Sunday, May 31, 2009

Philippine Customs lifts taxes on imported books; "Up;" "A Woman Cut in Two;" "Sunshine"


President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lifts taxes on imported book

Some thoughts on this whole brouhaha:

1) Shouldn't have happened in the first place. I understand the government scrabbling to find ways to earn revenue, but if it had encouraged in itself and in the country a culture that valued education and literacy, then a tax on books would have been unthinkable. As is, one wonders what other unpleasant elements are to be found in its mindset.

2) Let this be an object lesson: vigilance, always vigilance. One needs to watch little encroachments on freedom like these. It would have been all too easy to just shrug one's shoulders and say: "So it goes."

3) If the government is still desperate for cash, couldn't they keep the tax on Twilight?

Peter Doctor and Bob Peterson's Up (2009) is pretty much standard-issue Pixar. You have your crusty old man being taught a lesson by a dewy young boy; you have your dreams (in this case, a house beside a waterfall falling from a plateau straight out of Willis O'Brien's The Lost World (1925)) being pursued no matter what the cost--either the film encourages this pursuit, or urges the hero to abandon his dream for a more achievable goal (in this case, returning an avian mother to her children). Along the way Doctor and Peterson openly celebrate their inspirations--not just O'Brien, but Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986) and many flying sequences in various pictures (Miyazaki, as his fans know, is a master of the aerial flight sequence).

This is a cartoon, of course. We aren't asked to wonder why the hero manages, seemingly overnight, to conceal thousands of balloons in his house (Where did he get the money? Why are they strong enough to lift the house, with what looks like common string? (Wired.com has something to say about this)? Why haven't they lifted the building even before they're released from his attic?). We aren't asked to wonder how he manages to construct not just sails for forward propulsion but a mechanism for steering said sails. We aren't asked to wonder how a long-lost explorer manages to amass so many dogs, and how they managed to develop an obsession for squirrels (in South America, no less).

Too sentimental for my taste, though I'm sure this will be a big hit for people who still believe animation is strictly for the kiddies. For my money the year's best animated feature to date is Henry Selik's Coraline, from the novel by Neil Gaiman, which admits to the possibility that childhood isn't just full of wonders, but terrors as well.

Claude Chabrol's La fille coupee en deux (A Girl Cut in Two, 2007) invites, as usual, comparisons to Hitchcock, but from where I'm sitting the most distinctive quality the two share, at least at this stage in Chabrol's career, is elegance in storytelling, elegance in all elements of storytelling, from characterization to dialogue to mis-en-scene to soundtrack (the opening credits roll to the strains of Puccini's Turandot, the plot of which suggests interesting sidelights to the plot of Chabrol's film). Even the title works overtime to raise questions in the viewer's mind--just why is the eponymous girl (local TV weather girl Gabrielle, played by Ludivine Sagnier) cut in two? Because she's of two minds? Because she's desired by two men? Because a whirling blade literally cuts her in two?

One often thinks when thinking of Hitchcock of visual challenges solved with brilliantly, sometimes breathtakingly elegant solutions (the problems of confined space in Lifeboat or Rope or Rear Window; of a shower-stall murder in Psycho; of wide-open spaces and sustaining tension through a cross-country odyssey in North by Northwest). Chabrol in this case solves one kind of challenge: the suggestion of perverse sexual appetites with the least amount of fuss (a head sinks below a table; a girl crawls on all fours in shadow; a private club is visited, and one member asks another a pointed question: "does she know what goes on here?").The story is loosely based on the killing of architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, for a long-ago affair White had with Thaw's wife Evelyn Nesbit, updated with a bit of class rivalry.

Central to the film is the mystery of Gabrielle: is she corrupted innocent or cruel sadist? Middle-class victim or social-climbing instigator? In Turandot, the two main female characters are the eponymous princess and the slave girl, Liu, and Gabrielle seems to embody qualities of both women--she is by turns loyal and loving to her elderly lover, cruel and distant to her young husband. By combining the two in one woman, does Chabrol make his heroine more or less convincing, more or less complex--both, maybe? Sagnier plays her as a cool blonde in the best Hitchcockian tradition (I have to take back I suppose what I said earlier about Chabrol's resemblance or lack of to Hitchcock). Towards the end she's revealed as more innocent and less guileful than she seems--or is she instead completely at the mercy of her own inner demons? She's the lure, the McGuffin, the enigma that draws both men--and herself--to their irrevocably entangled dooms.

Danny Boyle's
Sunshine (2007) for the first hour manages to make you forget all the scientific inaccuracies it so blatantly presented. Boyle wears his influences on his sleeve: the heavy-breathing spacemen and extra-vehicular activity (EVA) from Kubrick's 2001, including one sequence involving explosive decompression (silly it seems to worry about freezing in outer space when the human body loses its heat so slowly); the dripping water and marauding predator in Scott's Alien (1979); the haunted space station in Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972).

Hard to take this wannabe science-fictional philosophical treatise seriously, when it doesn't do its homework. The sun is dying, but no mention is made of the fact that its death occurs some five billion years too early (in the DVD commentary physicist and film advisor Brian Cox mentions the possibility of the sun capturing a Q-ball, dark matter in a specific supersymmetric form--though reportedly the sun isn't dense enough to capture so massive an object). The story's set fifty years into the future but already we have artificial gravity, with no explanation how this miracle comes about.

In one of the deleted scenes they did mention that their payload, a 'stellar bomb' meant to rekindle the sun's nuclear fusion processes, has the mass of the moon compressed into the size of a football field--but this raises more questions than it answers. Why, if the payload generates enough gravity to create one-gee conditions throughout the ship, can people walk on its surface without being crushed (the gravity on the surface would be greatest, less so for objects further away)? Why, if the payload generates gravity, does weight turn on and off like a light switch in the airlock? Why if the payload generates gravity do men in spacesuits float around when stepping outside the ship?

All this can pretty much be forgiven if Boyle had given us a reasonably plausible drama, but late in the game Boyle introduces an incredibly silly supervillain with heavily scarred skin that we see mostly through a distorting lens. The lens gimmick is a terrible idea; Boyle's action sequences are never the most coherent, but the addition of a lens only makes the action even less so. Worse is the gobbledygook that comes out of the villain's well-roasted lips--"When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God." The man is crazy, the laziest excuse for villainy in all of storytelling (he's nuts, ergo he's capable of anything). For all the sunlight in Boyle's picture he does little to illuminate human nature through his villain, or through the conflicts his villain creates.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009)

Doubletalk

Tony Gilroy's sophomore effort Duplicity (2009) is that fizziest of genres, the romantic spy thriller--basically about a CIA officer named Claire (Julia Roberts) and an MI6 operative named Ray (Clive Owen) who conspire to steal a supersecret formula from under the watchful eye of Burkett & Randle's Chief Executive Officer Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). Plots and counterplots ensue; bedroom couplings, secret meetings, surveillance operations, and so on; twists within twists within twists within. There's story enough for half a dozen less generous thrillers, and sufficient chemistry between the two stars to keep us listening to their fairly witty repartee.

