Friday, September 28, 2007

Gwoemul (The Host, Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Family ties

Bong Joon-ho's Gwoemul (The Host, 2006) is terrific stuff, as much for being a family movie as for being a horror flick, but that's pretty much the secret appeal of almost any classic creature. James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) is really about parental responsibility and the neglect of the offspring; Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is about the abused child's development of an operating moral sense; Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933) isn't so much a love story as it is a cautionary fable about a big brute's hopeless infatuation with (what else?) an airhead blonde (that's why the remake's so lame--it insists on being a love story); Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks' The Thing (1951) is about maintaining efficiency in the face of human weakness and overall chaos; Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) is about the impotence of human hubris (it's also about accepting a new and unlikely member into a rather ingrown family); Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is about obsession and the comedy of male bonding. The creature (and the special effects used to create it) may be what draws the audience in, but it's always the human element--either suggested in the creature, or found among the victims or pursuers--that people savor and remember.

In Bong's case, it's about a dysfunctional family finding its priorities and learning how to operate as a unit. The slow-witted, blond-haired Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a food stand alongside the Han River with his father Park Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) and daughter Park Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong) when a monster rears out of the river and starts chomping down on innocent bystanders. Seems that many years ago an American military pathologist ordered his lab technician to empty a hundred bottles of formaldehyde into the drain, which apparently has a mutating effect on the riparian marine life (why that would be I'm not sure--formaldehyde's been dumped in water before, and I have yet to hear any recent news of giant mutant lizard-frogs walking the planet). Hee-bong and Gang-du escape, but Hyun-seo is snatched at the last minute by the monster's wonderfully prehensile tail to be snatched away, presumably eaten.

At the mass funeral for all the riverside victims, we meet the last two members of the family: Park Nam-joo (Bae Doona), a national archery medallist who can't seem to win a medal thanks to her indecisiveness, and Nam-Il (Park Hae-il), a college graduate who can't hold down a job, thanks to his alcoholism. Bong throws in an additional plot detail: the government has swooped in, putting everyone who has come into contact with the creature under emergency quarantine--apparently the monster has a deadly, contagious virus that they're trying to contain.

How the Park family evades government attempts at containment and hunts down the monster occupies the main body of the picture; along the way we get a mysterious cell phone call (is Hyun-seo haunting her father from beyond the grave?), scenes that can only inspire paranoia in viewers about government health policies (a particularly stubborn prisoner/patient is subjected to (ethically dubious) electroshock treatment), scenes of low slapstick and poignant sacrifice.

Many American critics have marveled at how Bong can turn on a dime when telling a story, cramming as many emotional tones in so many minutes as the monster can cram human bodies into his cavernous craw but really, this isn't anything new--Hong Kong studios stuff their horror with comedy, their tragedies with slapstick and their action with plenty of bathos; Filipino filmmaker Rico Maria Ilarde often throws various genres (fantasy, martial arts, the noir thriller, futuristic science fiction) into his horror pictures. One can think of it as a value-driven virtue--more bang for the pan-Asian buck--but I tend to think of it as more an issue about inhibitions, as in there's precious little in most Asian filmmakers: whatever flows, goes, the word "shame" is an unfamiliar term, and if you can wring every drop of sorrow from a child's death and still somehow bring the child back to life (and his pet puppy, too), then hooray for you and that's yet another million in the boxoffice till. There's also some alchemy on the part of the viewers, who can follow the emotional twists and turns without too much trouble, or voluble demands for credibility.

And Bong does have an eye for finding beauty in the grotesque (a requisite, in my opinion, for making memorable horror), from the creature's loping, sinuous gallop (it looks like the result of an unholy union between a stallion and a Gila monster) to the sequences of slow motion (starting from when Gang-du grabs at what he thinks is his daughter's hand) to the fog scenes where monster and attackers emerge from out of the clouds of poisoned gas.

There's political subtext--the incident with the formaldehyde mirrors a real event involving an American military mortician, and the mysterious "Agent Yellow" the government threatens to use on the virus is a reference to the Agent Orange used by the United States on Vietnam. The South Korean government is characterized as being too paranoid, too eager to use truncheons on its hapless populace, and too subservient to American demands; the United States government in turn is seen as arrogant and imperious, willing and able to try an untested chemical agent on the riverbanks of an Asian ally. Nam-il is seen to be the educated Korean intellectual who has failed at attaining the required materially successful life; in protest he picks up a Molotov cocktail (shades of the college riots in the '80s) and tosses it at the creature. The Han River, where much of the action takes place, is so emblematic of economic success in the sixties and seventies that the period was called "the Miracle of the Han."

But these are all side issues. Bong is careful to keep Gang-du and his bond with Hyun-seo--dramatically broken by the creature--front and center; it's to his character that we're asked to hand over our fullest sympathies. At one point Hee-bong explains to his smarter offspring why he thinks Gang-du became retarded, and it's a sad tale of neglect and sacrifice. More than just scaring the pee out of you, or leaving you in flop sweat from the tension, Gwoemul is out to jerk what tears you have left; it's out for all your bodily fluids, and that's the fun of it.

