March 31, 2011

Some Stylish Facts...

My dear friend, Dr. Morbius, mastermind behind the wonderful blog Krell Laboratories (a blog you should check out, as well as her equally insightful old website, Monsters of the Id), has picked me for her Stylish Blogger Awards, somewhat of an ongoing blogging event. What does this mean? Well, for starters it means that Dr. Morbius likes this humble place, which is in itself a great compliment. But also means that I should share seven "stylish" facts about myself, and tag seven more bloggers which I consider stylish enough for this. Well, her stylish facts were movie facts of course, so I'll refrain from breaking the laws and will have to do the same.

1) My first memory of attending a movie theatre is one visit to a cinema in the center of Mexico City, to see "Starchaser: The Legend of Orin" (1983) in glorious 3-D. However, that did not happen in 1983, as I wasn't even born yet; it should had taken place aroun '87 or '88. Anyways, I remember vividly the old school 3-D glasses, red and cyan, the popcorn smell, my younger brother asleep, everything. Now I know that "Starchaser" is mainly known as an animated "Star Wars" rip-off, but to me, it was the discovery of a new world. The world of cinema, as it was intended to be seen: on the big screen. Probably, I had been at a movie theatre before, but "Starchaser" is the earliest conscious memory of being in one that I have. Gosh, I still remember how cool it was the film's ending for me.

2) Since that early age, I became a devotee of home videos. In my house we had Betamax (which I still hold as the superior format, no matter what), and I began collecting bootleg tapes and recording things from TV. I was very young, and the first movies I remember having were a set of the "National Geographic Specials" series of documentaries. It included for example titles such as "In Search of the Great Apes" (1976), "Man: The Incredible Machine" (1986), and my two favourites: "Egypt: Quest for Eternity" (1982) and "Land of the Tiger" (1985), which I used to watch on a weekly basis (Egypt and tigers were two of my favourite things as a kid). That set was the beginning of my film collection. Amazingly, they musy still be around someplace at home.

3) As could be easily imagined given the content of this blog, I'm a also a devotee of horror films. The film that fully made me a horror fan was David Cronenberg version of "The Fly" (1986). I must have seen it around 1990 or 1991, and it blew me away. Never before had I seen a movie that disturbed me yet fascinated me at the same time. A monster so repulsive yet so tragically sad. The ending broke my heart (it still does), and I couldn't believe I was feeling sad for a monster. It was a whole new world for me in every aspect. Also, the whole thing mesmerized me: how in the hell could the filmmakers create that kind of monster? What was used to make it so real? I became a fan of "behind-the-scenes" videos after that. Oh, and it also left me a huge fear for skin-related diseases that I still have to date. Thank you David Cronenberg! "The Fly" (1986) is still a masterpiece, in my opinion, and it's one of those films I still try to watch at least once every year.

4) Still, movies were just enetertainment for me. A great source for enterteinment, but still nothing more than that. I roamed every mom-n-pop videoclub near my house looking for horror and sci-fi stuff to rent. And so, I discovered misunderstood gems such as the Godzilla films ("Gojira tai Hedora" and "Gojira tai Biorante" were my favourites), as well as the "Planet of the Apes" series. Films like "Adventures in Babysitting", "Big" and of course, "The Goonies" were also part of my usual movie viewing habits, which were based now mainly in the video stores and the tv. I did went to movie theatres, but mainly for big summer blockbusters. However, certain films made me discover more of what a director did at work, as they were unrelated films that carried a notorious and well-defined visual style: the films of Tim Burton. Not surprisingly, the 80s-90s Tim Burton's films became a hero for me and probably my earliest memory of wanting to become a filmmaker myself.

5) When I was fourteen, for some reason one weekend I decided to rent two films that changed my view on cinema forever: "Psycho" (1960) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). Granted, I may have not understood Kubrick's film as a whole, but "Psycho" did made me discover the magic of pre-1970s cinema, and the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The following weekend I rented the 30s version of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" for a Universal double-bill and fell in love with B&W cinematography. Everything was different for me after "Psycho".

6) I kind of believe in the auteur theory that Cahiers du Cinema originated in the late 50s. I know that filmmaking is a collective work, but I find that there's always a certain vision that is followed. Of course, it is not always that of the director, it can be the producer's, the writer's or even the studio's. That said, I have five directors I hold in high regard. Perhaps I'll dislike some of their movies, perhaps even hate a couple of them, but they are my top 5 directors. The 5 names are Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman and John Ford. My goal as a filmmaker is not becoming rich and famous, not even to make a living out of filmmaking, my only goal is to make at least one film in the level of the ones made by those 5 directors, which I consider masters of the craft.

7) That said, in my quest through Luis Buñuel's filmography, I have found that I have not liked his most surrealist films as much as I have liked his most conventional films of the Mexican period. I could not get that much out of "L'Âge d'Or" (1930), and was initially confused by "El ángel exterminador" (1962), despite I did ended up liking it in the end. Still, I'd watch his enormously funny potboiler "La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía" over those two anytime.

8) I'd love to remake "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". Not only because I love Alan Moore's comic book, but because I love the original incarnations of the main characters (and think Moore made them justics in the comic book). It may not be something deep or artsy, but the film version of the comic left me so dissapointed that I take remaking it almost like a moral duty.

8 1/2) I kind of hate Pauline Kael's work as a critic. These two last stylish facts were freebies.

