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I saw "Dollar Mambo" again last night, during a cultural act in the open air, by the coast of Panama Bay, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the American invasion of Panamá on December 20, 1989, in which thousands of innocent persons were killed. The first time I saw the movie I rejected it, for I expected a naturalist treatise about the invasion, and was confronted by a figurative motion picture, in which Mexican artist Paul Leduc gave his personal impression of the events, Panamá and its people. Last night I re-discovered "Dollar Mambo", and found it a very good motion picture, so I write this to retract myself. After "Frida, naturaleza viva", director Leduc followed his own aesthetic path of fluid camera movements, almost no dialogues and post-modern, fragmented story lines. First he made "¿Cómo ves?", a controversial docudrama about marginal life in México City, in which music played a central role, so it did not come as a surprise when he decided to make a musical trilogy. First he adapted Alejo Carpentier's short novel "Concierto barroco" into "Barroco" (1989), he followed it with a new remake of the novel by Federico Gamboa "Santa", this time called "Latino Bar" (1991), and finally he ended the trilogy with this musical "a la Leduc", based on a real event during the American invasion and posterior occupation of Panamá for months. Leduc adapted news he read in the papers, about a woman who was killed in a Panamanian bar by American soldiers who were acquited after detention for a while, as if nothing (the same response given by American authorities to the claims of the victims' relatives). He wrote the screenplay with the collaboration of many artists, including Panamanain poet Pedro Rivera, and came out with this strong metaphor of oppression, genocide, transculturation and death, to the sound of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, mambos by Dámaso Pérez Prado and a touch of rock and roll: the story follows the romance of a black dancer (Dolores Pedro), and her lover (Roberto Sosa), when suddenly bombs and bodies start to fall, and she is forced to degrade herself having sex with several American soldiers, in front of her beaten boyfriend. A very simple story turned into a tense, dramatic film, definitely not for all tastes, it is true, because of its many musical metaphors and symbols, in the midst of angry visual statements against American imperialism. But a quiet observation of the film and probably a conversation after its projection would reveal many missing interpretations and readings that we may lose on the first sight (as it happened to me). After "Dollar Mambo", Leduc retired from feature films for a while, and made several digital animation shorts on music appreciation.
Mexican horror films are bizarre, as many know. They mix a bit of German Expressionism with their Spanish legacy, add a touch of local folklore, and come out with something quite original, even if the execution is betrayed by small budgets. This is the case of this peculiar item of my 2014 discoveries, a film that turned out to be much better than expected. Produced by Abel Salazar, star and producer of many of those films (including the classic "El vampiro"), it exceeds in atmosphere, zaniness and pretty women, as usual, with a handsome vampire this time: Guillermo Murray had just arrived from Argentina and was given the lead in this tale of vampires fighting for world supremacy. Murray plays Sergio Subotai, a European count that wants to take revenge from the last member of a family that hunted the undead and killed his own family. To achieve his goal he uses the man's nieces, two sisters played by Silvia Fournier who takes the leading lady role, and ex-Miss Mexico Erna Martha Bauman as the wicked sister. What Count Subotai did not count with is that there is a guy in town who has the ability to disturb hounds, call the undead, and neutralize vampires with strange pieces of music. Unfortunately Subotai only has an army of inefficient ugly batmen and sexy vampire girls. As in many of these productions, the tone is ironic and different elements make up for the shortcomings, as the admirable underground sets in Subotai's castle, and the dark cinematography, thanks to old pro Jack Draper. The score composed by Gustavo César Carrión for Salazar's production of "El vampiro" is used one more time to good effect. A recommended horror film with quite decent amusement value.
