Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, 2006).

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Oh, it's lovely. I've been saying up and down the block that CGI effects have no texture, no heft, no solidity, and worse of all no poetry, and here comes del Toro to make me eat my words.

Maybe his single most admirable achievement is to integrate the effects into his half-lit world, so that, say, a stone tablet seems every bit as real as an alarmingly long insect (which the girl mistakes for a fairy)--or is it the other way around? It helps that del Toro doesn't just rely on visual texture, but bits of behavior to sell the effect--like the insect peeking over the edge of the tree, clearly spying on the girl and her companions. He uses CGI simply, cleanly, to extend or make a touch more convincing floor effects (details involving The Pale Man (Doug Jones)--the blinking eyes, for example); most delightful of all (at least for me), he manages to ressurect an old device, used most memorably by Kurosawa, the wipe (which del Toro uses in ways you imagine Kurosawa would be all too happy to imitate).

I'd like to note that somewhere along the margins, del Toro scribbles in homages to various films--a reference to Dorothy's ruby slippers, for one, and a giant maze and ending that evokes Kubrick's The Shining.

Do the fantasy segments have anything to do with the reality? Why, yes, I think--the toad in the great fig tree is a metaphor for Fascism in Spain, the fat amphibian feeding off the roots of the tree, causing it to wilt (the key the toad eventually vomits up being brother to the key that The Captain (Sergi Lopez) uses to keep his stores locked up). The girl's adventure in the chamber of the Pale Man (Jones wonderfully eloquent in his wordlessness) is a metaphor for what's going on literally under The Captain's nose--like the Pale Man, The Captain is blind to what's going on until both girls (Maribel Verdu as a member of the Resistance, Ivana Baquero as the young girl) break 'the rules' (the complex and seemingly arbitrary series of actions necessary in practicing the art of espionage), causing The Pale Man/Captain to turn his attention towards them, forcing them to improvise.


I've heard accusations that The Captain an unbelievably sadistic cartoon, that it would have been better, more emotionally complex to have him actually love the girl and his mother. I submit that that would be ideal, but the time actually spent on developing such a relationship would take too much emphasis away from the fantasy element; more, I think Lopez and del Toro do a terrific job as is of humanizing the 'monster.'

Lopez (who's been good in everything from Western (1997) to Une liaison pornographique (A Pornographic Affair, 1999), but never like this) plays The Captain with charisma and insouciant wit; despite his many villainies, he's a charmer, a villain with a Hitchcockian sense of style and courtesy. Del Toro, like Hitchcock, knows what these people are like (the things they do here, which are horrible enough, are hardly anything new, nor even the worse that people are capable of in real life); maybe the single cruellest act The Captain commits isn't the various tortures or executions, but the way he taunts one prisoner suffering from a bad stutter.

And beyond the charm, beyond the sadism, you understand the man. He's proud, vain; it's his weakness (as Mercedes informs him, and he's smart enough to recognize) and his defining character. Pride led him to choose a beautiful woman for a wife; pride made him refuse to acknowledge that mere women could wreak such havoc on his plans and ambitions; pride led him to put all his eggs in one baby carriage, so to speak, the unknown child that will carry his name (flip side of that pride is a profound sense of mortality, symbolized by the watch--a relic you imagine he carries around partly to remind him of how little time he has left, partly as accomodation to the romantic notion that at the proper time he'll break it, marking the exact moment of his death for his son to remember). Lopez's character is given a measure of empathy, even sympathy, though never for one moment are we asked to consider him anything less than evil.

Chris Jarmick singled out Ariadna Gil (still gorgeous since I last saw her in Amo tu cama rica (1992)) for her performance, for the way she transforms from trophy wife to prisoner in gilded cage in the space of a few lines of dialogue (using nothing more than a slight desperate edge to her delivery of said dialogue); more, the change isn't so much a change as it is a revelation, the dropping away of a veil, to reveal the character's inmost truth.

As for the little girl Baquero--she does an excellent job, helped by a film that gilds and illuminates her character's subconscious. You notice that the very nature and details of each succeeding adventure is influenced by circumstances (or do they foreshadow--shape, even--said circumstances?) in the present world. The influence can be most clearly seen, I think, in the final test, when Ofelia must confront The Captain himself, and challenge him for ownership of his most precious possession. Compared to him, the Pale Man is but a shadow of a threat.

Maybe her finest moment after all she's been through comes near the end, when she must convey the complexities of her final decision. She knows the faun is a hard taskmaster (in that sense he's much like the Captain), she knows what will happen if she defies him, but she just can't let go of her brother; you see it in her eyes, an almost instinctive freezing of her face and arms: it's a line she won't cross. The decision she must make, in effect, wasn't a choice between comfortable Fascism (which continued to rule Spain long after the end of World War 2) and a demanding rebellion, but between losing herself in the fantasy world she desperately wants to belong to and facing the reality she desperately wants to escape--both the monster closing in behind her, and the brother she holds in her hands.


