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A curio that all film buffs should see. But be warned. Very good black & white cinematography is not enough to compensate for this racist tale, even by 1932 standards. Maybe the way the ignorant colonialist characters of this film confront the religion of the islanders, is still assumed by many persons today, but all this voodoo crap has seriously affected horror cinema, until things began to improve a bit with the Hammer Film production "The Plague of the Zombies", and specially with "The Serpent and the Rainbow", which were more informed about the Caribbean and its tragic story of genocide, colonialism, tyranny and misery, all of which still affect many islands (big and small). The filmmakers didn't even make a fine research about the chants or rites of the voodoo religion (because a religion is what voodoo is, that should be treated with respect if we really believe in freedom of cult)... Here natives hum and hum, while the colonialists wear formal dress to have dinner. At least in "King Kong", released a year before, things were more palatable due to the fantastic nature of the story, with an island out of nowhere, so Max Steiner's ritual dances and the cult to Kong seemed marvelous, and they still do. But the St. Christopher of this foolish tale resembles Haiti way too much to be taken as plain "entertainment". On the performers' side, Dorothy Burgess is fine as Juanita Pérez, the "Voodoo Queen" (or something like that), and Arnold Korff is quite convincing as her colonialist landowner uncle, Dr. Pérez (how people with Spanish names and tombstones ended speaking creole in "St. Haiti" is not explained); while Fay Wray is nothing but a decorative figure, and Jack Holt, as the concerned entrepreneur and husband of Queen Juanita, seems more like her father. Don't miss it!
Strange «péplum», a bit on the sadistic side, made me feel terrible for the poor Cyclops, who is described as a captive freak, unlike the busy and aggressive creatures Ray Harryhausen created for «The 7th Voyage of Sinbad». For the proceeding, maestro Mario Serandrei's editing is rather lazy, especially in the action scenes, where the tempo of the cutting is not particularly inspired, and the shots linger on Gordon Mitchell's muscles. Even Chelo Alonso goes through a strange routine, from evil queen to woman in love, excluding the possibility of one of her sensual dance scenes; and Mitchell is one very strange looking fellow, with a gentle personality that seems at odds with his character, supposedly a lonely highlander. But «Maciste in the Land of the Cyclops» has ladies in distress chewing gum, «menacing» lions that resemble rugs, a villain (funny Dante DiPaolo) who is always smiling when he's saying his meanest dialog lines, and lights that follow the characters through kitsch settings and barren exteriors. So don't let it pass you: it has a lot to enjoy. Watch it!
I love this film and often recommend it to students of scriptwriting as a model of anti-script «a la Syd Field». Free structure, all kinds of vignettes about food, the art of cooking (Itami, I believe, was a chef), closed with a loving image that tells all about us humans' urge to eat. Best images are those beautiful erotic shots that illustrate the story of a handsome cinéphile gangster dressed in white (the scenes featuring an egg and a shrimp, are topped by the one with an oyster and a very young female fisher), but you will surely enjoy several comedy vignettes, that freely disrupt the central story, including the bureaucrats' lunch, the etiquette lady who is teaching young women how to eat spaghetti, the old master teaching his young pupil how to approach a bowl of ramen soup, the character with a tooth ache, the dying woman who prepares meal for her family But of course, the main story (taken from «Shane», of the stranger that helps a family) is very good, about how Tampopo, the owner of a cheap road café, is taught how to make good soup by a truck driver and several other characters, with industrial spying included. An excellent post-modern comedy, that will probably make you want to run to the next Japanese restaurant and have a bowl of hot ramen soup.
This formulaic idiocy could have been directed by Leni Riefenstahl, but I do not believe that --in the end-- an intelligent filmmaker as Leni, as Fascist as she was, would have admitted the absurdity of this neo-Fascist script. Back in 2007, after I saw "Batman Begins" (2005), I wrote that «In future releases, we may finally know why Daffy Duck is mean, learn of the dysfunctional family of Charlie Brown or discover the psychological traumas suffered by Olive Oyl during her youth, thanks to some filmmakers' urge to turn icons of popular culture (as comic book heroes/heroines) into cinematic "human beings" resembling old movies more than real life), and eventually into myths( of an apocryphal North American saga.» After five years, nothing has changed. In their third bat-installment, the Nolan brothers still make a big effort to convince us of the credibility or the potentiality of a tale like this... But when somebody escapes from a prison of maximum security, it seems rather weird that the first thing he does is wearing a costume... A pity that "comic book" characters have lost the "comic" element and become so dull, sour and psychotic, in the futile intent of making them go through a formulaic "character development" process, with epidermic psychology of tired melodramas of yesterday.
