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Vincent & Theo (1990)
Robert Altman, Tim Roth and Vincent
In Altman's eyes, Van Gogh painted with his own blood. His film itself is a revelation: of the saint-like brother, of the cut-off ear. In Tim Roth, Van Gogh is that cypher of the great artist, living his present as a sacrifice for a future he would never see.
Theodore, the brother, had faith in Vincent when nobody did. Consumed by a diversity of personal and domestic problems, the most important thing in his existence was the legacy of a mad genius, that breathing stereotype of the lunatic jumping to your bed and threatening to kill you and/or himself if things don't go his way -- just ask Gauguin. Suicide is painless...
While, always according to Altman, the martyr who supported the painter down to his last penny was no saint in conventional terms, Van Gogh's infamous ear wasn't entirely separated from the red home of his nightmares, either. Just two years later, Roth would be a major player in a different, more completist, bloody film reminiscent of the tormented artist's auditive wounds, though not self-inflicted in that case --Mr. Blonde was a non-creative evil sociopath.
Screenplay and production design are, beside the acting, what provide some answers to the questions posed by Altman, in one of his most subtly mysterious works. The master filmmaker had ever be prone to a certain impressionistic style, and here he has the ideal subject. For instance, his groundbreaking overlapping dialogue -- although seldom used in this essentially dual portrait, told mostly in parallel sequences-- serves very well the confusion and desperation that cloud Theo's life.
Apart from that legendary technique, the anti-melodic music soundtrack is a sort of anachronistic and utterly intimate reflection of the individual suffering inside Vincent. Body and soul, heart and mind, Roth becomes the centre of the frame as Altman, take after take, seems to be draining the actor. His ever- homeless-looking raggedy countenance constantly reminds the audience of his own saint-like, martyr mission. Art was his religion, and Roth, small yet dangerous, makes the most of that lonely crusade. For his part, the Welsh Paul Rhys is first-rate as well, as the lesser figure with a less interesting biography, both of which Altman imbues with a fascination pertaining to the unsung heroes. An effect the director gets through because is based on a sense of reality that goes beyond the surface of commonplaces.
Vincent & Theo tells a story that would be unbelievably ridiculous if it wasn't for the enormous tragedy it actually contains. Arguably the most picturesque Altman film, for evident reasons, it is a multilayered, contrasted and rich account of a brotherly love that changed art as we know it. The stuff of myth recedes and discovers the not so simple truth of life and death. Altman's oblique approach creates a tapestry of colourful suggestions in the same league with another Post-Impressionist tale, John Huston's Moulin Rouge. Its Gauguin doesn't compare to Anthony Quinn's in Lust for Life, but this 1990 version attacks all the senses in the best possible ways, and Roth is everything.
La diosa impura (1963)
Isabel Sarli in decent melodrama
Argentinian sex symbol Isabel Sarli stars in this rather effective noirish melodrama directed by Armando Bó. The screenplay, co-written by the director, follows his real-life wife in the role of Laura, a former gangster's moll who is now running away from a trio of thugs wanting her to deliver the diamonds off a heist she was supposed to smuggle from Buenos Aires into Lima, Perú. Even though relying on formula and some precise cinematic models --the first minutes are from William Wyler's The Letter and the last seconds from Humoresque--, I couldn't help but ending up won over by the story and, specially, its main character's deep pool of sadness. Sarli looks absolutely stunning, and the film is in color --and pretty nicely shot at it--, but I shall also give her props as an actress. Maybe not a real good one, but one who tried. And, actually, was at least somehow good in this. I for one bought her as a woman who didn't know better than to hang out with the wrong crew until love came to open her eyes. Her moping was ultimately convincing, and she became a worthy of sympathy, relatable (as in potentially misunderstood) femme fatale.
The story is simple yet affecting, mainly due to Sarli --arguably far from the best-known sexploitation fare that made her (and Bó's) reputation--, also because of details such as the smart enough use of flashbacks that recount significant crime and intimate events (and feature the director himself as Reynoso, a treacherous type), and the classy camp style in which Bó indulges when revealing ulterior important nuances to the plot and the characters, among other elements. I have grown to enjoy the presence of Mexican actor Víctor Junco, and he is perfectly cast in this, his over-the-top performance matching Bó's paradoxically sober, elegantly mannered narrative, besides linking La diosa impura to Doña Diabla, a similarly female-centered noir classic (inspired by other Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce) starring María Félix. During the idyllic second half, the use of music --Wagner-- enhances the passionate mood and the colorful archaeological sites of Maya civilization underline the exotic symbolism behind Sarli's screen goddess role. An entertaining flick that may surprise you. A young Julio Alemán plays the heroine's fateful lover.
