Saturday, January 26, 2008

American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

American gagster

Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) is, for all intents and purposes, Oscar bait. It's the kind of two-hour plus epic studios like to parade in the multiplexes just before the horse races (the New York Film Critics; the L.A. Film Critics; the Golden whatsis; the Oscars), in the hopes of garnering a statue or two (no such luck; the Academy Award nominees have just been announced, the picture save for a few minor categories largely ignored).

The movie was inspired by "The Return of Superfly," a New York Magazine article written by Mark Jacobson about Frank Lucas, a true-life heroin entrepreneur turned police informant. Lucas rose from the ranks of Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson's Harlem gang (briefly but memorably played here by Clarence Williams III) as driver and enforcer; when Johnson dies of a heart attack, Lucas takes over.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the movie's story takes place after Lucas inherits Johnson's gang. Studying the situation, Lucas realized that he would never get ahead if he relied on Mafia distributors for his heroin, so he went straight to the source--to Southeast Asia's 'Golden Triangle'--and bought directly from the suppliers. He devised an ingenious way of smuggling them in (to quote from Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz: "Alimentary, my dear Leiter…"), and sold them on the streets of Harlem as 'Blue Magic,' 98 percent pure heroin--so pure they sometimes caused dope addicts (used to inferior powder) to overdose.


It's a fascinating parody of American capitalism--cut out the middleman, be innovative, sell a quality product--or is it a parody? I can think of a few billionaires--Bill Gates comes to mind--who adhere to less lofty standards (Microsoft Windows, anyone?). Problem is, Scott wants it to be more than that, wants a big screen biopic that will include all the usual moments in a drug lord's life and still come out strong for the American war on drugs. What the material needs is a filmmaker with a sense of irony (a rare and precious commodity in Hollywood, when you stop to think about it); maybe the more mature Spike Lee we saw in Inside Man (2006) and 25th Hour (2002), or a less frenetic Martin Scorsese working on a sharply focused script, or even a still-breathing Robert Altman (go ahead, wish for the moon). Lucas' life is a--or should be--a black comedy about achieving success in the illegal drug industry, emphasis on the word 'industry;' instead we get The Godfather (1974) without the strong family dynamics or sense of rooted identity.

As Denzel Washington plays him, Lucas is basically an African-American Michael Corleone; he's suave and restrained, capable of the occasional (and unconvincing) burst of violence; about the deepest subtext one senses in his performance is a hunger to at least be nominated for yet another golden doorstop (as noted, no such luck). Jacobson's article (and Jacobson's October 2007 interview of the man talking with fellow gangster Nicky Barnes (played in the movie with lively gusto by Cuba Gooding, Jr.)) reveals a more expansive, forceful personality, one skillfully able to present himself as a hardworking businessman with a bent but nevertheless still working set of principles. Jacobson's Lucas is a bullshit artist extraordinaire, part candor ("It’s not something Frank (Barnes) or I would tell any of our children to get into"), part glamorizing spin ("A drug dealer gonna live to his word. I’m not talking about a junkie. I’m talking about a man like Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes"). Lucas at the age of 77 and confined to a wheelchair shows more life, energy and outsized humor than Washington ever does in the entire picture; Gooding on the other hand captures enough of Barnes' style to make an impression onscreen, but throws the picture off-balance--generally not a good thing when the supporting performer out-acts the lead.

For this film director Scott eschews his trademark burnt-orange, dustmote-drenched lighting in favor of the kind of bright 'n gritty '70s-style cinematography pioneered by Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. But the expert reproduction of a long-ago look is disastrously employed, to photograph needles plunging into scarred arms, babies crying helplessly beside their dead, overdosed parents--images that would seem heavy-handed in an anti-drug TV commercial, much less this movie. When the picture goes into action, it's standard-issue handheld footage, cut chop-suey style for extra oomph; Scott's been making films for--what, thirty years?--and he still doesn't seem to know the first thing about shooting a coherent action sequence. He does best staging elaborate shots that last minutes at a time, allowing you to drink in all the period detail and atmosphere and production design, only this time the period is New York in the 70s, possibly the one era Scott hasn't a clue how to evoke properly.

