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A good Austrian contribution to biblical melodramas, directed by Michael Curtiz, who would repeat the strategy six years later in the bad "Noah's Arc", after relocating to the United States. This film, though less well known than the American production, is more attractive than the story of friends who unite and separate during the war, topped with images of the flood. There's more passion in this story of Mary Conway, a young woman living the "vida loca" during the "jazz age" in London, who plays with the affections of four men. Even the link to the biblical book of Lot is established from the beginning, when we are introduced to the sculptor who has used Mary as a model for sculpting "Sodom", a marble representation of Lot's wife when turned into a statue of salt. An adopted daughter of a woman who uses her to pay the expenses of both, Mary rejects the love of sculptor Harry Lighton, flirts with old tycoon Jackson Harber, seduces her son Eduard who is studying in Cambridge and tries to do the same with his tutor, a fiery Catholic priest. Almost all the action takes place in old Harber's sumptuous mansion during an orgiastic celebration, when student and tutor unexpectedly arrive. In the large rooms, in various pavilions, crowds drink, dance and make love. But when events take a dramatic turn, the script introduces the biblical story, thousands of extras and enormous sets, in the middle of which the conflict focuses on the confrontation between Lot's wife (the same Mary) and the Angel sent by God (the same priest). Of course , true to the precepts of melodrama, Sodom falls and the film finds when it is adjusted to the values of bourgeois society .
This first film by Frederico Machado is a good try at observational storytelling, but in the end it became a frustrating audiovisual experience to me. As the film opens, the first shot (early at night, a church with three crosses, a man enters the church and sees a woman sitting on a bench) evokes those 1960s poignant dramas about poverty and oppression in the Brazilian Northeast, embellished with folkloric overtones and magical suggestions it even takes place in the state of Maranhão, where Glauber Rocha made a short documentary in 1966. But then one, two, three beautiful mestizo girls with shiny hairs treated in beauty salons and designer clothes passing for poor garments, appear as peasants, play "ring around the roses", work very hard in their father's rustic yucca flour processor, and are lusted by the only men in sight, while the younger sister is visited by the ghost of her mother. As you try to process all this in your mind, the music of Béla Bartok and Alfred Schittke fills your ears every now and then, clashing with the images, but harmonizing with the secret plan of the highly educated director, producer, writer and cinematographer Machado: secret because it becomes a cryptic experience, but also because if you read what he intended to do (as descriptors, he mentions chess, sadism, Soviet cinema Russian in the original text, Dadaism, obscurantism, dogma, minimalism, sexuality, spirituality, universality, etcetera), he aimed way too high and his intentions were not transferred to the screen as he expected (and claims). As far as I am concerned, all the effort had an unfortunate estrangement effect on me, not in the way Bertolt Brecht proposes, but out of indifference to characters and situations. As a very beautiful poem by poet Nauro Machado (Frederico's father) closed the story, with images that may or may not have any connection to the verses or the early proceedings (it may work depending on your willingness to embrace the whole thing), I felt that this «existentialist thriller» had better intentions than results.
"Amer" is a cinematically clever visualization of a dramatic concoction, but in the end it turns into a too long exposition of the possible consequences of sexual repression among the Belgian rural bourgeoisie. As seen through a little girl's eyes, the first part dedicated to the childhood of a woman called Ana, is a fascinating tale filled with horror images that illustrate the child's fears: in the way horror films touch our most private emotions and evoke our childhood interpretations of reality, these images correspond to that phase in the woman's growth. The second part is perhaps the most erotic of the three phases in Ana's life, starting with the transition to adolescence, filled with visions of soft skin, pubic hair and a most curious ant that comes out of her belly button. This section is treated as a sunny melodrama of the aging Italian mother's jealousy of her pretty daughter, as young Ana attracts all the males' attention, while mamma dyes her hair in the local beauty parlor, and frustrates the girl's awkward attempts to connect with boys. For the third section, it is interesting that -in these days of shaven, tattooed males- the directors decided to illustrate the transition to adulthood with downy hairs, fuzzy male arms, as in the sequence in the train, where adult Ana is surrounded by male passengers. But this third part is inevitably the less attractive, for this time all the hallucinations are but the tired expression of Ana's repression. She has apparently let life and fulfillment pass her by, so her return to the sumptuous and beautiful villa by the sea, where she grew up, inexorably leads to tragedy. An unusual drama, intelligently told, but I would have been grateful for a shorter running time, especially in this third sad section.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As "Hoosiers" did with basketball, this sort of comic melodrama does the same with baseball, turning another personal story into a case of "All-Americanism", often incurring in cheap flag-waving and sometimes verging on chauvinism, but (as "Hoosiers") it was also crowned by the U.S. Congress as part of the National Film Registry. Sentimentality overrules everything else in this film that tells the story of two sisters who play professional baseball for the AAGPBL during World War II: Geena Davis is the natural sportswoman; while Lori Petty plays the sister who has to try harder to become a good player. You have seen this story many times before -there are no great innovations story wise, and it even includes the "classic" climatic game in which the two sisters/brothers/buddies, etcetera, play in opposite teams-, but real history saves the day, for if you frame the plot within the lives of the over 600 women who played baseball during that war, the film becomes something else, something bigger. Tom Hanks received top billing but he was only there to "add spice" (as the clichéd former sports star turned into an alcoholic), and Madonna had little else to do but play her alter ego version of the 1940s. Not in the league of the outstanding documentary "The Life and Times of Rosie, the Riveter" (also included in the Registry), but attractive enough to keep you (at least) amused, and make you shed a few little tears.
