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I don't know much about Claude Chabrol's cinema. I've seen seven or eight of
his dozens of films, but I remember them quite well, especially "Violette
Nozière", "Le boucher" and "La rupture." Many years after these, "La
cérémonie" is a serene work, the construction of a mature man who avoids
making artificial judgments or explaining motivations of his characters, and
tending traps to his audiences to keep them interested in what he's
narrating. In an economic way, with well-chosen details he gives us
everything needed in a story that deals with psychological disturbances and
profound social disparity. I do not see this movie as a thriller nor do I
see the connection with Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitchcock could almost ruin
his forays into psychological landscapes (like Simon Oakland explaining
Norman Bates' behavior in "Psycho" or placing clues that led to nowhere) and
very rarely treated social issues, Chabrol prevents from recurring to
psychological clichés and gives us subtle gestures to illustrate the "class
struggle": the way the rich daughter returns the handkerchief to the
post-office clerk after cleaning her filthy hands; the way the post-office
clerk throws back an envelope to the bourgeois father. A few times Chabrol
is not so subtle and he shows tension even between persons of the same
class: the way the poor maid and the post-office clerk despise the miserly
charity of an old Catholic couple, the way the rich father protests when
giving his son a ride to school... Using this strategy, all the portraits
are compassionate: the members of the rich family seem as pleasant as the
two poor women when they share the little they have. When the climax arrives
-the daughter of the bourgeois family discovers (part of) the maid's secret
and, in return, the maid reveals she also knows something about the young
woman- there is little else Chabrol can add, but only guide us to the
conclusion. Maybe there is a much too obvious cut from the two women with no
food at home, to the dinner table where the rich family finished a tasty
meal. That's all we need, in case we want an explanation to why the way the
two women act in the last scenes. All the elements are there for us to find
answers or make interpretations if we want to do so. Not too many filmmakers
today treat audiences as intelligent human beings and invite them to
participate in the creative process adding the absent information, with the
benefit of more than a century of cinematic tradition and if we care-
reflections on the way things are today in imbalanced societies. When "La
cérémonie" was over, I was very pleased: not only did I watch a movie
directed with brains, but I felt treated with respect by Claude Chabrol. Not
frequent in much of today's cinema, a respectful film has great
1961's "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" must be judged according to the parameters of classics as 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still", and not today's special effects mega productions in which the perspective of the disappearance of planet Earth is taken with cynic humor. The idea came to director Val Guest during the Cold War in 1954, and it is under that decade's spirit that the movie is better appreciated. I remember seeing it when it opened, and I've never forgotten that experience, specially its tinted sequence. Forty-three years later I am able to see it again, and it's still the same notable film, not the least affected by today's cinematic technology, because, in its core, Guest's motivation -the worry for the actions of mindless men who struggle to control the Earth- is still relevant. If it's not highly regarded today as "The Day the Earth Stood Still", I think it has to do with the fact that Universal sold it as a B movie in America (though not so by British Lion in the UK, where it was a huge success, and won the film industry's top prize for its screenplay) and because not too many critics paid attention to it and wrote positive reviews, establishing it as an important science-fiction movie since then. Although there are very few re-enacted disaster scenes and it relies upon footage of real catastrophes, the tension is handled effectively in the newspaper's office where most of the action takes place, with its overlapping dialogues and constant flow of new information; and in the development of the romantic story in the midst of violence and terror in the streets. Edward Judd, Janet Munro and Leo McKern contribute good performances to this fine movie, shot in Dyaliscope.