The movie suffers even more when put against the near-miraculous achievement of James Gray's We Own the Night (2007) which came out around the same time, set in the same period (actually the '80s--but with many of the detritus and accoutrements of the previous decade). Gray has more than filmmaking talent, he has a distinct sensibility, one that likes to take a step back and apprehend its characters--usually standing against a door frame or striding down a hallway--while they introduce themselves to us with tiny gestures or brief but revealing expressions. His handheld footage needs no apologies--when during a surprise ambush he gives us Joaquin Phoenix's panicked appraisal of the dashboard and windshield of the car he's driving (plus glimpses of the pair of cars (one of them driven by his father, the other by hired assassins) racing beside him), he's showing us a world suddenly spun out of control, showing us chaos in full bloom, and Phoenix's utter helplessness in the face of it. It's amazing, really, how a great film like We Own the Night can be completely ignored in this year's horse races, while something like American Gangster is able to pick up a few Guild awards, some technical Oscars, even a few Golden Globes (nominations, all). Well, maybe not so amazing--it's Hollywood, after all, the land that's been refracted through the looking-glass so many times you're not sure what direction is what, or what constitutes reality, anymore.

(First published in Businessworld, 1/25/08)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Atonement; Juno; Paprika; Sanib; Back Door to Hell


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.

Mario O'Hara: underrated or over-the-hill?

A link:

Mario O'Hara: underrated or over-the-hill?

First thing off: grateful to Ms. Carballo for the article--haven't heard anything about the man for well over two years now, maybe more. And I appreciate the mention, too.

Where the hell did they get that pic, though? He looks like a corporate executive, which I imagine's the last thing in the world he'd ever want to be seen as. Funny stuff, is all.

For the record, Bulong ng Balakyot (Whispers of the Demon) was the original title O'Hara wanted to give Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) and is not a separate film. People fluent in both English and Tagalog may wonder at the disparity between the official Filipino title ("Pangarap ng puso" literally means "hope of the heart") to which I might reply: welcome to the world of film title and dialogue translation, more a rather vague art than an exact science. Suffice to say the late Joey Gosiengfiao, who helped produce the picture, approved the official English translation.

As for not having done any comedies, arguably Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (Three Mothers, One Child, 1987) is a comedy. But there's humor in many an O'Hara film; just that it's an extremely dark humor--the decapitated head found in a block of ice in Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) comes to mind; so does the rape scene in Condemned (1984) performed in shadow dumbshow, to sardonic music.

As for O'Hara flying to America to meet with Nora Aunor (?!)--well, I'd like to see that actually happen. I'd like to see O'Hara come out with a film again, period. Three years is a long time, and unfortunately I can't just go to the theater to catch his stage appearances.

Yep, when O'Hara doesn't have a film project he's usually at Tanghalang Pilipino, delivering one memorable performance after another. Or--again, once in a blue moon--writing a play or two (tickles me pink that Gibbs Cadiz's best of Philippine theater 2007 mentions O'Hara's name not once but twice).

So here's to waiting; O'Hara's preferred mode of operation is under-the-radar flying, but it's nice to know that he does surface once in a while, that he's been spotted here and there, that even if he's not behind a movie camera he's at least alive and well. And still flying under the radar.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007)


Attend the tale

The old joke about opera is that if you cut a soprano open song and not blood would issue forth; the joke in Burton's latest is that here it's the other way around, though for a moment or two there's doubt. Stephen Sondheim, arguably the best lyricist and composer in modern musical theater--my favorite anyway, within the limited range of my knowledge on the subject (never mind that atrocious British creator of large-scale McMusicals about cats, phantoms, Vietnamese prostitutes, and whatnot)--has been treated what may be his finest big-screen adaptation yet, by a fellow pop iconoclast working on what may be the artist's best-known work: Sweeney Todd, his 1979 musical about a psychotic barber (Len Cariou in the original Broadway production, Johnny Depp on film) who cuts clients' throats and with the help of the neighborly Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury on Broadway, Helena Bonham-Carter on film) turns them into meat pies. Sondheim, Burton, Burton Sondheim; may the slashing begin.

