Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Devil is a woman: The melodramatic delirium of Luis Buñuel's Susana

(Written for the Luis Buñuel blogathon.)

Luis Buñuel is my favorite filmmaker of all time. Much of my cinephilic adventurousness can be credited to digging up his films early on; teenage interests in surrealism and Roger Ebert's Video Companion led me to The Exterminating Angel (one of the first films, along with Lindsay Anderson's if...., I ever actively sought out), and after being thoroughly blown away by that film I became obsessed with watching whatever else I could get my hands on from this crazy Spaniard. Availability being what it is, though, I ended up being intimately familiar with his old-master French films (Tristana is the only one I still haven't seen) and far less so with his exile-in-Mexico period. About all I'd been able to find prior to this year was the delightfully odd The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz and El Bruto. My recollection of the latter is hazy, but I remember it being a well-made but uncharacteristically straightforward bit of melodrama. I had every reason to expect 1951's Susana to be much of the same.

And much of the same it is but only on the surface. Susana is indeed a melodrama, but it traffics in melodrama that's been left to bake in the sun until it becomes fetid with sickness. Where Buñuel's later films often deal in things inexplicable and ambiguous, Susana is hilariously blunt-minded in portraying its title character as a hellion and temptress who blasts the comfortable dynamic of a wealthy ranch family all to hell. If El Bruto felt like an assigned job, Susana shows Buñuel taking something similar and doing all he can to subvert the assignment.

The mania starts almost immediately, as we open on Susana being dragged to a reformatory cell by a group of nuns; she kicks and screams, calls the nuns bitches, spits at one of them and generally sets the tone for her wicked ways to come. A fervent prayer to God and a loose window later, she escapes confinement and steals off into the storm-swept night (after being confronted in her cell by a fake bat and a real rat), where after a long soggy journey she lands at the doorstep of Don Guadalupe and his family -- wife Doña Carmen, son Alberto, housekeeper Felisa, head ranchero Jesús (the symbolism, presumably, is intentional) and various other rancheros. Her arrival is heralded by devout Felisa screaming about a devil at the window, the first of Buñuel's many bald references to Susana as such.

Her subsequent actions belie such labels. She first insinuates herself into the trust of Doña Carmen by playing the victim card, claiming to be on the run from an abusive stepfather. Once safely ensconced within the household, she sets about attracting the attention of both the young scholar Alberto and the fatherly Don Guadalupe; she also attracts the much rougher affections of crude alpha-male Jesús.

One wonders, why does she do this? The opening scenes suggest Susana is psychologically driven to wantonness; as a nymphomaniac, she would then be unable to control her own urges. That, however, would involve some manner of helplessness or mental instability on Susana's part. In another film, that might be a valid explanation, but Buñuel takes great care to show Susana clearly enjoying the chaos she creates. (Note in particular the scene where Buñuel cuts from a familial dispute to a shot of Susana raising her eyebrow and smirking with delectable sinfulness, the just as quickly cuts back to the dispute.) More likely, she simply enjoys sowing discord as any good agent of Satan would. And things like the blatant Freudian symbolism involved in Don Guadalupe's fondling/polishing of his rifles while scolding Susana for her inappropriate clothing, or the initial encounter between Susana and Jesús that ends with Susana breaking an egg and having the yolk run down her legs, intimates that Buñuel is having just as much fun as she is.

As expected, Susana's devious machinations lead to no small amount of conflict -- Jesús is fired after being discovered "molesting" Susana, Alberto abandons his studies, and Don Guadalupe becomes distant from his wife, even overriding her authority in dealing with the house staff when Doña Carmen tries to fire Susana for laziness and impudence (and, unstated, the fact that Carmen caught her making out with Don Guadalupe). Things come to a head one bleak evening when Alfredo reveals his love for Susana and his intention to run off with her, which is naturally forbidden by his father; meanwhile, Doñ Carmen, egged on by the eye-for-an-eye malice of Felisa, decides to dole out some Old-World punishment in the form of a horse-whipping. (The shot of Carmen, lit by blazing white light and fury etched on her face, viciously flailing the whip onto Susana's person is the film's most memorable.) The gleeful chaos makes for fine entertainment, yet Buñuel's slyest and nastiest joke comes right after.

