Saturday, September 26, 2009
Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds is an entertaining enough and harmless enough movie; what I don't get are all the hosannas proclaiming it (and Tarantino) as the Second Coming.
Tarantino may be comfortable in exploring "everything troubling and uncomfortable about the fact that a love of movies has no inherent virtue," but I don't see why that gives him power over us (who mostly knew it all along, if our heads were screwed on right).
"To claim that Tarantino's films are empty and self-referential is to ignore the obvious truth. Tarantino has already achieved relevance simply by being good at making something we like. Movies." But Meis attributes something to Tarantino I just don't see. He is, as I've said before, a middling director, a deft scriptwriter, a brilliant assembler of soundtracks, and arguably the greatest casting agent alive, in that order. I'll go see his pictures but I'm not expecting anything extraordinary--that way I'm neither blown away nor let down by what I see onscreen.
The opening was amusing, but nowhere near as "taut and sharp" as Meis claims (Spielberg's Schindler's List, much as I dislike the film, was better at generating suspense, or at least a sense of tension (I'm thinking of Amon Goth granting forgiveness to one camp inmate)). Meis praises a barroom scene and the way it "stretches the tension to a breaking point as masterfully as Hitchcock ever did." I don't know; Hitchcock I submit knew the difference between stretching "tension to a breaking point" and stretching one's sense of patience to the breaking point, plus he never had people talk as much as Tarantino does (when Hitchcock did allow for chatter it was usually for comic effect). Tarantino demonstrates a lousy sense of pace here, and rewards our patience with an incoherently edited gunfight; later you can't help but notice that his scenes peter out with either a cut or cute joke--it's as if he'd lost the knack of ending a scene, or at least of writing a proper ending for one (He still had that knack when he made Reservoir Dogs, if I remember rightly).
The movie has its moments--Melanie Laurent framed against a window, for example, while electric guitars roar a la Ennio Morricone in spaghetti western mode (Tarantino channels a lot of filmmakers but his favorite nowadays seems to be Sergio Leone). And Christoph Waltz as the Nazi officer smarter than anyone else is a funny recap of something Hitchcock did decades ago--only those weren't my favorite Hitchcock; my idea of a great Hitchcock villain combines evil and vulnerability in a complex, knotty little package (Claude Rains in Notorious, Raymond Burr in Rear Window, Anthony Perkins in Psycho).
The ending evokes Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen with a significant difference--Aldrich's film (shot matter-of-factly, in real time) emphasizes the dirty, difficult, dangerous business of murder; Tarantino's film slows the killings down for a more grandiose effect, inflating the rhetoric the same time he deflates any hope of adding meaning to his climactic massacre (I know, I know, movies have "no inherent virtue." Doesn't mean one can't try).
Critics seem to want to call the movie's ending a powerful act of re-imagination. It's not often done in movies (HBO's Fatherland), but the genre's common enough in science fiction (Norman Spinal's The Iron Dream is an excellent example, though my favorite is Philip K. Dick's great The Man in the High Castle). Tarantino cutting short World War 2 doesn't seem half as interesting as Dick's dark vision of a world dominated by a Japanese and Nazi empire--but that's probably just me.
I don't know, I think Meis needs to see a few more WW 2 and Holocaust movies and documentaries. If he's saying Inglourious is a better film than Night and Fog I think he needs to produce a helluva longer article, just to explain himself.
It's hard to take Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker any more seriously than Tarantino's pulpy war fantasy, but Bigelow at least demonstrates more than enough ability to be "good at making something we like." I don't mean the characters, who are basically cartoons (albeit deftly and economically sketched), or the central character's psychological predicament (an update on a premise as old as Hawks' His Girl Friday, given some heft and urgency (if not verisimilitude) in Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon). What makes this movie sing, or at least warble a few vivid notes, are the bomb defusing sequences, which are pretty damned good. The movie's basically Richard Lester's Juggernaut (1974) set on dry land, and without Lester's misanthropic wit--not as bracing, perhaps, but it'll do until something better comes along.
