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For the sake of this list, modern westerns (i.e. "Dust Devil", "Back to the Future III", "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") are omitted. Also omitted are short films.
Méliès' second masterpiece
In 1895, a stage magician named Georges Méliès witnessed how the Lumière brothers changed the history of entertainment when he attended the first public screening of their projected motion pictures, and was marveled at the idea of moving images. Seven years and dozens of short films later, Méliès was a successful filmmaker on his own account, releasing a movie that would become legendary, "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon"), a monumental achievement in which he would finally prove that cinema was more than documentaries and "gimmick films", and that there was something that the Lumières couldn't see: that it was a natural medium for telling stories. So, after having great success with "Le Voyage Dans La Lune", Méliès prepared his next major project as another adaptation of a Jules Verne story: "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", or "The Voyage Through the Impossible".
Better known as "The Impossible Voyage", "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible" is the story of a geographic society (presumably French), which decides to make the ultimate trip. As one can imagine, this won't be a normal voyage, as they will use every vehicle they can use in an attempt to travel across every corner of the world. So, with this in mind, they prepare a train at the Swiss Alps with their advanced machinery and begin their journey. However, first they must arrive to the train, so they use "The Impossible Carriage" to get across the mountains, and after several difficulties, manage to get to the train. With their specially equipped train, the group manages to fly high in the sky, and are literally swallowed by the Sun. The group will face more difficulties, as their voyage will take them to many fantastic places, from the Sun to even the bottom of the Ocean.
The film's source, "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", was a play written collaboratively by Jules Verne and French dramatist Adolphe d'Ennery in 1882, in which the writers adapted to stage the style and themes that Verne had been used in his popular novels. Naturally, Méliès' adaptation lacks the benefits of having dialogs, but his version of "The Impossible Voyage" does keep the same atmosphere of Jules Verne's literary work, capturing the spirit of science fiction in each act of the film and mixing it with that magical fantasy and charmingly whimsical humor that Méliès used to employ in each one of his films. With a runtime of only 24 minutes (something unheard of at the time of its release), "The Impossible Voyage" shows a progression of what Méliès did in "A Trip to the Moon", as the narrative is built in a tighter way (despite the similarities with that previous masterpiece).
As usual in a film by Georges Méliès, the real magic of the movie lays in the extremely clever and detailed way in which Méliès creates his special effects, and in the beautiful art direction he uses to make his fantasy come alive. The world of "The Impossible Voyage" seems like a more detailed trip to the same universe of "A Trip to the Moon", where insanely courageous scientists and inventors use their wonderful and crazy machines to conquer the limits of their fantastic world. In this there's a difference with Verne, as while in the writer's novels there's always a certain factuality in his devices, Méliès versions have more of magical than scientific, which goes perfectly with the comedic tone he uses in his adventure films. A magician until the end, Méliès creates wonderful special effects using every single photographic trick he had discovery at the time (there's a wonderful use of miniatures in the movie).
While the legendary classic "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" is certainly an iconic masterpiece (it'll always be Méliès' most famous work), personally I found "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible" to be a superior film. Maybe it was that I saw it hand-tinted (which gives it an even more beautiful look) or the fact that it gave me the feeling that in this movie Méliès just let his creativity run completely free, but I just enjoyed this one (a bit) more. True, it's a bit tacky for our standards, but even today it holds up surprisingly well and remains as fun as when it was originally done, more than a century ago. "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", or "The Impossible Voyage", definitely makes a perfect companion piece to "Le Voyage Dans La Lune", and it's a nice introduction to the magic of Georges Méliès, the Cinemagician.
A forgotten jewel...
Despite being the birthplace of the brilliant pioneer of fantasy films, Segundo De Chomón (whose films rivaled Georges Méliès in quality and inventive), Spain's filmography within the realm of the horror genre is considerably poor before the 60s, when Jesus (or Jess) Franco inaugurated Spaniard horror. This was the result of the difficult political climate of the country during the regime of dictator Francisco Franco. In fact, while there were a couple of fantasy films done before 1962, the only true horror film was a little known movie titled "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados", directed by Edgar Neville, and based on a popular pulp novel written by Emilio Carrere. However, despite being the only example of Spaniard horror film-making in the 40s, this film is more than a mere curiosity, it is actually a forgotten gem of the genre.
Set in 19th century Madrid, a young man named Basilio (Antonio Casal) decides to play roulette, hoping to make some money to go on a date with the girl he likes. Suddenly, a mysterious character appears (Félix De Pomés) out of nowhere, and tells Basilio exactly where the ball is going to fall. Winning a small fortune thanks to the stranger, Basilio decides to thank him for the help, only to discover that the mysterious man, named Don Robinson De Mantua, is the ghost of an archaeologist who supposedly committed suicided years ago. In return for the help at the roulette, Don Robinson asks Basilio to protect his daughter Inés (Isabel De Pomés) and help her solve his crime, as Don Robinson was actually murdered. And so Basilio gets involved in a mystery that will take him to discover the entrance to the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks.