Worth watching if you love Favio and Argentine cinema
This was a good, if by no means perfect, documentary. It does a nice job of interlacing Leonardo Favio's work with his life, and the segments pertaining to his respective films themselves with each other.
If you are actually into the cinema of perhaps the most original and fascinating South American filmmaker --only second to another Argentinian, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson--, you won't find anything dragging or lacking in this homage. In fact, one of the problems I had with it was that it is intended for a knowledgeable audience, but turns somehow stale due to the main focus being on the interviews explaining technical and artistic details surrounding the works, yet failing to explain some elements in Favio's life that would have been very welcome in order to better clarifying the impact and significance of this or that title.
Nevertheless, that is before the end, when the last segment, focusing on Gatica el Mono --a masterpiece, and my favorite Favio endeavor--, takes the documentary to respectable heights of emotion and human interest, due in particular to the absorbing input from lead actor Edgardo Nieva, whose personal intensity almost matches and reminds the viewer of the unforgettable character he played back in 1993.
Spanish Television Finest Hour
The life and times of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes served as the base material for this memorable 6-episode miniseries. Appropriately produced by TVE and filmed on historical locations, it is an spectacle of interest not just for art lovers or Goya connoisseurs but for anyone into well-crafted drama. A painter who begun himself a revolution of proportions, Goya was a witness of the Napoleonic wars and of a nation in arms resisting the aggression with undismayed heart and soul. He was that ancient paradox of the artist: An extremely sensitive individual who was also a bullfighting aficionado. He was a womanizer in his own aesthetic and impassioned way; he was friends with kings and poets, and a victim of social and political prejudices. He was an exhaustively troubled man: Deaf, neurotic, literally mad. Goya was no saint and his richly contrasted self is what makes him a hell of a subject for a movie or a television project. This one succeeds in honestly portraying him and making a valuable statement on the origins of his essential oeuvre.
The Dirk Diggler Story (1988)
This amateurish production was the first work of Boogie Nights and Magnolia's director P.T. Anderson. Boogie Nights discovered his undeniable skill for cross-over, interweaving dramatic narrative, while Anderson's attachment to each of his ever lonely and singularly moving characters was perfected and even dared to take a more in-depth look into their existentially-challenged lives within the equally epic frame of the lyrical Magnolia.
Kind of a homage to the all too brief "golden age" of '70s porn cinema, the large scaled and somewhat overblown melodrama that Boogie Nights effortlessly made the audiences care for was first rehearsed in the half hour-long Dirk Diggler Story. Exclusive focus on the main character, his rise and fall, is a major difference between the two versions; we are supposed to catch a glimpse of the real human being behind the big star mostly through interviews with the recently deceased Dirk's close friends and collaborators, who are basically the same people in the 1997 film, and flashback images. Anderson's inventively makes it up for the lack of any actual production values, taking advantage on the obvious limitations in the making of the short feature to give it the appearance of a false documentary or rather a home-made movie, both of which types are some of the most recognisable traits in the video-based adult industry style.
Also, Anderson's sense of humour, his wit and his powers of persuasion as a storyteller are already here in a way; still not enough in order to relating this title to the misfits odyssey of Boogie Nights without embarrassing afterthoughts. Its significance lies in the context that has its writer and director as one of the most promising figures of American cinema since 1996.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
The blonde raven
Two of the most beautiful actors in film history, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake got together for the first time in this crime drama that also launched the former's career; a combined fact that in itself is enough to make this a must-see feature. Ladd is justly remembered as the star of Shane, the classic George Stevens' revision on the Western mythology, but his legacy remains overlooked beyond that great achievement. He could be a fine performer, against the average public opinion, and a film like This Gun for Hire proves his neglected status as one of Film Noir's prime antiheroes.
As witty as she's a long-haired blonde, Miss Lake has a sexiness and a childlike casualness about her that only underline her smartness. Her character is neither a typically passionate nor a bitchy femme fatale, and it's kind of a relief that we see the Ladd's character through her eyes ultimately. I can't remember another female role in the genre -- or any noiresque role for that matter -- of such a personal balance and empathy.
This is a Graham Greene movie that somehow looks more a Dashiell Hammett one*. Greene's concern with morality puts things in motion as it would do in The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, both films directed by Carol Reed. Lake apparently plays the angelic symbol of redemption to the fallen angel of her captor, a reminder of the peculiar Catholicism the novelist professed.
