Saturday, June 27, 2009

La terza madre (Mother of Tears, Dario Argento, 2007)



Mother of all horrors

The appearance of La terza madre (Mother of Tears, Dario Argento, 2007) on limited release in the United States, and its belated commercial screening in Metro Manila screens (undoubtedly butchered, in the approved Argento manner, by our Philippine censors), at least offers this not-insignificant revelation: Argento is back, and is as unapologetic and loony as ever.

The film is the capstone to what fans now call Dario Argento’s 'Three Mothers' trilogy, loosely inspired by essayist Thomas de Quincy’s Suspiria Profundis, a collection of essays recorded from opium-induced visions, particularly the section "Levana and the Three Sorrows." Levana, Roman goddess of childbirth, is reportedly joined by three companions: Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs; Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Shadows; and Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears.

De Quincy imagined the three mothers as figures representing human suffering; Argento re-imagines them as three powerful witches that create suffering just for, well, the hell of it. If Argento recasts De Quincy’s ideas in an altogether simpler, perhaps cruder form, he does accompany said ideas with intense and lyrical (and violent, and unhinged) visual poetry — fitting complement to De Quincy’s writing, which are often considered some of the finest examples of prose poetry ever written.

The film wastes no time introducing Argento’s visions: Asia Argento (the director’s daughter) plays Sarah Mandy, a student working at the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome. After witnessing a museum assistant being butchered (the assistant had broken the seal of a small ancient urn and — worst of all — spilled blood on it), Sarah runs from both the police and the witches pursuing her, at the same time attempting to learn the secret of the urn, and of the just-released Mother.

So far so what; the outline barely qualifies as a respectable premise, much less synopsis to a screenplay. Argento does add this much of a twist: turns out Sarah’s mother is Elisa Mandy (Asia’s real-life mother Daria Nicolodi), and that Elisa had previously battled Mater Suspiriorum; Elisa died in the battle, but Mater Suspiriorum was so drastically weakened that Jessica Harper’s Suzy Bannon managed to finish her off in Argento’s Suspiria (1977). A touch more history has been added to Argento’s sketchy mythos, and Sarah, unlike Harper’s hapless Suzy and Leigh McCloskey’s Mark Elliott (in Inferno [1980], Argento’s second film in the trilogy), has more at stake than mere survival (vengeance for her mother and the salvation of the world, for starters). And there’s a touch more logic to her continued survival than just pure dumb luck — Elisa was skilled in "white magic," and managed to pass some of her abilities on to her daughter.

But but but but--plot and characterization and least of all plausibility have never been high on Argento’s list of priorities (think of said elements as being the skeleton on which Argento hangs some of the bloodiest, most stylish hides ever harvested): a beautiful woman breaks a seal and demons promptly choke her with her own intestines; a lesbian medium admits to being a friend of Elisa and is horrifically impaled by a phalluslike pike, her lover blinded by a medieval instrument.

The film’s most elaborate deaths, to the disappointment of many Argento fans, aren’t on the level of lyrical excess of Suspiria or Inferno. But this is Argento some 30 years later, addressing the torture porn of directors such as Eli Roth and James Wan; more than repeating himself, or outdoing the single- (narrow-, small-) minded intensity of the younger folk, he seems to be instructing his artistic inferiors on the true potential of horror — not just the depiction of a single body’s violent overthrow but of the overthrow of a community, a city (at one point someone declares "the second fall of Rome"), by extension, a world. Streets are often empty in Argento’s other films; here they’re crowded, and full of the kind of violence one might find in a society at the edge of collapse. Killings in his films are often complex, violent, gory beyond belief; here Argento stages one of his most horrific scenes with the simplest of elements--a child, its mother, a bridge. To describe the Mater’s many onscreen manifestations throughout the city of Rome one has to go back to Quincy, from whom Argento has taken more than just the premise: "they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers." Argento is allowing his sensibility to bleed into our more familiar world; purists may call this dilution but I submit that it’s more of a contamination.

The apocalyptic sensibility probably didn’t make much sense when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 2007 (the economic meltdown started in earnest in July, but only deepened a year later); seen in today's more depressed, more depressing global conditions, one feels much more receptive to the idea of worldwide brinksmanship, of a darker, less certain, less hopeful planet. Argento at this point in his career doesn’t seem so much passé as he is prescient, not so much overwhelmed as he is overwhelming; it’s just that the scope of his latest is different, far wider in scope and ambition, shot on a relatively modest production budget.

And the ending, reviled by most, beloved by a few (please skip this paragraph if you have not seen the film)--the kinder critics call it a mood breaker; I say it’s a far more ambiguous moment. Sarah and her police escort emerge, alive, to laugh hard and long. But what, exactly, are they laughing at? At the joy of being alive? At the absurd intensity of the horrors they have survived? At the intense absurdity of having gone through literal hell, only to emerge into a world in apparent ruin, the end of all hopes and dreams? Yes, Argento, changed but unbowed, is back; all hail the dark lord, and may he wait only a fraction as long to produce a fourth "Mother" film.