Shane Acker's 9 is a disappointment--the trailer led us to expect a miniature epic complete with rag-doll courage, improvised weaponry, and huge, shambling Rube Goldberg machinery. We get all that and in spades, but what I should have asked for is a storyline that resonates more with its audience instead of depending on the inherent pathos of discarded trash, the spell of which lasts for all of twenty minutes--then it's a long and dull slog through the world of the future as a historical junkyard.
Some of the action is imaginatively done. A snakelike creature swallowing our heroes whole has some of the skin-crawling horror of recent onscreen anacondas (though the creature being made of cloth reminds one that this textile-as-skin conceit has been done before, and much better, in Henry Selick's Coraline), and any action sequence that puts string, rusted metal and other knickknacks to good use can't be all bad. Overall, however, this is thin fare.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Not a big fan of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (The Grudge, 2002), basically a series of setpieces loosely held together by the notion of vengeance after death. The plot is intricate, and frankly illogical; the characters are notable mostly by the manner in which they expire; the dialogue is, at best, functional.
The real star of the movie is Shimizu's claustrophobic style, and the battery of inventive effects he employs in realizing that style. The slow creep, either of hair or camera, into one corner of a house or another; the implacable creaking noise as the violently murdered Kayako (Takako Fuji) tries to moan through her twisted throat, or do her memorably crablike crawl. Ju-on may not make much sense, but in the hands of Shimizu it has all the sense it needs to send shivers down one's spine.
The American remake (The Grudge, 2004) did one thing right: it imported Shimizu all the way from Japan to direct. Aside from a touch more explicitness and an American actress (Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) in the lead, the remake was a shot-by-shot copy of the original; the sequel (The Grudge 2, 2006) featured a brief cameo by Gellar and a series of stories that expanded on Shimizu's revenge philosophy (actually the only elements that really expanded were the variety of settings, the confusing plot lines, and the ways in which characters died).
Enter The Grudge 3 a straight-to-video production, with Shimizu bowing out (he "prefers to produce," as he puts it) and even Ms. Fuji failing to reprise her long-running role as Kayako (Ms. Aiko Horiuchi steps in as substitute). Toby Wilkins as director doesn't seem to have a very substantial filmography, but his visual effects resume is as long as your arm--one suspects that the special effects, which aren't too bad, have been well-served in this installment. Brad Keene, who did the screenplay, has written a handful of other features, most if not all horror.
One must hand it to Keene, there's some attempt at characterization here--the family, now a band of two sisters and a brother, the youngest sister often wheezing and in dire need for an oxygen tank, the middle one on the verge of becoming a famous fashion designer, the eldest brother managing an antiquated apartment building in exchange for free rent. Sister loves sister loves brother; a neighbor named Gretchen (Marina Sirtis, doing the best she can after Star Trek: The Next Generation) occasionally babysits for them. Fact is, there's so much love and affectionate neighborliness--even the building owner seems like a decent enough person--that you wonder who could be holding anything against anyone.
When the scares start happening, of course, people stop making sense and start shrieking, which is probably one of the biggest problems I have with Shimizu's horror franchise--people don't seem to deserve their horrible fates; all they need to do is step into the apartment, or house, or whatever, and poor Kayako starts snapping her limbs in their direction. Once cursed, they do little more then peel their lips back and shriek--Kayako's going to get you no matter what you do or how well you hide (not that any of them bother too much). There's no emotional buildup, no sense of drama, no narrative momentum; people walk in, nose around, then bones start snapping. The Grudge movies are little more than the Final Destination gimmick translated into J-horror, with Shimizu's talent for creeping atmosphere and unsettling effects the only (if not inconsiderable) distinction. In Hideo Nakata's Ringu the plot had a real motor, a genuine source of suspense--the heroine's attempt to investigate the source and cause of the curse, mainly because she herself was cursed (Nakata ratcheted the suspense quotient considerably by counting down the days till she died, and at one point caused an unsettling sense of confusion--playing cunning games with one's expectations--when the countdown continued even after matters were supposedly resolved).
