Thursday, November 22, 2012

El Violin (2005) **½

In an unnamed Latin-American country, a loosely organized peasant rebellion struggles against an oppressive government army.  The Mexican film “El Violin” doesn’t really get more specific than that in terms of where or when the story takes place.  When government forces invade a rebel village, they force the villagers to leave behind a secret ammo stash.  While soldiers camp out in the captured village, Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and his desperate rebels try to figure out a way to get to their munitions.  Genaro’s elderly father, a one-handed violinist and farmer, takes it upon himself to solve the problem.
If I thought the violin might be a fun, lighthearted story, I was completely wrong.  The movie opens with a brutal scene of torture, and while the mood occasionally lightens a bit, it generally remains grim.  The film never makes it clear what the rebels are fighting against; I guess “oppression” in general.  It doesn’t really matter.  The theme is how the spirit of freedom and rebellion lives on, passed from generation to generation.  There is also an exploration of how people might be different given different circumstances.  The army captain is a brutal man of war, but he discovers a belated interest in music under the tutelage of the old violinist.
I watched “El Violin” largely as part of my Spanish-language study.  On its merits as a film, I would say it is a bit too naturalistic for me.  It is a well-told story, however, with excellent performances and some beautiful footage of the Mexican countryside.  For a viewer who won’t mind the pervasive grimness of the tale, it is worth checking out.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Argo (2012) ***

Eight bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!  The crowd-pleasing Oscar-bait that is “Argo” is a thrill to watch, and it cements Ben Affleck’s reputation as a filmmaker.
In case you haven’t heard, “Argo” is based on the events of 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran, starting the Iran Hostage Crisis.  A few Americans slipped out while the takeover was occurring, and they hid out for over a month in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  They lived in constant fear of being discovered until CIA agent Tony Mendez, with considerable help from the Canadians, appeared to sneak them out of the country using an elaborate cover story about being a Canadian film crew.
At the time, the return of the six Americans was celebrated with many thanks to our friends in Canada, but the details of the operation, including the involvement of the CIA, were classified for over two decades.  Once it was finally declassified, under Bill Clinton, the made-for-Hollywood saga was detailed in a book by Tony Mendez, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
That’s the mythology, anyway.  I was interested to learn that the escapade was first portrayed in a 1981 TV movie, “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper.”  Just from the titles you can see the difference in emphasis between the two versions of the story.  Presumably, the TV movie didn’t include the involvement of the CIA, which would still have been classified at that time.  Many critics today feel that “Argo” overstates the role of the CIA at the expense of the Canadians, making Canada look like a passive partner.  Britain and New Zealand also receive short shrift, with “Argo” portraying their embassies as refusing to shelter the six Americans, when in fact both countries did what they could to help.  As long as we are on the subject of inaccuracies, the film presents a decidedly one-sided version of Iranian history.  I’m no expert on Iran, but I detect a strong leftist slant in the depiction of the Shah of Iran and America’s support of him.  
This is one of the problems with movies based on historical events.  The filmmakers inevitably take dramatic license, and that dramatized version of the story inevitably enters the public consciousness as a part of history.  The farther out I get from “Argo,” the more those inaccuracies bother me.
I didn’t know any of that while watching it, however, I was just 100% entertained.  It’s amazing how much tension Affleck is able to maintain, considering that the outcome of the story is already a matter of public record.  Affleck also has a commanding screen presence.  Technically, the film is perfect.  The actors playing the hiding Americans are excellent, and the pacing of the story is right on.   I just think maybe Affleck, and maybe Hollywood in general, should stick to making stories up, rather than twisting historical events.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ****