And that would be it. Of course, there's more, as for me, movies have been an integral part of my life. Many nmemories of mine are related to films in some way or another, and so my fascination with cinema is deeply rooted in my soul. From that first time watching "Starchaser" in 3-D to yesterday's viewing of 2011's spy-thriller "Unknown" (at the cinema, holding my beloved girlfriend in my arms), movies are for me, magic. Plain and simple. Cinémagique, as Georges Méliès would probably describe it...

Now I'm suppoused to tag seven bloggers who may be interested in making this. Unfortunately, I don't follow many bloggers (I'd still consider myself new in this, despite having been in W-Cinema since 2007), and the ones I follow, have been dormant for months. And of course, I could not pick Dr. Morbius again, even when I admire her writing quite a lot. So, let's see...

From Scotland, old pal Kevin Matthews from For It Is Man's Number
From Chicago, the awesome Dr. AC from Horror 101
And if you know Spanish, be sure to check out Diez Martínez' Cinevertigo

See you soon at the movies!

P.D. The cat is there cause he's cool.

March 30, 2011

La Hija del Engaño (1951)

In 1950, producer Óscar Dancigers and director Luis Buñuel released "Los Olvidados", a monumental classic about life in Mexico City's slums. While nowadays regarded as a classic of Mexican cinema and one of the crowning gems of Buñuel's career, it stirred controversy at the time of its release, criticized by the authorities and panned by the audiences; and once again, Buñuel's career seemed to verge to the obscurity in which he had been since his exile from Spain. To avoid that, Buñuel kept a low profile and crafted a couple of potboilers to keep working in the Mexican industry, first "Susana" for producer Sergio Kogan, and later "La Hija del Engaño" for Dancigers. "La Hija del Engaño" (literally, "Daughter of Deceit") was special because it was a remake of one of the films Buñuel produced (but not directed) in his native Spain before his exile, "Don Quintín el amargao", based on a popular Spanish play. Writer Luis Alcoriza, another exiled from Spain, simply changed the setting to Mexico and kept the plot intact, as a nostalgic reminder of their Spanish origins.

The story begins in the humble house of Quintín Guzmán (Fernando Soler), an out of luck, yet honest salesman facing severe financial problems. His wife María (Lily Aclemar) feels angry and disappointed, but Quintín finds solace in his baby daughter Martha. One day his friend Julio (Álvaro Matute) offers him a deal in another city and Quintín decides to take it. Forced to return earlier than expected, a shocked Quintín finds María in bed with Julio, and his dormant anger is unleashed. After Julio escapes, Quintín forces María out of his house, demanding her to leave him alone with his daughter; however, María shouts that Martha is Julio's daughter. Quintín becomes even angrier and abandons baby Martha at the door of a rural house outside the city. Years go by, and Quintín has become a ruthless, bitter casino owner. One day he is informed that María is dying, and in her deathbed, she confesses that she lied that day: Martha is really Quintín's daughter. Now, Quintín must find his long lost daughter again, but he is going to reap what he sowed.

As mentioned above, "La Hija del Engaño" is a new adaptation of "Don Quintín el Armargao o El que siembra vientos..." (literally, "Don Quintin the bitter, or he who reap winds..."), a play by Don Carlos Arniches which became a great success during the 1920s in Spain. Writers Luis and Janet Alcoriza adapted it to Mexico, and kept the mixture of drama, romance and light-hearted comedy that made the play so popular. While the plot line sounds like the perfect basis for a powerful and deep family drama, "La Hija del Engaño" carries a fair share of comedic elements that transform the whole thing into a farcical situation, very much in tone with its roots in Spanish theatre. While this mix may sound odd at first, it actually works very well in this story filled with charming characters, witty lines and serendipitous situations. It could be said that the film is a criticism of machismo (and capitalism perhaps, as Don Quintín only succeeds financially when he enters the gambling business), but in the end it is more an entertaining farce than a morality play of some kind.

"La Hija del Engaño" is one of director Luis Buñuel's most conventional films (probably the most conventional after 1947's "Gran Casino"), in the sense that it lacks those subtle touches of irreverence that the surrealist master often added to his films. Even previous potboilers such as "El Gran Calavera" and "Susana" contained a greater amount of Buñuel's idiosyncrasies in them. In this case, given the film's origins in theatre and the fact that it's a remake from a previous film he produced, one could almost state that "La Hija del Engaño" is completely a product of Spanish nostalgia. Crafted in a traditional, restrained way, Buñuel simply lets the performances from his cast to be the driving force of the film, their lines and actions taking greater importance than any surreal visual flare. Still, certain elements make this updated "Don Quintín" to be a particular product of its era: its decidedly urban design, almost "noirish", with Don Quinín becoming akin to a gangster. The work of production designer Edward Fitzgerald is remarkable considering the low budget.

The cast as a whole really makes a great job through the film, making the most out of their characters and creating a new, very distinctively Mexican interpretation of "Don Quintín". In his third film with Luis Buñuel, Mexican actor Fernando Soler leads the cast as Don Quintín himself. As expected, Soler makes a quite powerful and imposing Don Quintín, filling the screen with his presence and creating a surprisingly natural character. This is probably Soler's greatest asset: he makes Don Quintín's transformation from good natured salesman to ruthless businessman quite believable. It would had been too easy to make it a caricature, yet Soler makes the best out of it. Also worth of notice is the work by comedians Nacho Contla and Fernando Soto, who play Don Quintín's henchmen. The enormously talented Soto shines in his role as the lecherous yet cowardly Angelito. Rubén Rojo fares better in this film than in his previous work with Buñuel ("El Gran Calavera"), and at times does become a nice counterpart to Soler's Don Quintín.

