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The Return of the Vivancos
Less sentimental than its predecessor (well, only a bit less
), shorter and funnier, "El proceso de las señoritas Vivanco" is though a bit below the standards of the first installment of the diptych. Following the story of the thieving sisters Hortensia and Teresa Vivanco y de la Vega, this one starts with the little old ladies being escorted to prison by police detective Saldaña (whom they made pass as their fictional nephew Ernestito), who does everything to avoid putting both women in jail: to no avail, of course. Since there is only one accusation by the singer whom Hortensia re-possessed the family jewels- "Ernestito" tries to take her only to court, but Teresa refuses to let her sister alone, and fakes a robbery in the hotel she is staying while Hortensia is being booked. So both sisters enter the penal institution to wait for the trial, and in the meantime they redecorate their cell, add ruffles to their uniform, ask for permission to go out and attend a couple's wedding anniversary, help fellow inmate Trini to escape (so she can take care of her 3-year old daughter) and get literally stoned while burning marijuana they have in their cell, when they discover it is not a remedy for belly aches. Although production values are as high as in the first part, the plot of this sequel is thinner and the conflict is lighter, taking more time in creating funny situations, which most of the time function very well. As in the first part, it is a joy to see Sara García and Prudencia Grifell working together, with funnier lines in this occasion (especially from 81-year old Grifell, whose Teresa is more stubborn and proactive than Hortensia), and again with excellent support from Manolo Fábregas as "Ernestito"/Saldaña, and Miguel Ángel Ferriz as the head of the prison. Carmen Salas repeats her role from the first film as Trini, a young prostitute, but Ana Luisa Peluffo as the accusing singer is missed. As successful as "Las señoritas Vivanco" was before, it is strange producer Jesús Grovas did not re-team García and Grifell (who were still active in the 1970s), giving new adventures to the Vivancos, as the end of this one suggests, when they offer their niece and her husband financial assistance to raise their baby.
Las señoritas Vivanco (1959)
Sentimental comedy that revived the old "Porfirian comedy", a Mexican film genre that euphemistically questioned the ideals of the 1910 Mexican revolution, while stressing the values of the white and petit-bourgeois Mexicans who were followers of dictator Porfirio Díaz. The main characters are Hortensia Vivanco y de la Vega (Sara García) and Teresa Vivanco y de la Vega (Prudencia Grifell), two flat broke old Porfirian sisters who find a baby niece at their door, just when they have been gone bankrupt. Refusing to accept their new condition and to keep up with the appearances of material well-being, they decide to rob to survive and raise the girl: first, Hortensia works as a maid for a vaudeville artist (Ana Luisa Peluffo) to re-possesses the family jewels that her womanizer dead brother have given to the singer; then Teresa becomes the French-speaking governess of the four children of a Catholic nouveau riche couple (Miguel Manzano, María Teresa Rivas), and steals an effigy of the Holy Child of Atocha with a money box, brought to the house by a priest, with all the pesos that were given by the parishioners to build a sanctuary for the little saint; next Hortensia works in a brothel and takes the hush money a minister (Roberto Meyer) gives to the madame (Emma Arvizu) in a moment of impending scandal, and finally Teresa steals the loot from a revolutionary general (Pedro Armendáriz, at his macho worst). What definitely makes this work is the two actresses: García (who was 64 when the film was made) and Grifell (who was 80, and still active in films when she died at 91) work in such great harmony that they are fun to watch, with fine support from José Luis Jiménez as the friend who secretly loves both women; and handsome Manolo Fábregas as a police detective. It was a big success, followed a couple of years later by "The Trial of the Señoritas Vivanco".
