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Méliès' second masterpiece
9 January 2008
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.

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A forgotten jewel...
7 January 2008
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.

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Black Sunday (1960)
An Italian masterpiece of Gothic horror
4 January 2008
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.

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The return of the Skeleton Dance
21 December 2007
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.

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A nice introduction to the series...
18 December 2007
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.

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A landmark of animation!
10 December 2007
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.

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Stardust (2007)
An excellent tale of romance and fantasy...
6 December 2007
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.

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Beowulf (2007)
A great retelling of a legend...
1 December 2007
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.

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The Bat (1926)
A memorable and influential mix of horror and mystery!
21 November 2007
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.

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A nice surprise!
14 November 2007
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
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Ghost Rider (2007)
Cheesy but fun...
12 November 2007
Ever since the release of Bryan Singer's "X-Men", movie based on Marvel Comics' popular superhero team, the first decade of the 2000s saw a revival of films based on the adventures of comic book heroes even bigger to what Donner's "Superman" did in the late 70s, and Burton's "Batman" in the late 80s. After "X-Men" came "Spider-Man", "The Hulk" and many other classic names of the main comic book pantheons (even the Batman franchise got a reboot) as modern technology made possible what in the past years was impossible: to represent the fantastic abilities of the characters in a somewhat realistic way. After more than 6 six years of troubled development (it was one of the first to be announced), the supernatural hero created in the 70s by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, "Ghost Rider", has now joined the ranks of superheroes with a movie adaptation.

The movie is the story of Johnny Blaze (Matt Long), the son of a stunt motorcycle rider (Brett Cullen) who one day discovers that his father is dying of cancer. On that day the demon Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) appears to him, and offers Johnny the chance to save his father if he is willing to give him his soul. Blaze sings the contract and his father gets cured, but later gets killed on a motorcycle accident, making Johnny's soul the Devil's property, and he'll find a use for him someday. Many years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is now a famous stunt driver, and is in this way where he gets reunited to the girlfriend he abandoned as a teenager, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). However, the Devil also returns to Johnny's life and forces him to become his warrior, the Ghost Rider, as he needs him to kill his son Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who plans to overpower him.

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who previously worked on "Daredevil"), "Ghost Rider" is essentially, a movie to spent the time and have some fun. This is not a movie that explores the complexities of its hero, but one that seems to celebrate the fun and entertainment that comic book superheroes represent. Unlike what one would expect of a title like "Ghost Rider" (and its themes of demons and ghosts), Johnson makes a story that owes more to adventure comic books and the Western serials of old than to the Faust myth, as he adds a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that lightens up things a lot. Johnson truly captures the feeling of a comic book in his story, but sadly it also carries the problems that this kind of stories have, like for example a very shallow characterization, several underdeveloped subplots, and a predictable and clichéd plot.

Now, while Johnson's work as a writer is average at best, he fares a tad better as a director, as he manages to bring to life his comic book adventure with all the wry humor and action he put on paper. As written above, Johnson's movie owes a lot to Western serials and pulp fiction, and this carries out to the visual style too, as even it makes a big nod to the Phantom Rider, the classic Western character that originated "Ghost Rider". Since the main character is literally a living skull on fire, the special effects had to be excellent, and fortunately, they are the best part of the film, as their creation of the rider and his fire is simply outstanding. Sadly, a movie can't be completely about special effects, and to his great misfortune, Johnson's skill as a director of real life actors are considerably inferior to his skill at making great visuals.

Nicolas Cage is surprisingly effective as Johnny Blaze (an improvement over his disastrous performance in the remake of "The Wicker Man"), and against all odds makes a convincing tortured antihero with a very black humor. Peter Fonda and Donal Logue are also pretty good in their small roles, although the real highlight of the film is Sam Elliott, who plays the mysterious Caretaker of the local cemetery. They all make great jobs in their arguably underwritten characters, but sadly, the film is also plagued by awful performances, starting with the one given by Eva Mendes, whom at best feels severely out of place, and at worst looks like an amateur trying to act. Definitely not her best moment. The other cast member who brings the movie down is sadly Wes Bentley, who not only isn't remotely memorable as the main villain, but also overacts to the point of ridicule.

While certainly the bad performance of some cast members hurt the film a lot, it must be said that there really wasn't a lot for them to work with, because as written above, the writing isn't exactly the best material and no matter how good one actor is, the quality of the script will play a major role in the final output. This is specially obvious in the way Johnson fleshed out his villains, as if some characters are insipid, the villains here are dull, uninspired and serve no other purpose that to let the hero show off how amazing he is. A good villain has a definite personality and in "Ghost Rider" they only exist to look good, and that's a real damage to the movie, as there's never a real sense of danger with such weak counterparts for the hero. The complete opposite are Fonda and Elliott's characters, whom are easily the best thing about the film.

Despite all its flaws, I enjoyed "Ghost Rider" for what it was: an action movie with a touch of the Western genre meant to translate the fun and entertainment of comic book adventures to film. I probably liked it more that I should have, but that's mainly because while it certainly lacks a lot of quality, it had a lot of heart, and sometimes that's all that matters. Not a particularly good movie, but it is a good ride. 6/10
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Saw (2003)
The creative origin of the "Saw" series
10 November 2007
In January 2004, a horror film titled simply as "Saw" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival generating a lot of interest among the audience, and most importantly, winning a distribution deal with Lions Gate Films, which released the movie to general audiences on October of that year. The rest, as is said, it's history, as the modest horror film became a huge commercial hit that has spawned several sequels by now and also influenced a lot of the style that mainstream horror has had in the first decade of the century. Not bad for a project that started as a short film. Only a year before "Saw"'s rose to stardom, its creators, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, were using a little 9 minutes short film produced by themselves to pitch their concept to various studios and actors. That short film would later become the concept now know as "Saw".

"Saw" is the story of David (Leigh Whannell), an orderly at a hospital who is explaining to a Cop (Paul Moder) the story of how he ended up involved in a heinous crime against his will. One day after work, David gets kidnapped by a mysterious man who drugs him and takes him to an unknown location. When he wakes up, David is sitting on a chair in a darkened room, and has a bizarre artifact placed over his head. In a TV screen he sees an odd looking ventriloquist's dummy, who informs him (obviously the voice is the one of his captor) that the device is a "Jaw Splitter", a machine that will crush his skull if he can't stop it on time. The key to David's survival is to find the key that stops the Jaw Splitter, a key that the killer informs him is hidden inside the body of the dead man lying in the same room as David. But when David goes to get the key, he discovers horrified that the man he has to open is not dead.

Written by actor Leigh Whannell, "Saw" has all the core elements of the "Saw" series premise: a serial killer who do not kills with his own hands, but who instead puts his victims in a deadly trap where they have a chance (albeit small) of survival by doing an often difficult and painful (either physically, mentally or emotionally). It's an interesting take on horror that returns elements of suspense to the genre, as the shock is not only in the killing itself, but in the tension caused by the events that lead to it, and in the idea that the characters can escape from their dreadful fate. It's certainly a simple story, but despite this the concept feels truly fresh and original thanks to this focus. As many will notice (specially fans of the series), "Saw" the short film eventually became part of the first "Saw" film, as it evolved into the experience Amanda has with Jigsaw.

Just as the screenplay has most of the elements that became core part of the "Saw" series, James Wan's work as a director already shows where he was going with this concept and what exactly he wanted to do with it. Like the "Saw" films, the visual look of the short film is sleek, but with a welcomed touch of grittiness that fits perfectly the concept of brutal torture devices of the modern era. The highly dynamic camera-work that Wan uses later in "Saw" is also here (courtesy of cinematographer Martin Smith), as well as his preference for industrial metal music as soundtrack. However, while this was only a low-budget short film, this style feels more at home here than in the feature movie (where it gets tiring), as the atmosphere of fear, shock and desperation it's supposed to create works better in the short than in the films (no wonder why this scene in the feature film is the most iconic).

