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Carlos Quintela has a jovial disposition and a diaphanous nature, but with him things are not «easy»: his flow of ideas is coherent, but it may seem a bit complex to those adept at superficial readings. His debut feature "The Swimming Pool" seemed a simple tale of five people meeting at a public pool during a summer day, but there was more, from dramatic threads that were not shown with the usual resources of film narrative, to a calculated strategy to film it. With his next work, the complexity is evident, an intrinsic and integral part of the whole package. An ambitious film, sometimes even excessive and overwhelming, it is both a coldly objective and a painfully felt verification of the futility of human works, built behind the real needs of people. To anyone reading my summary, it may sound rhetoric: however, Quintela has placed on the table the failed and truncated construction of a nuclear metropolis in the midst of an island plagued with privations and limitations. When the film finished, the word that came to my mind was «debris» because even if we love the Cuban people, even if we are grateful for the love, knowledge, medical care and «Latino dignity» that we received or learned from them- what we are left with, when the end credits roll, is the leftovers of lack of foresight and essential humanity, disguised as a monument to collective welfare. All this is told through two basic levels: first, Quintela inserted re-edited sections of archive footage of the real «project of the century» known as Nuclear City, in the province of Cienfuegos. With the aid of Soviet consultancy and capital, the Cuban government began to build a nuclear plant and a city in 1982, but the project was left unfinished with the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall. The color footage was edited with its own narration, loaded with the typical demagoguery of any government propaganda, with the explicit agenda of convincing the people that they needed the plant, as the narrator was probably thinking that what he really needed was a more decent existence, in the middle of the blockade (of almost all nations in the planet, let's be fair, not only of the United States), internal bad administration and corruption, and more than a century of cultural and political indoctrination (mainly through the media) of all the masses and elites of the world, aligned with the ideology of the «American way». The second level (in black and white) is incorporated in an organic way, and tells the story of three survivors of the Cuban revolution, seen from their own perspectives: a mean and heartless grandfather (Mario Balmaseda), who lived both in Capitalism and Socialism, and who illustrates certain sexist smugness and arrogance inherited by many male Cubans, just because they were born men; a frustrated son (Mario Guerra), an engineer educated by the revolution, turned into an skeptical witness of the setback of the Nuclear City, a project that was also his own, in which he had put all his hope, and that led him to work in a pigsty; and a grandson (Leonardo Gascón), an anodyne being who has left his woman, who is seeking for a refuge and who only finds vital expressions through his tattoos, an old cell phone and masturbation. Unlike the lineal "The Swimming Pool", this time Quintela found in Yan Vega the person to give consistency to the ideas that he and screenwriter Abel Arcos wrote, imagined, talked about or improvised during shooting. The result is an open structure that includes other element that enrich the the fiber of the discourse: songs with corny lyrics; peculiar characters as the fumigator (Jorge Molina, in one of his ingenious interventions, even in short roles), the Russian teacher, the operatic singer and the fat cyclist girlfriend. Even the damage of the video footage, the ruin of the electronic register in U-Matic, is a completely telling component, relevant with the key technological aspect of the story. To this additional footage we must also mention the inclusion of a scene from Sara Gómez Yera's film "De cierta manera", in which Balmaseda appeared 40 years ago, that besides giving an integral portrait of the grandfather, expresses a feeling we all humans experience when facing change: fear. Cubans have reached an extreme point in which people need comfort as an important element to lead a dignified and happy life, as an almost basic requirement to turn life into an aesthetic experience... that those in power do have. Carlos Quintela knows how to transmit the ugly landscape of privation and decay, with the help of beautiful images by Hungarian-Bolivian cinematographer Marcos Attila; and with them, he has attained another major achievement in his filmography and a noteworthy contribution to the cinema of Cuba.
