Monday, December 28, 2009

Is Avatar racist?


Listened on NPR and they talked about how people see racist themes in Avatar.

Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe harumphed and said it was very 'limiting' to think of the movie in those terms (how so? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say we've uncovered yet another subtext to the picture's script, one Cameron possibly didn't even know about?). He added that the characters are 'so rich'--I had to laugh at that remark. I've sounded just like that when I'm trying to defend a film I like that had serious problems.

I don't know about racist, but the picture's not exactly what you'd call culturally sensitive. Why DOES it take some white guy to switch sides, be black (in this case blue), and fight for the helpless blacks--sorry, Native Americans--sorry, Na'vi?

This is where Cameron's use of classic storylines runs into problems--he's channeling old movies but he's channeling old attitudes too, and the old, old whiff of racial condescension seeps through the channels he's using.

(Might as well point out here that the idea of human minds being implanted into alien brains is nothing new--Poul Anderson wrote about it in a short story "Call Me Joe." And that Joss Whedon has a darker and more sophisticated take on mind imprinting in his new Dollhouse TV series)

To be fair, it's no Apocalypto; it's not the product of a raging Anti-Semite and homophobe. But still...

Could he have done a better job? Sure. He could have given the Na'vi their due, could have fully honored their culture by writing a better script, one with a more plausible psychology for both the Na'vi and the human military, and managed a more consistent integration of the cultures he borrowed from to make his aliens (as is, it's a grab-bag of Native American, South American, African and, yes, Iraqi ethnic traits--the overall impression is more of opportunism than of any real affection for his creations).

Frankly, if you're going to watch a white man go native and fight for their freedom, I'd rather see Richard Harris drive hooks into his chest in Irvin Kershner's The Return of the Man Called Horse (1976). Does not transcend its pulpy origins, but it's so well and simply done, so lyrical and passionate in its filmmaking, I can give it a pass. That could be my creed: anything lyrical and passionately done, it's easy to give a pass--or at least appreciate, despite the flaws.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mario O'Hara's 'Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos' (1976) and Lino Brocka's 'Bona' (1980) now on DVD!

Majayjay Church in Laguna, where key scene from Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos were shot

Not a big fan of Christmas--didn't bother putting up a tree this year and if you ever got a gift from me, it was probably a book (tough luck). 'Tis the time of year I keep my head low, keep a tighter hold on my hard-earned money than usual, keep hoping New Year arrives before I snap. And woe to whoever greets me "Merry Christmas!"--I stare till he begins to wonder if he had a hole on his forehead, and then reply "I don't really celebrate Christmas, but hope you have a happier new year than this one, at least.").

Yep, I'm just brimming with Christmas spirit, and if you ever, ever suggest that I'm too much of a Scrooge and therefore should lighten up, you can take your partridge-infested pear tree and stuff it up where Santa would be afraid to go.

All that said, there are times in this accursed season when I find myself actually thankful for something--this is one of those times. A DVD release, in effect--two of them: Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) and Lino Brocka's Bona (1980).

Both feature Filipina film actess Nora Aunor at her very finest; both represent the two filmmakers at their very best--represent, in my opinion, Filipino cinema at its very best.

Mind you, I haven't actually seen these DVDs: can't vouch for the video transfer quality, or the quality of the source material. I don't know if there are any extra features (probably not), or subtitles (most likely not)--but this is mainly nit-picking; the DVDs are out and I for one am grateful.

Here are articles I wrote, for Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and for Bona respectively. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)


Saw James Cameron's Avatar some days back and--well, it's definitely big; huge, even. Two hundred million dollar production budget; digital effects and filmmaking equipment developed exclusively for the picture; some fifteen years (think about it, an adolescent's lifespan) in the making; epic (and with Cameron, I mean epic) action sequences; an entire world conjured up and realized to the smallest detail (many of which have been fact-checked by a reputed scientist, no less); huge boxoffice business; the love of almost every film critic this side of the Pacific Ocean.

Big fat hairy deal.