The acting is also better in this short than in the scene from the feature film, with Leigh Whannell giving a solid and very realistic performance as David. One can truly feel that his character has gone through hell and back, specially in his scenes with the Cop. Please not that I'm not saying that Shawnee Smith (who plays Amanda in the feature) is a bad actress, I'm just saying that Leigh Whannell seems to put a lot more of effort in the role than her (without a doubt because this was his pet project). However, that also must have something to do with the fact that in the feature, Amanda is just another victim, while here, the tortured character is also our narrator, so that gives Whannell more room to explore the role. By the way, Whannell's character is different to the one he plays in the feature, although one is certainly the evolution of the other.

Personally, I found "Saw" the short to be a lot better than "Saw" the film, mainly on the basis that it has everything that makes the first film in the series great (the fresh, original approach to horror and its creative story) without the elements that in my opinion work against it (it obviously lacks the underdeveloped subplots that lead to nowhere in the film). As it was done with a low budget, Wan and Whannell had to use creativity to make it work, and the result is wonderful, as while it may lacks the more graphic violence of the feature (due to the already mentioned budget constrains), it plays more with suspense and tension, which make it a bit more atmospheric and haunting than the movie gets to be. "Saw", the short film, is a very interesting movie to watch (and not only for fans of the series), as it shows what one can do when one plays with an idea and lets it grow.

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Svengali (1931)
A real forgotten masterpiece!
7 November 2007
In the early 1930s, the horror genre entered into the era of sound films thanks to producer Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal Studios, who after the success of "The Cat Creeps" in 1930, and specially "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, inaugurated a Golden Age of American horror that produced a lot of classic movies. But while Universal was the major producer of horror movies and literally ruled the genre through the decade, it wasn't the only studio that was producing masterpieces in those years. Warner Bros. Pictures, a studio famous for their musicals, began their history within the genre only three months after Universal's "Dracula" was released, with a movie based on the popular novel by George Du Maurier, "Trilby", in which the legendary actor John Barrymore would enter for a second time in horror history by playing one of the most popular characters in Gothic literature: "Svengali".

Set in France during the 1850s, the movie is the story of Svengali (John Barrymore), a music maestro who often uses his great skill at hypnotism to get what he wants from his pupils. One day he visits a group of artists he knows, hoping to get some money from them, but instead he meets Trilby O'Farrell (Marian Marsh), a beautiful model who has come from England to work with the artists. Svengali falls in love with her, but she prefers one of the artists, Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) instead. Despite this, Svengali doesn't lose hope, and one day when he uses his hypnotic powers to cure her headache, he discovers that while tone deaf, Trillby has actually good vocal chords. With this in mind, Svengali decides to use his power to its full extent and via hypnotism transforms Trillby in "La Svengali", a singer of unparalleled skill completely devoted to him. But Billee won't let him run away with his love.

One of the last works by the experienced writer J. Grubb Alexander, this adaptation of "Trilby" remains close to Du Maurier's novel, but with an important change: the plot is focused completely on Svengali, and the story is shown from his perspective. This is even more interesting because unlike the rest of the villains of the era, Svengali isn't an archetype of pure evil, he is instead a really complex character that can be funny, evil and tragic as well, as he is essentially a human being with a great skill that he chooses to use in his favor. This complexity plays a big role in the film, as one of the central themes is Svengali questioning the morality of his acts and wondering if they are worthy. And despite this, writer Alexander manages to keep an equilibrium between the Gothic horror and the melodrama and the comedy of the script.

Director Archie Mayo was one of the filmmakers who managed to make the jump from silent to "talkies" in the early 30s, and in "Svengali" one can see his experience in the silent era, as it is a very visual film. The most striking feature of the movie is its notoriously expressionist look, that goes beyond what Tod Browning had done in "Dracula" and truly feels like a German silent film at times due to its amazing use of sets and miniatures (including an awe inspiring shot over Paris' rooftops that's still impressive even now). Barney McGill's cinematography is put to great use through the film, and gives the movie a unique, almost surreal look that fits perfectly the themes of hypnotism that the movie handles. Mayo makes his movie to be highly atmospheric, and one can truly feel the tragic sense of impending doom that the characters have.

The legendary John Barrymore returns to the horror genre more than 10 years after his excellent performance in 1920's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and while lesser known than that famous role, his work as Svengali is simply masterful. As written above, the character is very well developed, and allow Barrymore to show his talent, and while he overacts at times, it strangely doesn't feel out of place in his role as Svengali is after all, an eccentric bohemian artist. Marian Marsh plays Trillby, and while very young at the time (only 17), she makes an excellent counterpart to Barrymore and is a highlight of the film, playing very convincingly the role of the energetic young model that becomes La Svengali under her master's spell. Bramwell Fletcher plays Billee, and while effective, his performance as the story's hero is nothing really amazing.

Some have criticized "Svengali" for its use of comedy, mainly as Svengali is presented as clumsy at times, but in my opinion, that's a strength of the movie, as it offers an atypical villain in the sense that he is very human. Unlike more archetypal villains, it's easier to relate to Svengali, and feel identified with his story of unrequited love, and that's probably what's more disturbing about him: he just had the power to do his will and used it. It's hard to find a real flaw in "Svengali" (although I'm sure may dislike Barrymore's overacting at times), and probably its main problem is that while it has everything to be a classic, it simply gets easily overshadowed by the more influential (and superior in number) output of Universal Studios. However, I personally find it to be easily on the level of anything done by Universal.

Seldom seen by the audiences nowadays, "Svengali" is one of those movies that even now can be impressive. In this movie, director Archie Mayo and John Barrymore give justice to Du Maurier's legendary character and bring him to life in extraordinary fashion. With its excellent performances and the beautiful art design, "Svengali" is definitely a forgotten masterpiece if there ever was one.

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Great acting gets wasted in mediocre movie...
6 November 2007
While originally created as the embodiment of the racism towards Asian people that was prevalent when British writer Sax Rohmer wrote about him for the first time, the criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu is nowadays considered as one of the most famous and influential characters in fiction. In the early 30s, several movies about Fu Manchu were very popular, specially the fourth one, 1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu", which had horror legend Boris Karloff playing the infamous criminal (Swedish actor Warner Oland played Fu Manchu in the first three American movies). While not a success of the proportions of other horror movies of the same period, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" performed very good commercially, and producer George Yohalem at the legendary B movie studio Monogram Pictures decided to cash make his own thriller with an Asian mastermind played by another horror legend: Bela Lugosi, who in those years was beginning to be type-casted in villainous roles.

A series of mysterious murders begin to take place in San Francisco's Chinatown, in what at first sight looks like a war between rival Tongs, the infamous Chinese American secret societies. Reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford), is sent to investigate on the case, but while he also initially believes that this killings are nothing more than a typical clash between mafias, soon he discovers that the truth behind them is far more amazing than what he ever thought, as the clues unveil a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as Wong (Bela Lugosi) as the responsible of the murders. Mr. Wong is looking for the Twelve Coins of Confucius, a mythical set of coins that according to legend, will grant to its owner the power to rule over an ancient Chinese province. Barton will have to solve the mystery behind the identity of Mr. Wong in order to stop him before he finds the twelfth coin.

Written by Lew Levenson and Nina Howatt, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is an adaptation of a short story by the then popular detective fiction writer Harry Stephen Keeler, "The Twelve Coins of Confucius", which was included in his "Sing Sing Nights" book (itself adapted to film that very same year). Like many horror and mystery films of those days, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" follows a wisecracking reporter trying to catch a murderer and solve the case, however, what's interesting about this movie (and Keeler's original story) is that even when the movie was obviously done to cash in the success of "Fu Manchu", the attitude towards the Asian people is completely different, as although the villain is of Asian origin, most of the Asian characters are presented (albeit stereotypically) as wise and cultured people while the American counterparts are racist and ignorant about their culture.

