Saturday, November 21, 2009

Johnny Delgado, 1948 - 2009



Johnny Delgado, 1948 - 2009

Juan Marasigan Feleo was born on February 29,
a leap-year child, the son of director Ben Feleo and Victorina Marasigan. He had taken up banking and finance in the University of Santo Tomas; his first acting role was in his father's Sa Manlulupig, Di Ka Pasisiil (Never to invaders shall you surrender, 1967). He tried lead roles for a while (One-Man Army, same year; Machinegun Johnny and the Sexy Queen, 1970), then made the decision--a smart one, in retrospect--to shift his attention to character roles.

One remembers his anguished husband in the classic Salome (1981, directed by his wife Laurice Guillen), the shame, guilt, anger and humiliation at caring for a sexually ravenous, mentally erratic wife culminates in an act of punishment so cruel one finds oneself shrinking away from him. Delgado had that kind of fearlessness, the ability to play the role whatever it takes, unafraid to completely lose the audience' sympathy. Or rather, confident that whatever he does will only add to the character's complexity, ultimately lead to the audiences' sustained fascination.

Villains came easy to him; he had a strong, chiseled face, and a beard that framed that strength with what seemed like bestial fur, and when he stared at you with those huge eyes he gave the impression of a wild man barely in control, ready to tear into you with his hands, perhaps fangs. Yet even a cartoon portrayal like the Pinoy Grandmaster of the Japanese smuggling ring in Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will your heart beat faster? 1980) is precisely calibrated never to lose its sense of humor--when he's shot (and in a delightful touch De Leon has animated bubbles and stars popping like an unexpected belch out of the wound), he throws you a hateful glare that should shatter the camera lenses, but there's just this extra something, this slight exaggeration of gesture, that lets you know this is his King Kong moment, and he means to make the most of it. The expression, in effect, is unutterably tragic, but your reaction is hopelessly, exuberantly cathartic.

Then there's the fraternity physician in Mike De Leon's Batch '81--and here it must be noted that for a filmmaker others claim to be so bizarre and cut off from people, De Leon is able to elicit all these
radically different yet rigorously naturalistic performances, even from the same actor--anyway, this physician is the very height of Socratic professionalism while examining Sid Lucero (Mark Gil). He gently touches one of Sid's bruises, chides the frat masters for beating the boy too harshly, and--oh, so casually--applies a surgical clamp on the boy's bluish skin.

More clamps follow; Sid's skin and face are visibly turning red from the pain (this is a very difficult scene to watch), and all the while Delgado's soothing, calm, professional voice drones on, and on, spinning the scene quietly into nightmare.

Late in life Delgado played more dramatic roles--the first to grab attention was his award-winning performance as the moody brother in Guillen's Tanging Yaman (2000), an otherwise feel-good, somewhat fuzzy family reunion of a movie; whatever edge or sense of genuine pain found in the film came from his ever-unsettling, never-lazy performance. In Guillen's underrated Santa Santita (2004), he helps write the script, plays the relatively small role of Fr. Tony and, in a scene where he's required to do nothing more than sit and listen to Angelica Panganiban, walks away with the scene tucked snugly in his pocket. As the family patriarch in Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2007), he is again an unreservedly hateful presence, a tyrant whose will is never defied, much less questioned, by his three daughters.

Delgado's dead, and I suppose it's a truism to say that doesn't mean he's completely dead, that he lives on in his performances, preserved (more or less) on celluloid and in our memories--but calling the idea a truism and repeating it for the nth time doesn't make it any less true. He was a wonderful actor, by all accounts a wonderful man, he had a wonderful run of performances, and while we love and remember him he will never die.

Danny Deckchair (Jeff Balsmeyer, 2003)


Up, up, and away


Jeff Balsmeyer's Danny Deckchair (2003) rings one unusual variation on the meet-cute rom-com routine--instead of bumping into each other, or entangling each others' dog leashes, or finding each other through the internet, Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans) by means of an accident flies through the air on a lawn chair lifted by a series of large helium balloons tied to said chair. It takes two of his friends to hold the chair down while they watch a game on TV, during a back yard barbie; when one of them jumps up in his excitement Danny launches into the sky, travels hundreds of miles thanks to a passing storm, falls to earth thanks to some ill-timed fireworks, and lands almost on the lap of Glenda (Miranda Otto), a lonely, spinster-ish young woman whose day job is issuing parking tickets.