(Wrote further on the film in the 4/27/07 issue of Businessworld)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Arthur and the Invisibles (Luc Besson, 2006

Excerpt:

Luc Besson's latest, "Arthur and the Invisibles" (2006) is roughly the equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger--not poisonous, per se, but not exactly food either.

I don't know where the picture goes wrong--or rather, I don't know how on earth the filmmakers could ever imagine that this mishmash of fantasy, live-action and CGI animation would ever work out right. There's some wit involving scale (a toy car turns into an escape vehicle, a construct made out of plastic straws becomes material for building some kind of Doomsday device) but said moments whiz by too quickly, and you find yourself forced to turn your attention back to the rather witless story, which combines two hoary old clichés--the farm about to be repossessed by a villainous banker, the youth that steps through glass to enter another world (in Arthur's case (Freddie Highmore, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Finding Neverland"), he's sucked down a telescope). Along the way Arthur evades the misguided attempts of his grandmother (Mia Farrow, still likeable, still luminous) to take care of him, pulls a sword out of a (what else?) stone, falls in love with a princess that has lived for a thousand years (voice by Madonna, who sounds too old for the part), and eventually battles an evil wizard (David Bowie, who slinks away with the picture). Does Arthur win the day, get the girl, find the rubies he needs to save the farm from that darn banker? Is Besson a hack?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Anthony Bourdain: the bitter end

So we finally got down to it, the ultimate act of gastronomy, the most outlandish, esoteric, downright repulsive dish ever served--a dish that in fact recalls a film in 1972 (the title will become clear, I think, when you read on).

But let me backtrack: I've been a fan of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a sort of badass travel show where this cook (executive chef at Les Halles, in New York) goes to some foreign country--sometimes even Miami, or the Pacific Northwest--and makes snarky remarks, tastes the food, tries a few things, and if we're lucky, generally makes an ass of himself.

It's fun; I'm not going to defend it as prime TV or an example of the broadcasting arts, but I love it for his attitude, and for the quite real possibility that he'll break his fool neck (which he almost did once, when he was riding some kind of dune buggy and it turned turtle, hundreds of pounds of metal rolling on top of him--showed the footage, too).

But I like his pretensions too. He's often snarky when in rich European countries--Iceland comes to mind, and he took a few potshots at Sweden ("so Sweden--big blondes, meatballs, ABBA--that's it, right?"). Relatively underdeveloped countries are treated with more kindness--I remember him seriously thinking of settling in Indonesia, of positively loving Ghana, of enjoying a meal of slaughtered seal with a family of Inuit in Quebec, which included frozen blackberries rolled in the inside of the seal carcass (picking up blood and fat) for a dessert, and the piece de resistance--the seal's eyeball, presented to the honored guest. Bourdain downed the jellied orb and declared it tasty.

When fighting in Lebanon broke out and Bourdain's crew was in the middle of it, they did the smart thing and stayed in the sidelines. Bourdain was respectful and full of angst--almost an hour's worth of angst. But I'd rather hear his uninformed angst (which, to his credit, he's the first to admit is uninformed) to any attempt by him and his crew to actually go out and try make sense of the madness there, probably blow their fool heads off. I appreciated that episode.

Anyway--so he goes to Namibia, is choppered to the Bushmen near the Kalahari Desert, and they come upon a nest of ostrich eggs ("he found it earlier, but was afraid to pick them up alone for fear that the mother would come back." "are ostriches dangerous?" "they have powerful legs with huge claws that can rip your belly open"). A Bushman broke a hole in the egg, scrambled the contents with a long stick, then after building a fire with a cleared flat space in the middle, poured the contents of the egg in the middle. The egg cooked; when it formed a skin, they pushed coals and hot ash on top of it. After half an hour, the Bushman tapped the omelet with a stick to shake off extra ash (not that he managed to remove all of it, not by a long shot), and handed the 'dirt frittata" to Bourdain, who chewed it with a wide grin.

Later they hunted for warthog. The Bushman bow and arrow is a tiny affair, more like a dart shot by a bit of elastic; the Bushman has to sneak up to the prey close enough to prick him with the dart, then track it for hours until it's overcome by the poison in the dart (Bushmen are renowned for their tracking skills).

Hours later, they come home with the carcass--which, in the desert heat, was already rotting. They cut off the head, bury it in hot coals, dig it out afterwards. Bourdain reports that the tongue--and most of the head--tasted of the soured grassy effluvium the pig had been chewing on before he died.


But the best, of course, was to come: the fattest, juiciest, downright tastiest part of the warthog: the rectum. The Bushmen pull it out the long, bloody tube, squeezed out the contents (a green ball the size of a (what else?) hockey puck dropped out), and without the benefit of a cursory wash (this was the edge of the desert, remember), plopped it in the fire. Where Bourdain gazed at it with a sickly, nervous grin ("this is one time where 'well done' is definitely good"). They cut off a slice, hand it to him; he pops it in his mouth, smiles. "It's chewy," he says. "Great food."

