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Apnea is the voluntary suspension of breathing, the basis of underwater fishing and free-diving (also known as apnea), which requires training and concentration, among other requisites. Dimitris, the young leading character of the Greek film "Apnea" can stay underwater for five minutes, and he does it as part of his training to participate in international swimming competitions. However since Dimitris has a natural tendency to lose himself, he enjoys apnea perhaps a bit too much and sometimes he puts his life in danger, beyond his limits. This motion picture has a more simple and conventional narrative than other Greek films with complex stories and formats, although it breaks up its plot in different time frames, as it is the result of several of Dimitris' apnea immersions during which he evokes his relationship with Elsa, the daughter of a middle class dental surgeon and an environmental activist. But as other Greek contemporary movies that are alert to their surroundings, "Apnea" also reflects the financial crisis of the country, and it does not lack references to situations of instability and lack of opportunities. In his working class home Dimitris' sports activity is questioned by his father, who is deep in debt, has yet to see any gain in his 23-year old son's training and would much welcome a bit of economic support to face the family's situation. Besides this pressure Dimitris also has to cope with the sudden disappearance of Elsa, who is involved in the cause of a scientist, a man who fights in defense of dolphins but who can be indifferent and even cruel to other people's sufferings. Dimitris' apnea serves as leitmotiv and as the transitional image of different time sequences, until it reaches a dramatic moment with and open but nonetheless tense ending: when the swimmer emerges from the deep after a long immersion, the last meters can be dangerous It is interesting to know that both director Aris Bafaloukas and actor Sotiris Pastras were swimming champions. Being younger than Aris, Sotiris' professional career was affected by the crisis of his country. His amazing dexterity is seen in the film and inspires one of Elsa's lines: "You swim like a dolphin". Indeed he does.
Don't let the ugly poster of "The Small Fish" (aka "Stratos") fool you. It is an intense and dramatic portrait of contemporary Greece, seen through the eyes of Stratos, a contract killer who works during the day in a bakery, where he silently and passively witnesses the exploitation of workers. His life though acquires another meaning when he is behind his car wheel, with a gun in his pocket and a mission to accomplish. But do not think that the movie is executed in correspondence with the dramatic intensity of his criminal life. Not that "The Small Fish" is a bland film either. The point is that director Yannis Economides opted to tell the story from the other side of Stratos' personality. It is really a problem for Stratos, that he has a very soft heart: he is giving all his money to Yorgos, the brother of a guy called Leonidas, who once saved his life, so that Yorgos can execute a plan to free Leonidas from a maximum security prison; and Stratos also sees after a family that lives across his apartment building, that includes a dying grandfather, a little daughter, a disabled father and a very young prostitute mother -who in fact could be the little girl's sister, but who knows... everything about Stratos' concerns is dark or faint, while those who surround him are screaming, bullying or abusing everybody. He has a violent past and after many years in jail two mob factions want his services. This is just an idea of the plot elements but there are more, and it takes 133 minutes to reach a fine resolution. Without pointing out the national crisis, unemployment, breaking of moral codes, or unethical actions, "The Small Fish" gives a rich panorama of what a great empire as Greece has become in the 21st century, which should also serve as a warning to the empire of the day and its citizens. And yes, the Greek title "To mikro sari" (that is, the small fish) refers to the popular saying, "Big fish eat small fish".
This motion picture defines the word "artsy". A film about a young and pretty porcelain painter who falls in love with a shy and melancholic poet (played by Sun Honleig), it aims to be a poetic work, but what you get is lots of ralenti shots to the point of saturation, piano and strings music, pretty landscapes enshrouded in fog, trains entering and exiting tunnels and Gong Li... In the past Miss Gong inspired true poetic films, as those directed by Zhang Yimou, but this movie is not one. Tony Leung plays another suitor, a sympathetic veterinarian with a welcome sense of humor, too materialistic to understand romantic love and literary inspiration, and wise to keep a distance, but not enough to balance this melodrama, with too much emphasis on sad love. I love trains, but this trip is on the boring side.
