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Young Cuban filmmakers of the early 21st century sometimes carry a too heavy load on their shoulders: they are expected to rekindle the prestige Cuban cinema had for almost 20 years, even if the social, cultural and political conditions are quite diverse from those of 1968, the year when "Memories of Underdevelopment" was created, or 1988, when "Demasiado miedo a la vida o Plaff" was released. The economic platform of the film industry has been drastically reduced, as to guarantee a constant dynamics of test and trial, from which two or three good films could surge every year. In a scenario where filmmakers opt for the zombie franchise, or for an "aspirational" view of La Habana out of a commercial spot, that is sadder than the real deteriorated urban landscape, director Carlos Quintela chose minimalism and a contemplative attitude, and abstained from heavy dramatics, for his first feature, "La piscina". In my opinion, Quintela, among his peers, delivered the most sincere, coherent, well-thought and compact film. Maybe the loud and outspoken way the Cubans talk and act seems too foreign to the parsimonious aesthetics Quintela adheres too, a strategy so much in vogue in the four corners of the world, from Théo Court to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, passing by Aki Kaurismäki and back to Paz Encina. This deliberately slow moving, living and doing seems more akin to Chilean, Thai, Finnish or Paraguayan referents, than to this irreverent corner of the Caribbean: or maybe not so, as it is suggested, in an adjusted and recycled way, in the lunch scene, in which words become unnecessary and the rite becomes a simple duel of mouths, to see who can eat faster. However, after this consideration, I must add that my experience watching "La piscina" was very pleasant. Although I had heard reserved commentaries and I knew that the Cuban film festival had refused to accept it in its competitive section, I found it a title that merited one or two prizes, as first work, or for its screenplay (by Abel Arcos) and cinematography (by Raúl Rodríguez), but more than anything for its direction. Quintela opted (consciously or not) for a proposal of "mise-en-caméra" that remits us to the scope of the human eye, with its two options: from the capacity to see the "absolute density of things", the whole panorama; to focus on details, on our "objects of desire", in our voyeuristic close-ups. As he emulates the human gaze, Quintela accustoms us to long, wide shots, and then he forces us to see the faces. There are no medium shots in this film, with more than one character in the frame. As human eyes, we see the "long shot" and then our gaze is directed to focus on a specific face, just as we do in real life, when we see two or three persons in the same field of vision, but we can only watch each of them by turn. This tactic is used to tell a very simple story: during holidays, in a swimming pool where almost nobody goes, four adolescents (three young men and one young woman, each with a hard physical condition) take swimming lessons with a trainer who maybe once was a promising athlete (Raúl Capote, the only professional actor in a leading role). In a partially clouded summer day, very small secrets are revealed and little dramas emerge The very low profile conflicts favor silence, laconism, and trivial actions that calmly unfold, but which surprisingly have an inner rhythm of almost imperceptible agility. With the exception of the moment when the girl attacks one of the boys, everything takes place with histrionics in pause: to this effect the fact that Quintela works with four young natural actors is a big plus. In this kind of film, in which spectators infer more by observation than through declarations or discourses, the anthropological details matter more, and for this reason "La piscina" grows in those brief moments when the Cuban cultural reference becomes evident. With this work Carlos Quintela has diversified the offer of Cuban cinema, placing it in a different dimension in relation to everything that was done before, and if it were only for this, "La piscina" merits a well deserved applause.
Gordon Scott's debut film and his first time playing Tarzan, is not as bad as I had read. The story is quite simple (and repeated in his next two movies, with tension between an African witch doctor and a white physician), the pacing is OK, the running time is thankfully short, and the budget as low as in most of Tarzan's films of all colors and casts. Vera Miles is an attractive leading lady, although her attention mostly goes to her doctor boss, dully played by German Peter van Eyck. I believe that the best asset of this Tarzan motion picture is Scott's freshness and spontaneity. In the following entry (the first Tarzan film in color, "Tarzan and the Lost Safari") the budget made the hair gel and the pancake make-up too evident.