Other than that Mythbusters-style bit of engineering (possibly members of that show saw this movie, or was it vice-versa?), it's pretty much paint-by-numbers: Danny sees his mishap as a chance to start a new life (reason why he'd been tying balloons to his chair was because he'd caught his wife Trudy riding in a car with another man). Danny flirts with every girl in this strange new town; catches the attention of a local political figure; organizes pancake breakfasts; stops talk at every party attended; pretty much finds himself running for office, at the brink of winning it all, having it all.


Of course it's going to have a happy ending; of course the path to perfect happiness runs rough, at least temporarily (some kids find the abandoned chair hanging from a tree, and inform the authorities); of course the attraction Danny and Glenda sense simmering behind each others' eyes blooms into a full romance, which is sorely tested--Balsmeyer, with the help of Tim Gooding and Lizzie Bryant, isn't re-inventing the deck chair, just adding some padding and a touch of paint to make the furniture look fresher. One either finds the movie tired and limp, hardly a worthy successor to the cinema of Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, or one finds it familiar and comforting, the Aussie equivalent of warm chicken soup.

Rom-coms live or die on their casting, and luckily for this bowl of broth Ifans and Otto generate enough heat to hold our attention. Ifans is the kind of actor that (without the luck of a major hit) can develop a following, popping up in small roles in this picture or that; his wide smile and sleepy eyes are matched by Otto's wider smile and lovely, faintly oriental eyes--eyes with the ability to look upon a man, any man (including, most memorably, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn son of Arathorn, in the Lord of the Rings movies), and convince us she's totally besotted. It's not so much sexual frisson they display as it is a kind of dreamy intimacy, a sense that they share a fantasy life no one else suspect exists--possibly the crucial scene here is that of the two lovers sitting on Glenda's motorcycle, sparking her recollection of how her parents would ride about the countryside together, a pair of adventurers. One only has to look at the two looking at nothing in particular to realize that these two are made for each other.


It's--cute. Understand how some people would take a liking to this, and it's difficult to begrudge them the chance to lean back, relax for about a hundred minutes, dream of a life where a gorgeous woman is available just a balloon ride away.


My problem is this: I remember dreaming of a vast continent Down Under where mutant punks race monster vehicles and a steel boomerang whistles high overhead; I remember a party of young girls vanishing on a field trip, their ultimate fate a metaphysical mystery; I remember a doomed young soldier alone on a battlefield, running as if his life depended on it (it didn't, but he ran anyway); I remember two soldiers seated before a firing squad, sun rising on the vast landscape around them, gloriously calm even if they are guilty of monstrous crimes.


I remember a young girl standing against a similarly vast landscape, determined to achieve her dreams of becoming a writer even at the expense of love or a happy life (I'd like to see her give Glenda a good talking-to); I remember a Catholic monk refusing to even touch his students, being tormented in his deepest nightmares by the sensuous caresses of nymphs; I remember an anguished aborigine wielding an ax, slaughtering every white man, woman and child he knew.


It's a cinema of extraordinary depth and grandeur, playing out against an endless rolling horizon filled with bush and game. We get a glimpse of that grandeur in Danny Deckchair--when his chair takes flight, when we get some sense of the depth of feeling between Danny and Glenda. Otherwise, I'm very much missing what use to make this cinema great.


First published in Businessworld, 11.13.09

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)


Tarantino's talkathon

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a clever melange of violence, suspense, slapstick, wit, movie references both arthouse and grindhouse, talk, talk, more talk, even more talk; seems to me he is more in love than ever with the sound of his own words coming out of the mouths of about a dozen different men and women, in several accents and twice as many acting styles, 

His initial setpiece, a variation on an early scene in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) (Leone's outsized opera style seems to inspire Tarantino more and more, from Kill Bill Part 2 (2004) onwards) has Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) earning his nickname of “The Jew Hunter”--he sits with farmer Pierrer LaPadite (Denis Menochet) enjoying a glass of fresh-drawn milk, gently maneuvering the hapless peasant into admitting to harboring Jews. 

It's a moderately suspenseful sequence (moderately--judging from Tarantino's past work he's not one to shy away from sacrificing an entire family for the sake of a dramatic opening). Landa first demonstrates here the technique of cheerful bonhomie overlaying steely cruelty that he wields to great effect, charming and disarming the object of his interrogation. 