Director William Nigh, famous for his career on B movies, helms "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" with his usual restrained but effective style. While the movie is built like a thriller in the "Fu Manchu" style (sometimes it almost feels like a chapter from a serial), Nigh keeps the movie deeply rooted in its crime fiction origins, and it even has traces of the elements that would evolve in the Film-Noir genre of the 40s. Already used to work with truly limited budgets, director William Nigh packs his movie nicely and makes the most of what he's got, wisely leaving his cast (namely Bela Lugosi and William Ford) to do their thing and drive the film with their talents. Nigh may had been a Poverty Row director, but he knew what worked on his movies and this time his work with the cast was spot on. Sadly, it wouldn't be enough to save a movie with an extremely poor script.

As written above, it is the cast's performances what truly makes the film worthy, as while the script it of a mediocre quality, the three lead actors make a terrific job with what they had in their hands. As our wisecracking hero, Ford is genuinely funny in his delivery of jokes and one-liners, showing that ease with comedy that he had showed before in Browning's "Freaks". Arline Judge plays the romantic interest, but she doesn't limit herself to be a damsel in distress, as she makes her character the real equivalent of Ford's and gives their relationship the dynamics of classic screwball comedy. Finally, Bela Lugosi steals the show as usual in his performance as the ambitious Mr. Wong, playing a malicious and intelligent character with great skill and enthusiasm. It's odd to see him play a Chinese man, but his accent actually works and one wonders how Fu Manchu movie with Bela would had been.

It's a real shame that such great performances get wasted in the movie, as while they make the movie worth a watch, they aren't enough to save the film from its problems, deeply rooted in the awful script built from Keeler's short story. It's true that Harry Stephen Keeler's novels never were really high class literature, but Levenson and Howatt's screenplay make what could had been an exciting mix of horror and thriller to feel slow and average. The main problem is that the movie has a great potential (that gets shown in a couple of scenes), but never truly delivers because it fails to explore what it proposes and everything ends in good ideas that never really were exploited. In all fairness, this may had been caused by their budgetary limitations, as one gets the feeling that the story was cut to make the movie shorter.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" never really reaches its true potential, it's still a fun (albeit average) thriller that benefits a lot from Judge, Ford and specially Lugosi. It's no masterpiece, but despite its limitations, it's a very entertaining film. And by the way, this movie has no relation to the other "Mr. Wong" movies produced later by Monogram, where the character was reworked as a detective in the vein of Charlie Chan.

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Peeping Tom (1960)
A true masterpiece of horror and suspense!
30 October 2007
Without a doubt, 1960 was a year of numerous and important changes in the history of cinema, specially in the horror genre, as with the beginning of the end of the Production Code, new and different ideas began to be explored within the genre's conventions. One of those was the introduction of complex psychological themes and sexual overtones, inaugurating what is now known as "psychological horror" with movies like 1959's "Horrors of the Black Museum" and Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, "Psycho", which gave a human face to the monsters of horror movies (as previously most were of supernatural origin). Another of those significant movies that helped to change the genre in the 60s is without a doubt Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom", a morbid tale of horror and suspense about voyeurism that follows that very same path of psychological horror and, like "Psycho" (released three months after "Peeping Tom"), elevates it to an art-form.

"Peeping Tom" is the story of Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a young focus puller in a British film studio who aspires to become a filmmaker himself. A shy and lonely man, Lewis is not very social, and prefers to spend his time with his camera, working as a photographer of pornographic pictures of women. However, this young man has another secret, and that is that he is actually a serial killer who films and murders young women, the same that the police has been looking out for weeks. Things get complicated when he meets Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), a young woman who lives downstairs with her mother (Maxine Audley) in a room they rent to Mark. Soon, her friendship begins to mean a lot to Mark, as she offers him an honest understanding he had never had before. However, the shadow of Mark's traumas and obsessions is always present, and he'll have a hard time facing his demons.

Written by former cryptographer Leo Marks (albeit Powell had a hand in the script as well), "Peeping Tom" is a deep and disturbing journey through the darkest sides of the mind as it's entirely focused on Mark as the main character. Unlike Hitchcock's "Psycho" (a movie often compared to "Peeping Tom"), the serial killer is not seen through the eyes of those around him, in this film we are living the story entirely from his perspective, discovering the person behind the psychopath personality as well as the reasons behind such a disturbed mind. In a way, it's a deeper humanization of the serial killer character, although interestingly, it doesn't attempt to glorify him or justify him (like posterior movies of the same type did), as the movie centers on his attempt to stop doing what he knows is wrong and his desire to have a normal life.

Using a strikingly beautiful color cinematography (by Otto Heller) and a remarkably skillful use of the first person viewpoint, director Michael Powell conceives "Peeping Tom" as a bizarre chant to the voyeur we all have inside, and the pleasure we get from watching others. It's not for nothing that our central character is a filmmaker himself, as the concept of filming a person becomes one with the concept of killing one, as like some have done before (Buñuel for example), the camera is taken as an aggressive, almost physically violent entity that invades and steals the life essence of the person filmed. However, it's not only Powell's use of cinematography what shines in "Peeping Tom", his overall use of suspense in the creation of his scenes plays a major role in this highly atmospheric movie where one can almost feel the tension that fills Mark's mind at every step.

And this takes us to the cast, which under Powell's direction deliver for the most part excellent performances. Karlheinz Böhm is truly the highlight of the film, as his acting as Mark is instrumental for the success of the movie. Making a very real and believable character, Böhm transmits perfectly how insecure and vulnerable his character is deep inside, giving definitely one of the best performances in a horror movie ever done. As Helen, the young girl who befriends Mark, Anna Massey is simply perfect, as she perfectly portrays the naiveté of the character, as well as the innocence that leaves a profound effect on Mark's psyche. As Helen's mother, Maxine Audley is effective and has a couple of excellent scenes, although it must be said that the film ultimately belongs to Böhm and Massey, as its their relationship what becomes the central focus of the story.

As one can imagine, this movie is not the typical horror movie, it's complex and dark, but also disturbingly very human; definitely not what people expected from director Michael Powell, whom along Emeric Pressburger made some of the most cherished British film of the 50s. This darkness of the subject that "Peeping Tom" handled was too much for the audiences used to Powell's previous work, and therefore the movie failed commercially and sent Powell's career to oblivion. However, it must be said that none of the problems "Peeping Tom" had during its release are due to poor film-making, quite the contrary, as this movie ranks easily amongst the most influential horror films ever done, and its commercial failure can only be blamed to the fact that it was ahead of its time. Despite the harsh bashing it received, Powell considered this movie his masterpiece, and I can only agree with him.

One of the most interesting (and disturbing) movies about serial killers, "Peeping Tom" is easily one of the best too. The comparisons with "Psycho" are fair, albeit this is certainly a different kind of beast, as it's like a deeper, harsher version of the same subject but with less psychology and a lot more of heart. And it's probably this enormous humanity what makes the film so ultimately disturbing. A really influential classic of horror that should be better known in the future as the masterpiece that it is. 9/10
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The Gorilla (1939)
Not as bad as they say...
25 September 2007
During the 20s, murder mystery stage plays were extremely popular at Broadway theaters with plays like "The Bat" and "The Cat and the Canary" being huge hits everywhere. Naturally, film versions of this stage plays began to be produced, and thanks to their spooky sets and intriguing plots, this movies became an enormous influence for the horror films of following decades. Ralph Spence's "The Gorilla" was another of this kind of murder mystery stories that made the jump to cinema, with its first adaptation being made in 1927. What made "The Gorilla" different to the others was the humor it had, as it was more a spoof of the genre than a serious tale of horror. While nowhere near as successful as the other film versions of plays, "The Gorilla" was popular enough to be remade twice, the first time in 1930 and the second in 1939, with the legendary Bela Lugosi.