"Portrait in Black" is one of the worst and most laughable melodramas that I have seen in years. One should not expect too much from a motion picture in which the name of gown designer Jean Louis appears bigger than cinematographer Russell Metty's. But that's the way it is, and to make sure there is absolutely no doubt about it in a production from Ross Hunter (the man behind "Imitation of Life", "All That Heaven Allows", and "Pillow Talk"), when Lana Turner has to go out incognito to get rid of a dead body, she chooses a sequined coat that matches the glittering black dress that Jean Louis designed for the occasion. Based on a stage play by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts that combines James M. Cain's material with Alfred Hitchcock's strategies, I would not know how to classify this melodrama without seeming rude, but this "portrait in black" is more a "Portrait in Heat", because there is not much beyond sexual obsession. A married woman (Turner) and the family doctor (Anthony Quinn) who want to have sex and little else, have never managed to be intimate as old as they are (thanks to the Hays code and prudish dramaturgy). The only way out they imagine is to kill her husband, so they can fulfill their most basic objective. As Turner and Quinn look the age they had when making the film (40 and 45), and there is not a trace of love but plain fixation, the whole mess becomes extremely ridicule, getting no help from Richard Basehart, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, Lloyd Nolan or Ray Walston. Only Anna May Wong and Virginia Grey bring a bit of distinction and dignity, "in the Hunter style".
Under the firm hand of Henry King, known in his time as one of the best translators of literature into film, F.Scott Fitzerald's "Tender Is the Night" reaches its conclusion as a solid but rather cold drama. Produced with the usual ornaments of any Fox motion picture of those years, the shooting in real and colorful European locations and the vast CinemaScope compositions seem to go in opposite direction to the intimate drama with four key characters: a psychiatrist (Jason Robards), his patient and wife (Jennifer Jones), his old and wise mentor (Paul Lukas) and his rich sister-in-law (Joan Fontaine). Around them there are a frustrated composer (a very obnoxious character played by Tom Ewell, that guarantees that the title song is played endlessly), a starlet (Jill St. John), a wealthy Roman with nothing to do (Cesare Danova), and other characters that advance or retard the plot. There is not a single close-up in the film to get us close to those faces, not as a voyeuristic act to see their pores, wrinkles or grimaces, but as a most useful syntactic resource of cinema language. Everything is seen from a distance, with extreme prudence, aggravated by the fact that the film extends to 2 hours and 22 minutes that screenwriter Ivan Moffat should have prevented, or editor William Reynolds could have reduced. Maybe in a film house with a huge screen it worked better. After "Tender Is the Night" and 50 years in the film industry, Henry King retired from cinema.
Perhaps unfairly to Steve McQueen's "Shame", I watched it last night after I saw Laurent Hasse's documentary "Le bonheur Terre promise" (2011), a much simpler and satisfying film that deals with true feelings. Compared to prefabricated and mannered artifacts as "Shame", "Le bonheur Terre promise" (as well as Théo Court's "Ocaso", Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho", or Lucrecia Martel's "La niña santa", among others) seems like a pure and magical journey as the camera enters the simpler spaces of gentle souls. Made by Hasse, after he suffered an accident, was in coma for days, returned to life without his sense of smell, and entered a new phase that affected his personal relationship, the documentary is the record of the trip he made on foot during winter, from the Spanish-French border to Dunkerque, in search of answers to his inquiries, in search of a sense to his recovered life. It may sound pretentious or even twee to a few, but in these times of cynicism, everything does! For me the way Hasse exposed himself and his travel was fascinating, an antidote to industrial cinema, even if I should admit that for personal reasons the film got to me emotionally and made me enjoy it more than if I were watching one of those admired action films loaded with special effects. Hasse disconnects us viewers from that, leads us to the basics, to rural spaces ignored by commercial cinema, and shows us voices and faces that have none or little space in the media: farmers, young soldiers, working class couples, French of African ascent, stockbreeders, lonely elders, an ornithologist, a war refugee I think that Hasse never intended to "impact" with his film, he did not seek after "selling points" for his documentary, and he did not care if his material would not be enjoyed by film lovers and critics, for the main audience he had in mind was (I believe) the people he filmed. The dichotomy country-city, happiness, loneliness, the acceptance of old age, the enthusiasm of a young couple, the simple act of lighting a fire first thing in the morning, even before having a first bite, every intimate moment, every collective action, reveal humanity, without sensationalism. With "Le bonheur Terre promise" I am once again convinced that films are better perceived and enjoyed when watched alone.