As written above, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" is based on Emilio Carrere's novel of the same name (which was partially written by Jesús De Aragón), however, there are many differences between the novel and the film, specially in the tone that scriptwriters Edgar Neville and José Santugini give to the story. While the novel has a somber dark humor, Neville's film ops for a lighthearted style, more in tone with American horror and adventure movies (that definitely were a big influence on Neville) than with its literary source. This is not really a bad thing, as the movie keeps the thrilling mix of mystery, humor and suspense of the novel, and I'd go as far as to say that Neville's decision of making a fun movie over a meaningful one actually benefits the film, as while certainly an imitation of Hollywood's typical style, it's anything but conventional.
Where the movie excels is in its execution, as Neville gives good use to the excellent work of cinematography done by Henri Barreyre and Andrés Pérez Cubero, giving the film a haunting beauty. The most striking feature of the film is definitely its wonderful set design, with the recreation of the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks having a beautiful expressionist look that feels like taken out from a 1920s German film. The contrast between the surreal expressionism of the Tower with the Gothic atmosphere of Madrid's streets (in scenes shot on location) give the movie an effective nightmarish look, which definitely bring back memories from the American horror films from the 30s (specially the ones by Universal Studios). However, what makes this mix of influences work is Neville's own brand of humor, which gives the film a distinctive personality of its own.
The cast is for the most part effective, with Antonio Casal leading the cast and making a good job at handling the comedic side of his character (his Braulio is goodhearted, but cowardly and specially naive). As his romantic interest, Inés, actress Isabel De Pomés is good, although nothing really special. Still, this could be blamed to the fact that her character isn't very well developed and it's a stereotypical damsel in distress. On the other hand, Guillermo Marín is extraordinary as the mysterious Doctor Sabatino, delivering a powerful performance that definitely ranks among the best in Spain's horror filmography. Marín captures perfectly the mix of charming amiability and perverse wickedness that makes Sabatino such an interesting character and he is easily the best in the cast. Finally, Félix De Pomés is quite funny as Don Robinson's ghost, despite his limited screen time.
Now, while "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" is certainly an excellent and entertaining film, it sadly is far from being perfect, mainly because in his attempt for imitating the commercially successful American films, director Neville also brings those films' flaws, specifically, their reliance on clichés. While the movie has a wonderfully expressionist look and the story is certainly inventive, the plot unfolds in a very conventional way, and while entertaining, it isn't exactly the masterpiece that could had been or that its very artistic look may indicate. This dependence on common clichés and some cheap jokes do make a bit simplistic and predictable what otherwise could had been a quite haunting tale of horror. Fortunately, the damage is not really big, and "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" can still be enjoyed without problem.
Of course, this last criticism is probably just nitpicking, as in the end, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" fulfills its purpose without great difficulty: it provides good entertaining as Basilio uncovers the thrilling horrors of the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks. While it would take several years after this film's release for horror to resurrect completely, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" did open the doors for the fantastic in Spain's filmography. For this and several other reasons (like its expressionist look, which must be seen to be believed), this little known gem is more than a mere curiosity, it is truly Spain's first horror classic.
La maschera del demonio (1960)
An Italian masterpiece of Gothic horror
While the horror genre found in Italy a breath of fresh air during the decades of the 60s and 70s, it wasn't always that way, as before that "golden age of Italian horror", the genre had been banned in the country since the dawn of the sound era. The film that came to change all was 1956's "I Vampiri", directed by Riccardo Freda, which finally gave an Italian flavor to Gothic horror and inaugurated the Golden Age. After Freda came Mario Bava, an expert cinematographer (did the photography for "I Vampiri") who had been worked as an assistant director for several years and was waiting for a chance to direct his own film. His chance came in 1959, as after he helped to complete the epic "La Battaglia Di Maratona" the producers decided to give him a film, and Bava decided to adapt Nikolai Gogol's story, "Viy", and so "La Maschera Del Demonio" was born.
Better known in America as "Black Sunday" (albeit the literal translation of the title would be "The Demon's Mask"), the movie begins in the year 1630, with Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) of Moldavia being sentenced to death for sorcery by her own brother (Ivo Garrani). She is sentenced to be killed with the "mask of the devil", a metal mask with sharp spikes on the inside, but before dying, she puts a curse on her brother's descendants. Centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) discover Asa's tomb while traveling through the region. Kruvajan removes the mask from Asa's face, but accidentally cuts his hand with broken glass and his blood falls over the corpse. While this goes unnoticed by the two scientists, it makes Asa to live once again, and now she is ready to destroy her descendants.
While an adaptation of Gogol's short story, the screenplay (by Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei and Bava himself) distances itself from the source and becomes a different entity, more a tribute to Gothic horror as a whole than to Gogol's tale. The writers take "Viy" as the basis to completely reinvent the vampire myth and give the Russian tale the romantic touch of Gothic horror, which naturally includes tragic romance, ancient buildings and an ominous atmosphere of doom. While one could think that they were hoping to repeat the style of "I Vampiri" (which proved to be quite successful), it feels more as if they were aiming to pay homage to the Gothic horror films done by Universal and Hammer in the 30s and 50s, but with a modern (and certainly sexier view). This becomes more obvious when one considers the style Bava uses in his directing.