In this version, Lionel Atwill plays Walter Stevens, a very rich man who receives a letter from a killer who names himself "The Gorilla", threatening to kill him the following night. Worried about his life, Stevens hires three detectives (Jimmy, Harry and Al Ritz) to be with him in the mansion and protect his life. He has also called his nephew Norma (Anita Louise), to whom he explains the situation and what she should do in the case of his death. Her boyfriend Jack (Edward Norris) is with her, and along Kitty the maid (Patsy Kelly) and Stevens' butler Peters (Bela Lugosi), they will remain in the house hoping to find the Gorilla before he manages to kill Mr. Stevens. However, it doesn't seem an easy task to accomplish, as the three bumbling detectives seem to be clueless as where to start looking, and far more afraid of the Gorilla than Mr. Stevens himself.

Adapted to the screen by Rian James and Sid Silvers, this version of "The Gorilla" retains that comedic approach on the mystery stories that the play originally had, however, since the movie is a vehicle for the Ritz brothers (their last film for Twentieth Century Fox), there's a lot more emphasis on the slapstick that this comedy team was famous for. As a spoof on the genre, "The Gorilla" plays with every cliché that this kind of movies had, from the ensemble of different characters forced to spend the night in a dark mansion, to the classic whodunit plot twists that keep the secret of the murderer's identity. Mixing horror, mystery and comedy isn't easy, but Spence's play had a fairly good plot that managed to do the trick. Sadly, this adaptation isn't as successful, as the mix here feels forced and messy, as if the writers weren't sure what to make of it.

Directed by the extremely prolific Allan Dwan, "The Gorilla" features an excellent use of lighting and set design to create a dark atmosphere. Despite the extremely low production values (it was a troubled production due to labor disputes between the brothers and Fox), Dwan comes up with a solid film that at times manages to help to forget the lousy quality of the script. It's nowhere near the level of his other movies, but personally I think that he makes the often incoherent story watchable and funny. While the emphasis is on slapstick, there's still some of the play's wit in the characters played by Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, whom are the perfect counterpart to the brothers' physical comedy. Fortunately, "The Gorilla" lacks the usual sing and dance that made the Ritz brothers famous, as it would had been out of place in Dwan's film.

Unfortunately the performances in "The Gorilla" are pretty much average, as while there are displays of brilliance among some members of the cast, others are simply unremarkable at best. The Ritz brothers have a bit of both sides, as they aren't really bad performers, but while some of their jokes are good (Harry Ritz was indeed talented), most of the times they all feel out of place in the movie. Edward Norris and Anita Louise are pretty average in their performances, with Norris being a very wooden actor in this film. Classic horror star Lionel Atwill plays his character with great skill, but it's not really one of his best roles. The highlights of the film are Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, with the legendary horror star showing that he also had an underrated talent for black comedy as Peters the butler.

As written above, this movie is not exactly an excellent film, as while the original stage play was a witty mix of genres, this version ends up as a poorly built mishmash of styles: it wants to be a proper mystery (and has enough to be one) and a spoof at the same time. Sadly, the addition of the Ritz brothers to the mix doesn't really help anything, as while they weren't really a bad comedy team, their style simply isn't well adjusted to the movie. And it's not really the brothers' fault, as with some more work the script would had been perfect (apparently, the quality of this script was one of the reasons the brothers left Fox). On a completely different subject, the low budget really hurt the film, as while director Dwan and his team did very well with what they had, it really looks pretty poor in some accounts (the Gorilla suit for example).

While definitely "The Gorilla" is far from being a classic on the level of earlier Lugosi films, it's by no means a completely bad film, and it's certainly unworthy of the bad reputation it carries today. Sure, it's hard to get used to the Ritz brothers' style of comedy, specially when it's badly written as it is here, but even when it's not comedy classic, "The Gorilla" does deliver good entertainment. It's worth a watch, if only to get a glimpse of a different side of Bela Lugosi. 6/10
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Wonderful early Chinese horror
14 September 2007
Ever since it was conceived by French writer Gaston Leroux in his novel, "The Phantom of the Opera", the tale of a disfigured musical genius who roams the Opera house has become one of the most famous horror stories of all, and the inspiration of many films. Without a doubt, the most famous of those films was Rupert Julian's "The Phantom of the Opera", produced by Universal studios in 1925 with Lon Chaney as the Phantom. That classic adaptation would be one of Universal's biggest hits of all time, and not only in America, as literally in every country it was shown it became very popular. In one of its showings, the film was seen by a young Chinese filmmaker named Weibang Ma-Xu, whom fascinated by Chaney's performance, conceived his very own version of the story and titled it "Ye Ban Ge Sheng", literally, "A Song at Midnight".

The story is set in an old theater, where many important actors performed once, but that now is abandoned as rumor says that the ghost of famous singer Song Dangping (Shan Jin) roams the place. One night, an acting troupe arrives, hoping to have success in such a famous theater. However, they all end up disappointed when they see the sad state of disuse in which the theater is right now. Despite this, they begin the preparations for their debut, and young singer Sun Xiaoou (Chau-Shui Yee) is chosen to play the lead. Xiaoou retires to practice alone, as he has troubles to sing the part correctly, and it's at this moment when he hears the ghost of Song Dangping, who appears to teach him how to sing. With the aid of the ghost, Xiaoou is a success, but when he tries to thank his master, he discovers the secret behind the ghost of Song Dangping.

As written above, director Weibang Ma-Xu wrote "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" as a reinterpretation of "The Phantom of the Opera"'s story, however, he only took the concept of the deformed musical genius and created his very own tale out of it. "A Song at Midnight" is essentially, a tragic romance with horror elements, as the plot focuses on the Phantom's inability to be with the woman he loves (played by Ping Hu) and his decision to use his disciple to interact with the world he lost. It's a really fresh take on the concept, as it truly keeps the spirit of the story while at the same time adapting it to the Chinese culture. Ma-Xu plays skillfully with mystery and suspense, as he unfolds the details of the story with the care of an artisan. It's pretty obvious that he loved the concept a lot, as his development of both plot and characters is remarkably good.

Interestingly, the idea of the story wasn't the only thing Ma-Xu adapted from Western film-making, the style Ma-Xu uses in "A Song at Midnight" is also clearly inspired by Universal horror movies of the 20s and the 30s (mainly "Frankenstein" and "Dracula"). With the excellent cinematography by Boqing Xue and Xingsan Yu, together with a slightly expressionist set design, director Ma-Xu creates an ominous gloomy atmosphere of mystery and magic that really sets the mood for this story of horror and romance (most of the scenes are set at night). Naturally, the film has many limitations due to budgetary reasons, however, Weibang Ma-Xu inventively manages to create a very powerful film that looks great despite his limited resources. I also must say that the work of make-up for this Phantom is simply excellent.

The cast is pretty effective in their performances, and despite the natural melodrama of the story, there's little overacting in the film. In his debut on film, Chau-Shui Yee (who would become a big star in the 40s) is very good as the young Sun Xiaoou, and while he looks a bit wooden at times, he truly had a natural presence in front of the camera. As the tragic anti-hero Sing Dangping (Shan Jin) is simply excellent, managing both the fearsome and the vulnerable sides of his character with a great ease and control. It's impossible to know if the singing voices of their characters are those of Shan Jin and Chau-Shui Yee, but their work is simply masterful. Ping Hu plays Li Xiaoxia, Sang Dangping's lover, and while she looks beautiful in her role, she is prone to overacting just a bit too much for her own sake, although it's not really a problem.

While an interesting example for early Chinese horror, "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" is sadly far from being a masterpiece, as there are several details that prevent this film from being perfect. Contrary to what could be expected, the film's main problem is not caused by the low budget, but by the strange pace the film has at times. What I mean is that often the story flows at a good pace but suddenly it gets slowed by long scenes of Chinese opera that, while of great beauty (and very interesting to foreigners), damage the pace the story has and can be boring to people not expecting this (In a way similar to Universal's 1943 remake of "The Phantom of the Opera"). Other than that, the movie is an excellent Chinese entry into the early horror genre, and those with a fondness for Universal horror films from the 30s will find a movie very much akin to their tastes.

