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The Last Page (1952)
A better than average drama written by Frederick Knott, the author of "Dial M for Murder" and "Wait Until Dark", this shows Terence Fisher expertly handling a story of crime, lust and death during his efficient early phase working for Hammer Films, five years before the big success of "The Curse of Frankenstein". Although the main character is John Harman, the mature manager of a London bookstore (played by Irish actor George Brent), two young actors play more appealing characters who are key components of the plot and feature: Diana Dors and Peter Reynolds. A ravishing blonde beauty at 20, Dors had had a dozen of minor screen roles before being introduced in this production as Ruby Bruce, a sexy worker who turns everything around her upside down after she gets mixed up with Jeff Hart, a seductive ex-con played by Reynolds. Under Jeff's influence Ruby blackmails Harman, next a couple of corpses complicate the proceedings, soon Harman is accused of murder and then his secretary (American actress Marguerite Chapman) helps to solve the mystery, putting her life in danger. Peter Reynolds is fine, but he does not have much to do as the villain with sinister charm. It is Diana Dors who has more room for creating a real character. She was a very good actress, and although comparisons were often made with Marilyn Monroe, on the acting level she surpassed her American colleague: here she convincingly mixes naive wickedness with vulnerability, making the film not only the account of Harman's story but the drama of a confused working girl as well.
Fisher in Recess
"Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace" is, among the twenty- something films by Terence Fisher that I have seen, one of his less accomplished works. A bit better than the boring "Night of the Big Heat#, this is a production with motivations I don't fully understand: for a start I do not know why they decided to make a Sherlock Holmes movie starring Christophe Lee in German (although there is an English language version, the official version is in German, which is the one I opted to watch), with Lee's real voice absent in all versions. Then I cannot reason why in 1962, with moneys coming from German, French and Italian production companies, they decided to shoot an adventure movie in black and white. The decision seems even more uninspired given the uneven quality of Richard Angst's cinematography, ranging from attractive expressionistic images (as the scene where Holmes saves his life using a police whistle) to flat compositions (as the Baker Street flat). Maybe the budget was low, but they had several names in the cast that were not highly expensive, but neither cheap to hire. And thirdly there is not a well-defined concept of what they wanted to do: producers, composer, writer and director seem to point into different directions. The German producers probably assumed it as one of the many cheap detective movies they were making by the dozen, composer Martin Slavin opted for a playful score, writer Curt Siodmak kept loyal to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's three main creations (Holmes, his nemesis Moriarty and his mate Dr. Watson) and Fisher
well, he had to keep everything going. However it would be unfair to deny that there are a few hints that suggest the intention of making some kind of photo-novel or a black-ink-on-cheap-white-paper comic book, and that would explain why the filmmakers could not care less what language characters spoke, the anachronisms (the more obvious being ladies' hair styles), Slavin's jingling-jangling cues, extensive use of maquettes, and a few disheveled art direction and wardrobe decisions, starting with the key prop, a very ugly and cheap looking necklace that supposedly once adorned Queen Cleopatra's neck. I am also sure that Lee never wore an uglier costume in his entire long career than the horrendous checkered suit he wears in the countryside sequence. The actor does his best as Doyle's creation (obviously not imagining the estrangement that dubbing would produce, resulting in an involuntary Brechtian effect of rejection to his participation in the movie), so we tend to go for the villains, played with gusto by Hans Söhnker as Moriarty and Leon Askin as his chauffeur-assistant Charles. But what we see is what we get, so we better not complain. We are warned very early into the film that we are going to watch a rather sloppy product, when the same shot of a longshoreman working on dock is repeated twice within minutes. Compared to this, Fisher's next project starring Pat Boone is a masterpiece.