True to melodrama form, the status quo is rebalanced when the shunned Jesús returns with the police to cart Susana back to the reformatory from whence she came. The last scene shows order in the Guadalupe household tentatively restored, with the whole family watching a sunrise that Felisa calls proof of God's divine grace. Here's the thing, though -- Jesús expels the sinner from the garden, so to speak, but he's also the one who carried her into the house when she arrived. And presumably, the same God who kept the family together is the one who damn near tore them apart by answering Susana's pleas for freedom. Right under the guise of good Christian values, Buñuel snuck in a cynical, atheistic dig at the concept of a fair and just God. How very much like Luis to be laughing up his sleeve the whole time.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Last of the dusty backlog films! Hooray!

Hostel: Part II (2007): In which the "torture porn" genre reaches a level of self-awareness. I mostly covered my thoughts about Eli Roth's film here, though I should add that it's also possible that the notorious "Bathory" scene is Roth once again flummoxing our expectations, giving us the violence we crave but pushing it way too far in order to stymie our enjoyment. It's an imperfect film, but it's also a step in the right direction. Also, the first thirty minutes or so of this, from the somber opening credits to the arrival by train in Romania, are the best example of giallo anyone's created since Argento's Opera, and I'm curious to see Roth try and do a whole film in that idiom. Grade: B-

Killer of Sheep (1977): For a film about nothing in particular, there sure is a lot going on in Charles Burnett's famed, rarely seen debut. There's quite a bit I haven't quite parsed yet (this practically demands multiple viewings), but I think the key to this quietly observational work is the depiction of the main character's job. Stan (played with a marvelous sense of exhausted resignment by Henry Gayle Sanders), as the title suggests, works in a slaughterhouse. What's interesting is that we never see him put in a full day. Rather, a look at his average day is fragmented across the length of the film; what's more, it plays out in reverse order (the first time we see Stan at work, he's cleaning the kill floor and changing to go home). The film, then, closes on Stan herding a group of sheep into the holding pen, but what sticks about the scene is that Stan, for maybe the only time in the whole film, looks happy. As he hollers and swings his arms, he looks as though he might be grinning, which cinches the metaphor for me: We work and slave, marching to our deaths as we struggle to keep ourselves alive, but we will go defiantly, and we may even enjoy ourselves a little before we go. Filled with striking moments (the dance in the living room, the engine negotiation), and I suspect I'll like it even more on a second viewing. Also: The debt owed this film by George Washington is pretty significant. Grade: B+

Ratatouille (2007): Deliriously entertaining joint from Brad Bird and Pixar that also functions as a defense against mediocrity -- the reigning ethos of Bird seems to be that nothing but nothing should hold people back from realizing their potential, and though forces may unite to knock down those of us who attempt to create something special, talent will win out in the end. The parallel, of course, between Remy the rat's cooking skills and Bird/Pixar's filmmaking is impossible to miss; some may see it as elitism, but it's really just about trying to have standards in a Shrek world. What pushes it over the line into greatness for me, though, is the brief but perfectly realized flashback near the film's end, wherein Bird and co. redefine their purpose and try to get down to why we love food and/or the movies in the first place. Lovely, sweet and hilarious in turn; I still think Toy Story is Pixar's crowning achievement, but this might be the best film they've turned out since then. Grade: A