One does not suspect this of Gilroy--he had previously been known as the scriptwriter of the supergrim Bourne movies, Robert Ludlum's humorless attempts to supplant Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (to be fair, Fleming's books are every bit as unfunny as Ludlum's; the sly humor came from the movie adaptations, especially those starring Sean Connery); he later debuted as a writer-director with Michael Clayton, a dramatic thriller. The introduction of comedy has greased the gears spinning in Gilroy's mind--this time the plot is improbably intricate, the improbability matched by the cast and movie's sleekly stylized glamour. This isn't real life, Gilroy seems to be saying, and thank God for small blessings.

In one sense Gilroy does retain a distinctive feature from his previous feature effort, the fractured time scheme. Duplicity starts in the tense present, with Burkett & Randle CEO Tully facing off against Equikrom CEO Richard Garsil (Paul Giamatti) in front of their respective corporate jets, under the pouring rain. The story veers off into the past, and we learn that Claire and Ray have met before, have in fact scammed each other before, alternately taking off with the prize while leaving the other holding the proverbial bag.

The movie proceeds on two levels--well, maybe three. There's Burkett & Randle constantly trying to get the better of Equikrom and vice versa; there's CIA trained Claire trying to get the better of MI6 operative Ray and vice versa; and then there's poor Claire trying to ascertain whether or not Ray is worth trusting, perhaps even loving (and vice versa).

Gilroy keeps it all moving along at the required brisk pace; he also manages the more difficult challenge of keeping the complex plot coherent (more or less--it lacks the one indispensable quality of the very best complex plots: it doesn't all boil down to one elegantly simple structure); and finally he manages the most difficult of challenges, to keep all this consistently interesting, if not amusing.

He enlists a fine cast of characters to his cause: Owen, who after a series of somber roles in heavy drama films reveals himself here to be a fine comic actor; Giamatti and Wilkinson, who play to the hilt the pair of business rivals literally at each others' throats.

Roberts, the heavyweight Hollywood star who balances out the movie's outsized share of testosterone, is an oddly unexciting choice for me. One really wants Claire to be smart, funny, sexy--Owen's match in every respect only wearing garters, if possible. Roberts is smart and funny (she's improved immeasurably since her days as America's sweetheart), but the word 'sexy' doesn't readily come to mind. She's played wholesome roles for far too long (remember her Wonderful World of Disney interpretation of a prostitute in Pretty Woman (1990)?), the same time her physical resemblance to her less famous brother is far too strong. Most viewers today may have forgotten Eric Roberts; I remember his various turns as the sweetly goofy Paulie in Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), his hapless corporate executive distracted by the lovely Greta Scacchi in The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), his punk sidekick trailing behind Jon Voight's outsized convict in Runaway Train (same year). Most memorably, there's Eric's ferocious performance as the unlikeable, near-unwatchable Paul Snider in Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983). Every time I look at Julia, in effect, I keep seeing murderer-rapist Snider in a fright wig.

That aside (couldn't they get, oh, say, Mira Sorvino?) it's a good if not great confection.

A great confection--isn't that a contradiction in terms? Not really; if anything, great confections are far more difficult and demanding to create than great dramas. You needn't hold back when doing great drama; anything and everything is open to you, from the very heights to the very depths of the human heart. With a great confection, however, you need to meet all those requirements plus you need to make it all seem effortless, lighter than air (a confection is not a confection when it drops on your lap like a load of Wagnerian concrete).

Take the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his early British pictures are prime confections, arguably the best of which (my favorite, anyway) is The 39 Steps (1935). Talk about deadly conspiracies and hairbreadth escapes and sexual chemistry--Robert Donat with Madeleine Carroll had plenty of the last, but better than chemistry is Hitchcock's prankish, malevolent mind. He conjured up a love interest for the hero (the John Buchan novel had none), has them dislike each other intensely at first, then hits upon the device of handcuffing them together--an idea so effective, so brilliantly simple, any number of thrillers and action flicks have been cuffing people (odd couples, mixed racial pairs, comedy duos, what-have-you) to each other for decades afterwards.

Hitchcock, of course, helped matters along--story goes that when Donat and Carroll first met they rehearsed a scene cuffed together, after which Hitchcock confessed to having lost the key. Donat and Carroll were forced to wait while everyone searched; they eventually found themselves talking to each other about friends, films, experiences. Whereupon Hitchcock declared: "Now that you two know each other we can go ahead," and produced the key from a waistcoat pocket. The 39 Steps is arguably an early high water mark in the genre of romantic spy thrillers, or espionage/suspense films with a strong romantic element (another would be Hitchcock's North by Northwest, made twenty-four years later--but that's material enough for another article). I wouldn't say Duplicity comes anywhere near Hitchcock's level, but it does lunge at that general direction--that's the highest praise I can give the picture.

First published in Businessworld, 5.22.09

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Roger Ebert kills Brillante Mendoza's 'Kinatay' (which wins Best Director in Cannes anyway); Coraline; Rear Window; Le Plaisir

Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay

If they move, kill em

Roger Ebert, the gray eminence of Chicago film criticism, has weighed in on Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), Brillante Mendoza's latest work, presently in the Competition section of Cannes, and his verdict is not kind:
Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.

Ah, but the episode with The Brown Bunny ended happily, didn't it? I remember Ebert calling that "the worst film in the history of Cannes" (Ebert shares this curious ability with George W. Bush of moving goalposts and standards upwards, downwards or sideways as it suits them) and of Vincent Gallo responding by putting a hex on his colon. Ebert (in a curious lapse of good taste) compared the experience of viewing Gallo's film to viewing his own colonoscopy (he favors the latter). Some judicious pruning of the running time (about twenty-six minutes' worth) and a few diplomatic exchanges later, the two kissed and made up.

Haven't seen Kinatay; plan to, definitely; can't comment otherwise on the merits of Ebert's argument against the film. I think I can comment, however, on the merits of Ebert as a film critic--that he's the great champion of middle-of-the-road taste, with a finger very much on the pulse of what mainstream America likes or dislikes. Far as I can see he's got the best track record of any celebrity film critic when it comes to predicting box-office hits; either that, or he's liked so many movies that a boxoffice hit would actually have to work very hard to escape his approval...

And it isn't the conventionality of his taste that galls me as much as the sheer cluelessness he sometimes displays. His review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), for example, makes much of the physical violence visited upon Christ but makes no mention of the theological violence visited on the biblical text the movie is supposedly based on (the movie, incidentally, is more closely based on the writings of the anti-Semitic Anne Catherine Emmerich). 

He writes of Gibson's picture: "if it grosses millions, that will not be because anyone was entertained," ignoring the possiblity that people will watch it 1) to see what all the fuss is about, and 2) to confirm their extremist view of Christianity. He adds: "The filmmaker has put his artistry and fortune at the service of his conviction and belief, and that doesn't happen often." No it doesn't, but money and attention (I can't quite say 'artistry,' not in Gibson's case) poured into a project isn't an ironclad guarantee that a movie will be good, as I've tried to say not just once but twice.