Burton's film begins with a series of swooping shots of Victorian London; one might be forgiven for thinking he's simply zooming in on a series of drawings, but they shift with every change of perspective in the camera's movement, they look more like diorama cut-outs than mere flat sketches. I couldn't help but compare the art to Eddie Campbell's work in From Hell, his and Alan Moore's fictional take on Jack the Ripper--ironic, because Campbell's drawings aren't exactly like the usual notions of Victorian art; they're black-and-white, they're rough, they don't glance at London with modestly averted eyes but stare hard at its horrors like a documentary filmmaker. Burton's camera levels a similarly unflinching gaze at images considerably more stylized, if no less horrific. This is the way to use CGI, not as some means of showing the impossible in a flashy manner (in effect, turning the impossible into the boringly digital), but as a way of realizing specific visual goals--in this case bringing two-dimensional illustrations to spatially profound life.

If this is a mock opera about a butcher, it's I suppose only fitting that Burton (reputedly with Sondheim's approval) performed minor surgery, cutting out entirely the one song I remember best ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"), reducing considerably one of its funniest numbers ("A Little Priest"), and removing parts of one song that lifts an already dark musical to the level of Swiftian savagery ("God, That's Good!"). This is perhaps a diminished Todd, a simplified Todd (I confess I've never seen an actual production), the offspring of a lesser Todd; I submit that it's as much Burton's Todd now as it is Sondheim's, and that the cuts and changes only serve to allow the cadaver--sorry, creation--to more easily slip into the mantle of Burton's peculiar sensibility.

Hence, instead of a beefy Cariou or George Hearn as Todd, a fragile Depp in Bride of Frankenstein makeup and 'do; instead of a dotty Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, a doll-like Bonham-Carter, singing in a bright warble. Depp and Bonham-Carter are not Broadway belters with mighty voices, able to send melody tumbling to the rafters; instead they're introverted mannequins, meant to respond in giant close-up to every twitch of Burton's myriad strings. Depp in particular doesn't seem to be singing the songs so much as he's performing them, using them as his only means of cracking open Todd's glowering demeanor, to peer into the massive depression festering inside (you can see the cracks in his pale piecrust of a brow from the strain of holding it all together). Burton plunks this Todd firmly on his trophy shelf of brooding visionaries: he's an Ed Wood with a homicidal streak; an Edward Scissorhands with considerably less impulse control; a Batman with a worrisome taste for straight razors.

It's fascinating how Burton revels in visual textures. From the cardboard-and-modeling-clay set of the miniature town in Beetlejuice (1988) to the frozen zoo statues in Batman Returns (1992) to the gelatinous bottled brains of the invading aliens in Mars Attacks! (1996); each and every Burton film offers a moment--maybe more--where one can marvel at the shape and surface of sometimes vast, sometimes toylike, sometimes vast and toylike objects.


More and more, though, Burton's been exploring how textural details can suggest emotional states--thus, Todd's furrowed brow indicate forces barely kept in check; thus, the gleaming pavement he kneels on (the camera suddenly craning upwards to turn cobbled street into stony wall, the despairing Todd hanging from said wall) implies the unyielding nature of his circumstances. There's the endlessly varied behavior of blood echoing the endlessly varied behavior of dying men, the crimson juice spurting, spitting, fountaining out of vein or artery depending on the victim's temperament--how it drops from a slashed neck in a rich red curtain, or gurgles out a puncture wound like thick stew. And then there's Todd, looking again and again into a cracked mirror, the fractured glass reflecting the fractures of his own psyche.

Beyond inserting mere details Burton devotes entire sequences into making his point. In "A Little Priest" Lovett leads Todd (in a scene Burton may have borrowed from Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961)) from window to window to window to peer at people, soothe him, persuading him to her point of view. We're implicated as well; the camera assumes Todd's vantage, gazing through flawed panes at the distorted, two-legged creatures outside while he talks of them as if they were--well, meat.


In a later scene Todd ponders his barber's chair, tinkers with it, starts adding gears and cogs and clockwork to its underside with an accelerating sense of purpose. It's the standard-issue hero-at-work sequence; like Batman with his Batmobile or Ichabod Crane with his portable forensic analysis kit (Sleepy Hollow, 1999), or Edward with his snipping blades, Todd uses intellect or intuition or talent to work the problem--here the problem of building a device that will quickly and efficiently send a dead body into the basement below.

(The bodies dropping from the second floor are in the play, of course, but people who've seen both onstage productions and this film claim that Burton has added the extra aural detail of the corpse's head thudding into the basement below. Burton, ever-enamored of mannequin figures and toylike objects in most if not all his films, points out the ultimate obscenity: that our bodies, bereft of life and soul, are little more than sacks of meat--mannequins just as capable as their wooden counterparts of making a firm crunch! when landing on a stone floor.)