(First published in Businessworld 9/21/07)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Um Filme Falado (A Talking Picture, Manoel de Oliveira, 2003)

A confession: it's my first Oliveira (hang head in shame) and probably not an ideal introduction, but right off I can see that it's an unsettling work--at the very least brave, at the very most, radically great.

As far as initial impressions go, I think it's difficult to better my eleven-year-old nephew's capsule review: "It's so boring. Nothing's happening. This is the worst and ugliest movie ever made." I'd disagree with one comment outright--what with Emmanuel Machuel's capture of the harsh and brilliant Mediterranean sunlight (the very first image, of tiny figures with white handkerchiefs in hand like so many fluttering flower buds is stunning), the many magnificent structures paraded before the camera--there is in fact plenty of beauty for the eye. Too subtle a pleasure, I suppose, for my poor nephew to appreciate (Walt Disney World being his idea of a top travel destination).

Critics have commented on the stilted acting, the endless travelogue footage, the sudden explosive melodrama tacked on at the end. Stilted the acting may be and in fact is, but after Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni one can't quite dismiss wooden acting out of hand; you realize that some filmmakers use people in more abstract ways (Bresson called them "models") and I suspect Oliveira needed a daughter--an innocent--being lectured by her history-teacher mother to show us the received views, the 'conventional wisdom,' if you will, of modern Western society, as the pair make their way from Europe to Asia to join the girl's father in India.

A clue as to how Oliveira wants us to view the film I think can be found in the imagery; he often frames the monuments--the composition at the Pyramids of Giza come to mind--as backdrop against which the two protagonists can talk (the pyramids' apex come only up to the mother's head, and you get the distinct impression of forced perspective--as if the pyramids were models made to look like they were huge). You think of dioramas viewed in museums (forced perspective is a common trick in dioramas), of exhibits found, discussed, passed by (in this case it's the exhibits that do the moving, not the people). The mother/teacher's monologue is at times interrupted by helpful outsiders--a priest, a flirtatious Portugese actor, the way helpful museum guides would--after which the mother firmly takes over again.

Even with a mother's natural efforts to simplify and sterilise (or at least, render less violent) the course of history, the girl can't help but encounter disturbing facts--that the Hagia Sophia, for example, changed hands between Christians and Muslims during one of their many wars, and the church's interior was renovated to accomodate the beliefs of both religions. As the two sail further east, we learn about Egypt and Napoleon's admonishment towards his soldiers: "Four thousand years of history look down upon you." The words were meant to intimidate Napoleon's soldiers, humble them before the weight of history but in Oliveira's film they seem to have the opposite effect: they distance you from all that gravitas and trivialize history into a list of dates with only a tenuous link to one's present circumstance (the way monuments seem to slide by behind the discussing pair helps reinforce this impression).

The Portiguese child looks upon these aged edifices, studying them, judging them through the words of her carefully moderate (if selectively truthful) tour guide of a mother; the journey serenely continues. The museum tour is at various times interrupted by the boarding of three beautiful divas: Delfina (Catherine Deneuve), Helena (Iren Papas) and Francesca (Stefania Sandrelli); they sit at the table of Comandante John Walesa (John Malkovich) and talk culture, history and their personal lives.

From a travelogue to a a round-table discussion to what will turn out to be a literally explosive climax; I did say the film was brave, if not foolhardy. On one hand it's a young girl's education on the world and its ways; on the other it's a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd--or maybe not--that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)--who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What's missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt's monuments are shown and discussed, they're discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it's from the Mid-East--Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship's officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture's startling response.

Is Oliveira racist in his treatment? I don't think so; I think he's carefully defined the point of view from which he discusses and presents the issue: mostly as a middle-to-upper class European, by most definitions civilized and educated, who remains blissfully ignorant of the turmoil in the region. When turmoil breaks through ignorance, it's sudden, awful, and completely bewildering--Oliveira and his characters have no time to learn the motivations, nor do they fully grasp what is happening (or even who really did it). It's the way matters would proceed, Oliveira seems to be saying, if he himself were on that ship; the shock and incomprehension frozen on the captain's face (the film's final image) could very well be his own. Not, perhaps the ideal state of being in this day and age, but at least an honest one (more honest than informed, anyway, but aware of even that), fully alert of its limitations, and its own impending doom.