First published in Businessworld 6.19.09


Thursday, June 25, 2009

82nd Academy Awards to Feature 10 Best Pictures and What I Think of That



82nd Academy Awards to Feature 10 Best Picture Nominees

82nd Academy Awards® to Feature 10 Best Picture Nominees

Beverly Hills, CA (June 24, 2009) — The 82nd Academy Awards, which will be presented on March 7, 2010, will have 10 feature films vying in the Best Picture category, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis announced today (June 24) at a press conference in Beverly Hills.

“After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,” said Ganis. “The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”

For more than a decade during the Academy’s earlier years, the Best Picture category welcomed more than five films; for nine years there were 10 nominees. The 16th Academy Awards (1943) was the last year to include a field of that size; “Casablanca” was named Best Picture. (In 1931/32, there were eight nominees and in 1934 and 1935 there were 12 nominees.)

Currently, the Academy is presenting a bicoastal screening series showcasing the 10 Best Picture nominees of 1939, arguably one of Hollywood’s greatest film years. Best Picture nominees of that year include such diverse classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz” and Best Picture winner “Gone with the Wind.”

“Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” commented Ganis. “I can’t wait to see what that list of ten looks like when the nominees are announced in February.”

The 82nd Academy Awards nominations will be announced on Tuesday, February 2. The Oscar® ceremony honoring films for 2009 will again take place at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network.


Eh.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Year One (Harold Ramis, 2009); Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008); Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)


One year

I didn't mean to watch Year One (2009)--it seemed to be the least repugnant choice available at the local multiplex--and was surprised to learn that it was directed by Harold Ramis.

One has expectations of Ramis; one can't help having them. He is, after all, the director of Groundhog Day (1993), one of the finest films of the '90s, one of the finest metaphysical films ever made, and about as near-perfect a comedy as anything I can think of in the past sixteen years. Daunting standards to hold a man up to, but Ramis, while never quite reaching so high again, has made a few decent attempts: Stuart Saves His Family (1996), for example, takes an unpromising Saturday Night Live sketch and turns it into a quietly desperate, ultimately moving film about the pleasures and perils of self-affirmation; Multiplicity, made the year after that, posits multiple copies of Michael Keaton scurrying everywhere (a hilarious or horrifying idea, depending on how you take to Keaton). Analyze This (1999) seems like the ultimate idea of the psychiatric patient from hell--it's only halfway realized, but at least the idea had something of the absolute about it.

Judging from the cries of blood surrounding Ramis' latest (Roger Ebert gives the picture one star, spends a whole paragraph discussing the movie's poster, and sums it all up as a "dreary experience"--one gets the impression the man could barely bring himself to engage with the movie, much less like it), Ramis has failed yet again to touch the comic heights of Groundhog (But what else does?). He has failed but surprisingly, despite the unpromising trailer and the generally negative outcry, he does leave an indelible mark.

It's a cross between Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I (1981) and Monty Python's The Life of Brian ((1979)--Brooks for the formless, across-the centuries format, Python for the subject matter (religious hypocrisy and faith). It's not laugh-out-loud funny, even if it does have more than its share of flinch-worthy gross-out moments; fact is, it's remarkably thoughtful in its treatment of and attitude towards religion and faith. It has a handsome look for a comedy, mostly burnished desert sun and torchlight interiors (checked out cinematographer Alar Kivilo, and the only work of his that stuck out were Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1998) and some Sandra Bullock vehicle called The Lake House (2006)), and is competently edited (one expects no less from the director of Groundhog, which is all about editing).

The climax, strangely enough, bears some passing resemblance to that of Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982)--I'm sure we needn't accuse Ramis of stealing from Bernal, though.

So. Find myself in the strange position of recommending a solidly Hollywood summer movie, and a comedy to boot. Goes to show how accurate 'common consensus' can be, in gauging a picture's quality--sometimes you just have to go and see for yourself. 

Icewater

Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008) is despite its bleak setting a lovely film. Hunt captures the essence of lower-class living in the colder Northern states--the prefab houses, the junked cars, the temp jobs, the pinched-face people struggling with one scam or another (as either victim or perpetrator) and earning a meager wage, all under the gray skies and endless snowdrifts of upstate New York (some of the scenes look exceptionally difficult to shoot--not only are you dealing with a whitened ground that often radiates more light than the sky, you're dealing with the shifting, often treacherous conditions of the eponymous river itself).

The two protagonists, Ray Eddy (an amazing Melissa Leo) and Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) make a good odd couple--they embody their respective social classes (poor white trash, Native-American destitute), they have a genuinely spiky chemistry that makes any possibility of collaboration or friendship seem less than certain, more the result of life's strange vicissitudes than of opportunistic plotting.

The river itself becomes a visual metaphor (a nicely unforced one) for the women's lives--for the kind of fragile, uncertain ice they skate on, struggling to keep their balance, hoping to God the surface of things holds and doesn't drop them into the cold water.