Almost from the  beginning, Universal Studios planned a “Frankenstein” sequel.  Based on test-screenings, they changed the ending of the first film to allow Dr. Frankenstein to survive his confrontation with the monster.  It took several years, however, to get an appropriate script and get “Bride of Frankenstein” to come to life.
The story picks up near where the first film left off, with villagers watching an old windmill burn with the monster inside, and the injured Henry Frankenstein being carried back home.  Both are presumed dead, but of course both survive, and thus we have our sequel.  The convalescing Henry is approached by the eerie Dr. Pretorius, who shares Henry’s interest in creating life in the lab.  He pressures Henry to join him in his work and create a new race of beings.  “To a world of gods and monsters!” he toasts, but Henry is torn between repulsion and fascination.
Meanwhile, the monster, once again played by Boris Karloff, gets back to the serious business of terrorizing the countryside.  He looks a bit buffer than in the first movie, partly because Karloff had to keep his dental plates in to be able to talk, so he doesn’t have the sunken-faced appearance he had in “Frankenstein.”  A blind hermit takes the creature in and teaches him some speech, but the refuge lasts only until some villagers come by hunting the monster.  Ultimately, the monster meets up with Dr. Pretorius, and together they force Henry Frankenstein to help create a female creature, a bride for the original.
Some modern critics have described “Bride of Frankenstein” as “one of the best movie sequels of all time,” and “vastly superior to the original.”  I think this is overstating the case.  First of all, the original was pretty good.  Secondly, the sequel may be more polished and generally tighter than the original, but it has its own issues.  I think it was a mistake to give the creature speech.  Lines like “Friend good, alone bad,” lend the movie a campy air.  Karloff agreed, saying “Speech! Stupid!  My argument was that if the monster had any impact or charm, it was because he was inarticulate.”
On the other hand, Colin Clive puts in an even better performance this time around as the now-reluctant Dr. Frankenstein, and Ernest Thesiger is delightfully evil as Dr. Pretorius.  Some have suggested that he was meant to be a coded homosexual.  If so, the code is too subtle for me.  All I know is that he plays the villain with relish, at one point enjoying a nice picnic and bottle of wine in a crypt, discussing his plans with a pile of bones.  Karloff, despite being saddled with those lame lines, still plays the creature with gusto, lending it more menace than in the first film.  Overall, I can’t go along with those who say “Bride of Frankenstein” is vastly better than “Frankenstein,” but judged on its own merits, it is equally enjoyable.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Frankenstein (1931) ****

Truly a masterpiece of horror, “Frankenstein” deserves its place among the classics.  Other films of the time may have played upon man’s darkest fears, but “Frankenstein” held up a dark mirror to man himself.
Colin Clive played the title role of young Henry Frankenstein, a medical student obsessed with the basic forces behind life and death.  As the well-known story goes, he assembles a creature from the parts of dead bodies, then animates it using the  power of electricity.  The creature lives, but it lacks speech or understanding, and as it gains strength it becomes increasingly uncontrollable.  Henry finally collapses from the strain of his experiments and is taken back to the Frankenstein family estate to recover.  The creature is left in the hands of Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, who promises to humanely destroy it.  The doctor cannot help doing his own experiments on the creature, which ultimately escapes to terrorize the countryside in search of its creator.
“Frankenstein” is introduced as “The tale of Frankenstein, a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God,” but despite these pious window trappings, this is an Existentialist tale.  Frankenstein’s creature is the dark image of mankind, abandoned by his creator and left to wander a harsh world, trying to understand how to behave, but making horrible blunders.  In the end, the creature looks into the eyes of his maker and sees not understanding and compassion, but contempt and fear.
There are aspects of “Frankenstein” that are annoying.  Some parts of the story seem too perfunctory, while at other times the film loses its tone, detouring into comic relief in the form of Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr).  I found the  ending particularly silly.  I was also annoyed by young Henry’s tendency to faint, a characteristic carried over from the source material, Mary Shelley’s novel.
Boris Karloff, however, is perfection in his portrayal of the monster.  His lumbering performance lends the creature both menace and pathos.  His character has no lines, but his use of facial expression and body language is reminiscent of silent film, which of course is where he got his start.
In the movie’s faults, one can see the hand of Hollywood trying to make a crowd-pleaser, which, in fact, they did.  The movie was a smashing success.  One can perhaps imagine a more satisfying movie that could be assembled from pieces of this one, but then again, have we learned nothing?  Kenneth Branagh attempted in his 1994 remake to more explicitly visit aspects of the story like the creature’s creation and his re-learning process, but as I recall, that film wound up being full of spectacle and empty chit-chat.  I prefer Boris Karloff’s speechless, heartbreaking performance.  Your imagination can fill in the rest.

4 stars

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Mummy (1932) ***

Universal Studios took a big step up in production quality between 1931’s “Dracula” and 1932’s “The Mummy.”  The story of Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian whose punishment for sacrilege was to be buried alive and denied passage to the afterlife may be familiar from the special-effects heavy, 1999 version with Brendan Frasier.  As I recall, that version was not bad, but the original is worth checking out as well.
The tale begins with a couple of archaeologists examining a mummy and an old scroll.  They accidentally animate the mummy, Imhotep (Boris Karloff), and invoke an ancient curse.  Ten years later, Imhotep returns disguised as an intense, wrinkly, modern Egyptian.  He leads a new archaeological team to dig up the tomb of his dead lover.  When he tries to re-animate her mummy, his spells instead awaken her spirit in a young, part-Egyptian westerner, Helen Grosvenor.  Imhotep sets about trying to make Helen into his lost love, and the archaeologists face the ancient curse to save her.
Truth be told, “The Mummy” is thematically quite similar to “Dracula.”  Both involve an ancient, undead being with intense eyes who casts his spell over a young woman.  “The Mummy” feels much  more modern, however, partly because the production quality is so much higher and partly because instead of being a typical damsel in distress, Helen rises up to defend herself in the end.

3 stars