As for the actions of the child in the end--a simple but moving allegory, seems to me (as mother and child stand on the upper decks, Oliveira lights them in an unearthly glow, as if they are glimpses of figures already not of this world). He implies that a world where not all voices are heard can very well become (if not downright chaotic already) a world with little time for such traits as nurturing affection and common humanity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)--a belated tribute

Comic poetry

(Belated (it's all about being late, I suppose) entry to the Slapstick Marathon. Please note: plot discussed in close detail)

Robert Altman's Popeye opens with the tinny monophonic sound of The Sailor's Hornpipe, segueing into Sammy Lerner's theme song (I'm Popeye the Sailor Man). We see the cartoon image of a ship's rear cabin, doors sliding open, the classic opening of many a Max Fleischer cartoon short; Popeye pops up, chuckles, exclaims (in stereo, and in the voice of Jack Mercer, who played the sailor from 1935 to 1978):

"Hey what's this, one of Bluto's tricks?"

"I'm in the wrong movie!"

Crash and boom. Cut to thunderclouds piled high and visibly boiling. Camera pans down to a tiny orange sunset, all but overwhelmed by the oncoming storm; more lightning reveals Popeye's little rowboat, bobbing in a restless sea. Cut to a closer view of the boat--thanks to Altman's telephoto lenses the boat is surrounded, overwhelmed, engulfed by row after row of waves, in an endless march towards the camera (Popeye lost in an ocean of waves, the way Altman puts it onscreen, is about as lost as one can get). Cut to a bell tower--think of the church in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972)--shrouded in shadow; the bell chimes, the tower emerges in sunlight (filters, I suspect), and we hear horns blow the fanfare introduction to the song "Sweethaven." The entire opening is Altman's way of saying "this is not the Popeye you're familiar with--not the Fleischer cartoons, not Famous Studios, not Segar's strip. And not like any musical you've seen before, either."

"Sweethaven" is the kind of solemn, sarcastic anthem you imagine convicts singing in a gulag or concentration camp ("Sweet Sweethaven; God must love us," they chant in a zombie monotone). As the little boat approaches the town's wharf, you notice ships of all shapes and sizes, tilted, half-submerged--Altman's (or production designer Wolf Kroeger's) joke being that everyone was shipwrecked at Sweethaven; no one ever intentionally lands there.

The town itself is all creaky wood perched on craggy rock, photographed under the harsh Malta sun by one of Fellini's favorite cinematographers, Giuseppe Rotunno, and far more weatherbeaten than anything imagined by either Segar or the Fleischers (I'd rank it along with Tativille and Ridley Scott's 21st Los Angeles as one of the more eccentric visions of a world mounted and put onscreen). "God must have landed here, why else would he strand us here?" the citizens ask, as they shuffle out of their respective cellblocks (sorry--homes); Altman's camera responds by pulling back along streets at their approach, as if apprehensive of these grim marchers, this cheerless ant colony. The question ("why else would he strand us here?") contains layers of irony--Rotunno's lenses reveal a treeless, shrubless, almost lifeless landscape (no dogs, no cats, almost no incidental animals of any kind (there is a defecating cormorant, but it's obviously artificial); at the same time the camera captures startling glimpses of beauty in the margins, the deep blue of a Mediterranean sky, the deeper blue of a Mediterranean sea. You want to say to the town's denizens: yes, God did land--they only need to look up, or look beyond the broken shanties for proof of His existence.

To relieve the desolation (or, rather, fulfill it) Altman populates his town with performers and acrobats and comics who invent their own little bits of business. A lookout spots Popeye's boat and promptly drops his binoculars; a ladder swings right and left like a metronome, a man clinging to its highest rung; another's foot breaks through a plank bridge, leaving him stuck and grumbling; best of all is actor-performer Bill Irwin's Ham Gravy, forever chasing his hat, forever having the hat kicked just out of reach by his own shuffling feet.

Altman records the actors' antics with customary tact, but often adds emphasis to the action with understated camerawork. When Popeye (a young Robin Williams) arrives at the Oyls seeking a room for 'renk' ("What for what?" "Renk. Renk. Your sign says ya got a room for renk") and Nana Oyl (Roberta Maxwell) asks Olive (Shelley Duvall) to show him the room, Olive is furious; she feels she doesn't need to render hostess service on the eve of her engagement party to Bluto (Paul L. Smith)--a party she plans to call off anyway. Altman's camera retreats in deference as she struts stridently down the corridor (Popeye following, muttering), her progress interrupted only by Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) demanding an apology. At corridor's end the camera pauses and waits for Olive to try the door; naturally it's stuck. Olive pushes and shoves to no effect; Popeye helpfully lays his hand on the knob and the door promptly gives way, launching Olive with a small "sproingg!" and just the slightest of camera movements, a tiny forward lunge that almost seems to propel Olive across the room. The camera is content to stand and stare (Popeye's point of view, presumably) as Olive recovers her balance by snatching at the window drapes, tearing them off their curtain rods, then hiding the tattered rags behind her back; perfectly timed for maximum humiliation, a picture frame beside the window drops to the floor. "Nice lookin room," Popeye says; Olive smooths her hair, and we can't help but notice that standing before the window with the sun framing her embarrassed disdain in bright Maltese light (still Popeye's POV, presumably), she's unexpectedly gorgeous.