The technique is applied over and over again; Landa's death-dance around his victims while said victims sits helpless within an ever-tightening spiral, too frightened or fascinated to do anything, forms both heart and spine of the picture. Landa is the true protagonist of Basterds, and as Waltz plays him he has the bad-boy charisma of an old-fashioned Hollywood star (Brad Pitt as Basterds commander Lt. Aldo Raine, in comparison, comes off as a one-note buffoon). I'm thinking in particular of James Mason in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)--Waltz has something of Mason's suave smoothness--and I think it significant that Hitchcock comes to mind: Waltz's Colonel Landa is firmly in the tradition of fiendishly clever Hitchcock villains like Mason's Philip Vandamm, Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943), Walter Slezak's Willi (Lifeboat, 1944); like those scoundrels, Landa forms the core of the movie's appeal.

If I have any problem with Landa, or with Waltz's and Tarantino's conception of the man, it's in that they don't borrow from what what I would consider the very best Hitchcock villains--I enjoy Willi, Vandamm, Uncle Charlie, but their evil, while charming, isn't fully expressive; they function exclusively as figures of malevolence. Give me instead Claude Rains' Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (1946), or Raymond Burr's Lars Thorwald in Rear Window (1954), or Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Psycho (1960); their characters displayed alternating streaks of villainy and vulnerability, ferocity and fear, capturing our sympathy and disgust in near-equal measure.

That said, give me Vertigo (1958), where the putative murderer literally steps offstage about halfway through the picture, leaving behind Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart, in what I consider the performance of his career) to function best he can as victim and villain both, dedicated to raising his inamorata from the dead. Mere atrociousness can be effective, but ambiguity rules.

Then there's the talk. Landa purring at Farmer LaPadite over a freshly drawn glass of milk is fine; Landa flirting menacingly with massacre survivor Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) over a dish of warm apple strudel (with a dollop of freshly whipped cream) is fine too; Landa playing cat-and-mouse games with actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is okay, if a tad wearying--yes, yes, we know he's smarter than anyone else in the picture, get on with the story already. Besides, they don't partake of anything in that scene, not even the champagne on tap in the lobby--though Tarantino does get to indulge in his trademark foot fetish, with Landa playing predatory Prince Charming to Bridget's doomed Cinderella.

(I'm thinking Tarantino may have missed his true calling, that his greatest films may be ahead and not behind him if he would ever consider mounting a production exclusively about food. That strudel, the flaky-soft, buttery crust sitting high on a pile of thick-sliced apples, fresh cream dribbling down the sides, is easily the single most erotic, most sensuous image he's ever done).

I'm serious. I can't say there's a large library of great films on food, much less major filmmakers interested in the preparation and consumption of food on film--Yasujiro Ozu, Tsui Hark, Juzo Itami, Claude Chabrol, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese come to mind, but even in their films the food or cooking is usually a minor preoccupation. It's a genre ripe for exploration (or exploitation), where Tarantino can easily excel.)

Tarantino having Landa talk to this beautiful woman or that peasant farmer is fine (as long as said farmer is able to serve fresh milk), but Tarantino forcing us to spend ten minutes in a basement bar with an inept British spy without Landa is unforgivable. Morgan Meis in an article claims Tarantino “stretches the tension to a breaking point as masterfully as Hitchcock ever did”--Hitchcock stretched tension as far as it would go, but never did it with so much talk (unless it was with some comic figure making inane chatter). Just when the tension (or monotony, if you like) becomes unbearable, Tarantino tops it with an incoherently edited gun battle--all my patience, rewarded thus! For a filmmaker known for his violence, I find Tarantino's action sequences strictly second-rate--the camerawork's often clunky, the shots rarely if ever flow, the cutting, as in this case, done with a Cuisinart.

If he has any skill at all it's in scriptwriting (he's quite good at dialogue, if rather shallow and limited with his range of character voices), film scoring (his eclectic soundtrack includes everything from Ennio Morricone to Elmer Bernstein to Lalo Schifrin to David Bowie's theme song for Cat People), and casting (his only genius ability, utilizing has-beens like John Travolta, Pam Grier, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Forster in brilliant new roles). Not to mention the occasional striking image, of which two come to mind: Shosanna's boyfriend Marcel (Jacky Ido) presiding over a gigantic pile of celluloid, summarizing in a single shot the volatile nature of cinema, and Shosanna herself appearing on the silver screen, announcing her revenge in a burst of orange flame.