The filmmakers have boasted that their Grudge movie is bloodier, more explicitly violent--a pity, actually, as part of Shimizu's appeal was that he inspired terror (or at least profound unease) out of so very little: some special effects, some sound effects, a little inventive staging, not much else, not even a real plot. With Shimizu gone, or at least out of the director's chair, there isn't much to the picture--more blood, I suppose, give or take a few gallons, and a near-sex scene that comes to not much when the lovers are quickly interrupted. If I really needed to say something nice, there's a brief scene of unseen forces playing patty-cake with red paint that is fitfully memorable--one might wish, however, that the sequence didn't end with the standard-issue Grudge scare, a corpse with the lower mandible ripped off.
And that's about all, folks. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but this one's been served again and again and again, with no sign of relenting. You wonder if the dish is still edible, considering the number of times it's been taken out of the fridge--there's a distinct aroma pervading the air, as if of a corpse kept on display way past its time of burial. Enough, already.
First published in Businessworld, 9.11.09
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer:
National Artist Awards can't be undone--SolGen
The issues raised in the petition are clearly moot and academic
The issue of cultural standards, of the honor of a formerly revered award is moot and academic? I suppose.
No amount of melodramatic protests shall overturn this fact
Does melodrama instantly negate the virtues of one's case? If artists express themselves melodramatically, as is often their nature, does this mean their cause has no serious merit?
Implicit in this kind of thinking is that any issue involving culture and the arts is moot and academic, that serious consideration of such issues is beneath one's dignity.
This coming from a member of the legal profession of unimpeachable reputation, of course.
The present petition is one for prohibition which is a preventive remedy. The act sought to be enjoined having taken place already, there is nothing more to restrain.
A technical flaw, and it's a chronic flaw of Filipinos that they are prone to technical flaws. But another flaw of Filipinos and one more significant I think is in investing close attention to such minutiae and ignoring the larger issues involved. In this case--does Carlos J. Caparas deserve the National Artist Award?
(To) sustain petitioners’ argument that the President cannot grant the award to someone nor recommended by the NCCA-CCP Boards would be a patent disregard of the President powers
And this, of course would be a very bad thing.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009), his epic production on the life of legendary bank-robber John Herbert Dillinger, is a cold fish of a movie. You get little of Dillinger's early career--we see his escape with friends from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, actually two separate episodes (his friends broke out, then facilitated his own getaway) combined, presumably to help condense the story. You get little sense of who Dillinger was as a person, a gang leader, a lover. Dramawise the movie's inert, a series of excitingly made setpieces strung together and shot (by longtime collaborator Dante Spinotti) on high-definition digital video--a lot of flash, no discernable heartbeat.
But looking for heart in recent Mann films is beside the point, I think; Mann has different if not bigger fish to fry. Critics have complained that Mann's latest has no foreground, no compelling character dominating the landscape whose motives define the film's conflict; I would argue that, as with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, the characters' attempt--and subsequent failure--to dominate that landscape IS the film's conflict (more on this later). Mann gives this much concession to conventional expectations and to the moneybags financing this film, that he casts a bona fide Hollywood star (Johnny Depp), but Depp often pursues his own agenda (look at how he hijacked Pirates of the Caribbean and, perversely, turned it into a bigger hit than even the producers anticipated) and is a habitual risk-taker. A Mann film, especially one with its priorities so bewilderingly upside-down, would be the kind of project he would find hard to resist.
Public Enemies is nothing if not a film of landscapes, not so much about countryside as about an entire country. The film's setting is '30s America in the grip of an economic downturn, and early on we see Dillinger stopped by a woman clutching his arm. "Take me with you," the woman pleads softly. Dillinger just as softly turns her down, turns away; the camera lingers on the faded woman, her skinny child, the dilapidated house looming behind her. It's visual poetry of the highest order, and its brief onscreen appearance haunts our viewing experience of the rest of the picture--the rest of the evening, in my case and several evenings after. "This," the film seems to whisper, "is the Great Depression, nor are we out of it."