Dinner at the Oyl's is a full-fledged production in more ways than one. Opening image is a dinner table, waiting like an empty stage set; in the background are men waiting in the living room, women working in the kitchen (Wimpy attempts a pre-emptive raid through a side door, is promptly banished). At some signal the diners stampede to the service table grabbing plates and utensils; they swarm about the dinner table, staking out positions from which they'll sit and devour the evening meal. Altman's editing will often alternate between long, flowing tracking shots that involve large groups to briefer shots stitched together to pick out details within such groups. In this case the cutting is as frenetic as the eating--shots of individual diners (two, three of them) interacting are interspersed with shots of the entire table, people popping up from chairs and running around adding to the general chaos.

Popeye is the still, unnoticed center of the meal: the family swirls about him, ignoring him (Olive does notice long enough to push his corncob pipe aside like a turnstile), yet Altman grants him the most frequent closeups. While the Oyl family and its guests share in the general gluttony and bickering (Bluto we eventually learn is the most powerful man in Sweethaven (aside from Bluto's boss, the mysterious Commodore) and everyone except Olive is excited to marry her off to him), Popeye stands apart with his gracious (if ungrammatical) manners, his vain quest for a plate, a chair, a bite to eat (of everyone present, he's the only one who doesn't run around).

Altman often enjoys sitting back and watching the foibles of folks in his films and here he enjoys them to the hilt. If, however, he can't have someone flawed (John McCabe, Bill Denny), cool (Hawkeye Pierce, Dr. T), or vulnerable and innocent (Bowie, Brewster McCloud) for a protagonist, if in Popeye he must have someone terminally uncool, impossibly virtuous, superhumanly impervious to harm--in short, a genuine, unabashed superhero--then (you can imagine him thinking) he might as well pile all the human flaws and vices he usually has in his films on his supporting characters; hence the contrast at the dinner table.

The dinner culminates in yet another table-wide shot, with Olive (at far left) knocking her chair backwards to deliver a tirade to Popeye (far right), a dinner napkin waving like a flag in one hand: she'll refuse Bluto, she declares, if only to stop them all from "taking advantage of the sweetest, most humble man on the face of this earth!" Olive flounces away, leaving Popeye hungry and alone at an empty table, the meal--and show--over, at least for now.

The evening ends with a throwaway conceit: Bluto at the Commodore's ship, growling and fuming. He roars "It's nine o'clock! Curfew! Lights out!" Lights do go out, but interestingly the doused lights aren't just window lamps but huge floods illuminating entire houses (you even hear the gasp of electric arcs being broken); the effect is of a gargantuan movie set--which in fact the whole thing is--being shut down for the night.

Houses, streets, entire sections of town are plunged into darkness, save one window. Altman's camera moves in on the window, and we see that it's Popeye; he's slung a hammock over his broken-down bed and is looking at a picture of his missing father (he'd heard that the man was in Sweethaven, hence his non-accidental arrival). He puts the picture away, and we get a glimpse of what he had been looking at, a blank frame with the words "Me Poppa" scrawled on it.

At Olive's engagement party she's up in her bedroom with her bridesmaids, while Bluto waits below. The song she's singing, "He's large," is both lewd and defensive--Olive seems dismayed by the size of her suitor (one assumes that she's thinking of their honeymoon night) but is too proud to admit it, and she stubbornly defends him while her bridesmaids titter.

Interesting that with this number Altman explicitly flattens his images. From the long shots of the town in the "Sweethaven" number to the busy theatricality of the dinner table sequence, he's progressively squeezed space down to the point that the screen resembles a huge comic book panel. I've always thought there was a similarity between theater and comics, that they share a tendency to present characters and background in a narrowed perspective, or at least a perspective where depth (or the lack of it) isn't a flaw or priority (the more imaginative theatrical productions I've seen acknowledge this, take the tendency and either fight it, or do creative variations)--did Altman, working on a genre he hadn't worked on before (but would again, in the 1985 O.C. & Stiggs) note this similarity as well and used it as a shortcut to ease himself into things (from theater to comics in two, three easy sequences)? Was the dinner sequence a rehearsal prior to trying something more blatantly two-dimensional? Olive stretches to grab a piece of clothing from under her pillow, stuffs it in her suitcase; she makes another quick grab for a knicknack on the fireplace mantle, stuffs that in her suitcase. Each time Altman replies with a shot of all the bridesmaids sitting in a row and singing chorus--you could imagine this as a series of panels, bright colors and all, sitting side by side by side on a page. At one point Altman has a shot including all five (Olive and her bridesmaid) that gradually zooms in on Olive; instead of spatially tying everyone together the zoom has the opposite effect--Olive is singled out, isolated in her anxieties. The finale is wonderfully underhanded, with an image--a panel, if you will--of the door closing on Olive and her departing suitcase, the final words of the song ("he's large...") trailing behind her.