Later he's walking, presumably out of earshot, with the camera following, and he declares it "the worst meal in my life," noting how every word he had preached about how one must eat the native food, how one must suppress squeamishness have come back to haunt him. "I have my limits," he admits. He doesn't think it's hypocrisy to smile and thank his hosts, though; it might be an unwashed rectum to him, but it was still a feast for the Bushmen, and he had been treated with great generosity.

Later they walk through the Bushmen's market--which turned out to be a field of grass, through which they passed, picking out berries and things. One of the things they plucked (from a thorny bush that pricked Bourdain's fingers badly) was a beetle the size of one's thumb; the Bushmen quickly pulled the beetle's legs and wings to keep it from escaping. When they got home, the beetle was roasted in a fire, dipped in salt, and popped in the mouth. Bourdain's eyes widened--this wasn't good, this was delicious--a little chili to go with it, and it could be served in any restaurant. It was the best thing he ate that day, he said.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Tokyo nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter's like a bottle of Hennessy smashed across your face; even through the waves of pain and blood--and even more pain from the liquor seeping into the cuts--you appreciate the taste of fine cognac.

Suzuki doesn't even pretend to be trying for coherence--he goes for the most bizarre effects, amongst the most baroque settings (he says unlike Ozu, where realism and the feeling of the commonplace is key, he needs to wow his actors with his sets, cue them to what he expects from them in terms of performance). He doesn't try for realism, either--in the eye-popping train-track shootout, it's clear that the hero Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari, a pretty boy whose sense of entitlement to the big screen is for once utterly justified) is walking in front of a rear projection. It's not the rear projection you're suppose to look at--or at least you're suppose to look at it, snort in derision, then be blown away by the utter cool of the hero's walk.

But it's not just attitude and art direction--there's a core of real feeling in this picture. When Tetsu has to say goodbye to his boss and wants to cook for him but the man turns him down, the moment is unaccountably moving--you can see that they love each other as father and son. When Tetsu is helped by a man who betrayed his superior, Tetsu can't help being grateful and annoyed at the same time--he knows the man is good, but can't stand what he considers ingrates, purely on principle; loyalty is a prime value for him, perhaps the only value. For all the bizarre elements in the picture, the psychology of the film is actually quite coherent, and impressively complex.

The finale--Jesus, what wasn't influenced by it? Casino Royale, if it didn't actually steal the look and humor, followed on its well-trampled path; I'd say the Austin Powers movies as well, only Suzuki's has the stronger colors sharper wit. Think Tim Burton with more attitude, David Lynch on speed, Patrick McGoohan incarcerated on an island operated by Magritte and Bunuel in fiendish collaboration. This is terrific stuff.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006)

Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006)

Excerpt:


Edward Zwick has always been the champion of a kind of earnest, well-meaning, rather flatfooted moviemaking that demands one's respect more than it actually earns it, from "Glory" (1989, about noble black soldiers fighting in the American Civil War--well, actually about a white man leading a company of noble black soldiers in the Civil War), to "The Last Samurai" (2003--white man accompanying a company of noble Japanese warriors in the Satsuma Rebellion). If there's an auteurist trend here--a signature to be found in Zwick's scattershot portfolio--it's in Zwick's wholesale and unashamed embrace of the hoariest melodramatic clichés, from the misunderstood officer in "Courage Under Fire" (1996) to the flawed white man redeemed by his charity work among the colored people ("Glory;" "The Last Samurai;" his latest picture "Blood Diamond") to The Beautiful Love Interest, Inspiring the Hero to Be a Better Man ("The Last Samurai;" "Blood Diamond"). Maybe the most fun I've ever had in a Zwick movie was the nutty "Legends of the Fall" (1994) where Zwick actually gives his overworked idealism a rest, aims for pure romanticism, and achieves sheer hilarity. Brad Pitt plays an ubermensch romantic, a poet of the soul and Bowie knife who acts gallantly towards his brother's wife (they eventually end up rolling in the hay together) but is hard on neighboring bears, at least one of which he maims by cutting off a claw; he scalps German soldiers during World War 1 and spends most of his life wandering the world as a kind of Hemingwayesque adventurer, hunting anything that moves. By picture's end Pitt's character is killed by bear, a scene which Zwick treats as high tragedy, though it struck me more as a low comedy on karma.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Children of Men--what can I say? Easily the best mainstream film of the year. Would make an interesting double feature with A Prairie Home Companion--where Altman's final opus is all lighthearted hijinks disguised as an elegy, Children is all death and destruction and despair disguised as a Nativity parable--a story of hope (a livelier, far more passionate one than the ossified version staring Keisha Castle-Hughes). You come out of both moved and elated, but in radically different ways.

I've read dissenting opinions on the film--was the reference to Guantanamo opportunistic? I don't know; all I can see is that the atrocities at Guantanamo and the anger against illegal immigration seem to come from the same wellspring of emotion, a kind of rabid, incoherent hatred that can't be bothered with being logical, only effective (or as effective as its blinkered way of thinking will allow it to be). It's no more arbitrary or inconsistent than some of the classic dystopian visions--say, Blade Runner with its elaborate psych test (when the bounty hunter has photographs, for crying out loud), or Brazil where the hero's such a moron that the whole thing is doomed from the start (of Brazil, I've said before that I see it more as an examination of a repressive bureaucracy than of a fascist regime, and better yet a canny portrait of the impotent liberal. It's hardly the definitive portrait of fascism--the novel 1984 and its most recent adaptation have it all over Gilliam's picture in that respect).