Sicko (2007): Um, yeah. What he said. Grade: B

Superbad (2007): The cops are important. A lot of people have complained that they drag the film down, and a lot of people are wrong. The bumbling, party-minded law enforcement officers played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen get off some of the film's best lines (I've been saying "I'm sorry I blocked your cock" obsessively), but they also represent the sadness in the film's soul. Officers Slater and Michaels are dissatisfied screw-ups whose status as authority figures rubs uncomfortably against their desire to regain their teenage years as a reaction towards what they perceive to be poorly-led lives -- they are, in essence, the great fear of the film's youthful charges, staring as they are into the uncertain chasm of adulthood. For a comedy, Superbad has a lot of pain and suffering along these lines. Most of our heroes' plans end up in disaster, and even when success comes to them, the joy is fleeting. (Not for nothing that Seth's one moment of glory plays out in slow motion.) It's not all pessimism, though: Our happiness is ephemeral, but too our humilations pass ("That was eight years ago!"), so the point is to enjoy as much as you can, to keep your head up and your eyes forward. Loss (of friends, of face, of time) is inevitable -- it's in how we deal with it. Superbad is a hilarious and vulgar film about how learning to accept failure is part of growing up. Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Abandoned (2007)

Awful attempt at a horror-movie mindfuck suffers from a lack of concreteness. If the whole point of the rubber-reality movie is to disorient the viewer via dislocation within the narrative, there has to first be a reality from which the script can dislocate. Director Nacho Cerdà, though, starts in with the hallucinatory shenanigans pretty much straight away, so that we never get a chance to get grounded on the rugs that will be pulled out from underneath us. I can see what was intended by that, though -- the circular structure of the narrative is meant to reflect the film's ideas on the cycle of abuse and how psychic damage incurred early in life and linger and haunt us to our ends. But if you're going to make a horror film, you have to make sure that it works as a horror film before it works as allegory, because otherwise you're just wasting your time. Considering the deficient quality of the acting and dialogue (this is the kind of film where it's obvious that everyone involved knows English as a secondary language), Cerdà must have been banking on his ability to create dread as a way to gloss over the film's flaws. But it's all for naught -- Cerdà does well by the atmosphere, all dank grays and rotting wood, but he undermines his film's status as a horror film by continually dampening the scares. The stinger is the cheapest of horror tricks, but it's also the easiest. Yet somehow, Cerdà fluffs pretty much every false scare by holding his shots too long and letting his cutting get lax, so we get the buildup but no punch. The Abandoned is a soggy wet blanket of a film, briefly enlivened late in the film by a neat reverse-time sequence and some carnivorous pigs but ultimately just so much dead space and nonsense. The closing narration doesn't sum or tie anything up as much as it merely adds an extra layer of incoherence, which seems strangely appropriate.

Grade: D+
Highlander: The Source (2007)

I know very little about the Highlander mythos, beyond the fact that it involves a lot of head-chopping and basically gets rebooted with every film; I know enough about general filmic matters, though, to realize that this fifth entry in the moribund series is incompetent and muddled to the point of hilarity. Though it premiered on the Sci Fi Channel, that repository of goofy crap, the brutal pan-and-scan job speaks to an assumed theatrical release, which makes me wonder how little the producers think of the dwindling Highlander fanbase to think that this low-rent hackwork would drag them into a multiplex. Ostensibly about Duncan MacLeod and friends as they journey towards The Source (a mystical, vaguely defined MacGuffin), the real business of the film nevertheless seems to be how much ridiculousness can be spun out as they go. Here's your superfast hulking albino bellowing, "THE QUICKENING!" Here's your predictably silly death scene of a major supporting character, complete with overwrought goodbye speech. Here's your brooding, drippy main character, played by Adrian Paul perpetually on the verge of tears, as though he were a fifteen-year-old emo boy in too-tight black jeans. Here's your now-standard retconning of series lore (the "hallowed ground" denial, for one). Here's your heroes being fed gobs of exposition by Jabba the Hut. Here's your awesomely awful montage set to lame music (here, Queen's songs from the original film turned into bad cock-rock), which happens not once, not twice but three times in thirty minutes. Here's "Do it, you immortal fuck!" which only becomes funnier when the obscenity is bleeped out. Here's your nauseating New Age ending. I could go on, but I think the point has been made: If you've nothing invested in this series, The Source is a barrel of laughs.