Oddly enough, the cast's weakest link are in the two main female roles: as Don Quintín's wife María, Lily Aclemar is too prone to overacting in her scenes. The classic excesses of acting in Mexican melodramas plague her performance and the result is an excessively dramatic rendition that contrasts negatively with Soler's restrained subtlety. Slightly better is Alicia Caro, who plays the daughter of deceit herself. Caro fails to portray the impetuously rebel yet naive personality of Martha, and her scenes at the rural house show a certain tendency to overact. It is only when she is in the big city and shares the screen with Rubén Rojo and Fernando Soler that she rises up to the challenge and truly delivers. The rest of the cast is quite effective, and honestly, the film works nicely despite its flaws and low budget. If "La Hija del Engaño" has a real sin, that would be simply just how conventional it ultimately is. The fact that comes from a respected master of surrealist cinema only increases the slight sense of disappointment one may feel when watching it.

Because while the film is certainly good entertainment of high quality, it's maybe just a bit too typical, too conventional, and too forgettable for its own sake. Even Buñuel himself would later claim that there was little that he could say about it because he just didn't remember much about the film. If anything, one can just feel that the cast and crew enjoyed the making of it, and that, at least in its inception, there was a genuine love from the side of Buñuel and Alcoriza in trying to adapt a cherished work of their youth at home, to their new Mexican audience. While a nice slice of Mexican cinema and a chance to see a different side of Luis Buñuel's work, probably "La Hija del Engaño" would disappoint those expecting a more surrealist kind of work. But as has been said previously in these pages, even Buñuel's most conventional potboilers have a discreet charm of their own.


March 18, 2011

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Story says that when a deal for a co-produced movie set in Spanish Civil War fell, legendary British producer Anthony Hinds of Hammer Films decided to use the already built sets in a horror movie of their own in order to at least recover some of the investment. With time and budget against him, Hinds decided to write the screenplay himself, getting inspiration from the legendary 1933 horror novel, "The Werewolf of Paris", by Guy Endore. Writing under the pen name of John Ender, Hinds made his very own adaptation of the classic novel, and titled it "The Curse of the Werewolf". The setting was changed from Paris to 18th Century Spain and the bits about the Franco-Prussian War suppressed, but the eroticism and the tragic Gothic horror were left there. Filmmaker Terence Fisher, Hammer's most successful director at the time (having almost singlehandedly developed Hammer horror with 1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein" and 1958's "Dracula"), was the man chosen to give life to Hinds' epic tragedy of a man born under the terrible curse of the Werewolf.

The story of "The Curse of the Werewolf" begins with the arrival of a poor beggar (Richard Wordsworth) to Spaniard county, where he becomes the victim of the Marques' (Anthony Dawson) sadism and finds himself a prisoner at the castle. Time goes by and many years later a beautiful mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain) refuses the Marques' advances and ends in the same cage as the beggar who, driven mad because of his captivity, brutally rapes the young woman. After that tragic event, the servant manages to escape from the castle, only to be found by Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), who takes the woman home in order to take care of her. To his surprise, the girl was pregnant, and her child is born on Christmas Day; a day when according to an old legend, demons attempt to possess unwanted babies. Named Leon (Oliver Reed), the child becomes a young man; but the tragic circumstances of his birth have put him under a devilish curse: his soul and the demon battle over his body, making him to become a werewolf when the full moon shines over the sky.

As a writer, Anthony Hinds does a very good job at adapting this Endore's werewolf story, as while his story lacks the most lurid details of Endore's novel, he manages to keep the essence of the novel intact (its eroticism and darkness) despite being really a loose adaptation. The most captivating element of "The Curse of the Werewolf", is the way it handles the tragic nature of the curse, establishing it as an irremediable dark fate that ultimately awaits for Leon in the shape of a brutal change that he can't avoid to make. Leon suffers from a "disease" he didn't asked for, he simply was born with it. Hinds plays with this aspect of tragedy without excessive melodrama but with an overwhelming sense of impeding doom that makes the movie akin to a horror version of a Greek tragedy. Hinds' way to introduce his audience to Leon's story may be excessively long and slow (almost the entire first third is dedicated to the events previous to Leon's birth), but in the end it really pays off as one can't help but feeling captivated by this carefully constructed tragic myth.

In the early 60s, director Terence Fisher was now regarded as Hammer Films' best director, and his remarkable work in "The Curse of the Werewolf" is further proof that such claim was not baseless, as it's definitely on par with the previous classics he had made for the British production company. Fisher gives great use to the lavish sets and the production design by the ever reliable Bernard Robinson, and makes of "The Curse of the Werewolf" one of his most beautifully looking films. Arthur Grant's work of cinematography captures the colorful and vibrant style previously developed by Jack Asher (Hammer's previous regular director of photography), though perhaps less elaborate. Despite the budget constrains, Fisher creates a Gothic atmosphere of dread that suits perfectly Hinds' tragic story. Speaking of Fisher's take on the script, this is probably the film that better represents Fisher's obsession with the dual nature of evil, and he takes full advantage of his character's dilemma to create powerful scenes of suspense, drama, and subtle yet no less exotic eroticism.