It seems "The Stepford Wives" is enjoying a revival. However, it has been a cult movie since its release. As Gregory J. Paris writes, the act of losing one's personality while adjusting to conformity is an important issue in this film. In addition, it deals with man's obsession with "creating", until the day he realizes that the act of procreating is perhaps humanity's greatest gift for creation. It also reminds us of the cult to the mother figure, of the dangers of modern technocracies, of phallocracy All these concepts are expressed in a peculiar form in "The Stepford Wives", a movie that deserves to be included among the best of Hollywood's second golden era, the 1970's. Director Bryan Forbes, producer Edgar J. Scherick, and, among the performers, actress Paula Prentiss, recognized comedy as an intelligent genre to make a social comment about society, with Stepford as a metaphor. With moving dolls bestowed with graceful movements, dressed in long dresses, wearing hats and carrying parasols, the tone of the sophisticated American comedy seems appropriate to tell this horror story. The connection with dolls is established since the first sequence, when --following husband Walter's unilateral decision-- the family is moving to Stepford, and the kids call mother Joanna's attention to someone carrying a mannequin across a street in New York City: this aspect is used again, most notably when Joanna hosts the Stepford husbands, dressed in a flesh-colored suit. In Stepford, a liberal suburb, with good schools, low taxes, pure air, and business dedicated to electronics, you can sleep with your doors open. Wives are all dressed up, they have no interest in women's rights, and except for Bobbie Markowe and Charmaine, the rest -when not cooking or ironing-- complain of not being able to bake every day, or would promote for free a brand of starch spray, just because it is such a good product. The funny thing is that the husbands are as boring and robot-like as their wives. They're all successful professionals, who obediently have joined the men's association, which turns into Joanna's headache and builds the tension of the film. There is little suspense in "The Stepford Wives", as we know it in other motion pictures: since the beginning we know that something is wrong, but the filmmakers make us watch the anomalous situation, with Michael Small providing music that is far from horror or suspense scores. What Forbes and company do is to tease us, because we know that Joanna will become Playmate of the Year (check the poster!), following the drawings of an ex illustrator from Playboy magazine, and the technical specifications of a former Disney executive. When she understands why Carol acts like a zombie, why Charmaine hangs her tennis outfit, and why Bobbie turns into a 'chic' housekeeper, Joanna is confronted with her own replica. Why? Because the males can. As simple as that: "Me Tarzan, you second person, you stick to the loser position in a game that I always win". "The Stepford Wives" reminds me of another movie, L.G. Berlanga's "Tamaño natural" (Life-Size), in which Michel Piccoli buys himself a plastic doll to replace his wife. Berlanga and his writers Rafael Azcona and Jean-Claude Carrière emphasized psychological aspects. On "Stepford", while many of its comments add spice to the story (someone affirms that blackmail is what makes America great, another male has been sent to Panama maybe to arrange things for a new revolution or a new invasion), they also point to social and political reasons for this state of things, of this dehumanized community that money and know-how can buy. The technological paranoia enters the main bedroom. The male, confronted with the agony of some of his gender's privileges, his false attributes and wrong values, hits against the female. This may seem pessimistic, but it is also very realistic. The points "The Stepford Wives" made when released, created a controversy in 1975. Since then science has advanced. Maybe now they can make better Stepford wives, that cannot be altered by liquor or a stab, but many things related to the human heart remain the same. The problem is still there, because our egomaniac approach to our fellow human beings of any gender has remained basically the same, making the film actual still today.