All that matters, I submit, is that it feels right--the kind of hate directed at 'fugees' might also conceive a Guantanamo-cum-concentration-camp type prison system. It's not supposed to be logical, only believable; I don't see any inconsistency in that.

And it's not as liberal-leftist as you might think; the rebel group is as bad if not worse than the fascist regime--Owens and his precious cargo have to negotiate a delicate path between the two warring groups. That final scene, of the ship picking her up--is it such a happy ending? Maybe, if she weren't so alone. As is, it's open-ended; those men could just be another group out to exploit the hapless girl, only this time no dark knight in tattered armor will save her. Either that, or the ship is a construct of a fevered mind, dreaming its way out of a hopeless situation. A quick cut to black is no way to put such questions to rest, though Cuaron does tease us with the cries of children bubbling up from behind the black screen (a token of hope, or yet another sadistic tease?).

As for the question of all those long takes--frankly I hope the film puts to rest the question of whether or not suspense is better served by quick cuts or long takes, and that future action filmmakers will give this film a closer look. Brian DePalma is a passionate advocate of such shots, partly out of sheer perversity (aside from Cuaron, there are precious few others doing it), partly because of the possibilities they offer--of complete and immediate immersion in a created world, of pinning all elements of a sequence quickly and firmly in a viewer's mind (instead of having him construct it from different shots stitched together), of giving the viewer the luxury of seeing something happen in real time, with no cheating (the pursuers are really this close, and quickly catching up).

Do they belong in this film? They should belong in more films, I think; take away Tony Scott's license to direct while we're at it.

I don't agree that the shots turn the film into an elaborate video-game, either; I think Cuaron is careful to keep us empathizing with Owens (something videogames never do--can't look at Owen's scene by a tree and think the man has no feelings), with Moore (the conversation over their child), with Caine (his farewell to his mute wife), with the young heroine (by turns sassy (she's a virgin--yeah, right), scared, ignorant (she doesn't know enough to breastfeed a crying child--but then no one taught her to)). If we don't see close-ups of Owen and company's reactions as they flee, it's no more than what we might expect in any film that values a more open-ended view over a more directed one--shots Renoir or Tarkovsky might appreciate, though I'd imagine they would be amazed at what Cuaron achieves (I'd add Sokurov and Angelopolous; even Noe, only I loathe his work--like Von Trier he seems more a gimmicky sadist than anything else).

As for the film's substance--well, one might call the picture a parable reminding us what it's all about, what we're all fighting for or defending, or protesting the destruction of--basically hope, and the simplest and most effective incarnation of said hope. Along the way we see the reaction of various people to this hope, including the soldiers in the aforementioned battle scene. Are their reactions believable? Partly it depends on how willing you are to swallow such risky imagery, I suppose; I submit that Cuaron helps it along with a few details: the soldiers that kneel (religion, rearing its spiky yet still impressive head again), the moment carefully prepared for by all the 'fugees' reaching out in murmured awe; the fact that the rebels wait only so long before launching yet another rocket at the tanks (a miracle may have walked by, but we can only wait so long before it's business as usual).

It's a combination of the aforementioned Nativity story, an atrocity exhibit, a headlong chase and a Grail quest, where only the worthiest pass and the rest are left slumped on the wayside, monuments to their own sacrifice (Owens, in particular, seems to represent some kind of forlorn Lancelot, and his story of attempted redemption takes up most of the film). It's an action movie with an outsized heart and the cojones for risky imagery (the aforementioned kneeling, for one); an entertainment that pushes buttons, only this time the right kind of buttons, infuriating the right kind of people; a testament, finally, to what is (or should be, anyway) most precious to us, and what we are prepared to pay to keep it safe, or get it back.

Wonderful film, I say. Liberal wankfest, unabashed occasion for celebrating the excesses of the far right? Maybe, and maybe it's about time.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006)

Curse of the Golden Flower is interesting, to say the least. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's work isn't as precise or elegant as Chris Doyle's in Hero, and while the action director Ching Siu Tung has the chops to rival Yuen Woo Ping (he directed A Chinese Ghost Story, and did the action choreography for Peking Opera Blues, among many others), Zhang still doesn't quite know how to photograph his choreography--too many cuts, in too confusing a fashion (give me Ronny Yu's direction in Fearless--still the finest martial-arts action film I've seen in recent years).

I think Zhang Yimou knew this, and tried to compensate by going berserk on the costumes and sets--Gong Li's gowns rival Princess Amidala's in ungainliness, and her nails seem to have been done by the same manicurist that does Ming the Merciless; Chow Yun Fat's headgear could have been King Midas' underwear, and you don't want me started on his throne, a hemorrhoid sufferer's literally wet dream.

