Friday, October 26, 2007

Knocked Up, (Judd Apatow, 2007)

Knocked out

A.O. Scott of The New York Times calls Knocked Up (2007) an "instant classic;" Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly declares it "The very opposite of a storybook romance, and also the very model of a great comedy for our values-driven time;" Robert Wilonsky of The Village Voice praises it for its "relaxed, shaggy vibe."

David Ansen of Newsweek thinks director Judd Apatow makes the "freshest, most honest mainstream comedies in Hollywood;" Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer compares lead actress Katherine Heigl to "a double-dip of praline with caramel…so beautiful that initially you don't notice her comic chops;" Kamal Al-Solalee of The Globe and Mail calls lead actor Seth Rogen "the poster boy for the best American comedy of the summer and, what the heck, of the decade so far;" Kyle Smith of The New York Post muses "ridiculous comedies can be fine, but the ones that matter creep up close to the truth. This one lives in it." Impressive statements from respectable critics, all reason enough to rush to the theaters and see for myself what the fuss is all about.

I don't get it.

Oh, I'm not saying it's not funny; Apatow captures the very sense and sensibility of Ben Stone's slacker world, from the shared apartment with the pervasive odor of stale weed to the proposed celebrity porn website that they're setting up, in the hope of becoming millionaires (not once thinking that maybe someone has already come up with a similar site), the minutest detail as closely familiar and vividly realized as the creases in one's behind (if that analogy seems gross, check out the movie's dialogue). I enjoyed parts of it, despite it being a tad too slow-paced, and far too sweet-tempered (I like my comedies to draw blood) but "best American comedy of the summer," or "instant classic?" I don't see it.

The very setup is familiar to the point of banality: Stone (Rogen) has kept his sedate, semi-vegetating life pretty much on course until one fateful night at a dance club (but what does a semi-vegetating slacker hope to do in a dance club--pick up girls?) where he meets Alison (Heigl) and her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife). Alison seems to like Stone's easygoing approach, takes him home to her sister's house (where she's boarding, presumably for free), has drunken sex with him without (and here be the engine that drives the movie's narrative) the benefit of prophylactic protection.

Holy Immaculate Conception! Faster than one can say "ovulation period" or "high sperm count" (here's where the fantasy comes in--marijuana use has been shown to reduce the number and quality of sperm by as much as half) Heigl is calling Stone (who half expected her to never call back) to tell him he's going to be a father; Stone, taken aback but never really panicking, finds himself warming up to the idea that he's going to be "pater" to a very small "familias."

And that's part of the problem I have with the pic--Rogen's Ben Stone is such a sweet, laid-back creature one doesn't mind his bemused self-absorption, his nine hundred ninety-nine little flaws (subdivided into various categories), his incessant bong-sucking, even his (as Alison so tactfully puts it) flabby pair of "man-boobs." This is a man Apatow so clearly wants us to love, with maybe a token fault here and there to just to provide the picture with some kind of conflict; where the flaws seem serious, he trowels things over with a generous dose of slacker humor (when an exasperated Alison suggests Ben copulate with his bong, Ben replies, "I will! I'll do it doggie-style too! For once!"). Apatow surrounds Ben with an array of lovable slacker types, dwarves to his Snow White, the better to show off his relative maturity; for a father he gives Ben the wonderfully clueless Harold Ramis ("Just tell me what to do" "I've been divorced three times, why are you asking me?"), showing us just where Stone gets his maturity (or complete lack of).

And that by itself isn't so bad, I can understand Apatow's male fixation--Alexander Payne showed a similar tendency, albeit towards varying ages and types of males (Election (1999); Sideways (2004)); Apatow for his part combines boyishness in his male characters with a rather thorough lack of empathy for his women characters, particularly Heigl's Alison. Where Stone is an unemployed bum working on a website of dubious value, Alison's an out-and-out successful entertainment newscaster; where Stone is surrounded by a gaggle of colorfully geeky sidekicks, Alison has to rely on her sister Debbie and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) for contrast and comic relief. Alison's so underwritten, so barely explored as a character you suspect Apatow of just plucking the details of her life off of a Playboy centerfold statistics sheet ("twentysomething; successful career woman; lives with sister-in-law; will consider overweight losers"). Why can't Alison be every bit as funny as Ben? Why can't she have her quirks, eccentricities, flaws--wooden leg, alcoholism, nymphomania, something, anything (Heigl, in this picture anyway, has the blankness of some of the blander Penthouse Pets)?

Apatow might have done better pairing up Ben with his own wife. As Debbie, Mann more than makes up for Alison's lack of fire (addressing Ben and Pete, who are getting along famously: "Why don't the two of you get into your time machine, go back in time and fuck each other?" To which Pete passive-aggressively replies: "who needs a time machine?"). Debbie confronted with Ben might have picked him up, had her way with him for the night, tossed him aside the next day without much of a second thought; when she learns she's pregnant, Ben would have had his work cut out for him trying to be a part of the baby's life (an ignominious end to Apatow's jerk-off fantasy, but an I submit more interesting and far more believable scenario). As it is, Debbie's assigned to Pete, the brother-in-law, and while she throws interesting sparks from the sidelines, the total effect is weirdly lopsided, like a one-legged man running a marathon (but of course Apatow doesn’t care--he just wants his beloved Ben to cruise serenely towards redemption).