Mann fills in other details in his complex extended metaphor: the creation of counterterrorist techniques by an embryonic Federal Bureau of Investigation headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, who wittily plays Hoover as an anal-retentive publicity-hungry politician). Phone wiretaps, brutal interrogations--Mann's conceit is that the hunt for Dillinger inspired the use of these measures, much as the hunt for terrorists has resurrected their use today. Mind you, the FBI was not the first American organization to use the technique--waterboarding was used on Filipino insurgents (freedom fighters to us) at the beginning of the 20th century, when the country was a freshly acquired American colony--but it was possibly the FBI that brought these techniques home, for use on American (as opposed to foreign) prisoners.
Deeper in the background is the development of an information network of sorts. Dillinger walks in on a startling scene--hundreds of operators taking bets on the phone, wires snaking up from their hands to an unseen web overhead. Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) owns this operation, and his lieutenant informs Dillinger that this is the future, this data exchange--where the bank robber once considered a vault filled with over seventy thousand dollars a good haul, Nitti's bookmakers can make that amount in a single day. Crime has stopped being a boutique endeavor--a small group of professionals victimizing mostly the rich--and established itself as a corporate enterprise, complete with departments and accountants and political lobbyists. Dillinger doesn't admit it (even if you see the recognition in his eyes), but he is obsolete.
Meantime he's alive and robbing, and Mann in his own deadpan way celebrates Dillinger's due diligence, the elegance with which he goes about his business. The real Dillinger may not be so efficient, but Depp's Dillinger joins a long line of hardworking Mann men, from Sonny Crockett to Vincent to Neil McCauley (one might title his entire filmography Men at Work; Men at Work 2; Men at Work 3; and so on), his heroes more comfortable talking to co-worker than family, more at ease mounting quasi-military operations either for or against the law than sitting on a living-room sofa, watching television while the wife prepares dinner. Mann films are extremely physical, full of forward motion; a pause for breath or, worse, commonplace exposition would not just kill the momentum, it would lessen the drama, the mystery of relentless physical movement.
Mann's choice of Depp is, I think a daring one; I would have thought Christian Bale (who plays Melvin Purvis) the more obvious choice for tommy-gun sociopath, with the more thoughtful-looking Depp as federal agent. Casting the two against type creates interesting dynamics, though--suddenly Purvis is the relentless hunter, near psychopathic in the intensity of his desire to capture Dillinger; suddenly Dillinger is a more thoughtful, more melancholic quarry, with weary eyes looking about all sides for the danger he knows is coming. I've never considered Depp to be particularly dangerous-looking but in the occasional feral grin spotted here, there, in the Pirates movies; in his chilling turn as a CIA agent in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003); in his recent turn as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; in this film, he's built up an impressive resume of cold-blooded killers.
Dillinger acts out dark, socially unacceptable wishes, striking banks where they would hurt most (their vaults, of course). Mann acknowledges this facet of the Dillinger myth with his robberies, the banks architecturally imposing cathedrals with soaring ceilings, vast marble floors, dark railings that divide bank staff from common customers--Dillinger vaults the railings with gazelle-like grace (he was nicknamed "The Jackrabbit" for his ability to jump), violating the institutionally imposed divide between rich and poor. Banks were the villains in Depression America, remain the villains in America today; Mann's Dillinger in the way he jumps about exults in exacting revenge on these villains, these malevolent financial angels holding fiery swords over heavily mortgaged houses.
Salon Magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek dismisses any notions of parallelism to our present-day situation with the thought that there is no direct modern equivalent to Dillinger, no outlaw rebel bringing the high and mighty to their knees (however superficially and temporarily, if publicly). I submit that there are parallels, only Mann's Dillinger has to take on the double role of acting out the fantasies of both '30s audiences and our own. No, we don't have a Dillinger; all the more reason to appreciate Mann's attempt to bring him into hurtling, leaping life for us.
First published in Businessworld, 7.24.09
One had expectations. Larry Charles' 2006 mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was made for a slim $18 million and generated some $260 million worldwide, earning both director and writer-producer Sacha Baron Cohen the reputation of pop provocateurs as they interview hapless Americans under misleading pretences, exposing latent racism and Anti-Semitism.