One of Ebert's worst films ever

I remember Roger Ebert granting Richard Fleischer's Mandingo (1975) not one but zero stars--apparently the eminent critic, harumphing about "taste," was shocked at all the decadence and exploitation going on, not to mention the sultry, sensual ambiance.

Recommendation enough. It's a startlingly beautiful to look at and despite--or precisely because of--its trashy, melodramatic roots, full of unwholesome energy. It's also declared to be (by film critic Robin Wood, among others) "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood." There's always Roots, of course, which aired on broadcast television two years later, but that well-made production doesn't have the inimitable image of James Mason as Southern plantation owner Warren Maxwell, planting his feet on a black boy's belly in the hopes of drawing the rheumatism out of his aging body into the healthy child.

The film is more than the sum of its grotesqueries; Fleischer has taken a Kyle Onstott's pulp potboiler, pruned some (but not all) of the more extreme sadism, given (with the help of writer Norman Wexler) the blacks in the film a social and historical consciousness, overall fashioned a distinctly gothic tragedy. With the help of cinematographer Richard H. Kline (they've collaborated on films like The Boston Strangler (1968) and Soylent Green (1973)) Fleischer has conceived of a doomed, decadent South: the Maxwell mansion is a brooding presence full of huge, shadowy rooms and, despite their wealth, dirt-stained walls (mansions of other families, particularly those with womenfolk, are noticeably better kept); the surrounding forests are lit by dustmote-thickened sunbeams and teem with tropical plants that thrive in the Southern heat.

I can't help but think that the film's violent setpiece, a no-holds-barred bareknuckled fight between two black men with bets placed, may have been the inspiration for the duel to the death in Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986). Other than the common premise, the two sequences couldn't be more different--Fleischer stages his fight as a claustrophobic battle, with teeming crowds on the sidelines and a handheld camera lunging in for closeup shots; O'Hara's is more of an arena event, with tiers rising above and away from the circular floor, torches bordering the battle area, and the camera confining itself to more aloof medium and long shots. Preference for one over another may be a matter of taste--I love O'Hara's cool appreciation of the desperation far below, same time as I like Fleischer's sense of immediacy; I was startled by Fleischer's bloody conclusion, same time I appreciate O'Hara's one wince-inducing moment, involving a meat hook. Both worked with small budgets (O'Hara's being the far smaller), both show a distinct flair for and understanding of violence.

At the film's center is Warren's son Hammond (Perry King), an angel-faced, ostensibly kindhearted plantation owner who at the same time feels more comfortable bedding and deflowering his black 'wenches' than he does bedding Blanche (Susan George), his upper class white wife. Yet he's not above stringing up an old black slave upside-down, and having another slave beat the man's naked bottom bloody with a paddle drilled with holes (to reduce air resistance and speed up the swing). The old slave's crime? Learning to read.

Hammond is in the classic mold of the tragic hero--like, say, Macbeth he is basically a good man, a promising catch for Southern women what with his money and his progressive attitude towards slaves; like Macbeth he never fully realizes the precariousness of his position, never learns that unlimited access to power can lead to its unlimited abuse, and eventual payback. Robert Keser in The Film Journal argues that when matters come to head, when "the crisis peels away Hammond’s velvet glove, revealing his essence as he reverts to violence," he precipitates "the final wave of tragedy." Keser goes on to conclude that "A benign despot with an attractive smile and surface compassion is a despot nonetheless."

I don't quite see it that way. Hammond's moments with his favorite 'wench' Ellen are about as touching as anything I've seen on film, his vow to her that "No one, black or white, gonna take your place" a far more real declaration of matrimony than anything he says to poor Blanche, who is in turn as much a victim as any of the wenches in the Maxwell plantation (she just has more bite, is all). I see Hammond as being an essentially tenderhearted, loving man, who unthinkingly embraces the violence inherent in the institution of slavery; any punishment he instigates is out of obligation, as in the bloodying of that old man's behind (when a cousin walks in and takes over the beating with greater relish, Hammond immediately objects). The real tragedy I think is that a loving heart is not enough; the institution victimizes blacks and their masters alike, robbing both of their humanity as Hammond is gradually robbed of his.



When push finally comes to shove, I don't see the event as Hammond reverting to a violence that was always there so much as it is a matter of a soft heart pierced to the quick, striking out in unaccustomed fury. It's a truism, I suppose, that the gentlest people when provoked express the most extreme reactions, but that's the truism I believe Fleischer had in mind for the film's climax. Hammond has the numbed face of one trying to hide his inner revulsion at what he intends to do, and he carries out his mission with the briskness of one who knows he has to do things quickly, unthinkingly--if he paused to consider, he would fail to go through with it.