Last but not least is Apatow's skill--or total lack of--in directing the camera. I've seen sitcoms performed with all the visual verve of high school repertory theater before, but never in the service of such lifeless material--some critics (some viewers, too) were grossed out by Alisons' graphic birth scene, but that didn't bother me as much as the sheer clunkiness of the effort (David Cronenberg did a better job creeping audiences out with a similar scene in The Fly (1986)). Nice to see Apatow exercising his skill at comic dialogue on the big screen, but he should hand the directing reins over to an at least halfway competent comedy director--John Landis comes to mind (despite my loathing more than half of Landis' output); the aforementioned Payne (if he can ever be convinced to tackle material this one-dimensional, or lightweight).

By way of contrast one might check out the birth episode in Coupling, a British TV series written largely by Steven Moffat (the brilliant writer who penned the best of the new Dr. Who episodes)--Moffat's men and women are on equal standing, funny and flawed at the same time; unlike Apatow, Moffat has a lively and sympathetic view of women, constant nannies to their overgrown boy-men, but capable in their way of being selfish, competitive, even meanly manipulative towards their fellow women.

The episode in question is thirty minutes long--about the perfect length, in my opinion, for a comedy about an unplanned pregnancy--and the laughs come fast and furious till the end, when it all suddenly turns around and focuses on a man's face as he looks down on his child, and his realization of the enormity of what he had wrought. It's a moment that crystallizes what it all means and what it's all for, a moment that Apatow sadly fails to include in his pointless little picture.

(First published in Businessworld, 10/19/07)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Deborah Kerr, 1921 - 2007

Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus

She was a great beauty and a great actress both. Yes, I remember her doing a polka with Yul Brynner, and rolling in the surf-soaked Hawaiian sand with Burt Lancaster, but before her Hollywood extravaganzas, she was the muse of one Michael Powell, who immortalized her in two of his very best works: Black Narcissus (1947), and the great The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

Ms. Campaspe in a quite moving tribute puts it all in proper perspective: "Michael Powell's camera found love and longing in that beautiful face, as he did in life."

I wrote this about Blimp some two years back:

I'd say Blimp is Michael Powell's masterpiece--his one epic film without an obvious epic feel (it sneaks up on you), and his most ambivalent portrait of a man ever. Deborah Kerr makes you ache for her, and Anton Walbrook as Theo is devastating. He has this scene where he's telling the immigration offcier why he, an enemy alien, wants to move to England, and he has to explain not only the intervening years, but his 180 degree turn of character (from fanatic military officer to wary and humbled pacifist). He does so clearly, convincingly, Powell's camera slowly moving in on his face; there's years of struggle and heartbreak in that speech, in that face.

Roger Livesey as General Candy is wonderful; he embodies all the contradictions of the character so perfectly you can't make up your mind about him or the film (which is what I think Powell intended)--you love him the same time you want to smack him upside in the head for being so thickheaded. Kerr isn't just beautiful, she subtly shades the three different characters so that you can differentiate them in your head afterwards (all this at the age of twenty one!). Even the little bits are great--James Mckechnie as the enterprising Spuds, John Laurie as faithful Murdoch (even Murdoch's eventual fate, delivered like a casual aside, is memorable). But Walbrook was something else.

There are moments in the film where Powell really seems to be trying to undercut everything that Candy stands for, or at least, show us the darker side of his obliviousness, or innocence--that may be what Winston Churchill (smart man, I've always thought) was responding to when he declared he disliked the film (ironic, considering that Churchill and Candy are in so many ways alike). That's why it's such a great film, it doesn't go for the easy answers: Candy is a genuinely good man, and the film shows not just his virtues but his limitations. I believe Theo is aware of those limitations--in fact, I believe Theo more closely represents Powell's point of view. He knows the world isn't what Candy thinks it is, but he can't help loving him, nevertheless.

I might add that Kerr moves through that film as if she were Powell's--as represented through Candy (and, to some extent, Theo)--muse, a kind of spirit or sprite, ever desireable, never quite attainable; even when she becomes Candy's wife she doesn't quite belong to the story--or she belongs to it, but is never quite possessed by anyone in it (Theo had her for a wife and lost her, which may have caused in part his change in heart; Candy had her (or another who looked like her) for a wife for years, but when he loses her, he keeps looking--the years of domestic bliss are apparently far from enough). She's this recurring motif that draws Candy onward, onward, ever searching. The same might be said of Powell (see Ms. Campaspe's post); the same might be said of anyone enamored by Kerr's magic.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007)

Twinkle, twinkle

The trailers of Stardust (2007) didn't look promising--"secondhand Narnia," I thought; "maybe third-hand Lord of the Rings," and forgot about it. When I heard enthusiastic praise from enough people though, my curiosity was aroused, so I went for a look.

I wasn't wrong in thinking it looked like a third-hand Lord of the Rings ripoff--Matthew Vaughn (he directed the gangster flick Layer Cake, which looked and felt like secondhand Guy Richie (and in fact Vaughn, a friend, produced two of Richie's pictures)) has included one too many horse chases edited to look spatially disjointed (see the similar chase between Frodo and the Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), not to mention a heroine that makes the viewer want to bend his head low and cough "Gah-ladriel! Gah-ladriel!" And the sky pirates--did the filmmakers see Hayao Miyazaki's Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky, 1986) with its airbag ship filled with ostensibly vicious pirates that at one point sails through a lightning storm? One wonders.

It doesn't help that much of the CGI effects look cheap, that the light-and-sound show that accompanies the climactic duel seem (as do most magical confrontations nowadays (I'd throw in the latest Harry Potter movie, while I'm at it)) especially underfunded, and that the cast seems composed of actors that have been picked out of a hat.

