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Club de señoritas (1956)
Television, Cha-Cha-Cha and Women's Lib
"Club de Señoritas" was intended as an irreverent comedy by their producers, most probably with high hopes, but the routine handling by director Gilberto Martínez Solares turned it into an average product. It was a true revelation for me though: starring, produced and choreographed by Ninón Sevilla, I had no idea that there was a Mexican film made in the 1950s that flirted with women's liberation, with firm militants and aggressive activists (among them, the very funny Vitola, as a bodyguard, dressed in cowgirl attire and armed with guns and a club), and that Ninón was interested in comedy. For the first time Ninón in a Mexican context- flaunts her Havanan origin, without even suggesting her Cubanness; she has only one dancing number (a dream sequence in which she mixes Alfred Newman's "Street Scene", with Félix Reina's cha-cha-cha "Los espiritones"), and above all she shows affinity with the tradition of Cuban "comedia bufa", a theater expression that became very popular in the 19th century in La Habana, performed by the so-called "guaracheros", with funny plots involving stereotypes as the Galician, the Negro scholar, the Mulatta of fire, the Chinese, the happy peasant, the not-so-innocent girl, etc. Ninón was often cast in erotic melodramas as a fatal rumba dancer, so it was refreshing to see her in a comedy in which she does not have to seduce andropausic old judges or fresh-faced rich students, hiding her work as a whore or cabaret dancer. Made to capitalize on the introduction of television sets in Latin America homes in those years (the main credits are drawn inside a television screen), and the cha-cha-cha craze, a very popular rhythm then in almost all the American continent, the film tells how the hostess of a TV program called "Club de Señoritas" fights with her scriptwriter/lover (Ramón Gay), when the press is about to discover that her call to the liberation of the Mexican women is a fraud and a money-making scheme. As a response, Gay creates a new program for men and women of all ages called "El Club del Chachachá" that airs at the same time and becomes an instant success. Music and jokes lead the action, but the rhythm is somehow affected by the scenes involving Joaquín Pardavé (as a right-wing football-fanatic husband and follower of Porfirio Díaz) and Óscar Pulido (as the Chinese owner of a restaurant, and a Pancho Villa's follower). The action often slows to allow both actors to show their verbal humor. In the case of Pardavé, he was a comic of the old of slapstick school, and he was still in shape for the cha-cha-cha scenes and the classic pie-throwing ending. For today's standards, the predictable story (that will offend the self-righteous crowd) is full of "offensive" stereotypes that may raise the brows of PC militants. I believe though that offense and stereotypes are more often than not at the core of good or bad jokes. So if you put all that aside, you can laugh this time with Ninón.
Silly, Old Victorian Fools
Both Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, as well as the grown-ups they play in this film, were all too old and worldly to be acting as fools defending the institution of marriage (and the Hays code), and no matter what Norman Krasna did to turn his stage comedy into cinema and how much the camera was moved, it is static and sort of "boxed". The usual multiple settings found in most films with original screenplays are replaced with a few clumsy solutions- as in the lovers' first date sequence: first, a scene in a private club they go for dinner; then, a scene at the ballet, where they arrive late and decided to skip it, and then another scene in the boring private club, while it had been better option to go somewhere else, a feeling that is confirmed when they decide to walk back home. All this said (and more that can be said against it), Bergman, Grant, Phyllis Calvert and Cecil Parker all manage the innuendo and little jokes with the appropriate and winning charm of the sophisticated comedy of yesterday, that one does not regret much having spent 90 minutes with these silly and wealthy characters.