I feel so content to see that viewers' opinions about "Popeye" are changing. I liked this motion picture since its release and just as someone else mentions here, I sit and watch it again whenever it's playing on television. I was a fan of Popeye's cartoons when a kid, and as a grown up I have become an indeclinable admirer of the films of Robert Altman, who I consider one of the greatest directors of American cinema. As someone wrote in a review of "Dr T. & the Women", Altman is a genre by himself. One may go to see an Altman comedy, but better warned that one must emphasize the director's name instead of the genre. This is indeed a film version of a comic-strip character, but I believe "Popeye" is mainly Altman's (and writer-cartoonist Jules Feiffer's) vision of Utopia in a town by the sea called Sweethaven, where "Flags are waving wet people from the sea, safe from democracy, sweeter than a melon tree" (lyrics to "Sweethaven", an anthem by Harry Nilsson). It is a love postcard from the filmmaker to his fellow Americans, who so far have preferred to follow the critics' failed opinions about his work, or his peers' disdain when the time comes to give out awards. And then Sweethaven is also more than that: it is Altman's surrealistic vision of humanity dealing with its basic emotions and needs. For the recreation of a world where "God must love us" (Op. cit.), Wolf Kroeger created marvelous sets in Malta, photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno (the magician of light who captured so many of Fellini's clowns and buffoons), peopled with a cast giving its best and to the rhythm of simple, sweet and affectionate songs by Nilsson, that seem more than appropriate for this universe --I do not agree with negative opinions about the songs: they are in complete atonement with the spirit of the film and cartoons. (Do you remember Olive singing "I Want a Clean, Shaven Man"?) What I find disturbing about the film is its sudden change of mood, from observation of people's strength and foibles, into an action movie. It makes me wonder if "Popeye" was severely cut by its distributors. In the soundtrack album, there are songs never heard in the movie. It would be great to see a restored version of "Popeye". But there are many wonderful things about it as it is, that I can pass the deficiencies. For example, one of my favorite scenes is Popeye's first dinner with the Oyls: it is pure Altman, with overlapping dialogues and his brand of humor all over the place. Then you have the whole engagement sequence, with Olive escaping from home as she sings "He's Large", meeting Popeye and finding Swee'pea, while Bluto destroys her house. All the humanity contained in the cartoonish frame makes me love this film. I just can't help it.
'Víctimas del pecado' (Victims of Sin) is one of the most over-the-top melodramas ever made by Emilio 'Indio' Fernández. The reason may be the presence of Cuban star Ninón Sevilla in the leading role, whose screen persona and religious faith permeate the story, the dance numbers, and even the tone of this genre film. It is one of the películas de cabareteras (cabaret dancer films) that were so popular in Mexico. In these musical melodramas, brutish men seduced and abandoned young women who would become prostitutes, but for a chance of destiny, they had the opportunity to become singers or dancers. This transcended the bleakness in their lives and transformed them into icons of female supremacy, even in the machista frame where the films were conceived. Ninón, a well-known santería practitioner in real life, and daughter of Changó in this Yoruba religion, plays Violeta, a strong-willed dancer-prostitute that works in the Cabaret Changó, where she performs sensual African dance numbers, and sings Panamanian songs like 'La Cocaleca'. It is clear that she wants to become a star and leave the seedy nightclub, but she gets into trouble with a pimp (Rodolfo Acosta, in outrageous pachuco outfits, swings on the dance floor, turns into violent fits of rage, and admonishes a prostitute in French!). He forces another woman to get rid of her newborn, but Ninón rescues the baby literally from the garbage can and decides to keep him to herself. She eventually gets help from Santiago (Víctor Junco), the owner of another nightclub who goes around town followed by a group of mariachis! Tragedy is a prerequisite in these films, so the story follows the usual pattern of fall and redemption; but Ninón's strong character gives other solutions to what suffering and tearful Dolores del Río or Columba Domínguez would do in Fernández' films. She dances and sings for survival, she argues and fights in constant revolt against the cabaretera's destiny. 'Víctimas del pecado' is a true joy, a real gem, with musical performances by Cuban superstar Rita Montaner, Mexican singer Pedro Vargas, and the real Mambo King, Pérez Prado. Call it camp if you will, but it is one of the outstanding pieces of the golden era of Mexican cinema and one of the best films by Indio Fernández'.
