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Great, 15 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Bertrand Blier's anarchic comedy is full of artistic resonance, and it sure has a special meaning to me: not only because a friend of mine made me see it to let me know what he wanted to do (oh, those labyrinthine tactics of old...!), but for it took two icons of French film heritage and put them upside down. First, that Moreau woman, of "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud", "Moderato cantabile" and "Jules & Jim" fame, makes love to the two boys before killing herself, and then la Fossey, the same actress that I had seen as a little girl in "Forbidden Games" was surprisingly playing a middle-class housewife in a bus, had her bare breasts fondled by the pair of petty thugs played by Depardieu and Dewaere. It changed my vision of French cinema, as it said bye-bye to the angst of the nihilist "nouvelle vague" and proposed anarchy as an antidote to stagnation. Of course there was also Miou-Miou, and next in line a future icon (Miss Isabelle), topped by an ironic ending for all.

Poetic Pretty Thing in a Haunted House, 14 June 2017

Compared to the products of magical thinking made by some filmmakers, which are applauded by certain genre film buffs (in this case, of ghost movies), «I Am the Beautiful Thing That Lives in the House» (2016) is a masterpiece of poetic tone and circumspection, of elegant visualization and aural gentleness, in which there is one or two frights so as not to "betray" the genre, but in which restraint reigns. Ghost movies laden with blood, overwhelming music and sound, visual effects and blocks of tension that lead to nothing but frightening spectators, abound and win the applause of rabid audiences in search of cheap thrills. In contrast, there are few products like this film by Osgood Perkins (son of actor Anthony Perkins), which tells the story of how young nurse Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), who comes to care for the elderly writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) in her Massachusetts home, begins to feel the presence of the ghost of Polly (Lucy Boynton), an ectoplasmic manifestation that wanders by the property, that modifies and deteriorates it, one of those spirits of folklore and tradition that have a tragic and violent ending in an environment which they resist to leave, and end up owning places and houses that they "haunt", unleashing strange events. But in this case the confrontation of the nurse with the specter of Polly, with her employer (who insists on calling her Polly instead of Lily) and the memories that filter through corners and closets, consists of very beautiful shots of the three actresses, rich self-reflections in subtle linguistic metaphors that evoke yearnings, fears and precautions, and in beautiful shots of the house itself, which is also a protagonist, to lead us to the tragic resolution. Because there are no intrigues or mysteries: from the beginning Lily announces that she is 28 years old and that she will not reach 29. And in the midst of these reflections of images and sounds, realism surges in the scenes of the nurse with the guardian of Blum's state (Bob Balaban) and with the writer herself, who affirms that her most famous novel was dictated to her by its protagonist, a certain Polly Parsons that one good day disappeared for good. To the commendable technical work and Perkins' screenplay and direction, you have the benefit of outstanding performances by Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban and Paula Prentiss, in a fortunate and brief return to films. Apart from everything evident, there is a subliminal autobiographical line in the film: from the beginning, Perkins dedicates the film to his father, "who gave me an old house"; he adds Perkins' rendition of Irving Berlin's song «You Keep Coming Back Like a Song» to the soundtrack, and shows the actor on a television screen in a scene from William Wyler's film «Friendly Persuasion». In addition, he cast Prentiss and Balaban, two old friends of his father who worked with him in the film version of Joseph Heller's novel «Catch-22». After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it had a warm welcome, «I Am the Beautiful Thing That Lives in the House» was launched by Netflix as a Halloween offer, with the consequent rejection of TV audiences eager for violence, blood and humor in the «Juan of the Dead» style. However, little by little the film has been gaining the right place it deserves, as an artistically accomplished ghost story of impeccable execution.

Chanteuse on the Rampage, 12 June 2017

Uninspired direction by Miguel Morayta, obviously low production values and artificial solutions to the dramatic situations proposed by novelist Luis Spota, heavily affect this film noir-musical-melodrama that tells the story of a mean chanteuse that falls for a macho thief who hides his ruthlessness behind a false mask of nobility. Unfortunately for the woman she turns from calculating bitch to angelic wife but then gets sick, listens to bad medical advice and goes into a rampage of self- destruction while her body rots. Good moments include the singer's musical numbers (dubbed by Toña la Negra), the duel between her suitors that ends with both men dead, the surgery that takes place in the warehouse where the thief hides with the singer after he is shot, and an ending worthy of a horror movie. Excessive histrionics by the complete cast do not help much, except for singer Alvarado and wrestler Wolf Ruvinskis who look and sound fresh compared to the professional actors. It is a pleasure though to watch beautiful and sensual Leticia Palma, an actress whose career was ended by scandal when she was accused of stealing papers from the Mexican actors' guild, which was later revealed as a case orchestrated by one of her producers after she declined his sexual propositions. Worth a look.

