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The She Beast (1966)
A Funny Way to Exorcise a Hag
I had read negative reviews about this film all these years and also that director Michael Reeves was "horrified by the outrageously comical final car chase scene shot by the second unit", but, as a matter of fact, all the film has a comedy tone and funny elements, even in its creepiest moments. The story takes place in Transylvania, so there are constant jokes (in the Cold War style) about the backwardness and inefficiency of the Romanian authorities, capitalist characters make fun of communist characters, and it goes on like that until the happy ending with lovers reunited (and a final little joke, delivered by Barbara Steele). As a matter of fact, this treatment makes the film seem better than it is, although it is not as bad as some claim. Steele spent only one day with the production (a day in which she was used to very good advantage), so most of the action is left to a very young and thin Ian Ogilvy (he was only 23), New Zealander John Karlsen as a descendant of Dr. Van Helsing, Mel Welles chewing the scenery, and the ugliest witch you will ever see in a movie (called Vardella, by the way, but apparently Martha Reeves never heard about this).
Lost River (2014)
Fine First Work
Ryan Gosling wrote and directed a fine first film, a tale about ordinary people surrounded by myth and decay, in an almost abandoned town in Michigan. However, the movie was submitted to the wrong film festival: you know, Cannes mean tough competition and the French can be haughty. With the tone of an apocalyptic fable, «Lost River» would have been more appreciated in specialized events, as the fantasy film festivals celebrated in Porto, Neuchâtel, Brussels, Málaga, Amsterdam, Gérardmer, Puchon, Austin or Buenos Aires. «Lost River» strongly belongs in those festivals and it could have been awarded with several prizes: first work by a new director, for its cinematography, screenplay, or for a couple of good performances. Handled by Warner Brothers, the company did not know what to do with this beautiful motion picture, so it considered "selling the distribution rights to another company" and finally decided to limit its exposure to on- demand exhibitions. Or simply put: it simply decided to kill it. «Lost River» belongs to a special lineage of special American films that portrait people and places of the United States that are often ignored or mistreated in mainstream cinema by filmmakers without any compassion or understanding of their situation: see how Alan Parker portrayed poverty in Mississippi, with a "chic touch" in the deplorable «Angel Heart». I refer to a lineage as old as King Vidor's «Street Scene», to Robert Altman's «Thieves Like Us», David Lynch's «Blue Velvet», Michael Moore's «Roger & Me», and many other independent films that came to my mind, as Harmony Korine's «Gummo», Jeff Nichols' «Mud», Daniel Patrick Carbone's «Hide Your Smiling Faces» and Kat Candler's «Hellion». As an individual of these times, Gosling was audio-visually formed from watching television and films since childhood, so he wrote a fragmented script, but it does have a linear Aristotelian plot with well- defined three acts, precise plot points, a satisfying resolution and well-structured (and a few fascinating) characters. In the story a single mother (Christina Hendricks) tries to keep her childhood home and her little family together (she and her two sons) in the dying town of Lost River. To do so she takes a job offer from a bank manager (ben Mendelsohn) in a night club from hell, where the main attraction (Eva Mendes) dances to "Moliendo café" as sung by Lucho Gatica, to be suddenly beaten and killed by a hoodlum and spread her blood on the audience (all as part of the show). In this way the mother enters a sordid and morbid sector of society (imagine that all clients are Dennis Hoppers from «Blue Velvet» times 50, plus the naked and masked bourgeoisie of «Eyes Wide Shut»). Simultaneously her adolescent son (Iain de Caestecker) tries to help her by extracting and selling pieces of copper found in derelict buildings, which are claimed by a psychopath (Matt Smith) who controls what is left of the town. As he runs from the guy, the boy incidentally discovers a submerged town in a lake, and his girlfriend neighbor (Saoirse Ronan) tells him that her grandmother (Barbara Steele) --who decided to remain silent when her husband died-- predicted that the day someone brings a fragment of the lost town to the surface, Lost River will be freed from a curse. Although what is being told is very violent in spirit (and overtly so in a few scenes), Gosling moved his story with a smooth and gentle pace, unfolding the tale in a calm manner, rarely unaltered, which brings me to my only objection, a factor that did alter this tone of serenity: the music score by Johnny Jewel. Not because it is bad music, but for being unnecessary in most of the cases. This is not only a problem in Gosling's film, but in almost all movies, especially in American productions. Filmmakers seem to mistrust the power of the images they create and allow composers, editors and sound crew to overemphasize what is obvious. Besides Jewel's cues are too short and have a spasmodic effect: they accentuate a phrase, an expression, an action, and then fade until the next reaction. But fortunately the film transcends this limitation. As you watch «Lost River», it is true that you may remember one or two works from Lynch or Nicolas Winding Refn, but I do not see the point of making a fuss about this, when all filmmakers, from Woody Allen to Brian De Palma, show their influences and no one complains. They are even exalted because of copying Ingmar Bergman or Alfred Hitchcock. This said, as a whole "Lost River" is a satisfying motion picture, with good performances by all: even Barbara Steele in a silent role is remarkable. Forget what some say about "Lost River" and watch it. You will like it.