So; Kinatay is attracting more than its share of controversy--all the more reason for me to want to see it (aside from the fact that I've been following Mendoza's career with considerable interest). As for Ebert--haven't much use for the man, or his writings, or anything he has to say on Filipino films, or any film in general. Far as I'm concerned he's The Great White Middlebrow of American Cinema, and I can't afford to be too bothered by the fuss he's spouting through his blowhole. 

And the latest--Kinatay wins Brillante Mendoza a Best Director award at Cannes.

Terry Gilliam handed Mendoza his award. Given the microphone, he had this to say: "First of all I would like to thank the selection committee, who are responsible for bringing my films here for the past three years. And now with an award for Best Director, I would like to thank the Jury. And of course I’d like to thank my producer; thank you for the trust and faith in my films. I’d like to thank also a very committed staff and crew. I’d like to share this award with my daughter, Angelica, who has always been my number one critic and to an actor I really respect, Coco Martin. Thank you all for embracing my kind of cinema."

Anyone who's read anything I've written or followed this blog knows what I think of awards, Oscar, Cannes, whatever--that they're mostly political gestures, subject to compromise, and that they have nothing to do whatsoever with the winning film's (or losing films') artistic merits. 

That said, I do recognize the fact that winning an award grants a filmmaker (and the country he represents) certain advantages, even bragging rights. Mendoza has every right to enjoy the moment, at least momentarily; he's done every Filipino filmmaker who has ever dreamed of winning a major award (or deserved to win a major award but failed to snag one) proud.

Cute as a button

On to (relatively) lighter fare--have not yet seen Pixar's new movie, but so far I'm thinking Henry Selick's Coraline is the best animated American feature this year. It possibly has the best opening of the year, of a pair of hands cutting up and sewing together a stuffed doll--shot in such a way that you can't help but be reminded of a serial killer cutting up and sewing together a human body (shades of Kinatay!). Forget the Saw or Hostel franchise, this is horror conveyed metaphorically, with a real sense of lyricism.

I'd always felt some kind of respect for Selick--A Nightmare Before Christmas was a thing of beauty to look at, whether one is watching it on 2-D or 3 (even the way the 3-D effects are handled--sparingly, with a nice understatement--puts it head and shoulders above similar productions). Watching it for the first time or fifth, there are always details to discover or cherish, every time (Is that a cat's tale the mayor is twisting to sound the alarm? Is it just me or is Santa in this picture a self-righteous, malevolent jerk?). 

It's a cold piece of work, however, with no real sense of drama, or pain, or suffering, set in a fantasy neverland where holidays aren't just holidays, but discrete worlds (cute idea but, at least in my opinion, barely exploited). Whereas Gaiman's story provides Selick with what he badly needs, a solid narrative with a genuinely affecting emotional core---basically Coraline, feeling neglected by her parents (they're busy finishing an important project), faces the possiblity of losing them once and for all. Combine this with Selick's impossible attention to detail (the final shot for example, a breathtaking glide from back yard to the front that takes in Coraline's entire world, which basically looks like a massive tabletop model of a house and garden) and vivid imagery (the most memorable of which is the simplest: a pair of black buttons sitting on a woman's palm--and everything those two buttons imply). The very best children's literature (or cinema) is based on very real childhood traumas, as Maurice Sendak, the Brothers Grimm, or Hayao Miyazaki will tell you. Coraline is a not unworthy new addition to that short, exclusive shelf.

Storytelling

Been trying to teach the art of storytelling--well, am doing my best, it's my first time. After introducing such wondrous concepts as conflict, characterization, structure, point of view, tone and mood, I ended the mini-course with two examples of the art (Warning: plot of both Le Plaisir and Rear Window discussed in close detail). 

The first is "Le Modele," the final segment of Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir (1952). The young men and women (men more than women) protested at having to watch a black-and-white film, protested further upon learning they had to watch a black-and-white French film, with English subtitles ("if you don't want black-and-white and subtitles, stay out of places like this, then" I replied).

The film is roughly fifteen minutes long, I pointed out; more reason for Ophuls to be as economical as possible with the time allotted. The way, for example, he shoots the two lovers' first meeting as a single wordless shot--the camera follows Jean the artist (Daniel Gelin) as he runs up some stairs after a woman (Josephine, played by Simone Simon), pans left to a different set of stairs, catches Jean and Josephine coming down said stairs, arms entwined ("We don't need to know what Jean said to Josephine," I said. "This is a story not about how they met, but how they broke up"). Or later when Jean and Josephine walk down a riverside and Jean insults Josephine for the very first time--we hear her shrill response, then the soundtrack drops their dialogue, taking up the narrator's voice as he moves onwards ("We learn that they're unhappy; we don't need to hear the actual argument," I said).

I pointed out the use of irony. "I'll kill myself," Josephine says playfully at least twice, which may be why when she says it a third time, Jean can't take her seriously. "I can't live without you" Jean declares early on, something no one thinks to remind him of having said, some three months later. 

Also pointed out Ophul's use of point of view, spectacularly demonstrated by the shot that takes up Josephine's eyes as she climbs a flight of stairs (her shadow, already ghostlike, flashing on this landing and that), walks to the window, shoves it open, and steps out (the sequence obviously inspiring Stanley Kubrick (an ardent Ophuls admirer) to stage a similar POV shot of Alex swanning out a window in A Clockwork Orange (1971)).

I next showed Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock's supreme exercise in point of view. I pointed out Hitchcock's method of characterization--we know thanks to a tracking shot that Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photographer laid up with a broken leg (this without a word of spoken dialogue, just the picking out of specific details). We know all about Stella (Thelma Ritter), her job as insurance company nurse, her husband, her comically cynical view of life from her own words (characterization through monologue). We know about Lisa (Grace Kelly) long before we see her, thanks to Stella and Jefferies' discussion of her faults and virtues (characterization through dialogue, or secondhand sources).

I pointed out that almost everything we see and hear are almost exclusively confined to what Jefferies can see and hear; that we see his neighbors in long shot when Jefferies looks out his window with naked eyes; that we see them in medium shot when he uses his binoculars, and that we see them almost in closeup when he uses his long telephoto lenses.

I pointed out the use of contrast, particularly the lyrical music played over the soundtrack while Lisa is being assaulted (possibly my favorite thriller setpiece in all of Hitchcock); I also pointed out the most disturbing detail in the whole film, the look of adoration Jefferies throws Lisa when she comes back from a particularly dangerous mission. "Throughout the entire movie, he's ignored her, insulted her, taken her completely for granted," I said (a student told me he couldn't keep watching because "the guy's crazy--beautiful girl like that, smart, and rich too, and he don't appreciate her"). 

"And now, look at him! That's the look of a man in love, folks. She's risked her life for him and this excites him, arouses him.

"He's what we call an adrenaline junkie. Danger turns him on. Worse, he's dragged Lisa and Stella into his way of thinking (that Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is guilty), shown them what a thrill it can be to take risks, court danger, even bend a law or two. 

"This is all going to come back to him in a big way, of course, and soon. Only next time he won't be enjoying it as much." 

And he didn't. But they did, and in a big way, of course. 

5.24.2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

What if someone else directed "Star Trek?"

