplots, red herrings and recurrent dreams, to achieve a product of hour and a half. Ramiro Oliveros plays Alfred Dawson, a British writer addicted to kif who is undergoing a literary block. The young man will be able to write the article of his life when he travels to Spain, called by his sister Justine, married to a wealthy bourgeois from Bilbao. When Dawson arrives in Spain, Justine has been murdered and the writer initiates an investigation that puts him in contact with stories of knights Templars, a bewitched armour, gallantry between cousins that leads to death and insinuations about the low morality of his sister. The script has several endings that lengthen the film a little, closing what was taken from each of the three stories. The result is a correct film, but little else, while Gilling continued to happily enjoy his holidays until the year of his death.
The War Lover (1962)
Too bad it is this bad
When the old-fashioned melodrama «The War Lover» premiered in 1962 it did not impress anyone. The protagonist Buzz Rickson (a convincing unpleasant performance by Steve McQueen), a psychopathic American pilot, haughty and pedantic, hardly aroused sympathy among mass audiences, other than military and civilian population who might have shared with him his obsession with war, macho supremacy or boastful bragging. This aspect of Rickson only finds objection and disgust in Daphne Caldwell (Shirley Anne Field), a pacifist British girl who defends opposite values , which she expresses in her dialogues with Ed Bolland (Robert Wagner), Rickson's co-pilot. The script unfortunately reduces Daphne to a "war girl" that falls in love with Bolland, who just wants to have a good time, unlike Rickson, who is obsessed with her, but keeps a distance. I am amazed when I see these war films that exalt death, without taking a moment to think that, almost as a rule, every war usually responds to economic interests, concealed by political motives. I feel they are almost horror movies, preparing us for the death of the characters in a sinister conflagration. Similarly, they bother me even more when I know that they are propaganda vehicles that sell the image of an army - in this case, foreign and distant from the events that motivate the war - and overlooks the real drama of local human beings who have to endure so much tragedy. Richard Addinsell provides such a pompous score to «The War Lover» that it makes you think you are watching a major historical event. But no. It is a romantic-war melodrama, with a mad soldier leading the events and making propaganda for his army, in those days when that institution was intervening in the genocidal war of Vietnam and when England was producing the progressive "free cinema", to which this film is completely alien. Avoid.
I saw «The Teahouse of the August Moon» today for the third time. The first time I watched it I was a small boy and it remained in my mind as something very pleasant. Then, a few years ago, I saw it again and thought that it had "graciously passed the test of time". Today I made an introduction about it for the personnel of the Electoral Court of Panama, as «The Teahouse
» started a series of film projections with later discussions about themes, subjects, situations, concepts contained in cinema. Movies like this one raise questions about democracy, military occupation, the meeting of cultures, the oppression of one culture over people from a different place with a different worldview, imperialism and so on. It is still an enchanting comedy with bright touches of satire, a few old- fashioned jokes and moving realizations by ordinary people both American and Japanese-, which compensate for its artificiality, verbosity and Marlon Brando's forced characterization of the Japanese narrator. It does so with film editing that gives good rhythm to the plot (which has by itself a lot of vitality in the way it was directed); fine and fluid camera-work and funny performances by Glenn Ford and Machiko Kyo (who also dances a beautiful choreography). The third part is excessively formulaic in order to reach a cheerful conclusion, but it is after all a product of a time of world tension and political struggle, and in those situations, people ask for happy endings. Those were the days of the Cold War after World War II, with the anti-communist witch-hunting still fresh in everybody's minds, and the Hays Code still ruling the representation of life in all its manifestation, most notable eroticism, which is a strong element in the story. Watch it, it is very good.
Zoo in Budapest (1933)
A wonderful discovery, once you get over its syrupy, tinkling first minutes, this turns into a beautiful fable of love among the destitute, with every single close-up of fauna completely justified (there are many, and all pretty), and everything topped with a magnificently staged and shot animal revolt in the last act. Gene Raymond is very good and appropriately agile as the young man who grew up in the zoo, surrounded by the splendid species, while Loretta Young is at her prettiest as a young orphan. Add a lost kid, a good doctor, a couple of villains, excellent cinematography and very attractive sets built in sound stages, and you have a magnificent piece of shiny artifice, handled by director Rowland V. Lee, one of those expert and efficient artisans that the "auteur theory" overlooked, while paying too much attention to big names. Watch it, you won't regret spending 80 minutes of your life in this Hungarian zoo.