What I see in this movie is what I've been seeing from Cameron ever since Aliens (1986)--a lust for bigger, louder, more expensive spectacle, balanced with a perfunctory attempt at 'story'--mostly boy meets girl type, though one attempt at something different slipstreamed into misogyny (True Lies, 1994), another had the input of science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (The Abyss, 1989), yet another (Aliens, 1986) took off from an earlier script by Dan O' Bannon (incorporating ideas inspired from the work of A.E. Van Vogt). The Terminator (1984), arguably Cameron's best work to date, takes its premise from two Philip K. Dick short stories: "Second Variety" (killer machines cast in human form for infiltration purposes) and "Jon's World" (traveling back in time to retrokill a menace) Seems to me it take a Dick to twist Cameron's narratives into interesting shapes; otherwise, the man thinks in a strictly linear fashion.

Case in point: Cameron's Pandora is chock full of flora and fauna, some interestingly designed, some startlingly reflexed, nearly all painted in Day-Glo colors (the mystery astrophysicist in the article I linked to above thinks this makes sense, since the planet spends days in the shadow of a gas giant, but hoo boy--calling attention to oneself much? What's the survival value of tree branches that light up like Christmas lights when you step on them?).

And what kind of creature design are we talking about? Blue skin, multiple eyes, nostrils at the clavicle, so on and so forth. All I see are physical details, physical exoticism. Don't creatures other than the Na'vi (the native sentient humanoids) have any kind of social organization, and don't these organizations interact? I'm thinking of what Hayao Miyazaki achieved with his Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997)--different species representing different factions with differing (sometimes conflicting) interests, sometimes working with each other, sometimes against each other, sometimes forming alliances of convenience, sometimes even betraying one another in a fit of perverse pique (a far cry from the usual 'humans-vs-the world' conflict Cameron cooks up).

Perhaps the Pandorians' most interesting ability is to connect with one another through a kind of biological World Wide Web, using a cilia'ed tentacle to plug in (something David Cronenberg worked into his 1999 film Existenz, and that Miyazaki gave his Ohmus in Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984)); this is echoed by the humans, who climb into hi-tech coffins that project their consciousness into half-human, half-Na'vi bodies. When Cronenberg used his virtual reality device, though, it was to dive in and out of various levels of reality, all the while questioning our grasp of the same; the Pandorians use it for far simpler tasks, as a stress reliever, conference caller, all-around distress signal to Eywa, the planet's global consciousness: "Humans too powerful. Send help!"

A similar appeal is made in Mononoke Hime, only the response of the Shihigami (Miyazaki's equivalent of the Eywa) is more complex--the Shishigami stays silent, not because it's planning some kind of cunningly timed counterstrike or because it doesn't care but because taking sides is literally against its nature. "He takes life as well as gives life?" someone exclaims when the Shishigami lovingly kills a creature. Miyazaki gives you the full implications of how life processes work, the sacrificial as well as symbiotic relationships, the tragedy, reality, grandeur.

The filmmaker, one might add, puts forth a fully formed point of view in his films; a decidedly eco-centric one, but no less complex or nuanced than that of any other great artist. Like Cameron he has developed his own alien worlds; in the case of, say, Nausicaa you can see a consistent, rigorously thought-out rationale for the way that world looks or works (Basically a reversal of scale, where tiny creatures like flies, grubs and centipedes take on monstrous size (almost as if in response to our relentless abuse), and the world is so polluted that the cleansing of poisons takes precedence over humanity's survival), and in fact the secret behind the way Miyazaki's world works is key to the film's plot. Cameron's eco-stance as evidenced in Avatar pretty much boils down to: "You military, you bad man"--plenty of feeling, I'm sure, but not a lot of thought or science, much less philosophy.

Maybe my biggest gripe about Cameron's chuckleheaded naturefest is the nature of the antagonists fighting on the opposing side. Judging from his previous films, Cameron is no stranger to the military; he knows how they talk, how they think, how most of all they fight--why are the military characters he's created for this particular picture so mentally retarded? His humans profess to be trying to 'win the hearts and minds of the natives' yet bulldoze trees behind the natives' backs; they attack the natives with righteous fury, but just what is the source of their righteousness? Cameron attempts to draw parallels between his movie and the Iraq War, but one must remember that no matter how wrongheaded or misinformed the military's leaders were in starting that war, they did have a perfectly understandable (if not perhaps absolutely justifiable) cause: the World Trade Center attack.