Otherwise--zilch, nada. Tarantino's great surprise of an ending (a slowed-down, rather watery version of the brutal climax Robert Aldrich achieved (all shot in real time, unlike Tarantino) in The Dirty Dozen (1967)) may have critics all over the United States praising the immense power of cinema to create its own reality, but Steve Railsback summarized what Tarantino did almost thirty years ago in a single line, in Richard Rush's far funnier, far more imaginative The Stunt Man (1980): “Whaddaya know? A fucking rewrite!"

There are critics who call Inglourious Basterds science fiction, and with fairly good cause--the genre (on text, not on celluloid) has been revising World War 2 history for practically ever, from Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream to Philip K. Dick's great The Man in the High Castle

It's instructive, I think, to look at Dick's masterpiece: Japan and Germany have won the war and split the United States in two, with everything from the East Coast to the Midwest going to Germany and the entire West Coast (on the balance generally recognized to be the more desirable piece of real estate (I disagree, but what do I know?)) going to Japan. Germany promptly establishes a totalitarian state where the genocidal extermination of Jews is well underway (as for black people, you don't want to know what they are up to in the continent of Africa); Japan creates a relatively pollution-free semi-utopia where electric cars and dirigibles ply road and sky, Americans are treated with subtle condescension (but otherwise enjoy most of their civil rights), and American pop curios are sold in specialty boutique stores. In this topsy-turvy world, supporters of Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich struggle to control the Reich; a Japanese bureaucrat named Mr. Tagomi attempts to foil an assassination plot, with the future of the Japanese Empire hanging in the balance; and shopkeeper Robert Childan pleads for the value of indigenous American art.

Doesn't sound like much but in the process of reading you may find yourself, as with all great science fiction, holding all sorts of unfamiliar positions--a profound pity for Childan and the kind of American pop culture (Micky Mouse watches and so on) one usually holds in contempt, here fragile and endangered; a sneaking sympathy for Japan's Greater East Asian Eastern Co-Prosperity Sphere, which rules over the United States with a kind of environmentally enlightened despotism (electric cars!). At the heart of it all is novelist Hawthorne Abendsen, the eponymous man, who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a huge underground hit of an alternate-history novel where Germany lost the war.

Dick, in effect, plays with reality in ways Tarantino can't even begin to grasp--where Tarantino thinks in terms of victory or defeat, death or revenge, Dick thinks of broad political and economic forces, shaping a complexly realized society that in turn shapes us in complex ways; where Tarantino indulges in Three Stooges slapstick with a dash of sadism, Dick has a Japanese insulting an American with the suggestion that he mass-produce his wares (it takes the American some minutes to even begin to realize he's been handed a putdown, not an opportunity)--the exquisite cruelty of the moment goes beyond anything in Basterds. Dick's High Castle is the game of make-believe played at grandmaster level; Basterds feels more like a game of tug-o-war with the other end of the rope tied to a fireplug--stupid and pointless, if occasionally amusing.

First published in Businessworld, 11.06.09

Sunday, November 08, 2009

More Vancouver Festival Films (Serbis; Face; Lebanon; ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction)

Merly (Mercedes Cabral) and Alan (Coco Martin) and unruptured boil in Brillante Mendoza's Serbis

Did I mention that almost nobody I talked to in the festival liked Kore-eda's Air Doll, not even David Bordwell, who's an admirer of the director?

Ah well. Bordwell finds the execution "overcute" and "underdeveloped," but what's "overcute," anyway? The film plays into male notions of female fantasy figures, the same time it offers some kind of critique (the doll herself finds her owner's attentions distasteful, preferring the company of a gentler, geekier video store clerk), and there is something faintly prurient about the early scenes of Nozomi (Du-na Bae, in a courageously unselfconscious performance) standing in her (squeaky clean, rather breathtaking) altogether, totally vulnerable and defenseless, because the idea of putting on clothes doesn't even begin to occur to her.