Perhaps unfairly to Steve McQueen's "Shame", I watched it last night a few hours after I saw Laurent Hasse's documentary "Le bonheur: terre promise" (2011), a much simpler and satisfying film that deals with true feelings. Compared to films as Hasse's documentary (and Théo Court's "Ocaso", Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho", Lucrecia Martel's "La niña santa", among others) that enter the spaces of noble spirits, showing their fragility, artifacts as "Shame" seem too prefabricated and mannered. As it is well stated in a scene where Brandon, the protagonist, attends a meeting in which someone talks about the social effects of internet (including Brandon's avid consumption of every virtual pornographic offer), cynicism has become a cause of awe among people, including film audiences who take this as great art. The film does not lack a brilliant initial spark, which needs to be exposed, discussed and analyzed frankly on films: sex addiction. But it gets lost in old formulas, clichéd discourses and jaded images that make it lose impact. It is true that what screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan came up with as "solutions" is evidently based on things we human beings usually do, desire or imagine. But in the final act there is such an overwhelming accumulation of negative events, from the moment on when Brandon asks his sister Sissy to get out of his apartment, that "Shame" reaches a melodramatic surfeit that weakens the possibility of a high-leveled dramatic final effect. In the end it says nothing, neither to the sex addict nor to the common folk. The film is as exhibitionist as it is voyeuristic, but at the same time it is not explicit enough (if there is one film that needs a bit of explicitness, this is a good contender), also applying the suggestive tactic to the incestuous subtext. In the end "Shame" seems a foolish display of gross impersonal sex that sheds no light on its main subject, that may excite a few, and works as a futile effort on the limits of soft pornography.
I did not see this film when it was originally released. I was 12 then, but for some reason I was not attracted to it. So today, when I have finally seen it, I am not moved by nostalgia, as it often happens to me when I revisit films from my youth. This one is truly a poor motion picture, for all the reasons some reviewers have indicated: awful script and dialogs, inaccuracy of several sorts, corny costumes and settings, unbelievable hair styles, Caucasian actors playing natives of the American continent, and very bad acting, especially from Yul Brynner who overdid the macho number he created for the King of Siam, posing as if he were doing a photo shoot for "Tomorrow's Man" or any other male physique magazine of the 1960s Today it seems worse, with everybody speaking the same language (English), but with different USA accents, except Shirley Anne Field who did her best British phrasing. As for the score, once Elmer Bernstein complained in a letter he wrote me (he is the only composer I have ever exchanged correspondence with) that he had not convinced any record company to issue "Kings of the Sun", one of his favorite film scores. If heard apart from the visuals, I am sure it works, but to most ears quite probably it sounds as the score for a western or biblical film. As it is, it sounds strange adding musical comments to images that pretend to convey life in America the continent, before the arrival of the European conquistadors Bernstein was not all that wrong, in any case, for scriptwriter James R. Webb worked on this one just after "How the West Was Won" and before "Cheyenne Autumn", maybe taking it for another western without horses.
It is a common practice: it is enough that a false authority (most entertainment reporters) dislikes something, for a choir of followers to repeat his opinion and create undeserved bad reputation for a cultural product. Such is the case of (among many others) "Born to Win", "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "Lookin' to Get Out", all the three curiously made in the 1980s, a difficult times in the history of the United States, under Ronald Reagan's dominant image. Respectively directed by Czech Ivan Passer, British Tony Richardson and American Hal Ashby, the three films had something valuable to say about US individuals, institutions and customs: be it the disintegration of the couple due to drug abuse, the dysfunction of nuclear families, consumerism or a certain vulgarity that may describe Las Vegas too well. None of the three films is a masterpiece, but they rise above the low scores and bad opinions that surround them. In particular, "Lookin' to Get Out (the director's cut) did not diminish at all the great admiration I have for Ashby, one of the most underrated American filmmakers, with a magnificent work that includes "The Landlord", "Harold and Maude", "The Last Detail", "Shampoo", "Bound for Glory", "Coming Home", "Being There" and the documentary "Let's Spend the Night Together", all containing his privileged perception of his fellow Americans and their cultures: who has ever made any two titles of those, has the liberty to make lesser films as "8 Million Ways to Die" or "Lookin' to Get Out", which are not bad at all. Written by Al Schwartz and Jon Voight, "Lookin' to Get Out" is a typical American film comedy drama about gambling buddies, prostituted women, exaggerated bad taste, and a peculiar cultural way of reacting to troubles, stuff that has being the basis of dozens of dramatic comedies, much worse than this, in which Voight and Burt Young try to get out of trouble, when they have to pay 10 thousand dollars in 24 hours, and the only solution they come up with is going to gamble in Las Vegas, where Ann-Margret crosses their path with a different agenda. The plot, which does not aspire for an award to originality, benefits however from the performances of the central cast (Voight, Young, Ann-Margret, Bert Remsen and Richard Bradford), without forgetting the contribution of a group of unknown faces that add weight to the story being told; from maestro Haskell Wexler's cinematography; and mainly in my opinion- from Ashby's hand, from his subtle and affectionate style to capture the fragility of the demented characters, to handle with caution the grotesque and violent, but without suppressing those events and attitudes that offend human dignity, day after day. If you find a copy of Ashby's cut, don't miss it. You will add another title to the gallery of good performances by Voight, Ann-Margret and Young, your appreciation of Ashby will not be affected a bit (unless you have overrated "Harold and Maude") and, as a bonus, you'll see Angelina Jolie (Voight) at six, playing her talented father's little girl. The extended version edition includes a reunion of the actors, who evoke Ashby's memories and his working method.