(Why Kazakhstan, by the way? Cohen uses the name; the language, written and read, is made-up gibberish. Couldn't he have given Borat's country something made-up, instead of the moniker of an actual country too small and powerless to fight back?)
The filmmakers attempt to repeat the stunt with Bruno (2009). Bruno comes with an estimated price tag of $42 million, an altogether more expensive affair though the picture itself doesn't necessarily look more expensive (the amount breaks down into a reputed production budget of $20 to $25 million, plus perceived added value to Universal of $20 million). Distributors pay a higher price for a known quantity, even if returns are slimmer (Bruno earned a relatively smaller $136 million worldwide to date); that smaller amount is almost as good as cash in the bank.
One wonders if perhaps the filmmakers should have heeded an old warning: repetition kills, or a gag isn't as funny the second time around. Borat was a freak accident; it proposed the terrifying idea that people would find two ugly, hairy men mashing their buttocks in each others' faces funny (20th Century Fox timidly released it in a scant 800 theaters). Part of its appeal--well, a huge part of its appeal--is the surprising fact that audiences did find two grown men grinding their nose into each others' behinds not just funny but hilarious (Fox quickly put the picture in 2,500 theaters when it earned $29 million on its first weekend).
Repetition kills surprise; that's the downfall of most if not all remakes, sequels, sophomore efforts from a filmmaking team. With Bruno we pretty much know what we're getting, and so does the rest of the world--the number and size of celebrity 'gotchas' is considerably smaller, less varied. Some of the 'unstaged encounters' either look less than spontaneous, or the victims seem to have quickly suspected what they're in for and are understandably cautious.
Bruno has more problems than mere freshness--Cohen has misconceived the character in a number of ways. Borat for all his cluelessness and lack of impulse control was an innocent abroad who traveled America with Azamat (Ken Davitian), his intermittently faithful if considerably more hirsute Sancho Panza; he was an impoverished Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of (even if he didn't see it that way) anti-Semitism and racism and xenophobia. Bruno's idealism is half assumed pose, not so much a humanitarian quest as a calculated publicity bid. Borat's is the classic American story, the immigrant underdog who comes to America seeking knowledge and understanding and, of course, a beautiful woman (he wants to impregnate Pamela Sue Anderson and give her many children). Bruno is a media-spawned creature desperate to be noticed and his victims are decidedly less prosperous (the Alabaman hunters, the Arkansan cage-fight audience), more deserving of sympathy than scorn from an audience. Perhaps the crucial difference is that Borat conducts his odyssey on a shoestring (he drives an ice cream truck to Los Angeles to seek out his precious Pamela Sue). Bruno, like his picture, enjoys a decidedly bigger budget--hiring a consultant to help with his celebrity image; flying hither and thither to foster world peace; swapping out an Ipod for an African child a la Madonna. Bruno may want to establish himself as a champion for gay acceptance but he does so with deep pockets, and the effect is rather alienating.
Bruno isn't without some laughs. His all-Velcro suit is a howling success, and any occasion where a Milanese fashion show's security is compelled to chuck you out for the sake of public peace of mind has to be an occasion to celebrate. An episode with a minister who specializes in treating homosexuals is funny for its sheer wrongheadedness (though one can't help but feel a touch of admiration for the heroically patient minister, especially when Bruno informs him that he has "amazing blow-job lips." "These lips were made to praise Jesus," the minister primly informs him). His Panza here, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) is a suitably sad and sweet assistant's assistant, an adoring disciple who takes much abuse from homophobes and from Bruno himself, for the sake of his beloved idol. The few occasions where Bruno takes shots at someone with deeper pocketbooks than himself one feels comfortable enough to savor the humiliation (I'm thinking of Paula Abdul invited to sit on an illegal immigrant bent over on all fours, and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul enduring an unsubtle sexual pass, then being mistaken for RuPaul).