Much of it is lush, of course, but I thought the hot pinks, neon greens and radioactive blues were a bit much--think of a supermutated Szechwan restaurant grown to monstrous proportions, or Ridley Scott's Blade Runner set in the Tang Dynasty, only with less restraint. I'm not kidding, you have to see this; it's the kind of production design found in multimillion dollar adaptations of cyberpunk graphic novels, only these are for the most part real sets, not CGI-generated nightmares (when they are CGI, they look patently fake). Maybe my favorite comment on the sets claims they look as if they had been done by someone 'channeling Liberace' (on hallucinogens, maybe).

All that aside, it does get compelling, in a The Lion in Winter meets Married With Children meets Henrik Ibsen way; the revelation scene--where mistress confronts wife confronts husband confronts children, ugly truths are revealed, and a brother gapes at his sister in mute horror--should go down in history as a great camp classic.

The basis of the story is Cao Yu's classic Thunderstorm, which single-handedly established modern Chinese 'spoken' theater (as opposed to traditionally 'sung' Chinese opera). Cao Yu (who believe it or not played Nora in a production of A Doll's House--make of that what you will) was critical of communism, but seeing as how the play portrays the bourgeois as inbreeding decadent bastards, the Chinese authorities have wholeheartedly adopted it as one of their own, which may be the reason why Zhang is able to get away with startling moments and imagery under the guise of all that imperial (read; bourgeois) criticism.

It's the scenes of rebellion that makes the film worthwhile: with monumental sets (is that the Forbidden City doubling as a Tang palace?) and literally thousands of extras--the kind of human extravagance today's Hollywood can only dream about--Zhang fashions a startling re-enactment of the Tiananmen Square massacre, complete with tanklike structures inexorably crushing heroic dissidents. He follows it up with a startlingly efficient cleanup job, then by the most ghastly of aftermaths: an invitation of all concerned, rebellious and repressive alike, to sit down together at dinner. It's a sequence of such massive violence and subsequently profound perversity it takes your breath away--I remember a line from James Goldman's play where Eleanor of Aquitaine declares "we are the source of corruption!" but never has both source and consequence been so comprehensively and vividly realized.

Those closing sequences alone justify the film's existence, wipe away all (well--most) suspicions of Zhang selling out (forgiving him his awkward dabblings into the wuxia-pian genre along the way) and establish the man as potentially the finest, arguably the most ambitious, definitely the nuttiest impresario of large-scale spectacles in the world today.

Yep--the world today. Ridley Scott can still do the occasional superproduction, and I hear James Cameron is going all-out digital for his next 200 million dollar bonfire of vanity, but I submit Zhang, with his house style of old-fashioned spectacle cannily extended by CGI effects (still clumsy, but working on it, working on it), backed by the might of the world's most vital economy, will for better or worse (even now I see both possibilities) be the filmmaker to beat in the future. That's my prophecy, right there--you heard it from me first.

Friday, January 12, 2007

An Amado Lacuesta film retrospective

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Michelle Aldana in Segurista

In the wake of all the deaths we've experienced this year--of Robert Altman, Sven Nykvist, Gordon Parks, among others--I've completely forgotten the tenth death anniversary of a man who could make me laugh till I cried, whose work was witty, incisive, profane, moving.

I'm referring to Amado Lacuesta Jr., one of the finest Filipino scriptwriters, and a valuable resource to filmmakers--Butch Perez, Tikoy Aguiluz, Ishmael Bernal, to name a few. It's the tenth year of his passing (like James Brown, he chose the first day of 1997 to shuffle off this mortal coil), and to mark the occasion, the UP Film Center with help from his son, Sarge Lacuesta (an award-winning writer himself), has scheduled a retrospective of films written and co-written by the man at the Cine Adarna Theater, Magsaysay Ave Entrance, UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City, on January 23 to 24 (please click on the blog post's title for more information).

By way of tribute (and atonement for failing to remember), here's an excerpt from an article I'd written for a Lino Brocka / Ishmael Bernal tribute, collected in my book:

From Two of a Kind

Bernal's Hinugot Sa Langit (Snatched from Heaven, 1985) is altogether more thoughtful fare. The script, by Amado Lacuesta, takes a tabloid subject--abortion--and presents the issues and dilemmas with admirable subtlety. Maricel Soriano's pregnant office girl has no feminist agenda, no militant point of view; she's just someone trying to scratch out a living, and a child would be an insupportable burden. But even better than Bernal's complete lack of didactism is his beautifully quiet sense of drama. Soriano listens to her mother on the phone: a chance remark makes Soriano think of the consequences of her act. No music, no sound effects, most of all, no hysterical acting: just the camera closing into her face as the tears well up. One of the loveliest and saddest single shot in all of Philippine cinema.