All that said--it's not bad; not bad at all. I'm not being sarcastic; the picture just about won me over when it introduced the seven fratricidal princes (Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett, among others) and their senile father-king (Peter O'Toole); "now that," I told myself as one brother pushed the other off a high balcony, "I haven't seen in a fantasy pic yet; or at least not recently (I'm thinking of Jean Cocteau's 1946 La belle et la bete (Beauty and the beast), with its trio of shrewish sisters and a buffoonish suitor)." The brothers take on the appearance they had at the moment of their deaths (one looks darkly toasted; another has an axe sticking out the side of his head; another has distinctly flattened features (he's the high diver); another--but you get the idea), and if they're not lucky--if, say, an heir to the throne is not chosen from one of their bloodline before they're all eliminated--then I suppose they'll be stuck in this world as wraiths, looking the way they do for all eternity.

Stardust as it turns out, was adapted from the novel-length fantasy written by one Neil Gaiman; the moment I heard his name, the dawn broke--I was wondering who could be so openly, cheerfully macabre, so eccentrically humorous this side of Roald Dahl. If you've read any of Gaiman's graphic novels--he's best known for his stint writing Sandman--you'd in all likelihood recognize his voice in this picture, that combination of deadpan whimsy, mordant sadism and the odd, steady whisper of dark melancholy.

Gaiman is a welcome, fairly new voice in fantasy (fantasy cinema, at least). We've heard from him a few times before--bits of wayward humor found in his translation of Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997--yet another chain linking Gaiman to the animator's works), the screenplay to a rather beautiful (in my opinion) oddity called MirrorMask (2005). This may be the first time we've seen him working on a relatively conventional narrative (by "relatively conventional" I mean--well, you have to see MirrorMask); all the familiar elements from the classic tales are present: the youth longing for adventure; the brothers sent out on a quest one at a time (each in his own unique way failing); the inn whose occupants are in magical disguise; the princess under a curse; so forth and so on. Stardust isn't as radical and disorienting a feature as MirrorMask--one reason I suspect that film failed to find a large audience was that its very strangeness is rather off-putting--so the former has done better business (relatively speaking; it's not doing Harry Potter-sized business).

MirrorMask is possibly the purest dose of Gaiman I've yet experienced on the big screen; in it you feel Gaiman's love for the grotesquely poetic, for (among many other sources) both L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and Charles Dodgson's Alice books; you also feel the disdain for easy emotional payoffs. The protagonist's ostensible quest--to find the eponymous mask and save a queen in enchanted sleep--is the merest slip of an excuse to present a monstrous, Borgesian menagerie of dream creatures, one more bizarre than the next, with (as dream creatures are wont to do) not-so-immediately-discernible analogues in real life. In Stardust Gaiman takes the opposite approach; he throws up a storm of fantasy elements--Babylon candles, fallen stars, magic threads, walls between worlds, seven mistrustful brothers, three evil witches--that act as garish distractions, that eventually fall away as if in a striptease, leaving behind the love story at the heart of the film.

It's hard to pin down the nature of Gaiman's appeal, actually; like a half-remembered scent--half-remembered not because it wasn't memorable but because your mind was never allowed to focus on it exclusively--you struggle to recall the effect, a combination of modern-day cynicism and anachronistic romanticism and brief bouts of bizarre violence, whipped vigorously together to give a temporary semblance of coherence. The mix isn't for everyone--Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, for one, disliked what he described as the movie's "cruelty," and there are even knowledgeable connoisseurs of fantasy who can't stand Gaiman's work--but for others it's like stumbling onto your favorite fix lying across the road--for all you know (or care), freshly dropped out of the sky.

So--how, finally, to put it? I enjoyed this far more than the most recent Potter movie--well, more than every Potter movie ever made save Cuaron's (always better when a real filmmaker is directing); I enjoyed this more than Jackson's hugely overrated Lord of the Ring trilogy (unlike the "Ring" pictures it's got sex appeal and (more important to me) sexy repartee, it's free of even a whisper of pretension, and it doesn't take more than a third of a day to watch); I enjoyed it more than Narnia (the one movie in this little group based (in my opinion) on truly great material (if only it had a filmmaker to match)). Like I said--not bad; not bad at all.

(First published in
Businessworld, 10/12/07)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Close-ups in Philippine Cinema

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Bembol Roco in Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag
My contribution to The House Next Door's Close-up Blogathon:
(Note and warning: plots of both Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) and Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) discussed in close detail)

An article on the use of close-ups in Philippine cinema probably wouldn't be very long--Filipino filmmakers are mostly narrative storytellers that rarely use the medium in formally experimental ways. The close-up for a Filipino filmmaker--at least the classic Filipino filmmaker, the digital young turks may have been doing interesting work on it since--is mainly a punctuation mark, a means of pointing up the climactic end of a scene or film. Filipino films are a stew of intense emotions; close-ups are the filmmaker's way of shoving said stew into your face.

That said, my earliest memory of a close-up would have to be the ending of Lino Brocka's classic Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), where Julio (Bembol Roco), having killed a man, is cornered in an alley by an angry mob; Brocka cuts to extreme close-ups of Julio's face as the men point at him, point out his icepick, and pick up various pipes and rocks and clubs. Brocka had been using long shots before this, of Julio running desperately away from his pursuers; now he's switched to a strategy of identification, as we see Julio's face register the significance of the rocks, and pipes and clubs, the determined expressions on the men's faces. The men approach; the camera zooms in past them to a gigantic shot of Julio's face, tear-streaked and trickling snot, as his mouth opens in a wet scream--a scream we never hear, because Brocka freezes the shot at the penultimate moment. Slow fade to the cause of all this violence--a silhouette of Ligaya (Hilda Koronel, one of the loveliest faces in all of cinema), the setting sun behind her filling the screen with a light that the film from title onwards has all along been promising, all along been threatening, to flood our eyes with. The end.