All hail Cohen's intent--he had hoped to do for homophobes what he managed to do for racists, anti-Semitists, and xenophobes, but the scattershot approach injures the implied victors (Man-hungry gays with a bizarre fashion sense? So not stereotypical!) almost as much as the intended victims. Send this one back to Austria, ASAP.
First published in Businessworld 9.4.09
Monday, September 07, 2009
I don't know why I'm doing this, only that I am.
Been googling links, images, articles on Alexis. Trying, I suppose, to piece him together in place of faded six-year-old memories.
Is that as crazy as it sounds? I suppose. But photos and testimonies and the miraculous medium of the internet have a way of throwing up the strangest artifacts on the shoreline of your search engine.
Take this little item found in Nostalghia.com, an Andrei Tarkovsky website (thank you, Trond, for the head's up!). Tarkovsky had visited Las Vegas in 1983, and in the May 1, 2008 website news notes two mentions from two separate accounts of a Filipino filmmaker who accompanied Tarkovsky on his tour.
Nothing more about that until a quarter of a century later, when Alexis emails the website with a letter providing this link, a still from Kidlat Tahimik's Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari (Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow, 1994); apparently the mysterious Filipino was Kidlat, and he had captured Tarkovsky's image and incorporated it into his film.
Another example of the mysterious currents that surge throughout the web: I'd only heard of Nika, never met her, I thought. Turns out I was wrong--I have met her and even written about her, almost a year before Alexis had; she had been one of a group of Slovenians I had talked to in my 2006 visit to Rotterdam (see the fourth to the last paragraph). I dug up my email to Ekran contributing editor Jurij Meden asking about her and found his response: "i imagine that a pretty blonde girl named "nika" was in attendance(she's the new editor-in-chief of ekran)."
Gabe Klinger in his wonderfully detailed tribute characterizes Nika as "hunched over the table, smoking furiously, and talking passionately -- as she always did -- about the state of things" I remember feeling the warmth of some of that passion (it was after the screening of Pangarap ng Puso, and she and some friends had cornered me in a little cafe table outside the screening room) as she needled me with her doubts about the Filipino film she had just seen.
We never met again, of course, but her questions must have bothered me more than I expected. In my Criticine article I write a more detailed and reasoned-out (if sadly belated) response to her. In a post some months later, I referred to that conversation again, adding a bit more to my response.
Did Alexis know who I was talking about? He never told me; possibly never made the connection, either. Did she read my additions? Maybe, maybe not; would be nice to think she did, but considering she still had Alexis to meet and a whole new country to deal with, probably not.
Wish we could have continued that conversation--not necessarily to change her mind, just find out what she thought of what I had come up with since (and then maybe try change her mind). Just another of the thousands of conversations I've had or will have in my lifetime that I wish I might have finished.
I think I'm glad that they met; judging from Gabe's tribute and other sources, theirs was a joyful, loving, fulfilling and yet terrifying relationship. I imagine they were happy the same time they had a thousand and one obstacles to grapple with (the clash of cultures, the differing languages, the finances, the dirt and grime and noise and oh god heat of Metro Manila). I imagine they were as busy and frazzled and happy as any pair of young lovers trying to build a home, trying to build the rest of their lives.
Anyway--in the interest of putting together a few more pieces:
The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person--Alexis profession of love to both Nika and Philippine cinema, easily the finest piece he's ever written, and a lovely, lovely bit of confessional meditation.
(edit 9/7) Paul Dumol's eulogy. Heartfelt, at times critical, ultimately honest. A eulogy, I think, Alexis might have appreciated.
Raya Martin's eulogy, this one from a close friend's POV instead of a mentor's.
Adrian Martin's, via girish shambu's blog.
Jonathan Rosenbaum's at his blog
Glenn Kenny's, at The Auteurs.
Jason Sander's at Filmmaker
Raymond Pathanavirangoon's at TIFF
Kim Voynar at Movie City News
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's beautiful minute-long tribute
Oggs Cruz's at his blog.
Celinejulie's, all bright pink
Sonthaya Subiyen and Richard MacDonald's. I especially like MacDonald's mention of Alexis' 'steeliness.'