Corri uomo corri (1968)
Sollima, Milian and Chelo at Their Best
1968 was a very good year in films. For most specialists though, it is the emblematic year of a tumultuous period in world politics, and it has been mostly analyzed by historians, sociologists and philosophers. An analysis of films from this perspective is always interesting, but I know very few works dealing with this topic: it would be propitious to do it for the 50th anniversary of those events (in 2018), because during that year many major works were released, as varied as "if....", "Faces", "Memorias del subdesarrollo", "Night of the Living Dead", "Teorema", "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Fando y Lis" or "Salesman"
and this is just a handful. Of course, if we consider 1968 in film from the viewpoint of denunciation, militancy, pamphlets and banners, the honor would go to the monumental Argentinean film and masterpiece of world documentary, "The Hour of the Furnaces". In the field of genre, if we had to choose a paradigmatic 1968 European western, the obvious option would be "Once Upon a Time in the West", a drama about the expansion of civilization in the United States, through uncivil methods. However, the plot of "Run, Man, Run", another European western of 1968, combined the political-activist spirit and the fun of those days (to get an idea, the pop and soul hit-parades of the year are a big help, as well as films as "Joanna", "Vixen", and the like): the film is the culmination of Sergio Sollima's trilogy, preceded by "The Big Gundown" and "Face to Face". Here the action takes place against the Mexican revolution of the 1910s, a conflict of epic proportion with diverse sides, from agrarian problems to military struggle, class conflict, religious controversy and vandalism, without forgetting American interventionism. By choosing this background, the scriptwriters were able to address all these sides, to reflect the spirit of rebellion in 1968 in a costume drama, and to insert many contemporary slogans and common phrases of the left. In the end, though, the tone is more ironic and parodic than dramatic: with a leading character as peculiar as the thieving scoundrel Manuel "Cuchillo" Sánchez; with Dolores (Chelo Alonso), Cuchillo's assertive woman and a revised version of the "soldadera" (a female follower of soldiers), opposite to the Adelita of Mexican folk; and with Cassidy (Donald O'Brien), an atypical American bounty hunter who opts to support the Mexican revolution, it is logic that the final product is an amusing ride, full of emotions, laughs and tension. As Cuchillo, formidable Tomas Milian is probably the greatest Cuban actor that I have ever seen in films, while for the first time I was able to see his fellow countrywoman Chelo Alonso in a good role that justified her characteristic fierceness beyond caricature, although in many moments there is a lot of humor, as in a demented comic book. The film also contains scenes of great splendor, as the horse persecution through the snow; confrontations with guns and knives; a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone, who, for apparent contractual reasons, had to give composing credits to his collaborator and arranger Bruno Nicolai; a multi-colored gallery of villains, including the loud-mouthed bandit Riza (Nello Pazzafini), the greedy Salvation Army official Penny (Linda Veras) and two ruthless French mercenaries (Marco Guglielmi and Luciano Rossi); and revolution leaders with marked differences: poet Ramírez (José Torres) and megalomaniac Santillana (John Ireland). An original and enjoyable European western, and a very good motion picture, still vigorous 46 years after its first release.
No Man Is an Island (1962)
This American-Filipino co-production is a good example of cheap, proto-fascist cinema, with a formula script supposedly inspired by soldier George R. Tweed's "heroics" during Japanese invasion in Guam, turned into adventure non-sense, loaded with bad dialogue and "exotic" touches by the Filipino actors. Unfortunately, the make-up department had no pancake for them, so while Jeffrey Hunter sports a glorious tan, the others are all made-up with obvious powders intended for Caucasians. Add the U.S. Army propaganda, the scratched war footage, the shaky sets, and a score that goes from pompous to soapy, and you have a dreadful product.