Grade: C-

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Gotta hang up the CLOSED sign for a few days -- I'm in Toronto. (Hell yeah.) I will be posting (hopefully) daily updates at The Film Experience. So... yeah. Check it out. Should be fun.

The last of the dusty backlog films when I return...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Oliver Twist (1948)

Not What I Was Expecting, Part 2: How is it that, until now, I've been unaware of how truly fucked-up the story of Oliver Twist is? On the evidence here, David Lean certainly realized this -- where his adaptation of Great Expectations kept a spirited tone and made no bones about its literary origins via an everpresent voiceover, this subsequent Dickens adaptation seems more image than word, more mood than story. And what a horrifying mood it is; with its sharp cutting (I love the montage of shocked faces that follows the famed "may I have some more" line), its harsh shadow-heavy lighting and its extreme, stylized angles (a couple shots, notably the long overhead shot that occurs when Nancy and Bill are dragging Oliver back to Fagin's hideout, look like fucking De Chirico paintings), this seems less Great Literature and more paranoid noir phantasmagoria. Adding to that feel is the grotesquerie of the villains -- Robert Newton shows us Bill Sykes as a sweaty, pop-eyed nightmare brute, while Alec Guinness's scheming haggard crone getup, edging up on supernatural proportions, makes Fagin almost as frightening. Fagin is also, unfortunately, heavily coded as Hasidim, which gives an odd, ill charge to many of Guinness's scenes; still, it's telling that the one scene with Fagin that stands out more than any other is the bit near the end where Guinness howls impotently, "What right have you to butcher me?" Surprisingly, the weakest thing about Oliver Twist is the story itself, hinging far too much on coincidence as it does, but then that's the fault of Dickens and not Lean. Besides, if you can work past the implausibilities and chance occurances, this is at heart a ripper of a yarn, with its propulsive final half hour among the creepiest things ever portrayed in a narrative ostensibly intended for children. It comes off as Baby's First Noir, and I think I like it verily.

Grade: B+
Great Expectations (1946)

Not What I Was Expecting, Part 1: Being that my only experiences with Charles Dickens are the insufferable A Tale of Two Cities and Lord knows how many versions of A Christmas Carol, I wasn't expecting a film quite this... lively. David Lean's rousing rendition of the famed tale is, for me, the best evidence for Dickens's prowess as a storyteller -- all that needs to be done is to cut away all that excess verbiage and concentrate on how the story moves. And move this does -- from the moment young Pip sneaks off his guardian's farm to offer food to the escaped convict Magwitch, the story roars towards its destination like it's been set on fire, gathering steam and priceless details along the way. Lean's direction is appropriately lean yet solid in the classical sense (there's even a lovely little old-school travel montage of the type later fetishized by Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and he keeps the proceedings light while simultaneously bringing out the darker aspects of the story through careful lighting and framing. (I especially like the early shot where Magwitch, having been recaptured on the marshes, sits on a prison boat and stares back forlornly at young Pip until he's swallowed by shadow a la Bill Pullman in Lost Highway.) The energy rarely flags, and Lean is fortunate to have a well-cast group of exuberant thespians to bring out all the grand and grotesque notes in the source. Of particular note are Francis Sullivan as the lawyer Jaggers, all boisterous rumbling reason, and Alec Guinnes in his first major role as Herbert Pocket, the dandiest fop to ever dandy his way through Victorian England, but the whole ensemble does right by their characters. It's also interesting to note that Dickens, for all purposes, could be considered one of the first and finest practitioners of the Plant-and-Payoff narrative -- there's even a sly joke to that effect when Estella, the object of Pip's unrequited affection, tells him, "We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I." The climax could sum up the movie as being about the value of kindness in a cruel world, or it could just be about how some people are luckier than others. Whatever it is, it's hugely entertaining all the same.