Just saying--I liked Star Trek well enough to think that J. J. Abrams is perfectly capable of continuing the franchise for years to come; my one major reservation being the fact that, well, he can't direct action, at all, not here, not in Mission Impossible 3, not in any film he's directed or produced.

And I'm not alone in thinking this. David Bordwell took Paul Greengrass to task for his incomprehensible camerawork in the Bourne movies; he's spoken out in favor of the coherent action sequence (of which Hong Kong filmmakers are some of the best practitioners, and Johnny To above all, at the moment, the best of the Hong Kong action directors) compared to the Greengrass/Abrams style of shaking the camera and cutting the footage to the point of incomprehensibility, or nausea, whichever comes first.

Which makes me wonder: who could be a better director for the Star Trek movies? I mean, given that Abrams produced (after this monster hit, I doubt if they're going to let him have anything less). If we listen to Bordwell and look for a Hong Kong filmmaker--could we get Johnny To? He doesn't seem interested in leaving Hong Kong, at least in the forseeable future.

Tsui Hark? Maybe not the Hark of recent years (he's taken to handheld camerawork and his editing has edged towards the incoherent, though nowhere near Greengrass or Abrams (or Tony Scott, for that matter))--I'd love to see him do it in the style of the Once Upon a Time in China movies, which had wonderful wirework and martial arts combat and filmmaking (every time I see someone pick up an umbrella in anger, I think of this film; come to think of it, every time I see a wet towel I think of this film). Plus he's fluent in special effects, even digital effects (though I'd love to see him do Star Trek with plenty of wirework).

Spielberg? Everyone's first choice will probably be Spielberg, so everyone can have him--moving on to the more interesting choices.

John McTiernan? Inevitable--too inevitable. He's done fun films, but after all is said and done, he's dull--strictly a meat-and-potatoes man.

Robert Rodriguez--would he be interested in Star Trek? I'd love to see a lot more Latin-American crew members in the Enterprise--and I'd have no problem with him directing. He's got a cartoon style that takes after Hong Kong with a swoony romantic feel all his own. Just don't give him input on the script--he doesn't know how to end a story (witness Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

David Lynch--now we're talking. Dennis Hopper as a gas-sniffing Klingon? Spock and Uhura having obsessive bouts of sex in their quarters? A finger-snapping midget talking backwards on the bridge? Lynch's done science fiction before, and the results were baroque and fascinating (the fans hated it, but I've always argued a somewhat antagonistic as opposed to slavishly accomodating relationship with fans makes for interesting work). I'd love to see him do a Star Trek, maybe with an Angelo Badalamenti score.

David Cronenberg--even more interesting. Can you imagine the creatures they might face? A gigantic biomechanical penis threatening the Enterprise? I've always wondered why Cronenberg and H.R. Giger never worked together--too big egos, perhaps?

Kurosawa Kyoshi--can you imagine Kirk picking up a communicator and Spock whispering in his ear "help me...help me..."

Dario Argento--hey, can you imagine the Three Mothers in space? Or what Argento might do with something like the lirpa?

Kevin Smith--feh. We're talking filmmakers.

Brian De Palma--truth to tell, I'd love to see him do this. He's done franchises before, and he's big on science, and I liked, oh, about 95% of his much reviled Mission to Mars. Plus he's the very antithesis of the fast cut and unsteady camera hand--always with the smooth dolly shots, the precisely built and paced movements, the dance of pursuer and pursued and camera (a kind of pas de trois, if you will). Plus he'd bring a sensuality to the images that I know will freak Trekkers out.

Hell, can you imagine him doing a remake of Amok Time?

"How do Vulcans choose their mates? Haven't you ever wondered?"

"I guess the rest of us assume that it's done quite logically."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

(Warning: important story points discussed in close detail)

Have not the time to do a properly researched and reviewed post on the brand new Star Trek movie, so I suppose this will suffice for now.

Hated the action. I'd hope that J.J. Abrams' previous foray into feature filmmaking, Mission Impossible III would prove to be only an anomaly, but no, this is apparently the filmmaker's signature style: handicam footage so shaky only an epileptic viewer could make sense of it, cut together so swiftly and in such a confusing manner audiences have to watch the film twice to understand what's happening, who it's happening to, and why (which may be the intent all along).

I've seen better. Nicholas Meyer's The Wrath of Khan is funnier, more thrilling, more poignant overall (maybe it's my taste, but watching a bunch of kids find their destiny isn't half as moving as watching a bunch of aging has-beens realize their destiny has pretty much passed them by, or is at the point of doing so. Plus, of course, there's the treat of watching Kirk get his comeuppance--I mean, finally come to terms with the 'no-win scenario').

But it's more than a crotchety old fart thinking the old ways are best, I think (well, I hope). Two reasons why:

1) The action. Not just that Meyer took his time with his shots and edited them together coherently, but that he gave the battle sequences a distinct look and feel, like that of sailing ships of old. The Enterprise in Khan was shot and lit to look like a magnificent man-o'-war, with the engine nacelles resembling masts, and the control saucer tilting to the left or right like a mainsail.

It isn't just the resemblance; the ships moved like naval vessels, snuck past each other around a moon the way warships snuck around an island or peninsula. When they attacked, they slid past each other, cannons--sorry, phasers--blazing away; photon torpedoes weren't weightless SFX fireflies but resembled fiery cannonballs, with heft and momentum, and when they struck they slammed into a ship's hull with the proper destructiveness. These ships were massive, they had a sense of grandeur; they were relics of the past, brought to spectacular life.

The way the crew spoke about their ship carried the metaphor further; I'd catch Kirk yelling "swing her around!" to initiate another attack, or whispering "full stop," and wait like a dead fish for the enemy to surface (In space? But the metaphor's so strong and Meyer has you so caught up in the action you can't help but buy the idea).

It was different, is all; it offered an alternative to the Star Wars movies' headsplitting shock-n'-awe style of interstellar battle (which were based on an entirely different kind of battle: World War 2 aerial combat footage). One might think suspense and thrills are more difficult if one refused to resort to fast cutting, but no, I'd argue the opposite is true: it's actually easier to create suspense, build tension, and overall send a thrill up one's spine when the camera stays on a movement or action from beginning to end. One wonders (when the motion is started): will it succeed or fail? Will (while the motion is ongoing) it be interrupted? When the movement is concluded, one feels a surge of satisfaction, as if watching a crack crane operator successfully fit a thousand-pound steel beam into a particularly tricky slot.

Would like to go on the record and say that while I'm not a big fan of the shaky-cam, chop-suey editing style of filmmaking, I don't quite disapprove of all such practitioners. James Gray, for example, manages to employ handheld camerawork brilliantly in We Own the Night; Joss Whedon used a handheld camera in Serenity, but does so without the operator acting as if he were falling-down drunk. Whedon follows the action in Serenity, shoots it with clarity and coherence, pretty much treats it (as he should) like a musical dance number, where conveying a sense of the choreography is all-important (but then he did do "Once More with Feeling," which pretty much is a dance musical).