What's this movie's 9/11--a wrecked tank camera? I sat there watching the military's assault with an appalled expression on my face, just like everyone else's, but I was probably appalled for a different reason--not that the military would go to war on such piss-poor grounds, but that Cameron was too lazy to think of a more convincing excuse (even George Bush Jr. had to dream up--sorry, drum up--Weapons of Mass Destruction). The military mind has its flaws, but it's not outrageously stupid; I'm no fan, but even I wouldn't grant my worst enemy that kind of sloppy, unthinking contempt.

As for the digital effects--yeah, they look okay. No, I haven't seen anything quite like them before. Yes, Cameron has pushed the edge of the envelope, techonologywise. Every time I hear talk of cutting edge effects in movies, I can't help but think of The Jazz Singer (1929), which ushered in the age of synchronized sound. No one can possibly understate the significance of that development; no other technological advance can compare to that film's impact--not color, not widescreen, not 3-D, not even Cameron's much-ballyhooed digital revolution. Synchronized sound changed the nature of cinema, introduced the aural effect as complementary if not equal companion to the moving image.

Thing is, The Jazz Singer isn't a very good film--melodramatic and not a little racist. Tech innovations do not guarantee a good film (much less a great one); often it's the third or fourth film along that is the narrative as well as visual stunner. Don't know why this happens--I'm guessing the director is often too focused on his inventions to bother with story and acting (y'know, the human element, what Cameron and director George Lucas among others seem to keep trying to weed out of their pictures). Hence: Willis O'Brien's King Kong (1933) wasn't his first but actually seventh or eighth film using stop-motion animation; Disney's Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first Technicolored short and a big hit, but color and colored sequences had been around since at least 1916. What Cameron basically developed is the quarter of a billion dollar equivalent of a brand-new paintbrush; all we need to do is sit and wait for a real artist to come along and use it.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)


Animated, but with teeth

Who would have thought children's literature maverick Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) and filmmaking oddball Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Rushmore (1998) would make such an inspired pairing? Who would have thought the textured anachronism of stop-motion animation would suit the timeless, set-in-amber charm of Anderson's films?

Dahl's book was at heart a meaty survival tale of a fox struggling to evade the clutches of three farmers (Boggis, Bunce, and Bean). At one point his tail is shot off; at another he digs into the farmers' various storerooms and steals their chickens and cider. Anderson tacks on to this fairly straightforward story an introductory first act that shows Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep, respectively) trapped in a steel cage thanks to a miscalculation on the part of Mr. Fox--the perfect time, of course, for Mrs. Fox to reveal that she happens to be pregnant. Mr. Fox makes a vow to his wife that he will give up his criminal career, a vow that in effect changes the tone of the story--in Anderson's film, Mr. Fox doesn't steal out of necessity, but out of choice; the consequences that follow fall more catastrophically on his head than even in Dahl's book.

The fox kits are combined into a single boy named Ash (Jason Schwartzman) with father issues (unusual in foxes, who produce in litters, but not at all unusual with Anderson, who is all about difficult relationships with distant or absent fathers). The neighbors are spikier, more distinctly drawn--they include a hilarious turn by Bill Murray as a cantankerous (but are there any other kind?) badger, and Italian-American chef Mario Batali (in his film debut, complete with orange neckerchief) in the tiny role of Rabbit.

The action turns less on survival and more on action and consequences, on following one's own agenda with self-regarding obsessiveness--Fox can't resist yet another chicken or bottle of cider, Ash can't stop trying to prove himself to his father, Bean can't help trying to exact revenge for the theft of his cider, Bean's security guard Rat (Willem Dafoe) can't avoid following his macho imperative and challenging Mr. Fox, or flirting with Mrs. Fox. At the same time there is an acceptance of Fox's foibles--of, in fact, everyone's foibles--implicit in the film's easygoing tone, its unpredictable pacing, its autumnal color palette all burgundy red and deep gold and coal-fire orange, successfully pulled off because Anderson has dealt with colors throughout his career (a trait of his that I thought reached its apotheosis with The Darjeeling Limited (2007)--imagine Anderson dabbling in the incomparable colors of India! Then, of course, this picture came along).