Now that Panamanian cinema has had its first screen hit with "Historias del canal" (2014), many of us have realized that there is indeed an endless amount of stories to tell about the Panama Canal, not only during the 20th century when the United States helped the Department of Panamá to separate from Colombia in order to build and control the canal, but from the day someone visualized its route, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (I do not know who did, but it probably happened in the 16th century) to the frustrated attempt by the French Canal Company, which was the reason why the word "Panamá" was synonym of "evil eye" among the French, due to the large amounts of money lost by those who invested in the work of the viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps. Consequently different sectors of the American film industry began to film those stories: when the sound era began, while "Marie Galante" (1934) was made by Fox, minor studios as Grand National Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation also released their own products. PRC made the war thriller "South of Panama" (1941), which has a small cult; and from Grand National came two: "Panama Patrol" in 1939, and three years earlier, "White Legion" (1936), good examples of those curious fabrications. Written and directed by Karl Brown, who was once D.W. Griffith's ex-assistant, "White Legion" is a bad melodrama about the struggle of Americans who were in charge of the construction to control yellow fever, a disease that had already decimated thousands of workers of the French Canal Company. It was produced with five pennies by Benjamin F. Zeidman (check his biography in Wikipedia), an enterprising businessman who had joined the film industry when he was 14 years old. However Zeidman did not have in view that to properly tell Brown's story he needed more economic resources, so the cash limitation became insuperable evidence. The lush humid tropical flora of the zone, the magnitude of the mechanical extraction of soil being done, the consolidation of American military power in the future Canal Zone and the copious documentation of scientific research about of yellow fever, turned into an unfortunate studio-bound production of small, cheap sets. But if the low budget was a handicap, there were other elements against the production: first, Brown's screenplay, loaded with long dialog scenes (one or two with a couple of witty lines) and betrayed by the silly purpose of making a propaganda version of the scientific work in favor of an American middle-age hunk doctor (Ian Keith), with a highly unlikely solution to end the plague; then, Brown's mise-en-scene mostly consists of fixed, endless, single takes, in spite of cinematographer Harry Jackson's efforts to add shadows and props to decorate the framing; and worst of all (especially for a Panamanian audience) the use of tired Mexican stereotypes to homogenize everything "Latino" into a single mold, even when they try to add some "local flavor" by using the Panamanian folk tune "El Tambor de la Alegría" in a fiesta sequence. A year after the release of "White Legion" South African scientist Max Theiler succeeded in developing a vaccine for yellow fever, but Zeidman and Grand National did not give up and re-released their turkey with the sensationalist title, "The Hell-Hole Named Panama".
In these days when the most popular documentaries are about dolphins, food chain, globalization and savage Capitalism, you would never think that placing a camera on a beach and watch, without adding comments, would make a good film. But it does and very well. In this intelligent work by Eloy Enciso, a Spanish film graduate from the Cuban film school created by Gabriel García Márquez, there are of course different camera set-ups, many subjects and themes, and they all add up to a unique documentary about three days on a Mediterranean beach in August, where neighbors and tourists converge. Their interactions, the events that evolve (as the sand sculptures), the sounds and faces contribute for a good reflection on free time, old age and daily routine.
This is a little gem about prejudice. Not racial this time, but about nationalities that are not "well seen" in the First World or for that matter nowhere: this is the case of a woman from Colombia, who very happily arrives to Paris and is detained, undressed and humiliated by security guards, and her luggage rudely inspected. This is not gratuitous entertainment of fiction, as many persons know. It happened to me in one of the Paris airports, so I know, and if you are from Latin America as me and "the mule" the humiliation is double. But French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, who is able to describe dramatic stories as "Carlitos Medellín" (in Colombia) and "Johnny Mad Dog" (in Liberia), has a sense of humor. And one of Pedro Almodóvar's muses, Miss Rossy de Palma, wonderfully plays the Colombian woman who watches in awe, terror and sadness what is happening to her. But then I cannot spoil the little story for you. See it.
