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Stella Dallas (1937)
King Vidor and Social Differences
Barbara Stanwyck is very good in this melodrama, but I believe little praise has been given to King Vidor, whom I have grown to appreciate in recent years as one of the best classic American filmmakers of all times. Precisely for this reason I finally acquired this film and enjoyed it very much, especially as he shows great perception to depict the cruel and too frequent irreconcilable differences that end relationships. In movies like «The Crowd», «Our Daily Bread», «Street Scene», «Hallelujah!» and even «Bird of Paradise» or "Solomon and Sheba» Vidor intelligently dealt with social, cultural, ethnic, economic or ideological differences, that still affect people and quite often impede any one of us to find happiness. Perhaps the ornamented Stella is a bit overdone, especially in the hotel sequence after she has previously demonstrated how to control her tendency to be excessive and vulgar in dress, make-up, hair style or social manners, when Mr. Dallas picks up their daughter to spend Christmas with him. But most of the time Vidor keeps everything tight, including Sherman Todd's film editing, and even Alfred Newman's melodramatic string overflows are well measured. I must add that the rest of the cast is all good, making «Stella Dallas» a rewarding film experience.
Prelude to War
Surprisingly good, low-budget little espionage thriller, told in 70 minutes (so you don't have much time to question the accuracy of the plot), with good performances by all, including Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish in subtle characterizations, and Thomas Beck in a major role. The plot concerning a German conspiracy to steal the blueprints of a new American airplane is centered around four male characters (Lorre, Beck, Brian Donlevy and Ralph Morgan) who end up together in a dangerous flight over the Atlantic. The fast dramatic events include ruthless killings and a plane crash, all unknowingly leading to II World War.
Destination Moon (1950)
Put on Your Lead Shoes
When George Pál began to produce features in the 1950s he alternated his successful plain fantasy productions with lowbrow "realistic" films about space travel or the mechanics of magic. For every «War of the World», «tom thumb» or «The Time Machine», Pál indulged in one or two films dealing with scientific research that have not aged well, as "Destination Moon". Many of the seriously-treated facts and scenes today seem funny or verbose. On the other hand, the film tries hard to convince us of the importance of investing in the conquest of space, for nothing more than imperialist purposes, as seen in an undisguised propaganda sequence in which investors watch a Woody Woodpecker cartoon about space travel: if you distance yourself a bit from the "drama" being told, the sequence reveals disturbing cultural features, dealing with competitiveness, an obsession with "being first", world control and readiness to resolve many things through dominance and war. Once the moguls are convinced that they have a messianic mission to fulfill and open their checkbooks, a private program to travel to the Moon is launched, free from government interference, although in the end the objective for State or Capital is the same: supremacy. I guess one can pass that, waiting for the excitement of the trip ahead. But alas, no, there is nothing exciting about it, and not because the characters do not stop talking, but for the decision to omit many spectacular moments, as the launching seen from the Earth or the Moon. I give it 5 points for the effort, and some illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, but if you want to enjoy a fantasy trip to the Moon (because in the end «Destination Moon» is nothing but a fantasy), switch to George Méliès' «Le voyage dans la Lune» or Fritz Lang's «Frau im Mond», which are far superior.
La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959)
Known as «Los ambiciosos» in México, the co-producing country where director Luis Buñueñ relocated to, lived and died, as well as in most Latin American territories, this was made in 1959, the year Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, so while anyone can believe the plot and location refers to him and his homeland, they do not. Yes, the island of Ojeda is a Caribbean country ruled by a dictator (Andrés Soler at his meanest - he does receive credit in the Mexican version), but its banana-based economy (no sugar, tobacco or rum, as in Cuba) and the absence of a guerrilla movement, makes it "NowhereLand" with Gérard Philipe (in his last role) as a handsome idealist who falls for the wrong woman (María Félix looking very beautiful). In any case we will never know if Buñuel or in that case novelist Henri Castillou were able to see the future. A good political melodrama.
A Beautiful Work of Art
One of the few and rare cases of a filmmaker finding footage and turning it into something not only distinguished but respectful of its origin and spirit, «16memorias» evokes sixteen periods in the life of the Posada Saldarriaga family from Medellín. Director Botero used 33 hours of images that entrepreneur Mario Posada Ochoa filmed of his family from 1945 to 1971, with a 16mm camera: the birth of every offspring, their promenades, their voyages. Through his remarkable editing skills, Botero unified all the material with the reiterated image of a child who projects fragments of celluloid. A beautiful work that eloquently demonstrates the rich capacities of cinema for capturing the pass of time and the wonder of life and to find and express art in the most unexpected forms and places.
Curse of the Fly (1965)
The Fly That Flew Away
Nice little film, with two Oriental servants called Tai and Wan... that's a sample of the inspiration that screenwriter Harry Spalding brought to end the trilogy, but as everybody has pointed out it is better than the previous installment. Mental patient Patricia Stanley (sexy South African actress Carole Gray) is the main character this time, a pianist who escapes an asylum only to get mixed up with the Delambres, who now have cells in their manor, where they keep the victims of their experiments with teletransportation. Tai-Wan are in charge of the Delambre mansion, laboratory and prison, and things get ugly but no flies fly around to make them nastier. Enjoy!