In a kind of reverse trajectory, Hammond's favorite buck slave Mede (boxer Ken Norton) gradually gains his humanity. He doesn't have it at film's beginning; in one of his earliest scenes, he's examined and prodded and looked over like a prized racehorse. His preferential treatment is thrown at his face time and again; fellow blacks keep pointing out that on issues that matter, his benign white masters will turn on him. When a runaway slave is about to be hanged, the condemned man looks at Mede and declares "at least I die a free man." As push again comes to shove and Mede finds himself facing the unfortunate end of a rifle barrel, his eventual recovery of the dignity he had lost makes for a stirring counterpoint, a hopeful (if faint) note to contrast against Hammond's own despairing, downward spiral. A great film, absolutely.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)


Devil take the hindmost

You can imagine Sam Raimi on the set of his Spider-man films, viewing the various installments of the Hostel and Saw franchise and thinking: "I can do that; I can do better than that. Give me a chance, and I can show them how it's really done."

With Drag Me to Hell (2009) Raimi gets his chance, and how. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) hopes to impress her boss Jack (David Paymer), so she turns down a request for extension on a house payment from a Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a decrepit, milky-eyed old Romany woman with a set of slimy dentures. Things go horribly wrong, and Christine finds herself on the receiving end of a particularly nasty curse: for three days she will be tormented by the Lamia, a demon with the head and hooves of a goat (originally, she's the daughter of Poseidon and Lybie, becomes a mistress of Zeus, and is turned into a half-woman, half-snake creature that eats small children), then dragged through cracks in the ground to the Infernal Pit, to suffer Eternal Damnation.

Bummer. Actually the whole thing is simply an excuse for Raimi, who has struggled with the Spider-man franchise for some six years, to relax and cut loose. The camera doesn't pan so much as whip from side-to-side; it doesn't truck so much as careen into an actor's face at bruising velocities (one hopes the performer has his or her health insurance premiums all paid up). Raimi enlists shadows, flames, flies, staplers (have to see this to believe it), creaks, whispers, embalming fluid, anything and everything under the sun (and a number of which are buried or hidden otherwise, under a full moon) to his cause, whirling them around poor Christine in a non-stop devil's twister of a comic-book ride.

I said "comic-book," not that more pretentious term "graphic novel." Raimi is no Zack Snyder, making a bid for artistic seriousness with an overproduced, thuddingly literal adaptation of a literary title. He evokes the term "comic book" in its old-fashioned sense, that is, a story told through a series of images with dialogue, full of graphic energy and inventiveness and wit (Raimi can teach Star Trek director J.J. Abrams a thing or two about coherent action sequences). Along the way we have belly laughs and in-your-face horror a-plenty, sometimes both at the same time, but we also sense a surprisingly subtle eye at work: in the film's rip-roaring opening, when a victim is dragged to his intended place, the camera rises from the floor up to the second floor terrace to move in on spiritual medium Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza); the shadow of the victim's outstretched hand falls on her face, summarizing the situation and what's at stake (and what will happen to Christine if San Dena doesn't do something) in a single image. Later Christine, desperate to fob off the curse on someone else, looks around at the people in a twenty-four hour diner in a funny yet graceful dumb-show parody of a morality play (Who to give it to--her work rival and backstabber Stu (Reggie Lee)? The annoying waitress who keeps hinting she should order something or leave her booth? The old man with the oxygen tank who obviously doesn't have long to live?).

Raimi knows as any genre master will that to instill a sense of true horror in the audience you don't just assail them with intestines and decapitated limbs and instruments of torture. You build the story, you tease them, you distract them with sympathetic characters and brief bursts of visual beauty (Christine in a sunny yellow dress) and oddball touches (Mrs. Garush sucking on sweets from a dish on Christine's desk with repulsive relish), you soften them up and leave them vulnerable to attack from all and any direction, at any time.

The film is a homage to classics both under and over-rated (Raimi like Quentin Tarantino has collected a pack-rat's worth of influences; unlike Tarantino he has the visual and aural chops to fuse these influences into a distinct look), from William Friedkin's The Exorcist (grudge match between demon and demon fighter) to Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (desperate victim attempts to get rid of cursed talisman). It's an encyclopedia of Raimi-isms, from the floating ghouls and popping eyeballs of Evil Dead 2 to the stop-motion animation of Army of Darkness to the hauntingly beautiful transition from face in dismay to face in mourning hours (or days) later in Darkman. But the movie isn't some mere patchwork sum of its parts; the various appendages aren't sewn clumsily together, nor do they work clunkily against each other--Raimi has thoughtfully (That word! Applied to this movie!) laid each effect in its proper place, and the overall impression is of a smoothly rising swell. Well, not too smooth--Raimi has left in rough edges, has not completely finessed the handmade quality out of the special effects, has not made your standard-issue Hollywood horror flick, proper and essentially polite.