* Next to This Gun for Hire, Ladd and Lake did make a Hammett film: The Glass Key (1942).
Boys Town (1938)
Mickey Rooney is terrific in Boys Town!!!
This is a well-known classic, and deservedly so. The subject is one of the highest social importance, and it's needless to say that is as relevant today as it was then; but my point is, the directing work is great: there's no "sentimental garbage" about the treatment of the homeless kids issue, unlike one of the characters points at regarding Father Flanagan's (Spencer Tracy) enterprise. The film remarks the honesty with which the seemingly utopian idea of such a community -- a true town of little men -- comes to life, and identifies with it all the way.
Tracy plays Flanagan, the moral center, as a deeply charismatic man. His acting is actually reacting; the great actor's best features as a human being are on display when the camera just focuses in his eyes. On the other hand, there is Mickey Rooney's antics as Whitey Marsh: bold gestures and speeches, all in the most histrionic fashion. However, what on the paper might look bad (or dated, for a better word), it turns out to be the key performance of the movie. Whitey is a comic and almost tragic figure at the same time. He looks up to his elder brother, who is a hoodlum, and so smokes cigars and dresses as a 12-year-old grown-up. And he is protecting himself from others, in this tough-kid disguise, for he really is a damaged, vulnerable, sensitive boy. At first, he is cocky and thoroughly arrogant, like a shorter version of James Cagney. Rooney seems to have had also the same kind of energy and electricity. As a matter of fact, he infuses these elements into Boys Town, yet improving upon its smoothly delivered pace and finely orchestrated melodramatic moments. Rooney's not only is a scene-stealer role, but a dramatic work that is real, timeless and epiphanic.
Mean Streets (1973)
The church and the streets
It's Little Italy and the mob world, the underworld, the poison within the hearts of possibly too many Italian-Americans at the time, the immigrants and their sons and grandsons. It's the religion, Christianity and the Catholic Church, and its toll in the spirits and consciences of too few a gangster. And it's the violence, and the redemption, and the Shakespearean-like taste of it all. Last but not least, it's Martin Scorsese, already at his best. Starring the sublime Harvey Keitel, Mean Streets is a slice of life made into a motion picture without compromises of any kind. It certainly is one of the real essential films of the '70s.
The Desperate Hours (1955)
I didn't think Bogart would amaze me more than he did as Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra; well, he has almost done it, if that's possible. The story allows him -- and us -- to come back to the days of The Petrified Forest, and, what is even better, Bogie is in top form and all up to the task. Hours was his penultimate film, but Glenn Griffin is as tough a character as Duke Mantee was, to say the least. Bogart was a great actor and all you have to do is see him perform here to fully confirm it.
And then, there is Fredric March. His is the other anthological role, an every-man character which very few actors would have fleshed out to the point March brilliantly does, letting the nobility in his persona coexist with his darker side, in a turn every inch worthy of that from Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; between him and Bogie certainly there is no room for doubt about the top-notch quality regarding the acting department.
Of course, there is another core reason why Hours is a classic on its own right, and that reason is William Wyler. For a rather lesser-unusual story, it has the Wyler touch nonetheless. The distinctive cinematic theatricality of his mise-en-scène helps to build the suspense up effectively, and this along with his finely attuned cast make it a memorable title.
East of Eden (1955)
Kazan's Paradise Lost
Elia Kazan is the most accomplished actors director Cinema has ever known, and East of Eden is possibly the best example of that fact. Not only it is the most beautifully crafted description of a (young) man's inner struggle at his own constant longing for his father's love, but also a character study ideally rendered through the unique performance of its lead actor. Previously, James Dean had just made some theater and television stuff that had already gotten him a fair amount of recognition, mainly due to his signature neurotic style. Dean was a hard-core Brando fan, which puts in perspective the apotheosis of Stanislavskian acting East of Eden represents. Kazan knew who he was dealing with: an Actors Studio dropout with a cause.
His obvious artistry in communicating an issue as personal as any from the Cinemascope canvas (still during its early years) is astonishing. Such an inventive use of the frame in scenes like the opening of the film, the lettuce train scene and the birthday party scene, certainly would have been out of reach for any man just a bit less adequate to the medium. And his use of music -- a poignant work by Leonard Rosenman, who following East of Eden would score the Kazanesque Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 -- is superb as always, matching the heights he had already arrived at himself in On the Waterfront (1954) and Viva Zapata! (1952).