Two good scriptwriters and a filmmaker whose highest achievement was perhaps the comedy "Tootsie", add to a rather flat and artificial film that is neither a thriller nor a yakuza film, but a complex drama about ethics (with historical resonance, not only of Japan, but of the US-Japan relations) that could have been much better in capable hands. Writer Paul Schrader followed this with his script for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver", while Robert Towne had already written Hal Ashby's "The Last Detail" and --also in 1974-- Roman Polanski's "Chinatown": "The Yakuza" proves how good Scorsese, Ashby and Polanski were, and that Sydney Pollack was a standard filmmaker. I admit that I never liked his films. I even walked out of "Bobby Deerfield". But after all these years, reading or hearing good things about "The Yakuza", I decided to give it a try. In the opening credits, Dave Grusin's supposedly hip score starts the distortion of a tale that, in essence, unravels as it goes through an intricately sinuous labyrinth to reflect on dignity, love, ethics, tradition, betrayal, resentment, death; and furthermore, as I previously suggested, it insinuates, perhaps inadvertently, the bad conscience of a few American citizens who witnessed the assault on Japanese culture by American politicians and military men after the end of Second World War (a subject intelligently dealt by Shohei Imamura in "Vengeance Is Mine"), not to mention the barbaric physical harm done with nuclear bombs. Some persons have also suggested a graver cultural distortion in Pollack's romanticized vision of the Japanese gangsters (for a more reliable portrait of the seedy yakuzas, see "Minbo no onna", the film for which its director Juzo Itami supposedly lost his life), but as the time ran, I could not care less. "The Yakuza" became worse, and when a night club scene arrived in which a singer performed a ballad about the yakuza code, I knew I only had two options. I saw it completely unfortunately a few days after watching Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece "Harakiri".
It has always been said that cinema as an art form is yet to develop into an autonomous expression, because the way film is mostly assumed today (with notable exceptions) is as a subordinate of narrative literature. As film industries are structured today, it is going to take a long time until cinema reaches a level of evolution as literature, and in this case, as James Joyce's writings. But I do not agree that works as "Ulysses" cannot be transferred to film. What seems more obvious to me is that narrative cinema, as it evolved in the past 20th century, is too a primitive art form to equal a work as "Ulysses". I do not mean that there are no masterpieces in cinema, but in my opinion- possibly they are not as complex, highly evolved or sophisticated as some literary works. Even a novel like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is yet to be filmed in form and spirit that make justice to Stoker's prose. This considered, I reassert my belief that all written works can be translated into moving images. In adapting the written word, the scriptwriter has to find equivalents in film resources to put on the same level of the text, Joyce's being one of great richness and novelty. As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1922, instead of the narrative method, James Joyce used in "Ulysses" the mythical method, meaning a "technique of ironically juxtaposing modernity against traditional narrative structures". In their attempt to express this method in moving images, Americans Joseph Strick and Fred Haines did not make a fine job in their adaptation of Joyce. Both men were inclined to literary works: Strick also worked on Genet's "The Balcony", Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" (filmed as "Justine"), Miller's "Tropic of Cancer", and revisited Joyce with "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"; while Haines adapted and directed a film version of Hesse's "Steppenwolf". For "Ulysses" they resorted to long fragments of monologues by Stephen Dedalus (stiff Maurice Roëves), Leopold Bloom (Milo O'Shea in a breakthrough performance), and Molly Bloom (a pale characterization by Barbara Jefford), while illustrating them with images and more images (beautifully shot by Wolfgang Suschitzky in wide-screen black and white), that total a very dull film, something that is neither literature nor film, even if it is captured on celluloid. Moving images are young, the electronic ways to manipulate them are even younger Until film reaches a stage of maturity similar to the level achieved by literature and, moreover, in a case like James Joyce's "Ulysses"- please read the book in the meantime.
A major figure of world theater, Peter Brook made three notable motion pictures during the 1960s ("Moderato cantabile" in 1960, based on a novel by Marguerite Duras; in 1963, "Lord of the Flies", from William Golding's novel; and the highly praised filmization of his already acclaimed stage version of Peter Weiss' play, "Marat/Sade", in 1966). A project based on the biography of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, detailing his search for the information that would serve as base for the development of the so-called Fourth Way to enlightenment (a path that does not have a defined step-by-step itinerary, but that must be found and built by each individual), resulted in an interesting film that starts beautifully with a mysterious and fascinating sequence, illustrating a competition in the mountains in which the award is given to the musician that can make the mountains "react" in harmony to the music notes. Following Gurdjieff as he grows up and leaves his father's home, the film logically has the structure of a road movie, making his trip an entertaining voyage of ethnic, cultural and self-discovery (with a parade of solid actors in key roles). It becomes very disappointing as Gurdjieff lastly reaches the monastery of the Sarmoung Brotherhood, a place high in the Asian mountains where he is taken blindfolded, and where he supposedly obtained arcane knowledge from this secret society for his life project. Not that I as spectator was waiting for the revelation of the truth of all truths, but although it is known that his teachings dealt with movements and dance, neither did I expect to see on the screen a place that looks like a resort spa for Europeans who dance and chant like crazy (choreography preserved by scriptwriter Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff's deputy, who was around 90 years old when the film was made). Fortunately this is only during the last minutes of the