This is an impressive film, almost a record of dead persons who most probably gave a single testimony to the world of their predicament, as they sat in front of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's camera: they describe what it means to live in a poor section in Medellín, in a permanent state of violence that has increased in the last 50 years. Then we are informed that many of them were killed. When the film started I felt a sudden rejection when I heard the voice of a fictional kid called "Carlitos Medellín" reading a letter to the Catholic virgin Mary Help of the of Christians (María Auxiliadora in Spanish) asking for her intervention or from anybody in heaven in his community, while I watched on the screen the actions of Davidson Ospina, a kid who carries a statue of that virgin all around the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio. Then I realized that this was Sauvaire's strategy to unify all the testimonies that he registered. "Carlitos Medellín" is a fictional character, a symbol that gives unity to all the footage. Of course, this is almost a "talking heads" kind of business, but besides the reading of the letter, and the mothers telling the stories of their lost sons and asking the virgin for peace, Sauvaire added "Carlitos" smoking marijuana or playing football, a surprisingly mature young boy talking about survival and guns, a mother who has become a prostitute, the local morgue, a procession of Santo Doming Savio with chants and incense, a schoolgirl with no perspectives, a woman whose youth has become damaged by the signs of death, the photographs in the cemetery I am almost sure you have not seen another documentary like this. Don't expect an explanation of what happens in Colombia. This is a film about survival, responsibility and hope. There are moments when it seems exhausting, but an understanding trio of editors (including the director) kept it at 73 minutes.
Heartbreaking portrait of Pakistani kids in Karachi, who have run away from home, were detained by authorities or got lost, and who were rescued by a humanitarian who created a surrogate home until their cases are solved, although a few of them stay and literally grow up there. I am not being sentimental. It is just very sad watching kids cry because they do not want to go back home, or the coldness of their families when they are brought back. I do not understand why people ask for more information. What for? Are they going to create a world organization to help those kids or what? Or just to be informed and converse about it? This film is about those kids, and what is remarkable about it is that it gives them voice, it is they who talk and communicate with us. In the end what I feel is important about "These Birds Walk" is the state of the world, of which we are all responsible.
It is such an annoyance to watch mutilated foreign films, specially Italian productions as in this case, which was obviously a well-mounted co-production, benefiting from the participation of the Yugoslavian film industry, providing beautiful art direction and bright choreography, as well as fine performers, combined with Italian professionals as cinematographer Mario Bava (a year before making his first feature, "La maschera del demonio"), composer Roberto Nicolosi and director Riccardo Freda, all working against beautiful scenery and sets. The version I just saw is English-dubbed and 10 minutes shorter than the original (even with the restoration of some footage that had originally been censored in Spain, where my copy was issued): it is a strange mixture of average-looking sections with others that seemed to come from a blown-up VHS copy. "Agi Murad" though is an attractive wide-screen adventure film with a touch of history, in spite of being not very well acted by Steve Reeves, who this time seems a little beyond his scope for the title role in the dramatic scenes, but he compensates his shortcoming in the action scenes and has Gérard Herter to counteract as he chews the scenery playing the Russian villain, and sexy Scilla Gabel as his scheming wife, who has fallen for the "White Devil", as Murad is called. By the state the home-video business is in these days, it is a pity that we will probably never be able to watch these films in their original form.