Better from what I have read about, this is as good as any other Hammer programmer. My complaint is that the rhythm is too slow for an adventure science-fiction comedy drama: it could have had a neat running time of 80 minutes, but the Hammer crew seemed to be enjoying so much their models and miniature lunar landscapes that a couple of panning shots seem endless, and editing only adds a bit of action during a fight in a bar. It is not more moronic than some space operas I can think of (including high profile ones, with a budget of millions, but in the end as dumb as this), and the relation to westerns can pass unnoticed by most viewers: a miner, a bar, guns...? It could also be a Chaplin comedy. Nice animation credits and an appropriate 1960s pop title song.
After learning about the importance of Maurice Tourneur in the history of cinema (and making the connection between images of "La main du diable" and its creator) I have watched a few of his silent and sound films, which were remarkable works for their times and still impressive in ours. A recent viewing was his film adaptation of a novel by Greek author Frenzos Kerzemen (or Franzos Keremen, as listed here). It was the beginning of Tourneur's third and last phase of his career as director, when he returned to his native France, after growing dissatisfied with the kind of films made by American big studios. Without reading the novel, it is difficult to know if the plot follows the literary work or if it was changed by Tourneur in his screenplay, for in the end it turns into a rose-colored endorsement of bourgeois respectability, after the striking first two acts taking place in a German sea port, in New York and almost entirely aboard the title ship. According to conventions of dramatic action, none of the characters really change the way we usually refer to alterations in life or manner: there are few radical actions or signs of profound change of perspective in all characters. Everything is mostly done under control, even when the story told is the most violent. American doctor William Cheyne (handsome British actor Robin Irvine, who died young at 32) is arguably the protagonist, the traditional hero and savior, while the fugitive convict Morains (Gaston Modot, who would become an immortal icon of crazy love in Buñuel's "L'age d'or") is his nemesis. Ethel Marley (Marlene Dietrich) is an American socialite in distress, who crashes her plane in the Atlantic Ocean and is rescued by Dr. Cheyne, falling in love; and Grischa (Vladimir Sokoloff) is the cook of the ship, who will play a key role in the resolution. What they go through, as scripted by Tourneur and beautifully photographed by Nicolas Farkas, is startling. Morains asks Captain Fernando Vela (Fritz Kortner) to take him to Brazil in his ship Galatea. Vela (a mean villain too) specializes in helping fugitive smugglers, pirates, killers, thieves, convicts and the like to get out of Germany. They become his crew and he treats them really bad until they reach their destiny. Dr. Cheyne joins the Galatea by accident, when he goes to the ship to help a wounded sailor, without noticing when it weighs anchor. Next Ethel secretly comes aboard, then Cap. Vela's pet is killed, the crew revolts against him and after the mutiny a chain of events follows, motivated by lust, greed, hatred and pure vileness. After these scenes the third act comes as a sort of sell-out: I personally would have preferred to see the few decent characters find a resolution inside the ship, not with outside help, but considering that so many crooks were put together in a single set, it is somehow understandable. A long film, running more than two hours, it gives space to actors to find gestures, gazes and expressions to tell the story without the need of many intertitles, while the viewer has more time to appreciate the magnificent images created by Farkas and Tourneur, who would go on to make a few more masterpieces before his retirement. Edited by Jacques Tourneur.
Very good drama about a scheme to destroy the U.S. Navy fleet and the Canal of Panama, done with more resources, even to have location shooting in Panama. Bela Lugosi is the sinister Eastern Europe leader of a band of terrorists. He stands with his mercenary associate Menchen by the Miraflores locks (one of the three gateways to pass from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic and vice versa) and studies the plan that needs to be executed, while he runs a sugar cane plantation and has his secret headquarters below the ruins of the cathedral from the first settlement of the city of Panamá, that was destroyed by pirate Henry Morgan in late 16th century. Bela decides to get information from a righteous official (Edmund Lowe), who knows where the mines for the defense of the canal are located; and to obtain that information he uses the services of vamp Peg Williams (Martha Mansfield) in Washington, where most of the action takes place. The story then seemingly goes the direction of a typical melodrama about adultery and military degradation, but do not be misled, stay with the movie, and you will reach a tense climax aboard a ship on its way to Panamá, while a storm is ravaging the sea and Lugosi fights Lowe to death. For his first motion picture in the United States Lugosi had a very good start: a good leading role mostly handled with moderation, without the mannerisms that would become his trademark.