I must admit I am a fool for films that deal with children's problems and dilemmas while growing up, especially contemporary films, in which we spectators can watch, sometimes in awe, how children adapt to societies that have lost almost every ethical value, and how they are prepared to face a violent future, no matter to what social class they belong. Sometimes their problems have to do with sexual orientation and marginality (as "The Blossoming of Máximo Oliveros", from Philippines), absence of mother and her affection ("Kauwboy", from Holland) or political situation in their countries ("Black Bread", from Spain; "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation", from Brazil, and "Clandestine Childhood", from Argentina). "Kid" is a rather different film: it is the case of a very intelligent boy everybody knows as Kid (Bent Simons), whose father has gone, and who lives in a beautiful and big farm, with his kid brother Billy (Maarten Meeusen) and passive mother (Gabriela Carrizo), whom he adores. As Kid goes to school, plays with his rascal friend Misty (a funny character played by little Sander van Sweevelt) and enjoys the countryside, his mother conforms in silence, while she is dispossessed of stock and equipment by creditors, and threatened by criminals for a debt (most probably her husband's): the possibility of selling the farm, move somewhere else with her children and start a new life is never considered, as we are neither told what her husband did, why he left and why he eventually returns bleeding. Those details are apparently irrelevant to what the film is concerned about. More than finding ways to survive in capitalist societies, recurring to its formulas, "Kid" is more like a portrait of desperate characters, most of them dehumanized and deprived of compassion. Furthermore, it is a revealing display of European people in despair and hopelessness, who have reached a stable economic situation, and face a bleak future. The old folks sing hymns in church, the young are jobless, and the children adapt as they grow and watch. Kid is a silent observer. He takes a radical decision, but it is not a surprising one. "Kid" belongs to the category of observational cinema, so if you are looking for action, formulas or stories industrially digested and sanitized, this motion picture is not for you. If you are open to different cinematic experiences, don't miss it, watch it.
The horrible, manipulative English DVD title and packaging of Ray Müller's "Die Macht der Bilder" should not prevent you from watching this portrait of a fascinating personality, beautiful woman and polemic figure. Beyond all ideological or emotional reactions to Leni Riefenstahl's films, this works proves beyond doubt that she was a masterful filmmaker. The careful conception and framing of the persons, objects and events she filmed, the beauty of the resulting images, the inventiveness of her "mise-en-caméra", her passion and vision, make Riefenstahl a major figure of film history and one of the greatest contributors to the evolution of film expression. The complete 200 minute version of Müller's documentary includes four sequences that were cut from the international edition. Two of them are in the second part, and they are chronologically disrupting, for they were inserted before showing her photographic work with the Nubas in Africa, and the underwater shootings during the final part of her life. One sequence in particular (a most embarrassing and decadent montage in Las Vegas, visiting her magician friends Siegfried & Roy) damages the documentary, for it shows --for no dramatic reason-- Riefenstahl's least appealing and most frivolous side, right after the tragic account of the trials she went through after the war ended. On the other hand, the extensive footage filmed in Tokyo, where the exhibit "Leni Riefenstahl - Life" opened in 1991, though out of place, is welcome for it shows that her work was reinstated and recognized in some places during her lifetime. The exhibit was one of the first comprehensive displays of her photographic work, mainly consisting of photos of or by her, of enlarged frames of films she played in as an actress and of films she made herself. There is also a section of Riefenstahl posing for photographs. For a complete portrait of Riefenstahl these sequences add another angle, and although Müller's work loses some cohesiveness, the negative effect of these sections is not powerful enough as to erase the impact one experiences before and after, in this approximation to Leni Riefenstahl's impressive, tragic and rich life.
