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Titling a film "Luton" after a town in the South of the UK and referring to it in passing during one scene (besides having a film poster with an image that evoke the Luton Football Club logo) may be one of the high points in the history of this small and apparently uneventful town, but as far as the film goes it could have been called "Momotombo" of "Limbo". It is a catchy title anyway and intriguing too, just as scene after scene we are invited to contemplate the everyday life of three persons for more than an hour: a high school student, a woman lawyer and a shop owner. As it has become the norm in observational cinema, watching is believing, watching is learning and discovering too. After an image stays with you for more than 10 times the average shot length of you common action movie, it becomes something else: what it "turns into" is a personal thing, for it is a subjective experience: you may infer drastically different interpretations than any other viewer, but that is precisely the pleasure of watching without explanations. And then bang! The last minutes turn upside down all your preceding conjectures. It is true that it is not a new strategy: it has been done before. The one that came to my mind was the Spanish film, "The Hours of the Day", only that this time the proposition is more complex. The three characters, each determined by his/her different milieu, each different from the other, they finally reveal that life is a mirror that reflects similar inner fears, no matter the differences of age, sex, social class. There is also a sociological and maybe political reading that should be easier to make for a Greek spectator, but as it is, as a panorama of life in the beginning of a new era (of 2000 years each) or (worst) the ending of an age, when life as we know it is coming to an end, "Luton" is a powerful expression of how demoniacally unethical we have become. A welcome applause for Michalis Konstantatos's first feature.
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Verbose, old-fashioned, studio bound and highly theatrical court- room melodrama, due to director-playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote the screenplay and provided mostly dialogues and plot points, but no cinematic flight. Being a man of letters, his best film work was as screenwriter of films like "Humoresque", "Notorious" and "Sweet Smell of Success". As a director, here Odets does not even take the camera out of the sound stages for a single moment, and in spite of having James Wong Howe as cinematographer it is neither an attractive wide-screen black and white film in the tradition of "The Innocents", "Sons and Lovers" or "Rapture": in fact, this movie should have been in color. But somehow it works, in spite of our desperation for the long, endless interrogations (especially those conducted by Sanford Meisner). It works for obvious reasons: first, for pure cinematic connection, only appreciated by cinéphiles, as we watch the post-Orson Welles career of an aging Rita Hayworth, as if Gilda had been lost for many years and resurfaced on page one as a murderous adulteress; and then, for several very good performances by the other ladies in the cast: Mildred Dunnock and Katherine Squire, plus the lovely presence of Myrna Fahey, just a few months before achieving film immortality as "Madeline " in Roger Corman's version of "The Fall of the House of Usher". The men are fine too (Franciosa, Young, Meisner, Griffith, Adler and the rest) but this is a woman's picture.
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By the title we have to infer that "the Miraculous" Virgin (Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, who has a large following in these zones of South and Central America) intervened in the solution to the drama of Eduardo Villarreal (Antonio Merlano), protagonist of this motion picture, the son of a bourgeois family from Bogotá, and she helped to free him from his guerrilla kidnappers with a bit of celestial magic. Of course, we also have to deduce that the Miraculous has connections with the Colombian army, which is the force behind the (accidental) liberation of the hoity-toity kidnapped guy, rescued in the last moment by a peasant family, after he is left wounded in the battlefield. By then the best characters have been killed or have gone deep into the jungle: Arturo aka Lagarto (Guillermo Iván) and his sister Mayra (Mónica Gómez), the son and daughter of a peasant, witnesses of his killing by a paramilitary troop. In the end we the spectators as well as the leading character (an arrogant fool who sticks to his class' principles until the end) have understood nothing about the Colombian war which has more than 50 years going on, and have to resign ourselves to the usual list of figures of dead, missing or kidnapped victims of the bloody war. The posh son returns home to mom and dad and literally "That's all folks!", because the final song that expresses the emotions of the Spanish-speaking victim is in English, no less. Unfortunately his grandmother (Clara Samper), who gave him a medal of the Miraculous Virgin as a present, is not around to explain the miraculous power of the Virgin, but we learn that the guy's best friend, son of a Colombian senator, who was kidnapped too, died in the first minutes because he did not have the Miraculous with him. For fans of action movies, the battle scenes are excellently choreographed, with highly professional special effects; there is also a little game for fans of the world industry of corporative football, and Merlano, who has top billing and wrote the story on which the screenplay is based, also has some screen time to sing a tune (in Spanish). You are warned. With good technical values and crass ideology as "Secuestro Express".