Working Girls (1984) is a script by Amado Lacuesta, who seems to specialize in depicting the business class. Here, he draws a wonderfully cartoonish sketch of Philippine business (or more accurately, Philippine monkey business), from the highest executive to the lowest secretary. Not all the sketches are successful: Maria Isabel Lopez's descent from receptionist to prostitute is soporifically predictable; Rio Locsin's pregnancy problem requires a full-blown soap series to do it melodramatic justice, while Chanda Romero's martyrlike working wife is exactly that: irritatingly martyrlike (Romero, to her credit, gives a movingly understated performance). Much better are Carmi Martin as a lusty, half-blind secretary and Edu Manzano as her hilariously anal-retentive boss; and Gina Pareno, doing a wicked parody of Locsin's problem by pretending to be pregnant, and by the same man (Tommy Abuel)--when Abuel offers her the same amount of money he offered Locsin, Pareno doesn't turn it down out of some ridiculous sense of delicadeza; she haggles for a larger amount. Bernal directs the film with admirable fizziness; the slapstick portions are light and graceful comic ballets.

(Manila Chronicle 9/12/96)

Here's something I wrote on his death that never got to published mainly because when I submitted it, the international film magazine (who shall remain nameless) didn't feel he was "significant enough."

Not significant enough? Jesus Christ. Comic writers get scant enough respect in Hollywood; they get less in Asian, particularly Philippine cinema. I wanted to howl and gnash my teeth; I wanted to bash my head in--wanted to bash his head in. I ended up putting away the article till I could include it in my book, and--finally--use it now:

Amado Lacuesta: Working Boy

The first time I ever saw him was in the Ateneo High School Chapel, lying in his coffin. His eyes were closed, the lines and folds about them slack, his generous lips pressed firmly together. The lines look like they had settled just before I looked into the coffin; the eyes and mouth look as if they had just shut. Pictures ring the coffin and they showed me a man with a wide smile, enjoying himself hugely. He resembled the character Geoffrey Rush portrays in Shine, the genius pianist who can't stop talking and laughing, the words tumbling pell-mell out of his mouth. Amado Lacuesta died just two days before, and it seemed to me, looking at him in his coffin, that this was the first time ever he was so silent.

He wrote movies; a simple statement to make and unremarkable on the surface. We tend to forget that the many good films we watch and love often begin on paper, as a written screenplay. As William Holden put it in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard: "They probably think the actors make up the lines as they go along." That's Holden speaking, an actor casually tossing off his line with a touch of bitterness--making it all the more memorable, of course. But it was the team of Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshall and Wilder himself who conceived the line, the scene in which the line was spoken, and the story in which the scene belonged.

Lacuesta didn't begin writing for movies; he began as a banker in stock trading, which was a rare and unusual job at that time (People didn't put much stock in them, then). He was senior officer in Multinational Investment Bancorp when he wrote a script for a contest sponsored by The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. He only placed top ten, which didn't discourage him--far from it; he went and wrote a script for Viva films, which Ishmael Bernal directed in 1986 as Working Girls. The film had a glittering all-star cast: Rio Locsin, Hilda Koronel, Tommy Abuel, Carmi Martin, Gina Pareno and a relative newcomer, Edu Manzano. It was a critical and commercial success; even the theme song was a hit.

Working Girls did show something rare, if not totally new in Philippine cinema: it showed middle-class men and women, working in an office. Not an advertising agency, as some of our lazier scriptwriters are fond of using, but a bank, with details and dialogue that only someone actually working in the banking industry can possibly know.

Maricel Soriano worked in a realistically depicted office in Lacuesta's Hinugot Sa Langit (Snatched From Heaven, again directed by Bernal), but that wasn't his prime concern; abortion was the selling point of the movie (Soriano was pregnant by an unscrupulous playboy, played by Al Tantay), but again, that wasn't his concern. His concern was to show a woman with a problem and two alternatives, one of which is condemned by society. Lacuesta had a "message," to be sure, but he never forgot that it was a drama first; the message is all the better served for that. The movie is remarkably sad, coming from the writer of Working Girls and from the man who smiled so widely in his pictures.

Lacuesta didn't just do comedies and dramas. He did action biopics--Philip Salvador's Balweg; he--surprisingly--helped Ricky Lee write Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer. It would be difficult to learn for certain what he contributed, the world of lower-class gay and bisexual dancers being far from the world of the bank officer; but Lacuesta did help demonstrate that imagination and research, and not sexual orientation, is what writes scripts.

One of Lacuesta's last scripts was Mumbaki (Medicine Man), which was a flawed but ambitious treatment of the Ifugao culture. In Segurista (Dead Sure) he helped Pete Lacaba create one of the few truly intelligent Filipino film scripts made in recent years.

Lacuesta didn't just write scripts, and he didn't always work in banks. He wrote for television, doing the mini-series Manila with Jaclyn Jose and Ishmael Bernal; he wrote every episode of Sic O'clock News, one of the wittiest and most sophisticated local comedy shows ever aired. He wrote plays, one of which--Katapusan (Ending) about an end-of-the-world cult--was staged recently. He wrote a Palanca-award winning children's story, and shared the award with an 8-year old girl--his daughter. He wrote songs and composed music, writing the opening song for the 1991 Asean Games.