In Search of the Supreme Orgasm
When a work of cultural consumption makes references to technological development, through the gadgets that go out of fashion rapidly, every time a new formula, measure or chip appears, the work runs the risk of quickly becoming obsolete, unless its dramatic basis is sustained on prevailing reflections on human beings and, even better, if it is done with honesty, so it can become a valid testimony of what people thought and how they behaved in a given time of human evolution. Serbian director Pavle Vuckovic based his first feature "Panama" in his own experiences as well as those of acquaintances to tell a story about how social communications and pornography have contributed to exacerbate narcissism among people and, consequently, to deteriorate human relationships. The protagonist is Jovan (Slaven Doslo), a graduating senior of Architecture that leads the life of any upper middle class young man in the mid-2010s, with access to social networks, nightclubs, private university and employment. Jovan proposes an open relation to Jana (Jovana Stojiljkovic), a humble girl who consumes the same things offered by the market economy of our times. The drama soon develops when Jovan begins to suspect that Jana leads a double life, through his cell phone and computer. Although the target audience of the film may be the young, "Panama" tells us, the elderly crowd, many things that perhaps Vuckovic were unaware of or not: this is neither a romantic comedy nor a passionate drama, but a loveless portrait of everyday neurosis about compulsive sex and how it can destroy a relationship in the absence of the creative potential that defines its opposite, personalized sex (see Dane Rudhyar). Eloquently, the erotic formula that Jovan and Jana repeat in their sexual encounters is sodomy, the "derisory grin" of life, as De Sade called that reversal of the procreative act, where the "pearls of life" (as Buddhists call semen) end in a "rotting zone"... My viewing of "Panama" also coincided with my reading of Ernesto Sabato's "The Writer and His Ghosts", in which he says, give or take a word or two, that in our time the human body has been denied its rich metaphysical dimension and it has been deprived of its capacity to make us reach knowledge through it. Thus, the other person's body is a mere object and sex is almost an onanistic act, because only through the association with a personalized body and its energy, we humans can transcend their ego and solitude, and achieve communion... which social networks will never give us. "Pure sex is sad," says Sabato, because it leaves us back in the solitude where we started, but now also with a failed attempt at communication. In the end, in his futile search for love through the "negative way", Jovan looks for a Panama (where Jana apparently has gone without notice) in social networks, streets and abandoned buildings of his city, while Jana may be perhaps in the global corruption of a paper-made Panama. As limitations, "Panama" could (and should) have been more graphic in its depictions of arid sex and, like many first works, it tries to say too many things. However, it is a sincere drama, with suggestive visual and musical metaphors of our mind tunnels, as we search for happiness, which makes us reflect on many things beyond its story, and long after the projection finished.
Fear in the Night (1972)
I found Arthur Grant's lighting the principal annoying element of this motion picture. While Jack Asher photographed almost all of Hammer Film classics, Grant was usually in charge of the less ambitious projects of the company. By the end of the 1960s he contributed to little gems like "The Reptile" and "Plague of the Zombies", but even these were much brighter than the average horror film and --in cases as "Frankenstein Created Women" and this production-- the lighting was more akin to a television drama or sitcom, having too much light on sets of dark tales, making the images (and the tales) look flat. Then the almost absence of surprise and subtlety in the dosage of information, does not help the fact that the story is not very original, and that you have seen it many times before, and a couple of times with more flair. Judy Geeson, Ralph Bates, Joan Collins and Peter Cushing do quite well, considering they are dealing with stereotypes (frightened girl, suspicious husband, bitchy headmaster's wife, and mean crippled headmaster, respectively) and that they were under the direction of Jimmy Sangster, who was foremost a very good scriptwriter. But do not expect too much.
El dolor de pagar la renta (1960)
The Pain of Paying the Rent
If you are familiar with the work of Roberto Gómez Bolaños (aka Chespirito, El Chavo, El Chapulín Colorado, El Chanfle, etc.), especially with his immensely popular TV series among adults and children in Latin America called "El Chavo del 8" (after the character he played), you may recognize the script for this film (based on a screen story also written by him) as the basis for that series. In "El dolor de pagar la renta" most of the action and characters are developed in a tenant house and its main common area, the central patio with a water fountain. In both the film and the TV series, all the families and single tenants are very poor, and in the film one of the leading characters (played by Capulina, of the comedy team Viruta and Capulina) tries to help a little boy who needs an operation so he can walk again, but Capulina gets in trouble when Viruta and everybody else believe he is a thief. Apart from this basic plot there are funny clashes between a few characters that live in the same building, but the principal enemies are the high cost of living (hence the title of the film) and the owners of the house Don Próspero (Mr. Prosperous) and his over-weight wife Mrs. Robusta, and their acolytes. For the television program, Bolaños would further develop the character of the tenants, increasing their levels of nastiness, abuse and social criticism to the point of absurdity, making it all very funny. The Viruta and Capulina comedy is softer, tamer, and extremely sentimental, a tone that was practically absent in the acid "Chavo del 8." Bolaños was still developing his writing skills and his own comic persona, working for the couple of vaudeville comedians whose career together lasted until the mid-1960s, when they separated in bitter terms.
Veneno para las hadas (1984)
Poison for the Audience
Somebody complained about my short reflection on ethnic structure in Latin America which I wrote as a prologue to my opinion about this movie, so my review was deleted "based on an abuse report filed by another user". Well, gone my "abuse" is, but it does not change my impression that Carlos Enrique Taboada's "horror" films are insufferable: this one, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and "El libro de piedra". The three are metaphors of the (very boring and bored) petty bourgeoisie's fears, that Taboada expressed following the rules of the horror genre and that, in the end, are more foolish than horrific. This time, a very rich girl and her not quite rich friend play at being witches in an endless succession of silly scenes of events that are supposed to be scary. If there is a more simple way to read this tale, one may assume that not-too-rich Veronica envies richer Flavia, who has a big room for herself, a dog called Hippie, a gold pen, a ranch by a lake, and a big doll that she carries around like a 4-5 year old girl. Veronica is so mean and bitchy that she enjoys frightening Flavia to gain control over her. But that is all. Since most of the time they are bored to death, these two little girls have nothing else to do but "Satanic rites" to kill people, or get the ingredients to make a poison for the fairies. So beware, don't be a fairy and avoid this poisonous film.