The cast as a whole makes a really good job in "The Curse of the Werewolf", with Oliver Reed being simply perfect as the cursed Leon. Reed's natural charm and powerful presence on-stage really enhance his character's beastly nature. It's a great performance as a man who tries to be good despite having a beast inside. Amongst the many actors who have portrayed werewolves in film, Reed is probably the one who best captures the duality of man and beast. While Reed is without a doubt the star, the highlight of the movie is Clifford Evans, whose performance as Leon's uncle, Don Alfredo, is heartbreaking in its delivery, and certainly brings back good memories of Claude Rains in "The Wolf Man" (1941). Actress Catherine Feller, playing Leon's love interest, is probably the weakest link in the cast, although this doesn't mean she gives a bad performance, but her presence is easily overshadowed by her peers. Hira Talfrey and John Gabriel make an excellent job in the supporting roles of the film, giving the film a heart and completing the main cast of the movie.

"The Curse of the Werewolf" is one of Hammer's most enjoyable movies, combining perfectly period drama with horror, and being another great example or that classic "Hammer look" of brilliant colors and haunting atmospheres. As written above, it is also a story where Fisher's thematic obsessions could be exploited the best, and the tragic angle the story had, served as great basis for one of his most emotionally powerful films. However, it's safe to say that the movie suffers from some quibbles that lessen the film's power. The main flaw is perhaps the fact that the movie is too short for the kind of epic story the script attempts to narrate: it starts very nicely, slowly developing the tragic events with good rhythm, but all of a sudden, some scenes feel a bit too rushed, specially in the final third. Certainly the budgetary constrains had a hand in this, and it's a shame that the flow of the story is not constant as it does feel like a lot was missing. Low production values take its toll in the film's look, but it's still amazing what the production did with what they got.

Along with classics like "The Wolf Man" and "An American Werewolf in London", Terence Fisher's "The Curse of the Werewolf" easily ranks as one of the most enjoyable horror stories about werewolves ever told. The way it conveys the tragedy of the curse and Leon's futile attempts to control it make the movie an excellent film, not only within the horror genre, but in cinema in general. The duality between man and beast is a major theme of most werewolf films, but few manage to capture the internal struggle of the werewolf like this movie. More than 50 years after the release of "The Curse of the Werewolf" and watching how powerful it still is, it's safe to say that the botched deal that prompted Hinds to write this movie was one of the best happy accidents ever.


March 17, 2011

My Soul to Take (2010)

Filmmaker Wes Craven has had extreme ups and downs through his career in the horror genre: he has redefined the genre and creating some of horror most iconic images in classics such as "The Last House on the Left", "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream"; yet, at the same time he's been responsible of creating unremarkable movies of a quality ranging from mediocre to poor, like for example "Shocker", "Vampire in Brooklyn" and "Cursed". Regardless of quality, if there's something that can be said of Craven's entire body of work is that a very specific theme continues to appear in each of his films: his particular vision of horror Americana. The monster that hides inside the suburbs, the real and imagined horrors of adolescence, the reality behind urban legends, and even the nature of reality itself; Craven has taken those themes to build up his modern American mythology. 2010's "My Soul to Take" is another slice of Craven's horror Americana, but unfortunately, it is far from being a high spot in Craven's career.

"My Soul to Take" begins 16 years ago, the small town of Riverton lived the horror of serial killer Abel Plankov (Raul Esparza), the Riverton Ripper. Plankov's murder spree ended the night when he escaped from the police and disappeared in the woods. Seven children were born that night, and soon went to be known collectively as the Riverton Seven, a light of hope after the nightmare the town lived. But legend tells that the Ripper would return to murder those seven children. 16 years later, the Riverton seven have lived with that local legend still haunting their lives, with some taking it as a legend, and others fearing it will come true. Adam "Bug" Heller (Max Thieriot) belongs to the latter group; a shy and innocent kid often taken as slow by his peers, begins to have nightmarish visions of the other teens getting murdered. His mental stability will be put to test when kids begin to disappear, and trusting only his best friend Alex (John Magaro), Bug will have to face his worst fear: the possibility that the Riverton Ripper legend will become true.

Once again, Wes Craven returns to familiar territory with a mix of supernatural horror and slasher film, all wrapped under a new urban legend of his creation: the Riverton Ripper. Interestingly, Craven sets up the origin of his legend, with the initial scenes depicting the conclusion of the Riverton murders. Flashforward 16 years later and the inhabitants of the small town of Riverton have developed their very own legend about their modern bogeyman; complete with a ritual that their heirs, the Riverton Seven, decide to perform every year to exorcise their own demons. Is the legend real or not? "My Soul to Take" is based on that question, on that doubt; and to Craven's credit, the premise is certainly promising. Unfortnately, the development of the story is pretty much a rehashing of typical elements of modern horror, elements that Craven himself helped to define in the 80s. Basically, the story begins to fall to pieces as every twist makes it feel less like an original film and more like an amateurish copy of Craven's own "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream".