2) The cunning. In this latest film the solution is provided by a late addition to the cast, who comes almost literally out of nowhere. Yes, he did stay 'out of the way' so certain personages could kindle certain chemistries, but still, he had to hang around and provide hints and allegations as to the ultimate outcome. In Meyer's film no such person pops out of a magic box; Kirk and Spock pretty much have to deal with Khan as best they can, through sheer deviousness (remember that Meyer, who wrote the script, is a veteran at ingenious crackerjack storylines--H.G. Wells hunted Jack the Ripper in Time After Time; Sherlock Holmes met Sigmund Freud in The Seven Percent Solution. In The Undiscovered Country, the original Star Trek cast's final film, Meyer married current events (the collapse of the Soviet Union) with Holmes deductive techniques and a plot straight out of The Manchurian Candidate).

(Where is Meyer anyway--did he feel too old to do this sort of thing anymore? Ah, well)

Worse than the action or the science are the emotional implausibilities. Given that Nero's home planet was accidentally destroyed, that he's fallen through a black hole and gone back in time, wouldn't one's priority be to warn said home planet of impending doom? Granted one wants revenge, but shouldn't one do home planet first, maybe hand over advanced tech to one's family ancestors in the meantime, before risking life and limb on a bid for revenge (a bid, incidentally, that resembles in no small way Khan's obsession with Kirk in Wrath of Khan).

And given that an Academy rookie has tried to usurp one's position, and is more or less an all-around pain in the ass, isn't it a bit, well, excessive of Spock to maroon said rookie on a nearby planet? Yes, there's a Federation base eleven miles away (which you have to get past several nasty monsters to get to) and breathable air (but not a friendly climate; he should have been marooned near a more Jamaica-like environment), but whatever happened to the possibly quaint notion of confining the prisoner to his quarters? Does he consider Kirk that dangerous? If Spock could cite some provision in Academy law that allows him to do this then maybe, but far as I can remember he doesn't. Kirk had a basis for replacing Spock all the time, right there.

But still, but still. Abrams is worthless as an action director but unlike, say Christopher Nolan, he does fill his film to the brim with interesting ideas. I've heard it mentioned elsewhere that if you're going to do prequels, this is the way to do it, not, say, George Lucas' way.

But I'm being unfair to Star Trek. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy, closer to Lord of the Rings than to real science fiction. Star Trek is science fiction--not great SF, not even scientifically accurate SF (the ships still make popping sounds when going into warp drive, and one wonders why with all that faster-than-light technology they still haven't invented seat belts), but at least a sincere stab at science fiction, with at least a cursory attempt to root some of the more outrageous ideas in scientific fact.

That 'red matter' business, for example--on paper it sounds like the film's silliest idea, but if one has read Larry Niven's "The Hole Man" it becomes a trifle less so (Niven doesn't actually suggest that you can siphon off quantum black holes, though, or float them around like so many interstellar vacuum cleaners, sweeping up pesky nova explosions).

And I may rag on Abrams for having Spock strand Kirk, and rag him further for the enormously ridiculous coincidence of having Kirk and the older Spock meet (of all planets, of all the ice caverns!), but here I think we go into mythmaking or fabulist territory. Younger Spock is right to maroon Young Kirk because the latter has to meet Older Spock; Young Kirk and Older Spock have to meet because Young Kirk needs Older Spock's advice (not to mention he's the last person in the universe we expected to see, and a great WTF moment). Older Spock giving advise to rookie Kirk is an idea far more entertaining and ingenious and resonant than say, 900 year old Yoda giving advise to either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker (think of Odysseus consulting with the gods, or of King Arthur receiving guidance from Merlin--Abrams is linking Kirk and Spock to that kind of storytelling mojo). I can see Nimoy's Spock popping up once in a while to give sage or at least mysterious advice in succeeding instalments, maybe even popping into his own alternate reality to check in on aging Kirk to see how he's getting on. It's Spock as his own oracle. feeding him his own wisdom. Cool and narcissistic at the same time.

This is Star Trek despite all the revisions, and recognizably so, and here's my favorite reason why: Kirk and Spock are back. The eternal romance has been rekindled. "You are and always will be my friend"--who're ya kidding, ya sentimental Vulcan?! The two have been and always will be an item, and an eternal source of fascination--just hasn't been the same since Jean-Luc Picard and his bland o'brothers took over. Star Trek's appeal has been and always will be the homoerotic subtext--that, and the cheesy sets and costumes (Abrams got the costumes more or less right, wish he had the guts to go for cheesier sets). Star Wars has always aspired to be opera; its unforgivable crime for me is that it's dull opera, a charge you can't level against Kirk and Spock, one of the great gay-coded couples of pop culture (ideally the couple is completed in the next movie as a menage a trois, with McCoy as third wheel, competing with Spock for Kirk's attention--something this already long and busy movie couldn't include).

Ultimately, I approve. Not the best Trek film ever, not even the best feature film this 2009 (arguably that's either James Gray's Two Lovers--if you can consider it '09 and not '08--or Henry Selick's Coraline), but maybe the best blockbuster hit I've enjoyed in many a year. May it endure and flourish.

Philippine Customs continues to block book imporation; responds to criticism; is responded to in return

From Manuel Quezon III's blog, a timeline of this whole brouhaha.

Most interesting is Usec Sales' latest argument for taxing books, that "there really is a provision for a 1% duty on imported books (”educational, cultural, etc.”) that are for sale and for profit" found in Sec. 105 of the Tariffs and Customs Code.

To which the Book Development Association of the Philippines replied with a document, here reproduced in full:

Position Paper of the Book Development Association of the Philippines Re: Tax and Duty Free Importation of ...
Position Paper of the Book Development Association of the Philippines Re: Tax and Duty Free Importation of Books Into the Country mlq3 Industry position paper in response to Department of Finance imposition of import duties on books.

Which basically all boils down to "the Department of Finance is breaking international and its own laws imposing this tax, the National Book Development Board has the sole authority to determine when and how and if books are to be taxed and anyway Republic Act No. 8047 is the last word on this subject."

And so matters stand. So far.

Postscript: on NPR today two members of the Obama transition team discussed his possible choice to replace Justice Souter, and, paraphrasing roughly what they said, it was significant that Obama mentioned the word 'empathy' as one of the qualities he's looking for in a new Supreme Court justice.

In effect, he's looking for someone who would look not at the letter of the law, but the intent for which the law was enacted, and its overall impact on people.

An interesting idea! If, say, Usec Sales used such a radical principle to weigh the pros and cons of her proposal to apply levies on book importation (Proposal? It's fait accompli, a done deal; like the Somali pirates, she's boarded the ship and is shaking down the crew), Sales in effect would be weighing the increase of a few million pesos in revenues (I mean, how big is the book industry in the Philippines, anyway? Certainly not bigger than the TV industry!) against the growth and development of the country's collective intellect.