Another throwaway detail: Popeye had earlier tried to attend the engagement party, was snubbed by everyone there including host and hostess Castor and Nana, and decided to step out for a while. Altman shoots his feet crossing a bridge, his shadow stretching longer and longer behind him as he grumbles to himself: "I don't want to go to no party." "That's good cause you ain't invited." "Who sez I ain't invited?" "I sez." "Who are you?" "you know who I am, I'm you." It's Popeye's honesty speaking out again, like his shadow inescapable and annoying, keeping him funny, keeping him real.

Popeye and Olive meet, find a basket with a baby inside (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman's grandson), return to the engagement party, and in one of Altman's less successful special-effects sequences, face Bluto's wrath. Pow! and Popeye somersaults over and over again like an oversized Slinky down a ramp; Wham! and he rolls like a hoop down another. Biff! and he's sent spinning in place; Crack! and he's drilling himself downward, through the wharf and into the water. Altman shoots and cuts to cover the prosthetic and acrobatic effects, but they seem more like grotesque concessions to the Saturday Morning 'Toons audience than live-action approximations of the Fleischer brothers' graceful animation. Better, I think, is a fight earlier at Roughhouse's diner. Altman builds up to it with a series of sight gags--a cook climbs on the counter and over, pushing two diners backwards so their milk spills onto their faces; Ham Gravy grips the table and plates and glasses start trembling with terror; the cashier pulls a giant birdcage down around her for protection. Then Spike, leader of the Bruiser Boys (a--but who else could it be?--slimmer, younger Dennis Franz) calls out: "Hey runt--I bet your pappy is as ugly as you are."

That sets him off. Popeye doesn't so much strike back as start things rolling with a pair of elbows into two midriffs; where the Bruiser Boys stage a (in Popeye's words) "smorgasbord of violence," Popeye's response is more elegant--a feint here, a sidestep there, and the Bruiser Boys more or less fumble or knock themselves out. Altman handles the fight with equivalent grace; he keeps his camera at a distance (the better to see stance and balance and posture) and cuts less swiftly here than even in his dinner scene, the shot shifting only to show the next blow to its best advantage. At one point Altman plunks the camera down to watch Popeye turn one Bruiser Boy into a speed bag--circle punches smooth as you please, alternating with diagonal slashes right, left (pause to adjust pipe while the Bruiser's head obligingly keeps bobbing). Simple fight choreography, simple camerawork and a ceiling fan--what more can anyone ask?

In the number "He Needs Me" it's useful to note the rhetorical device Olive (through lyricist Harry Nilsson) uses--not the standard-issue "I love him," but a startled realization that he, after all, loves her. "He needs me," goes the thought echoing through her head, gaining strength from every bounce off a concavity; she's drunker than usual--the very definition of a "dizzy dame"--from the shock and can only repeat the words over and over again as if to see if they ring true; at times she's reduced to mumbling like an idiot ("ta ra-ra rat rat rat ta ra-ra ra ran...").

Altman doesn't go for comic-book flatness here; this is cinema, I submit, working with the simplest elements (the finest way to work, in my opine): a bridge, a girl, a song. The music has an odd, unsteady quality to it, as if the players had taken a swig too much sailor's grog; Olive peeks coyly from behind a log pillar, then sashays (kind of) onto the bridge. "It could be fantasy," she wonders, leaning against the bridge's railing; cut to a closer shot as she turns and exclaims "O-oh!" (may just be me but the precision of that cut, timed to punctuate the languorous quality of Olive's sigh (you can feel the swell of voluptuous--almost sexually so--emotions in that sigh) sends tingles up the spine). "Or maybe it's because--"
Cut to a camera slowly swinging into place as she spins away on stiltlike legs. "He needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me..." (from where Duvall stresses the syllables you can see the realization rolling like a wave through the sentence--through her, in effect). Later, she walks to the left side of the bridge singing: "For once, for once in life I finally felt that someone needed me--" and turns to the right; Altman responds with a Tati-like shot of a house presented face-on (a full-page comic book spread, practically) its four windows manned by four citizens closing said windows in a hauntingly deliberate manner. The realization is sinking in, she's saying, and Altman responds with a reminder of just how little the rest of the world cares, how emotionally distant she is from the rest of them (she's drunk on love, they're readying for bed)

Many a Popeye fan--and quite a few who aren't--point to the number as being the very heart of the film (Paul Thomas Anderson used it in his 2002 Punch Drunk Love--(Anderson's best work to date, in my opinion), though to far lesser effect (again in my opinion)); why this is so, though, is a touch difficult to determine. It isn't as if Duvall, who performs the number, sings or dances particularly well (if in fact she's singing and dancing at all), but the very awkwardness of her performance--the gangly legs, the heavily rouged lips, the tremulous voice repeating those three words over and over again (not to mention the even more maddening "ta ra-ra rat rat rat ta ra-ra ra ran..." warbled in between refrains) are the very source of the number's charm. Duvall, with Altman as puppet master high above jerking at tangled strings, transforms the gangly and grotesque into a poem about the delicate and vulnerable; she (under his direction) finds the beauty in the skewed, the crooked, the less-than-symmetrical.