The film revels in its oddness--Anderson intentionally shot the film at a rate of 12 frames per second instead of the conventional, smoother-moving 24 frames a second to accentuate the jerkiness of the animation, point up the handmade (as opposed to digital) nature of the enterprise. Some moments--Mr. Fox gobbling down his dinner comes to mind--are like a kind of Brit-lit transposition of the scatological comic shorts of Jan Svankmajer. To the imagery Anderson adds an equally eclectic music score, everything from The Beach Boys to The Rolling Stones to several songs by Burt Ives--not exactly famous, unless you were old enough to grow up listening to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (never saw the show myself, but the tune is, of course, hauntingly familiar).

In terms of animation features it's lovely, even perhaps brilliant, but not great. It doesn't have the breathtaking beauty of the Studio Ghibli films (of which Ponyo is the latest example), nor the philosophical density of Mamoru Oshii's (The Sky Crawlers (2008), Ghost in the Shell (1995)); compared to, say, Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2009) the animation feels--well, Anderson may have painted himself in a corner when he made his picture so self-consciously crude (I'm thinking of the final shot in Selick's film, where the camera pulls back from the gardens, over the house, past the front yard--in effect summarizing the entire story in a single sinuous move). Anderson, after all, is something of a neophyte to animation (despite the extensive use of the same in his The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)), and this is the first time he's tried to tell a ninety minute story completely through the medium.

One hesitates to compare Dahl to Gaiman--this isn't Dahl's best work, it lacks the imaginative vigor of his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or its even more baroque sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and one guesses that Anderson chose this as being lightweight enough to allow insertion of his own considerable changes (aside from the fact, of course, that Anderson is a longtime fan of Dahl--Mr. Fox's study is a replica of Dahl's writing shed). Gaiman and Dahl do share a taste for the grotesque, and while Gaiman might have a more sophisticated grasp of different mythologies (or at least exhibits a more sophisticated grasp), Dahl has a straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling sensibility that just asks to be translated to film.

It's difficult to know what to make of Wes Anderson. His films feel like ships in a bottle, like painstakingly designed and carved, hermetically sealed worlds complete with sea and sky, all sitting inside some bourbon cistern. Or like Charles Foster Kane's fabled snow ball with the little house forever trapped in the center of a swirling snowstorm. They're like elaborate curios with a definite appeal to them, they depict scenes of fragile melancholy that may force you to linger, maybe even draw your gaze back once or twice.

Other than that--little outside application, zero practicality. They're lovely, but what are they for? How much they might appeal to you may depend on whether or not you believe a film should have practical application, perhaps actually say something, or if you believe there's room in one's pantheon for ingrown, inward-looking, beautifully intricate little curios like these. Fantastic Mr. Fox has all the hallmarks (and drawbacks, if you like) of an Anderson work, only accentuated by the stop-motion animation. An appropriately fantastic creation, it seems, from some brilliant, bent-over elf, whittling away in his little corner of some vast workshop.

First published in Businessworld, 12.10.09

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still more Vancouver Festival Films (Oliviera, Hui) --and one Filipino (Ad. Castillo), just because



Yang Ik Joon's Ddongpari (Breathless, 2009) does, at times, induce that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by also writing the film's script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (his moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.

This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time.

Yang tries to go a step further--tries to explain Sang and Yeon's personalities by showing either their past or home life. These scenes seem trite and sentimental; seem like the kind of melodrama Sang and Yeon would rather laugh at than accept as their respective back stories. It's a measure of their appeal that we would prefer to take Sang and Yeon as they are--straight, no chaser, no sympathy or psychotherapy or any such syrupy nonsense.

Yuri Nomura's eatrip (2009) is a lovely documentary but no less substantial for being beautifully shot and lit--witness the sequence at the Tsukiji fish market where a seller talks about the lightness of tuna in spring, and how much richer the flesh is in winter when the fish eats fattier foods, then in a sudden change of tone notes how the supply of fish is dwindling all the time. It's a sobering moment, balanced by the woman who grows her own produce theorizing that it's best to eat root vegetables during the new moon, when all energy is drawn downwards, and best to eat leaf and fruit during the full moon, when all energy is drawn upwards.