Are Saw and Hostel polite? Why--yes. They promise torture porn, they deliver. They don't renege on expectations aroused by their trailers; they don't surprise you, or unsettle you, or make you squirm in ways you don't expect (Watching these pictures is about as stimulating as a business transaction). Drag Me To Hell cleverly plays on our preconceptions of who is the heroine, who the villainess--pretty (but nevertheless morally weak) Caucasian girl from the banking industry (Raimi claims the relevance of her job to the present economic crisis is coincidental, but who is he kidding?), or aging Romany woman with a nasty propensity for casting curses? It delivers a cornucopia of surreal jokes, expertly timed "boo!" moments, fluids in a rainbow of colors (from bright red to chemical green) and textures (from arterial spray to chunky sewer sludge) squirted out of a variety of orifices into a variety of other orifices. More, a movie with a séance scene involving a nanny goat cannot be, by definition, bad.

Raimi has survived the worse that Tinseltown has to offer, the helming of not just one but three major movie productions, one of the more successful comic-book franchises in Hollywood, and made it out more or less whole, his voice, his distinct storytelling sensibility still intact. Is he an artist? Possibly not; he doesn't seem to have anything more substantial to say to us than "Hey! Look at this!" But he's a wonderful stylist, and a great entertainer, and he's back in a big, big way.


First published in Businessworld, 6.5.09

"Ma saison preferee" (My Favorite Season, Andre Techine, 1993), "Van Gogh" (Maurice PIalat, 1991)



Fire and ice (the French Film Festival, part 2)

I haven't seen enough of critic-turned-filmmaker Andre Techine's films as I would like, but Ma saison preferee (My Favorite Season, 1993) is easily my favorite. The novelistic, episodic texture of his films, the deceptively simple camerawork, the prominent place of nature or the outdoors (for a sensibility so dark and melancholic, there's a surprising amount of sunshine in his films), all are present in this feature, in a nicely balanced dynamic.

Fact is, what probably makes Techine so difficult a sell to Americans and to a wider audience is what makes him so special to those who can appreciate what his films can offer--the subtlety, the self-effacement, the seeming aimlessness that disguises a wider appreciation for the knotty complexities of life. One can say Ma saison preferee is all about a brother and sister (Daniel Auteuil as Antoine, Catherine Deneuve as Emilie) attempting to fit the care for their ailing mother (Marthe Villalonga as Berthe) in their busy lives, but it's so much more than that--it's about sibling intimacy (more difficult to render interestingly on the big screen than sibling rivalry); about parent-child disconnect casually accepted; about retaining or failing to retain one's childhood sense of wonder (and what is lost and gained as a consequence); about love long unrequited, or at least unconsummated.

The focus is on Antoine and Emilie, who have had a longstanding fondness for each other. The attachment is suggested early on--Emilie visits Antoine in the hospital, and lies about this to her husband afterwards--but remarkably no one actually remarks on this, or even mentions it in passing. Emilie's husband and children and Berthe seem to pointedly ignore the elephant sitting in the room with them, though judging from the looks they throw at Emilie and Antoine, they're hardly unaware.

It's not incest; that would be the obvious, easy answer, I think. No, incest would actually be a relief to these two--something clearly and physically wrong that they could take to the nearest therapist to deal with, hopefully exorcise. This relationship seems to have formed a major part of their early life, their subsequent reaction to which forms the major part of their present life: Emilie flees into the arms of her husband Bruno (Jean-Pierre Bouvier), while Antoine finds himself pining away in lonely anti-social bachelorhood (he doesn't even have a girlfriend, nor does he show any interest in acquiring one). Berthe's forced move to Emilie and Bruno's household (she's been suffering from dizzy spells) brings Antoine back into Emilie's life, precipitating major changes, some of them catastrophic.

What I've written might suggest something dark and dramatic; far from it. Perhaps Techine's supreme achievement is his ability to tell his story with a startling effortlessness, to show Emilie and Antoine's emotional interdependency, their alienation from Berthe, Emilie's increasing distance from Bruno and her children--all these as natural, almost inevitable, developments.

Techine's visual effects are equally unforced, elusive almost, acting like quicksilver fish in the way they flash and glimmer and vanish--the opening image, for example, of Berthe shutting out the breathtaking French countryside as she bangs close the windows of her house; or the old woman who suddenly breaks out in song, then is led away in slow motion; or Antoine's sudden vision of an empty bed, an open window, and the horror he knows waits for him on the street below.

It's also painfully, deadpan funny, with repeated images of Antoine sitting on a toilet bowl, trying to school himself on exactly what he's going to say and exactly what he's going to do (which often as not doesn't turn out how he planned). Auteuil fights the temptation to turn Antoine into a monster; the man keeps our sympathies no matter what outrageousness he commits. He makes us understand that Antoine is in direct touch with his feelings and says exactly what he thinks and feels (hence his lavatory sessions rehearsing one hypocritical platitude after another, in an attempt to get along). Of the two siblings he understands Berthe best, which is why she talks most openly to him and not to her caring, attentive daughter.