The Rite of Rain, 25 May 2017

Currently, ethnographic film has found allies in new spectators who feel a particular attraction for observational film. Instead of asking for "action", fast cuts, short scenes and labyrinthine stories with many turning points to keep them in suspense, these spectators have adopted the classic posture of contemplation in front of a work of art. There is nothing new in the panorama of artistic appreciation, until it is applied to film, which traditionally has been assumed to be mere entertainment, to disconnect one from everyday life with all its rampage and agitation.

Ethnographic film, for its part, became more aware of this expressive resources, abandoning reconstructions in the style of Robert J. Flaherty in «Nanook from the North» and opting for the more authentic techniques of direct cinema, proposed and used by Michel Brault , Robert Drew and Jean Rouch. The only thing that was missing was a new race of spectators, willing to observe, to contemplate. The film of Giovanna Miralles, «Umaturka: The Call of the Water» is not precisely a model for contemplation, but it does slow down the impulses to mold the rituals registered, in a way that they are left for posterity as images of practices of the original dwellers in the Bolivian Andean plateau, in their endeavors to bring rain to the land. The cinematographer Peter Wilkin and the director Miralles did not chose contemplative still takes, but rather a mobile camera which observes, registers and follows the events, guiding us through the rituals that are performed during two days to warranty their continuity, by means of the call for the rain.

The rural Bolivian landscape holds a strange beauty: its aridity is surprising and ironically beautiful. Behind that topography and those dwellings which go from gold, to brown and ochre, it is hidden the misery of the people dispossessed of their lands, poor distribution of wealth and monopolization. The indigenous inhabitants preserve the historic memory, traditions and customs, that serve to them as tools and arms to subsist "doing even when we can not do it", as testified in one of the intertitles that are scattered through 45 minutes of projection, amplifying and explaining the actions of a group of men and women from Quillacas who celebrate the rituals of the umaturka, to harmonize their existence with the arid environment. The rituals involve products of the land that is sown and harvested, in addition to the plates derived from them and the animals offered, accompanied by music and invocations, combined with certain appellation to Catholicism.

The documentary, registered in 2007, had the privilege to witness a critical moment in the last day of the rituals, during the election of the standard-bearer, who will prolong the practices and customs, a process that is practically achieved by the leaders' pressure. As a consequence of many unexposed causes, that are not difficult to suppose, the population of young adults is practically absent from the rites, alerting about cultural extermination propitiated by apathy, loot and globalization.

In every laudable work, there is always a "villain", although in this case and in a certain way its almost minimalist elaboration is justified: we refer to the sound post-production, that in some moments does not propitiate the fluidity of the narration, since in the end sound is the common thread always present, as opposed to the image which is cut to introduce texts or fades to black to mark the passage of time. The soundtrack sometimes breaks the unity between the image and corresponding sounds, and the hypnagogic effect they have over the spectator. However the "villainy" does not affect the global value of the work, which is an inestimable contribution to the preservation of the memory and identity of Bolivia and America the continent.

Story of a Bonbon Eater, 16 May 2017

I guess that sometimes in their professional lives animators consider the possibility of making products for children. It is one of the most common uses given to the art of animating anything, from the human figure to strokes of paint applied to plain celluloid, though it most often animates mermaids, mice, rabbits, frogs, ducks, fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Jiri Barta also did, and the result is perhaps too weird for a kid... But who knows? Cultures are different and children from some places react differently than those from somewhere else. In any case, take an entity which is a mixture of a human, a rooster, a dog, several mosquitoes, a seashell and an anteater, make him crave for a bonbon, and test him with riddles he has to solve first in order to win the candy and eat it, and you have Barta's debut. And a fine, funny debut it is, to be just to his effort. If it is enjoyable to everybody, who knows, but it does not matter much anyway.