Grade: A-
A Gentle Woman (1969)

The fear of modernity that was hinted at by director Robert Bresson in Mouchette positively explodes off the screen with this, his first color film and first film explicitly set in the modern day. Hamlet is a big touchstone for this tale of a young woman who marries for money only to kill herself when she comes to realize that money doesn't solve everything -- there's parallels between Dominique Sanda's title character and Ophelia, particularly the use of flowers as a harbinger of sickness and/or mental unstability -- yet without having to be told, I was silently thinking, "The time is out of joint," from the roll of the opening credits. Bresson's view of the present day, with this film, moves into rage at what he perceives to be materialism and Godlessness. This gets summed up quite precisely in an early scene where Sanda brings a crucifix to sell to the pawnbroker (Guy Frangin) she later marries; Frangin removes the figurine of Jesus, weighs the golden cross and tells her, "You keep the Christ, I'll take the metal." The story proceeds in flashback from Sanda's suicide as Frangin goes over their life together, trying to figure out what would drive her to this final gesture, and the great sadness that drives the rage present in this film becomes apparent when we realize that Frangin won't find any answers nor anything to make himself feel better. He never knew Sanda, never really could have (according to the credits, he might not even know her name); her needs were never truly financial but emotional, a need that Frangin's business mind was wholly unequipped to fill (this gulf between them is represented by his anger at her overpaying needy people for trinkets and his inability to understand the kindness of such a gesture), so her death is symptomatic of a malaise within the capitalist culture he represents. There's a scene at a natural-history museum exhibit where a character notes that the building blocks of life are "the same raw materials for all animals," and Sanda's ferocious performance, saying as much as she does with a heated glance as most actors can convey in a thousand lines of dialogue, suggests that living in a world such as this where the physical is valued over the spiritual and mankind's pursuit of pleasure and comfort have turned them into just another animal is unthinkable. Bresson's edging up on nihilism here, but his outlook contains just enough overwhelming sadness for the state of things to make that come off as intelligent and not posturing.

Grade: B+
Mouchette (1967)

Robert Bresson's sad, stark portrait of a young girl adrift in a world that, by all evidence, doesn't want her has its tone set by its opening scene, in which a bird walks into a trap and struggles while two men watch. While one man, a gamekeeper, does eventually act and free the bird, the intimation is that the delay is what Bresson is focused on and not the good intentions. If Au Hasard Balthazar signifies the genesis of a deep welling-up of pessimism within Bresson, Mouchette is that pessimism brought to full flower. The title character can be vicious and cruel in her isolation (her favorite activity is hiding by the side of the road and throwing mud at her haughty classmates), but is this inbred within her or is it a response to the indifference and castigation she endures every day? It's shown that Mouchette still has within her the capacity for gentleness and kindness (note her attempts to be a caretaker to Arsene the poacher or her using her own body to warm milk for her infant brother), yet there's very little reciprocation from those around her. When a gesture of kindness finally comes about (the dress), it's too late -- the delay has made things irreversible. Her one flash of happy times comes at a carnival where she rides the bumper cars, and it's a jarring scene, since it represents the first instance I've seen in a Bresson film that acknowledges the modern world. It's here that the unspoken thesis lies: As a song sung by Mouchette and her classmates suggests, hope for Bresson has died with the encroachment of the modern world. Hostility and distrust replace grace, and anyone unprepared is just another rabbit for the shooting (as made concrete in a late-film hunting scene that quotes the famed scene from The Rules of the Game yet contains its own force). Bresson's austerity and attention to detail has fascinated me for a while now, but here the detachment seems to stem from disgust rather than purity. As the anonymous epitaph goes, "The world to her was but a tragic play / She came, saw, dislik'd and passed away."

