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El abrazo de la serpiente (2015)
The Serpent's View
I saw good and interesting films in 2015, including Sorrentino's "Youth" and Ariel Kleiman's "Partisan", but my supreme cinematic experience of the year was Ciro Guerra's masterful motion picture "El abrazo de la serpiente". There were no technical boasts, no shining sets, costumes or props, no explicit sex, Asian exoticism, European gloominess, no populism of middle-America or stylized violence, that could surpass this marvelous journey, full of strength, mystery and fascination, in search of a curative plant, a symbol of the values of the indigenous cultures of America (the continent), which have been trampled by conquistadors and their successors up to this day, all embedded in governments and all possessing the lands that the natives originally owned and lived in before they were displaced and robbed. Today those root people are exterminated, ignored and mocked by white and mestizo societies, so it comes as a pleasant alternative to see this tale narrated in two times of the same indigenous man (first as a young warrior, later as a wise old man), who in different stages of his life met two white foreigners searching for the healing plant, most probably with the plan of taking it and benefit from its commercialization (as in the medicine industry of today). On their way to find it they meet different persons, some in the verge of madness, until a final resolution points to the harmonious way of life between the natives and nature, leading to enlightenment. Thank you, Ciro Guerra, you give topmost dignity to our inner America and its cinema.
The Day the Fish Came Out (1967)
I was revising today two copies I acquired of "The Day the Fish Came Out": a Greek copy with the 20th Century-Fox logo at the beginning, and a download with the International Classics logo instead. I remembered that when I watched it for the first time in 1967, as a 16-year old homosexual man I liked the film a lot, but I could not figure out what was going on. I had never heard of fish poisoning, the destruction of villages and nature by tourism and nuclear weapons, I guess I was a chaste Catholic boy, lol. And today when I was checking both copies, I was somehow surprised at how clever director Mihalis Kakogiannis had been by 1967, and I wondered if he was consciously making a film about menaces to ecology, both chemical and human, and the opening of sexual orientations. If he was doing so, Mr. Kakogiannis was a true visionary. I have to watch the film again to answer my own question, but it is interesting how he had a vision of future society. Check today: waters poisoned, nature destroyed, the lost paradisaical spots in islands and remote places, and the opening of many homosexuals (although the acceptance of different options by the majorities is still a closed subject). I do not think there are more homosexuals today than before, but there are more self-assertive persons with this sexual orientation, more people are willing to try a homosexual act at least once (since "one swallow does not a summer make"), and homosexual presence is now more obvious in all spheres, politics, religion, entertainment, you name it. Fashion, well, it has always been strongly designed or ruled by homosexuals, even the most striking hetero garments. In the end director Kakogiannis' strategy resembles many other homosexuals', who have conceived artistic canvases where their sexual orientation rules, from Cukor to Almodóvar. And it is their right. By the way, the Greek copy looks much better, and the colors are brighter. Still the movie deserves a better DVD release.
El Club (2015)
An Eye for an Eye
Pablo Larraín's "El club" (2015) is a well-made film, but in the end it seems like a crowd pleaser for culture-freak cinéphiles. Not only did I find the subject a little trite (effects of sexual abuse of boys by priests) and gruesome, for all the situations that I witnessed that were truer, and sometimes as excessive and pathetic as the case shown here, during the 12 years I spent in a school ruled by Augustinian Recollects; but I also found there is a lack of compassion in its treatment of behaviors and the story, and a bit sensationalism and rudeness without necessity, when in cases like this of all sexual orientations, the most adequate keyword seems to be compassion. But in the end everybody has the right to make personal interpretations of such matters, although I still insist that there are too many stereotyped traits in the exposition of the victim and the victimizers. I do not know if what we see are consequences of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorial regime, but there is something crudely realistic, in morbid and sordid ways, in the characters and situations of the four films by Larraín that I have seen, in which we do not perceive the (also clichéd, if you will) joy of living that we all need to go on. And it's one film after the other, in which -- in spite of the masterful execution-- when they end, one would rather be dead and gone! And it seems there will be no truce with his film about Pablo Neruda or the one he is shooting about Jacqueline Kennedy. Beware.