When I was a child my grandfather had been screening movies in his basement. Not mere 16 mm prints--he had two monster 35 mm projectors down there, and a man who came every Saturday night with cans of film to screen for us (and whoever else we invited). Jaws, The Godfather 1 & 2, even 1941 we saw before their commercial screening (which was if I remember right mere weeks after the American premiere (this was before the proliferation of video piracy, and the practice of pre-emptive commercial runs in Manila theaters days before pirates can copy them off of American screens)). One of the more memorable films he screened was Brocka's Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1975), and it shocked me no end, the shame and despair I saw in the figure of a man, head bowed, having all his hair shaved clean off (he was entering drug rehab).

Another was Maynila. There I was, ten years old and staring at Julio's wet, dripping face; for the first time in my extremely spoiled and sheltered life I knew violence, I knew hate, I knew terror, I knew suffering, I knew death. I knew, for the very first time, the power of cinema.

A similar though arguably subtler use of the close-up can be found in Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976). Rosario (Nora Aunor) is about to hurl her baby, the result of rape by a Japanese officer, down a high bridge; O'Hara's camera slowly draws close till her face fills our view and we see, larger than life, feelings of hate, anger, horror--at the baby, at the man who created it, at what she's about to do--flit across the screen. Fade to a sunset (you can see the pattern: after dramatic intensity the filmmakers shift to a different, usually more serene emotional key). But the outcome is hardly settled; O'Hara cuts to scenes of mounting panic as the family searches for Rosario and her baby. Where has she gone, they wonder? Why has she gone? And what, exactly, has she done? 

O'Hara had honed his skills in radio, and with the sure touch of a veteran radio dramatist, he knew when to present a narrative hook then withhold information, withhold it, withhold it, withhold it till the maximum possible tension has been achieved. And then, simply and without fuss, allows release.

My story regarding this film is much less primal: I had met art critic Jolicco Cuadra back in 1995 in the offices of The Manila Chronicle. A man of eclectic tastes and outrageous opinions (the greatest American writer, he declared, was Philip K. Dick, and I found myself, well, not disagreeing with him (at least not vehemently)); he regaled me with stories of his bohemian life in Paris, where he met Orson Welles and Pier Paolo Pasolini ("he was so dirty--a dirty man!") and in Manila, where he met, among others, Gerardo de Leon. "Everyone is a thief and a fake," he informed me. "Celso (Ad. Castillo), Mike (de Leon), Ishmael (Bernal), Lino (Brocka), Gerry (de Leon)--all thieves and fakes."

"I don't know," I told him, "They're not bad."

Jolicco shook his head. "The only one who's any good is Mario O'Hara. I can't remember the title of the movie I saw of his--what's the matter?"

The matter was, I had just seen Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and I was more or less thinking the same thing--not that O'Hara's the only one who's any good (he isn't, and I disagree--vehemently--with Jolicco's list of thieves and fakes), but that he's the best filmmaker we have.

The realization took a long time coming. I had been blown away by O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) when I saw it on the big screen; I had thought it arguably the greatest Filipino action film I've ever seen (a huge flop, it disappeared from theaters the very next day). I sought out other O'Hara films, but couldn't find any.

I did see some of his collaborations with Brocka, which were easier to find--Insiang (1976), arguably Brocka's masterpiece, about an Othello-like drama set in an urban slum (O'Hara had written a near-perfect screenplay, and--blowing my mind a second time when I learned about it--had based his characters on his backyard neighbors of long ago in Pasay City); and Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974), which blew my mind a third time: not only had O'Hara written the screenplay but also gave a great performance as Berto, the leper. The man, I thought, was a triple threat: he could direct (Bagong Hari), write (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, Insiang), and act (Tinimbang)--what, exactly, could he not do?

Then I saw Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and was blown away for a fourth time.

Unsophisticated stratagems, perhaps; not for Brocka or O'Hara the almost exclusive focus on Falconetti's face in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), or the melding of faces (and by implication, of souls) of two faces as in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), which Brocka may have seen (O'Hara--probably not). The close-up in Philippine cinema is often just a punctuation mark--but the very force of that mark, as I can readily attest, can at times be a formidable thing.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Harsh Times (David Ayer, 2005)

Live and die in L.A.

David Ayer's Harsh Times (2005) was reportedly based on his own experiences, and the language ("Whassup, dog?" "I wanna get fucked up") seems to reflect that (though Ayer's street profanity seems more mimetic than the kind of profane poetry that, say, David Mamet is capable of whipping up). He also manages to capture the boredom that exists between two men in a car (one of them simply weak, the other a developing psychopath), cruising around looking to get drunk, get laid, get high.

Beyond that--beyond the street realism, the surface texture and the sodium-arc street lighting (most of the picture, as with most noirs, takes place at night)--there's not much to be really said in favor of the movie. Ayer's self-admitted model was Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) but I'd say it's just as useful if not more so to look at Scorsese' earlier Mean Streets (1973)--you can see Ayer trying to capture the same kind of 'slice of life' quality, create the same meandering narrative, evoke the same anguished search for salvation (or damnation, you're not quite sure which).

There are crucial differences--Scorsese put the weakling Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) front and center as protagonist; his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) was the wild card, the violent borderline psychopath who constantly gets Charlie in trouble. For his picture Ayers does the exact opposite, focusing on the ostensibly more interesting role or at least showier one--Jim Davis (Christian Bale), the traumatized war veteran (which war (Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan) is unspecified)--and reduced the relatively more normal friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez) to nominal sidekick.