A simplification of the first part of the 13th century epic poem Nibelungenlied, concerning the story of Siegfried (Sigfrido, here) fighting the dragon, gaining access to King Gunther's court and winning his confidence, wooing his sister, princess Kriemhild (Crimilde), fooling Queen Brünhild/Brunilde and ignoring courtier-warrior Hagen's palace intrigues, which lead to Sigfrido's death. For good measure, the scriptwriters added part of Crimilde's revenge, solved in the last minutes, in a fast sequence. Unfortunately for me the copy of the film (at least the one I can appreciate best, with Spanish translations) is not of the best quality: the hues and colors change constantly to the point that I felt that it was a visual strategy. It is a pity because it was conceived as a lavish adventure film for youngsters, with elements of Medieval fantasy throughout the story (in spite of being a tragic story). For its time and the resources the personnel had, it is attractive: while it is true that Carlo Rambaldi's dragon is far from his later fine achievements, to be fair it is not too different from the dragons, sea serpents and other monsters we saw in other productions of the 1950s and 1960s. The work by production designer Beni Montresor and cinematographer Carlo Nebiolo is above average, composer Franco Langella makes good use of themes by Richard Wagner, and the whole cast is more than serviceable, especially German actor Sebastian Fischer, projecting much enthusiasm as the young Sigfrido.
Director Giorgio Ferroni had a long career in Italian cinema, back to the 1930s. He was at the peak of his art by 1961, having a previous commercial success with "Mill of the Stone Women". He took great care and there were no financial limitations for his adaptation of Euripides' classic tragedy "The Bacchantes", including location shooting in Greece for the opening dance sequence in panoramic exteriors, and the hiring of popular foreign talents, as Finnish actress-dancer Taina Elg as Dirce (though admittedly her Hollywood career was starting to decline by 1961, even after winning a Golden Globe for "Les Girls"), French actor Pierre Brice for the role of Dionisos/Dionysus, Russian actor Akim Tamiroff as Tiresias, and the American choreographer Herbert Ross, long before becoming a film director. The prestige of the artistic personnel was rounded with Italian artists, including composer Mario Nascimbene and actors Alberto Lupo and Miranda Campa as the son and mother rulers of Thebes. Welcome liberties were taken in adapting the tragedy, considered by many scholars as Euripides' greatest stage work, whose open call to hedonism was more than relevant for the decade of "free love", as it is still pertinent today. But its stage origin is strong: the film remains a verbose product, with dialogs delivered in a too theatrical manner (especially by Dionisos), and the film ends being perceived as longer than its actual running time. Inexplicably Brice wears an ugly platinum wig, his Dionisos is tamed and stiff, compared to the exuberant descriptions of the god in art; and the only bacchanal depicted is too restrained and chaste even by 1961 film conventions. All this said I find it a work of enough merit to deserve better appreciation. To call this "sword and sandal" (a simplistic renaming of the more accurate -and appealing- "peplum" term, for a sub-genre that quite often includes little clothing, sexy women, sadist rulers and masochist demigods), or re-issuing it as "Bondage Gladiator Sexy", illustrates the tendency to mix expressions with artistic intentions (if partly failed as this) with fast-buck productions, exploiting the success of the most recent strong-man release. Curiously, after "Le baccanti", the term would be more justified for the several peplums Ferroni made.
Enjoyable early Corman with California surfers as Vikings and dark-haired beach bums as their enemies. Bradford Hatton is the blandest Viking warrior you will ever see, but the film as a whole is not as bad as people say. Most of the minuscule budget went to the special effects and matte paintings, and the F/X men gave the producers as good as they got, though I must say the serpent is far better than I expected, a serviceable rubber snake with countless teeth, and better looking than Corman's crab monsters, wasp woman or the monster from the haunted sea. After budgeting cast and crew fees, Corman was left with the proverbial three bucks for costumes, sets and props. All this do show but he somehow managed to make it all look decent enough to pass for a drive-in masterpiece. "The Saga of the Viking Women" is a tight, little adventure film with a bit of melodrama for good measure, Jonathan Haze turning into a blond macho action hero out of the little shop of horrors; the Wasp Woman herself, Miss Susan Cabot, as a wicked high priestess; Jay Sayer as a queen-prince still in the closet, Richard Devon as a tyrant with no army but a bunch of soldiers with bad wigs, and a good ending with lovers reunited.