Deneuve is and always will be a great beauty (she's almost unbearably radiant in Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, 1964)), but I've rarely if ever seen her display this much depth of emotion and character before (or since, for that matter). Hers is the more difficult role, of course; Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of the film points out that her name is a direct reference to one of the Bronte sisters, to whom Techine devotes his fourth feature. Possibly the kind of unbidden, faintly unholy love Catherine and Heathcliff had for each other (remember they lived together as brother and sister for years) is what Techine had in mind; Deneuve has to struggle under the weight of all that symbolic and emotional baggage, and still move with the lightness and grace the director demands. Wonderful film, an absolute masterpiece.

Maurice Pialat started out wanting to be a painter; I suppose the film Van Gogh (1991) was only inevitable. Done in Pialat's flat, unsentimental style with nary an emotional soundtrack, with camerawork consisting almost exclusively of medium shots, and acting reminiscent of Robert Bresson's disaffected "models," it's not so much a tribute to the famous artist as it is Pialat's statement on what artists are, to society, to friends and family, to themselves.

His isn’t the straining anguished manic-depressive Kirk Douglas played in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956); this Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) is a massively brooding, self-absorbed depressive, more likely than not to sit in one corner and either smile wanly at a friendly face, or lash out at sincere attempts at human contact.

Pialat seems less interested in creating a conventional biopic than he is in conveying some sense of Van Gogh's personality at its most fully formed--presumably to be found during the last few months of his life in Auvers. Women are drawn to him, presumably because his helplessness aroused their maternal instincts; at the same time there's an emotional honesty to him that appeals to their need for quick, direct, even cruel judgment (either he likes you or he doesn't; either he's interested in what you have to say or he isn't) His greatest benefactor, his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), understands the attraction and why wouldn't he? He's fatally drawn to the man himself.

I called Pialat's storytelling "flat;" that hardly seems like a fair description. He records events matter-of-factly, earning him the label of being a "realist" or a "documentarylike" filmmaker. I say he's neither, that he's actually an anti-sentimentalist. His camera unflinchingly observes life in all its details, from a woman being bathed by her husband to a young girl trying to ignore a prostitute nuzzling her neck to Van Gogh eating a bowl of onion soup as a group of women look on (Van Gogh bends over said bowl defensively, almost as if he were afraid they would take it from him). The director evokes the lighting and colors not just of the artist, but of various contemporaries--I spotted bits of Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others--but doesn't do so slavishly more than anyone the artist the film most successfully emulates is Pialat. The man is inimitably and indomitably himself in his films, just as this is inimitably and indomitably his Van Gogh.


First published in Businessworld 6.12.09

"Les quatre cent coupe" (The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut, 1959), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001)



Classical and neoclassical French cinema

Francois Truffaut's first feature film Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) was mainly a reaction to what Truffaut witheringly called the "tradition of quality." Where "quality" films emphasized production value, Truffaut used everyday Parisian locations; where "quality" films used smooth-gliding camerawork and flawless lighting Truffaut used handheld equipment and available light; where "quality" films were mainly literary adaptations of known classics Truffaut drew from his own life and improvised dialogue on the set.

The result was anything but traditional. One gets the impression of a sketchbook filled with doodles by turns funny, tragic, provocative, sad. One gets the impression of quickly filled spaces, of scenes thought up on the spot, of setups executed on the sly and as quickly dismantled (because the director just thought it up, and possibly didn't have the proper permits ready).


It was what was called camera-stylo, or "camera-pen," where every element directly reflects the director's personality and statement. Funding for these films is often scarce, dictating artistic choices almost as often as the director's philosophy does; concerns of the moment (the images, the sounds in the film) upend one's longstanding set of priorities (familiar characters, a logical plot, a profound theme commenting on the condition of general humanity).

But more than its significance to film history, to the French New Wave, to Truffaut himself who was in effect writing his childhood autobiography, the film is a valentine to the Paris of the late '50s-early '60s. Truffaut's alter-ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) runs across a park and pigeons take flight in an explosion of feathers; the early-morning milkman delivers a crate to the doorsteps and Doinel snatches a bottle--we watch Doinel daintily tear off the seal, then chug the milk down (you feel the chill richness flowing down your throat). He plays hooky to ride a giant centrifuge, his flattened body (photographed head-on) become a gravity-defying effect--become, in other words, Truffaut himself, defying the world by means of a simple visual effect.

Beyond the energy and exuberance of a longtime critic turned rebel filmmaker, beyond the delinquent shenanigans so shocking then, so harmless now (for all his crimes Doinel does not do drugs, does not commit arson, does not sexually assault anyone) there is the bitter loneliness of an unwanted child. I've met and talked to youths who have done worse, but the force of Doinel's hurt when rejected by his mother then taken via police van to a placement, that pain retains its sting. Looking out the van windows Doinel sees the glittering lights of Paris, perhaps for the last time; the swaying vehicle, the tinkling music, the enchanting lights--all the more enchanting because they're glimpsed through barred windows--give the moment a sharp, almost unbearable poignancy.

There's a different kind of edge to Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001). Haneke sketches the portraits of a pair of monsters: Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), frigid bitch saint of a piano teacher who spends the day informing her students of their abundant lack of talent, and the teacher's mother (Annie Girardot), who inflicts similar psychological torments on her when she comes home.