Hilarious occurrence from the 1940s (probably a B movie to play in double features), "Zombies on Broadway" is better than more prestigious RKO products starring more prominent performers, with Wally Brown and Alan Carney as two press agents working for a "reformed" gangster who wants to open a night club featuring a real zombie. When a powerful radio commentator announces that he will denounce the fraud if they pretend to use a fake walking dead, Brown and Carney are sent to the island of St. Sebastian, searching for Dr. Renault, a scientist who has made extensive research on voodoo practices. As played by Béla Lugosi, the doctor is both menacing and funny (what a gem that brief moment when Lugosi searches for a little monkey in a chest of drawers!), while Darby Jones reprises his scary role in RKO's "I Walked with a Zombie", with Sir Lancelot also on hand to sing a little song about the joys and menaces of the island. A few can complain about the black stereotypes (especially Nick Stewart as a frightened janitor), but that is how the American audiences and films were (and sometimes still are). With a tight script of fast, concise dialogs and scenes, "Zombies on Broadway" was a real good find and a fine addition to my list of horror comedies.
Typical Hollywood rubbish saved mostly by bright and beautiful images shot in South America, and impressive sets -although they do not mix well with location shooting, as well as some California exteriors that are obviously too foreign to pass as tropical forest landscapes. Anthony Perkins plays an obnoxious rich kid, the son of the Minister of War from Venezuela, who speaks American English and meets every available English-speaking person in the Amazonian jungle, in his search for gold to take revenge from those who made a revolution in Caracas and overthrew the government and his dad, and burnt his house... Audrey Hepburn is miscast as a native of the Amazon jungle with a Bambi. Her origin, accent and hair style remain a mystery, so one tends to forget it all and enjoy her presence in this melodrama, a lush entry into the territory of "cinéma fantastique". Of course, Audrey is the subject of sadist wrong-doing, but she is like a flower that dies here, and suddenly reborns there, leading to a happy jungle ending of sorts. Katherine Dunham contributed an embarrassing mishmash credited as "choreography", and Heitor Villa-Lobos' music is lost among Bronislau Kaper's pastiche cues. Watch it though, it's fun.
Surprisingly effective and atmospheric Mexican horror film directed by Chano Urueta, which mixes elements from every story featuring a mad scientist or a woman falling in love with the wrong man, from Fritz Lang's "M" and, above anything else, the basic premise of "The Miraculous Serum" (1952), first adaptation of Stanley G. Weinbaum's short story "The Adaptative Ultimate", made for the TV series "Tales of Tomorrow", and later remade -again for television- as "Beyond Return" (1955) for the series "Science Fiction Theatre", and finally as the film feature "She Devil" (1957), in which Mari Blanchard played a brunette with TB who was turned into a lethal and invulnerable blonde. There is a big difference, though: after "The Witch" (called as such because of her extremely ugly face) is injected with the serum, turned into a beautiful woman, and educated and polished to pass as a rich countess (Lilia del Valle), she remains emotionally vulnerable. She has to kill three business men who supposedly wronged the scientist (Julio Villarreal), but she falls for the young, dashing Fedor (Ramón Gay), leading the story to tragedy, when all the marginal and handicapped men and women from the underworld (as in "M") create their own court of justice It is funny how in these strange Mexican fabrications, names and locations from Eastern Europe are candidly mixed with native elements, and in the end get away with it. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why many of them are so fascinating, including others directed by Urueta, as "El monstruo resucitado", "El espejo de la bruja" and "El barón del terror".
With the over praise and awards given to "Primer", obliquity, omission, in-explicitness and ambiguity have been turned into highly regarded characteristics of scriptwriting. These absent story spices turn a common story into some cryptic trip through non-sense that could have been avoided. The funny part is that it is quite possible that the Sundance jury were given a hint of what they were going to see, and they found brilliant how Shane Carruth treated time-traveling. We common folks just sit and watch intriguing images and listen to oblique scientific talk, while being told a story about two fools going back and forth in time that does not lack interest. Fascinating "Primer" is, indeed, and we also fools go through it for 77 minutes. But to be fair, Aaron and Abe, the Jewish-American characters played by Carruth and David Sullivan, are no cleverer than Wells and Filby (the parts Rod Taylor and Alan Young played in George Pál's "The Time Machine", in 1960). All four characters are foolish fascinations concocted by H.G. Wells and Carruth, with the difference that Wells' men and tale had a stronger ethic value to the Victorian society at the dawn of the new century. In "Primer" the greatest revelation (or assertion) for me was the 2004 scientists' lack of ethics in the applications of technology, for the benefit of not even themselves, as the side effects of this time traveling tale demonstrate. Said in more simple terms, it reveals the divorce between matter and spirituality in the hearts and minds of the geniuses of today at the dawn of another new century. And simpler than this: as Dale Coba reasons to Joanna Eberhart why the Stepford husbands turn their wives into robots: "Because we can".
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