It is possible that in a hundred years a film like 'Car Wash' will have lost part of its comic effect, but of one thing we can be sure: because of its value as a document of an era, it will aspire to the term of 'classic' more than futile but pretty recreations of the past, such as 'Barry Lyndon' and the Ivory-Merchant productions, all of which may be more efficient technically-wise, but are all lacking a heart. 'Car Wash' is a collective and populist film about the spirit of community. It is also a motion picture with a few symbols thrown in, probably unconsciously. Since their creation, cars have always been a symbol of status: you are what you drive. The happy-go-lucky car washers offer a 'de luxe' service for all: they give the business a 'special touch' with their multi-racial hands --not only Negroes, but also Chicanos and native Americans--, through another symbol: water, the classic icon of purification and universal conscience. Surrounded by a group of very well defined characters (especially, since they are drawn by single strokes, or have very little screen time to develop psychological traits: they are characterized by their actions), three persons stand out: Mr. B (capital), Abdullah (revolution) and Lonnie (kindness.) The greed and neglect of the lustful and amiable car wash owner is contrasted with the anger and resentment of the dry and humorless political activist. In the middle comes the ex convict, who ultimately will settle things around the film's central issue: work. We cannot forget most of the issues referred to in the film in a casual way, as we normally do in daily life, and related to the multiple characters: love, religion, prostitution, parenthood, homosexuality, social climbing, class rejection, money, class struggle, sex, and above all, music, which is the unifying element. Norman Whitfield did such a good job, that he not only established the rhythm of the action, but its atmosphere, tone and feel. It generates such positive energy, that in the end all of the virtues that appear combined with the vices of the fast, consumerist and violent urban life, as well as the suffering of some of the characters, come to the fore: love, compassion, tolerance, patience, solidarity, friendship, happiness. That makes 'Car Wash' a joyful and universal parable of survival in the latter days of capitalism. And that is not an easy achievement for a little film, directed by an African-American and aimed at a very reduced population.
I remember watching "The Serpent and the Rainbow" in a cinema when it opened 12 years ago, and although it did not strike me as a masterpiece, I never forgot it. I had always had a memory of it as a good horror film, but tonight I saw it again on television and I was impressed about how good it is. One may associate Wes Craven with "Scream" or "A Nightmare on Elm Street", but this one is certainly one of his best films. I still see it as an adventure film with horror elements, but this time I found it full of style -a touch of documentary approach, clever use of colorful locations, good handling of massive scenes with many unprofessional extras, attractive ethnic art direction, a bit of grand guignol in some performances (mainly Zakes Mokae), humor and a sensitive and sympathetic approach to a different culture. Many times one sees American films dealing with others' cultural aspects -such as political affairs and religion-, without any respect or concern. It is true that "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is not a serious drama about people's revolt, or a tract on synchretic religions (such as Cuban santería, Haitian voodoo or Brazilian candomblé), but both aspects are not just décors, but elements well integrated to the story in its own terms -that is, in a low budget feature, whose main objective is to entertain and scare the audience. The so-called "South" is such an exotic locale for most First World filmgoers, that cultural "details" often pass unnoticed, because these persons seem to be too obsessed with their own "cinematic hedonism". Craven knows it, and that is why he makes foreign tourists applaud when they have seen a real possession, thinking it is just part of Paul Winfield's show. One of the reasons that this film is good is the script. Someone mentions in another comment how cleverly it introduces more than one level in a single scene: for example, when Dennis and Marielle are looking for Christophe in a cemetery, they not only meet grave robbers for scaring effect, but they also discuss about the possibility that Marielle is using Dennis to obtain funds for her hospital, and the scene fulfills its expectation: they find Christophe, who tells them about the mysterious 'powder'. What turns off some viewers -and myself, in a way- is the cinematic forms that take all the things dealing with energy and human capacity for evil. They are sometimes too gross, others just plain funny or ridiculous; but this is a Craven film, and they did not detract me from the main objective I mentioned earlier. Besides, there are other things I enjoyed watching the film again. First, to see once again the Bill Pullman whom I used to enjoy so much (remember the dumb blond in "Ruthless People"?) when he was beautiful and had not turned into the dull American president of "Independence Day." I also recognized elements I've witnessed. A lot of the things that you see and hear in this film are not just fiction (after all it is based on a "true" story): they are all part of many Caribbean cultures -from the sensuality of the islanders, to the rite in the river, or the powder itself. And believe me: the powders work! Not only for making zombies, but also for many other things. Don't ask me how, I do not know how they do it, but I have seen them work (in Cuba -no joke intended)! So beware.