In terms of execution, Craven still has that polished visual style he developed in the 80s, and "My Soul to Take" has a certain retro vibe that makes the film feel look like a product of that era. Cinematographer Petra Korner did a good job to capture that old school atmosphere of 80s teenage horror films: Riverton and its Ripper are truly at home within the elements of Craven's horror Americana. Unfortunately, all those stylistic reminiscences only make the film to look even more like a bad cover version of Craven's past glories. Full of common places, awful quick editing and some of the worst horror sequences ever directed by Craven; "My Soul to Take" crashes any hope to live up to its initial potential. Being a slasher, at least the murder sequences should be interesting but sadly, it features horror scenes shockingly unimaginative, badly set up and all in all not scary at all. Oddly, the only time when "My Soul to Take" begins to work is in the brief yet marvelous moments that develop Bug and Alex's friendship.

The acting through the film is pretty average for the most part, though some of the young actors do show potential. Leading the cast is Max Thieriot, playing the troubled teenager Bug. Wooden and stiff, Thieriot looks bored through the film, failing to capture the mixture of innocence and madness Bug has (though to be fair, it's not as if the characters were well written). Better luck has John Magaro, who plays Bug's best friend Alex. Showing good comedic timing, Magaro adds some life to the film, and is one of the cast's best elements. However, the real highlight is Emily Meade, who plays the feared leader of school's society, Fang. Meade shows real talent to build up a character, giving a lot of attitude to the role. However, like Magaro, all the effort is wasted during the last third of the film, where the film seems to betray itself and becomes another typical slasher. The rest of the cast is pretty mediocre at best, specially the adults, with Raúl Esparza being the only saving grace amongst them.

To be fair, not everything in Wes Craven's "My Soul to Take" is bad; as written above, moments that develop the character's friendship do feel like from a different film. Comedy and teenage drama are handled quite good there (the Condor scene for example), and makes one wonder if Craven would be happier at directing a teenage comedy instead of another run of the mill rehash of slasher clichés. And it is not that clichés are bad per se (done well, they work wonders), it's the poor way they are employed in "My Soul to Take" what gives it a pretty amateurish look. Lacking the post-modern black comedy of "Scream", the clichés make "My Soul to Take" to become the kind of slasher that Craven himself criticized with that film. In the end, the root of all the problems in "My Soul to Take" is its screenplay: a poorly developed script plagued with illogical twists, stereotypical characters, silly dialogs (including the killer's one-liners) and a poorly conceived mystery complete with an awfully directed scene of shocking revelations (that looks like something out of a soap opera).

The icing of the cake is the terrible decision of the U.S. distributors to convert the film to 3D in the wake of the popularity that format currently has. Since the film was conceived in 2D, the effect is minimal and ultimately a cheap ripoff. In the end, "My Soul to Take" is a pretty poor offering from legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven, who seems to had been more focused on preparing "Scream 4" than in the making of this film. A typical rehash of common slasher elements, perhaps if "My Soul to Take" had been an early work from a novel director, its shortcomings would be a tad more forgivable. But coming from the man who redefined the genre, it's truly nothing short of a disappointment. Too bad, as "My Soul to Take" did have an interesting premise and a powerful initial sequence. It should be taken as a great example of how a group of great ideas are wasted when there is no real direction to follow.


March 15, 2011

Bat sin fan dim ji yan yuk cha siu bau (1993)

In the early 80s, popular actor Danny Lee (famous for his work in action films) became director and producer of his own films, and by the end of the decade was already a major player in Hong Kong's movie industry. This position allowed him an enormous amount of power during the 90s boom of Hong Kong cinema, and made him the discoverer of future famous stars (like Stephen Chow for example) and producer of a wide array of fresh and interesting films by upcoming filmmakers. Among those, Herman Yau's "Bat sin Fan Dim Ji Yan Yuk Cha Siu Bau" (known in English as "Human Pork Chop" or "The Untold Story"), is certainly one of the most popular in the Western world, and one of the better known movies of the CAT III rating (originally for pornography, but also covered grisly exploitation and horror films) that was introduced by the Hong Kong government during those years. Suppousedly based on a true crime story, "The Untold Story" turns out to be very powerful film that truly lives to its reputation as one of the most brutal films of Hong Kong cinema.

The plot in "The Untold Story" begins with the grizzly discovery of a plastic bag containing decomposing body parts in a lonely Macao beach. The young and unexperienced police team assigned to the case is confused, completely clueless and disoriented, never having faced a case of such a horrible nature; however, lead by the suave officer Lee (Danny Lee), the team begins to find clues pointing to Wong Chi Hang (Anthony Wong), a Hong Kong native, owner of the popular Eight Immortals Restaurant. As the cops discover that Wong had just bought the place to his former boss under strange circumstances, they try to track down the previous owner; nevertheless, every attempt to find him or his family proves to be futile. The discovery of Wong's dark past in Hong Kong prompts his arrest, but at the station, the odd man still refuses to admit having committed the crime. Officer Lee decides to take severe measures to force his confession, but not even the determined detective will be prepared to hear the horrific details of Wong Chi Hang's Untold Story.

Written by Law Kam Fai (author of another famous CAT III film, "Dr. Lamb"), the story unfolds as a typical police procedural movie, detailing the work of the cops trying to figure out the identity of the criminal; however, two extremely different elements set "The Untold Story" apart from similar stories: the dark and hauntingly realistic portrayal of the psycho killer, and the no less dark sub-theme of police brutality. The odd addition of offbeat comedy (in the shape of the team of bumbling cops) disrupts the haunting mood and its an unnecessary addition that tarnishes the film instead of of serving as comic relief. Nevertheless, when it gets serious, "The Untold Story" shines the most, contrasting the sadistic acts of a madman with the equally sadistic interrogation techniques of the police. It may seem gratuitous, as if each act of violence was attempting to top the previous one in brutality; however, violence is more unnerving than exploitative, and all in all serves the purpose of showcasing police authority as clumsily overconfident at best, and stupidly ineffective at worst.