Now, what makes "Black Sunday" amazing is definitely Bava's directing style, which as written above, is a powerful homage to Universal and Hammer horror films; however, there's more in this movie than a mere stylish homage, Bava takes Gothic horror to the next step thanks to his expert eye for cinematography (done by himself). With an excellent use of light and shadow, Mario Bava gives "La Maschera Del Demonio" an almost supernatural beauty that makes the film look like what a Gothic nightmare would be. Despite working on a low budget, he manages to make a wonderfully looking movie, and uses inventive optical and practical effects (also done by himself!) to create marvelously creepy sequences. While the plot may not be inspired, Bava's handling of suspense and atmosphere certainly is.
The cast is for the most part effective, although, with one remarkable exception, nothing really surprising. That exception is English actress Barbara Steele, whom in her two roles (as Asa, and as her descendant, Katia) is not only beautiful, but also outstanding in her performances, making her very different characters (a deliciously evil Asa, and innocent, sweet Katia) very believable. No wonder why this was her breakthrough role. As written above, the rest of the cast is just good, with John Richardson playing the lead role with aplomb although without a strong screen presence (although he is easily overshadowed by Steele), Andrea Checchi ranging from average to real good, and Enrico Olivieri delivering good support. It seems to me that Bava in this early stages felt more comfortable directing set pieces instead of actors, although Steele's performance is unforgettable.
While previously available only in its cut version ("Black Sunday"), the complete cut of "La Maschera Del Demonio" is the perfect debut for the Italian Maestro in the sense that it captures the style of Gothic horror in a remarkable way. Sadly, it also comes with the common flaws of Gothic tales, meaning a very slow pace (well, that's not really a flaw, but something that may turn off modern audiences) and more importantly, a certain lack of care in the development of both the characters and the story (as it focuses almost completely on the atmosphere), as it is truly a triumph of style over substance. However, this doesn't mean the story is boring, on the contrary, the movie is quite a chilling and entertaining experience, and while probably unoriginal and derivative, the story is still a captivating horror tale done old school style.
I really don't have anything else to add other than to be sure to watch "La Maschera Del Demonio", or "Black Sunday", in its complete form, and preferably, with its original score (the old U.S. version had a different one). While less known than Argento or Fulci, Bava is possibly the greatest and most influential Italian filmmaker in the horror genre, and his debut, "La Maschera Del Demonio", is a powerful movie that will definitely please fans of Gothic horror thanks to its ominous atmosphere and the beauty of its design (and definitely the one of Barbara Steele). If Riccardo Freda resurrected Italian horror, Bava transformed it into an art.
Skeleton Frolics (1937)
The return of the Skeleton Dance
In 1929, director Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks changed the face of animation with the release of the very first installment of their "Silly Symphonies" series, "The Skeleton Dance". Iwerks and Disney had been collaborating together since the early 20s, in Disney's "Laugh-O-Gram" cartoon series; however, their friendship suffered a tremendous blow when Iwerks accepted an offer by a competitor to leave Disney and start his own animation studio. That was the birth of Celebrity Productions, where Iwerks continued developing his style and technique (and where he created the character of Flip the Frog). While his work kept the same high quality, it wasn't really popular and by 1936 the studio was closed. Later that year, Iwerks was hired by Columbia Pictures, and Iwerks decided to return to his old skeletons for another dance, this time in color.
1937's "Skeleton Frolics" is essentially, a remake of the 1929 classic "The Skeleton Dance", the movie that borough him fame and fortune. Like that short film, it is set on an abandoned graveyard, where at midnight the creatures of the night come alive and begin to play. The dead rise from their coffins, ready for the show that's about to begin, as a group of skeletons has formed an orchestra, and begin to play a happy tune. Now, it's not easy to be a musician made of just bones, as some of the orchestra members have problems with their body parts, however, the band manages to put a good show and another group of skeletons begin to dance. A lovely couple of them faces the same problems that troubled the orchestra: it's hard to dance with loose body parts. Everything ends at dawn, and just when the sun is about to rise again, the skeletons run towards their graves.
Directed and animated by Ub Iwerks himself, "Skeleton Frolics" follows faithfully the pattern set by "The Skeleton Dance" years before, although with a crucial difference: Iwerks did the whole film in Technicolor. The bright tonalities allowed Iwerks to create a more visually appealing film, and also to use the many new techniques he had been practicing since leaving Disney, creating even better effects of depth and dynamism than those he conceived before. It is certainly a more experimental film than "The Skeleton Dance", although sadly, this doesn't mean it's necessarily a better film. For starters, the film is practically identical to the one he did with Disney, with the only differences being the music (more on that later) and the color effects. It looks beautiful, no doubt about it, but it definitely feels kind of unoriginal after all.
However, it is not the unoriginality of the concept what truly hurts the film (after all, Iwerks executes it in a wonderful way), but the fact that the musical melody created by Joe DeNat for the film is pretty uninteresting and lacks the charming elegance and whimsical fun of the one done by Carl W. Stalling for "The Skeleton Dance". In other words, while DeNat's tune is effective and appropriate for the theme, it's easy to forget about it rapidly while Stalling's song has a unique personality that makes it unforgettable. Being a musical film, this is of high importance, and so the mediocrity of the music brings down Iwerk's flawless work of animation. Personally, I think that with a better musical accompaniment, "Skeleton Frolics" would be remembered as fondly as "The Skeleton Dance despite not being as groundbreaking, as it's still a fun film to watch.