Grade: B+
Sleepaway Camp (1983)

First-wave slasher with a cult following is rare in that it kind of deserves said following. Most renowned slasher flicks are famous (or infamous) for their body count or their creative kills or whatnot, but the kills in Robert Hiltzik's nasty bastard aren't what has given it a second life (the death scenes are mostly pretty tame, save for the ugly scene with the curling iron). Rather, the enduring power of Hiltzik's film comes from its skewed take on the traditional morality of the slasher film. The accepted equation is "sex = death," but Hiltzik has set his tale among the recently pubescent, people for whom sex is something to be thought about but not done. Instead, he's based his film around the corruption of naturally developing sexuality. There's a lot of dark and twisted shit going on in this film, and damn near all of it has to do with inappropriate things you can do to a minor. Whether it's the lecherous cook with pedophiliac tendencies, the camp manager who's all too eager to make time with one of the teenaged counselors or the infamous gender-warped final reveal, the true horror and disgust comes not from people dying but from sexuality gone wrong. (There's also a Heather-has-two-daddies flashback that doesn't seem to fit here, and it might be offensive if it wasn't a red herring.) Sleepaway Camp has all the problems inherent in early-'80s slasher flicks (indifferent acting, bland direction and characterization, story problems a mile long), and as such it's generally not a very good movie. It does, however, have ambition and a way of seeing the world that differentiates itself from its compatriots.

Grade: C+

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Last Legion (2007)

I'd never fallen asleep on a first-run theatrical screening before this movie, but four hours sleep + ten-hour workday + B-52 at closing time - interest in film = sawing logs. The two-thirds or so I did see of the film was hovering around a C-, what with the fact that this felt like an unwelcome throwback to the wooden halcyon days of the Italian peplum film, all declamatory speeches and action scenes with the participants merely waving their swords at one another. Still, it wouldn't be fair to paste a grade on a film I didn't make it all the way through, even if I did see enough to note that the plot is threadbare and Colin Firth has a "get me the hell out of here, please" look on his face through every single one of his scenes. As consolation, though, there is Aishwarya Rai, who is one of the most gorgeous beings on this planet. Even my wife was stunned.

Grade: none
Summertime (1955)

David Lean's paeon to ephemeral love in Venice, despite his finest directorial efforts (the Technicolor really pops), can't help but come off as a wan restatement of things he had already expressed pretty much to perfection in Brief Encounter. It's hoary and predictable in its structure, right down to the scene where someone falls into a canal, and though Lean gives his all and makes Venice look like the most romantic and wonderful city anyone has ever seen, the familiarity of the material is an obstacle he can't surmount. Fortunately, nobody told Katherine Hepburn about insurmountability -- her explosive star turn here single-handedly keeps the film from sinking into a morass of cliche. From the moment she intones, with just the slightest touch of quivering, the line, "I'm the independent type, always have been," Hepburn takes her natural steely gale-force personality and twists it ever so slightly to suggest a woman who long ago gave up on love yet still retains the unmistakable loneliness of the unfulfilled. Her turn here is terrific -- even the more actorly moments, like the early scenes where she's paralyzed by conflicting emotions and allows her face to become a mass of twitching expression come off well; as such, her innate dignity and Northeastern spikiness rescue a number of scenes (i.e. any part of the film in which she has to interact with the insufferable Italian street urchin) that, in anyone else's lap, would dissolve into soggy unplayability. The familiarity is dull, the clumsy contrasts (like Hepburn's honest attempts to connect to her surroundings against the oblivious ugly-American tourists) are unfortunate, but Hepburn makes this film worthwhile.