First Installment of an Unofficial Trilogy
Julio Bracho came from a family of film professionals: his sister Andrea Palma (an actress), his brother Jesús Bracho (an art director), his cousins Ramón Novarro and Dolores del Río (both actors), as well as his descendants, including his daughter Diana Bracho and his grandson Julio, also actors. Bracho was an educated and cultured man, but he hardly received any recognition from the Mexican film industry; in his writings he sometimes alternated disdain with resentment, due to his disgust with the low cultural level of authorities and people of all levels. However he is recognized today as a top filmmaker from the golden era of Mexican cinema, but I confess I have seen only a few of his movies: his first work, "Ay, qué tiempos, señor Don Simón" (1941), was a musical comedy about the morals of the rural bourgeoisie aligned with the government of dictator Porfirio Díaz, before the 1910 revolution; the following year, "The Virgin That Forged a Country" (starring cousin Novarro), was a mixture of legend and history recounting the origin of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe; "Another Dawn" (1943), starring sister Andrea and considered his best film, is a solid drama with a laborer and a taxi dancer as main characters; and now "Crepúsculo", an erotic melodrama tinted with psychology, among the rich in Mexico City. The film has a few elements against it that if you are tolerant you may enjoy its viewing more: first it is narrated every now and then by its protagonist (Arturo de Córdova), an anti- cinematic resource that needs fine images to ingeniously illustrate the spoken word, something that Bracho is not always able to achieve; then it has frequent little speeches against the commercialization of medicine, against Mexican movies or bad psychiatry; and finally it is too long due to a script (also by Bracho) who gets lost in winding mental paths which in the end lead to an eye-popping location that, up to that moment, has not had any relevance in the plot. To compensate there are many technical and artistic virtues, that captivated me in a few moments: the breakdown of some scenes in virtuoso shots by maestro Alex Phillips, Jorge Fernández's conscientious art direction that gives visual unity to the story, the beautiful costumes by Margaret Vogel, Raúl Lavista passionate melodramatic score; and the performances of the whole cast, in particular veteran Julio Villarreal as the old psychiatrist who, although reciting his lines, delivers a strong conclusion in his big scene, when he orders hesitant De Córdova to perform a surgery. Somehow I feel that "Crepúsculo" conforms a group of similar three films that I would call "Arturo de Córdova' s Neurosis Trilogy", along with Roberto Gavaldón's "The Kneeling Goddess" (1947) and Luis Buñuel's "He" (or This Strange Passion, 1953). It is true that De Córdova often played crazy men in films
Just consider "The Man Without a Face" (1950), "The New Invisible Man" (1958) and "The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales" (1960)... But the first three have sexuality and the female body as common denominators, as De Córdova becomes obsessed with the women he lusts after. All what "He" lacks of is a statue of a nude woman (instead you have the girl's bare feet!), but the three share De Córdova's addiction to women's bodies. Enjoy it.
The Baron in Heat
Hammer Film definitely made better films about Baron Frankenstein (as played by Peter Cushing) than those dealing with the Count Dracula (with Christopher Lee). "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" is a superb entry, with a script written by the man Orson Welles once called one of the two best A.D. in the film business. The scientist is again ruthless and cruel, stopping at nothing to keep experimenting with life and human organ transplants. He blackmails a young couple that is planning to wed: the girl administers the guest-house Frankenstein takes hold of, while her groom is a surgeon. As the story unfolds, Frankenstein turns into a real wicked old man (excellent "el Cushing")
As in "The Revenge of Frankenstein" there is no monster in the plot and the surgeries are successful, so the writers had to create potent dramas dealing with medicine, "progress", death, the infinite possibilities of scientific experimentation, the negative effect of the ignorant's slander, the selling of drugs as modus vivendi, and of course with erotic elements. Although the Baron is trapped in a fire before the closing credits, he surely found a way to reappear in the next entry of the series, the also good "Frankenstein Created Woman", in which he would transform a crippled girl into (Playmate of the Year) Susan Denberg.