It's kind of sad that most of the work Iwerks did after leaving Disney is now forgotten due to his poor success, however, it must be said that if Iwerks lacked the popularity of Disney or Fleischer (Disney's main rival), he did not lack the quality of those companies' films. It was probably just a case of bad luck what made the man who gave life to Disney's mouse for the first time to face failure out of Disney. Despite its shortcomings, "Skeleton Frolics" is a very funny and visually breathtaking film, that while not exactly the most original and fresh film (one just can't help but thinking of "The Skeleton Dance" while watching it), it definitely reminds us that Iwerk's skeletons are still here to haunt us, and inspire us.
The Golden Compass (2007)
A nice introduction to the series...
Ever since first published in 1995, "Northern Lights", the first novel in the "His Dark Materials" series by British writer Philip Pullman, became a very popular fantasy novel, not only among young readers, but also among the adult population, earning several prestigious literary awards around the world. However, the "His Dark Materials" series of books also became the subject of controversy among fundamentalist Christians, who see in the book an attack to their beliefs, and a propagandistic tool for atheism. Controversies aside, the popularity of the "His Dark Materials" series piqued the interest of New Line Cinema after the success of "The Lord of the Rings" in 2002, and now, 5 years later, a film adaptation of the first book in the series is now a reality, under the title of "The Golden Compass" (as it's known in America) and director Chris Weitz at the helm.
"The Golden Compass" is the story of Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl living at the University of Oxford, in a parallel universe to our own, similar but different, where life is ruled by the omnipresent organization known as the Magisterium, and the soul resides outside the body in the form of an animal called a "dæmon". One day, she hears her uncle Lord Asriel's (Daniel Craig) announcement to the College that he has discovered the existence of parallel worlds. This investigation goes against the Magisterium dogma, and immediately he is considered an heretic. Lord Asriel decides to travel to the north pole to continue his experiments, but when Lyra's best friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers, she decides to go to the north too, beginning an adventure that will take her to meet armored bears, and discover a powerful secret.
Adapted to the screen by director Chris Weitz himself, "The Golden Compass" is essentially, an introduction to the universe of "His Dark Materials" and the beginning of Lyra's heroic journey. However, fans of the book should not expect a direct adaptation of the novel, as Weitz took several noticeable liberties with the plot, some done in order to make the story cinematic, some done with the idea of toning down the religious allusions that Pullman uses in his novel. While with this changes Weitz certainly sacrificed substantial parts of the story, he still manages to make an interesting and intriguing plot, that certainly makes one to know more about this parallel world and its ultimately fate. As the focus is completely on Lyra, there isn't a lot of character development for most of the supporting characters, and that's something that brings the film down a bit.
As he is better known for his work in comedies ("American Pie" and "About a Boy" for example), it was hard to think of Chris Weitz as a director of Pullman's epic fantasy, however, in this aspect his work truly shines. While his script isn't really up to the expectations, his visual design and overall vision for the movie is simply flawless. With an excellent work of cinematography (by Henry Braham) and art design, Weitz makes Pullman's work come to life in a grandiose fashion, and gives every scene a very special, almost ethereal touch. The work done by the special effects team is also remarkable, specially in the creation of the armored polar bears and naturally, the Dæmons themselves. Another element that's worth to point out is Weitz' work with his cast, as he manages to bring out excellent performances that work nicely despite his weak screenplay.
And it is the work done by the cast what practically rescues "The Golden Compass" from being just another fantasy film and bring hope that maybe the next film (if there's one) may be better. Young Dakota Blue Richards is certainly a brilliant discovery, as she brings to her role a charming rebellious attitude that works perfectly with her clever and witty character. In this her first work she shows a lot of promise and hopefully she'll realize her potential in her following films. The rest of the cast is excellent, despite the lack of development of their characters. Nicole Kidman is perfect as the cold and enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott shines as the charming Aeronaut Lee Scresby. As the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, Ian McKellen is perfect, giving his character a fully developed personality that makes him stand out.
Now, while the cast's performances are excellent and Weitz' directing is honestly impressive, what definitely brings the film down is the way Weitz fleshed out his adaptation. As written above, Weitz took a lot of liberties with the story, in an attempt to make the complexities of the plot a bit easier to get by the mainstream audiences, but by doing this he turned Pullman's original epic into a fairly typical fantasy adventure. I'm not saying that he betrayed the novel's plot, but the way Weitz has developed the story makes clichéd what otherwise would be fresh and original, as Weitz transforms the novel's sequence of events into one that follows the pattern of classic series of films (like "Star Wars"). To make things worse, several of the changes done, while probably unnoticeable for most people, will definitely be disliked by fans of Pullman's book.
This last thing is probably what will damage the film more, as in the it's the target audience whom ultimately will give the film a good or bad word of mouth. However, I would still recommend "The Golden Compass", as despite the liberties taken with the source novel, it's still an entertaining film that keeps that sense of adventure the novel has. Personally, I would like to see what Weitz has prepared for the second installment, but his disregard for the fans may make a second part inviable. Despite it's shortcomings, "The Golden Compass" it's still a very good movie, although probably not the fantasy film of the year.
The Skeleton Dance (1929)
A landmark of animation!