Sadly, when it was initially released, "A Song at Midnight" struggled to be taken seriously because Chinese critics considered it was "too American" for a Chinese film. Fortunately, audiences reacted better and it is now one of the most famous horror films in the country (so much that Ma-Xu directed a sequel in the 40s, the Shaw brothers made a remake in the 60s, and recently Ronny Yu has done another version in the 90s). Fans of Asian cinema, this movie was the beginning of all. 8/10
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Transformers (2007)
Good fun, but nothing else...
12 September 2007
To most kids growing up in the 80s, the word "Transformers" had one very special meaning: fabulous vehicles able to transform into giant robots. And when I say "most kids", I don't mean only American kids, as this concept, created by the Japanese toy company Takara, became truly a worldwide phenomenon when in 1984 the American company Hasbro launched the "Transformers" toy line with a captivating back-story. What started as a toy line became a full fledged epic tale detailing the adventures of the Autobots, a group of heroic Transformers who protected Earth from an evil faction of their own people who called themselves Decepticons. More than 10 years later, "Transformers" remains a popular concept, and proof of that is the fact that filmmaker Michael Bay has directed a live action film about it. Sadly, the result is far from being more than meets the eye.

In "Transformers", Shia LaBeouf plays Sam Witwicky, a young high school student whose biggest wish is to own a car in order to impress his beautiful classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). Unfortunately for him, all he can afford is an old rusted Camaro with a tendency to fail at the most inappropriate occasions. One night, he watches his car move by itself, and he follows it to a junkyard, where it transforms into Autobot Bumblebee (Mark Ryan). This won't be the last of his surprises, as after this discovery, he'll be chased by another autonomous vehicle, a police car. Bumblebee manages to save Sam and takes him to his fellow Autobots. Their leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), explains Sam that this is only the beginning of a new chapter in their constant war with the Decepticons, but that Sam has the key to something that could end it once and for all.

Developed by writers John Rogers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenplay for "Transformers" essentially moves between two main stories: the constant war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and Sam's coming of age story. In fact, this last theme becomes the most important of the two, as the film focuses a lot on Sam's friendship with his sentient car, Bumblebee, as well as his wish of being Mikaela's boyfriend. Several more subplots are added, some very interesting and some pretty pointless, but unfortunately, the writers do a poor job in tying everything together and the result is a convoluted story that feels awkward in its poor balance of action and comedy. The writer's attempt to develop their character is certainly commendable, as they truly manage to humanize them in a fairly believable way. Sadly, it's not good enough to save the script.

As usual with Michael Bay films, his style "Transformers" is more eye candy than real storytelling, as he puts a lot more emphasis on fast moving action scenes filled with special effects than in the story the writers delivered for him. Of course, I know it's obvious that the special effects of the giant robots is the movie's main selling point, and they are the reason the movie was made in the first time; however, Bay's trademark quick-cut style of editing together with his shaky camera-work make very hard to fully appreciate the work of the special effects team, as Bay seems to believe that to make a dynamic action film he needs to keep the camera constantly moving without a real reason. If there's something to praise in Bay's directing, that would be his decision of making the Transformers look the most realistic possible, as it adds a lot to the epic nature of the storyline.

The acting in the film is pretty much average, with Shia LaBeouf making a very effective performance as Sam, although he is in no way remarkable or outstanding. Mikaela Fox is sadly of the ones who make an awful job, as in this movie she proves that she was only hired because of her looks, not because of any real talent. On the other hand Josh Duhamel is truly one of the highlights of the movie, and one of the few who really adds a lot of power to the film. Hopefully Duhamel will become a rising action star in the future. In a nice detail, Peter Cullen reprises his role as the voice of Optimus Prime, and once again gives his character that the powerful presence it had in the cartoon. Unfortunately, that can't be said of Hugo Weaving, whose great job as Megatron's voice gets lost by an overuse of sound effects in his voice-work.

Personally, the biggest problem I have with "Transformers" is not that it's bad (it is not), it is that it could had been a lot better given the elements Bay had to work with. I'm not saying the script is a masterpiece, as it seriously lacks focus and fails at mixing comedy and action, but the approach director Michael Bay used in the film only made it feel even more mediocre than what it is. While the movie has a wonderful visual look (no doubt thanks to Bay's experience making commercials), his frantic editing and sloppy narrative diminish the quality of Mitchell Amundsen's cinematography and the special effects team's masterful work. I won't deny that there are instances where his style works perfectly, and that the movie gets really entertaining in more than one occasion, but I couldn't help but feeling that I was watching a long commercial instead of the epic battle of robots that the advertising promised.

"Transformers" is one of those movies that provide instant entertainment and give the impression of being pretty cool, but end up feeling shallow when one begins to seriously think about them. That's probably the best advice to enjoy "Transformers": not to think too seriously about it, as ultimately it is as shallow as a TV commercial. It's a fun movie with great special effects and some good performances, but it's not the great action movie that it could had been. 6/10
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A powerful display of special effects
6 September 2007
Few persons have meant as much to the history of cinema as Georges Méliès, the now legendary French stage magician that revolutionized film-making with his enormous narrative creativity and his many discoveries and inventions in the field of special effects. As a member of the first audience that experienced the Lumières' first screening, Méliès discovered cinema and immediately realized the enormous potential it had as a narrative art. During the following 15 years, Méliès would become one of the most important producers of movies, and he went from making amusing "gimmick movies" (films about Méliès making an impossible magic trick) to creating some of the most amazing stories of those years, using his skills to enter the genres of horror, fantasy and science fiction. By the year of 1902, Méliès was focusing more on his major projects than on "gimmick movies", but he still made several ones to test some new tricks. 1904's "Les Cartes Vivantes" was one of those shorts.

As usual in his "gimmick films", "Les Cartes Vivantes" (literally, "The Living Playing Cards") is about a Magician (Méliès) performing an amazing magic trick. This time, the trick involves a simple deck of playing cards, and a large cardboard that resembles a blank card. The trick begins with the Magician making one card grow bigger, to the size of a book. Then, by simply throwing the card towards the cardboard, it becomes an enormous version of the card the Magician threw. As if that wasn't enough, the Magician transforms the giant card (a 9 of Spades) into the card of the Queen of Hearts. With that card on the cardboard, the Magician proceeds to to make the image come alive by transforming the drawing into a real life Queen of Hearts who walks out of the card. To finish the trick, he returns the Queen to the card and decides to transform the card into the King of Clubs; but the trick may be really on him.

As written above, for Méliès this kind of short films were more than a way of having a fresh and original catalog of movies in his theater, they were a chance to test new or improved tricks and special effects he could later use in his major projects. "The Living Playing Cards" is a prime example of this, as it is composed of many of the tricks that Méliès had used in many previous occasions (dissolves, multiple exposures and several editing tricks), but the way they look in this movie is considerably better than when Méliès used them for the first time. When one watches the movies Méliès did before 1901, the effects look marvelous but primitive; "The Living Playing Cards" is the direct evolution of his talents, and it's easy to notice that his work of editing has improved considerably since his early years. His use of props and set design to build up an atmosphere has also improved, and he captures perfectly what his real performances as a magician would had been.

Honestly, there's nothing really remarkable in "Les Cartes Vivantes" besides its amazing display of special effects, but like every Méliès film, it has a special magic that makes difficult not to enjoy them. Méliès had an enormous charm as a performer, and despite the shortcomings of the technology of his time, he really knew how to use cinema's potential to entertain his audience the best he could. While in the end, "The Living Playing Cards" may not be anything more than a "gimmick trick", one has to remember that in 1904, the legendary Méliès was preparing his most ambitious project to date: that often forgotten masterpiece named "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", better known in English as "The Voyage Through the Impossible". 8/10
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A classic of the silent era...
4 September 2007
Given that it's nowadays regarded as one of the most famous classics of French literature, it's not surprising that Gaston Leroux's Gothic novel, "The Phantom of the Opera", has become the source for many adaptations to film, stage and other art-forms. The immortal story of the deformed musical genius who terrorizes the Opera Garnier while helping a young soprano to become the main singer is definitely now an icon of Gothic literature thanks to its mix of horror, mystery and romance. Producer Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, saw in this combination the potential for a classic movie, and decided to make it the ultimate spectacle. To accomplish that feat, he hired director Rupert Julian (who had just completed "Merry-Go-Round") to helm the movie, and for the main role, he casted none other than the "Man with a Thousand Faces", Lon Chaney.