L'amante del vampiro (1960)
The Vampires and the Ballerinas
Seen 54 years after its initial release "L'amante del vampiro" (1960) was a most pleasant surprise, a good horror film that introduced vampires with fangs into the golden age of Italian "cinéma fantastique", including (and often mixing) horror, péplum, spy spoof, comic-book heroes, giallo, and even science-fiction. When discussing this film directed by Renato Polselli, most sources indicate the influence of Terence Fisher's "Dracula" (United Kingdom, 1958), but I would say that Fernando Méndez's "El vampiro" (Mexico, 1957) was also a source of inspiration: the constant irruption of the Italian vampire (Walter Brandi) into the house of the ballerinas, is evocative of the menacing presence of a Eastern European vampire in the Mexican hacienda. It is evident that the financial resources were scarce, but this little film was made with conviction, imagination and a lot of humor. I suppose the erotic elements came mostly from Polselli, who would eventually direct a few pornographic films: in this case he handled them with the typical restraint of mainstream cinema of its day, but they are by no means deprived of sensuality. First, the film includes two welcome dance sequences, one even emerging from the beautiful ballerinas' sudden inspiration. Any dance academy would love to have this kind of students, who are good-looking, suggestive, dance well and can choreograph themselves! Then there is the vampire baroness (Maria Luisa Lombardo), a lady constantly in heat, even when she is wearing medieval gowns; while the erotic undercurrent rises whenever hunk Gino Turini (as Giorgio, the choreographer) appears bare chested, in bathing suits or in bed with his lover. The most sensual moment though, is when ballerina Luisa (Hélène Remy) moves ardently in bed, waiting for the vampire to arrive. The castle used as the vampires' lair is superb, with actors obviously working in very cold conditions; the black and white cinematography is a big plus, and even the ugly vampire's evident mask points to one important plot element. But I believe that the great strength of "L'amante del vampiro" is the music by Aldo Piga, even if some find it annoying. He not only added rhythm to scenes shot at a slow pace, but he also did a great job combining suspenseful contemporary music with a portentous and dramatic score that magnifies the terror described. Renato Polselli was not the most inspired director, yes, and it shows that he handled the material just adequately. But everybody involved in this production contributed more than the usual quota of professionalism and enthusiasm, and I believe that this is what has contributed to make "L'amante del vampiro" an attractive and interesting horror work up to this day.
Reto a la vida (1954)
Corny Love Story
Susana Canales is Marta, a dying young woman who is fooled into putting Pedro Armendáriz in jail. He is at his meanest as Diego Lombardo, a nasty peasant who kills a man working for a "general" who wants to rob the land Diego owns with his brother Juan, a widower who has a little son called Raulito. Marta runs a home for children with her priest brother, and the day she goes to the Lombardo farm to pick up Raulito, she witnesses the gunfight in which Juan is accidentally killed. Then out of the blue she falls in love with Diego, who treats her badly and even abuses her physically in dreams and in one scene in which he hits her and, as he wipes the blood off her face, voilà!, he discovers he loves her! Marta is also crazy about the man, and they sort of communicate telepathically, until a very cheesy ending, done with complete conviction by director Julio Bracho, who made better films as "Distinto amanecer" (1943) and "Crepúsculo" (1945), or interesting experiments as "El monje blanco" (1945).
Dark Skies (2013)
Aliens and Child Abuse in Elm Street
An ambitious script with weak spots affects the overall effect. It starts very well with the dramatic account of a family in a difficult financial situation, living in a community all too willing to raise accusations of child abuse without any proof (including the mother herself, accusing her husband), within the frame of a science-fiction plot. But then it is loaded with too many horror concessions, and formulaic solutions more often seen in action films. The first sight of the alien is quite an impact, but the rest does not live up to the expectations that shot created, and you start to get mad with the characters, the motion picture and the filmmakers, when they make the parents insist on leaving their little child alone in his room, after so many disturbing night events. The alternate ending added as bonus in the DVD edition is way much better than the one that was finally chosen.