Strange historical drama, mixing adventure, political intrigue and lustful subplots, "The Scimitar of the Saracen" is too convoluted and overlong, not helped much by the lack of characters to "root for" or "identify with". Each man has a nasty plan of his own, the women are either bland or wicked, and our only option is to follow them in ships and through the desert to the final act. Massimo Serato is in reality the leading character, and not a likable one: Roberto de Diego is a chic thug, a womanizer and an opportunistic adventurer who goes after a Saracen pirate to help the Governor of Rhodes. The pirate has assaulted a ship and robbed a document addressed to the Governor, concerning a pact between Venice, Rhodes and Pisa. He has also kidnapped the women travelling aboard the ship to be sold as slaves, without knowing that one of them is the Governor's daughter Bianca. So Diego, who has been convicted in Rhodes, goes to rescue document and daughter for his freedom, but in the way he changes his mind and decides to sell the document to a sultan somewhere in Africa. Things get more complicated when he finally meets Drakut, the Saracen (Lex Barker, in an impressive entrance), who takes him aboard his ship; he finds Bianca (poor Graziella Granata, who spends most of the film crying), who falls for him, and finally he is helped by wicked Miriam (Chelo Alonso, who has a previous introduction in a beautiful flashback). Drakut desires Miriam, Miriam lusts after Diego, Diego feels redemption in Bianca's sudden love for him, and so on There are other characters that come and go through desert and sea: a Catalan guitar-playing painter called Francisco; servant Candela who provides some comic relief, girls in sexy clothes, pirates, sailors, slaves, dervishes, eunuchs, whipping, sword fights, battles, and of course a dance performed by Chelo in the middle of the desert. Be assured that you will be entertained. But a little trimming would have helped.
Easily and by far this is the best version that I have seen of "The Thief of Bagdad". It does not have the Technicolor opulent look of the 1940 version, and Douglas Fairbanks is not as handsome as the 1961 thief, played by Steve Reeves, but this 1924 production intelligently blends comedy and drama; the framing, angles and camera movements used by director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer Arthur Edeson are visually elegant; and sets, costumes and effects were beautifully conceived and executed. The film moves with a fascinating rhythm during the first two acts in Bagdad, before the Princess' suitors travel in search of the strangest treasures: there are countless sets to stage all the dramatic and action scenes: the marketplace, the sewers, the palace garden, the throne room, the Princess' bedroom, immense stairs, doors, walls, halls and vines, lavishly designed by William Cameron Menzies. Where it not for the overlong adaptation (I saw the 149 minutes restoration, with the Carl Davis score based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade"), this would have been an undeniable masterpiece. The narration drags a bit after the suitors leave Bagdad, the Mongol Prince's machinations, and the extended return of the thief (who inexplicably does not ride on the winged horse to the city), although there are also wonderful scenes in this third act, as the trip to find and test the magic apple and the creation of the new Bagdad army. Everybody is fine in this film: Fairbank as the thief is all smiles, but when he has to show the dramatic nuances of his character he excels; Sôjin Kamiyama is excellent as the Mongol Prince (especially when compared to the 1940 and 1961 villains, more than aptly played by Conrad Veidt and Arturo Dominici), and Julanne Johnston's Princess is both attractive and funny, but I especially enjoyed beautiful Anna May Wong as the wicked Oriental maid and hilarious Snitz Edwards as the thief's sidekick. A true cinematic gem.