Rosauro Castro (1950)
Mexican Rural Melodrama at Its Best
Actor Pedro Armendáriz and director Roberto Gavaldón produced this strong rural melodrama, set in an iconic Mexican town, where landowners rule in a feudalistic manner (as they still do up to this day in many places). Probably Armendáriz produced the film as a reaction to his frequent casting as a passive indigenous peasant or too good loud-mouthed soldier: he is still shouting in this one, but now as Rosauro Castro, a mean and menacing tyrant who stops at nothing to control the town and its people. A moral tale written by Gavaldón and playwright José Revueltas (with dramatic elements that predate both "High Noon" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", from a story by Robert Quigley, British writer and filmmaker who frequently worked in Mexico), it starts with the killing of a candidate to mayor, and the arrival of a government official (Arturo Martínez in a rare performance as a good guy), who suspects of Castro's tyrannical ways and wants to teach the town authority a more civilized way to administer justice. All the action takes place in 24 hours, with a highly dramatic third act, but everything is told in less than 90 satisfactory minutes.
La barraca (1945)
Best Mexican Film of 1945
(Contains mild spoiler) Not a very successful adaptation of a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (the man who wrote "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", "Blood and Sand" and "Beyond All Limits") Roberto Gavaldón's "La barraca" nevertheless won all the top Ariels (Mexican national film prize) awarded to 1945 production, including best film, direction, screenplay, cinematography, actor, supporting actor, film editor, music, art direction and sound. The production is lavish, and the intentions were good, with a lot invested in special effects and casting many Spanish actors who were refugees from the Civil War, to make Mexican locales pass for Sevilla, but the results were not up to the effort, due to a weak script by filmmaker Tito Davison (a frequent collaborator of Gavaldón) and the daughter of Blasco Ibánez. The first hour or so is dedicated to illustrate all the hardships of a foreign family that arrives in town and occupies an abandoned "barraca" (a cabin) to work the land nearby, property of the family responsible for the tragedy of the first occupants. The community considers the cabin and land to be haunted, but everybody is so mean (except for an old shepherd) that it seems it is the people who are really possessed by evil spirits for all they wrong they do to the family members, including the death of the youngest child. The script is a perfect example of what a screenwriter should not do: it accumulates tragedy after tragedy, and then spends around 30 minutes of apparently happy times with folk music, dances and serenades, to return to tragedy for the last 15 minutes. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt", although "La barraca" was made 67 years before, and its characters are more rebellious and confront the mean characters. Not bad, but director Gavaldón made other much better films.
King of Kings (1961)
Bad script, bad wigs, bad film...
Everybody tries hard, but the film only comes alive when it turns into a real dramatization of Biblical texts... and these moments are placed in long intervals during 164 minutes. Otherwise it is an overlong and pedestrian literal reading of passages contained in the gospels. Compare the events concerning Barrabas (Harry Guardino) and his army of rebels fighting the Roman empire, or the scenes played by Lucius (Ron Randell) as a witness of all the drama, to the silly histrionics of the Herod family (better told elsewhere, with someone as beautiful as Rita Hayworth playing Salome, not pale Brigid Brazlen), and it becomes obvious that when the scriptwriters (Philip Yordan and all the many uncredited hands) distanced themselves from the sources, they did a better job. Poor Jeffrey Hunter (as Jesus) and Rip Torn (as Judas) were given the worst wigs available, and they had the leading roles! Don't blind yourself because you are a believer. Avoid.
The Mexican Invisible Man
In spite of cinema's most successful effort yet to depict it, invisibility is not a very cinegenic subject. Even James Whale's 1933 wonderful "The Invisible Man", based on the novella by H.G. Wells, also had to rely on a voice and special effects, in compensation for the absence of the leading character on screen. Since the invisible entities cannot be photographed, the action centers on the capacity of special effects and sound, as well as the reaction of the rest of the cast, to keep us interested for most of the running time. In 1958 there were two releases dealing with the condition: the horror sci-fi filler "Fiend Without a Face" (not very good, don't be misled by Criterion), which is the better known, and this almost forgotten Mexican production that apparently was conceived as an ambitious project, considering the artists and crew involved. It even starts promisingly, as a scientist shows his future wife where they will build their home, and they both imagine how it will look inside. The scientist is played by Arturo de Córdova (best known for Buñuel's "Él" and Wood's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"), reprising the role of the man who becomes invisible and mad, as in Wells' novella. Conceived by Alfredo Salazar, scriptwriter of several classic Mexican horror films, and adapted by playwright Julio Alejandro (who wrote "Nazarín", "Viridiana" and other scripts for Buñuel), the story also owes a bit to "Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man": the Mexican has been wrongly accused (and sentenced) for a murder he did not commit, and he uses his invisibility to clear his name. But De Córdova becomes religiously nuts, a mixture of the Exterminating Angel of God and Klaatu, threatening humanity with poisoning. For a change, the film ends rather well, considering all the many people that get killed in 90 minutes, and that we have to endure the slow pacing, to show off the special effects. For De Córdova's other famous roles, don't miss "La diosa arrodillada", "Dios se lo pague", "In the Palm of Your Hand" and the very enjoyable "The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales".