The central section depicts a tea ceremony, where the tea master explains that "water and mountain are the essence of the Earth and of Buddha...what is Buddhism? It's all living things. Therefore all living things are a part of Buddha!" He's far more persuasive when explaining that a light blue sweet on a plate represents the Earth, with the translucent blue outer dough representing water, and the bright green bean center representing solid ground. "Eat the sweet first," he explains. Eating the sweet first, apparently, prepares tongue and throat for the tea, allows one to taste the tea's best flavors, instead of only its bitterness.

The film ends with a visually ravishing meal--light brown chicken poached in a green broth; what look like sauteed gizzards mixed with grain which are then steamed above the poaching chicken, picking up the flavor of both chicken and broth; a plate full of sliced radishes is lightly seasoned, is topped with gorgeous slices of raw whitefish; is in turn topped with a bowl of bright red strawberries--easily one of the most beautiful dishes I've ever seen. Does the film have some kind of overarching plan, a coherent point to make? I don't know; I suspect not. It rambles here and there, picking up other people's voices and opinions, at times pausing to show us how something is made. Much like the best dinner conversations, come to think of it.

Ann Hui's Tin shui wai dik ye yu mo (Night and Fog, 2009) was the rare festival film that I didn't like. Hui this time takes on wife-beaters, and like her Filipino contemporary Marilou Diaz-Abaya she goes about dealing with the subject in an impassioned, rather heavy-handed manner. These films are more about script and acting than about visual style, which is unremarkably competent--the script scrupulously goes about building the case against the husband (Simon Yam), closing along the way all avenues of escape for the girl (Zhang Jingchu). It's a case of city boy resents country girl, constantly putting her down, constantly undercutting her sense of security, and of self.

Mind you, it's not an especially bad film; it goes about its business with brisk efficiency and in its best and most moving moments gives us a glimpse of the kind of happiness the pair had (a quiet scene, for one, where Yam washes Zhang's hair) before everything goes horribly wrong. When they do go wrong though Hui pulls out all the stops, and you can feel the film slipping swiftly out of her control: Yam's angry husband becomes a teeth baring-monster, and Zhang can only gasp in humiliation and pain. We wince as well--partly in sympathy for Zhang (and what her director puts her through), partly in embarrassment for Hui. Subtlety like this belongs more in a Rob Zombie flick.

Manoel de Oliveira's Singularidades de uma Rapariga de Loura (Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl 2009) shows the filmmaker celebrating his 100th birthday still in full control of his faculties. A little over an hour long, the film is a masterpiece of economical and graceful storytelling--not a single wasted image or gesture. The very first shot shows us a conductor punching tickets; the camera following left to right, right to left, as if asking us to guess who this story will be about, with the conductor presenting each candidate for our inspection. We finally settle on Macario (Riccado Trepa), who tells his sad story to a fellow passenger (Leonor Silveira). He is an accountant working for his uncle, and looking out the balcony of his office one day he sees in the balcony of the opposing building a blond girl (Catarina Wallenstein) playing with her fan.

That's all it takes: two balconies, a girl, her fan. Macario falls madly in love with her, of course, and for most of the film's running time Oliveira toys with the image framed by the two doorways and the space between the two balconies, the way fate toys with Macario's life. The opposite balcony is always tantalizingly close--you feel as if you can reach over and grasp the railing--yet Oliveira keeps us constantly aware of the gulf between them, as of the obstacles that must always be put in the way of two lovers in all romantic comedies (this one more dryly comic than most). At one point we listen to the girl reading Macario's love letter as across the way a different accountant occupies Macario's former office--Oliveira mocks her with the image of someone other than Macario sitting in his accustomed place; she keeps faith by facing pointedly away, reading the words of his letter aloud to herself.