He did all this and at the same time his banking career; in fact, he had been president of Prime Savings Bank about the time of his death. I was curious enough to put it to his son, Sarge Lacuesta (a writer for the Evening Paper), that Lacuesta might have overreached himself, working in so many fields. Sarge shrugged and smiled: "But he lived so much! He tried so many things; he was a kind of Renaissance Man."

"You mean," I asked, "if he had to do it all again he wouldn't do anything any different?"

"Oh, he must be smiling right now," Sarge assured me, smiling that distinct Lacuesta smile. "He must be laughing his head off."

1/7/97

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian de Palma, 1974)

Phantom of the Paradise is wonderful fun, and not the least for the way it crams together stories and films--The Phantom of the Opera; Faust; Poe's The Cask of Amontillado; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Shelley's Frankenstein; Touch of Evil; Citizen Kane; Psycho; a climax straight out of The Manchurian Candidate; what films of Ken Russell were available at the time; plus far too many others to mention in one breath--into its cavernous maw.

No, we don't quite get a coherent sense of the Paradise, Swan's monumental rock palace, as we may want (presumably because of budget constraints), but we get intriguing glimpses--labyrinthine corridors, secret rooms, intimidatingly knobbed and dialed recording studios, private boudoirs for all kinds of decadent orgies, a performance stage ringed with balconies and secret nooks to observe without remorse the hapless performers below.

The film wouldn't work without Jessica Harper--is that her real voice?--as Phoenix. Real voice or not, you need someone who may not look striking at first glance (read: tall and blonde), but who can grow on you, entrance you, reveal a darker, more passionate, more sensual side along the way. Harper doesn't quite have a character to play (why, if she refuses to sleep her way to the top, does she come back for another audition?), though she goes a long way towards making us believe she does.

But De Palma really goes to town with Paul Williams' Swan, the rock impresario. I hear everyone from Gerrit Graham (who ended up as Beef) to Jon Voight was considered for Swan; Williams plays him as a cherubim seducer, with an insouciant way with words--he tosses off dialogue as if it were coins for an adoring crowd; even when he's being persuaded to sell his soul, he sells out to his own mirror image, out of the corner of his mouth, with a sense of irony and style.

And one risk De Palma takes, of turning the Phantom storyline into a more recognizably Faustian parable--pays off. I wasn't too sure I liked this additional curlicue of plot (in the original the Phantom was the Mephisto figure, the singer his Faust) until I saw it played out, and realized that Swan and his genius composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) are two facets of the same genius: Swan is Mephisto, full of evil and dark power, Leach that side of Mephisto that possesses artistic integrity (maybe the giveaway was when Swan electronically warps Leach's ruined vocal cords until it comes out sounding exactly like his own (like Williams')--a brilliant touch). That all other evils can reside in one man, but that a man's obsession with greatness requires a human vessel all its own--that, I think is an interesting statement. Swan recognizes Leach's value, but doesn't trust him more than he can throw him; Leach is forever being duped because he doesn't care about anything else except the music--and, well, Phoenix (but who wouldn't care about Jessica Harper?). When they struggle with each other, as when Swan decides Phoenix shouldn't sing Leach's songs, it's an artist in mortal conflict with himself over his work.

Significantly, when it all falls into ruin, it's Leach that Phoenix approaches. She recognizes in his ruined, dying face something "good" and "true"--recognizes only one who really gave a damn about anything, including her. Funny how a moment this romantic can come from a cynic like De Palma--or maybe only a cynic like DePalma can sell a moment this romantic, and make it stick in our craw.

Wonderful film, and actually more moving than you'd first think. Wish De Palma would do more in this vein--The Rocky Horror Picture Show should be so delirious, or beautiful, or pyrotechnically cinematic.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Charlotte's Web (Gary Winick, 2006)

It wasn't as bad as I thought, better than the Hanna-Barbera version, but not the great breakthrough film people would like you to think it is. The Dakota Fanning droid performs charm as professionally as a 40 dollar hooker does a blowjob, and you have the usual celebrity voiceovers--Robert Redford, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas Haden Church, and the like to provide vocal glitter (yeah right--they're about as distinguishable as a flock of baaing sheep); maybe the two that I remember best are John Cleese as an old ram with crack comic timing and Steve Buscemi as an overfed rodent, doing that 'cynic redeemed' bit with just enough bite to make it fairly interesting.

Julia Roberts does well as Charlotte--it's the warmest, most believable performance of her career, and I think it's partly because she's no spring chicken anymore, partly because we're not using her face (which always reminded me of Eric Roberts at his most angularly psychotic, anyway), partly (and most importantly, I think) because she's playing a character from E.B. White's novel.

Maybe that's the best one can say of the movie--that it's a passable adaptation of White, and unlike what's been said elsewhere, I don't think that's necessarily high praise. The finest parts evoke a literate, classically proportioned picture, with a regard for words and what they mean (not just to a crowd of onlookers--you could say the book was one of the earliest to recognize the power of the soundbyte--but to specific people who hear them).