It was in 1928 when sound entered the realm of motion pictures and with it a new age arrived to the young medium and the conventions of an art form were changed forever. This new technology, that allowed movies to be able to have their own musical score independent of the theater's orchestra, entered the mind of a young film director and animator named Walt Disney, who had been producing short animated films with the help of the brilliant cartoonist Ub Iwerks. Disney decided to take advantage of the novelty of sound and create a series of short musical animations to distribute along their Mickey Mouse cartoons (which also began to be produced with sound), in which they would be able to experiment with new techniques, characters and ideas. He named the series, "Silly Symphonies", and the very first one of them, 1929's "The Skeleton Dance", would revolutionize animation forever.
In "The Skeleton Dance", the action is set on an abandoned graveyard during a windy night under the full moon. It is the perfect night for the creatures of the night, and so the bats fly from the belfry, the spiders go out for a walk, and an owl watches scared the action that's about to begin: the dead rise from their graves, and they are ready to dance. A skeleton comes out first, scaring a couple of cats who were fighting, and then he calls his friends, other skeletons who are willing to play some music and celebrate. Using their bones as musical instruments, the Skeletons play a haunting tune, dance to the music, and even dance Ring Around the Rosie, having fun until the moon hides and the new day begins, because as soon as the rooster appears to announce that it's morning, the Skeletons must return to their graves, and prepare themselves for the next time.
Created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, "The Skeleton Dance" is, as its tag-line says, a talking picture novelty in which audiences where able to witness a good song accompanied by an animated film, pretty much similar to what we now know as a musical video. What makes the movie amazing is the way it perfectly mixes the horror atmosphere of its setting with the whimsical comedy that made Walt Disney Productions' short films so popular with the audiences. Skulls, bats, cats and spiders make an apparition in the movie, in what could be the perfect scenario for a horror film, but this time the skeletons only want to have fun. Carl W. Stalling, composer of the film's song (and another influential figure in the history of animation), creates in "The Skeleton Dance" one of the best Disney tunes ever, perfectly putting in his music that mix of horror and humor that the short film embodies.
Ub Iwerks' art shines through the film, and Disney makes sure to take the most advantage of his friend's talent. As written above, they saw the "Silly Symphonies" as a way to experiment, and "The Skeleton Dance" showcases Iwerks and his team making a highly dynamic film, as well as creating pretty impressive sequences where perspective is put to great use. It's also very imaginative the many things they do with their skeletons, specially when they made them use the things found in the cemetery as musical instruments (including cats, and later, their own bones). The choreography of the Skeleton dance is very funny, and one gets the feeling that this group of young animators were truly having fun when making this little film. In many ways, "The Skeleton Dance" was way ahead of its time, and includes elements that years later would be part of the horror genre.
Among Disney's early films, "The Skeleton Dance" is one of enormous importance, as thanks to its big success Disney was able to produce more cartoons of his established characters. It also produced many imitators (WB's "Merry Melodies" and MGM's "Happy Harmonies" being the best of them) and a completely new style of short animations. Sadly, the friendship between Disney and Iwerks would be broken and Iwerks abandoned Disney in 1930 to open his own studio and later to work at Columbia Pictures (where in 1937 he remade "The Skeleton Dance" in color, under the name of "Skeleton Frolics"). While he never found the same success he had with Disney, Ub Iwerks' work proved to be among the most influential in the history of animation, becoming the teacher of other masters like Chuck Jones, and even now, animators today study the magic of Ub Iwerks and his dancing skeletons.
An excellent tale of romance and fantasy...
In the late 80s, a new generation of writers changed the American comic book industry forever with the complex mature-themed nature of their stories, effectively transforming what was considered an unsophisticated literary genre into a well respected art form. Among that group of storytellers was Neil Gaiman, a young British writer who decided to try his luck at comic books convinced by his friend, Alan Moore (writer of the classic graphic novel "Watchmen"). After landing a job at DC comics, Gaiman started the series that would make him famous, "The Sandman", the comic book where his taste for fantasy and great imagination found no limits. Years later Gaiman returned to prose, and so he decided to make a fantasy novel in the style of classic English fantasy, the one that used to be done before the days of Tolkien and Lewis' high fantasy. And the result was "Stardust".
"Stardust" is the story of Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a humble young man hopelessly in love with the most beautiful girl in his town, Victoria (Sienna Miller). To his misfortune, she has accepted a marriage proposal by Humphrey (Henry Cavill), so he decides to give her an ultimate proof of his love: a star has fallen from the sky, so he tells Victoria that he'll bring it to her, even if that means to cross the legendary wall that separates their town from the mysterious forest. What Tristan doesn't know, is that the wall exists to separate his world from the magical realm of Stormhold, and that he is not the only one looking for the star, as a powerful witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants it to be young again, and two princes (Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) need it to claim the throne of Stormhold. However, the biggest surprise will be the star's identity.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn make a nice adaptation of Gaiman's novel that keeps the story's core points, although they toned down the darkness of the novel quite a bit. This is not really a bad thing, as in the process, Goldman and Vaughn remained faithful to the novel's spirit and the result is a movie that joyfully plays with witty comedy, fantasy and romance, and yet it's still completely in tone with the fantasy stories that inspired Gaiman's book. In essence, "Stardust" is what could be called "a fairy tale for grown-ups", as it's fantasy is whimsical, clever and very imaginative, but with a greater emphasis on the characters and their development than in any epic scale adventure. And this is where "Stardust" has its strongest point: the character development is remarkably well done, and even those characters with very short screen time are unforgettable.