But I submit that Kore-eda avoids excessive preciousness by focusing on the details--the latex squeal when her hands rub against objects, the occasional moments when she can't help but notice her translucency (either her shadow isn't dark enough or the gases flowing within her fingers are visible), the running gag about another woman's pantyhose lines, which she mistakes for latex mold lines. If one can imagine an American remake (and god knows, the idea of an inflatable sex doll come to life is asking for just such a catastrophe), one can imagine these details being simultaneously sanitized ("not so much nudity, please, and no shots of her cleaning out her removable vagina") and pumped up for slapstick content, with Jim Carrey mugging his face off to plenty of loud music cuing audience laughter.

Bordwell compares the ending to that of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. Truth to tell, Oshima's ending left me cold (as I think Oshima intended); Kore-eda's comes off more as a tragic misunderstanding, the kind found in doomed romances or tragedies. Kore-eda's film attempts, as does Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence, to evoke the pathos of the unanimated--how, we imagine, they might be helpless to determine their own fate, and how, we imagine, they would suffer accordingly (beyond that, I think , is an attempt to evoke the pathos one feels when empathizing with inanimate objects--when, at one time or another in our lives, we ourselves feel helpless to determine our fates). Between Spielberg and Kore-eda, though, I think the lighter (and hence more effective) touch is Kore-eda's.

After Air Doll I decided to hell with it and attended a midnight screening, which can often be fun; the crowd is rowdy, the movie usually of the lowbrow, grindhouse persuasion--in this case Kevin Hamedani's ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. Easy to say Hamedani is no George Romero, and that his zombie picture is too clunky to gracefully shoulder the weight of political metaphor and satire that it is meant to bear, and that anyway the zombie effects are second-rate (owing to a presumably low budget), but zombie flicks are judged more by their gut impact than their subtlety (until we come to the more recent fast-moving remakes, in which case I go all medieval on them). But the picture burns with the fire of a filmmaker out to prove a point, and easily the movie's most unsettling image isn't of the beheadings or flesh-eating or the swinging zombie guts, but of a half-crazed (all-crazed?) man threatening to hammer a young Iranian girl's foot to the floor if she doesn't confess to being involved in some evil Middle-Eastern plot to convert all Americans into zombies.

Hong Sang-soo's Like You Know It All is his second feature on HD, and am I imagining this or has Hong become more ostensibly funny? The film tells the story of a director named Koo Gyung-nam (Kim Tae-woo) invited to sit in as jury member at the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival. It adds something if you've ever been to a film festival before, or served as jury in one--the ubiquitous shoulder bags filled with goodies, the neverending round of polite greetings, the endless catalogs and promotional handouts and calling cards--Hong gets every detail right (Jecheon as depicted onscreen seems like a modest-sized festival, though it could have grown since, or maybe Hong didn't have the budget or inclination to use bigger sets). Add attractive, eccentric, possibly insane festival programmer Kong Yun-hee (Uhm Ji-won) into the mix, and Hong in effect puts poor Koo through the metaphorical and literal wringer, with women alternately enticing and rejecting him, men either inviting or threatening him, fans at times praising, at times humiliating him, and Koo himself wondering just what he had done the night before when he was drunk to deserve this kind of treatment.

Add to this the unmistakable hint of melancholy (Koo is always finding something to regret in either the recent or distant past in his relationships with women (with concurrent repercussions on his relationships with men)), and one might say Hong has executed a light but satisfying omelet of a film--deceptively simple, but flavorsome.

Programmer Shelley Kraicer made it clear (on the Vancouver catalog and when he spoke to me) that he regarded Tsai Ming Liang's Face, about a film crew attempting to stage a film version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, a masterpiece; everyone else, apparently, begs to differ. I wanted to like it, I really did, but where the pacing in Tsai's previous films was leisurely and uncompromising here it felt soporifically slow; where his storytelling was deadpan unpredictable here it felt obtuse and nonsensical. I wondered what made the difference and someone offered this explanation: "He's cut himself off. Where before he was full of angst towards his life and sexuality, now it's all about his love for French cinema. Moreau, Baye, Ardant, Leaud, references to Truffaut--it's all magic and new to him where we've been familiar with all this Francophilia for years, even decades. It's killing his films."

Possibly--all I know is that something's seriously missing in this picture whatever it is. To be fair the imagery is often heartstoppingly beautiful, and there is one sequence--Salome kissing the dead head of John the Baptist--that's incredible, even great (don't want to say too much about it except that instead of using dramatic music or even music of any kind, Tsai employs the ambient sounds found in a deserted abattoir to terrible, unforgettable effect).