The Illusion, 7 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I have my reservations about the documentary thesis by which graduate Susana Barriga obtained her degree in the International School of Film and TV in Cuba, for ethical reasons and, to a lesser degree, aesthetic. On the aesthetic side, it was a challenge to watch the film because the image was an anti-cinematic square, product of registering at any cost (that is, in a clandestine way) an unfortunate encounter of the filmmaker and her long lost father… or "disencounter", as it turned out to be. From the ethical side, I think Susana was not "loyal to her old man"... even if he seemed to her a villain. I confess that one of the formative processes that most marked me in my life was the direct cinema workshop I took at Ateliers Varan, under the precepts of Jean Rouch and - indirectly – Michel Brault, heirs of the classic tradition of open and frank approach to the subjects of our documentaries. From my vision, Barriga's father seems a poor paranoid and lonely man, who deserved insistence, more forced approaches, more interviews, more honesty, more compassion. David Bradbury declared in an interview that "we must fight our own sense of fidelity and betrayal, inherent in our romantic point of view of our character, and we must not allow that our inevitable disillusionment distance us from our character, or affect our commitment to the documentary, or the spirit of cooperation that should reign in every film". Maybe Susana took the decision to hide the camera and not letting know her father that she was shooting, because she had not the much needed time to discover the insane character into which her father had become. She had an agenda, the intimate story of her family, a story of a deserted home, the absence of a father that she finds living in fear, imagining the Communist Party is watching him, but unfortunately she took a self-pity approach, and forced the documentary into that pitiful direction. I know Susana Barriga has received many accolades and awards for her documentary, but I also know that it is a controversial film that led her to audiovisual silence since 2009.

Rabid Dogs (1974)
One of Bava's Best, 23 April 2017

I often say that «La maschera del demonio» (Black Sunday) is my favorite film. If I make an inventory of what I remember that I have seen in 66 years, it would probably be ousted by something else, but it was definitely the movie that made the first big impact on my mind. So excuse me, but I will first make a brief summary about its director. Mario Bava was extremely skilled at narrative, visual and budget economy. A master of cinematography, he saved more than one film by directing additional scenes of unfinished projects under the orders of Riccardo Freda, Raoul Walsh, Sergio Leone, Jacques Tourneur and others, for which --as a "prize"-- he was given the opportunity to direct the first film of his own. The result was the classic Italian horror film «La maschera del demonio» in 1960. Thirteen years later, after directing more classics («The Three Faces of Fear», «The Whip and the Body», «Diabolik») and cult movies («Hercules at the Center of the Earth», «The Girl Who Knew Too Much», «Terror in Space») and contributing to the emergence of the "giallo" genre («6 Women for the Murderer», «The Red Sign of Madness», «5 Dolls for an August Moon») that influenced the careers of his son Lamberto, Dario Argento and Quentin Tarantino, Bava went into decline and in 1973 set out to win again his place with this motion picture in which he would demonstrate that he was able to adjust to the times and make an effective police film, following the scheme of a road movie, according to the story "Man and Boy" by Michael J. Carroll. Unfortunately Bava faced great obstacles. The budget was so low that he also had to assume the cinematography, its producer went bankrupt and the courts seized the footage. When Bava died in 1980, the film was still incomplete and was not released until March 1996, at the Brussels Festival of Fantasy Films, thanks to the effort made by actress Lea Lander, Lamberto Bava and producer Alfredo Leone. I did not expect much, but believe me, what a good movie this is! As it has been written, it is a true journey to hell: a tense, cruel, violent, disturbing, repellent, virulent story of a brutal robbery in which the savage assailants take for hostages a man with a car, his sick son who needs urgent medical attention and a woman who went shopping. The number of dead and the humiliation of the hostages increase as the films advances guided by the firm hand of Bava, who introduces humor in the midst of the terror (in the character played by Maria Fabbri, for example), until he leads us to a surprise ending. Riccardo Cucciolla (Sacco in "Sacco e Vanzetti") is very good as the father, calm, explosive at times, unpredictable. There are at least six versions of the film, but certainly the best is the one close to the original screenplay, also known as «Semaforo rosso». Mind you, do not let anyone ruin the end. This is without question one of Mario Bava best films.