Charlie was Scorsese's proxy on the big screen, and Scorsese poured all his guilts, hopes, fears into the character, laying his soul wide open for all to examine; presumably Mike is also Ayer's proxy (far as I know, Ayer's no borderline psychopath), and other than giving him Sylvia (the drop-dead gorgeous Eva Longoria) for an 'old lady' (he worked as a call center representative while putting her through law school, and now their roles have reversed) I don't see Ayer doing much to give Mike any depth or texture. In Mean Streets Charlie was the film's source of anguish and troubled conscience while Johnny Boy provided the film with its occasional jolt of manic energy; in Harsh Times with Jim--the film's Johnny Boy--as protagonist, it's all manic energy. There's no real sense of anguish (you need a conflicted intelligence--some pathetic jerk with a brain and moral sense--to generate anguish), much less a consciousness troubled by more than just landing a good job, or getting laid, or getting wasted.

Which is no reflection on Christian Bale; he does a terrific job of making Jim as magnetic as he is malevolent. Bale in roles as diverse as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn has made monomaniacal obsessives--people single-mindedly determined to feed their drives (a monstrous sadism in Bateman, the lust for freedom in Dengler)--his specialty; his small, wide-set eyes and constantly tight mouth suggest a man constantly gazing at some far-off target, unmindful (or at least disdainful) of the circumstances being immediately faced. Jim in this picture needs to feed his sense of self-destruction (his other goal, of marrying Marta (Tammy Trull), the one woman who truly loves him, feels rather puerile in comparison); his flaming downward arc is the main source of the film's fascination. Charlie at the start of Mean Streets is introspective, self-loathing; in a voiceover we hear him talking to himself, and it's clear he knows he's scum, he knows better than to act like scum; by film's end the voiceovers have largely ceased and Charlie--out of some perverse sense of loyalty to Johnny Boy and as penance for himself--has stopped examining potential consequences and become scum, joining in Johnny Boy's one-way ride to self-destruction.

Jim's is a relatively uncomplicated arc, bright but unmodulated; Jim is essentially the same person (a psychopath) at either end of the story. Mike, whose character should in theory have enough room to develop (He's the Charlie character, remember?), remains unexamined. At movie's start he's lying to his wife; by movie's end he's hugging her with all his might--what happens in between should provide the meat of the picture but we're left with more questions than insights (Why does Sylvia put up with Mike? Why does Mike put up with Jim? How on earth did Mike put Sylvia through law school on a telemarketer's salary?).

The movie's style is more in step with Scorsese's film--straight realism, with relatively unhysterical editing (unusual in that this belongs to the 'street crime' genre, and practitioners of the genre just love to turn their raw footage into chop-suey). Only in moments of high drama does Ayer lose confidence: when Jim goes schizo on people, Ayer adopts what he probably hopes is a complementary mode, with multiple exposures of what Jim's seeing tottering wildly in harsh, yellow light (crazy man, crazy camerawork--when will people learn that obvious reinforcement of an emotion is not always the best or most interesting way to go?).

As for Taxi Driver--yes, Jim, like Travis Bickle (De Niro) acts like a walking time bomb, though here Scorsese (through scriptwriter Paul Schrader) is careful to at least keep in contact with the source material, Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Scorsese's Underground Man is in many ways the opposite of Dostoevsky's (one is loquaciously articulate, the other hilariously not so), but both are on a spiritual quest to find meaning through connection, or through allegiance to something--anything--they can find. Jim's only concern, far as we can see, is to make as spectacular an end as possible. Yes, he wants to be a police officer; yes he wants to be a federal agent (so why does he smoke weed before the urine test?); yes he wants a good job so he can bring the only woman he loves (but why does she love him?) to his country and marry her and live happily ever after. Jim's ambitions are rather simple, really, which makes his inability to fulfill them all the more incomprehensible; Scorsese at least harbors ambitions of trying to create something existential out of Bickle's dilemma--a Nietzschean need to do more than what mortal man can do, a Christlike lust to redeem the world through some kind of sacrifice.

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," Bickle muses; aside from striking the proper apocalyptic note (which Scorsese reinforces with nightmare colors, smoking streets, a percussive music score from Bernard Herrmann (his last, appropriately)), he could be talking of people like Jim Davis and Mike Alonzo, people who he, of course, would never equate with himself. That's the kind of irony found in Taxi Driver, the kind of irony you won't find--but is badly needed--in Harsh Times.

(First published in
Businessworld, 10.05.07)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Gagamboy (Spider-boy, Erik Matti, 2004)

And here I was, thinking Pa-Siyam (Nine Days, 2004) was Erik Matti's best work--Matti, the director of such seminal works of Philippine Cinema as Ekis (Crossed, 1999), Dos Ekis (Double Cross, 2001), and Prosti (Prostitute, 2002)--one of I suppose you can say my favorite Filipino filmmakers, if only because he's given me endless opportunities for honing my critical blade.

Pa-Siyam showed what Matti was capable when he dropped his many affectations and concentrated on storytelling, reined in his self-indulgent style enough to serve the story more than itself; the result is pleasing, like De Palma doing a conventional action film (The Untouchables) or Cronenberg a neo-Western (A History of Violence) albeit on a lower, cruder level.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction (Russel Mulcahy, 2007)

Resident evil: exhaustion

Sitting through Paul W. S. Anderson's latest produced script for the big screen (helmed by Highlander and prolific music-video director Russell Mulcahy) the thought went through my head that I was tired; no, I was out-and-out sick of this sort of fare. The promotional copy of Resident Evil: Extinction promised this would be the last of a trilogy of movies based on the video game; I clutched at that promise like a man in the desert would his canteen of water. Ninety minutes of crap is easier to bear when it's supposed to be for the last time.