Erika becomes obsessed with a young man; her icy facade cracks. Beneath the facade is a seething brew of sadomasochistic impulses so repulsive they almost drive the young man away--almost. He returns to confront her, and she in turn is forced to confront the implications and consequences of her impulses.

Haneke's strategy is to shock the audience using the least amount of effort and fuss; he foregoes the handheld camera in favor of largely static setups--an unflinching gaze, in effect, to allow us a clearer view of the horrors he intends to inflict (then there is Huppert's performance, every bit as ferocious as Haneke's gaze, daring us to look away). Perhaps not a great film, certainly not as great as Truffaut's Les quatre cent coups, but easily one of the most memorable to come out of French cinema in many a year.


The films are showing as part of the 14th French Film Festival in Manila, June 5 to 14, at the Shanri-La Plaza.

First published in Businessworld 6.5.09

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

IndioBravo Film Festival (Brillante Mendoza's Tirador, Ishmael Bernal's Himala, and more)




Some of the best new digital and independent Filipino films and filmmakers happening today. Including Confessional (Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto, 2007), Brillante Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) among many others.

My thoughts on an Ishmael Bernal classic featured in the festival:

On Sunday was Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982), about a village girl who finds she can do miracles, and the cult and industry that grows up around her. On introducing the film I noted that the picture wasn't particularly well-liked by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Critics of Philippine Cinema--the country's most prestigious critic's group), that it's an easy target because of its rather stale canonical status ("It's been considered a classic since forever!") but that actually watching the film through unbiased eyes, one might realize that this was Bernal's most visually daring film--an almost prescient picture that predicts the desolated look and feel of Central Luzon after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the early '90s.

And it was prescient, in more ways than one--at one point the film's protagonist Elsa (played by Nora Aunor), says that as a child she had always wanted to be the Philippines' first woman president (which we eventually got, two of them); at another point I noticed how uncannily the film in many ways mimics the career of its famous star; the town's fortunes rise and fall, rise and fall, much like Aunor's own.

In many ways the script felt pretentious, mock-poetic. When Gigi Duenas' prostitute talks about the wind carrying the prayers of the townspeople up the hill to where she was sitting, I thought: "She's not a hooker, she's a hippie" (which, in fact, she is; Bernal will at times willfully ignore or set aside realism for a specific effect). But the alien quality of the locale--barren landscapes rarely if ever seen in the Philippines (the film was shot in Laoag, in Northern Luzon)--is a memorable metaphor for the barrenness of peoples' souls, and if Aunor's Elsa seems less than adequately sketched out (I believe Bernal conceived of her as the enigma at the heart of the film), the people surrounding her--the aforementioned prostitute (a Magdalen figure, of course), the religious fanatic (Luara Centeno, one of my favorite performances in the picture), the passive yet troubled documentary filmmaker (Spanky Manikan, standing in for the director's consciousness and conscience) have been delineated with admirable skill. If Elsa herself remains stubbornly opaque, her effect on others is refracted through the various people surrounding her.

The crowd scenes have often been mentioned, but I feel the need to mention it yet again--it's almost a principal character, this evolving, pulsating, ululating, many-limbed creature that pulls and tears and tramples everything around it; its character and appearance evolves constantly, from the orderly masses that stand patiently outside Elsa's house to the panicked mob that swarms like a nest of frightened ants over the little sand hill where Elsa has her visions to--most alarming of all--the masses of praying faithful crossing the sand on their bare knees, sending their petitions heavenwards in an act of futile desperation. This is Bernal's film on faith and religion, and in many ways he flubs his message; in many ways the film is much larger than said message. He set out to create an anti-religion picture and instead created a film that testifies to the awful, awe-inspiring majesty of a people's faith.

I noted to the audience afterwards that Aunor had missed winning the best actress award in the Berlin Film Festival by one point, because she hadn't been able to attend. I also noted that many of the crew did their best work here--Sergio Lobo, Bernal's favorite cinematographer, came up with the hallucinatory images; Joel Lamangan directed the powerful crowd scenes; Racquel Villavicencio did the haunting production design (leafless tree standing twisted amongst the sand dunes). I finished with the observation that the image of Aunor kneeling with palms pressed together and head thrown backwards is as famous and iconic an image to most Filipinos as Scarlett O'Hara with fist upraised or Bette Davis descending a staircase is to many an American viewer.

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Nora Aunor in Himala, (Miracle, 1982)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)

Terminator terminated

When I learned there was to be a fourth Terminator installment, first question I asked was "why?" When I learned this fourth Terminator was to be directed by the auteur responsible for the Charlie's Angels movies, I asked: "why him?" When I learned that the fourth Terminator was to star Christian Bale and run ten minutes past two hours, I asked: "why bother?"