Besides Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey-Boy", another American contributed an entry into the Dogme 95 catalog - James Merendino with "Amerikana". When philosophy student Peter (Goorjian) is abandoned by his Danish girlfriend in Los Angeles, his musician friend Chris (Duval) invites him to South Dakota to claim a Harley Davidson he has inherited from an uncle. After Chris finds out it is in fact an Italian Vespa, he decides to take it to L.A. anyway, convincing a reluctant Peter. Both young men embark on a journey across the US that allows them to explore its landscapes and towns, discover some ugly aspects of rural citizens and confront their very own contradictions. A sort of free homage-remake of the classic "Easy Rider" (1969), its final "plot point" --leading to the death of its own sad version of Captain America-- is rather weak (the more so, being aural not visual, coming from a CB radio), but anyhow it is a very interesting viewing, led by the fine interaction of both performers, who are seen together most of the film. Goorjian contributed to the script of this Dogme movie, which has been seen by very few people apparently due to problematic distribution.
The Colossus of New York (1958)
A Good Variation of the Mad Scientist Film
"The Colossus of New York" has aged rather well. It still evokes the same strange fascination it had back in the late 1950s, when its story and title character startled me. It was evident back then that the film was a low-budget production, and that it was not a masterpiece of fantastic cinema, but its variation of the theme of the scientist that creates a monster was interesting, and the appearance of the colossus was impressive. I have read a couple of commentaries from producer William Alland, in which he expressed that he was very unsatisfied with the results, and put all the blame on Eugène Lourié. Allan definitely did not paid too much attention to the limitations of the budget he administered forcing to reuse shots, and the inclusion of stock footage-, of Thelma Schnee's weak script, or the negligence of Floyd Knudtson's editing. But especially, Alland overlooked John F. Warren's images, some of which are remarkable. This is also due to Lourié's background: he was originally an art director and set designer, and it shows. The lightning, compositions and camera angles are effective most of the times, and compensate for the shortcomings. Where Lourié's lack of expertise shows is in the routine camera set-ups, putting the camera (and the spectator) in the same position, in scenes that take place in the same locations, but separate in time. This somehow makes the movie unfold too cautiously, an explanation to the speed up of some shots when the colossus moves. Otherwise it is a recommended, little cult film that will stick to your memory.
The Gardener (1974)
A Beautiful Tree
Last night I saw this film, which missed the possibilities of developing an interesting story, with endless dialogs and bad performances. But I wouldn't put the blame on Joe Dallesandro. After all he plays a tree or something like that, so he delivers his line as plant-like as possible. He is a beautiful tree to look at, though, and I believe this is what this film is all about, including his legendary derrière. Poor Katharine Houghton tries to deliver a dramatic performance in the line of a giallo fatal heroine to no avail; James Congdon as her husband is rather boring (especially with Little Joe around), and Rita Gam is simply having a good time. I lived in Puerto Rico when this film was shot, but I did not hear anything about it being made. It was fun to watch a few theater people that were my friends, playing minor roles (Esther Mari, the cook; or Orlando Rodríguez and Janet Gómez as the couple Houghton visits).