Meanwhile, I still had to sit through the movie. Alice (Milla Jovovich), The Umbrella Corporation's greatest creation, survived the nuking of Raccoon City (long story, see previous pic), but so, unfortunately, did the virus; it's broken out all over the world and brought the human population to the brink of extinction (Hence the title--get it? Get it?). Alice has been avoiding Umbrella's spy satellites by keeping to herself in the desert; meanwhile, a convoy of survivors lead by one Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) has been making their way across said arid landscape. Alice and Claire's paths converge on the nearest available Umbrella facility, where a fenced-off compound (surrounded by thousands of zombies, and you can be sure they aren't there out of sheer curiosity) encloses a wooden shack and a helicopter--one large enough to carry Clair's people to Alaska, where the virus appears to have failed to penetrate (don't ask me how, or why, or even if it's true).

The scenario borrows from a number of movies, of course (I can't think of a recent science-fiction / fantasy flick that doesn't filch from older, better pictures). Band of survivors crossing a desert against marauding crazies is George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981), and in fact the movie was to be shot in Australia, had to cut back costs, and settled for Mexico instead (it's cut-rate Road Warrior); the idea of a fenced-off entrance to an underground facility, the fencing surrounded by zombies, is lifted wholesale from George Romero's Day of the Dead (1981); a sequence involving flocks of zombie crows massing to attack was purloined from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, The Birds (easily one of the greatest 'man vs. nature' films ever made).

Maybe the best, most unimpeachable rationale for justifying theft of a story element or image from a previous movie is in acknowledging the theft, then playing with one's familiarity with the original--make it better, if at all possible; I don't see that happening here. The Road Warrior premise (band of brothers crossing desert) becomes a lot of dull exposition between people that you know will be zombie fodder anyway (no, it does not help that said cardboard cut-outs look like ramp models (Jovovich, Larter, Ashanti in a throwaway role are especially fine)).

The truck they drive looks wimpy compared to the spiky, formidably armored Mack Miller used (the zombies here manage to tear off the window gratings like so much Christmas wrapper). The one explicit homage to Miller that they do--a glance between Jovovich and one of the better-looking hunks driving to his doom--is so blatant and shallowly conceived (the moviemakers seem to want--oldest cliché in the book--a 'what might have been' attraction to sprout between the two) that I find myself laughing instead of tearing up (in Road Warrior the look was one of unspoken defiance, capping a skillfully woven plot sub-thread about one man having something to prove to another).

Romero's underground facility had the benefit of a production budget slashed in half (Romero refused to accept more money to make an R-rated film (Day of the Dead was released unrated)) and recognizably subterranean locations to create a genuine sense of claustrophobia (Mulcahy's underground lab is brightly lit and sumptuously appointed; the strongest emotion it arouses is dismay at the electricity and housecleaning bills); more, Romero (despite his reputation as a mere goremaster) is such a swift, skillful sketcher of human relationships that he's able to create a tangible atmosphere of antagonism between the scientists and military officers trapped in the complex (Mulcahy kills most of them off before Alice gets there, sidestepping the issue entirely).

The reference to Hitchcock is easily the most offensive, though. Hitchcock's bird attacks were always prefaced by precisely staged and timed and edited sequences that were often more effective than the attack itself--I'm thinking in particular of Tippi Hedren waiting outside a schoolyard while birds gather in the playground behind her. The shots start out slow, establishing a familiar, quotidian world (woman, playground, bird); enter the first crow, a seemingly innocuous enough occurrence. By the time the fifth or six crow lands the danger has been well established, and Hitchcock stretches the sequence out with all the skill of a master interrogator (you find yourself wanting to yell at the woman to please turn around).

Mulcahy, on the other hand, seems to be working under the misbegotten notion that if you cut your footage fast and layer it with loud music and use jarring, mostly handheld camera angles you're creating suspense. Not really; you're just trying to stir the audience up directly, handing over to them all the visual and aural cues that danger is forthcoming when you should be working against the sense of danger, presenting a serene, everyday scene that the audience knows will erupt at any moment.

Anyway, the scene does turn ugly, but not in a good way. The bird attack itself is confusingly shot and edited, the victims' reactions mostly unintelligent (you can't help but think "they actually deserve to be pecked to death"). Mulcahy lets the scene go on and on and on--when Jovovich finally appears you cry out in relief, not from tension but sheer boredom.

Jovovich is a terrific, physically eloquent actress (she's at her best in Michael Winterbottom's wonderful The Claim (2000)), and it's difficult to begrudge her the modest financial success that these Resident Evil movies offer, but enough's enough; when will she stop doing this kind of crap and try something daring and worthwhile again? It's fun playing with zombies in the desert for oh, say, the first five minutes; after that it's time to drop the corpse and move on.

First published in Businessworld, 09/2807)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wyler reloaded

(Note: This post was part of the William Wyler Blogathon)

(Note note: it's too difficult, considering my newish work week, to try write something for Mondays, so I may have to change my blogging sked: Wednesdays or Thursdays I hope to post at least once on any subject, Thursdays or Fridays I hope to post at least one published article. Just to let you know.)