Titling a film "Luton" after a town in the South of the UK and referring to it in passing during one scene (besides having a film poster with an image that evoke the Luton Football Club logo) may be one of the high points in the history of this small and apparently uneventful town, but as far as the film goes it could have been called "Momotombo" of "Limbo". It is a catchy title anyway and intriguing too, just as scene after scene we are invited to contemplate the everyday life of three persons for more than an hour: a high school student, a woman lawyer and a shop owner. As it has become the norm in observational cinema, watching is believing, watching is learning and discovering too. After an image stays with you for more than 10 times the average shot length of you common action movie, it becomes something else: what it "turns into" is a personal thing, for it is a subjective experience: you may infer drastically different interpretations than any other viewer, but that is precisely the pleasure of watching without explanations. And then bang! The last minutes turn upside down all your preceding conjectures. It is true that it is not a new strategy: it has been done before. The one that came to my mind was the Spanish film, "The Hours of the Day", only that this time the proposition is more complex. The three characters, each determined by his/her different milieu, each different from the other, they finally reveal that life is a mirror that reflects similar inner fears, no matter the differences of age, sex, social class. There is also a sociological and maybe political reading that should be easier to make for a Greek spectator, but as it is, as a panorama of life in the beginning of a new era (of 2000 years each) or (worst) the ending of an age, when life as we know it is coming to an end, "Luton" is a powerful expression of how demoniacally unethical we have become. A welcome applause for Michalis Konstantatos's first feature.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Verbose, old-fashioned, studio bound and highly theatrical court- room melodrama, due to director-playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote the screenplay and provided mostly dialogues and plot points, but no cinematic flight. Being a man of letters, his best film work was as screenwriter of films like "Humoresque", "Notorious" and "Sweet Smell of Success". As a director, here Odets does not even take the camera out of the sound stages for a single moment, and in spite of having James Wong Howe as cinematographer it is neither an attractive wide-screen black and white film in the tradition of "The Innocents", "Sons and Lovers" or "Rapture": in fact, this movie should have been in color. But somehow it works, in spite of our desperation for the long, endless interrogations (especially those conducted by Sanford Meisner). It works for obvious reasons: first, for pure cinematic connection, only appreciated by cinéphiles, as we watch the post-Orson Welles career of an aging Rita Hayworth, as if Gilda had been lost for many years and resurfaced on page one as a murderous adulteress; and then, for several very good performances by the other ladies in the cast: Mildred Dunnock and Katherine Squire, plus the lovely presence of Myrna Fahey, just a few months before achieving film immortality as "Madeline " in Roger Corman's version of "The Fall of the House of Usher". The men are fine too (Franciosa, Young, Meisner, Griffith, Adler and the rest) but this is a woman's picture.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
By the title we have to infer that "the Miraculous" Virgin (Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, who has a large following in these zones of South and Central America) intervened in the solution to the drama of Eduardo Villarreal (Antonio Merlano), protagonist of this motion picture, the son of a bourgeois family from Bogotá, and she helped to free him from his guerrilla kidnappers with a bit of celestial magic. Of course, we also have to deduce that the Miraculous has connections with the Colombian army, which is the force behind the (accidental) liberation of the hoity-toity kidnapped guy, rescued in the last moment by a peasant family, after he is left wounded in the battlefield. By then the best characters have been killed or have gone deep into the jungle: Arturo aka Lagarto (Guillermo Iván) and his sister Mayra (Mónica Gómez), the son and daughter of a peasant, witnesses of his killing by a paramilitary troop. In the end we the spectators as well as the leading character (an arrogant fool who sticks to his class' principles until the end) have understood nothing about the Colombian war which has more than 50 years going on, and have to resign ourselves to the usual list of figures of dead, missing or kidnapped victims of the bloody war. The posh son returns home to mom and dad and literally "That's all folks!", because the final song that expresses the emotions of the Spanish-speaking victim is in English, no less. Unfortunately his grandmother (Clara Samper), who gave him a medal of the Miraculous Virgin as a present, is not around to explain the miraculous power of the Virgin, but we learn that the guy's best friend, son of a Colombian senator, who was kidnapped too, died in the first minutes because he did not have the Miraculous with him. For fans of action movies, the battle scenes are excellently choreographed, with highly professional special effects; there is also a little game for fans of the world industry of corporative football, and Merlano, who has top billing and wrote the story on which the screenplay is based, also has some screen time to sing a tune (in Spanish). You are warned. With good technical values and crass ideology as "Secuestro Express".
Strange historical drama, mixing adventure, political intrigue and lustful subplots, "The Scimitar of the Saracen" is too convoluted and overlong, not helped much by the lack of characters to "root for" or "identify with". Each man has a nasty plan of his own, the women are either bland or wicked, and our only option is to follow them in ships and through the desert to the final act. Massimo Serato is in reality the leading character, and not a likable one: Roberto de Diego is a chic thug, a womanizer and an opportunistic adventurer who goes after a Saracen pirate to help the Governor of Rhodes. The pirate has assaulted a ship and robbed a document addressed to the Governor, concerning a pact between Venice, Rhodes and Pisa. He has also kidnapped the women travelling aboard the ship to be sold as slaves, without knowing that one of them is the Governor's daughter Bianca. So Diego, who has been convicted in Rhodes, goes to rescue document and daughter for his freedom, but in the way he changes his mind and decides to sell the document to a sultan somewhere in Africa. Things get more complicated when he finally meets Drakut, the Saracen (Lex Barker, in an impressive entrance), who takes him aboard his ship; he finds Bianca (poor Graziella Granata, who spends most of the film crying), who falls for him, and finally he is helped by wicked Miriam (Chelo Alonso, who has a previous introduction in a beautiful flashback). Drakut desires Miriam, Miriam lusts after Diego, Diego feels redemption in Bianca's sudden love for him, and so on There are other characters that come and go through desert and sea: a Catalan guitar-playing painter called Francisco; servant Candela who provides some comic relief, girls in sexy clothes, pirates, sailors, slaves, dervishes, eunuchs, whipping, sword fights, battles, and of course a dance performed by Chelo in the middle of the desert. Be assured that you will be entertained. But a little trimming would have helped.