Om de wereld in 50 concerten (2014)
Let the Music Play
Different elements were combined to create one of the most moving documentaries about music of any kind and people from the world. Director Heddy Honigmann selected charming musicians to directly interact with the camera, chose fragments of fine music pieces among the 50 concerts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performed to celebrate its 125th anniversary, and captured the resonance of social conflicts and the hopes brought by music in three cities with dramatic stories: Buenos Aires, Soweto and St. Petersburg. So while we experience beautiful music, watch wonderful images of our planet or see and listen to the musicians happily talking about their relationships with the instruments they play, we also experience Heddy Honigmann's humanistic approach to an Argentinian taxi driver, a Russian victim of both Stalin's and Hitler's regimes, and two teenagers and an artistic promoter from Soweto. In all these little portraits life is related to music experience. Echoing the works of other documentary filmmakers Honigmann has contrasted within the frame of a single work the different realities on planet Earth, the easy living of some human beings to the struggles of others. We perceive beauty in the same places where violence and death once ruled, the hope and joy of living and the sad memory of past experiences. But what foremost prevails here is music, including a private little concert to a bakery worker and a huge popular concert by the Amsterdam canals that will surely move you as the concerts given in big concert halls and theaters. A joy to watch and to hear.
Mrs. Parker and the Algonquin Crowd
If you liked Alan Rudolph's "Choose Me", "Remember Me", "Trouble in Mind", "Afterglow" or "Welcome to L.A.", if you especially liked his movie "The Moderns", if you like film scores by Mark Isham, if you liked Robert Altman (who produced this film and a few others by Rudolph) and if you like Jennifer Jason Leigh (great, great, great, with no Oscar, while one or two other hags flaunt two), do not miss, if it ever comes your way, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle", a fascinating cinematic biography of the even more fascinating writer Dorothy Parker, and her circle of critics and authors of the New York literary scene who were integral part of the "round table" of the Algonquin hotel in the city in the 1920s. A deluxe cast: Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Andrew McCarthy, Jennifer Beals, Nick Cassavetes, Lily Taylor, Martha Plimpton, Wallace Shawn, Stephen Baldwin, James Le Gros, Rebecca Miller, Sam Robards, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Gallagher, Heather Graham, Stanley Tucci, Keith Carradine.. For those who love the literary world and writers of "brilliant pen", "sharp tongue" and smart repartee in debates, this is your motion picture. I rate it 10/10. Those who don't, it's up to them to raise objections. Beautiful film. Memorable performance by Leigh and, by the way, a very good one by Andrew McCarthy too, as Mr. Parker: considering his previous works (all pretty eyes and little substance), he truly made a good impression on me.
The Works of Pina Bausch as Seen by Wim Wenders
I saw Wim Wenders' «Pina Dance, Dance, Otherwise We Are Lost» after watching the fine documentary «The Salt of the Earth (A Journey with Sebastião Salgado)» (which he made three years later), and the inversion proved disappointing. When Pina Bausch died unexpectedly, without the dancer and choreographer by his side (as he projected the film since the 1980s), the end result is only fair. I do not know why Wenders thought that 3D could be the "solution" to film dance, when in the past this performing manifestation has been registered in more than adequate ways, without relying much on visual technology: for instance, Norman McLaren made his shorts «Narcissus» and «Pas de deux» with less resources, just as Carlos Saura did «Bodas de sangre», without diminishing the beauty of dance or making its filming less effective. In the end, the majority of living beings who will watch «Pina» will do so in two dimensions. On the other hand, I did not see the need to move the choreographies to exteriors, sometimes in ugly locations (a quarry, for example, or the urban streets with signs of drug stores, lottery or the "big M"), when the best images and moments are those registered in sets of ambitious (and achieved) expressiveness, decorated with few elements, as the sets for «Le sacre du printemps», «Café Müller» and «Vollmond». Beautiful testimonies by Bausch's dancers, come from all corners of the world, and the choreographies rescue this documentary, which goes on for 100 minutes that sometimes seemed endless to me. Yet I would not tell anyone not to see Wender's film: more for dance reasons than for cinematic value, «Pina» is a registry of the work of a great artist, of a daughter of two centuries. It deserves to be recommended, the more so because there are many persons who will enjoy it to the fullest.
The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961)
If we had a Catholic western as "The Bravados" with a big star (Gregory Peck) in 1958, why not a Catholic adventure drama with two stars three years later? It is a pity that the drama becomes a melodrama, and the adventure turns into an endless "mano a mano" between Tracy and Sinatra. The fun and the excitement of the perils the cast has to face vanish in the last 30 minutes, which is the time when the all dramatic and adventure elements reach their peaks, but they are all knocked down with the silly dialogues and situations that plague the final act (most concerning Grégoire Aslan's fear of leprosy, and Bernie Hamilton's sudden spiritual enlightenment). I spent most of that time spotting "dramatic" stretches that could have easily been cut without affecting the central plot and effectiveness of the film. It also becomes too predictable, as the characters begin to disappear, and what is worth after being announced that they will be soon out of the action (for example, the flower that falls before Fleur's death). Still it is not terribly bad, it is entertaining for the most part and the cast makes it work.
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.