Saturday, November 28, 2009

Movie Review: DE ESPALDAS (Cuba, 1956)

"Backs Turned"
Cuba, 1956
Directed and Produced by Mario Barral
Screenplay by Mario Barral, Francisco Pazos, Francisco Forcade, Oscar Luis Lopez
Cinematography by Manuel S. Conde
Edited by Michael Cerone
Music by Jose de Aguilera
Emilio G. Navarro
Maria Brenes
Jose de San Anton
Manuel Estanillo
Armando Martinez

A man awakens to find his mood troubled. While walking to work he unknowingly wanders into a graveyard and so begins an existential musing that lasts for the rest of the day and the film. Mostly he aimlessly wanders the streets, constantly asking himself ‘Why?” when stumbling across social injustice. He ponders the evils of sick children, poverty and Marxism. At one point he flashes back to a fortune teller and her witchy words make him believe he has power over life and death. He informs a dying boy that he will not die after all, only to hear mere seconds later that the child has gone and croaked anyway. This does nothing to alleviate his mood. While stopping outside a prison, a warden appears and asks him to speak with a man condemned to die. It is his last wish to speak with the first man the warden comes across. The doomed man explains that his only real crime is being ugly, and therefore impossible to believe when he claims he did not murder his beautiful lover. Our hero does believe him and comes away more convinced than ever of the hopelessness of the world. Which is only further exasperated by a chance meeting with a random floozy (perhaps prostitute – the narrative is unclear) with whom he tries to make sense of the days events before her angry husband comes home to beat her in what appears to be a daily ritual. All his sadness and misery are solved, conveniently, by his return home. Met by his adoring children and maid-like wife, our man in Havana is welcomed by the warm embrace of family, of middle-class life and most importantly perhaps, of television. The films ends with the entire family gathered around its hearth-like glow, entranced by its angst-easing flicker. In an odd and ostensibly poetic bit of casting, his family are all played by the same actors who portrayed the various shady characters encountered in his long’s days journey into TV-illuminated night.

DE ESPALDAS has serious artistic aspirations. It’s full of 50s European-esque arty angst a la Bergman or Italian neo-realism, but it just doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still an entertaining and interesting movie. Just not for the reasons it is intended for. The hero’s completely ridiculous voice-over monologues seem almost like a parody of existential navel-gazing, it’s so over the top and full of square-jaw sincerity. Despite its utter seriousness of intent, it comes across completely comedic. The English dubbing may have something to do with this, sounding as though it were recorded through a megaphone rather than a microphone. The music, too, seems at odds with the grave events unfolding. It’s a swath of typically 50s sounding library cues more at home in a pirate adventure movie than a film about a man touring through the suffering of the world. It creates an unintentional frisson which works in spite of itself, but only though an unhealthy veil of snickering irony. The film’s best moments are the hand-held street scenes, particularly a lively street carnival, filled with outrageous, campy costumes. Meant to represent the main character’s disorientation, it the only time when the movie feels alive and in it’s own skin. The rest of the movie, with all it’s labored conscientiousness, feels a bit off, a bit fake. There’s also a palpable, and uncomfortable, feeling of propaganda about the whole thing. The condemnation of the socialist organizers, for instance, or in the film’s obvious pro-US middle class values of the finale. It’s weird and disconcerting and makes the whole thing even more interesting, despite the blatant flaws of the film on its own terms.

Little information is available about Director Mario Barral. He appears to have died in 2000, only two years before his son, Rolando Barral, himself a media celebrity in the Miami Cuban exile community. Mario worked mostly in radio, television and theater in pre-revolutionary Cuba during the 40s and 50s. He was the head of CMQ, Cuba’s largest and most successful television studio during the medium’s infancy. After the revolution, Barral made his way to Miami where he continued to work in Spanish language media, even publishing a series of poetry books and writing and producing several plays. DE ESPALDAS was his first film. His second, and last, is CON EL DESEO EN LOS DEDOS (“With Desire in the Fingers”), an even more obscure film which reportedly never played outside Cuba, LOS DEDOS is described by an IMDB reviewer as “one of the serious attempts of making a(n) … erotic film in Cuba in the late 50's”. But judging from this one available film, Barral was no natural film-maker. ESPALDAS is mostly stilted and crude, exuding only a whiff of cinematic poetry here and there. Obviously an attempt to make a serious “art film” ESPALDAS is compromised by Barral’s limitations as a director and by the awkward propagandic impulses bubbling just underneath the film’s surface. Something Weird Video has this film available as either a VHS (this is how I saw it) or a DVD-R. In typical exploitation ballyhoo fashion their catalog drastically oversells it, describing it as a “lost art film masterpiece” or a “bargain basement Bunuel”. It’s neither, though still of interest to those wanting to dig into the often obscure world of South American cinema.