A couple of pesos against a country's cultural and educational future. Does not take a genius, I think, to figure that out.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lino Brocka films thoughout the month of May




















For the entire month of May, at Magnet: Katipunan: a month-long festival of Lino Brocka's films (link includes times and schedules).
Here's my article on the affair:

Brocka unbound

Lino Brocka has helped develop or collaborated with artists and actors--Mel Chionglo, Joel Lamangan, Peque Gallaga, Laurice Guillen, Tikoy Aguiluz, Mike de Leon, Mario O'Hara, to name just a select few--who have gone on to become major filmmakers in their own right, at one point or another adopting or reacting against his brand of melodramatic realism. He's shaped generations of filmmakers who may have not worked with him but have seen his films: Raymond Red, whose Palme d'or-winning Anino (Shadows, 2000) was directly inspired by Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975); Jeffrey Jeturian, whose Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) is a tragicomic variant on Brocka's slum dramas; Brillante Mendoza, whose internationally renowned Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)--and, for that matter, entire filmography to date--is Brocka realism set to an edgier, more contemporary rhythm; Korean filmmaker Park Kwang-su (Jeon tae-il (A Single Spark, 1995)), who cites him as an influence.

Filipino critics gives him his due, either positive or negative--Rolando Tolentino, Agustin Sotto, Bienvenido Lumbera all profess admiration for the man (Joel David, to name an opposite example, is more an admirer of Brocka's longtime rival Ishmael Bernal). Foreign critics interested in world cinema show at least a passing familiarity with his work (Charles Tesson, Dave Kehr, Elliott Stein, Tony Rayns, Pierre Rissent (who managed to save the prints of some of Brocka's best works, and helped produce one of his last films)).

Even filmmakers who refuse to declare an artistic debt to Brocka betray his imprint--Lav Diaz's kilometric works, for example, do their utmost to avoid Brocka-ish melodrama, choosing a more contemplative, less commercial running time and tone; John Torres' films experiment with a melancholic autobiographical essay structure, doing away entirely with the conventional narrative Brocka favors; Raya Martin's pictures possess a playful lyricism that you don't find in Brocka.

He is, in effect, the sun that deforms the trajectories of comets moving through his system, drawing some to the glare of his influence while driving others into frostier directions. Dead for some eighteen years, Brocka has for the past thirty-five dominated Philippine cinema.

So it's a strange and strangely moving development that only now are we having anything like a comprehensive retrospective of his work, most of them presumably on DVD or VCD (and except for the more famous films probably without English subtitles (it would be nice if someone actually listed them)), at one of Manila's more interesting small venues (Magnet Katipunan near Rustan's Supermarket, opposite Miriam College, Katipunan Road in Diliman, Quezon City). Ideally this should be an international event, to which cinephiles and critics all over the world are invited, after which there should be a world tour covering the major film cities--New York, Paris, London, Tokyo.

On the other hand, what more fitting place can there be for a Brocka retrospective than in an indie venue, frequented by students and indie filmmakers? For whom did Brocka make his movies but Filipinos, and who responded best to his films but young Filipinos hungry for something new, something good, something that spoke more urgently and frankly than ever before about sex and love and hatred and passion and cruelty? When Brocka established Cine Manila, his maiden offering Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) was a hit reportedly because he marketed it to students, to the hopeful and curious young. He would not have the same critical and commercial success ever again--some of his greatest works were boxoffice flops, while his more solidly commercial hits lacked the depth of feeling, the bleak yet somehow defiant sensibility that informs his finest films.

He made money; he was too good a filmmaker and too cunning an entertainer not to do that. He also lost a lot of money--"Mother" Lily Monteverde, head of Regal Films, tells stories of how she would lend him cash or even throw a project his way because he was up to his ears in debt. He made friends--sadly I had the privilege to shake his hand only once, to remind him that my identical twin brother once worked for him ("Oh," he said; "that's why you look familiar."); he also, or so it's told, made a lot of enemies, some of them the right kind (Marcos in his later years, Aquino when she lost control of the vigilante forces patrolling the countryside), some of them wrong.

And he made for great stories. I don't just mean the movies; I mean all the anecdotes about him, about half of which were true (did he really audition with a now-famous Hollywood star, for the leading roles an award-winning Hollywood film?); he died in a car crash in 1991, and even his death is shrouded in mystery (Was it an accident? An assassination?). If half the stories about Brocka are true, his life whould be a fabulous story--wonderful material for a biopic, someday, done perhaps in an approximation of his unique heartfelt style.

And then there are the films themselves.

It's a pity the organizers didn't arrange the films chronologically; it would be instructive to see his development in four short years from successful commercial director (Wanted: Perfect Mother (1970)--which isn't showing, pity; Santiago (also 1970)) to master filmmaker (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang onwards).

The three years from Tinimbang to Insiang (1976) represent the height of his career, when each year he seemed to come out with a masterpiece, along with fascinating lesser works (one of which, Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974) is in this retro). They are arguably the apex of achievement in Philippine cinema, three attempts at dramatizing the Filipino struggle for love and acceptance in a hostile world, from a panoramic portrait of a small town (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) to a man's odyssey through the urban jungle (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) to a young woman's harrowing betrayal (Insiang). I'd made the argument before that the heart of the Filipino is basically melodramatic, that these three films represent melodrama at its finest, that Brocka's sense of realism and urgency (you get the sense that he shot these pictures just outside the theater and delivered them, still steaming, straight to the big screen) helps sell these melodramas as absolute truth. The three are found in the retro's last weekend, apparently to finish the festival on a high note. Those unfamiliar with Brocka might want to keep that weekend free; the rest might want to look at his earlier, lesser-known films.

Santiago is his recently re-discovered second picture, his only war film, and his only collaboration with legendary action king Fernando Poe, Jr.; it's fascinating for the portrait of the social outcast Brocka sketches, an early model for the more complex version he will develop four years later, with Tinimbang.

Stardoom (1971), a showbiz melodrama about a mother's all-consuming obsession with her son's singing career, features a great pair of performances from Lolita Rodriguez as the mother and Mario O'Hara as her unwanted son. Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, also 1971) was re-discovered in 2006, and is an adaptation of the Mars Ravelo story of a husband leading a double life, notable for its retro-progressive (retro for today, progressive for '71) attitude towards closeted gay men.

Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa is a triptych of short films ranging from a drug rehabilitation drama to a young woman torn between her Filipino mother and American father to a rare gothic piece about an old spinster fascinated with her handsome gardener.

The recently found Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father is My Mother, 1978) is arguably as if not more interesting than Tubog sa Ginto in that it presents the gay man as a possible parent figure; it's also the only collaboration between Brocka and comic legend Dolphy.

Ina, Kapatid, Anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter, 1979) pits two acting legends (Charito Solis and Lolita Rodriguez) with two radically different acting styles (one flamboyantly theatrical, the other naturalistic and understated) against each other, playing rival sisters. Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You are the Mother of Your Child, same year) is a middle-class version of Insiang that combines the talents of Brocka with writer/playwright Butch Dalisay, Jr., and actresses Lolita Rodriguez with Nora Aunor. The film, incidentally, is critic Augustin Sotto's favorite Brocka. Jaguar (1979)--based on a Nick Joaquin essay ("The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society"), adapted for the screen by Pete Lacaba and Ricky Lee, and featuring Conrado Baltazar camerawork at its brutally darkest, is arguably Brocka's finest noir film.