While labeled as one of the most shocking Asian horror films, "The Untold Story" is surprisingly not as graphically gory as one would expect with such title; the shock and the horror originate not from what's seen, but from what takes place in off-screen. Directors Danny Lee and Herman Yau build up a disturbing atmosphere, very much in tone with the unbalance mind of Wong. Employing a stylish narrative, directors Yau and Lee cleverly orchestrate the grotesque details of the crimes in such a harrowing, powerful way that, no matter that the actual act takes place off-screen, the horrific effect is still felt. Having the audience's imagination to fill the gaps is a powerful device directors Yau and Lee use to full effect, ultimately making the violence portrayed frighteningly real despite not being strictly graphic. One doesn't need to see the cut to feel the pain. The raw and gritty style Yau and Lee use for the film (mainly for budgetary reasons) only enhance the realism of the movie, and together with Wong's brilliant performance result a movie very hard to forget.

Definitely one of the elements that really make the difference between "The Untold Story" and similar exploitation movies (Asian or not) is the top notch performance of Anthony Wong as the enigmatic Wong Chi Hang. Menacing and cold, yet frighteningly human, Anthony Wong captures so well the traits of this unbalanced psychotic character that one can't help but believe that the man on screen is truly a demented person. Anthony Wong's fascinating portrayal of the monster behind the glasses is definitely the film's highlight. Action veteran Danny Lee, as Officer Lee, offers a balance between the darkness of Wong and the silliness of the police team. Lee adds a factor of coolness that gives edge to his smooth and witty character, and contrasts with the clumsiness and naiveté of the cops (though certainly, none of them is a model of police ethic). The young cops are portrayed by equally young actors, and their performances range from average to poor. The exception is Emily Kwan, who plays Bo, the only female in the team, being the only one genuinely funny in her comedic turn.

Harrowingly disturbing and remorselessly grizzly, "The Untold Story" is truly a movie difficult to watch; yet, while terrifyingly crude, the sadistic and violent portrait it makes of the crime is strangely captivating in a way that few horror movies manage to achieve. But even when "The Untold Story" is one of the best CAT III movies of its time, it's definitely not without flaws, and one of them really brings down the movie, preventing it from being a masterpiece of its genre: the odd addition of silly comedy, and bad comedy while we are at it. In a fashion remarkably similar to Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left" (1972), the bumbling cops make for a comic relief that is so silly and stupid, that feels unnecessary and out of place. As in Craven's groundbreaking film, the odd mix doesn't work that well, and tarnishes an otherwise brutal movie (though, it must be said that the effect is less silly than in Craven's film). The film's low production values are also notorious, but sometimes that also adds to the atmosphere, giving the film a fitting raw, unpolished look.

As one could easily imagine by now, it is obvious that "The Untold Story" is not a movie for everyone. The powerful and violent descent to the killer's mind is a harrowing experience not for the squeamish, but it is also a very rewarding movie. Anthony Wong's unforgettable performance, together with the film's dark grizzly tone, its captivating storyline, and its carefully constructed brutal violent imagery make "The Untold Story" the perfect example that exploitation movies can mean more than gratuitous graphic violence. Not that there's something wrong with gratuitous graphic violence, but in "The Untold Story" (like Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust"), it enhances the atmosphere and horror in a powerful way. Shocking, disturbing and unnerving, Herman Yau's "The Untold Story", or "Bat sin Fan Dim Ji Yan Yuk Cha Siu Bau" is in a class of its own.


March 14, 2011

Susana (1951)

The year of 1949 was an important one for Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as it was the year of his first commercial success, "El Gran Calavera". It was his first real hit after 20 years of exile, failed projects and commercial flops. The success of "El Gran Calavera" allowed Buñuel and producer Óscar Dancigers to make anything, and the result was 1950's "Los Olvidados", a masterful work that portrayed the cruel brutality of the life of children in Mexico City slums. Unfortunately, the audience's reaction to the film was far from warm, and earned them threats of censorship and even expulsion from the country. A couple of years later, opinions about the film would change and "Los Olvidados" would earn its status as one of Buñuel's masterpieces, but before that happened, the exiled filmmaker had to return to the craft of potboilers for hire. "Susana" was the first of these films, a film he later would describe as "a perfectly routine film about which I've nothing to say". Well, not to contradict the master but, there certainly are things to say about it.

Also known as "Susana (Carne y demonio)" (name that when translated, gives the film its English title, "The Devil and the Flesh"), the movie is the story of Susana (Rosita Quintana), a young woman who escapes from women's reformatory during a stormy night, and arrives to the ranch of Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler), looking for shelter. Deceived by Susana's innocent looks, Doña Carmen (Matilde Palou) decides to give her shelter and employ her as a maid. Susana takes full advantage of this chance for her own benefit and quickly begins to exercise control over every male in the ranch, creating chaos and discord amongst them thanks to her tempting good looks and wild seductive charm. From the ranch's foreman Jesús (Víctor Manuel Mendoza), to Don Guadalupe's son and heir Alberto (Luis López Somoza), everyone is fighting to win Susana's favors, bringing the ranch to chaos and unrest while Doña Carmen remains naive about it. However, Susana's ambitions get higher when she puts her ambitious eyes on none other than Don Guadalupe himself.