Unfortunately it also indulges in what looks like CGI-generated slapstick (and does so far too often), and when it does, it's just another kiddie yuckfest designed to keep the ten-and-under crowd from yowling or falling asleep. The pratfalls demean the delicately delineated relationships in the barn sequences, and the goopy music, at times employing a hallelujah chorus, poured over almost every dramatic high point ensures that the emotionally diabetic will not come out of the theater alive (I'm glad Danny Elfman has stopped repeating himself; I just wish he'd not repeat himself with more distinction). Director Gary Winick (who did the toothless 13 Going on 30) directs traffic; only perhaps in one scene, Charlotte's adieu, does he show any awareness of what the words "dramatic power" might means (and even then it's topped with plenty of Elfman's melodic syrup).


I keep thinking of what George Miller could and has done with this material (this is no Babe: Pig in the City), and how he could and has hit it out of the park, not once but twice (the second time being for my money the definitive film about talking pigs).

It's from the same producers who did the latest version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and while I appreciate their attempt to try get some real family entertainment back on the big screen, I don't quite appreciate the glitzy, showbizzy way they're trying to do it, either with White or the C.S. Lewis (the latter of which I prefer, despite all the reservations I've expressed, over Peter Jackson's hobbit movies; not for the undistinguished directing, but for the middling fidelity to the source material--a superior fantasy, I think, to anything Tolkien has done ).

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A.I. Bezzerides: Jan. 1, 2007

Know little about him myself (never realized he was a good friend of Faulkner), but maybe the strongest sense I have of the man would be from the documentarylike first half of They Drive By Night, where Raoul Walsh, taking inspiration from Bezzerides' experiences as a truck driver, perfectly captures the boredom, loneliness, exhaustion and sheer terror of long-distance driving--the sense that a fraction of a second's carelessness could sweep you off the face of this earth, a fraction among the millions of seconds spent on the road.

Then there's Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, from Mickey Spillane's hardboiled--or, rather, vulcanized--gumshoe novel, which Matt Zoller Seitz calls the ultimate film noir (it's not my favorite noir, but I can understand the enthusiasm). Bezzerides makes Spillane's Hammer a cruder, ineloquent brute, who comes face-to-face with (brilliant conceit) the ultimate leveller and all-around crisper, The Atomic Age...

Precious little with which to remember the man--but, then again, just look at the titles of some of the screenplays he's done; it's enough to make one murderous with envy. We can say we mourn his loss or remember his memory, but with people like this his memory needs no mourning or remembering; he lives, truism or not, through his films...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Different films

Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965)--major screwup, yet endlessly fascinating. Heston as imperial capitalist adventurer, only unlike the present one sitting in the White House, he has tactical smarts and the courage to actually put his own behind on the line.

Cross of Iron (1977)--People actually nominated Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan? What were they thinking of? It's the legend of Anabasis, done 'Bloody Sam' style, and it's a grimmer, uglier piece of work than what Walter Hill had in mind when he made The Warriors, or almost any other war movie I know. Some kind of great film, I think. Easily James Coburn's best, most nuanced performance, and that includes Affliction.

Monkeybone (Henry Selick, 2001)--not too bad; parts actually interesting. Balances animated portions (which quickly got wearying) with Brendan Fraser freaking out (funnier than the animated monkey). Dirty-minded and fantastical and even a touch tender. Bridget Fonda was kind of cute.

Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch, Timur Bekmambetov, 2004)--parts I like; the whole I didn't. The MTV-style filmmaking is so old, the computer graphic stuff, eh. On the other hand, there are details--oh, the flashlight on the face, the vanishing vampires you need to see with a mirror, the clapping old lady--that are actually unsettling (basically, anything that uses floor effects or old-fashioned techniques like editing, staging, lighting). The truck they drive around in is cool.

Tou tiao hao han (Fearless Fighters, Man-Hung Mo, 1971)--the fight choreography is decent, but the filmmaking is like King Hu on hiccups. The timing is off, the camerawork wobbly and imprecise.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Indiwire's The Best Films of 2006 (was: The Village Voice's critic's poll)

If you need a little history on the poll.

Or if not: essentially, some slick new owners have bought up and eviscerated The Village Voice's film section, once one of the most important champions of alternative cinema, now mostly the stomping ground of morons who think Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious is dated (I like one comment to his post: "I can't believe your parents let you use the computer."). In which case, real film critics like Dennis Lim and Michael Atkinson have moved their end-of-the-year critic's poll to Indiewire, where it has found a new (and far friendlier) home.

So there. Most readers of my articles know (at least I hope they do) that I'm not a big fan of compiled lists, votes tallied and mathematically digested until the results come out as meaningless pap (as Samuel Langhorne Clemens once said (or so I thought): "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." Fortunately, this list includes those of every critic who voted, and those I appreciate, if only because I can always find titles worth looking for.

All that said, I do appreciate the mentions of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) which I liked very much, and Cavite, which I haven't seen, but would like to (especially after all the recommends).

So--enjoy. And I know there's some bigger, glitzier horse race involving some gold-plated doorstop coming up, but the name's slipped my mind. Fuhgedaboudat, this is the real deal.
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