The Bride (2015)
Pastel Bride, 16 April 2017

The love triangle played by stereotyped performers (a ravishing brunette leading lady, a soap-opera hunk with long hair and a beard of several days, and a tall man wearing glasses to make him look a little ugly) is accompanied by phallic signs everywhere, crystals, bad wigs, wild horses, postcard landscapes, apparitions, compositions of artsy photographs, a somewhat ridiculous climax with the hunk displaying his bare ass as he duels wearing only a shirt, a few dances and to top it all a silly little song in English for the closing credits. Federico García Lorca must turn in his grave, as the saying goes, every time somebody projects "La novia" and that theme resonates in English, considering that it is a rereading of Lorca's "Blood Wedding", a play graced with his diaphanous verses in crystalline and musical Spanish. The Spanish-German co-production was filmed in several places (including Zaragoza and Turkey) to tell us once again this story of passions, false honor and machismo, the type of machismo that turns people mad and kills. In all of this, to my taste Luisa Gavasa (of course, awarded a Goya as best supporting actress) is the best thing, as a landowner and matriarch, a hurt avenger, a castrating mother, the mother queen of all the femi-Nazis in the world. In any case, different strokes for different folks, but surely not mine.

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King of Nowhere, 15 April 2017

«The King of La Habana» revives the old debate between literature and cinema. I remember when I finished reading Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's homonymous novel I was extremely moved and impressed because I felt that the plot, the characters and the pain that emerges from the drama, all came from somebody who absolutely knew what he described. When I learned that Catalan filmmaker Agustí Villaronga --who showed his inclination towards shocking realism since his first work «In a Glass Cage» (1987) and made the exceptional «Aro Tolbukhin - In the Mind of the Killer» (2002), and whose «Black Bread» (2010) won seven Goya awards, including best film, direction and script (by Villaronga himself)—I feared that something was not going to work. Considering the admiration the literary source has and the director's reputation, the film had little resonance when released in 2015, and now that I have seen it I understand why. Villaronga is undoubtedly a very competent filmmaker, and, as he proved in "Black Bread", his film transcended the incidental because of his knowledge of the environment and the distinctive features of his own culture. Unfortunately, as with the Irish film «Viva», I perceived again a superficial approach to Cuba and its people, but while the melodrama of the transvestite boy and his boxer father appealed to the spectator's sentimentality, in «The King of La Habana» everything is so dehumanized, scabrous, libidinous and violent that I found no emotional or intellectual connection to what was described. I must state that Pedro Juan Gutierrez's novel is scabrous, libidinous, violent and much more, but it is so human, so painfully pertaining to the city and so deeply Cuban, that its reading strikes you, confronts you and moves you. To top it off Villaronga tried to "rebuild" the neighborhood of Centro Habana and its surroundings in the Dominican Republic, with a mixed result: if Santo Domingo can function as a surrogate La Habana for someone who does not know it, for those who do know how beautiful the Cuban capital is, even in spite of its wear and misery, the film lacks the magic of the city, which strangely evidences dignity and elegance amid its scarcity and ruin. There are some effective sequences (especially the last one, from the cyclone up to the ending) and good cinematography in compensation, but the acting is disparate, between the histrionic limitations of Maikol David Tortoló as Reynaldo "the King", to the powerful performance by Yordanka Ariosa as prostitute Magda, while Héctor Medina (again, as in "Viva", in the role of a transvestite) should avoid typecasting. At the end one cannot help but feel that a good film opportunity was missed. 3/10.

Brave Leading Lady, 14 April 2017

Made four years before J. Lee Thompson's "Eye of the Devil" (produced by the British branch of MGM) and also taken from a literary source, "La vergine de Norimberga" has a similar story about a wife who decides to investigate the dark side of her husband's affairs while visiting the man's castle in an European village, and both are in the end realistic stories with a sinister facade. While the tale of the British movie is rooted on frightening manifestations of folklore and tradition in France, this one has a political secret behind the mystery and the horror in Germany. But the similarities vanish in the visuals, for "Eye of the Devil" is in black and white and has a cold leading lady (played by Scandinavian Deborah Kerr), in opposition to "The Virgin of Nuremberg" which is in vivid colors and led by a fiery protagonist (played by Mediterranean Rossana Podestà). Both women are brave characters and not precisely screaming queens, and although there are some screams here and there, they are moved by undaunted curiosity, decidedly firm in their quest to find the truth. Much in the vein of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, Podestà wanders, runs and hides in corridors, torture chambers, dungeons and gardens, there are some miniatures that evoke Ulmer's fascinations with scale models, and a highly dramatic music provided by Riz Ortolani. See it.

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