While "Stardust" is a very different (and more ambitious) film to his previous movie, 2004's "Layer Cake", director Matthew Vaughn manages to make it work by concentrating in the story and letting everything else grow from there. Since comedy and romance are now the main ingredients of the film, Vaughn focuses the film on his characters, specially in the relationship the main couple. Still, while "Stardust" lacks the epic scope of high fantasy films, Vaughn manages to make his story a very beautiful looking one, giving life to the kingdom of Stormhold with a beautiful Victorian style and good care for details. Sadly, a fantasy film like "Stardust" fantasy films tends to relay a lot on special effects, and budgetary reasons prevented Vaughn from making truly stunning visuals, however, the ones that appear are good enough to make Stormhold come to life.
As written above, "Stardust" is a fantasy movie where the characters have more importance than the story, so a good cast is needed to make it work. Well, the movie is benefited by a great supporting cast that includes Ricky Gervais, Peter O'Toole, a truly unforgettable Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in what is definitely her great return to mainstream movies. Sadly, the main couple, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, get easily overshadowed by the supporting cast's performances, specially Cox, whom despite having great natural charm still feels a bit weak in the lead role. Danes fares a bit better, as there are scenes that truly allow her to shine in her character. By the way, I must say that while his role is kind of limited, Mark Strong is excellent as prince Septimus, and delivers some of the best swashbuckling scenes of the last times.
Being an accomplished mix of fantasy, romance and comedy in the classic style of fairy tales, "Stardust"'s worst enemy may be it's very consciously attempt to pay homage to that kind of fantasy tales. In a time where adaptations of high fantasy books like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" are popular, it would be easy to expect "Stardust" to follow that pattern, but it doesn't and it may turn off people expecting epic battles instead of romantic swashbuckling. If there's a recent movie that bears any similitude to this film, that one would be "The Princess Bride" (also based on a novel), although Reiner's film is certainly grounded even more on the comedy genre. There are details in the lead actors' performances, and the already mentioned troubles in some visual effects, but these are minor quibbles that don't really hurt the film.
While not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, "Stardust" is still one of the best fantasy films of the last years, and most definitely a worthy adaptation of Gaiman's novel. Whimsical and lighthearted but also witty and clever at the same time, "Stardust" proves that not every fantasy film must be about saving the world from an evil dark lord, and that romantic comedies must not be unnecessarily sappy affairs. This excellent tale of fantasy and romance is great for fans of both genres. Comparisons to "The Princess Bride" can't be avoided, but this film is almost as good as that fantasy classic.
A great retelling of a legend...
Ever since the year of 1995 saw the release of Pixar's "Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, a whole new way of creating animated movies was born, as while computers were already used in traditionally animated films, now they could be used to create animated feature length films. And just like traditional animation has developed several techniques (like Rotoscoping), 3D animation also developed its own styles, like photorealism, which attempts to mimic real life employing techniques such as motion capture. Director Robert Zemeckis has been working with this style for a while, with his first animated film being 2004's "The Polar Express", which showed the potential of motion capture. His next animated feature was also based on the motion capture technique, but this time he used it to recreate England's oldest epic narration: the Norse legend of "Beowulf".
Following closely the epic poem, the movie chronicles the story of how a monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover) terrorized the famous mead hall Heorot, slaughtering the people of danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hokins) and bringing death to his lands. Hearing of the problems at Heorot, a Geatish hero named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to Hrothgar's mead hall with his men, claiming to be the world's greatest hero and the only one able to kill the monster. King Hrothgar decides to give Beowulf and his men a chance to prove their courage and allows them to battle Grendel, however, this fight will prove to be decisive in Beowulf's life, as not only he'll face a monster beyond his imagination, he'll also be forced to confront his inner demons when he meets Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), and to make things worse, he'll fall in love with the King's beautiful wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn).
As written above, "Beowulf" follows the Old English poem quite faithfully, in the sense that it covers all the major battles and challenges that Beowulf faced. However, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary use the poem's outline to add a back-story that ties all the poem's events, and at the same time explores the theme of the difference between man and myth in heroic tales. This adds an interesting complexity to the poem's characters (which are more archetypes than real persons), as while we do watch Beowulf as the mythic heroic warrior the poem talks about, we also see him as man whose greatest wish is to be remembered as a hero, and often falls in the temptation of exaggerating his feats. It's a take that many purists of the poem may dislike, but personally I found the script to be the strongest part of the film. The touch of sly humor is also another welcomed surprise in the screenplay.
Director Robert Zemeckis makes a good job at making the Norse legend come to life again in animated form, recreating in a very detailed way the atmosphere of myth and magic that the epic tale conveys. While Gaiman and Avery's script takes some liberties with the original story, Zemeckis makes sure to keep that sense of thrill and adventure that has made "Beowulf" to be a captivating story for over a thousand years. The technology employed in the film is definitely a big improvement over the work done in "The Polar Express", and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call "Beowulf" the best motion capture film ever done so far, however, Zemeckis' decision to use an extreme photorealism in the design (to the point that some actors look exactly as their real counterparts) isn't really as fortunate, as the closer the characters look to real life, the easier it gets to to spot flaws in them.