I first saw the Italian-French co-production "Salambò" in the early 1960s, distributed in Panamá by 20th Century-Fox, as a CinemaScope/Color by DeLuxe production and dubbed in English, as "The Loves of Salammbo". Since the memory of it had persisted, I was curious about it for more than 50 years, until 2014 when I could see it again: this time in its French version, which is 23 minutes longer than the American, and 15 minutes shorter than the original Italian cut. I always remembered that it was different from the regular peplums of its day, and this time I could verify that it had higher production values, that the story is more elaborate than the typical "sword and sandal" show, and above all that it is not a proper peplum, if we stick to its original definition of films that deal with Greco-Roman mythology, heroes and gods. This is a historical drama based on fact, about the mercenary rebellion against Carthage in the 3rd century B.C., when the city had not pay the promised gold to hired barbarian soldiers, after they had shed blood for five years in the name of Carthage; and it is also a fictional love story of mercenary leader Mathos (Jacques Sernas) and Carthaginian high priestess Salambò (Jeanne Valérie), daughter of general Amilcar Barca (Riccardo Garrone). There is a greedy, wicked traitor in the court of Carthage, Narr Havas (Edmund Purdom), who is lusting after Salambò, wants power and gold for himself, and to get rid of the mercenaries. Based on the respected but little known novel (or long story) "Salammbô", by French author Gustave Flaubert, written after he published "Madame Bovary", the complex tragic war story that he told was simplified, shortened, altered (for example, Narr Havas is originally a mercenary chief), and given a happy ending. Although it looks as if the producers had bigger ambition, and a few sets, scenes and location shooting aim for great spectacle, the truth is that the Italian and French capitals were not enough. There are also some flaws, as Alexander Derevitsky's persistent martial score, the 1960s style of make-up, and rushed transitions, which may be the result of trying to reduce the running time. Although Sergio Grieco was never a highly regarded director, he received good support from Enzo Alfonsi's editing, and cinematographer Piero Portalupi's dramatic lighting, camera movements and set-ups, so the vision of the film is entertaining. Two curiosity notes: the French version includes a love making scene with brief nudity that was cut in Spain, where my DVD copy was issued with the footage restored; and the part of Neshma (Salambò's maid) was apparently played by Italian actress Brunella Bovo in the Italian version (her name appears in the Italian poster) and by Indian actress Kamala Devi in the French cut. I can't remember what performance was used for the American version.
Since Tarzan went to Guatemala in 1935, Charlie Chan to Panamá in 1940 and Fox organized a "Carnival in Costa Rica" in 1947, I decided to watch Jacques Tourneur's "Appointment in Honduras", just to have a richer view of how Hollywood depicted Central America in the old days. Now they are a bit more exact, although the approach (from the "exotic value" perspective) has changed little, if we consider how Costa Rica has been a Jurassic garden for T-Rexes, Panamá a center for tailors who are UK spies, while Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are still the settings of stories of violence. But back then things were so corny (and not from the natives' side, but from Hollywood's), that one has to take most of these films with a grain of salt and laugh. Of those I think that "Charlie Chan in Panamá" is the best, due to its dark plot of treason during II World War, but this fabrication is as ugly as it is opportunistic, using recent facts as starting points without even considering all the tragedy, deaths and losses that can be originated by a political assassination or a coup d'état (with the assistance of the CIA or any other American "industry"). In days of the real overthrowing of Jacobo Arbenz, the president of Guatemala with the collaboration of highly paid American hired-assassins (1954), Glenn Ford plays Corbett, somebody quite close to those men, who instead has to supposedly help an overthrown president in Honduras, someone called Prieto, with money. To do so he has to take command of a ship, make it stop by the Honduran shore, and then cross the jungle up a river in search of Prieto to deliver the cash. You can have three guesses to determine why Corbett does all that, but in the end, when he identifies himself as a farmer, no one in the film and in the audience believes him. Before he finds Prieto, of course, Corbett has to make that dangerous jungle trip with four convicts that helped execute the operation, led by wicked Rodolfo Acosta, who took two passengers along as hostages: Ann Sheridan, who crosses the jungle in her night gown, and her rich, mean and coward husband, played by Zachary Scott. In their way they meet soldiers, crocodiles, ants, serpents, jungle cats, tropical storms, swarms, piranhas that swimmed all the way up from South America to appear in this film, an anopheles mosquito that transmits malaria to Corbett and all the clichés scriptwriter Karen DeWolf imagined or believed you would find in the Central American jungles. They never see an orchid, a high full moon, a bright butterfly or a marijuana plant that would have been so helpful to keep them relaxed. All that is left is bare tension by elementary motives, bad acting and Tourneur's boredom or indifference to the material, all in Technicolor. I don't know you, but I stick to Tarzan, Charlie Chan and the Costa Rican carnival.
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