Special Thanks to David Wilt for additional biographical info.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

DVD Review: BORN OF FIRE (Mondo Macabro)

Mondo Macabro has done it again. They’ve uncovered a mostly unknown and completely unique film and given it the red carpet, 5-star treatment. BORN OF FIRE is an imperfect film, but is such a bizarre and visually stimulating piece that its faults dissipate quickly from your mind. A mystic-minded horror-fantasy with a healthy dollop of art-film gravitas, BORN bends and slinks around most of your “normal” preconceptions of genre or mainstream narrative. Its Islamic context gives it a refreshing texture that is effortlessly exotic (it would make a fine double feature with another Islamic art-horror: Kutlug Ataman’s THE SERPENT'S TALE). The film carries you along by magick and music, by imagination and emotion rather than plot, which is somewhat weak. A concert flautist’s chance meeting with a mysterious woman takes him unexpectedly to Turkey to investigate the circumstances of his father’s death. His father had gone to Turkey to study under “The Master Musician”, a man of supernatural musical talents who is somehow responsible for his death. This investigation leads to obscure revelations concerning the end of the world by excessive solar and volcanic activity. Our hero must prevent this occurrence by a musical dual with the Master, who, it turns out, is essentially Satan.

The synopsis above does not, and cannot, possibly convey the impact this movie has. It’s full of weird and mysterious events which make little or no logical or narrative sense: a woman stoned to death by flowers instead of rocks, a djinn who responds to a sung Muslim prayer by shooting flames from his eyes, a vulture crashing through a shattered windshield on a rainy London night, the hero’s mysterious woman-friend, possessed by the djinn sends a steam of menstrual blood down her leg into a salt-water pool which later becomes a cocoon containing a monstrous moth that somehow causes her death when it hatches. Taken apart, these events hardly attach themselves to the “save the world by atoning for the sins of the father” thrust of the BORN’s plot. Taken together, with the other-worldly ambiance which seems to seep subconsciously into your mind, these images and many others like them form the dream-like corpus of the movie. Your perception abandons the narrative and floats along this metaphysical, surreal visual stream. Occasionally the spell is broken, mostly by clunky, tin-eared dialog (“The music originates here. The fire is its source” for one example) which reads almost like poetry on paper but sounds insufferably pretentious when voiced aloud by the actors. And the plot itself sometimes comes off half-baked, as though perhaps compromises during the film’s production limited the material that could be filmed, giving it an unintended ambiguity. But ultimately, ambiguity is OK with me, as long as the film itself is interesting enough to carry it through. BORN OF FIRE is, if nothing else, very interesting.

The DVD is total aces. The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is spot on and beautiful. I could find no fault in it. A ton of relevant extras round out this great release, most notably three interviews with cast and crew. Director Jamil Dehalavi discusses his career and BORN OF FIRE in particular in great detail which is gives the film some nice context. As an aside I might point out that Dehalavi seems to agree with me about the dialog, insisting that you could do away with it and not adversely affect the film. Peter Firth is next and is very charming, and although proud of the movie seems still a little befuddled by it. Perhaps the best interview is with Nabil Shaban, who plays a deformed dwarf who in some ways becomes the main character of the movie. He seems to be one of the few people to be able to give a comprehensive answer to questions concerning what the film is actually all about. I’m not sure I agree with him 100% but his views are articulate and entertaining. Shaban is wild-eyed and enthusiastic throughout, discussing his career and the film with contagious affection. Highly informative, if rather brief and to the point, text pages by MM CEO Pete Tombs plaster you with further details about the movie, its production and cast. A VHS sourced trailer completes the package, along with the always-there MM preview reel, which sadly has not been updated to include this movie, their previous release GRADIVA or the upcoming SADIST WITH RED TEETH. All in all, this is a delirious and wonderful film let down somewhat by its own story, but is given an amazing and well-rounded DVD presentation so that thousands more people can make up their own minds about it.

Monday, November 09, 2009


From Onar HQ, the News!

Dig the Details:

If there was something the Turks were great at- besides Superhero adaptations- that sure was Spy special treatments. ALTIN COCUK was such a hit in 1966 that spawned 3 sequels in no time thus rendering the title hero more successful and cult than Mr. Bond himself! Luckily, the last surviving materials were found in pretty good condition, securing convenient entertainment through this worldwide DVD premiere.


Country: Turkey
Year: 1966
Director: Memduh Un
Actors: Goksel Arsoy, Altan Gunbay, Sevda Nur, Reha Yurdakul

ULTRA-LIMITED EDITION OF 500 numbered copies
Turkish audio with English & Greek subs
Dolby Digital 2.0
INTERVIEW with Altan Gunbay
TURKISH INTRIGUE (Article on Turkish Spy Films)
Spy Films Selected Filmography
Poster Insert
NEW Trailers (A Newly-discovered, considered lost, KILINK film, PLUS another LOST gem, RINGO GESTAPO'YA KARSI!! Both trailers will premier exclusively on this DVD and nowhere else!!)