Samuel Moaz's Lebanon might be described in the catalog as a "cross between Waltz with Bashir and Das Boot;" I would call it a transposition of Kevin Reynolds' The Beast to Lebanon, albeit with a greater intensity and claustrophobia--much of the film takes place inside a tank, and any contact we have of the outside world comes through the driver's tiny periscope, or through the upper hatch, a moon-shaped aperture through which authority (an Israeli troop commander who seems to have all the answers (at least for a while)) and terror (a Christian Phalangist full of unreliable information and even less certain loyalty) enter from the outside world. One might see the tank as a steel womb inside of which the men overstay their welcome (their gestation period?), wallowing in their own increasingly unbearable filth and refusing to leave the safety of their armored uterus.

Moaz captures the stench of waging war inside a tank--the ever-rising level of rancid water on the vehicle's floor, complete with a flotilla of cigarette butts and paper wrappers floating about its oily surface;
the ever-thickening layer of grime and sweat covering the tank men's wide-eyed faces like so much makeup; the increasingly congealed gluey mess dripping from the interior walls (an explosion had sent foodstuff (Matzoh meal?) flying everywhere, and in the film's one hilarious running gag (and, come to think of it, politically weighted line of dialogue) the troop commander keeps demanding that the men "clean up this mess").

One festival viewer had hesitated to go see Lebanon; he said he didn't want to watch Israeli propaganda. I can see it being propaganda all right, but aimed at whom I'm not quite sure--the Israeli commanders order the use of illegal phosphorus shells and order the tank to fire on innocent civilians; the men inside the tank are frightened and barely know what's going on. We know only as much or less, because Moaz has made sure that everything we see and hear are what they see and hear; the experience is a harrowing one.

Managed to see Brillante Mendoza's Serbis, about a day in the life of a provincial movie theater, where they show uncut versions of softcore porn movies and the action in the darker corners of the auditorium are far more interesting than what's happening onscreen. In terms of hygiene the theater can give the tank in Lebanon a run for the money; it's almost as claustrophobic (a dark cavernous space surrounded by an intricate network of rooms and stairways), it has its share of rank sewer water, and people have terrifyingly red and swollen boils growing out of their behinds (come to think of it the relative darkness in the tank made the mess there a touch more tolerable). There's graphic sex aplenty and fellatio plunked front and center for those who appreciate that kind of action, and there's the slapstick interlude of a thief running up and down the theater's stairways seeking escape (if he got lost I don't blame him).

One less-then-enchanted viewer told me "I can tolerate the sex, the boil, the endless stair-climbing. What I can't stand is the goat--why is there a goat in the theater? I don't understand the goat."

I sympathize. But anyone who's actually attended a screening in one of these brokedown movie palaces knows that the occasional non-biped often wanders into its reassuringly shadowy interior--I've heard birds fluttering about in these places, even the occasional bat, and once in a while you hear a cat meowing for leftovers. Plenty of odd things can happen in a Filipino grindhouse, including a patron urinating into an empty soda cup beside you (apparently he couldn't be bothered--or didn't dare--to look for the men's room).

Should we understand the goat? I think these places are beyond understanding, just as I suppose Filipino life can be beyond understanding--like the theater it's full of lust and filth, and everyone's too demoralized to bother trying to keep it fully, continuously clean (the moment when the men's room is flooded is strangely the single most moving moment for me with its silent despair, its patient mop sweeper standing ankle-deep in dark water). The script by Armando Lao--who I used to call the Philippines' most underrated scriptwriter, now less underrated (and thankfully more active)--seems shapeless, lackadaisical, and Mendoza directs his script with a general lethargy, punctuated by the occasional surge of energy (a bursting boil, a bout of oral sex, a thief dangling from a balcony). But Lao and Mendoza (with the help of a wonderfully unglamorous cast that includes Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz and Gina Pareno) have carefully attained that lethargy, it's the kind of everyday rhythm fellow Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz strives for and achieves in his hours-long epics, set in the countryside.