Putting all in context, Burton's Todd is yet another one of his misunderstood artists, this time a practitioner of the art of homicide, and the film is yet another of Burton's meditations on what it means to be such an artist, to attempt to create art in the face of a vulgar, uncaring world. His Todd creates scarlet-soaked masterpieces no one is meant to see save us (we are witnesses thanks entirely to the privileged lenses of Burton's camera). His Todd is a sensibility in development: born out of trauma, grown big and strong in exile, razor sharp in intensity and intent, able to improvise as necessary. When Todd finally realizes the full demands of his field of endeavor, when he finally becomes aware of the extent and consequence of his thirst of vengeance, when he--in effect--learns all there is to learn about the nature of his art, we are with him as he sits brokenly, like a marionette with cut strings, awaiting final judgment.


(First published in Businessworld,1/18/08)

I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007)

He be leaden

Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend--third remake of Richard Matheson's novella about Robert Neville, the last surviving human in a world (or at least a California) full of vampires (Huh; who said this was science fiction?)--starts out strong, which is about par for the course. Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's L'Ultimo uomo della terra (The Last Man on Earth, 1964) substituted Rome for some American city and featured a despairing Vincent Price as Neville (here Robert Morgan) talking to himself in voiceover; Boris Segal's The Omega Man (1971) had the eternally self-satisfied Charlton Heston (this time called Neville) roam empty Los Angeles. Both adaptations have their virtues; Ragona and Salkow's relatively cheap production for the most part hewed closely to the book, and relied on black-and-white cinematography for easy but nevertheless effective atmosphere (Romero would exploit the verite qualities of black-and-white film for his own first feature Night of the Living Dead (1968), which Romero freely admits was influenced by Matheson's book), while the image of Price wandering those empty (and suspiciously photogenic) Roman streets has its own eerie power.

The pleasures of Segal's version are more eclectic: the vampires have turned into sunglassed Luddite albinos (the shades meant to protect their light-sensitive eyes) out to destroy technology in all its manifestations, including military scientist Neville; Neville gradually realizes that His Blood Can Redeem the World, and expires in cruciform position, but not before he manages to bed a beautiful black babe (Rosalind Cash) in desperate need of a transfusion. One can't watch the picture without suspecting that Heston must have been unable to get over the fact that they chose Max Von Sydow over him to play Christ in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while he had to settle for John the Baptist--hence his illusions of persecution and grandeur (of persecuted grandeur); as for the movie's albinos, one might mistaken them for hippies the way they resent the old-world establishment and demand a return to a simpler, less materialistic life (Heston made a career of defying and lecturing stubborn liberals, from the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (1956) to more Israelites in Greatest Story to the apes in Planet of (1968) to this movie). It's a lot of laughs, if you want it to be; in retrospect, though, I've developed an affection for the picture despite (or is it because?) of its more bizarre conceits--at least it had the courage of its lunatic convictions.

Lawrence's version is billed as being the most faithful to Matheson's to date. Not quite; the germ is now the result of a cancer cure run amok, the setting shifted to New York City--a brilliant stroke, I think. Easily the best parts of the picture are the early scenes, of Manhattan's canyonlike avenues totally bereft of life, of row after row of empty cars parodying rush-hour traffic. Matheson made a mistake setting his novel in Southern California, I think; you don't think of the cities there as being very crowded, pre-catastrophe--if anything, the region has always seemed half-deserted. Manhattan emphasizes the contrast between before and after dramatically--the sight of roots breaking through asphalt, of deer and not taxicabs leaping past intersections is startling indeed. Lawrence, whose resume consists mainly of the fantasy flick Constantine (2005) and a slew of music videos, manages to rein himself in for the most part, relying on crane shots and gliding long takes bereft of any loud music other than what Neville plays for himself. Lawrence's restraint enhances the eeriness of this early half admirably, invoking expectations that, for the first time ever, we have a decent adaptation.