The ending, of course, is purest irony (the script was based on a story by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz
, a nineteenth century writer oft called the Flaubert of Portugal), with the film's final image possibly being Oliveira's best jest: The train pulling away from the camera, a joke on the joke Hitchcock pulled in the final image of North by Northwest (1959). Instead of cinema's longest penetration shot we have cinema's longest withdrawal shot, receding rapidly towards the horizon. Talk about onscreen lovers that feel blue, Macario possibly has the bluest pair of anyone I can remember.

Finally--not because it was in the festival but only because I just saw it again--Celso Ad Castillo's Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara
(1974), about a dead woman's determination to wreak unholy vengeance on her poor sister, is not a perfect film, not even a particularly good film, certainly not the finest of Ad Castillo's work (which at worst can politely be described as 'inconsistent,' at best goes beyond the reach of any other filmmaker in the Philippines, perhaps the world). Rosanna Ortiz's Ruth is the very definition of overwrought; Ad Castillo dwells over her jealous hysteria the way a sadistic police officer might over a criminal's interrogation, pressing foot to miscreant's neck and grinding his face into the dirt (we feel as if our face were being ground into Ms. Ortiz's). Some of the horror effects seem ludicrous today--the doll with glowing Eveready eyes, the rather monotonous 'twanging' sound indicating evil is afoot (if it's on foot, why would it twang?).


Difficult to say what happens next, but Ad Castillo, after playing with dolls and cheesy sound effects in the film's first half lays aside the childish toys and tries a different tack--silence, shadows, the stretching of a moment of tension to sadistic length. At one point he evokes the scene where Arbogast (Martin Balsam) climbs the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)--only unlike many a Hitchcock imitator, he manages to pull it off.

After all the bloodletting and screaming and buried corpses, one remembers Barbara declaring to Ruth (rough translation): “yes I love Fritz, but never at the cost of your happiness! Our love was a quiet love, a tender love, giving, self-sacrificing, concerned for the other's welfare. It was not based on anger, or hate, or jealousy! It was not based on vengeance!” The film's true horror lies in Ruth's all-consuming jealousy towards her sister, how she must possess everything Barbara has on her own terms even if it cost her everything, even if it costs her her life.

(poster from
Video48)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Planet 51 (Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad, 2009)

The Ecch Files


Planet 51 is basically your standard-issue brightly colored mostly flavorless computer animated 3-D feature. Its one semi-clever conceit: instead of an alien lost in a human world (can you say 'Spielberg' quickly twenty times without gagging?) we have human astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) lost in a world of vaguely green men.


Half a point to the writers for originality; two extra bonus points to whoever in the audience points out that the idea is actually not that original--Charlton Heston's arrogant, self-absorbed astronaut found himself lost in a world of non-humans in Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968). Come to think of it, the earlier picture was a lot funnier--not as much slapstick but a keener sense of satire, not to mention it spawned a film series that brought the story full circle, with a hyperintelligent chimpanzee growing up in a world of hostile humans.


Tim Burton remade Schaffner's film in 2001 and while a lot of critics were not a fan, I think it's very much underrated--not only does it have a lush color palette, it takes Schaffner's ode to persecuted paranoia and transforms it into a sonnet for interspecies sensuality. As for this picture, I can't see it spawning any sequel, much less a remake, much less a franchise that would bring anything to a full anything else.


So far so not funny. Once the initial joke has worn off we're left with the tired plot of the wise father figure teaching insecure teen hero how to puff up the chest and pick up girls (for the record, Baker's technique deserves a slap across the face for sheer cheesiness). Some gags make one want to scratch one's head (Baker convinces two dim soldiers he's taken over their minds); some are mildly amusing (the villainous general (Gary Oldman) assigns every soldier a soldier to shoot in case the human takes over their minds). None are offensively stupid, though I'd have appreciated something sexist or racist or tasteless or whatever--to tee me off enough that I could stay awake.


As in the tradition of second-class computer animated pictures like Ice Age or Bolt or this, the supporting characters upstage the main. Ice Age had its superdetermined squirrel, Bolt its superpowerful gerbil; this picture has two--a wheeled robot named “Rover” that acts like a dog (if they really wanted it to act like a dog, it should hump someone's leg), and a leashed pet that resembles H.R. Giger's alien (pees acid, too). Not saying these two creatures are actually interesting (I prefer my Rover in the shape of a large, semi-inflated beach ball), but sitting there in the dark for so long like a helpless convict you have to have something to focus on, help pass the time.