Rompiendo la ola (2014)
Breaking the Wave
Panamanian filmmaker Annie Canavaggio finally released her first feature in 2014, the splendid documentary "Rompiendo la ola", shot in a poor community in the Southern sector of the isthmus of Panama. It is a fine combination of a sports film and direct cinema that shows the hard edges of Panamanian society through its three main characters. The film enters the lives, homes and inner thoughts of Cholito, Deivis and Oli, surfers born and raised in Santa Catalina, three men of African descent who love the thrill of the sea and its surf, and it reveals their hopes and hardships. In the 1980s I had the opportunity to travel all around that zone, doing theater in the communities and became aware of the conditions of poverty in which they lived. The surf was then for the locals, but vessels owned by the rich sailed around the area, as if announcing what was about to come. Today things have changed and, as one of the local boatmen says, it seems they will worsen with the sudden irruption of foreign capital among people of very low income. Cholito, Deivis and Oli are direct witnesses of that transition. Cholito, the oldest of the three, was the first to gain national and international attention for his surfing skills, but as the local and foreign rich competitors planted flags in Santa Catalina, his options vanished. As one Jamaican surfer says, tje sport now seems a game for the whites who, as they did with rock and roll, took surf for themselves and marginalized the "colored people" who created it. But such is life, and it is a fine thing that Annie Canavaggio chose to tell their stories. It has been a long journey in which they have been exposed to privation, elitism and social discrimination. Today young Oli has the opportunity to be sponsored by a firm. But don't take me wrong: the beautiful images by Vicente Ferraz and the action shot by surfer Bolívar Samuel in the water make "Rompiendo la ola" a balanced work, one about a sport, spiced with all I have previously mentioned, as well as reflections and images of fabrication of surfboards, family relations, marketing, love and children and adults riding the waves. A beautiful, highly recommended film work.
Tarzan and the Great River (1967)
Infamous Tarzan movie because of accident suffered by Mike Henry: he was bitten on the chin by Dinky, the chimpanzee playing Cheetah, which was "destroyed" for its action. But it is not as bad as I had been told. It is a welcome and nice, wide-screen change of setting in the Amazonian jungle, where the Ape Man goes after diamond-greedy Rafer Johnson and his bunch of painted mercenaries, all belonging to the ancient Jaguar cult. But as Henry's hair and make-up are in place most of the running time, the plot that could have been resolved in 70 minutes was "spiced" with footage and more footage (quite often scratched) of wild animals, vast views of the jungle, monkey's humor, the Amazon river, more animals, and a never-ending duel between ex-linebacker Henry and decathlon champ Johnson. But in the end the movie is colorful and bearable nonetheless.
Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)
Uplifting Finale from a Superstar
Much better than what I expected after reading so much misinformation and moralistic rubbish about it, there are several elements that save "Cuban Rebel Girls" from oblivion. First, of course, it is somehow moving to see it as a product of love (or lust, take your pick), a vehicle conceived by Errol Flynn for his last woman, the 17-year old starlet Beverly Aadland. As it is, it is not bad: he even steps aside to let her be the center of the story that he conceived for her. To reflect on the plot, one has to consider first the second high point of the motion picture: it is a direct and fresh view of the first days of Cuban revolution, shot in Cuba and with the support of the Rebel Army. Those who make fun of the film apparently have no sense of the historic value of moving images, and in this case "Cuban Rebel Girls" contains valuable footage of the year the Cuban revolution triumphed, 1959 images of La Habana, the country side, the rebels, the sugar factories and even a brief moment of country music. In the movie, Flynn plays himself taking a trip to Cuba as a reporter covering the last days of the struggle to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. Simultaneously an American girl (Aadland), whose lover is fighting with the rebels in the island, helps a Cuban girlfriend to take guns to the army. It is a very simple story line, but quite effective, combined with the images of the real "barbudos" (the bearded men, as the rebels were called when they could not shave after spending long time hidden in the mountains). For the project I guess Flynn could not afford top professionals, so he had to make do with his pilot-manager Barry Mahom as director (who in latter days would produce, write or direct sexploitation movies), cinematographer Merrill S. Brody, whose camera set-ups were not always inspired and a cast of non-professional who at least handled their few lines with enthusiasm. A third factor of interest for me is that this was Errol Flynn's last film: whatever you may think of it, as you compare it with his glory days, Flynn really touched my heart and made me smile with his last lines, wishing the best to all the rebels of the world who fight for a better life.
Cinerama Fairy Tales
Given the lack of attention given to this film by both MGM and Cinerama, I was glad to find an Italian DVD release. Both my computer and DVD player are zone-free, so I had no reason not to buy it for living outside of Europe, the more so since until today (July 10, 2015) there has been no release of a restored version. To my surprise the Italian release had an acceptable image quality. One has to admit though, that beyond the complaint for the division lines of the Cinerama projection, the full experience of inventor Fred Waller's system (opposed to Abel Gance's Polyvision) could only be achieved in a cinema with curved screen. On a flat screen, no matter if the motion picture has been "smileboxed" or not, the image is always slightly distorted. So if you had never seen it, be warned of the distortion, the lines dividing the three panels and the lack of restoration. For me, it was as good as in 1962 and I enjoyed it again very much. I did not know there are many persons who think this is a better film than "How the West Was Won", it is probably right: there is no propaganda here, no patriotic hymns and the script is tighter: instead of the story of three generations in "HTWWW" (Karl Malden's, Debbie Reynolds' and George Peppard's), in "TWWOTBG" you only have the story of the two Grimm brothers with three of their fairy tales inserted along the biography. If you expect CGIs instead of George Pal's animation, see another movie, and if not, enjoy his puppets and dragon. The cast, on the other hand, includes various cult players, as Beulah Bondi, Terry-Thomas, Martita Hunt, Ian Wolfe and Oscar Homolka; popular comedians as Jim Backus, Buddy Hackett and Arnold Stang; young stars of the 60s as Yvette Mimieux, Robert Crawford Jr. and Russ Tamblyn, and good lead players: Laurence Harvey, Karlheinz Böhm, Claire Bloom, Barbara Eden and Walter Slezak. Enjoy it again or discover it.