Bona (1980)--of all the roles singer/actress/producer/uber-celebrity Nora Aunor ever played, she will probably be best known for two: Elsa, the miracle worker in Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982) and this, the story of a young woman's obsession over a minor movie actor. Brocka's urban slum version of Francois Truffaut's L'Histoire d'Adele H. (The Story of Adele H., 1975) was for many years the least seen of Brocka's major works (a print was only recently made available). Brocka would be inspired by Truffaut at least one more time, taking his La mariee etait en noir" (The Bride Wore Black, 1968) and retelling it through a "komiks" series by Carlos J. Caparas. The result is Angela Markado (1980), which features gorgeous noir cinematography by Conrado Baltazar and memorable theme music by Jeric Soriano.

Kontrobersyal (Controversial, 1981), Brocka's potboiler about the rise of a starlet (Gina Alajar) is the quintessential rags-to-riches, prey-turned-predator story, brimming with true-life anecdotes and an authentically acerbic sense of the seamier side of show business. The film, it must be noted, is UP Film Institute programmer and critic Nonoy Lauzon's favorite of Brocka's pictures.

Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (My Country, 1984) is, along with Mike de Leon's Sister Stellla L (1984), one of a handful of mainstream films that had the courage to openly criticize the Marcos regime. Both films' screenplays were by auteur-screenwriter Jose "Pete" Lacaba.

Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde (Miguelito the Rebel, 1985) is remembered for being the first time popular movie idol Aga Muhlach essayed a dramatic role, the son of a potentially corrupt political figure; the film should really be known for the wonderful pair of performances by the late Nida Blanca (as Miguelito's convict mother), and Rey "PJ" Abellana (as one of the father's political henchmen).

With Babangon Ako't Dudurugin Kita (I Will Rise and Crush You, 1989) Brocka tried to do for Sharon Cuneta what he did for Aga Muhlach; the results were a mixed bag if you're not a Sharon fan (which I'm not, unfortunately). Macho Dancer (also 1989) is considerably better, a noir involving erotic male dancers with memorable performances by Jacklyn Jose and Daniel Fernando. Possibly the best film Brocka made that year, however (it was a busy year) was Orapronobis (Pray for Us), Brocka's considerably courageous statement on Corazon Aquino, the housewife who helped break strongman Ferdinand Marcos's stranglehold on the Philippine presidency--namely, that her political ineptitude was in some ways worse than Marcos' corrupt despotism (the film would be banned for years by the Aquino administration). Partly funded by the French, written with sinewy leanness by Pete Lacaba and lensed by Mike de Leon regular Rody Lacap, the film had a distinct look and feel unlike any other Filipino film of the decade, and is a late high point in Brocka's career.

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Dirty Affair, 1990)--this melodramatic take on the last few years of the Marcos administration is arguably Brocka's last decent work. It is notable for Christopher de Leon's understated performance as the outlaw hero, and for Charo Santos' memorably sociopathic performance as an Imelda Marcos parody.

First published in Businessworld, 5.8.09

Sherad Anthony Sanchez's "Imburnal" wins the JIFF Woosuk Award



Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Imburnal (2009) which screened in the just concluded Jeonju International Film Festival has won both the Woosuk and NETPAC award.

The film is an over four hour long nonlinear digital film about two boys who spend (or misspend) their childhood hanging out in a sewage ditch in Barangay Matina Aplaya, Punta Dumalog, in Davao. They curse, talk about sex, collect cockroaches in jars, and (arguably the most disturbing image of all) bathe in the ditch's filthy waters.

The film has had its share of controversy. It was rejected three times by the Movies and Television Ratings Board (MTRCB) for its "objectionable presentation" of poverty (Which makes one wonder what the board would have thought of the films of Lino Brocka--most of which portray poverty, and which former First Lady Imelda Marcos objected to because they portrayed the Philippines in an unfavorable light (the board also seems to have inspired other government agencies on their policies regarding the encouragement of intellectual and cultural freedom).


The NETPAC and Woosuk Award jurors must have seen more than mere shock value in the film, however. The film was chosen "because it fulfills the progressive spirit of the JIFF: it is an innovative, experimental, even miraculous work, a unique blend of documentary and fiction, which returns us to the fundamental question of the past and the future: what is cinema?"

The Woosuk Award comes with a $10,000.00 prize. The film also won the Best Picture at the 4th Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival, and the Lino Brocka Grand Prize at the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival.

Philippine Customs blocking imported books



A blog post from Robin Henley, University of Iowa Creative Writing professor on a fellowship in the Philippines:

Philippine Customs imposes illegal duties on imported books

Setting aside the impression one gets that the reasoning behind their duty-happy spree is idiotic (that 'missing coma the Undersecretary points out being a particularly brilliant piece of idiocy--one wants to check her educational credentials), and setting aside the fact that if one more copy of Stephanie Myer's moronic Twilight never lands on the Philippines I'd be a happier Filipino, there are serious consequences to this development.

Like the curtailment of knowledge between countries. Like a further financial burden on educational or cultural organizations (never much of a priority for governments, mind you) that depend on these books. Like students or youths or anyone even remotely interested in a subject that might require a book suddenly finding themselves out of luck, because someone insists on hanging government policy on a missing comma.

Shame, shame.

Postscript: a cursory google search reveals several blogs discussing the subject, including an excellent one on the legal ramifications. Problem is, though, they all quote the same source (that website I link to above) and I haven't spotted (yet) a major Filipino newspaper covering the story. So in case this whole thing's a hoax (I don't know, it just so sounds like the government), For the record, I at least entertained the possibility.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sansho the Bailiff, Come Drink with Me, Two Lovers



James Gray in an interview says The Yards (2000) came out of his father's job of supplying parts to the New York subway system, that Little Odessa (1994) and We Own the Night (2007) came out of years growing up knowing Russian gangsters, that We Own the Night also came from the fact that his stepbrother was a police officer. In the case of his latest film Two Lovers (2008) the project is, or so he claims, his least autobiographical and most personal work to date.

Like all of Gray's films it's heavily character-driven. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is bipolar and at times suicidally depressed; his parents (the benign Moni Moshonov, the unusually matronly yet still resplendent Isabella Rossellini) have arranged for him marry sexy, supportive Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), when what Leonard really wants is beautiful yet unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Not the most original scenario in the world, but part of Gray's uncanny appeal comes from the way he takes old-fashioned narrative arcs (the grateful nephew turned anguished informer, the prodigal son turned faithful avenger) and invigorates them, invests them with a passion and level of filmmaking they haven't enjoyed since, well, Francis Ford Coppola in his heyday (in the case of We Own the Night--which owes a good deal storywise to The Godfather--I actually prefer the former to the latter).

Gray delivers on the filmmaking, either with the quietly witty throwaway shot (Leonard waiting in a fine dining restaurant for Michelle and her married lover Ronald (coolly confident Elias Koteas), the vertical stripes on the upholstery matching the vertical slats of the blinds behind, matching the vertical thrust of the huge vase sprouting out of Phoenix's head, wordlessly underlining his turgid impatience) or with more elaborate sequences. In one scene, Michelle and Leonard are on their apartment rooftop, standing inside an open shed while she asks Leonard what he thinks of Ronald; Leonard leads her from one doorway of the shed to another, revealing shifting views of Brooklyn as he attempts to shift her view of her lover.