Based on a story by Manuel Reachi (itself inspired by 1929's film "The Squall") and adapted to the screen by Jaime Salvador and Buñuel himself, "Susana" is at first sight a predictable rural melodrama, not too different from those that were popular in the Mexican film industry during the 40s and 50s. However, on close examination, it is more a subversion of the genre's conventions and a strike full of irony (uninspired but irony nonetheless) against traditional social conventions. Every archetype of Mexican rural melodrama is represented here: the womanizing foreman, the strong patriarchal figure, the scholarly young man; even the superstitious old maid and the sacrificed mother are here, and all are pitted each other by the figure of Susana, whose cunning and ambition are only matched by her beauty and her unbridled sexuality. For Buñuel, the apparent calm of the bourgeois household is so fragile, that all it takes is a no-nonsense woman like Susana, modern goddess of discord, to bring out the worst of each member of the family and destroy their hypocrisy.

Working with a low budget and on an extremely tight schedule, Buñuel crafts his film with an acute economy of elements, but with an effective narrative sense that still manages to showcase his very own sensibilities and fetishes. The seductress Susana, constantly adjusting her clothes to show more skin, is the channel the director employs to make his statement: in a sexually oppressive society, sex can become a quite effective weapon. While such topic may sound like the perfect theme for a steamy erotic drama, Buñuel's eye is not so much on exploring the hot details of Susana's voracious sexuality, but more on the destructive yet strangely comical effects it causes on the family members, making the film take a more farcical tone. This handling of the theme of a mischievous stranger disrupting a bourgeois household makes "Susana" a virtual descendant of 1932's "Boudu sauvé des eaux", although Buñuel's view is certainly less polished this time than Renoir's film. Unfortunately, Buñuel's caricature lacks the strength and boldness of his better known output.

Acting is effective, and while not exactly extraordinary by any means. Argentinian actress Rosita Quintana plays sultry temptress Susana, and she gives her character a wild energy, strong attitude and sly malevolence that truly make Susana an unforgettable character. Given the fact that she was working with a walking stereotype, it's safe to say that Quintana may had done wonders with a better developed character. The same could be said of Fernando Soler, whose dignified presence and strong yet subtle delivery add a lot of humanity to his role. If there's someone who really connects with the audience, that is Don Guadalupe, and a lot of that is because of Soler's work. As the naive Doña Carmen, Matilde Palou is quite good, though not on the level of Soler. The fact that she plays another underwritten character doesn't help, though she does shine in the climatic scene. As Felisa, the old maid, María Gentil Arcos is actually funny, with her overacting being enough to play on the farcical tone of the film, but not enough to be a bother.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't that lucky, and while Víctor Manuel Mendoza is not downright bad (just simply average), the performance by Luis López Somoza as the young Alberto is painfully bad. A troubled and emotional character with many chances to be exploited gets wasted by a wooden actor with an almost mechanical delivery and incapable of showing any emotion. Nevertheless, as atrocious as it is, López Somoza's acting not something that could make the film unbearable by any means. In fact, "Susana" is a quite entertaining film despite its obvious shortcomings (low production values and average quality acting) and its greatest sin is perhaps, that the envelope is not pushed too far: it is a subversive parody on the rural melodrama, but somehow, the film lacks teeth. Too unconventional to be fully enjoyed (Susana as a character is hard to like, and the exaggerated tone of the film isn't well developed), yet too bland to be a full-fledged farce, Buñuel leaves "Susana" as a rough sketch of certain themes he would explore later in his career.

Taken as another rural melodrama (and thanks to Quintana and Soler's popularity), the film was another success that saved Buñuel's career from returning to oblivion again. Critical reception wasn't as generous, specially those who did see the genius in "Los Olvidados" and were expecting another film of the same caliber. However, it wouldn't be fair to dismiss "Susana" as a cheap potboiler done for the money (even if that's exactly what it is), as the film has enough elements to make for an interesting and entertaining viewing for a fan of the surrealist master. Buñuel's touches are everywhere, and shades of his posterior work can be seen all over it (as written above, it is literally like an unfinished sketch of things to come). In the end, "Susana" proves that even Buñuel's potboilers had a very distinctive soul of their own.


March 04, 2011

Los Olvidados (1950)

After 13 years of not directing a film, exiled filmmaker Luis Buñuel found a job again in Mexico working as a hired gun for producer Óscar Dancigers in 1946's musical melodrama "Gran Casino". Unfortunately, the film was a tremendous commercial failure, and it seemed that the Spanish filmmaker's best days were long gone. However, Dancigers did not lose faith in Buñuel, and when a director was needed for Fernando Soler's vehicle "El Gran Calavera" ("The Great Madcap"), Dancigers called him again, as Soler was willing to hire anyone. The result was completely different this time: "El Gran Calavera" became a huge hit and essentially resurrected Buñuel's career. This success prompted Dancigers to offer Buñuel to make a new film together, a more serious and artistic one. Buñuel had already an idea for the film: heavily surprised by Vittorio De Sica's "Sciuscià" ("Shoeshine") and "Ladri di biciclette" ("Bicycle Thieves"), he wanted to make a movie about the slum children of Mexico city. The result was simply one of the best Mexican movies ever done, "Los Olvidados".