I do not know how planet Mars turned into a source of horrors and ugly aliens, after receiving the name of the Roman god of war or being represented in a flattering and intelligent way in this magnificent Danish motion picture. It tells the story of a group of men who follow an inspired pilot who has envisioned his life mission in a sidereal trip to Mars, without imagining what he and his crew were going to find. And what they find up there, by 1918 standards, is amazing: a peaceful community that abstains from killing men or animals of any kind, whose main sources of nourishment are fruits, who have the power to regenerate life, induce healing dreams and aspirational thoughts. After causing havoc with guns and bombs, and after their beverages and canned dead meat are rejected, the men go through a process of adjustment and enlightenment. It doesn't take long for the leader to find his soul mate in Mars, and they all decide to go back to Earth to transmit the Martian philosophy of existence, that is summarized in the verses of the chant the planet's population sing as the travelers leave: space is the mother of life, as it embraces all our globes; we are all equal, we are all steps on the same ladder that leads to eternity; love is the force we humans call God, and only through Love we shall reach flawlessness. The Martians even urges us to get rid of lowly speech, which has become a plague in speech and writing, defiling communication and self expression. All this is done, seen and expressed through handsome images and special effects, in less than 80 minutes. The film even has a bit of humor in the depiction of the evil Professor Dubius (who is obviously dubious of the mission and its success), comically played by Frederik Jacobsen, even when being at his meanest; and the filmmakers also made a bit of social critique, representing irrationality and arrogance through an American character (David Dane, played by Svend Kornbeck), a boisterous, drinking fool, who organizes a mutiny in the spaceship. But while the Professor Dubius is punished, Dane is transformed by the Martian experience. In spite of a few unstable sets or the acting style of the day, this is an excellent film. Just as many may consider outdated the technical aspects of the science-fiction plot, or find ridiculous the tendencies of the cast to stretch out arms as if declaiming an epic poem, and to frequently kneel to suggest reverence, piety of humility, possibly in a hundred years from now the Method acting style of today and our notions of technology would be seen as laughable, so there is no reason why to make a fuss about these aspects and oversize the limitations that surge from the thought and knowledge of the time when "A Trip to Mars" was made. Highly recommended.
Slightly more interesting than Peter Emanuel Goldman's previous surviving feature (the overpraised "Echoes of Silence"), this one mixes a bit of Herman Hesse, Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, with worries that would also appear prominently in the early films of Woody Allen: God, sex, family (or lack of)... For 95 minutes we follow Pierre, the alter ego of director Goldman, through the streets of Paris, meeting everybody from actors Judith Malina and Sean Flynn to sculptor David Medalla, from actress Juliet Berto and jazz poet Ted Joans to guru Swami Ritajananda, after he leaves David (Pierre Besançon), his friend and lover, when the call of women's bodies is too strong to ignore. But soon he also rejects his girlfriend Anka (Katinka Bo, Goldman's wife) and locks himself up in a poky, dirty room, while reflecting on a few steps to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Replacing Laurent Terzieff (who had to turn down the role because of a previous commitment), the "little prince of the counter-culture", Pierre Clémenti, whose presence was always used to suggest something crazy, quirky, dirty or transcendental, is the center of the whole business, but he is not enough to sustain this too-long reflection on untidy isolation in search of interior wisdom.
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Ugly hetero-maniac fantasy that unintentionally gives a revealing portrait of American middle class' fears and morality in the 1960s. The inhabitants of a little town feel threatened by Conrad Birdie, a pop rock singer (inspired in Elvis Presley) who unwittingly questions their social, cultural and sexual roles, just by being himself. When this film was released in 1963 I was 12 years old and for some reason I never saw it, but I remember that Jesse Pearson (in his personification of Birdie) caught my attention, as much as Ann-Margret, whose career was in ascent, playing Kim McAfee, the teenage girl who will receive a farewell kiss from Birdie, when he is recruited by the Army. Today when at last I saw it I realized that both are the best elements of this motion picture. However, when the musical ends, the starry-eyed and rebellious Kim has been "tamed". As she sings the final song, the 22 year old actress, who looked like a teenager during the rest of the film, suddenly seems older, more "adult", but not because Birdie passed through her life, but following the Hollywood strategy to turn her into a new Swedish sex icon. Growing up for Kim does not mean renouncing to the pleasures that Birdie offers, but to adjust to the romance with her hometown boyfriend (Bobby Rydell), including the games in car backseats. Conrad Birdie, on the other hand, disappears during long stretches of the narrative and is finally disposed of, when the silly hometown boyfriend knocks him down. But Birdie is not the typical vain and blunt rock star. He is a pleasant parodic character, and Pearson plays him with gusto, always smiling, always mocking. It is obvious that the actor is enjoying it, and making fun of the character in the best Brechtian tradition. He makes fun of what Birdie represents, and it is not only Elvis, but all those macho singers who, with a boastful "profusion of testosterone", seduce women and men alike, even if males opt to deny the erotic attraction, accusing the artist of homosexual (as it often happened with Elvis). With every pelvic movement (as emphatic or perhaps even more striking than the movement of hips during sexual intercourse) Birdie creates chaos among the white citizens of the Capraesque town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, dazed with his arrival. Birdie is fun; he preaches sincerity and expresses his philosophy of pleasure in song and dance. But there was no space for him (and for that matter, for Pearson, who quickly disappeared from films) in this reactionary state of things: and I do not mean the supposedly funny jokes on the Soviets, so typical of American humor during the Cold War, but its agenda in defense of the respectability and status quo of the moral majority, opting to exalt the romance of the heterosexual couples (one of which changes music composition for chemistry to get married), through lackluster songs and trite choreography.