As Robert Neville Will Smith harkens more to Vincent Price's anguished loner than Heston's smug iconoclast. Lawrence doesn't let us listen in on Neville's thoughts, but instead has Neville speak to a dog (in the novel the animal arrived much later, and played a diminished--if crucial--role)--which I feel is cheating, but never mind; Smith has matured considerably as an actor. He's got the personality, gravitas, however you want to put it to carry a film all by himself, literally (with support from the dog, and later from a young woman survivor making her way to a rumored survivors' camp in Vermont). His--and the movie's--most memorable moment comes when he sits at the riverbank and sends out his daily radio broadcast for survivors. "If you are out there... if anyone is out there..." his transmitter cries out; the scene recalls a similarly haunting moment in Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio play, when a forlorn voice asked for a response from someone, anyone (tell the truth I suspect the filmmakers had Welles' broadcast in mind when they did this scene).

When the creatures finally show up all hope of a decent adaptation crumbles, like a vampire in sunlight. These monsters turn out to be your standard-issue CGI constructs, all speed and no substance, and therefore not much menace. The disappointment is all the keener considering that Dreyer, Murnau, and Herzog did wonders with makeup and stage effects; why couldn't Lawrence (word has it that Lawrence did shoot the scenes using actors in costume and prosthetics, then re-shot them at the last minute with tacked-on digital baddies)? The vampires in Matheson's novella, victims of a mindless yet complex germ that inspired Romero's living dead have become the spastic crazies that run through the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007). These "vampires" (I need to use quotes, they're so lame) have little mystery about them, much less anything supernatural (Matheson's novel was all about weeding out the scientifically plausible from the overwhelmingly fantastic evidence at hand).

The ending is absurd; Lawrence (or possibly relative neophyte Mark Protosevich and jaded veteran Akiva Goldsman, who did the script) not only works in several large digitally enhanced explosions, they invert everything of interest that could be found in Matheson's novel. The "vampires" remain stupid; if anything, they're a mere step above velociraptors in terms of intelligence (I enjoy Steven Spielberg's movies, but I really have to put the blame on his Jurassic Park pictures for reducing monsters from figures of our id to mere animals on the loose). Neville, instead of struggling onscreen to learn microbiology and the rigors of the scientific method, is already a scientist, presumably to free up more time for them gosh-durned cool explosions (ironically Neville in the book is far more methodical and rigorous in his research than Neville onscreen ever was, or could be); the dog has become yet another Girl Friday instead of being a symbol for Neville's futile aspirations; the girl has been reduced from ambiguous ally to mere delivery girl for Neville's redeeming blood (yep, the movie is less a new adaptation of the novella than it is a remake of The Omega Man, without the cheesy '70s revisionism).

Worse of all is the title, an ironic punchline in the novel, a syrupy affirmation in the movie. Like all great science fiction, Matheson's I Am Legend went beyond introducing its initial premise; it inverted our concept of what is normal, conventional, real; it granted the monsters a point of view (not to mention a basis in scientific fact) and in fact redefined what being a monster is all about. Lawrence's picture, like all adaptations of the novel, runs with that initial premise for a little bit, then transforms back into a run-of-the-mill last-man-on-earth fantasy (Smith saves the world with his precious blood!). Give me a break; or rather, give me a real adaptation of Matheson's classic.

First published in
Businessworld, 1/11/08)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Update: Best of 07 and Filipino Films on DVD

Nora Aunor in Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982)

Arguably one of the most important links on my blog is this one, which lists down the Filipino films available on DVD (scroll to the bottom of post for the updates). As someone who often speaks to a vacuum--in the sense that I often discuss pictures that few people outside of the Philippines (or even inside the Philippines) have ever seen, really should do more to make what films are available out there more widely known. Lord knows this isn't complete, but I can at least keep it updated--which is what I'm doing now.

Also updated: my Best of 2007 list now includes Sweeney Todd and, I'm pleased to say, Altar, arguably Rico Maria Ilarde's best work to date. Hope to write more on Ilarde's digital feature (like all of his pictures it's an intriguing genre bender, this time crossing Hideo Nakata with The Legend of Hell House and, of all things, The Quiet Man) when I have the chance...

And by way of farewells, a reminder of one particularly painful loss this year:
Joey Gosiengfiao, 1941 - 2007)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Little Black Book 3

Poster for Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos
Continuing from Little Black Book of Movies and Little Black Book of Movies 2:

Tim Cavanaugh on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) chooses not to highlight the implicit social satire (zombies in a mall) but instead talks of how the "careful detailing of tactics and terrain makes this one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed."