The Gospel of Us (2012)
A Welcome Gospel
The Passion (summary of incidents related in the so-called «gospels» of the Bible, describing the ordeal experienced by Jesus of Nazareth, preferably from his baptism in the Jordan river, until his resurrection) has inspired so many works in painting, literature, sculpture, theater, film, etcetera, that one more will make no harm, even if the public knows in advance what to expect. And what is good news if that the new attempt is very good: I refer to «The Gospel of Us: The Passion of Port Talbot», a British film released in 2012 by Dave McKean, based on the play staged in 2011 by actor Michael Sheen in Wales. The film is mostly the record of the only performance, made that year during Easter all around Port Talbot. The most famous similar experience (with its respective film version) may be the one made in the Oberammergau, a German community that has been representing a «Passion» of medieval origin since 1633, first to ward off the plague and now to attract tourism. In Panamá, there was an equal experiment, when the Spanish priest José Ramón Condomines, repeated the strategy in the municipality of San Francisco de la Montaña, and I am almost sure that there must be similar projects in several places. I arrived to Port Talbot in a curious way: I watched the film version of David Haig's play, «My Son Jack» (2007), about the death of Jack Kipling (Daniel Radcliffe), son of writer Rudyard Kipling (Haig), during I World War, somehow triggered by the incendiary warmonger and imperialist spirit of his father. To my surprise, the role of Jack's best friend, was played by Welsh actor John-Paul Macleod, who thirteen years ago was cast as little Taliesin Jones in Martin Duffy's beautiful film, «The Testament of Taliesin Jones». I inquired what had been the evolution of Macleod and came across «The Gospel of Us», in which he plays one of the (8) apostles (no, this adaptation thankfully took creative liberties and avoided any sanctimonious loyalty). Actor Michael Sheen (seldom seen in leading roles, but often appearing in films, as «The Queen», «Blood Diamond», «Underworld», «Kingdom of Heaven», «The Four Feathers») returned to Port Talbot and, although the city is not characterized by its arts, he was able to recruit choirs, bands, singers, musicians, theater groups, carpenters and authorities. Then he summoned the people and collected their stories and experiences, and he wrote the text, adapting the main events of the Passion, to which he incorporated local dramas, as the disappearance of a sector of the city, following industrialization and progress. The final script was co-directed with Bill Mitchell. In the plot, the city is in danger of disappearing, due to the developmental projects of a powerful company that has decided that the city is unnecessary for its plan to extract minerals from the land. In this context, a man who had been missing for 40 days and nights reappears. He is called The Master, he sides with the protest and become a victim of the clash of two factions, reaching the dramatic resolution that includes torture, crucifixion and resurrection. In between scenes of the play performed live, Sheen inserted ingenious images and sequences (as the return of the dead loved-ones, the meeting of the Master with a daughter and ex-wife that he cannot remember, the conversion of Barabbas into a terrorist, the last Supper in a community center with musical acts, and the temptation of the Devil, evoked with simplicity and a 'demon' that is scarier for its resonance in our everyday lives and realities... Nothing like this was ever evoked by Pasolini or by Wyler, Scorsese, Jodorowsky, Buñuel, Griffith, Ince, Zecca, Niblo, and much less by Gibson, Rice or Lloyd Webber. While the film has a strong documentary tone, McKean is not a mere illustrator, but an outstanding visual artist. For reference, see his other films, as his beautiful first feature «MirrorMask» (2005), his shorts «N(eon)» (2002) and «Tan-Y-Groes» (2012, included on the DVD, from images he took in Port Talbot), or Alfonso Cuarón's «Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban», for which he was the conceptual artist. All the digital possibilities to manipulate images are used by McKean to recreate a universe of high visual richness, with commendable restraint, without going to excesses. McKean made every effort to control the running time of the movie (fine deleted scenes are included in the DVD), but the third act (trial, torture , ordeal...) is a bit overlong, with gratuitous cellos, choirs and fake blood... although most probably the faithful followers of the Passion will think the opposite. In any case this is quality risky cinema, mixing fiction, documentary, animation and experimentation, and offering a product that I recommend for all its attractive, different and original beauty.