Set in 1890s Paris, "The Phantom of the Opera" is the story of young soprano Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who with the help of an unknown tutor, has gone from being part of the chorus to become the understudy of Carlotta (Virginia Pearson), the Prima Donna. On the first night of Opera's new season, Vicomte Raoul De Chagny (Norman Kerry) assists to the show in order to see Christine, whom he loves very much. To Raoul's surprise, Christine tells him that their relationship can't continue as it gets in the way of her career, and that she must follow her tutor's orders in order to become the best singer in Paris. As this happens, strange letters have arrived to the Opera House's new management, demanding that Christine must sing the main role instead of Carlotta. Fear begins to spread among the crew of the Opera House, as it is believed that the Phantom of the Opera is more than just a superstition.

Adapted to the screen by Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond L. Schrock and the usual army of writers that would write and rewrite the many treatments of the script, the 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is surprisingly one of the most faithful to Leroux's novel. While numerous posterior versions (from Universal's own 1943 remake to the famous musical version) have played mostly on the romance aspect and the tragedy of the title character, the screenplay for this movie remains true to the novel's origins in Gothic literature and keeps the story of the Phantom deeply rooted in the horror and mystery sides of the story. The Phantom is sympathetic, yes, and the love triangle is still present, however, here he is also the complex murderous sociopath who's closer to what Leroux intended him to be. A touch of comedy is added to the script, although never too much to deviate from the atmosphere of the story.

While now is considered a classic movie of the silent era, "The Phantom of the Opera" had an extremely troubled production, with almost five persons attempting to transform the story into a watchable film. Director Rupert Julian created a lavish production, with expressionist influences and atmospheric cinematography; but since he did not got along with Lon Chaney, it was "the Man with a Thousand Faces" who had to deal with the directing of actors. Due to poor reviews, director Edward Sedgwick was assigned to "rebuilt" the film and added the movie's comedy touch. In the end, editor Maurice Pivar saved the day by getting the best from the many different ideas and combining them into one single movie, so it's probably thanks to him that we have a great film in this early American attempt at creating Gothic horror with a slight expressionist touch.

As many have said before, it is ultimately Lon Chaney's performance what makes this version of Leroux's story to be so wonderful and enjoyable. Wonderfully over-the-top, Chaney truly becomes the misunderstood monster he plays with great talent and powerful presence, to the point of overshadowing everyone else in the cast. Still, the beautiful Mary Philbean manages to deliver an effective performance as Christine Daae, portraying the character's naiveté in a very natural and believable way. Sadly, the same can't be said about Norman Kerry, whom as Raoul is definitely the weakest link in the cast. Arthur Edmund Carewe makes a short yet very important appearance as the mysterious Ledoux, and while small, he makes his role a very memorable one. Snitz Edwards is the film's main comic relief, and while annoying at times, he gets the job done.

But there's something even more memorable than Chaney's performance and the amazing art design in "The Phantom of the Opera", and that is the incredible make-up that Lon Chaney himself designed for his character which is probably the best one he ever did in his prolific career. Despite being limited by the technology of his time, Chaney designed with great creativity the now iconic "skull face" of the Phantom, just as monstrous and grotesque as Leroux intended it, proving once and for all why he earned the nickname of "The Man with a Thousand faces". Still, not everything is perfect in this movie, as while editor Maurice Pivar certainly did a wonderful job at the titanic labor of putting everything together, at times the fact that it was made by many different directors can still be felt in the pacing of the film, but still, it's unnoticeable for most part of the film.

This adaptation of "The Phantom of the Opera" is often considered as the best, and while that probably has more to do with the fact that there hasn't been a "definitive version" yet, one can't deny that this classic of the silent era has stood the test of time like few movies in history. Granted, Chaney gave better performances in other movies, but with his terrific make-up and the wonderful art design (which looks awesome in the Technicolor sequences), this version of Leroux's novel is a must-see for every fan of Gothic horror. 9/10
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A very good early version of this classic!
30 August 2007
Without a doubt, Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated classic, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", is one of the most famous and influential novels of Gothic horror ever written, as its main theme, the inner conflict between a man's good and evil natures, has inspired countless works and several adaptations to film and stage. Thomas Russell Sullivan's 1887 stage play, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was one of the most successful of its time, and soon found itself as the source for film adaptations thanks in part to the touch of romance that Sullivan added to Stevenson's tale. While the most famous adaptation of this play is without a doubt the 1920's version (starring John Barrymore), that was actually the third time the stage play was adapted to film, with the first version produced in 1908 and the second being this film, made in 1912 by the Thanhouser Company.

In this version, James Cruze plays Dr. Jekyll, a respectable scientist who has dedicated his studies to the creation of a formula to separate humanity's two natures. To test the formula for a last time, Jekyll locks himself in his laboratory and drinks the potion, waiting for the effects to take place. Suddenly, he transforms into his evil alter ego, which takes the name of Mr. Hyde and begins to wreak havoc in town. Hyde takes the antidote to become Jekyll again and cover his crimes, but Jekyll's repeated use of his Hyde's persona begins to take its toll on him, making the transformation to occur without the need of the potion, almost at will. In one of these uncontrolled changes, Hyde murders the town's preacher, who is the father of Jekyll's sweetheart (Florence La Badie). This event makes Jekyll to realize how dangerous Hyde really is, but unfortunately, he no longer has the antidote.

As written above, the basis for this movie is definitely the play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, as the film moves away from the mystery of the novel and takes a more direct approach to the theme of split personalities. The movie touches an interesting theme in the idea of Jekyll becoming "addicted" to being Hyde, only to discover that his constant use of the Hyde persona has made it take over his original personality, almost like a metaphor to drug use. In those years screenplays were rarely used, but it's highly probable that director Lucius Henderson wrote one for the film, as the plot is very well developed considering the short runtime of 12 minutes (just one reel). While the style Henderson uses in the movie is pretty straightforward and a bit stagy, it's not really a bad movie and some scenes (specially the melodramatic ones) are still very effective.

James Cruze, who during the 20s would become a respected director, delivers an effective performance as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His Jekyll is particularly effective, as unlike most versions where the character is the epitome of goodness, Cruze makes him a flawed human in a very convincing way. His Hyde is less convincing, although that's probably because actor Harry Benham also played the character in several scenes Still, to Benham's (and Henderson's) credit, the change between actors is practically impossible to distinguish. Thanhouser regular Florence La Badie appears as Jekyll's sweetheart and she is quite good as the character, although her role in the film is considerable smaller than in the play, as the movie focuses completely on Jekyll's conflict. Interestingly, Thanhouser's child prodigy Marie Eline appears in a brief role as the kid who gets knocked down by Hyde in that classic scene.