I, Frankenstein (2014)
I definitely saw another movie than the one seen by those who have given this two stars or less, or who complain that they have not seeing anything worst than this. Well, they have seen very little or perhaps they have not realized how often they are fed with very bad movie junk, under the disguise of art or top entertainment... As I enjoyed the films animated by Ray Harryhausen, with their cyclops, harpies, Medusas, fighting skeletons, or giants as the unforgettable Thalos (from Jason and the Argonauts), what I saw I enjoyed very much -except for the score, which has become a plague in almost all American cinema of today, a mixture of pastiche sounds inherited from Jerry Goldsmith and all the others, plus the obnoxious little rock number for the end credits. The tension falters a bit in the very last moment, when the thousands of corpses are about to be reanimated, but for the rest it was fine airhead entertainment. If you are looking to have a good time with another fable of the struggle of agents of Good against the Evil, with no romance out of place (between the monster and a scientist?), efficient special effects and the fast rhythm of American (or Australian, for the case) adventure film, watch it, and leave Malick, Weerasethakul or Sorrentino for another time. (P.S. I did not see Mary Shelley's name in big letters in the end credits, so if it is there somewhere, I guess one has to look for it with a magnifying glass, among the endless list of line, executive, associate and whatever producers).
Mother of George (2013)
Rhythm is often defined by locales - while mountain people seem to be rather slow by nature, those born close to sea shores appear to be faster in their movements. So I wouldn't call this film "slow", but idiosyncratically paced, admitting that I might be wrong: maybe Nigerians are faster than what I believe, judging from this film. Then it would be a decision taken by director Andrew Dosunmu, making dialogs and reactions calm to the extreme. I could take this, but what really distanced me was composition within the frame: too often actions are seen in close-ups, even in moments when large crowds are gathered. Maybe we have been conditioned so much by traditional cinema that we expect to see a reaction from a listener when told something that might shock him or her... as the moment when the pregnant Adenike confronts her brother-in-law in his apartment. But once this is accepted and dealt with, one can enjoy this strong drama of choices, tradition and deeply-rooted beliefs, beyond any moral judgment of what is right or wrong. In spite of the endless list of producers and executive producers who capitalize on the work of the creative team, the most remarkable features in "Mother of George" are (besides the performances by Danai Gurira and Yaya DaCosta, as Nike and Sade, the two young women subjected to matriarchy rule and dumb males) the cinematography by Bradford Young and Mobolaji Dawodu's beautiful traditional costumes. The brightness and colors brought by the use of natural and artificial light and the garments, create an atmosphere of hopefulness and joy in the midst of so much sadness and obsession with parenthood. See it.
Muscle Shoals (2013)
Muscle Shoals in the Memory
Of the several recent documentaries made about singers, musicians and producers of rhythm and blues, this 2013 production and the Pennebaker-Hegedus film, "Only the Strong Survive", are probably the best. Musically "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" has no equal, for it was conceived as a concert film, a record of a historical reunion of Detroit's jazz musicians known as The Funk Brothers, with guest appearances from great contemporary vocalists, all recorded with care; while "Twenty Feet from Stardom" is surely the weakest, a lost opportunity to make an outstanding documentary, starring some of the best background vocalists of yesterday (and a few from the present), due to an average approach, like an extended television report. Not that "Muscle Shoals" and "Only the Strong Survive" are cinematic masterpieces, but both cover controversial facts surrounding some of their subjects, including producer Rick Hall in the first case, or Sam Moore in the second. Their personalities and stories lift these works from the common place, and help to make them very fine achievements. Hall is indeed a very complex man, from his childhood in poverty, living in the wilderness, to his success as owner of Fame recording studio in Muscle Shoals, the city where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Etta James and many others recorded hits. He omits nothing, revealing dark details from his family and work, and even making reflections about himself that reveal how the shortcomings and rejections he faced led him to achieve success. Due to the format there is fantastic R&B and rock and roll music that unfortunately is not enjoyed in its fullness (from Aretha to Duane Allman, among the many artists that recorded in Muscle Shoals), and very little live, new material, as the outstanding performance by Alicia Keys, several of the original session musicians and a gospel choir. But these are little complaints compared to the joy of seeing at last, a work on the fantastic music produced in those small recording studios in Alabama, and the group known as The Swampers. Don't miss it.