Some films seen on DVD and the big screen these past few weeks:
Atonement (2007) is remarkably awful. Based on Ian McEwan's novel, it's not a bad story per se--about a young girl's misunderstanding of events she witnessed, and the disastrous consequences that result, but it's eighty percent a sharp observation of social class and mores in '40s England and twenty percent a desperate love story--desperate in the sense that it will do anything to move us to tears, even resort to destroying its characters in all sorts of unlikely ways. Director Joe Wright might have done something about that, but he can barely even set a proper mood and tone for his scenes; sequences that are meant to be taken literally have an unreal, stylized feel to them, and quickly give the plot away (it's all in her head). Kiera Knightly is pretty enough, but the film really belongs to Saoirse Roman and Romola Garai, the two girls who play the misunderstanding girl at 13 and 18 respectively.
The ending is an embarrassment; Wright plunks the camera inches away from Vanessa Redgrave's head, and we're to listen attentively as she pours out a bucketload of crap (on our laps, almost), asking us to weep over her fate. The Academy displayed its usual appetite for expensive costume dramas, nominating this sentimental mess for Best Picture. Would've voted it Best Unintentional Comedy, myself.
Jason Reitman's Juno isn't much of anything. It isn't innovative cinema (the movie is mostly made up of steadicam shots following the lead actress around her little home town), and it isn't even edgy social comedy (once pregnant, the young teenager quickly finds some rich bitch to adopt her baby, pay her medical bills, and even offer a 'little something extra' on top of everything (hell, if I could find someone that generous, I'd be willing to get pregnant)). What it is is a fairly well-written comedy (by Diablo Cody) with enough funny lines to keep one awake, even amused, and a lead actress (Ellen Page) charming enough to make you want to give a damn. With scenes of creepily uneasy subtext between Page and the wannabe father of her child, played by Jason Bateman--if they'd gone to bed together credibility might have flown right out the window, but at least the movie'd have real teeth.
Paprika (2006) seems to be Satoshi Kon's way of adapting Roger Zelazny's He Who Shapes on the big screen, only Kon doesn't seem as interested in developing the idea of virtual reality as a therapy tool as he is in fully exploiting the potential for surreal imagery found in animation, a goal he's been pursuing from Perfect Blue (2001), and Millennium Actress (2001), to Paranoia Agent (2004) and this picture.
Techniquewise it's stunning: the gorgeous color palette, the totally convincing reality Kon renders onscreen (the better to tear apart in a fluid series of fantastical transformations). I'd love to declare Kon the perfect choice for adapting Zelazny's novella, only he seems to have exhausted all further possibilities with this picture; anything more would simply mean repeating oneself (unlike Mamoru Oshii, who with Tachiguishi retsuden (The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006) pretty much proves he's nowhere near in danger of repetition, at least not in this millennium).
That said, mention of Oshii makes me think of the reason why I can't surrender to Kon's not inconsiderable charms, not completely: I just don't think he's got anything interesting to say. He's an expert--perhaps great--entertainer; none of his works fail to please me, or whichever youth I manage to show his films to, and there in part lies the problem. I think he's too entertaining, too much of a crowd pleaser. He knows how to hook an audience from the start, keep them interested for the length of his exquisitely paced films, let them go with a quick flourish, an emotional bonbon (in this case we learn who Dr. Chiba actually cares for (though how or why is skimped on)), an easy moral lesson. Unlike Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, with Kon you rarely get the sense that all that stunning animation technique is in service of anything more serious than a good time. Maybe the one notable exception would be his TV animated series Paranoia Agent--that one actually seems to be about something...
Celso Ad Castillo's Sanib (2003) is his version of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) and whaddaya know, I prefer the remake, for several reasons. First--full disclosure here--I've never been a big fan of Friedkin's horror flick. Second, Celso in one crucial scene manages to explore the story's most horrifying moment, when an uncomprehending innocent asks why is she being treated thusly, an animal tied down for sacrifice (Linda Blair in the original depended on heavy prosthetic makeup and clever lip-miming to achieve a lesser pathos). Third, Ad Castillo working on a budget tiny enough to be the latter's laundry bill is still able to wreak miracles--brief but eerie encounters with supernatural forces that depend on sheer filmmaking skill and not CGI effects to pull off. Yes, the pic has third-act problems--the introduction of a second malignant spirit that needlessly complicates the plot--but some of the taut cutting here actually reminds me of the editing in Ad Castillo's horror classic, Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara (Scare Barbara to Death, 1974). This is an intriguing little feature, one that reveals that The Celso Kid--a great Filipino filmmaker, and easily the most visually lyrical of them all--still has the power to surprise and enthrall.
Monty Hellman's Back Door to Hell (1964), about a group of soldiers making a secret landing on Bicolano soil to prepare for MacArthur's coming gives one a chance to compare the filmmaker's camerawork against Filipino masters like Gerardo de Leon when using the same or at least similar landscape; the differences are--well, I don't know. I'm not aware of exact numbers--Hellman's budget couldn't possibly be much larger than that of a standard Hollywood feature's-- but the crispness of sound, smoothness of camera movement and clarity of footage go way beyond even the most expensive all-Filipino production; one wonders if perhaps Hellman simply brought better equipment with him.
Both have their distinctive styles, with Hellman favoring low-angled cameras and carefully interlocking shots that show the soldiers' stealthy progress against the Japanese; de Leon often works with grand gestures, with tiny figures running up some tilted landscape, often as if they were working their way up a Sisyphean incline.
When the action breaks out, both use crisp, precise editing, and standard-issue music to ratchet up (however imperfectly) the tension. Hellman's characters talk in a hardboiled language, however, while de Leon betrays a less updated sensibility by having his characters speak florid dialogue in a stagy, often theatrical manner (though he does have a tendency to position his people the way a Japanese director might in a drama scene--both facing the camera, one standing in a far corner, the other up close and looming). A fascinating gem, an efficient genre piece--one that deals, however briefly, with the issue of death and killing and a man's evolving response to them--and easily the best of the titles mentioned here.