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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 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.
«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.
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.
I prefer films that are not good and do not pretend to be anything else, than many overblown pretentious productions financed by big companies that try to pass for more than what they really are: little bad motion pictures in disguise, behind big names, expensive sets, costumes and make-up. "Operation Bikini" does not pretend to be anything else than a routine, low- budget war programmer made by American International Pictures, with some actors who once were in better vehicles (Scott Brady, Tab Hunter, Gary Crosby), new talent used in AIP productions that would fare much better in later "beach party" movies (Frankie Avalon, Jody McCrea), reliable professionals as Michael Dante and even Jim Backus, plus an Hungarian "Miss Whatever" (Eva Six, playing a Japanese woman) and a bunch of California blondes to spice things up a bit, and a map of Mexico passing for some location on the Asian Pacific. Do not expect much from this, it is certainly not good, so just take it for what it is. Now, it sure did help to have a film editor as director, for Anthony Carras really did wonders combining the scenes he shot with stock footage of war action. Proceed at your own risk, but believe me: there are really worst things than this pretending to be "masterpieces".
In the 1970s, when I lived in Old San Juan (Puerto Rico), there was a black, round transvestite known as Lorena, who performed at the club "Cabaret," where he was a sensation for a couple of months with his hyper-dramatic interpretations of songs like Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". He knelt on the stage, prayed, pleaded, even wept a bit, never losing his sense of humor, nor hiding the effect of detachment which, in general, good transvestite shows produce. Then, about three decades later, living in La Habana, I realized that the local homosexual subculture survived in a bubble, with patterns of social behavior (ranging from partying to couple interaction) that referred me to times gone by, as a recycling of the 1950s at the close of the 20th century. These manifestations, as well as the bitchiness in relations, have, of course, not died on or off the island, and they persist along with the "urbanity" of the "gay" community (more selective and classist), but I found they were almost the rule in Cuba. These two memories combined in my head, when the Irish film "Viva" ended and Héctor Medina as Jesus, the hairdresser who chooses to be a transvestite, became a kind of La Lupe, crying, imploring, pulling curtains from the cabaret managed by Mama (Luis Alberto García), in a highly current story, if we only consider the homophobia that reigns in almost all contemporary societies and that is at the center of the movie. At the same time, in the script by Mark O'Halloran, the same man who wrote the remarkable "Garage" (2007), I perceived a certain "poofy fascination" with an old and decadent universe that cries out for renewal. If O'Halloran achieved a well-measured drama in the Irish countryside in "Garage," I think that in other people's territory he emphasized the exotic and lost in realism. Despite the attempt to truthfully show misery and the alternatives of a young man who, in the absence of the stage of a transvestite club, opts for prostitution, "Viva" is a syrupy portrait of the streets of Cuba (that "inner Havana," opposed to the better-off life of the privileged people of the island) and its dens (as opposed to the big, fancy cabarets with larger budgets). One can overlook the filmmakers' ecstasy with the old- fashioned spectacles of transvestites (by interpreters-actors who have always lived a marginal existence and suffered severe exploitation), but where "Viva" loses more effectiveness is in its melodramatic approach to the relationship between Jesus and his father (Jorge Perugorría), who suddenly breaks into the boy's life and opposes his purpose. There is enough material to incite tears and emotion, as in the best melodramas, with music that exaggerates the pain we already perceive in the good performances by Medina, Perugorría, García, Laura Alemán and Paula Alí. For that drama beyond moderation, "Viva" is enjoyed, but I suppose there must be followers of film aesthetics according to Bruce La Bruce, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noé and Gustavo Vinagre, who would have been grateful for something a bit more graphic in the approach to eroticism and violence that permeate "Viva".
"Our Daily Bread" is definitely not for the jaded -old or young- viewers who take everything for granted, including the meal in front of their noses. An amazing display of technology for the benefit of the few, its cold, meticulous, detached approach to European food industries in long takes and in unusual environments, above or under ground, has an impressive effect: for some it means nausea, for others awareness of the ill distribution of the wealths of the world, that in the end belong to you and I. A remarkable, sober work, that avoids the traps of other documentary artists, as Michael Moore's omnipresence, Philip Glass' redundant notes or Werner Herzog's pseudo-guru comments.
The documentary "Rats" would be excellent if not for its creators' mania for manipulative music and sound effects of horror films. They are out of place in a work with scientific pretensions. The images and information provided by this production of Discovery Channel are already powerful as to dispense with that unnecessary sonic frippery. The research made in different places of the United States, India, Cambodia and the United Kingdom leads to eloquent and sometimes overwhelming sequences that show how the plague is assumed in the world, from extermination with poisons to worship of the rats as sacred beings, passing through the consumption of the rodents as tasty gourmet dishes and their dog-like hunt as if they were foxes. In the last sequence what struck me was that Indian rats revered in a temple were thin and vegetarian-looking... But in spite of the foreign elements added to the sound track it is a good work that deserves to be seen. Recommended.
A beautiful film, "Casque d'Or" refuses to be cataloged as a tale at the edge of melodrama and opts for tragedy in a poetic tone rarely expressed with so much visual richness and verbal economy. The story is set during the "belle époque," between prostitutes and "Apaches" (name given to marginal Parisians in late 19th century and early 20th century), based on a real case occurred in 1902, a love triangle between a streetwalker and two ruffians, played by a radiant Simone Signoret as the prostitute Marie (nicknamed "Casque d'Or" for her blonde mane), Serge Reggiani as the carpenter she falls in love with, and Claude Dauphin as a ruthless ruler of pimps and wine dealer. The story evolves with violent effusions and moments of intense lyricism, expressed through beautiful black & white images and characterizations where gestures and glances shine with precision - especially Simone Signoret's eyes, as when she says goodbye to her future lover in a ballroom next to the river. Jacques Becker turned it into a masterpiece, so by the late 1950s he was not targeted by the attacks of the "nouvelle vague" rebels (Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard et al). It is good to remember that these young men, although they made good films, quite often made unfair judgments of the cinema of old masters, as Carné, Clouzot or Duvivier... because they wanted to make cinema and the industry did not give them entrance. I do not know if Carné, Clouzot or Duvivier, who made "cinéma de papa" (pejorative term coined by Truffaut) had any fault, but some of the films that were rejected are far from being despicable productions, and in many cases far superior than their detractors' own movies. In any case, Becker did two more great works, "Hands Off the Loot" in 1954 with Jean Gabin and Dora Doll, and in 1960 his last film, "The Hole" (Le trou), a classic drama about a jailbreak. "Casque d'Or" is absolutely recommended.
Interesting data about a forgotten production: "Produced by Paul von Shcreiber, directed by John Howard and starring Jane Wald and von Schreiber, it is the bittersweet story of a shy, lonely sailor's weekend leave in Los Angeles, and the various people he encounters, particularly during the moonlight hours. 'Weekend Pass' has been compared in sensitivity of acting and direction to the films of John Cassavetes; and in each case the films were produced by top Hollywood actors and technicians during their off hours, in an effort to make something spontaneous and meaningful that couldn't be produced under major studio conditions". (Source: Creative Film Society catalog, 1972) Tom Lisanti, Jane Wald's biographer, writes: "The film, clocking in at less than an hour, played the Los Feliz Theater in Los Angeles for one week in late December 1961 to be eligible for Academy Award nominations. Alas, none were earned. The featurette did pop up in LA again in September. Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times called it, «less savage than 'The Savage Eye' and praiseworthy as straight-forward cinematic storytelling»."
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