Now, this is not really a problem of the cast, as while they aren't all excellent, for the most part they all make an efficient job in their roles. As the heroic and proud Beowulf, Ray Winstone is very good and makes a very human portrait of the mythic warrior, taking advantage of the fact that the script has humanized his character a bit. As his best friend Wiglaf, Brendan Gleeson shines despite the small size of his role, and he gets some of the best lines in the film. Anthony Hopkins is good as Hrothgar, but nothing really surprising, and the same could be said of Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow. However, Crispin Glover steals the show as Grendel, as he manages to deliver a poignant performance behind the his computer generated facade. Angelina Jolie is also very good in her role, although her accent wasn't really the most appropriate.
With a very good cast, the best technology for computer animation and on top of that a solid script, one would think that "Beowulf" could be a flawless example of animated art, but sadly, something just doesn't work completely. The problem, in my opinion, is that once again Zemeckis seems to be too enamored of his technology, and in his choice of making an extremely realist animated version, he has put the animation's flaws on display to everyone. What I mean is that this search for realism brings to the spotlight a major problem: the quality of the animation doesn't look constant, as while some characters do look amazingly like the actors that play them (Grendel's mother being the most notorious), others look extremely fake (Wiglaf and Hrothgar for example), so the contrast between them is glaringly obvious, and that's really bad.
And this leads to another problem, or more precisely, a question: if Zemeckis wanted such an extreme photorealism in his film, why not use real actors to do it? But despite this, "Beowulf" is not only an interesting experiment, if one gets over the idea that it's an animated film, one will find that behind the flashy graphics there's a powerful story, a story that has been thrilling our imagination for centuries. And still can do that and more.
The Bat (1926)
A memorable and influential mix of horror and mystery!
While lesser remembered nowadays than Agatha Christie, American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was as influential in the genre of crime fiction as her British colleague, as she originated many of the core elements of murder mystery stories in her writing (the phrase "The butler did it", comes from her work). In 1917 she joined popular playwright Avery Hopwood in order to write "The Bat", a stage adaptation of her novel, "The Circular Staircase", but instead of making a straight version of the novel, they added new twists and turns to the plot, including the presence of a masked criminal named "The Bat", who would the mystery a bit more complex for Reinhart's popular character, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder. The play was a huge hit, and it fascinated director Roland West, an avid fan of mystery plays who six years later would adapt it to film.
In the film, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) and her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen) rent an old mansion that belongs to the wealthy owner of a bank. However, their tranquility is disturbed when they discover that the bank has been robbed by the master thief known as The Bat (due to his elaborate costume), the owner is now dead, and he left the rest of his fortune in cash hidden in the mansion they are renting. Now Van Gorder and her niece will be the new victims of The Bat, who wants to get the full loot and will do whatever it's necessary to get them out of the house, alive or dead. To make things worse, Dale's fiancée Brooks (Jack Pickford), a clerk at the robbed bank, is the main suspect, so he arrives to the mansion hoping to hide for a while. Fortunately, Detective Anderson (Eddie Gribbon) also arrives to help the women, but the Bat has proved to be an extraordinary foe.
Adapted by director Roland West with the aid of Julien Josephson, "The Bat" follows the play in a relatively faithful way, although since West has no way to represent the play's dialogs on film, he decides to put more emphasis on the horror elements and tell the story in a more visually rich fashion. This is specially notorious in the "first act", where West gives more insight about the Bat's methods by showing him using his skills to commit a robbery early on the film. Still, the movie version keeps those touches that made the source so different to other mystery plays, specially that touch of dark detective fiction that predates the films noir of the following the decades. As usual in this kind of plays, there's also a touch of light comedy (in the shape of the classic cowardly character) that serves to break the suspense and add some fun every now and then.
As an early adaptation of a murder mystery play (like West's other horror film, "The Monster"), "The Bat" is a very influential movie in the horror genre because of its use of the old dark house setting, however, visually it is a very memorable film too. The most striking features of "The Bat" are without a doubt William Cameron Menzies's work as set designer and the cinematography by Arthur Edeson (assisted by a young Gregg Toland, in his first real job), which under West's direction result in a wonderful expressionist nightmare. To create his atmospheric game of light and shadows, West decided to shot the film mostly at night, which is why "The Bat" has that dark stylish look that feels surreal and otherworldly. Interestingly, West's directing of actors is very restrained, as if he intended to tell the story with the cinematography instead of his cast.
While in the novel the character of Miss Cornelia Van Gorder played a more prominent role, here it's Dale and her fiancée Brooks whom are in the spotlight. As Brooks, Jack Pickford (Mary Pickford's scandalous brother) is effective, although nothing really amazing; the same could be said of Jewel Carmen (West's wife at the time), who plays Dale. They aren't bad, but not exactly noteworthy. Quite the contrary is Louise Fazenda, who steals the show as the cowardly maid Lizzie and adds a lot of charm to the film thanks to her over-the-top slapstick comedy. As the witty Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, Emily Fitzroy is pretty good, and certainly embodies the character with a strong presence. Finally, Eddie Gribbon is another of the cast members who give a great performance, possibly the best in the film after Fazenda's.