In the 1960s cinema was an important source of sexual education for Latin American teenagers (and I guess anywhere else too), no matter how incomplete the information was, since the motion pictures with erotic elements had not been made with educational purposes. There were the nudie films, the movies "with a medical warning", or boring "scientific" documentaries, which all lacked a sense of life, fun or sexual urge; and of course, there were the pornographic shorts which did not circulate freely. Priests in my school were constantly warning us students what movies we should not see. They could not care less about Argentinean soft-porno star Isabel Sarli, whose movies were mainly pictorials, with a big centerfold of La Coca's large bosom; but when it came to films as Ingmar Bergman's "The Silence", red lights would immediately flash in my classroom. "Syskonbädd 1782" did not catch their attention. The original title means something like "Bed Siblings", but since it was euphemistically retitled "The Fire" in Panama (in the United Kingdom it was given a more obvious title: "My Sister My Love"), the priests ignored its subject was an incestuous love affair in Sweden, between a man and his sister, who was about to marry a noble man, during the eighteenth century. I went to see it and it caused me a little commotion. I still remember it as a very good film, treating its subject with intelligence, showing how moral rules affected the relationship (with more dramatic results for the sister), striking black-and-white cinematography, and great performances by Bibi Andersson and Per Oscarsson. It was also one of the first movies to show male pubic hair, which announced what director Vilgot Sjöman would do next: the remarkable diptych "I Am Curious: Yellow" and "I Am Curious: Blue." I saw these two films for the first time in 2005 and was very well impressed. "Syskonbädd 1782" and the two "I Am Curious" films have aged very well, and place Sjöman among the best European filmmakers of that decade. I recommend them highly.
After watching Roberto Rossellini's 1947 final part of his war trilogy "Germania anno zero", Fred Zinnemann's "The Search" is in direct contrast. While Rossellini approaches a similar subject with absorbing objectivity, "The Search" opts for sentimentality, although Zinnemann tried to add a documentary dimension to the story. It's the tale of a boy who is rescued by an American G.I. in Berlin, while the boy's mother is looking for him in refugee camps, after they were separated in Auschwitz during the war. Mother and child are pretty close but do not know it, so the story goes from scenes of the soldier educating the boy, to the mother's giving love to surrogate sons in a UN home for war orphans. Zinnemann's tact (or lack of passion, as some may say) nevertheless makes it work, as well as the performances by Montgomery Clift as the soldier and young Ivan Jandl as the kid, who won a special Oscar.
I discovered surrealist cinema as an adult. Of course, there are such scenes and images in many films, but I saw the first complete surrealist movie as a grown up. It was "Belle de jour", a film by Luis Buñuel, whose work I knew since watching his "Robinson Crusoe" in my childhood. Buñuel had gone a long way since 1928's "Un chien andalou", made in France. He had gone into exile during the Spanish Civil War, first to the United States and finally to México, where he spent the rest of his life. But he made films in Europe now and then, and had regained his status as one of the masters of world cinema. Although he did not think much of his Mexican motion pictures, his masterpiece "El ángel exterminador" is my favorite of all his films. He once complained that Mexican actors were not able to convey the spirit of the "haute bourgeoisie", but what he did not take into consideration was that, if he made a film in México about the rich, he was dealing with something else, called "creole oligarchies." And in this sense, this farce of the 1960s' Latin American "filthy rich" is most accurate. Moreover, with his usual affectionate treatment of the bourgeois (something he rarely did with clergy, female characters, or street urchins), he created a most believable funny portrait of the Latino rich people, who do not know what is their origin, who they should "pay tribute to", or where they are headed, unlike their European ancestors. Here, a group of those characters, born in México, gather for dinner after an opera performance, but when the time comes to leave the house of the Nobiles they cannot leave the room where they reunited for gossiping after meal. There is no apparent reason they cannot leave, but there they stay for days, going back to a primitive state in which their dearest "discreet charm" (euphemism, the rule of the game, as in Renoir's 1939 film) vanishes. And when they are set free, and go to a church to thank the Lord... well, Buñuel sure knew how to make fun of them, with situations verging on the fantastic and funny lines of incoherent, silly or ridiculous dialogue. A wonderful movie, which is always fun to watch again, especially in a double bill with another gem, the last one Buñuel made in México: "Simón del desierto."
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