First Work in Genre Film
It has been very interesting to conscientiously see the first film of a filmmaker whose second work I admired work immensely. That's my experience with "February" (or "The Blackcoat's Daughter"), as it was renamed at the request of the distributor that launched the product in March 2017 in limited exhibitions in cinema, two years after it started a praised tour through several film festivals) and Osgood Perkins, whose "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House" I recently saw. I believe that in his debut feature, a story of psychological distortion with hints of Satanism, Perkins unleashed his tastes and concerns, which, fortunately, were put much under control in his next work. In both films, a feeling of desolation and loss prevails, as the filmmaker said in an interview, that "the best scary movies are sad movies". Here the story does not focus on adult women, like the nurse and the writer of "I Am the Pretty Thing...", but on three teenagers, with serious emotional problems: one, apparently psychic, who intuits the death of her parents and has become the target of the "Evil One"; a beautiful nymphet, who suspects that she is pregnant; and a disturbed girl, seemingly a runaway from a mental institution. The central meeting point of the three women is a school where Satan seeks the unwary, just as in "Pretty Thing..." everything merges in the house where a "pretty ectoplasm" refuses to leave the space. But if in the history of this ghost measure, contention, and scarce musical commentary by Elvis Perkins (the director's brother) are the norm, in "February", despite calculated performances, observational shots of precise duration and correct tempo, something gets out of hand. In my personal experience, two things made too much noise: the reiteration of shots of empty stairs and corridors whose anodyne effect strongly surfaces with Perkins' persistent sounds, and that sticky gore that is sought after with pleasure by the avid consumers of everything "deep red". But there is no doubt that Osgood Perkins' inauguration in genre film was promising and confirmed with "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House", and merits viewing, with good performances by the three leading actresses (Shipka, Boynton and Roberts) and the secondary cast, plus beautiful cinematography by Julie Kirkwood, all shot in the dead of northern winter.
Poetic, Haunting, Pretty Thing
Compared to the products of magical thinking made by some filmmakers, which are applauded by certain genre film buffs (in this case, of ghost movies), «I Am the Beautiful Thing That Lives in the House» (2016) is a masterpiece of poetic tone and circumspection, of elegant visualization and aural gentleness, in which there is one or two frights so as not to "betray" the genre, but in which restraint reigns. Ghost movies laden with blood, overwhelming music and sound, visual effects and blocks of tension that lead to nothing but frightening spectators, abound and win the applause of rabid audiences in search of cheap thrills. In contrast, there are few products like this film by Osgood Perkins (son of actor Anthony Perkins), which tells the story of how young nurse Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), who comes to care for the elderly writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) in her Massachusetts home, begins to feel the presence of the ghost of Polly (Lucy Boynton), an ectoplasmic manifestation that wanders by the property, that modifies and deteriorates it, one of those spirits of folklore and tradition that have a tragic and violent ending in an environment which they resist to leave, and end up owning places and houses that they "haunt", unleashing strange events. But in this case the confrontation of the nurse with the specter of Polly, with her employer (who insists on calling her Polly instead of Lily) and the memories that filter through corners and closets, consists of very beautiful shots of the three actresses, rich self-reflections in subtle linguistic metaphors that evoke yearnings, fears and precautions, and in beautiful shots of the house itself, which is also a protagonist, to lead us to the tragic resolution. Because there are no intrigues or mysteries: from the beginning Lily announces that she is 28 years old and that she will not reach 29. And in the midst of these reflections of images and sounds, realism surges in the scenes of the nurse with the guardian of Blum's state (Bob Balaban) and with the writer herself, who affirms that her most famous novel was dictated to her by its protagonist, a certain Polly Parsons that one good day disappeared for good. To the commendable technical work and Perkins' screenplay and direction, you have the benefit of outstanding performances by Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban and Paula Prentiss, in a fortunate and brief return to films. Apart from everything evident, there is a subliminal autobiographical line in the film: from the beginning, Perkins dedicates the film to his father, "who gave me an old house"; he adds Perkins' rendition of Irving Berlin's song «You Keep Coming Back Like a Song» to the soundtrack, and shows the actor on a television screen in a scene from William Wyler's film «Friendly Persuasion». In addition, he cast Prentiss and Balaban, two old friends of his father who worked with him in the film version of Joseph Heller's novel «Catch-22». After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it had a warm welcome, «I Am the Beautiful Thing That Lives in the House» was launched by Netflix as a Halloween offer, with the consequent rejection of TV audiences eager for violence, blood and humor in the «Juan of the Dead» style. However, little by little the film has been gaining the right place it deserves, as an artistically accomplished ghost story of impeccable execution.