film, and the rapture caused by the previous images is not badly ruined by this conclusion. Worth a look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Of the many ways we human beings have to express dissatisfaction with the social, economic or ideological issues that we confront during our lifetime, we have found in art (including auteurist cinema) bright ways to express our discrepancy with established orders: in Cuban audiovisuals, for example, of a few products that I have recently seen, the controversial documentaries by Eliecer Jiménez Almeida approach facts and persons in and affectionate way. His works have the force of the young man who argues, but at the same time he gives space to lyricism, as well as plasticity and intelligence that often compensate for restrictions, even when he films animals, as a rotund mother pig that wanders through a beach along with her piggies in «Verdadero Beach» (2012), making us smile gently. That critical approach through a gaze that is also affectionate and tolerant, usually leads me to the films of Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, two filmmakers with different views of the world, who shared a kind treatment of our strengths and weaknesses. This option is also evident in Carlos Lechuga's first film, «Melaza» (2012), which opened during the Havana film festival. Although he prefers to cite the influence of Bruno Dumont, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and other more recent filmmakers, I evoke Renoir's and Buñuel's way of saying hard things without being humiliating or hurting, a method that is quite often more effective than angry diatribes or violent portraits of societies absorbed in blood and other fluids. Melaza was a sugar-producing settlement, but it is now facing unemployment and poverty (never exposed with laments, mock or misanthropy). In Melaza, people lack so many things that their lives are determined by the options and solutions they have to struggle to find. In this community a young couple integrated by Monica (Yuliet Cruz) and Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez), who live with her mother and a little girl from another liaison, finds the less edifying, less clever and less healthy alternatives to make ends meet. I do not know what the best solutions would be, and I do not want to make suggestions: once Cuban maestro Humberto Solás stopped me dead telling me that only Cubans should solve Cuban problems, and that no Panamanian could do it with his little notes on films. I left him pensive though, when I told him that the Cuban obsession with the consumption of meat (of all kinds) was a cultural obstacle to find better alternatives in daily life That was almost 30 years ago but still today, meat is taken as solution to many problems, as it has been well registered, in a conscious way or not, by the novel «The King of Havana» to «Juan of the Dead» (which, seen from this perspective, is a masterpiece of Cuban obsession for meat), up to «Melaza», in which we see Monica in her work place, planning sex as she methodically and obsessively moves a mattress that, in the end, will become the key to her perdition. This sort of «blindness» determines the hard outcome, the harsh resolution that, in part due to Lechuga's slow and deliberate rhythm and tone, turns into a painful slap that inflamed several male spectators in the audience. «Melaza» always maintains a much welcome humorous approach (see the children's swimming lessons, the way Mónica behaves in the ghost sugar refinery, the speeches on the radio), but in the final third the script takes a most bizarre turn, from the moment Mónica sets an appointment in the refinery with Márquez (Luis Antonio Gotti), an officer who can employ persons in Melaza, in exchange, in this case, of sexual services. Lechuga (who also wrote the script) opts for strange ellipsis, for the elution of conclusive expositions in certain scenes, for images that are close to magic realism, to reach an open, unresolved ending, in need of solution. «Melaza» is not an easy film to watch, but Carlos Lechuga tells his tale in an entertaining way, and as conscious as he is of the sadness that hides beneath the smiles, he wisely let his story end in 80 minutes, that sum up a fine first work and launch the career of a new talent in Cuban cinema.
A much better comedy than what I had read about it, "Kiss Them for Me" begins much in the vein of "The Honeymoon Machine (three military fellows and two girls in a hotel), but it turns into an antiwar product (predating the Vietnam war demonstrations), partially ruined by its propaganda resolution (who would go back to war like the three main characters do?) after its frequent condemnation of war horror, its male lead's cynic view of patriotism, and the general consensus of making love instead of war. But then it is asking too much from this motion picture, before the days of "Alice's Restaurant". Instead you have Jayne Mansfield, who although receiving top credit, plays a character that has little to do with the core of the story. Her Alice is above anything else comic relief, a titillating sex joke, and she is very funny when interplaying with Nathaniel Frey or Ray Walston. The story is more inclined to "respectability", as it concentrates in the development of the friendship between Cary Grant (as a pilot hero) and Suzy Parker (as a resourceful socialite), even if both do not have the formulaic profile of most so-called «sophisticated comedies». Grant is good as usual, and Parker is fine in her first starring role, although I read that she was dubbed, so sometimes her delivery sounds rather flat or too distant. Stanley Donen almost never disappoints in this kind of product, so watch "Kiss Them for Me", and enjoy it for what it is.
I wondered what was the reason behind this silly short: where the old studios worried about the possibility of people making their own films? For those like me who believe that there will come a time when this would be something normal that will put industrial cinema in its place and not as "the only and best way" to make films, this short is a reactionary piece of uninspired filmmaking. It is not even aware that the edited home movie that Robert Benchley shows to his guests is by itself quite attractive. It is an irony. Today it could pass for an "experimental film"! For me this is funnier than what scriptwriter Benchley and director Wrangell intended to do: ridicule home movies. Now that we are thankful that new technology has permitted the democratization of cinema, little by little, "Home Movies" is more dated than it has any right to be.
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