Kanchat Rangseekansong's (in Thai)
(edit 9/10) Matthew Flanagan's blog, with a haunting photo tribute made out of stills from a Gustav Deutch short.
(edit 9/17) John Gianvito made this eight-minute tribute.
It's amazing, the reponse, all the thoughtful words and feelings poured out into the internet to date. We'll never have Alexis and Nika back, but we do at least have some measure of the breadth and width and depth of the imprint they have left on us.
photo from Alexis' livejournal blog
Saturday, September 05, 2009
The mix of genres that is Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (2009) is, I would argue, more monstrous than anything you see in the movie itself--imagine a military action thriller that mixes in huge flying saucers, hideous genetic experiments, various alien body parts, racism, crushing poverty, political satire; the resulting lurching, stitched-together, patchworked Frankenstein of a creation would be close to what I'm talking about, only probably not as haphazard.
The premise pretty much comes from Graham Barker's Alien Nation (1988). A race of extraterrestrials arrives and instead of invading or enslaving us, they live with us as refugees, to the point that we have granted them their own racist nickname ("prawns," thanks to their exoskeletons, a repulsive cross between lobster and cockroach), their own trash-choked ghettos (the eponymous district), their own unique vices and crimes (cat-food addiction; alien johns serviced by human prostitutes; the odd alien killed for its meat). Blomkamp develops this elaborate metaphor for apartheid and social-class struggle with inventive flair, filming everything in a documentary style reminiscent of Matt Reeves' Cloverfield (2008).
The picture is a hundred and twelve minute expansion of Blomkamp's six-minute short Alive in Joburg (2005). That short video was a perfect distillation of news commentary and interviews painting a world where alien (as opposed to black, or Latino, or poor) lower classes simmer resentfully against an oppressively fascist apartheid government. This longer version doesn't have that seamlessness, unfortunately; bits of faux news are mixed in with scenes where aliens congregate and conspire (and a news camera can't possibly have access). The ostensible hero Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) conducts an informal reality-show tour of the district's more lurid sights until he is infected by some mysterious black liquid, and the camera for some unexplained reason starts following his return home (where, again, a news camera can't possibly have access).
Unmotivated shifts in point-of-view often bother me; Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's Blair Witch Project (1999) famously pretended to be a series of film reels and videotapes that reveal the fate of a film crew vanished into a Maryland forest years ago, in search of the Blair Witch--but who cut film and video footage together? Who laid on the barely ominous hum in the soundtrack? Same problem with Cloverfield, though there is an attempt to preserve the unity of time and space, at the expense of plausibility (would a cameraman be so determined to point his camera at the right direction at the right time, all the time, even at the possible cost of his life?). At least George Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007) squares everything neatly away with a scene where the filmmaker actually sits down and edits his material--brilliant!
No such luck here. Blomkamp mixes documentary and straightforward narrative with reckless abandon, and at times you're not sure which mode the movie's on. Consistency and clarity aren't one of the picture's strengths--we aren't sure, for example, if the prawns are strong enough to tear a man in two, or weak enough that a single man can drag it out of a shack; we aren't sure just what kind of organization is in charge (seems to be a mish-mash of Afrikaner law enforcement and United Nations peacekeeping). We're not sure why the aliens landed, why they're trapped here on Earth, and what the heck that mysterious 'fluid' is--if it's spaceship fuel, why does it have the gene-splicing abilities of Seth Brundle's teleporter? Why did the command ship lose all its fuel? Why did the prawns take so long--years--to gather enough of the fuel for the ship to get moving again? And why does Christopher (arguably the smartest prawn on the planet) suddenly change his mind and take three years to do something important for Wikus that should take only three minutes (I presume)?
It's a salad, a poorly mixed one, at that, but there are ideas and some power to this movie. The scenes of prawns kneeling on the ground, automatic rifles to their heads, is an unsettling image; the piles of garbage and fly-covered meat carcasses make you want to scrub yourself with steel wool and lye before leaving the theater. The anti-apartheid message, filtered through the conventions of the alien-occupation genre, gains freshness and bite.