Better known in English as "The Young and the Damned" (though its literal translation would be "The Forgotten Ones"), "Los Olvidados" tells the story of a group of young slum kids trying to survive their daily crime-filled lives in the streets of Mexico City. El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), the teenage leader of a street gang, escapes from reformatory and reunites with his gang, composed of other homeless children. Amongst them is Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), a young kid who manages to track down Julián (Javier Amézcua), the youngster responsible of Jaibo's imprisonment. Confronting Julián about it, the boy denies having denounced Jaibo to the police and tries to escape, however, Jaibo hits him in the head with a rock, and beats him to death. Pedro is the only witness of the murder, and Jaibo convinces him that he is now an accomplice. This event enhances Pedro's own moral conflicts, as his desire to be better (and a desire of being loved by his mother) gets at odds with the world he lives in, and his attempts to escape from it seem to go nowhere.

Written by Buñuel, his regular collaborator Luis Alcoriza, and an uncredited Juan Larrea; "Los Olvidados" is a harsh, crude and gritty view on the life of slum children. While not exactly an entirely original theme (besides the above mentioned Italian films, there are even traces of Dickens in the plot), what makes "Los Olvidados" such a haunting experience is the pessimism that permeates its screenplay. Without remorse, "Los Olvidados" shows a world of decadence where there is no exit to the cycle of violence and misery. Humanity, rotten at its core, leaves its children forgotten, alone facing a world that has already chosen that there is no place for them. El Jaibo, wild and cruel, seems like the other side of Pedro, whose desire to change comes from a longing for motherly love. Great character development makes them to transcend their almost Dickensian design and become realistic portraits of life on the streets. There is no glamorization in Buñuel and Alcoriza's tale, no sentimentalism and no comic relief, just an honest attempt for objectivity. An objectivity that hurts.

While the themes of misery and poverty had already been tackled by Buñuel in his surrealist documentary "Las Hurdes" (1933), they take a whole different meaning in "Los Olvidados". It is a film, probably his only one, in which he opts for taking a straight approach and shows his views on modern society's monstrosity without his usual resources of witty satire and ironic black humor. It's still Buñuel's bleak pessimism, but this time in a raw, pure and undistilled fashion. There is no nobility in poverty, no fraternity amongst miserables, it's to live or die, plain and simple. This harsh objectivity in which he presents life in the depths of the urban jungle could easily be confused with the neorealism of the Italian films that inspired him; but Buñuel doesn't fully take that route, instead taking us to a surreal urban nightmare that allows not only to experience what the characters live, but also what they think, what they dream, and what they feel. The sympathy towards the forgotten ones comes then, not from manipulative sentimentalism, but from the characters' intrinsic humanity.

And young actors Alfonso Mejía and Roberto Cobo, Pedro and Jaibo respectively, are the ones with the responsibility of channeling that humanity through the screen. Already a seasoned theatre actor despite his young age, Cobo makes of Jaibo one of the most interesting characters in Mexican cinema. Savage and cruel, yet at the same time intelligent and sensible, Jaibo represents the potential of youth wasted in evil. Cobo gives Jaibo a sly viciousness and a wild sensuality that truly makes him the opposite of Pedro, the sensitive young kid torn between his need for survival and the almost Oedipal love he feels for his mother (Estela Inda). In his first acting job, Mejía showcases a great talent and natural charm, which result in a powerfully honest and realistic performance as Pedro. The rest of the cast is composed of veterans such as Miguel Inclán (in an unforgettable role) and Francisco Jambrina; as well as real slum kids (another parallel with Italian neorrealism) who truly made a great job in portraying their lives on screen.

"Los Olvidados"' harsh reality is captured by Gabriel Figueroa, the legendary cinematographer of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema. Figueroa's work in "Los Olvidados" is certainly different than the stylish natural beauty he captures in Emilio Fernández' rural dramas. Figueroa opts to take inspiration in more realist work: an almost documentary look surrounds the film as it brings to the screen the darkness of the urban jungle that are Mexico City's slums. However, this realism is only apparent, as the Figueroa stylish touch can still be felt in the overwhelmingly atmospheric cinematography of the film's most famous sequence: Pedro's nightmare. Buñuel and Figueroa crafted in "Los Olvidados" some of the most haunting and evocative images in Mexican cinema. The violent and gritty "Los Olvidados" was specifically a rupture with the Mexican style of urban dramas. The notorious lack of sentimentalism and the pessimism of the film make a sharp contrast to 1948's "Nosotros los pobres", which takes a decidedly populist and idealistic view on a the same subject.

This rupture was not well received initially, as many groups of intellectuals and the government felt that Buñuel was portraying an undesirable side of Mexican society, a side that was not convenient to show. Nevertheless, opinion about the film changed drastically when it became known that Buñuel had won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival with "Los Olvidados". A crowning gem of Mexican cinema, "Los Olvidados" remains a powerful document on life in the streets, as its themes are relevant even today (certainly, Mexico City's slums could be any city's slums). While probably not Buñuel's most representative work (it is unique even amongst his films), "Los Olvidados" stands out as a masterpiece of cinema, as harrowing as it was when originally released.