Call this then, like Lebanon, an elaborate womb metaphor, with the people trapped inside too self-absorbed and terrified to seek escape, only too happy to wallow in their own waste and fester.
If there's anything at all compensatory in these less-than-ideal conditions, it's that the theater snack food seem tastier than the cardboard pap found in most movie theaters, with hot meals over rice, pork rinds sprinkled with spicy vinegar, and boiled duck egg (complete with feathery, days-old fetus for a protein surprise) available at the lobby. Just don't use the men's room afterward.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)


King of pain


Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has been called the best film yet made about the war in Iraq, and one can see where they’re coming from--it’s crude yet coherent, understated yet intense, and it knows that first and foremost, before you even deal with the politics of war, you portray its head rush, the ‘drug’ mentioned in the film’s opening titles.


Bigelow’s eminently qualified. A woman successfully working in what’s basically a man’s world, she’s done one action film after another in various genres, and managed to give them an unapologetically distinct visual design--the chilly metallic look of Blue Steel, the dreamy twilight feel of Near Dark (arguably her best work), the headlong rush of Strange Days. Her editing is precise and swift, but she’s also a long-take fan, perfectly capable of going against the grain of today’s chop-suey editing and shaky handheld cameras.


If she has a weakness, it’s her scripts--Blue Steel had its moments, but Ron Silver’s psychopathic killer-lover was ultimately too silly to be truly disturbing; Strange Days started out strong but ended up underutilizing its fin-de-siecle scenario; even Near Dark had its narrative implausibilities (is vampirism that easy to cure?).


Hurt Locker seems different; its scenario doesn’t indulge in fantastic flights of fancy (narrativewise, I mean), and it doesn’t strive for glaringly unearned dramatic moments. The story is of a piece--basically, the life of an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) squad, counting down days of active duty; in its way are seven scenarios, six involving bombs of escalating degrees of complexity, that it must survive to go home.


At the film’s center, breathing harshly like a Kubrickian spaceman in his bomb disposal suit (a heavy-duty affair of armor blast plating, Kevlar, fire retardant polymers and ballistic nylon) with matching helmet (visor made of hardened acrylic/polycarbonate laminate) stands Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a daredevil disposal expert who likes to keep souvenirs of the bombs he’s dismantled in a box (“this is shit from Radio Shack, man” a fellow soldier finally tells him). Funny, but there it is: a movie about a man who only lives when he’s in danger of dying.


James is the film’s wildly beating heart and biggest problem. As Renner (who bears an unsettling resemblance to thirty-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with “fuck you” attitude to match), plays him he’s a deadpan gambler willing and able to stake his life (and his fellow soldiers') on the possibility he’s right. He pulls up bomb wires with casual aplomb; he rips open car seats and carpeting with evident gusto. It’s as if dismantling bombs were a child’s game where he pretends that he reads his opponent’s playbook with complete clarity, even if he doesn’t (he doesn’t, not always, definitely not with the final device).


James’ bravado makes him cool and ultimately lends this movie much of its seductiveness. And seductive it is--the bombs are, as that soldier put it, “Radio Shack;” not the gleaming hi-tech bombs of movie villains past, but the product of ingenious minds with limited budget and resources. Their designs have an ingenious logic, a logic James follows with unbridled glee--if you wire a 155 mm round to detonate, would you use just one? If you want to hide a bomb, where's the ideal hiding place? If you want to fashion the ultimate undefuseable bomb--the last one that James, late in the film, deals with --just how would you do it? Bigelow stages and Renner plays each sequence with absolute conviction; you can’t think clearly, what with all the tension onscreen.


It’s when you’ve left the theater and the tension’s gone that you realize how big a con job this is, how much the character of James has been cribbed from louder, sillier antecedents like Lethal Weapon, only with Renner doing a far more persuasive job with far less than Mel Gibson ever did (Gibson at least had a wife long dead). Does the film say anything about the absurdity of the Iraq war? Only incidentally, in the background--in the way the Iraqis gaze at James with his bombs, as if this were an example of performance art with lives only incidentally at stake. That's an entire world into which he’s intruding, suit and bombs and all, and the onlookers may or may not have an interest in his safety. They deserve a more complex, less contrived view of the war and its causes and its effects.


No, the film doesn’t have anything profound to say about the war; it’s a skein of macho clichés linking together a series of bomb defusing sequences, admittedly superb. Thanks to those sequences, this may be the best film to date about the Iraq war; I just don’t think that means as much as we’d like.


First published in Businessworld, 10.23.09


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