Easily the best thing about the movie is its nebbishy protagonist, Wikus. Wikus as Copley plays him is a charmless, spineless hero, appointed through nepotism to head the operation to move all prawns to nearby District 10 (apparently based on similar operations to move blacks from Johannesburg to Soweto in the '50s). He's hilariously clueless, knocking on ramshackle doors as if he were visiting royalty (or some reality show host); politely enquiring if a prawn is willing to sign away hearth and home; relentlessly putting a cheerful face on anything and everything on-camera, from beatings and scenes of harassment to cold-blooded murder. This is Larry Charles' Borat (2006) meets Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987) meets Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), and it's brilliant black comedy; one wishes Blomkamp had kept up this level of satire, allowed Wikus to keep his smarmy, ingratiating chatterbox personality till the end.
Alas, about the time Wikus is infected with the deadly space fuel the picture deflates into a weepy, self-important shoot-em-up that depicts Christopher as the noble oppressed alien and Wikus as the noble Earthman oppressor turned liberator. Borat is gone, to be replaced by serious (and rather dull) acting, and some equally serious (and also rather dull) alien ordnance. Did Blomkamp feel solemnity would be necessary to be taken seriously? Or did Blomkamp (who showed creative genre flexibility so far) feel he could only operate on one emotional tone at a time? Why couldn't Wikus be every bit as smarmy shooting up Afrikaner soldiers as he was knocking on prawn doors? Why can't he be Borat and Rambo at the same time?
Far as integrated alien pictures go, District 9 is more entertaining than, say, Alien Nation (it's not a large genre), though not as witty and imaginative as W.D. Richter's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984); far as alien-earthling buddy pictures go, it's more respectable than Wolfgang Petersen's Enemy Mine (1985), though the featured alien-human friendship is certainly not as deeply felt as that of Spock and Kirk in the Star Trek series, or of The Doctor and his companions in the classic and recent Dr. Who episodes. Not bad, could be a lot better.
First published in Businessworld, 8.28.09
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
The film community is a strange creature, particularly this side of the millennium. We're scattered all over the world, and our connections are as tenuous as the aether writers spoke of in the 19th century. We don't see each other for years, we mail each other only occasionally, we lead busy lives, too busy to look to each other or sometimes even look out for each other.
That's something I'm never going to get from Alexis--not anymore. Have not seen him for upwards of six years, and I can barely remember the last time we met--I believe it was with Joey Fernandez, of Brash Young Cinema, when I showed them my bootleg copy of Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, Mario O'Hara, 2000). I remember throwing down the gauntlet "Well? Do you think it's the best Filipino film since 1986?" Joey was skeptical; Alexis liked it very much, but couldn't agree.
And that's all right; we disagreed, and it's great we disagreed, that we had differing opinions, differing minds, tastes, thoughts. We argued about it, teased each other about it, then left the debate hanging, to be taken up again next time we met.
When I moved away I kept contact with him occasionally; I submitted a number of articles, some of them my best work, to his online magazine Criticine, still the finest web magazine on Southeast Asian cinema, even if it hasn't been updated for years. I like to think I think so not because I'd been published there, or had a kind review of my book there, but because it is a wonderful treasure trove of articles on Southeast Asian films and filmmakers such as Raya Martin, John Torres, Lav Diaz, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Amir Muhammad, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang among others, written by writers and critics such as Rolando Tolentino, Gertjan Zuilhof, Ben Slater, and Alexis himself.
It wasn't just the venue and unflagging encouragement to do my best; when in 2005 I was close to publishing my book, I was stuck for a title. My publisher Philip Cheah and I weren't happy with the suggestions I was coming up with, and I had a long list--too long, and too pathetic to bother publishing here. In desperation I emailed Alexis and asked for his input. Don't remember his exact words, but he said something like "I don't know about the rest, but this one I like--"
Irony of ironies, I'd been thinking about him lately. I was feeling with all the recent deaths of people known and unknown a sense of my own mortality, and the thought occurred to me "maybe I should give the password to this blog to someone. Just in case."
May never be published, alas.
Love you, man.