It's not as if Wyler intended it, I suppose, but for what seemed like the longest period--from the thirties (Wuthering Heights, Jezebel) through the war years (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) right up to the threshold of the socially turbulent sixties (Ben Hur) and late into it (Funny Girl) he was a force to be reckoned with. He was Hollywood, or at least that part of Hollywood that needed prestige pictures (preferably the kind that also made money); he wasn't half as prolific as Ford--around 70 films in 46 years, compared to Ford's 140 plus in 49 years--and his reputation today isn't as formidable, but to misquote yet another Hollywood icon "what's there is cherce."

Or, at the very least, entertaining. Melodramas like The Letter (with that great opening shot of Bette Davis stepping out of her bungalow, gun blazing) and Jezebel (which I much prefer to the more conventional Gone With the Wind) showcased Davis' inimitable brand of feminist perversity to wonderful effect; Wuthering Heights diminished the intense mysticism of Bronte's great novel (not to mention--this being an MGM production, where good taste is paramount--cleaning up much of the novel's blood and dirt and sadism) but did give us Laurence Olivier's huge hands, rising up to give the pretty (and rather vacant) Merle Oberon two full palms across the cheeks.

My favorite, though, would have to be Ben Hur--and only because I finally heard screenwriter Gore Vidal's anecdote (filmmaker Mario O'Hara, when informed of Vidal's story, was both startled and pleased; he said "I didn't know anything, but I could sense something was going on"). Previously I'd mostly skip through the long intervals of Hur rowing away in the galleys, nursing vengeance, and go straight for the chariot race (which George Lucas ripped shamelessly off for his clunky The Phantom Menace); nowadays I find myself watching all of Messala's (Stephen Boyd's, who was in on the scam) scenes--the way he'd clasp Hur's arm (Charlton Heston, who wasn't) in manly greeting, or the way he would insist on sharing his drink with Hur, or the way he'd gaze impassively at a broken Heston, sobbing on his desk. Messala's final scene in Hur is suitably vivid: tied down tight as a deer carcass about to be gutted, Messala squeezes his words out like so many bloodied turds onto Hur's palm to deal (or not to deal) with as he pleases, then expires with a long, drawn-out sigh (the movie dies a little along with him).

Is Wyler a great filmmaker? I don't know. But his best-known movies were screened (and re-screened, sometimes in TV (Ben Hur was an Easter favorite)) in the Philippines when many of our present filmmakers were growing up; some were not only watching, they'd been inspired to remake two or three of his movies.

In the case of Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (You're the Only One I've Ever Loved, 1992), it would be safe to assume that the filmmakers had wanted to do a Filipino version of Wyler's picture (Siguion-Reyna's previous production had been the 1991 Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I'll Wait for You in Heaven), an unabashed transposition of Wyler's Wuthering Heights into a Philippine setting). Siguion-Reyna is no Wyler--no chariot races for him or any other Filipino filmmaker, not till budgets and filmmaking technology levels have at least trebled, I'd say--but like Wyler he does multiple takes of most shots, like Wyler he insists on a certain level of technical perfection (his films are beautifully lit, shot and produced, and his dialogue is almost always recorded live), like Wyler he does classic melodramas, and the occasional 'message' picture.

Unlike Wyler Siguion-Reyna's casting has often been hit or miss--Richard Gomez, who played the Heathcliff character in Hihintayin, was woefully inadequate (it didn't help that Michael de Mesa, who plays the Hindley Earnshaw figure, has the darkly passionate looks and authority to be a great Heathcliff). By some queer stroke of fate what made Gomez such a poor Heathcliff--the pretty-boy looks, the air of insincerity, the sense of inadequacy masked by a superficial charm--makes him perfect as David, the Morris Townsend character.

As for his choice of actress to play Adela, the Catherine Sloper equivalent, Siguion-Reyna lucked out; he managed to snag Maricel Soriano (considered by O'Hara, among others, as one of the three finest actresses working in the Philippines today). Soriano can't boast of the same calibre of work that de Havilland has, but that's not entirely her fault; she's collaborated with many filmmakers but arguably only Ishmael Bernal has consistently managed to bring out the best in her (or has involved her in consistently worthwhile films). She's worked with Siguion-Reyna several more times but the output has been inconsistent--Abot Kamay ang Pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996) is one unhappy result. Which makes one ask--why is this film so different? What makes it so eerily not just right, but actually inspired?

My theory involves the source material--Siguion-Reyna early in his career confined himself to melodramas about the middle and the upper classes (Misis Mo, Misis Ko (Your Wife, My Wife, 1988, about bourgeois wife-swapping; the aforementioned Hihintayin Kita sa Langit; and Kailangan Kita (I Need You, 1993, a remake of the glossy 1988 thriller Masquerade)); James (like Siguion-Reyna) was born to a wealthy family and focused on stories about the middle to upper classes. When Siguion-Reyna strayed into stories about lower-class heroines, he struggled (the aforementioned Abot Kamay ang Pangarap; Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat sa Akin (Harvest Home, 1995), about incest in a provincial farm; Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin (Call Me Joy, 1997), about a prostitute in love (actually, an unacknowledged remake of Dumas' La Dame aux camélias)); James' story, about a sweet but dull woman dominated by her rich, brilliant father, was well within Siguion-Reyna's comfort zone.