The ending is perhaps too cartoonish; I enjoyed it and so do kids I watch it with, but the hijinks are strictly one-dimensional, with little that is expressive or lyrical. Two moments do sparkle in this latter part before matters descend to kindergarten level, the first being the meeting between Popeye and his mysterious Pappy (Ray Walston). Olive goads Popeye into trying to prove that his Pappy isn't on the mysterious Commodore's ship. "I know you ain't there," he says; "now, where ain't you?" he demands, following the camera down into the hold of Sweethaven's most dreaded vessel--its Heart of Darkness, if you like. Cut to a shot of Pappy tied up and helpless, the camera hovering over the old man's right shoulder to look at Popeye's reaction. "Pappy? Pap? Poppa? I knew it! I found you!" Popeye exclaims, hugging his father; a simple melody plays softly in the background. Walston saves the moment with appropriate acerbity "Oooh! I hates sentiment! I am disgustipated!" (Cartoonist-playwright Jules Feiffer's take on Segar's discombobulated English (with inserts by Williams that approximate Mercer's famous improvised mutterings) is a sharp delight).

The second moment I'm thinking of is in the classic chase that ends most Popeye cartoons--Olive in the hands of Bluto and Popeye in close pursuit riding Poopdeck Pappy's ship, a sprawling many-storied vessel that, when shot full-on by Altman's camera reveals itself to be an elaborate multilevel stage, with bits of business going on at once on every level. Here is Altman's metaphor of comic-book page as theatrical stage (or vice versa) run amuck: if the brief shot of a house in "He Needs Me" seemed like a full-page spread, this spills out on two full pages, a veritable Mad Magazine centerfold with the most interesting action going on at the margins.

Poopdeck Pappy dominates the scene, a grizzled Lear railing against life, the world, children in general, his ungrateful son in particular. "Kids, dadblast 'em! They're gonna lead you to ruin. That's what they're gonna do, lead you to ruin. They cry at you when they're young, they yell at you when they're older, they borrows from you when they's middle-aged and they leave you alone to die. Without even paying you back." Pappy joins a long line of epic Altman mutterers, from Lieutenant Barney Greenwald to Philip Marlowe to Richard Nixon to Popeye himself, iconoclasts with an obsessive point of view that no one listens to until too late.

Which might be a nice little metaphor for Altman himself (not to mention us writers and bloggers, tapping away in the dark). If I had to sum up, easily one of my favorites of Altman's misfires (if, again, we consider it a misfire--a slippery concept when it comes to Altman). Popeye is comic poetry; rickety, broken-down poetry but nonetheless poetry that staggers, stumbles (hence the term "comic"), and on occasion, flies. And when it does take flight, it's a sight like nothing on earth.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Disturbia (D.J. Caruso, 2007)

There's no place like ho-hum

D.J. Caruso's Disturbia may seem like a teenage remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) updated to allow for digital cameras and cellphones but other films figure as well: Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985), David Lynch's Blue Velvet released a year later, The Blair Witch Project (1999) among others. Nowadays you don't steal wholesale, you mix in borrowings from other pictures too--never mind that the result doesn't have the cheeky humor of Holland's stylish teen horror flick, the persuasiveness of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's pseudo-documentary, the surreal kick of Lynch's small-town noir, the elegance and control of Hitchcock's thriller, one of the greatest ever made.

It does start off as its own movie--a horrifying car accident; Kale, a troubled teen (Shia LaBeouf) under house arrest for punching a teacher; an electronic ankle bracelet enforcing Kale's confinement; Ashley, a beautiful next-door neighbor (Sarah Roemer), newly moved in; and Mr. Turner (David Morse), a quietly eccentric neighbor Kale suspects of being a serial killer.

Caruso's coy about admitting to having lifted from Hitchcock; the early scenes of house arrest are more Lynch than anything, everyday suburbia overlaid with so much boredom and stillness you understand when Kale starts to freak out a little, at one point running far enough that his bracelet light turns red (ten seconds and the police are called in). When Kale's attention eventually turns to Turner, Caruso suggests that Turner's cunning may be too much for Kale, as Turner introduces himself to Kale's mother Julie (Carrie Ann-Moss, who in the words of one teenager is "hot"), hence introducing the possibility that he'll be visiting the house more often--maybe become the youth's latest stepfather (Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955) anyone?).