Praised as a veritable film description of World War II and distinguished as audiovisual heritage by U.S. Congress, I finally saw "Ernie Pyle's Story of G.I. Joe", a William A. Wellman film based on two books by war correspondent Pyle, but it was a big disappointment, both as a motion picture and as a "National Film Registry". Set in Italy and partially in the North of Africa, I could not help comparing this propaganda piece with "Rome, Open City" (1945), a concurrent work by Roberto Rossellini that is a paradigm of Italian Neo-Realism in its initial phase, and an epic drama about the resistance of the people of Rome, that benefits from shooting in the places where similar events happened, and not the movement of foreign troops (through Californian locations) for 109 minutes, whose only objective is to reach the city of Rome because the High Command ordered it. Both films, independently from their artistic aspirations, are slightly affected by plot elements too much indebted to the sentimentality of melodrama, but while Rossellini's film can move us as a passionate account of the clandestine struggle of Roman civilians against Nazis and Fascists in an unequal but decidedly defiant confrontation, with the participation of men, women and children, Wellman's film makes us question the presence of American troops in Italy, because it is obvious that they are not there to fight for the "defense of home", not even for "democracy" That explanation would certainly belong to another kind of film, one that would had the purpose of clarifying (or erasing) that upsetting sensation, but it is explained at least in part because "G.I. Joe" is not even a war film, according to those American reference books that classify "US entertainment". Films about wars (in those fat, pocket books) are adventure "movies", action units with a hint of political background, where fast movement and noisy spectacle are the norms. A scene in "G.I. Joe" illustrates the contrast to "Rome, Open City": a moment when Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele) asks the inhabitants of an Italian town for a phonograph, and nobody understands. The language barrier is obvious, but the rude sergeant is annoyed because the Italians do not speak his tongue, and the townspeople become the object of a bland joke. Propaganda is not always bright and populated by beautiful faces. It also looks like "G.I. Joe", with little known actors (only Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum would achieve world fame), a pet "a la Walt Disney", a score filled with American marches, harmonica notes, and speeches disguised as patriotic narration, as in the end, when the voice of Pyle (played by Meredith) tell us of "our war", as if soldiers (men who have to follow orders without questioning) were in wars for personal or national reasons, or for some vague, altruist abstraction, beyond the economic, strategic and expansionist reasons that their leaders use as justifications to send them to make wars that are not theirs. And I do not think that my opinion about "G.I. Joe" is politically biased or simply motivated by the benefit of time perspective: I believe that by 1945 it was already propaganda, covering with deceitful pomp the immolation of innocent men who, without any doubt, would have preferred to stay home.
In his last film, Steve Reeves played his usual hero number (though a bit too sombre, with no glimpse of humor, as in the adventure films he starred in), doing not too different grimaces and acrobatics as the ones he performed for his incarnations of Romulus, Sir Henry Morgan, Hercules and Sandokan. It was adapted from a novel, and probably the scriptwriters (including Reeves) were too respectful of the original (written, as told by other reviewer, by a specialist in western novels) and took little advantage of the European western film craze of the 1960s. Even in the more serious western dramas (as Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West"), there were always bizarre elements and even a bit of Brechtian estrangement, making it obvious that it was a foreign concoction turning a classic genre upside down, every now and then revealing something that had not been told in the classic American westerns (although I believe the real revisionist westerns were made by American filmmakers, as Penn, Peckinpah, Altman and Gries). This one plays it straight, and maybe Reeves wanted to do a real western, but it just comes out as an average European western without zest.
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