Good Early Fisher Work
Much better than what the rating here suggests, "Spaceways" is a fine combination of science fiction, domestic melodrama, a show of force from the North, and Cold War intrigue (curiously in a quite discreet and elegant manner, without overt anti-Communist propaganda). It was skilfully directed by Terence Fisher, before his better known horror motion pictures were made, and as early as 1953 he handles the different elements in a very clever way, suggesting a darker subplot in the realm of horror cinema, than what the mystery finally turns out to be: secluded in a military-ruled modern fortress, a group of men and women carry on a space program, but things get complicated when an adulterous couple disappears as the launching of a rocket to the outer space fails. Visually attractive special effects in spite of its low budget, "Spaceways" is definitely worth a look.
I am surprised to read that this has an "awesome look", with details "as exact as it was back then". Being Robert Eggers an art director and costume designer, one of the things that struck me is that the wardrobe looked as if coming directly from a tailor shop or laundry (starch included), that it was not aged as much as needed, and that it looked too clean for working peasants (especially for the father who was the farmer). And to say that things looked "exactly" as they did in the 17th century is a silly sacrilege, a most fitting word for the occasion, when one decides to write a few lines about a motion picture that narrates a folk tale dealing with religion, and loaded with terror elements. I think that if writer-director Eggers had circumscribed his screenplay to folklore with its natural horror edges (a bit in the line of the wonderful 2000 Czech film "Kytice"), "The VVitch" would have been a better movie. There is also a more realistic approach to the tale, within the frame of a psychological drama with supernatural elements (in the line of the fine 1961 production "The Innocents"): superstition and religious belief erodes the basis of an English family that has migrated to North America, and the story slowly builds to tragedy. But Eggers fell into the traps of tired formulas of new American horror films, including omnipresent music, false build-ups of tension through music and sound (as if a tsunami were coming!) that lead to nothing for dramatic purposes, evil represented by a botox-ridden woman with low cleavage, a bit of pedophilia, and silly special effects the ending is the best example, from the moment the main character takes her bloodstained dress off and sits at the family table, to the gratuitous final witch dance and ascent. In the end it seems a bloody, stupid way to recruit a new witch: was that entire massacre necessary to add a new girl to the coven? Let's hope that next time Robert Eggers decides to make things simpler, asks someone else to write the script, and a composer that knows when to stop, for Eggers shows a good hand for directing actors, and a good eye for composition and framing.
A Zona (2008)
An observational journey, bordering with experimental cinema, but still with a minimum of narrative, this "Zone" offers interlocking portraits of a few characters who confront life, death, loss and mourning, within a frame in which all human beings are weaved together with the flora and fauna as in a symbolic act of continuity and life through nature. Filmmakers as Aguilar try to find a more profound connection between life and film art, distancing themselves from the traditional Aristotelian narrative of causality, and build their films following the lack of strict connection in our daily life, as when we go from a dialog to a gaze, ordinary actions without heroics, from boredom to the sudden irruption of change, good luck, rupture, joy or birth. Admittedly, not for all tastes, but worth a look.
Verspätung in Marienborn (1963)
Late Train in Marienborn
"Delay in Marienborn" was a surprise: an effective 1963 Cold War drama that during its day capitalized on the tense relations between the Soviet Union and the United States in divided German territory. Not surprisingly it won several awards, including best screenplay from the film industry of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Youth Award at the Berlin Film Festival for the Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People. The film was a call to tolerance and understanding between world powers, but most importantly a reflection on the value of discipline and adherence to codes among the military, in a time when ethics apparently seemed more clearly defined by ideologies. Based on Will Tremper's book "Aufenthalt in Marienborn", that recounts a true incident, the film tells a charged and moving tale: a nurse (Nicole Courcel) helps Banner (Hans-Joachim Schmiedel) to defect from the Democratic Republic of Germany, by allowing him to get on board an American-commanded train crossing the territory under Soviet control. Although most conversations are led between high officers of each side, the final decision of what to do with Banner is left to lieutenant Novak (Sean Flynn) who is in command of the train. Both the lieutenant and the defector are 24- year old men. They are not portrayed as heroes of action films or stereotypes of propaganda movies, but as two humane
and vulnerable young men, facing a crisis beyond them, ruled by world politics. Others on board include a journalist (José Ferrer, who received first credit but had a secondary role), a US diplomat, a newlywed couple, a female sport team, and other assorted characters. The best part of the surprise though was Sean Flynn. I did not expect to ever watch him in a dramatic role, to give an effective performance and to hear him in English, after watching several films where he was dubbed in Spanish, Italian and German. Also providing good performances in an international cast, Jess Hahn is featured as Flynn's assistant; Yossi Yadin plays the Soviet officer, while actor-author Edward Meeks plays an American captain with a clear idea of what has to be done. Recommended.