That possibility is quickly dropped when Caruso goes into Blair Witch mode, with Kale's best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo as the token Asian sidekick) sneaking around Mr. Turner's property with a digicam. Which is a pity--I'd like to have seen how Kale's angst might develop when faced with a possible killer for a father (besides Laughton's film, there's Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather (1987) and Olivier's 1948 Hamlet--'fathers gone wrong' is a rich genre, when you think about it); but Caruso's all about easy thrills as we eventually find out; subtle psychological tension isn't exactly his cup of tea.

And it would still be okay, these borrowings--Quentin Tarantino among others makes a so-so career out of such. But the visual style is so obvious and uninspired--shaky-cam, loud music, thunder and lightning--that you can't help but think of Hitchcock and how he played with audience expectations. Hitchcock wasn't above making his hero Jeff (James Stewart) send not the Comic Relief but Lisa, The Love Interest (Grace Kelly--such was Hitchcock's parsimoniousness that Kelly was Relief and Interest) running straight into danger (more at stake, you see), cunningly photographing everything in static long shot (exactly the way Jeff would see it), inserting mercilessly extended footage of Jeff's anguish while Lisa is being assaulted (he has to cover his ears while we hear Lisa's screams in the distance), then having the temerity to play a sweet love song in the background.

Then there's the plot loopholes--why, if Kale has such trouble convincing the police that Mr. Turner killed Ronnie doesn't he mention he has footage of Ronnie running into Mr. Turner's house? Why does Ronnie pull such a stupid stunt afterwards (he explains doing what he did because he didn't want to "get into trouble"--which is such a lame excuse you wonder if perhaps he and Mr. Turner are in fact collaborators)? Why is Mr. Turner silly enough to transmit footage of Ronnie unconscious, possibly dead when Kale can record it, maybe even broadcast it on the internet?

Tiresome stuff, and perhaps I wouldn't be so annoyed if the movie hadn't shown so much early promise--Caruso's blessed with a sufficently clever premise (a young man under house arrest suspects a neighbor of murder), a topnotch cast, and even young actors with some talent. Ann-Moss has the stricken gravity of her Trinity in the Matrix movies, and Morse shows us why he's such a terrific character actor--he plays up not the creepiness, but the affability, the charm, the sheer plausibility (at one point asked about the stench in the garage, he explains to a police officer "Thought I'd save a few steps and get it off the road myself") of man carefully living a quiet life.

LaBeouf is a pretty face, much as, say, Kyle MacLachlan was in Lynch's film, though Caruso largely uses LaBeouf in obvious ways, pointing up his boyish charms and teen angst instead of (as Lynch did) presenting paradigmatic innocence ready for corruption. Roemer is no Grace Kelly even if you keep one eye closed and afflicted the other with nearsightedness but she's an engaging enough presence, and she has a way with dialogue (looking at Kale's binoculars and listening to his explanation of what he's looking for, she replies "Where are the coffee and doughnuts? You can't have a stakeout without coffee and doughnuts").

But the script (by Christopher Landon (based on his story) and Carl Ellsworth (a TV and suspense flick veteran)) doesn't go beyond quick sketches and stereotypes. Accused by Ashley of peeping her, Kale explains "I've seen a lot; I mean, not like that…you're reading substantial books…so you look out the window all the time like I do, only you're looking at the world you know? Trying to figure it out, trying to understand the world. Trying to figure out why it's not in order like your books." It would have been nice of Landon and Ellsworth to have Ashley point out that she was reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, that life in that novel isn't exactly "in order" as Kale assumed. They might even have had something happen between Ashley and Mr. Turner to justify inserting the novel in the picture--but no, the filmmakers don't seem to want to work that hard.

In Rear Window Lisa points out to Jeff the full implications of what he's doing ("We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known"); in Disturbia Ashley raises the question then drops it without much discussion, much less thought. In Rear Window, the suspect, Lars Thornwald (a magnificent Raymond Burr) is no smirking, confident killer but a troubled man, fearful of exposure--you know he's capable of anything because he's scared to death of being found out. He's another of Hitchcock's guilt-haunted men, and such is the empathy Hitchcock builds around him you feel for him even as you wish for his capture (no such complex web of emotions surround Morse's otherwise stylish performance). Disturbia is a passable--sometimes less than that--way of wasting two hours, I suppose, but if my next-door neighbor happened to be playing Hitchcock's masterpiece on his DVD player, I'd rather stay at home and peep through his window.

(First published in Businessworld, 9/7/07)

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007)

Yet another pod movie

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 The Invasion, the umpteenth remake of Jack Finney's 1955 classic The Body Snatchers is easily the fastest-paced, most action-packed version yet--and that's not a recommendation. In 1956 Don Siegel directed the lean, classically proportioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers; in 1978 Philip Kaufman did a lushly photographed (by Michael Chapman) comic remake; in 1993 Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers transposes the action inside a military base.