Easily and by far this is the best version that I have seen of "The Thief of Bagdad". It does not have the Technicolor opulent look of the 1940 version, and Douglas Fairbanks is not as handsome as the 1961 thief, played by Steve Reeves, but this 1924 production intelligently blends comedy and drama; the framing, angles and camera movements used by director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer Arthur Edeson are visually elegant; and sets, costumes and effects were beautifully conceived and executed. The film moves with a fascinating rhythm during the first two acts in Bagdad, before the Princess' suitors travel in search of the strangest treasures: there are countless sets to stage all the dramatic and action scenes: the marketplace, the sewers, the palace garden, the throne room, the Princess' bedroom, immense stairs, doors, walls, halls and vines, lavishly designed by William Cameron Menzies. Where it not for the overlong adaptation (I saw the 149 minutes restoration, with the Carl Davis score based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade"), this would have been an undeniable masterpiece. The narration drags a bit after the suitors leave Bagdad, the Mongol Prince's machinations, and the extended return of the thief (who inexplicably does not ride on the winged horse to the city), although there are also wonderful scenes in this third act, as the trip to find and test the magic apple and the creation of the new Bagdad army. Everybody is fine in this film: Fairbank as the thief is all smiles, but when he has to show the dramatic nuances of his character he excels; Sôjin Kamiyama is excellent as the Mongol Prince (especially when compared to the 1940 and 1961 villains, more than aptly played by Conrad Veidt and Arturo Dominici), and Julanne Johnston's Princess is both attractive and funny, but I especially enjoyed beautiful Anna May Wong as the wicked Oriental maid and hilarious Snitz Edwards as the thief's sidekick. A true cinematic gem.
I do not know how planet Mars turned into a source of horrors and ugly aliens, after receiving the name of the Roman god of war or being represented in a flattering and intelligent way in this magnificent Danish motion picture. It tells the story of a group of men who follow an inspired pilot who has envisioned his life mission in a sidereal trip to Mars, without imagining what he and his crew were going to find. And what they find up there, by 1918 standards, is amazing: a peaceful community that abstains from killing men or animals of any kind, whose main sources of nourishment are fruits, who have the power to regenerate life, induce healing dreams and aspirational thoughts. After causing havoc with guns and bombs, and after their beverages and canned dead meat are rejected, the men go through a process of adjustment and enlightenment. It doesn't take long for the leader to find his soul mate in Mars, and they all decide to go back to Earth to transmit the Martian philosophy of existence, that is summarized in the verses of the chant the planet's population sing as the travelers leave: space is the mother of life, as it embraces all our globes; we are all equal, we are all steps on the same ladder that leads to eternity; love is the force we humans call God, and only through Love we shall reach flawlessness. The Martians even urges us to get rid of lowly speech, which has become a plague in speech and writing, defiling communication and self expression. All this is done, seen and expressed through handsome images and special effects, in less than 80 minutes. The film even has a bit of humor in the depiction of the evil Professor Dubius (who is obviously dubious of the mission and its success), comically played by Frederik Jacobsen, even when being at his meanest; and the filmmakers also made a bit of social critique, representing irrationality and arrogance through an American character (David Dane, played by Svend Kornbeck), a boisterous, drinking fool, who organizes a mutiny in the spaceship. But while the Professor Dubius is punished, Dane is transformed by the Martian experience. In spite of a few unstable sets or the acting style of the day, this is an excellent film. Just as many may consider outdated the technical aspects of the science-fiction plot, or find ridiculous the tendencies of the cast to stretch out arms as if declaiming an epic poem, and to frequently kneel to suggest reverence, piety of humility, possibly in a hundred years from now the Method acting style of today and our notions of technology would be seen as laughable, so there is no reason why to make a fuss about these aspects and oversize the limitations that surge from the thought and knowledge of the time when "A Trip to Mars" was made. Highly recommended.
Slightly more interesting than Peter Emanuel Goldman's previous surviving feature (the overpraised "Echoes of Silence"), this one mixes a bit of Herman Hesse, Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, with worries that would also appear prominently in the early films of Woody Allen: God, sex, family (or lack of)... For 95 minutes we follow Pierre, the alter ego of director Goldman, through the streets of Paris, meeting everybody from actors Judith Malina and Sean Flynn to sculptor David Medalla, from actress Juliet Berto and jazz poet Ted Joans to guru Swami Ritajananda, after he leaves David (Pierre Besançon), his friend and lover, when the call of women's bodies is too strong to ignore. But soon he also rejects his girlfriend Anka (Katinka Bo, Goldman's wife) and locks himself up in a poky, dirty room, while reflecting on a few steps to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Replacing Laurent Terzieff (who had to turn down the role because of a previous commitment), the "little prince of the counter-culture", Pierre Clémenti, whose presence was always used to suggest something crazy, quirky, dirty or transcendental, is the center of the whole business, but he is not enough to sustain this too-long reflection on untidy isolation in search of interior wisdom.
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