Grade: B-
Shock Corridor (1963)

Delirious hothouse mania rules the day in Samuel Fuller's lurid melodrama, which happily delivers all the shock promised in its blunt title and then some. It's ostensibly the tale of an ambitious news reporter (Peter Breck) who devises a plan to get himself committed to an asylum in order to suss out a murderer and hopefully win a Pulitzer Prize, but that skeleton of a story exists only as a vehicle for Fuller to register his distaste for certain aspects of American life in as bizarre and overheated a way as possible. Jeremiads against Communist fervor, racism/anti-segregationism and the proliferation of war technology tear through the fabric of the narrative like rocks through a greenhouse, all rendered in the most brusque and lapel-grabbing way possible, though even the most vivid language I can conjure can't quite describe the sight of a black man shouting racist sentiments and wearing a sign proclaiming "Go Home Nigger." Meanwhile, despite the pulpy B-kick, Fuller's direction is cannier than first blush would have it: the first scene wherein Breck enters the asylum is filmed so that Breck passes through a tunnel of heavy shadow and darkness, then exits into bright, sterile hospital light, thus pointing up the seeming calmness of the asylum as a facade for a hellish nightmare, and the various inmates' moments of clarity are shown as carefully edited barrages of color footage that plays off nicely against the noirish black-and-white of the main story. And then there's scenes like the bit where Breck is savaged by a group of sexually insatiable women ("Nymphos!") while someone tunelessly croons "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean" -- the whole scene plays like a scabrously funny outtake from Night of the Living Dead except that this is from five years prior to Romero's masterpiece so advantage Fuller. It would seem like splashy hyperbole to call this operatic except that Fuller makes the comparison himself by including Larry Tucker (of the awesome, underseen noir de nihilism Blast of Silence) in the character of Pagliacci, an immense mental patient who wanders around singing from The Barber of Seville. The structure is a bit repetitive, but the genius is in the details, and trash cinema has fewer pinnacles more dizzying than this.

Grade: A-
Los Olvidados (1950)

Social realism, Buñuel style: This raw and brutal look at the raw and brutal existence of a gang of Mexican street kids, with particular attention paid to young scrapper Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) and prison escapee Jaibo (Roberto Cobo) begins as a ground-level social-problem film in the neo-realist style, the kind of thing that might have sprung from the camera of De Sica or Rossellini (this could, in essence, be a more sensational cousin to Germany Year Zero). It's not long, though, before Buñuel's guiding hand becomes apparent. It's there in the absurd pointlessness of the scene where the boys beat up a man with no legs (just for the cruelty of it, apparently). It's there in the concentration on superstitions and incomprehensible outside forces in place of religion. It's there in the prankish spirit of the scene where an egg is thrown at the camera. And most of all, it's there in the ferocious imagination of the dream sequence, as brilliant a stretch of film as can be found in any of Buñuel's films. If the anger and bitterness in Buñuel's French films are tempered by the fanciful surrealism and old man's jocularity with which they are adorned, said emotions are only exacerbated in this film by the melodramatic genre containers utilized by Buñuel. Sympathy is at an ebb in Los Olvidados, with few characters escaping the stain of corruption (even Pedro, in his dreams of reconciliation with his fed-up mother, admits that he wants to be good but doesn't know how); it's a grim and pitiless world out there, Buñuel seems to say, and one way or another it will eat you alive.

Grade: A-
She Freak (1967)

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: Remake Tod Browning's legendary Freaks, except without any actual freaks and nearly all plot time devoted to following the fortunes of the Cleopatra character, here transformed into a greasy-spoon waitress named Jade Cochran and played by the frightfully untalented Claire Brennan. About the only note of interest is the unusual parallelism that occurs when old-hand cinema huckster David Friedman brings his act to the carnival -- the promise of lurid thrills that accompanies any good freakshow tent is the same promise Friedman used to get butts into moie-theater seats, and both attractions had a similarly low level of payoff. Friedman setting his film among the carny set, then, is akin to a con artist coming out and telling you that he's going to be running off with your cash. Otherwise, She Freak is a bad film in that it's never bad enough to be amusing or memorably painful, yet it's never inspired enough to work within the limitations of its badness. It is dully mediocre, which is maybe the worst thing an exploitation feature can be. The overall impression one gets is that of a modest, image-based documentary on the life of traveling carnival workers that keeps getting interrupted (and ultimately supplanted) by a bad attempt at a love-triangle noir.

Grade: C