All three versions start out by establishing a familiar, quotidian world--a small town, a big city, a family newly arrived at a new military assignment--against which odd details begin to appear, accumulate, create an atmosphere of paranoia and gathering menace. Setting the films side-by-side, you can see a progression of premises demonstrating how Finney's potent story of alien conformism versus human individuality can apply to different times, and differing circumstances: the 1956 classic explored the cracks in the smooth fa├žade of small-town middle America; the 1978 version evoked the strangeness of a major city (San Francisco) and poked fun (the mordantly funny W.D. Richter wrote the script) at complacent Sixties liberals (in a way the film anticipates the rise of Ronald Reagan and a more conservative, less intellectually astringent America). Ferrara took the previous films' concept (that the nature of modern culture leaves it open to alien mimicry and infiltration) and pushed it even further: soldiers--trained to follow orders and not question, to wear uniforms and move in carefully choreographed motions, to consistently value the unit (the platoon, the division, the service) above one's self--seem like an inevitable choice for takeover.

(This, of course, doesn't even begin to address the question of that other body-snatcher novel, Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters published four years before Finney's. Odd how it's Finney's take and not Heinlein's that has enjoyed cinematic immortality (I wouldn't call Stuart Orme's 1994 adaptation of Heinlein's novel a serious bid for immortality). Well, maybe not that odd--Heinlein's is set in the future, while Finney's is in a small town (cheaper to produce, more metaphorical traction). Heinlein's pointed up man's vicious efficiency in combating the aliens (an expression of American self-confidence, perhaps?); Finney's emphasized man's helplessness, and was more in tune with Cold War anxieties of the '50s. That said, I'd love to see a proper adaptation of Heinlein, with the hero engaged in an ambiguous relationship with his girlfriend (who might be his sister) and boss (who might be his father), and an alien (resembling a giant slug) whose merest touch turns you into a willing slave.)

One can see attempts to address the issue of being a third remake, of trying to distinguish this attempt from previous efforts. In these days of fast communication, of the cell phone, digital assistant, and internet, the aliens do away with pods (a slow, clumsy process, when you think about it) altogether and settle for (taking a page from any number of contagion movies (Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) comes to mind) a nice, quick vomit in the coffee urn (the alien spores are transmitted through standard-issue body fluids). The storyline has been done to death, so this version starts in media res, with the heroine Carol (Nicole Kidman) scrambling desperately through drugstore shelves for uppers to keep her awake, and flashbacks and flash-forwards in the action bring us up to speed, sometimes throw us off-balance.

All fine and good; the problem with disposing of the pods, though, is that you lose the suggestions of conformity ("peas in a pod") and artificiality (Frozen peas? Canned peas?) that the word evokes; you lose the evocative moment when a human comes face-to-face with his incomplete duplicate (done three previous times, brilliantly); you lose the horror of seeing a parody of a human visage, of seeing someone forced to make a decision as to how to deal with that parody (a pitchfork in the chest; a garden hoe in the neck).

Likewise, that shuffling of shots destroys the progression of paranoia found in the three previous films (and to some extent, in this one)--familiar territory, yes, but as film academic David Bordwell put it, sometimes we can sit through something familiar and still be thrilled by the details (in these particular cases, the directors managed to add a fresh spin--the shattering of a small-town idyll, the intensification of urban alienation, the perversion of military discipline). Early on in the picture we have a government laboratory analyzing the alien spores and identifying them as being a possible danger--great, fine, but the lab is quickly dropped from the narrative, and we're left with the (rather futile, as it turns out) anticipation that the government, forewarned, might immediately do something.

Actually, some of the movie's finest moments are found in the attempts, however fitfully, to create a developing sense of menace--a camera, for one, tracking a woman running down the street, crying for no apparent reason; long shots of men and women standing, their gaze trained in a single direction; brief inserts of police officers beating men and women on the streets. At one point Carol's ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam, smooth and suave as any creature freshly popped from his pod (but I forget, this version has none)) is photographed head-on, like the nose of a race car, creating an almost Bergmanesque intensity of regard even if we're not quite sure why we're looking at him that way--it's quite unsettling. Hirschbiegel (who did the fairly well-regarded Der Untergang (The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich, 2004)) reportedly did a quickly-shot version filled with unusually angled shots and only a few special effects that displeased the producers so much they approached the Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue (who did the Wachowski's V for Vendetta (2005)) to help sex it up, then dumped the whole project on the tail end of summer, almost two years after its announced release. Obvious, isn't it, the confidence they have in this production?

Always risky trying to guess who did what, but I'd say McTeigue came up with the idea of recycling many of the shots used early in the picture (the woman running down the street crying, for example), a shallow way of giving the picture some "edge." I'm more confident in saying McTeigue probably shot the final car chase, with Kidman racing to ferocious rescue of her son (something she did far more persuasively, I think, in Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001--easily both actor and filmmaker's best work to date)), pod people (difficult to shake the term, isn't it?) in hot pursuit. A car chase, in a Body Snatcher film? Worse things have happened in remakes, I'm sure; I just can't think of any at the moment.

(First published in
Businessworld, 8/31/07)
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