Shotgun Stories (2007)
Please Don't Spit on the Casket
I admire the cinema of Jeff Nichols since I saw «Take Shelter» and «Mud». Doing an inverse operation now I have seen his first film, «Shotgun Stories», and it is as good as the latter works. A story taking place in a town in Arkansas, in which Son, Boy and Kid, the three poor sons of a man (who abandoned his wife and kids, became a Christian, formed another family and became a landowner) struggle with the man's four sons from his second mating. After a brief intro in which the wife of Son, the older poor brother, abandons him for his addiction to gambling (and he reunites with this his younger brothers Boy and Kid), the real drama starts when the old man dies and Son takes his two brothers with him, they all go to his funeral and he says to the mourning "proper" family that the man inside the coffin was a bastard. And on top of that he spits on the casket. The chain of effects that follows next has to be seen. The rhythm is slow, as delicate embroidery, as if the lines of the story were taking their time to combine, while the dramatic tension is skillfully sustained throughout. Although I feel the ending is an open one, when the movie is finished Nichols has given us another beautiful portrait of rural United States, of sections that are rarely seen with respect and fine perception in the films of the mega-industry. The filmmaker creates an endearing testimony of his people, with memorable scenes, as the dialogue in the backyard when Kid tells Son about his plans to get married, and reflects on how hard is life made to men and women (when they all are entitled to happiness and a part of the riches of the planet addition is mine). «Shotgun Stories» benefits from very good performances by the whole cast: Michael Shannon as the protective and confused Son, Douglas Ligon as the quiet and wiser Boy and Barlow Jacobs as the violent and yet tender Kid, all three shine as the first set of brothers, having strong support from Michael Abbott Jr. and Lynnsee Provence as two of their half-brothers/nemeses, but so outstanding too are Glenda Pannell as Son's wife, G. Alan Wilkins as the outcast Shampoo Douglas, Coley Campany as Kid's bride, and Natalie Canerday in her brief scenes as the boy's mother. Nichols may have gone the "Hollywood route" now, who knows, but Altman, Kubrick, Allen and many others did so, and they did not lose their knack or soul. Nichols and they can look at their first works and say, "Oh, how easy were we".
I rate this product 6 for the invaluable footage it contains of Cuba before, during and after 1959. As a documentary it is not good: it is more a flat montage of images that Errol Flynn's Russian partner Victor Pahlen photographed and then edited with Flynn's introduction and closing lines, marches and chachachas. For someone who does not care about the history of Latin America, this work may have not value, but for those interested in history in general, it is an amazing journey to Cuba, watching images of dictator Fulgencio Batista, his chief of police, the army, the revolution leader Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl Castro, Ernesto "Che"Guevara, the rebels and the people, seeing footage of the massacres of soldiers and civilians, American tourists being hosted by Batista, cabarets, casinos, the rebellion, the entrance of the bearded victors to La Habana, the trials, an execution by firing squad, and many more images of what that island was then. Unfortunately it lacks direct sound so we are subjected to narration and (silly) sound effects. Still it is a moving portrait of the sincere ingenuity of all concerned: the people, the makers, the viewers. The conclusion is highly ironic when we watch the then "people" of Venezuela receiving Castro during a visit to their country... The copy available has its soundtrack damaged and some parts are almost inaudible. Of highly historical and archival value, but those who are not interested, avoid it.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
A must pleasant surprise, "The Revenge of Frankenstein" is surely one of Terence Fisher's best films. It is not as well known as "The Curse of Frankenstein" and the other films of Hammer-Fisher series based on Mary Shelley's characters, possibly because it lacks a "monster", and it hardly fits in the ghastly "horror movie" category, in spite of the promotional ads that show a green creature. Of course there is a creature made by Dr. Victor Frankenstein from several human body parts, but it is more sad and pitiful than green or hideous. This time there is an evident medical progress in Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, and by the end of the film they have been (apparently) completely successful. Hammer production values are high as usual, and the work of the customary technical and artistic personnel of the company is remarkable, in particular Jimmy Sangster's tight screenplay, Jack Asher's dark cinematography, and Bernard Robinson's inspired art direction, creating a rich textured drama with very little. Excellent Peter Cushing is as usual a very ruthless Dr. Frankenstein, and Francis Matthews, Michael Gwynn, Eunice Gayson (originally cast as "Miss Moneypenny" in the Bond film series), Richard Wordsworth and Oscar Quitak give effective support as the key characters that propel the drama. Highly recommended.
Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)
Camino a Siete Santos
There are many ways to "read" this film: for some it is a poor man's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", for others a simple western, to a few an antecedent of "Brokeback Mountain" (and when considering it as such, these two cowboys surely had more sense of humor than the latter couple), the third installment of a Douglas-Walker western trilogy
they all are true, and it also fits in one kind of films that somehow stresses me: "the desert trap film". There are comedies of this type (as "The Gods Must Be Crazy), but I refer to those dramas in which characters are literally trapped in a desert or a snow-covered steppe, where they suffer the inclemency of the weather of these extreme locations during all the running time. In the sub-category "desert", you find, for example, "The King Is Alive", "The Flight of the Phoenix", the Mexican "Viento negro" and even indoors plots as "The Wind"; and in "snow", there are "Quintet", "The Thing" or "Never Cry Wolf). In "Gold of the Seven Saints", Clint Walker and Roger Moore never leave the dry lands in their intent to take a fortune in gold to the town Seven Saints, some kind of nowhere land in the 19th century. During the trip they have some well-written and finely-delivered manly conversations, but for 35 minutes everything is slow and low key until Chil Wills as a "medicine man" enters and delivers action, and later Robert Middleton and Leticia Román in costume add some Mexican chili to the events. There is nothing special about this film, but somehow it works. Walker projects a pleasant personality, while Moore is surprisingly funny as his Irish companion. Gordon Douglas is a director with no following, but I like a few of his works, as the hilarious "Zombies on Broadway", the science-fiction movie "Them!", the off- beat western "Rio Conchos", and now I add this one.
L'amante di Paride (1954)
Loves of Three Queens
Badly edited from the original 180 minutes version called "L'amante di Paride", what seems to have survived is this 93-97 minute British version, in which the order of the stories was altered, and the original modern-day framing sequence that opened the film and the first segment ("L'amante di Paride", the Helen of Troy story) was dropped. According to Stephen Michael Shearer in his book on Hedy Lamarr, "Beautiful", Warner Brothers bought the rights for distribution in the United States to avoid its exhibition. The studio was producing Robert Wise's "Helen of Troy" and wanted no competition, so Lamarr's motion picture had no American release, in spite of what sources say (including IMDb). There seems to be a lot of confusion about this film (caused even by Lamarr's personal biography, where she mixes things and changes the names of the segments with other movies she made). From what I see (a few posters) it seemed as if in Italy they released two different movies: "L'amante di Paride" with the Greek gods' feast included, telling the Paris-Helen of Troy affair and the war; and as "I cavalieri dell'illusion" (The Knights of Illusion) the full Geneviève de Brabant tale, which even has a separate entry, here in IMDb. This is possible, considering that each segment ran about 60 minutes that could be rounded into a feature with the framing sequences (the modern-day wedding banquet, and the traveling theater company). Also different sources indicate that the music is by Nino Rota (and indeed, without knowing it was him, I recognized a few notes from his symphony used in "Il Gattopardo"), but that copy I saw credits Alessandro Cicognini as composer. Everybody is acting... not particularly well, to put it mildly, although Terence Morgan plays a villain in a convincing manner. It is recorded that Edgar G. Ulmer prepared the production and then directed the Geneviève de Brabant segment, and perhaps one of the framing sequences, and that (after Ulmer's departure) Marc Allégret did the Greek story, and probably the French chapter on Bonaparte and Josephine that ends the original version. It is also a co- production, not a sole project by Cino del Luca. American Victor Pahlen (who was Errol Flynn's partner in the film company they had in Cuba, and producer of Ulmer's "Pirates of Capri"), was in the production since the beginning, and Lamarr ended buying half of it. This is what I gathered from what I searched about the film, but some information many not be correct. It is true that it was a fiasco, but Hedy Lamarr got her money back, of course.