It's not as if the franchise were all that good. The first, written and directed by James Cameron, was by far the best, taking as it does elements from two of Philip K. Dick's short stories, "Second Variety" and "Jon's World." The first story proposes a constantly developing robot series, designed to imitate human form and infiltrate organizations and communities accordingly (Cameron's original idea was to tell the story of a killer robot that resembled an ordinary human, and was to have Lance Henriksen play the terminator); the second story is a sequel, a time-travel tale where men attempt to go back to try prevent the invention of the robots in the first place (and here you see the seed of the idea that eventually became both Terminator and Terminator 2). Daniel Gilbertson, who was developing a script adaptation of "Second Variety" for Hemdale (his script eventually became the movie Screamers (1995)) claimed (in the January 1998 issue of Cinefantastique) that Cameron had a look at the script back when he was developing The Terminator.

(Yes, Cameron did openly admit that he was partly inspired by two Outer Limits episodes written by Harlan Ellison--"Soldier," and "Demon with the Glass Hand;" yes Ellison sued and got his names on the movie's final credits. But Dick had died two years before Cameron's movie was released, and (unlike Ellison) was in no condition to bring suit against Cameron for copyright infringement.)

Cameron went for gigantism in the sequel (a mega-sized version of "Jon's World," in effect) with a dubious anti-violence message grafted on; he abandoned the franchise (he'd since won gold doorstops for Best Picture and Best Director for Titanic (1997)), handing over directing reins to skilled craftsman Jonathan Mostow for the third picture in the series.

Unlike the previous three movies, where cyborgs and humans from the future invade present-day Los Angeles, the fourth picture foregoes the present altogether and is set entirely in the future. McG has opted for a washed-out cinema verite look--plenty of handheld shots, a gritty desert palette (you can see the attempt to evoke the Iraq war). Thank goodness the shaky-cam footage doesn't involve too much shaking--the action sequences are blessedly shot and edited with an attempt at coherence, and you can follow what's happening without suffering too much of a headache (though McG is apparently far more skilled at depicting machine-on-machine or machine-on-human action than he is at depicting simple hand-to-hand combat). Plus there seems to be a partial return to puppeteered machinery (a la the late Stan Winston, to whom this movie is dedicated), as opposed to your boringly standard-issue digital effects.

To say the script has problems is to put matters too kindly. The picture seems to break down into two main lines of action: one involves killer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is executed in present-day and resurrected in the future; is captured by the rebellion; is possibly a terminator sent to kill John Connor. The other involves the legend himself, John Connor (Christian Bale, who seems to be taking himself entirely too seriously) trying to find his father/friend Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).

I understand why Wright is here and why what he is trying to do is important--in effect, he's our eyes and ears, a figure from our times thrust into this unfamiliar world. But what about Connor? Aside from testing out a signal that might shut down Skynet machines and (when he remembers to do so) worrying about his unknown father, Connor seems pretty much relegated to the bench, constantly waiting to be called into play (there's this visually impressive sequence where Connor boards a copter, takes off, is buffeted in-flight by an explosion, crashes. All happening within a single lengthy shot that unfortunately also seems to sum his problems in a nutshell). When Marcus escapes the rebellion and heads into Skynet headquarters, Connor defies orders and does the same, and you want to ask: couldn't the two have simply joined forces and gone to the Emerald City--sorry, Skynet headquarters--together? That would have cut, oh, maybe twenty minutes of unnecessary parallel action right there.

(Apparently (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the picture) there was an original script that envisioned Christian Bale as the terminator (talk about typecasting) not Connor. John Connor was to make a brief appearance in the picture's final moments, having kept himself hidden for most of the film (which would have made sense, considering all the robots that have traveled through time to try kill him). Bale signed on wanting to play Connor, not the terminator, and demanded that his role be built up accordingly, hence the narrative fat.

None of which is necessary to appreciating--or deprecating--the film. All one needs to realize is that the picture seems to wander aimlessly here and there, trying to find something to do; there's none of the hurtling, race-against-time quality that made Cameron's original B movie so memorable
)

But issues with script and director and unnecessary leading man aside, the picture is really struggling with two more basic issues. First: setting the story in the future instead of present robs the picture of whatever sense of evocation and poetry it might have had. Seeing the future through glimpses and brief flashes (as we did in the first three pictures, but most effectively in the first) actually increases our interest in it, makes us want to see it; any attempt to actually show said future kills the fascination right there. Think of a striptease--it's the dance that excites and arouses; when the last piece of clothing falls, so does your interest. The final revelation can only be an anti-climax no matter how much money you throw at it.

Second: this particular tomorrow is so damned grim. Cameron had many flaws as director and writer but at least he had a sense of humor. Probably the best dialogue scenes in his Aliens (1986) are of the space marines indulging in sophomoric quips; possibly the best dialogue scenes in the original Terminator was between Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Det. Vukovich (Henriksen)--Cameron seems to have a gift for depicting working-class camaraderie. Unrelenting gloom doesn't enhance intensity, it just enhances boredom; McG in his bid for dramatic greatness might have done better to remember this, and allowed the audience a bit of fun along the way.


First published in Businessworld 5.29.09
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