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Ordinary but mostly enjoyable farrago, mixing song and dance, propaganda, comic routines "a la Three Stooges", and espionage. When it follows the plot of the romance between a refined American soldier and the trashy title singer (an American showgirl lost in Central America), aided by a trio of American sailors and the leading lady's American best friend, and hindered by an American officer's daughter, with all of them in a cardboard Panamá, it is a happy musical, the typical romantic comedy full of music. The sing and dance numbers blend quite well with the plot (though a couple of songs are on the ugly side, as "Good Neighbors" and "The Sping"). But when the spying subplot is introduced out of the blue (to destroy the Panama Canal one more time), the film goes off-balance and it never recovers, with a terrible propaganda finale as the cast sings the awful "The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam" (by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg) before the end title selling war bonds appears. However the two previous acts were much better, and counterbalance the bad impression a bit, even if we take into consideration the rather offensive representation of Panamá as a small village out of a Mexican ranch comedy, in a time when international singers, orchestras and dancers (including Evita Perón) performed at prestigious cabarets in the capital city; and worst of all (for an American movie), a most inaccurate portrait of the Panama Canal Zone administered by the United States Armed Forces. In spite of all the bad things said and written about the troubled film (with director Norman Z. McLeod walking off the production), "Panama Hattie" will make you no harm in 79 minutes, it contains several fine moments of entertainment for you to enjoy, and I am sure that you have seen much worse musicals.
At the risk of being wrong, I would say that production in the world film industry is mostly run by the high and medium social strata, with little creative input from the lower class. The middle and high class filmmakers may "starve" (for lack of material means to produce, not food) while they make their way, but once they enter the industry as image makers for advertisement, television, film or new media- they frequently adopt a too comfortable vision of existence. This approach prevails when they deal with delicate social subjects, as the one Rodrigo Pla tackles in "La Zona", which has the certain value of being one of few films describing the potential violent relations between persons who live walled in exclusive and closed residential complexes, and people who live outside in marginal communities that surround the gated crowd, as in this case. Three poor guys cross the wall of La Zona to steal. Two die, one hides in a family house. Next a "Zonian" teenager finds the one hiding inside his house. For me, the merits of this film end here. Although Pla describes the fascistic tendencies of civil defense and police force, flirts with hyper-violence and adds a gram of science-fiction, this humorless film (and the situation was open to it and much more) opts for a melodrama formula, a tale of the "bad consciousness" type, and in the third act it never recovers. I do not know if the uncontrolled sappiness is a cultural trait of Mexicans, but as used by the filmmakers it has been the cause of much imbalance in many motion pictures, from the works of El Indio Fernández ("María Candelaria") to Iñárritu ("Amores perros"). From the moment the walled teenager's heart softens and he tries to become the savior of the young thief, "La Zona" follows the usual path of melodrama, with servile score that overemphasizes what is obvious. The cardboard characters grow stiffer, Daniel Giménez Cacho handles one of the most embarrassing scenes, in front of a TV set (Maribel Verdú is thankfully in the background and out of focus) and the ironic final shot of the ex-walled and temporarily liberated teenager eating tacos in the corner of a popular barrio, functions as a little scolding to the middle class adults who protect their small privileges to provide a gift (or borrowed) life to kids as the taco-eater, but above anything else as a wimpish validation of the kid's "courage" who, when the lights of the cine go up, will return in his comfortable 4X4 to pa's home in La Zona. And from there we go back to the first shots of a little (symbolic?) butterfly, flying beyond the wall Watch it, but wear glasses.
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