The Littlest Outlaw (1955)
Boy and Horse Again
It came as a surprise to me that "The Littlest Outlaw" is still circulating in home video, while "Song of the South" has been denied a proper home video release in the United States, for matters related to "political correctness", for while one is accused of racism and left in the vaults, the other is free of critique in spite of its scenes showing cruelty to animals. Not that I am for the banning of these films, Nazi movies or comedies with white actors playing African- Americans with black pancake, because I understand that all these products have to be seen as signs of different times or modes of thought in mankind's existence on Earth, but this Disney double standard seemed to me a good example of entrepreneurial false morality. In this times when bullfighting is almost universally condemned, the last act of "The Littlest Outlaw" is built around one such scene in which animals (and humans, including a toreador who seems to be actually gored by a bull) are hurt for the pleasure of the masses. Unfortunately this sequence is perhaps the only segment in which "The Littlest Outlaw" is less insipid and becomes vivid, because otherwise it is a routine melodrama with equestrian choreography and a little comedy here and there. The Mexican locale is merely an excuse, for the story can happen anywhere, but in the end that intent for narrating something "latino" proved to be the worst aspect of the movie. By 1955 Mexican director Roberto Gavaldón had made fine melodramas, including "The Kneeling Goddess", "In the Palm of Your Hand", "Night Falls", "The Three Perfect Married Women" and powerful rural tales as "Rosauro Castro", "The Shawl of Soledad" and "Green Shadow"; while there were more appreciable works to come after this Disney production: ""Ash Wednesday", "Macario", "Rosa Blanca" and "The Golden Cockerel". But in this tale of boy and horse wandering through the country side, conceived by producer Larry Lansburgh (whose filmography shows a strong liking for animal movies), Gavaldón could not avoid the Disney formula, with a saccharine relationship between boy and horse, odd and funny secondary characters, a silly song called "Doroteo", and a kid that hardly looks as a rural Mexican boy of indigenous ancestry, who would look more comfortable in a suburb of Mexico City. Pedro Armendáriz and Rodolfo Acosta play the rude men they used to portray in their sleep, the rest of the Mexican actors are efficient and likable, and everybody seems to enjoy what they were doing. I am sorry to say that I could not share their enthusiasm.
Les valseuses (1974)
Bertrand Blier's anarchic comedy is full of artistic resonance, and it sure has a special meaning to me: not only because a friend of mine made me see it to let me know what he wanted to do (oh, those labyrinthine tactics of old...!), but for it took two icons of French film heritage and put them upside down. First, that Moreau woman, of "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud", "Moderato cantabile" and "Jules & Jim" fame, makes love to the two boys before killing herself, and then la Fossey, the same actress that I had seen as a little girl in "Forbidden Games" was surprisingly playing a middle-class housewife in a bus, had her bare breasts fondled by the pair of petty thugs played by Depardieu and Dewaere. It changed my vision of French cinema, as it said bye-bye to the angst of the nihilist "nouvelle vague" and proposed anarchy as an antidote to stagnation. Of course there was also Miou-Miou, and next in line a future icon (Miss Isabelle), topped by an ironic ending for all.