In the crucial scene where Leonard confesses his love for Michelle, the pair are back on their rooftop, the shot beginning with the camera perched atop a crane, starting from high behind Leonard's left shoulder and approaching the pair as Leonard approaches the object of his desire. Phoenix's performance here as Leonard is remarkably brave, or foolhardy--his tongue thick with lust, his voice halting and infantile, he shuffles forward like a weeping child, demanding comfort, satisfaction. One waits with bated breath for Gwyneth's Michelle to respond--will she embrace him, or push him away? Somehow Gray manages to make either possibility terrifying.

I can empathize with Tsui Hark as he viewed King Hu's Da zui xia (Come Drink with Me, 1966) for the first time, feeling a mounting sense of excitement as government soldiers battled bandits: Hu's measured pacing, his magisterial camera movements--simultaneously patient yet precise--envelop the balletic battlers in their struggle. One can see the influence of old-school action filmmakers in Hu, from John Ford to Akira Kurosawa, in the way ambushing forces stand along a mountain range, or the way opposing forces deploy themselves over a battlefield, like so many chess pieces. One even sees (I admit I may be reaching here) the influence of Hollywood musical directors like as Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, in the way the camera stays with the fight choreography, cutting only to punctuate, or to conclude the sequence--for what is martial arts but a form of dance, its arrangement a kind of choreography?

That's the film's first half; by the second one might accuse Hu of careless continuity, or shoddy production value. The heroine Golden Swallow (Chiang Pei Pei, who worked with Hu on only one major project (this one), but maintained a strong bond with the man for the rest of his life) is wounded by a poisoned dart and faints; when she later opens her eyes, liquid yellow drains upwards from the screen (Hu creates this effect by spilling the liquid on a sheet of glass positioned before the lens, the footage then projected backwards) to reveal the ceiling of a small hut. Later Swallow steps out of the hut and glares weakly at a small pond; the pond glares back, radiating a bright radioactive green.

Hu's color palette has become strange, his editing even stranger--when Golden Swallow confronts Abbot Liao Kung (Chih Ching Yian), the Abbot shoves her to the ground; Hu cuts and suddenly Swallow and Abbot are twenty feet apart, where a second before they were at arm's length. The Abbot has a showdown with Drunk Cat (Hua Yueh), and it's as if they could fold space, jump time, instantaneously switch positions with each other--Hu edits this sequence not so much for plausibility or logic, it seems, as for some kind of ad hoc clarity; to paraphrase the White Queen, he feels the need to depict three impossible things before breakfast. 

I understand how a viewer enjoying Hu's crystalline action filmmaking might rebel when everything he's been enjoying so far has been pulled out from under him; also understand how this kind of response to the picture is ultimately incomplete. After achieving effortless mastery in the first half, Hu strives to exceed that mastery, strives for transcendence in action filmmaking, for the kind of abstraction and experimentation that distinguished his later masterpieces (Xia nu (A Touch of Zen, 1969) and Chung lieh tu (The Valiant Ones, 1975)). In this, his first and most conventional wuxia pian, Hu is already pushing the boundaries of the action film, seeking the next stage of development. He seems aware of how few films he will be allowed to make, and is impatient to realize as many new ideas onscreen as he possibly can--hence the density, the odd structure of the film. 

After years of sitting through 16 mm prints of varying quality finally a Criterion DVD of Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954), about a mother (played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka) searching for her two lost children (shades of Sisa's search for Basilio and Crispin--but apparently the mother searching for her children is an archetype found in many cultures). With excellent commentary by Japanese Literature professor Jeffrey Angles and interviews of Kyoko Kagawa (who plays the young woman Anju) and film critic Tadao Sato, talking about the picture.

If there's a disappointment in all this, it's the fact that after drinking deep of a clear copy of the film, I find myself with little to say. What can you say about a film that may well be Mizoguchi's masterpiece, and one of the greatest films ever made? What can you say about a film that, as Tadao Sato tells us, is Mizoguchi's simplest work, the simplicity arrived at through comprehensive and absolute mastery of filmmaking in all its aspects? That it's a perfect distillation of Mizoguchi's vision, of a world of suffering and deprivation relieved here and there by moments of sacrifice and transcendent insight? That it's his most ruthlessly heartbreaking work? 

That what is oft praised as possibly the single most beautiful shot in all of cinema, the descent of young Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) into a deep pond, is partly the result of an accident? As Kagawa put it in her interview, wooden boards were laid out underwater so that her walk in would be smooth, instead of that funny waddle people do when wading into deep mud. The boards, however, were extremely slippery and Kagawa extremely nervous; she had to pick her way carefully into the water.

The result is as unique and exquisite a death scene as any I've ever seen. Anju's steps as she enters the pond are hesitant and delicate, as befits a frail young woman entering a world of which she knows nothing about (actually a frightened woman desperate to maintain her balance); at the same time, there seems to be in her a kind of calm anticipation, a serene acceptance of her fate. Watching her impeccable posture as the water (undoubtedly cold) rises past her waist, one thinks of a shy maiden quietly advancing to meet her lover, simultaneously fearful and resigned and, yes, eager. 

Interesting to compare this to Taiji Yabushita's The Orphan Brother, an animated version made some seven years later (please skip the next four paragraphs if you plan to see both films). As I pointed out in that earlier piece, Yabushita retells the story in childlike fantasy terms (in effect returning the story to its fablelike roots), with perhaps the loveliest effect being Anju's transformation into a swan. 

There is one moment where Yabushita's film exceeds Mizoguchi's at least in terms of bleakness: when Zushio meets Tamaki there is no epiphany, no sudden access to spiritual wisdom to soften the blow. Tamaki is besides Zushio, who is decked out in the finery and grandeur of his office, and all she can say to him is: "Oh, the sufferings I've had!" Zushio's incredible luck has had little effect on her state of mind; she can only think of the enormity of her suffering.

But pessimism and despair can only do so much to turn the mind. I remember Mizoguchi's climactic scene, the awful image of Tamaki sitting blindly on the parched earth, waving a stalk over the drying millet. I remember Zushio's expression of dismay, as the realization steals over him that this parody of a human being at work could possibly be his mother. I remember his anguish at having to tell her of Anju's and Masauji's fate, of the hope in her face being ground, like a dropped cigarette, into the dirt as Zushio weeps inconsolably.

I remember most of all the moment when Tamaki's shoulders stiffen, a stern expression on her face as she says "What are you talking about?" Suddenly she's Zushio's mother again, reprimanding him for a moment of weakness; suddenly this scarecrow of a woman, left there to frighten birds away from the millet, somehow finds the energy within her to flash her old spirit. Every man has a breaking point, they say, and Tamaki showing us (after everything has been said and done) a mother's indomitable strength never fails to find mine. 

5.1.09
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