What a good surprise! I expected nothing of this film; I had just decided to watch it because I like those low-budget science fiction films from the 1950s, without imagining it would be this good. Of course, there are many silly digressions, a rather trite family subplot and lack of information about radiation or, for that matter, energy. But everything is handled with disarming sincerity... I am always moved by the naiveté of mankind, even when doing the most hideous things (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and justify them with the "peasant philosophy", as I call the simple reasoning of the day-night, good-evil and man-woman kind... All this said the central idea is quite attractive, the cast is functional, the sets of the Canadian mine are impressive and the special effects are able to create a dark atmosphere of doom and build much tension. Besides it is a wonderful time capsule showing the common man's appreciation of science then and thankfully it avoids any tiresome reference to the "red menace". I give "The Magnetic Monster" 8 stars, as if I were writing a review about it for a newspaper in 1953. Go and see it.
Costa Rican Ramón Obón scripted some of the best Mexican horror films, including the classics "The Vampire" and "Misterios de ultratumba" (The Black Pit of Dr. M), and little known effective works as "The World of the Vampires", not to mention the countless stories written for film series of charros, mounted avengers, masked wrestlers and other assorted idols of the Mexican audience. A year before his untimely death, Obón made his only film, a departure from those hurriedly-made products into which his scripts were turned. Made in the vein of the anthology films of the day, as Roger Corman's "Tales of Terror" and Mario Bava's "I tre volti della paura" (Black Sabbath), the 95-minute film tells two long stories in equal time, "Panic" (a story of adultery) and "Supreme Fear" (a tale of claustrophobia), both dealing with the concepts of terror, fright, anxiety and dread, and how they manifest and can be manipulated, especially to intrigue an audience through visual red herrings. It is also much influenced by the art films of the early 1960s, as Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'eclisse" (The Eclipse), suggesting a relation between alienation and death with landscape and structures, especially in the second episode, "Supreme Fear". Although the tone and feeling of the images are somehow betrayed by Rafael Carrión's trendy jazz score, as if it were a French New Wave film, for a first work Obón handled his script very well. It is a pity that he could not continue his career as director, when he was about to embark on a project with independent producer Antonio del Castillo to make 26 television movies for American television.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Contains mild spoilers) How a good mystery story with horror elements could evolve to a disappointing resolution, with J. Carrol Naish overacting as comic relief, and Andrea King and Peter Lorre wrestling with absurd scenes and dialogue, I cannot explain. The first and second acts contain a few of the best B&W images of the history of horror cinema that I can remember, especially all scenes involving the mad pianist played by Victor Francen until his magnificently staged death, or the moment when the Beast demands its ring to Lorre. With the exception of his avant garde silent films, I don't place the work of French director Robert Florey too high, but I must admit he made a remarkable job in this film, until the story began to turn into a tale of dementia. When the schizophrenic hallucination galore started, the movie fell into the trap of psychological melodrama and never recovered. Naish in his final scenes made it worse, unsuccessfully trying to make us laugh. Maybe it was studio interference as I have read, or maybe screenwriter Curt Siodmak did not delivered a very inspired script. But from the moment in the middle of the night when the dead pianist's young American relative runs terrified to the garden, followed by his father, the police commissioner and the leading man, the film sinks fast: inside the house King and Lorre go into an endless interplay, he threatens to kill her and the hand goes nuts over the piano, while no one comes back to the house. Although it has become a cult favorite, it is a pity that it did not turned into a winner because it had all the elements to be a genre classic.
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