While the acting is of excellent quality (as usual with Thanhouser films), the style of the film may come off as too stagy to modern viewers and sadly, the budget limitations do show off in more than one occasion. Still, Henderson makes his movie an entertaining and to an extent, faithful adaptation of Stevenson's novel that will certainly appeal to fans of the classic tale. Lucius Henderson's version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" may not be a mind blowing experience today, and even when compared to other movies of its period (the German film "Der Student Von Prag" comes to mind) it comes off as simply better than average, however, it's by no means a bad movie and I'd even say that it's required viewing for anyone interested in the early years of American horror cinema. 7/10
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Very good early American short
28 August 2007
In 1909, a former theater actor named Edwin Thanhouser decided to enter into the rising motion picture business after making a good fortune by managing the Academy of Music Theater in Milwaukee. After moving to New York, he opened the Thanhouser Company, a motion picture studio that enjoyed a good popularity from 1910 to 1917, producing films of great quality in terms of acting, almost on par with those done by Griffith for the Biograph Company. The high standards in the acting of this movies was the result of Thanhouser's involvement, as he was among the first producers to have a strong experience in theater. The 1911 short film, "Only in the Way", is one of the Thanhouser movies were this can be easily appreciated, as while it's far from a masterpiece, the performances are excellent, specially the one by the young Marie Eline, the legendary star nicknamed "Thanhouser Kid".

In "Only in the Way", Marie Eline plays little Marie, the only daughter of a young marriage that seems to be having a bad time. The problems between Mom and Dad begins when Grandma decides to live with them as, while Marie is delighted by the idea, Mom dislikes to have her husband's mother around, as she feels that Grandma will only give her troubles. Marie, who needs the help of a crutch to walk, is very close to her Grandma, and considers her the only friend she has in the world, as like her Granny, she also finds herself at times out of place in her family. Soon after Grandma's arrival, Marie's Mom decides that Grandma must leave, so she asks Grandma to go and live in a retirement home. Marie feels saddened by the news, but soon she decides that if Grandma is an obstacle in Mom and Dad's way to happiness, she must be in the way too, so Marie runs away hoping to live with her Grandma.

Unfortunately, little is know about this early films, so the names of the crew behind the movie are now lost forever. One can assume that in these early Thanhouser movies, Edwin Thanhouser had a lot of creative control, as only after becoming successful he would hire (and credit) writers and directors for his movies. Anyways, what can be said about "Only in the Way" is that the story is pretty well developed considering that it was a 12 minutes long one-reeler. The plot captures nicely the internal conflict of the child, and the consequences that family troubles have on children. The directing of the film is of good quality, nothing really amazing, but very effective and with an excellent cinematography. What really stands out are the performances of the actors, as not only they are of excellent quality, but move away from the stagy style of the early movies and have a natural style (This hints that Thanhouser himself was the director).

As written above, the performances are of a really good quality, looking quite ahead of its time and on par with what Biograph was producing at the time (Griffith's films were a big influence for Thanhouser). Sadly, there are no records on who played who in this movie, except for Marie Eline, who as "The Thanhouser Kid" was one of the early movie stars. The actress who plays Mom is very good, and while due to the limited runtime we get nothing but glimpses of her neurosis, her portrayal is top notch. At the same time, the actress who plays Granny is also very natural in her performance, and the chemistry she has with Marie Eline makes for some great scenes together. Still, "Only in the Way" is completely Eline's show, and she certainly makes the most of it, delivering a terrific performance that even now looks amazing for an actress of her age (she was 9 at the time).

While probably not as well known as the Biograph or the Edison Company films, the Thanhouser short films have some pretty interesting elements that make a good watch for those interested in the history of early American film-making. The Thanhouser Company would enjoy great popularity in the following years after movies like the 1912 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (starring a young James Cruze) and 1914 "The Million Dollar Mystery" (also with Cruze). Sadly, Thahouser films would end its production in 1917, when the film industry was on a depression (and when most of the major studios had already moved to Hollywood). Still, its movies are, while maybe not masterpieces, a small glimpse of how American film-making was being developed in those early years. despite its shortcomings, "Only in the Way" is a good short movie and the perfect introduction to the movies of the Thanhouser company. 7/10
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The Craft (1996)
A very good teen horror film!
20 August 2007
Since its origins in the "beach films" of the 50s and 60s, the so-called "teen film" genre has been the target of much criticism despite its constant popularity among the audiences. A lot of this comes from the notorious tendency of teen films to be nothing more than clichéd stories done to cash in the popularity of celebrities or fashionable trends, and sadly teen horror, source of most of the worst horror films ever made, is a main offender in this aspect. However, not every horror film aimed to teenagers is dumb, as there have been movies that actually use the conventions of its genre to actually make something interesting and creative with it. Brian De Palma's classic, "Carrie", is probably the best example of this, as it intelligently uses teenage angst as source of horror. While nowhere near De Palma's masterpiece, Andrew Fleming's "The Craft" walks on the same lines with relative success.

In "The Craft", Robin Tunney plays Sarah Bailey, a troubled teenage girl with suicidal tendencies who has recently moved with her family to Los Angeles in order to have a fresh start. In her new school, she meets Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Nancy (Fairuza Balk), three outcast girls who have an interest in the occult and actually are practicing witches. Sarah is invited to join their group after Bonnie notices that Sarah seems to have the real supernatural powers of a natural witch, and after she joins them in their rituals, they discover that with her help they are able to achieve things beyond the normal witchcraft. With this real magical power, the four girls begin to solve their respective problems and everything seems to be perfect, until the ambition for more power overwhelm them, and they discover that everything has a price.

Based on a story by Peter Filardi, "The Craft" was written by director Andrew Fleming and Filardi himself. It is essentially a teen drama with a touch of supernatural horror that, while predictable in its storyline, feels fresh and original thanks to the interesting plot that Filardi creatively develops. What makes it interesting is the amount of research that the writers put on the screenplay, as they based the rituals the characters practice in real witchcraft practices that followers of nature-based religions perform (obviously with exaggerated results); and what's most important, the angle they take on the story is not meant to be disrespectful to followers of those religions, but presents it as a philosophy as valid as any other faith. Of course, it's hard to escape the clichés of teen dramas, but Filardi never fails to make the story entertaining thanks to a good amount of character development.

Director Andrew Fleming takes a very straight forward approach with "The Craft", following to the letter the typical conventions of the teen movie genre, with a dose comedy thrown to good effect, a very modern atmosphere and a polished visual look (courtesy of Alexander Gruszynski's cinematography) designed with the MTV generation in mind. While at first sight this may sound unoriginal, it actually adds to the film's charm, as the overall feeling that results as the horror elements begin to enter the story is one of a teen drama gone to the dark side. The special effects aren't really amazing but they work effectively and even today look pretty good and convincing. Fleming's directing of his cast is another of the elements that make the film good, as nearly everyone gives at least a good performance that helps the film in some way.

As written above, the performances by the cast are something that makes the movie to stand out, starting with Fairuza Balk, who as the lonely and angry Nancy becomes easily the best actress in the cast. Going over-the-top as her character gets more power, Balk makes a villain that is as delightfully insane as she is sympathetic. Robin Tunney is a effective as Sarah, but her performance feels kind of weak when compared to Balk and even Neve Campbell (the fact that as the hero, her character is probably the most clichéd doesn't help). In the supporting roles, Neve Campbell and Rachel True are very good, specially Campbell who despite the relatively small size of the role shows why she would be the one whose career would rise in the following decade. Skeet Ulrich and Christine Taylor also appear in supporting roles with good results, although Ulrich seems to have troubles with his role.

It would be easy to dismiss "The Craft" as just another teen horror film like the many weak movies the genre spawned in the late 90s, but even when it may not be a classic, "The Craft" has a lot going for it that makes it stand out among the rest. True, the story is predictable, disjointed at times, and truly loses some steam at the end; but the way Filardi plays with the moral conflicts between the characters as well as that of being an outcast and having magic powers is pretty interesting. That element together with the fact that it offers a different (and at the time fresh) view on witchcraft and nature-oriented religions makes "The Craft" an interesting and entertaining movie. Still, one has to remember that "The Craft" is first and foremost a supernatural teen drama, so anyone expecting a straight forward horror film will probably be disappointed.