Despite it's many memorable moments, in the end "The Bat" as a film is damaged badly by its own origin as a play: on stage actors have words, but West can't have that element on film. While West certainly did his best to tell the story without words (and the first act is itself a masterpiece of silent storytelling), the film does feel very stagy, specially in the scenes directly lifted from the play, which result in a film of irregular pace, with some highly dynamic scenes and others that are slow and kind of dull. In my personal opinion, "The Bat" would had been better if West had done a less faithful adaptation, and instead had followed the path he was walking in the first act, which was highly original. For example, Paul Leni's adaptation of "The Cat and the Canary" (another murder mystery play) done the following year takes what West started here to higher levels.
In the end "The Bat" is a highly enjoyable film that, while not really a masterpiece, it is of great interest due to its beautiful cinematography, set design and ultimately charming plot. West would remake this film 4 years later as "The Bat Whispers", now with sound and what he lacked here. And yes, it would be that 1930 horror film the one that would inspire comic book artist Bob Kane to create his very own Batman. A flawed but still good horror movie.
The Ghost Walks (1934)
A nice surprise!
One of the genres that flourished during the decade of the 30s was the variation of crime fiction known as "the murder mystery", as the addition of sound to films helped to make a more faithful translation to film of what the audiences experienced in the original plays. And since horror films were very popular in those years, by enhancing the horror elements of the plots the murder mystery films experienced a popularity almost equal to what it enjoyed in the previous decade (in which the first movies of the genre were produced). Aspiring playwright Charles Belden saw in this renewed interest in murder mysteries a chance to make a name for himself, after Warner Bros. picked his three-act play, "The Wax Works", to create the 1933 horror film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum". Belden joined independent filmmaker Frank R. Strayer to keep making films, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of his best.
In "The Ghost Walks", John Miljan plays Prescott Ames, a young playwright who wants to impress a famous Broadway producer named Herman Wood (Richard Carle) with his new play. Ames takes Wood and his assistant Homer (Johnny Arthur) to his country house for a reading of his play, but his car ends up stuck in the mud during a terrible storm. The three men ask for refugee in an old Mansion which happens to be property of one of Ames' old acquaintances. Inside the house, Wood and Homer witnesses the strange relationship between Ames and the house owners, however, this is all a plan conceived to impress Wood: everyone in the house is an actor playing a role in his murder mystery. Unfortunately, the murder committed is done for real, and while Wood and Homer think it's all fake (after discovering Ames' original plan), the cast knows that someone inside the house is a real murderer.
As expected, Charles Belden's screenplay for "The Ghost Walks" features the classic elements of the murder mystery stories of its time, as we have the stormy night at an old dark house as setting, the obligatory group of suspects, and the touch of comedy. However, what's interesting here is how Belden makes the film a real spoof on the genre with the many twists he puts in his story to play with the clichés of murder mystery plays. The dialogs are excellent, full of wit and lighthearted charm, and while the plot certainly loses a lot of steam by the end (it follows the murder mystery routine anyways), it never fails to be interesting and entertaining thanks to its smart twists and specially its quirky characters. Interestingly, there's an obvious gay subtext that while stereotypical, it's never denigrating and it's genuinely funny at times.
By 1934 director Frank R. Strayer was already an experienced craftsman in the Poverty row side of the film industry, but his partnership with writer Charles Belden would give him a couple of his most interesting movies, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of them. While obviously done on a shoestring budget and the typical production values of independent films of its time, Strayer manages to take advantage of his set and makes an atmospheric movie that fits nicely the mood and tone of the story. The pacing is a little too slow at times, but Strayer knew that the power of his film was on Belden's script and makes the most of it, letting his cast to make the most of their characters with excellent results. Certainly the execution is a bit typical and unoriginal, but Strayer makes an effective albeit restrained work in this film.
As written above, the screenplay is filled with great lines that make the quirky characters shine, and fortunately, most of the cast play with this to their advantage. Veteran character actor Richard Carle is remarkably funny as cranky producer Herman Wood, adding a lot of charm to his character, specially in his scenes with Johnny Arthur, who plays the flamboyant secretary Homer. Arthur is the one who gets the most best scenes, and he gives and hilarious performance as the cowardly yet witty assistant. John Miljan is just effective as Presocott Ames, nothing amazing, but nothing really bad, and the same could be said about June Collyer as Gloria Shaw (the obligatory love interest), whom is just fine. However, Donald Kirke is really enjoyable as the malicious Terry Shaw, and it's a shame he didn't get more screen time.
As usual with Frank R. Strayer films, the low budget hurts the film badly, as while Strayer makes the best he can, the film still feels kind of plain at times. However, the main problem is problem the very slow pace it has, as even when the film is filled with sparkly moments of witty dialogs, it moves at a pace so slow that can become boring and tedious for moments. It also must be said that while effective in their roles, Miljan and Collyer are pretty dull and average when compared to Arthur and Carle, and one wishes the movie had been more focused on the comedic pair they make than on the main couple. Finally, as written above the ending is kind of weak and not up to the high standard of the first and middle parts, although credit must go to Belden for keeping creative plot twists appearing until the very end.
One could say that Charles Belden is an unsung hero of the murder mystery genre, as among the many horror and mystery films that came out the B movie studios nicknamed as "the Poverty Row", "The Ghost Walks" is easily among the best (alongisde Strayer's previous film, "The Vmapire Bat") despite its shortcomings. And even when it's definitely not a masterpiece of the genre, it's a nice way to spend a night enjoying the way it pokes fun at its own origin as a murder mystery play. A very recommended film if you like the genre. 7/10