Camino del infierno (1951)
Chanteuse on the Rampage
Uninspired direction by Miguel Morayta, obviously low production values and artificial solutions to the dramatic situations proposed by novelist Luis Spota, heavily affect this film noir-musical-melodrama that tells the story of a mean chanteuse that falls for a macho thief who hides his ruthlessness behind a false mask of nobility. Unfortunately for the woman she turns from calculating bitch to angelic wife but then gets sick, listens to bad medical advice and goes into a rampage of self- destruction while her body rots. Good moments include the singer's musical numbers (dubbed by Toña la Negra), the duel between her suitors that ends with both men dead, the surgery that takes place in the warehouse where the thief hides with the singer after he is shot, and an ending worthy of a horror movie. Excessive histrionics by the complete cast do not help much, except for singer Alvarado and wrestler Wolf Ruvinskis who look and sound fresh compared to the professional actors. It is a pleasure though to watch beautiful and sensual Leticia Palma, an actress whose career was ended by scandal when she was accused of stealing papers from the Mexican actors' guild, which was later revealed as a case orchestrated by one of her producers after she declined his sexual propositions. Worth a look.
The Rite of Rain
Currently, ethnographic film has found allies in new spectators who feel a particular attraction for observational film. Instead of asking for "action", fast cuts, short scenes and labyrinthine stories with many turning points to keep them in suspense, these spectators have adopted the classic posture of contemplation in front of a work of art. There is nothing new in the panorama of artistic appreciation, until it is applied to film, which traditionally has been assumed to be mere entertainment, to disconnect one from everyday life with all its rampage and agitation.
Ethnographic film, for its part, became more aware of this expressive resources, abandoning reconstructions in the style of Robert J. Flaherty in «Nanook from the North» and opting for the more authentic techniques of direct cinema, proposed and used by Michel Brault , Robert Drew and Jean Rouch. The only thing that was missing was a new race of spectators, willing to observe, to contemplate. The film of Giovanna Miralles, «Umaturka: The Call of the Water» is not precisely a model for contemplation, but it does slow down the impulses to mold the rituals registered, in a way that they are left for posterity as images of practices of the original dwellers in the Bolivian Andean plateau, in their endeavors to bring rain to the land. The cinematographer Peter Wilkin and the director Miralles did not chose contemplative still takes, but rather a mobile camera which observes, registers and follows the events, guiding us through the rituals that are performed during two days to warranty their continuity, by means of the call for the rain.
The rural Bolivian landscape holds a strange beauty: its aridity is surprising and ironically beautiful. Behind that topography and those dwellings which go from gold, to brown and ochre, it is hidden the misery of the people dispossessed of their lands, poor distribution of wealth and monopolization. The indigenous inhabitants preserve the historic memory, traditions and customs, that serve to them as tools and arms to subsist "doing even when we can not do it", as testified in one of the intertitles that are scattered through 45 minutes of projection, amplifying and explaining the actions of a group of men and women from Quillacas who celebrate the rituals of the umaturka, to harmonize their existence with the arid environment. The rituals involve products of the land that is sown and harvested, in addition to the plates derived from them and the animals offered, accompanied by music and invocations, combined with certain appellation to Catholicism.
The documentary, registered in 2007, had the privilege to witness a critical moment in the last day of the rituals, during the election of the standard-bearer, who will prolong the practices and customs, a process that is practically achieved by the leaders' pressure. As a consequence of many unexposed causes, that are not difficult to suppose, the population of young adults is practically absent from the rites, alerting about cultural extermination propitiated by apathy, loot and globalization.
In every laudable work, there is always a "villain", although in this case and in a certain way its almost minimalist elaboration is justified: we refer to the sound post-production, that in some moments does not propitiate the fluidity of the narration, since in the end sound is the common thread always present, as opposed to the image which is cut to introduce texts or fades to black to mark the passage of time. The soundtrack sometimes breaks the unity between the image and corresponding sounds, and the hypnagogic effect they have over the spectator. However the "villainy" does not affect the global value of the work, which is an inestimable contribution to the preservation of the memory and identity of Bolivia and America the continent.