Despite its many flaws, "The Craft" is definitely one of the best American horror movies of the 90s, showing a true understanding of the 90s pop culture and a disposition to play with both the horror and teen movie genres. Sadly, few horror films followed this movie's path and most of the rest of the teen horror movies for the MTV generation ended up having the worst qualities of the genre. It's not "Carrie" but still, "The Craft" is one of the good ones. 8/10
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Another good Harry Potter film...
19 August 2007
More than 10 years after the publication of the first book in the "Harry Potter" series, there's no doubt that J. K. Rowling's fantasy novels are on the way of becoming classics of the genre due to its imaginative world and its captivating story, which has gone from simple tales of adventure to darker and more complex themes as its main character, the young wizard Harry Potter grows up. The fourth installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" began this maturing process, as in that book our hero discovered that fighting against evil, embodied in the figure of Lord Voldemort, wasn't a child's game, as the forces of evil do not hesitate in killing innocents. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", fifth novel in the series, continued and expanded this transformation, and naturally, the movie adaptation followed the same path.

As usual, we find Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) spending the summer at the house of his hateful relatives, the Dursleys, however, something feels different this time, as even when he was the one who discovered that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) had returned, nobody, not even his good friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), had attempted to get in touch with him. Harry suspects something strange is going on, and his suspicion gets confirmed when a group of Dementors attack him and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling), forcing him to use magic to save him. After this event, Harry is informed that he is now expelled from Hogwarts, however, the Order of the Phoenix, a group of elite wizards lead by Harry's former professor Alastor Moody (Brendan Gleeson), appear at the Dursleys' house to take Harry away. It seems that Harry's fifth year has started a bit earlier this time.

Replacing Steve Kloves as scriptwriter for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is writer Michael Goldenberg, who faces the mammoth challenge of adapting Rowling's longest book to film. As any fan of the series should expect, details from the novel had to be omitted, but it must be said that Goldenberg manages to create a script that despite the omissions remains true to the story's spirit by keeping the core themes and staying faithful to the main plot. One of the key elements of the novel's plot is Harry's angst, and Goldenberg manages to successfully explore this aspect in his screenplay, devoting a great deal of it to the developing of Harry's character (something missing in the previous installment). Sadly, this has the consequence of limiting the screen time of the rest of the characters, as even major character such as Ron and Hermione get reduced screen time in this occasion.

As the new person in the director's seat, David Yates wisely decide to keep a sense of continuity between films and follows the same dark visual style that has been part of the series since the third installment ("Prisoner of Azkaban"), keeping the film in tone with the more mature challenges the characters face now that they have grown up and the evil's presence is stronger. A major theme in the movie is how the life at Hogwarts is affected by the many political conspiracies to hide the fact that Voldemort has returned, and fortunately Yates manages to pay enough attention to this aspect without taking the focus out of the main characters. While Yates does give his film a very fast pace, he manages to make the story easy to understand even to those unfamiliar with the novel and the many details that weren't included in the adaptation.

One of the most noticeable things in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is definitely how much has Daniel Radcliffe improved as an actor, as after many years of being the weakest link in the young trio, he finally shows up a considerable development and a real domain over dramatic scenes. Of course, it helps a lot that the script is almost entirely dedicated to his character, although sadly, this also means that Emma Watson and specially Rupert Grint receive almost zero chance to shine, although both make great performances despite this. The rest of the supporting characters suffer of this same thing as well, although Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson and specially Alan Rickman deliver remarkable acting despite the short screen time they have. However, the highlight of the film is Imelda Staunton's acting as Dolores Umbridge, as she delivers what's simply an unforgettable performance.

As written above, anyone expecting a faithful adaptation of the books will be sorely disappointed. To expect the level of detail Kloves and director Chris Columbus had in the first two films is simply pointless, but that doesn't mean Yates and Goldenberg are not talented, one has consider that since "Prisoner of Azkaban", Rowling's seres has grown bigger and deeper than the first two books. True, it's sad not to see some of the most famous scenes of the series in the movie, but what Yates and Goldenberg have done is still impressive as the movie does exactly what the novel did in a flawless way: it gives depth to the characters and completes their transition from kids to teenagers. In fact, the movie's real problem is that it's a bit too fast paced for its own sake, with the events happening at times too quickly to be noticed. I'm sure nobody would complain if 20 extra minutes were added to help slow the pace a bit.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" may not be an adaptation as faithful as hardcore fans would want, but in the end the approach the filmmakers have taken since the third chapter has given the series an identity of its own. This fifth installment is a great addition to the series, as it delivers perfectly the intended message: Harry Potter is not a kid anymore, and his biggest challenge awaits ahead. 8/10
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Bottles (1936)
One of MGM's best cartoons!
15 August 2007
In 1929, Walt Disney Productions began to produce one of the most influential series of short films of all time, "Silly Symphonies". Unlike Disney's other famous series of shorts ("Mickey Mouse"), the "Silly Symphonies" shorts wasn't about the company's famous recurring characters, but were more about experimenting with new techniques and styles of animation. This approach made "Silly Symphonies" very popular, and soon other animation teams began to follow that approach, like Warner Bros' "Merrie Melodies". Among the best of the shorts influenced by "Silly Symphonies" was definitely "Happy Harmonies", a series of musical short films created by former WB employees, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, which was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced in Technicolor, "Happy Harmonies" showed a technical proficiency at times as good as the shorts by Warner and Disney, and 1936's "Bottles" is a good example of this.

The story of "Bottles" is pretty simple: During a dark stormy night, a Druggist is working late making what seems to be a new kind of poison, as the bottle has its top shaped as a skull. The druggist falls asleep, and at this moment, the Bottle of poison comes alive, using a potion to shrink the druggist to the size of a bottle. The druggist awakes, shocked after being magically miniaturized, but his shock becomes marvel as he discovers the secret world of his bottles, who by night come alive and begin to sing. Baby bottles crying in harmony, dancing Scotch whiskey, and two bottles of salt water who dance like sailors are just some of the many bottles who participate in the dancing and the singing with the druggist. However, not everything is fun and party, as the deadly bottle of poison has a secret plan for the druggist, and recruits the witch-hazel and the Spirits of Ammonia for his evil scheme.

Like most of the "Happy Harmonies", the movie was written and produced by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with the music and the songs written by their regular collaborator at MGM, Scott Bradley. As usual in their cartoons, the movie is based on the concept of inanimate things coming to life, in surreal experiences where the inanimate things sing, dance and behave as real persons. Anyways, inn "Bottles" they show a lot more of imagination and wit in the creation of the characters, as while at times the link between the bottle and their persona is pretty obvious, there are a couple where the connection between them is a very creative and unexpected one. The comedy is done in lighthearted fun, although the plot about the Poison bottle has a nice touch of the horror as it's filled with a good dose of suspense. Finally, Bradley's songs are fantastic, and some of the best in an MGM cartoon.

Produced in wonderful Technicolor, "Bottles" is a beautifully looking cartoon that makes excellent use of the variety of colors that the Technicolor process allowed director Hugh Harman to use. Harman brings Bradley's song come alive in remarkably well designed musical numbers where the highly detailed bottles (resembling popular brands of those years) act like singers and dancers in the film's choreographs. The visual look of the movie retains the same style that Harman and Ising had been developed since their years at Warner Brothers, with very fluid and dynamic animation and, as written above, carefully designed characters. Also, given the horror elements of the story, the directors add a nice touch of Gothic atmosphere to the movie that works perfectly within the film, with the serious looking "monster bottles" making good contrast with the "good" bottles.

While there's a lot to praise in "Bottles", it also carries with what was the bane of the musical "Happy Harmonies" films done without Bosko, their signature character: the plots were pretty much the same. So, even when "Bottles" does include some of the cleverest character design of all the "Happy Harmonies" films, when one has seen a film from this series, the rest will invariably look like repetitive. However, if one can get past these flaw, "Bottles" is a very rewarding cartoon, as it manages to play on the many stereotypes of the culture of 1930s without being insulting or disrespectful in any way (as some other short films from those years were). Showing a remarkable use of the Technicolor process, "Bottles" is all about good fun, good music, and of course, a few scares. 8/10
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