More, the project seemed to bring out the film brat in Siguion-Reyna (he had obtained his Master's Degree on film from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts). When Maximo Sevilla (an excellent Eddie Gutierrez in the most rudimentary old-age makeup, playing the Dr. Sloper figure) tells his daughter what he really thinks of her, he leaves Adela in her bedroom, stunned; she promptly freaks out, and in a single prolonged shot Siguion-Reyna records her complete and utter destruction of the room--a destruction that recalls Welles' Kane totally obliterating his wife's bedroom. When Sevilla is out of the way and Adela and David are finally reunited, the revelation about David is handled in a manner less subtle than Wyler's yet somehow more cinematic--in Wyler's version Catherine listens to Morris prattle on and on before she realizes (and later confides to her Aunt Lavinia) that the man is a preening social-climber; in Siguion-Reyna's, Adela watches from a second-floor balcony while David (seen from a high camera angle that implies Adela's point of view--and furthermore, implies he's blissfully unaware of being observed), acts out in dumbshow what he might do when he is master of Adela's mansion.

Wyler's film ends with Catherine and Morris on either side of a door, listening for but not responding to each other, and is content to show this through alternating interior/exterior shots; Siguion-Reyna, never one to shy away from a flashy visual coup, has Adela sitting in a car while we see David through the rear windshield, running, yelling, being drowned in the car's dusty wake--as succinct a summation of the film's end as one might want (using mis-en-scene instead of montage, at that!). As I've mentioned before, I'm not ready to declare Siguion-Reyna Wyler's superior, but thanks to the intense sense of identification the former seems to hold for his picture, for the protagonist at the center of said picture (so much so that, as mentioned, he's used the actress two more times), and thanks to the flashy yet precisely controlled visuals, I might go so far as to say that Siguion-Reyna's version should not be embarrassed sitting alongside Wyler's, and might actually have improved on a few details.

Then there's Mike De Leon. Who no doubt has seen Wyler's films; who owes little to nothing to them (Does he enjoy them? Not sure--I just think the two sensibilities are worlds apart, that Wyler's influence is scant, if not nonexistent; for all I know, though, De Leon tears up every time he sees the ending of Roman Holiday). I'd almost swear it's pure coincidence that they've adapted the same John Fowles novel to the big screen, De Leon in '86, Wyler in '65; the differences are instructive, even striking. Wyler's is a straight adaptation, following Fowles' novel up to its grim end; De Leon transposes the novel into the '80s and adds a different ending.

Perhaps key to their approach is their choice of actor to play the protagonist. Stamp is a compelling, frightening Clegg; De Leon's choice for the role, Joel Torre, considerably less so. That said, Wyler's reason for choosing Stamp is suspect--he has undeniable presence, what with his cool eyes and otherwordly demeanor (even playing a transvestite in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert he stood out, not because he was the prettiest (That honor I felt went to Guy Pearce), but because he looked too classy for the whole picture. If you dressed him up in the most vulgar rags he'd still look like he was doing a fashion shoot for Vogue). The sense I got from his performance was that Wyler wanted some kind of generalized freak--Stamp looks and feels weird, therefore he's capable of being weird (not to mention criminally insane).

Joel Torre gives an altogether different impression--he looks weak, he's played weaklings before (he was a passive upper-class brat in his debut role in Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982)). Clegg has to be a weakling, or at the very least, unimpressive; there has to be a reason for his shyness, his introverted nature, his inability to reach out to people, and physical deficiencies (or even just one's personal perception of a physical deficiency) is a common reason for such shyness. Wyler's done striking casting before this and after, but here he reveals a rather straightforward line of thinking when he cast Stamp; De Leon casts as if he completely understands the psychology behind people like Clegg, or at least behind people like Fowles who create characters like Clegg.

It's helpful to note that much of Fowles' literature is all about suppressed sexuality, that the power in his narrative comes from continually deferred sexual release (read The Magus, or better yet The French Lieutenant's Woman, where the whole plot turns on a single ejaculation). His books, in effect, are read and remembered because they give a serious case of blue balls. De Leon's work, on the other hand, deals with suppression, but from a slightly different angle--he operates on what seems to be a terror of sex; like Hitchcock, he knows sex is everywhere, full of frightening consequences. I can't say the two are a perfect match, but they're in the same far left field; when it comes to abnormal psychology I feel that the two can sit down and talk for hours--days, even--on the subject.

It helps further that De Leon is a master at creating claustrophobic spaces. Wyler's Clegg keeps his victim in an underground basement with stone walls, and it's an impressive set--too impressive actually; you feel as if Clegg had enough room to install a ping-pong table and a fifty-inch flatscreen TV, maybe a wet bar in one corner. De Leon confines himself to featureless, windowless, anonymous rooms, and it's the very banality of the setting that makes his film so unsettling (Hitchcock demonstrated something similar in his Psycho--spotless and utterly familiar motel rooms are much more suitable (because they're thought to be so unsuitable) to murder than any Grand Guignol dungeon). Wyler manages to create some fear, and atmosphere (stone walls help, somewhat), but with De Leon's little film (shot in video, incidentally), you find yourself struggling to draw breath--it feels like they've cut the airconditioning in those rooms.

Two films by two Filipino filmmakers, both ostensible remakes of beloved films from a Hollywood master. A classic charge regularly made against the Philippine film industry is that it copycats too often, that it remakes Hollywood pictures with numbing regularity, and in fact with Siguion-Reyna the charge hits uncomfortably home, at least for the earlier half of his career; with Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal however he's dealing with more personal material and it elevates his storytelling, adds a depth to it that he hasn't quite repeated since.

With the latter pair of films the contrast is almost funny. Wyler towards the later half of his career was a Hollywood dinosaur cunning enough to still make money (his penultimate film was Funny Girl (1968), a boxoffice hit--but in a genre that itself was dying), on occasion brave enough to try more modern material (hence Fowles); De Leon is a hunter prowling in home territory. The result isn't only a to my mind superior adaptation, but one of the most interesting adaptations of Fowles around.