I wouldn't dare disagree; I'd add that Dawn's action is the perfect companion piece to Romero's
Day of the Dead (1985), where things have gotten so bad that terrain and tactics don't matter any more. Where in the first two films tactics matter (in the second even more than the first, Dawn practically being a textbook on the defense and maintenance of a modern building (I think it's significant (and utterly cool) that one of the characters in the film notes that the zombies can't break through the glass doors--thanks to the trailers blocking the way, they don't have the leverage)), in the third all the characters are trapped in a kind of desperate paralysis, a No Exit scenario where hell isn't the millions of undead shuffling outside but each other (in such a case metaphysics, not tactics, is all). I wish someone had thought to include Day of the Dead in this collection.

Can't resist including mention of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz (1979), easily one of the great if not the greatest of recent musicals (a more recent musical like Rob Marshall's
Chicago seems by comparison as substantial as a weenie on a toothpick; a more contemporary film like Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) seems more sane and staid). As Jean-Pierre Coursodon puts it, "this is one of the most personal, most original films to come out of Hollywood." True Fosse violates the classic Hollywood musical style of keeping the camera focused on the dance as long as possible; but he had I submit the extraordinary gift of rendering coherent said motion even through a series of shots, the space and choreography held clear in his head (and somehow in ours) as he riffled through various angles like a card player through a deck of cards, the transition so swift and smooth the illusion of continuous motion is preserved.

And Brad Stevens again, on Stanely Kubrick's The Shining (1980)--not the film's big setpieces (the elevator lobby flooding with blood, the gigantic hedge maze in snow) or horrific moments (Jack walking into room 237; Wendy finally reading what Jack has been writing for months and months on end), but a job interview early in the film. As Stevens puts it the scene "shows how Stanley Kubrick's films address philosophical questions of identity and communication." Depend on Stevens to pick out the ostensibly dullest scene in Kubrick's film--his career, arguably (though I submit there's a similar conversation in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968))--and show how the scene is actually the film's central horror wrought in miniature (tying in possibly, or am I going into the Twilight Zone on this, with the shot of Jack peering down on a model of the maze, to gaze impossibly at Wendy and Danny wandering through said maze like a pair of ants).

For my fourth contribution I picked 'Chato's deflowering' in Celso Ad. Castillo's masterpiece Burlesk Queen (1977)--I just thrive on eyecatching titles, don't I? But it's precisely that quality in the scene and the way Ad. Castillo addressed said quality that made me choose it, to whit: "'The Celso Kid' does what few other filmmakers can do: transform a sordid moment into lyricism, tenderness, beauty." Ad. Castillo has many flaws as a filmmaker; he's pretentious, bombastic, inconsistent, often incoherent. He can barely sustain the quality of his storytelling throughout an entire film; hell, he can barely sustain the quality throughout an entire scene.

This gives his work an unintended element of suspense; you often watch with bated breath, wondering if he will see things through, or sink slowly into shit, stubbornly refusing to extricate himself because, of course, he's an artist. It's his worst flaw as a filmmaker; it's also his greatest glory. Thus, a hack remake like Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Creature on the Face of the Earth, 1996) may plod along as ninety minutes' worth of unintentionally funny melodrama, suddenly taking wing when a man with a machete chases another through subtly tilted landscape shots worthy of Gerardo de Leon. Thus a great film like Burlesk Queen is marred by theater impresario Louie's hyperconscious commentary (veteran character actor Jonee Gamboa, doing wonders with lines that are essentially intellectual crap)--the same time it's rendered unforgettable by the aforementioned deflowering. You watch with bated breath and fingers crossed, and you hope for the best.

For my third contribution, 'Elsa and the baby' from Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), I said: "it's one of the most vivid demonstrations on film of two powerful ideas in mortal conflict with each other: first, that the wartime Japanese are to be hated or opposed; second, that all human beings are to be cherished."

I find it more and more difficult to write about Tatlong Taong; not so much because I've run out of new things to say (I could
talk for hours on the subject), but because I feel I have to strike a balance every time between exciting interest in the reader and overselling the picture. And it's ridiculously hard to see; short of actually being in Manila during the few times a year they have a screening (cable channel Cinema One in Manila or The Filipino Channel in the United States shows it I imagine, but with commercials and in a slightly truncated form), you have to sign over your soul to view the film. Sometimes I feel like a tenor singing a difficult aria as strongly and passionately as I can to a near-empty room; I treasure the few actually listening, but I long for a fresh pair of ears.
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