Man on the loose, man hunted down, man alone in a world out to get him--one can do so many things with the subject, one in fact remembers so many examples in noir or science fiction one wonders what on earth the filmmakers were thinking. What made them look upon the genre and say “Hm. This could use yet another computer-animated family comedy”? One wants the loneliness, the terror of being chased, of having no friends, family resources, of being the only difference in a world of homogeneity. Having Dwayne Johnson clown around and flash shiny teeth at a club full of blue-haired aliens does not inspire terror, or laughter, or much of anything--a mild queasiness, at most.


More than this picture, more than Franklin J. Schaffner's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's classic (or Burton's remake of the same), there is one science-fiction novel that perfectly encapsulates the man-against-the-world predicament: Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, where one man (Robert Neville) survives a pandemic that has turned everyone else into vampires. Talk about loneliness, or terror--Matheson dwells on Neville's endless supplies of canned and stored food, his countless weapons and security measures, all the better to emphasize the hopelessness of his situation: he's the last man on Earth. When he goes, that's it, game over, the end.


None of the film adaptations have properly adapted the novel, though Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's 1964 The Last Man on Earth comes closest with its eerie atmosphere and moody black-and-white cinematography, especially in the early scenes. All versions have fudged the novel's ending, when Neville realizes his true position in relation to the planet and the new society inhabiting it, and the full meaning of the book's title comes out. That kind of realization, that complete and utter inversion of one's complacent way of thinking, that leading the reader (or viewer) carefully, step by logical step, to the crucial conceptual breakthrough, that's what real science fiction is all about. This on the other hand is mainly proof that yes, even Spanish filmmakers (in this case,Jorge Blanco and Javier Abad) are perfectly capable of creating a ninety-minute, nondescript, Hollywood-style pain in the rear.


First published in Businessworld, 12.04.09

Monday, December 07, 2009

Lav Diaz's 'Melancholia' and the Maguindanao Massacre



Violence is a part of the Filipino political landscape no matter who is president, no matter what political system is in place; the Maguindanao Massacre (or Ampatuan Massacre, as it is alternatively known) is just the most recent and arguably most horrifying confirmation of this ugly fact.

Filipino films have on occasion reflected this reality. One of the earliest and most powerful examples would be Gerardo De Leon's The Moises Padilla Story (1961), about an honest man running for mayor who is kidnapped, tortured, and killed for his aspirations. Even today the film is capable of disturbing one's complacency as much for the violence (at one point the man is brutally blinded) as for De Leon's visual subtext, presenting Padilla as a kind of suffering Christ figure (think Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ only done with subtlety and a kind of horrifying grace), with former president Joseph Estrada playing an equally tormented Judas (Esrada's greatest tragic role, I submit, with his presidency being a kind of late, great tragicomic performance).

During the '80s, possibly no one has recorded government and military abuses with as much persistent thoroughness as Jose 'Pete' Lacaba--his scripts for Mike De Leon, Lino Brocka and Chito Rono managed to force three seemingly disparate Filipino filmmakers to conform to his strong auteurial voice. Sister Stella L. (1984), script realized by Mike De Leon, contains a scene which unblinkingly depicts the torture and 'salvaging' (the then-popular term for extralegal executions) of a political activist during the waning years of the Marcos administration. Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), script helmed by Lino Brocka, went a step further, showing us the beating, rape, and murder of political activists during the Aquino administration. At one point, a character declares that Aquino was
"worse than Marcos," that her lack of control over the paramilitary groups roaming the countryside created more corruption, more chaos, more occasion for atrocities, than was possible under Marcos' dictatorship--a brave statement, considering how popular Ms. Aquino was at the time. Eskapo (1995), script executed by Chito Rono, acted as a kind of prequel depicting the early days of Marcos' swiftly imposed Martial Law, when even the powerful political elite were easily taken prisoner, when Marcos' grip was terrifyingly absolute, when flight was the only sane response.

Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) depicts atrocities done by the Negros military in alternately lyrical, historical, and supernatural terms. Seen through the eyes of children, the military is a nebulous creature hiding in the surrounding enchanted forests; growing up, these same children recognize the figures stepping out of their fabled past as all-too-real human monsters with a policy of (not to mention taste for) violent response (the atrocities depicted here, including a true one involving a man dropped from a helicopter, are some of the most baroque and sadistic I've ever seen). In the film's last act, the children finally realize that the monsters are inescapably inside them, inescapably themselves, and the only possible response to this bitter epiphany is a kind of agonized poetic cry.

Lav Diaz has done more than his share to depict political violence in the Filipino landscape, in films such as Batang West Side (2001), Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (2002), and Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2006).

Encantos might serve as a prelude to Lav's latest, Melancholia (2008)--where in the former it is hinted that military persecution was at the heart of the protagonist's anguish, here it is front and center the film's very theme. Three survivors of a military operation attempt to deal with the trauma of their ordeal and the experience of losing of their loved ones by staging a kind of psychodrama, where the three live in a provincial town (the beautiful Northern community of Sagada) under radically new identities.

One isn't sure exactly how this form of therapy might work, or even if it will work, but the conceit has its emotionally wrenching moments (one survivor's act of psychological cruelty towards the other two) and odd tender ones (an encounter between two women that develops into a profound friendship); it takes its eponymous mood and sustains it for the entire eight-hour running time, ringing slight variations in emotional tone by switching setting (from indoors to the wide outdoors; from bohemian to middle-class to desaparecidos
; from Sagada to Manila to the unspecified forest in which the military hunt their leftist prey) and voice (from third-person impersonal to memory to nightmare fantasy) and time (from present to extended flashback to a kind of eternal present). The effect across generations is touched upon--one character is the child of disappeared parents, and her life and personality has been warped accordingly; another, the mother of one of the survivors, simply cannot comprehend the enormity of change in her daughter.

Perhaps Diaz's greatest tribute to his fallen comrades and all who have suffered and survived is the very existence of this film--the fact that it takes eight hours of intense lyrical storytelling to do the subject at least partial justice.There is no attempt at humor; there are few moments when the sense of loss does not hang heavy in the air; there is little possibility (nor does Diaz offer any hope otherwise) that this can ever be relieved. This may be Diaz's angriest, most anguished work yet, and the fact that it speaks with volume pitched barely above a whisper serves to intensify that anger, that anguish--like a blowtorch whose flame has been turned down from roaring yellow to an intense blue it hisses its absolute fury.



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Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis, 2009)


A motion-captured Christmas

Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (2009) opens with a beautifully textured leatherbound book, a watercolor illustration that morphs slowly into a horrifyingly textured image of the deceased Marley, cloth binding his jaw shut, pennies covering his eyes.

Enter Scrooge (Jim Carrey), checking Marley for signs of life. When the undertakers put out an outstretched hand for tips, Carrey plays up Scrooge's tightfistedness to the hilt; you would think he was extracting a back molar from out of his jaw the way his fingers trembled, as he extracted coins out of his purse. There's an even better bit later when Scrooge encounters a band of singing carolers--they continue singing as he passes, albeit at a softer key.

Moments like these make you want to pull for Zemeckis' adaptation; when he uses 3-D in these opening scenes he uses it chastely, as a way to add depth to digitally rendered animation (things stick out at you from the screen, but not intrusively). One can see the advantage of combining the two techniques: 3-D gives the images roundedness and solidity, the images give the 3-D rendering emotionally evocative material to incarnate. Even the Marley doorknob is vividly realized, with its hair wavering about in an eerie green glow, like floating seaweed; one completely understands Scrooge's trepidation at approaching the thing.

About the time when Marley's ghost appears the animation starts going wrong. Marley swings his chained cashboxes like some superstrong comic-book hero; when he howls it's not the howl of the eternally damned but of the digitally enhanced--you don't feel the otherworldliness of the specter, only the coolness of the effect. What's missing, what has just been lost, is the stillness, the airlessness, the sense of things trapped for years in stone tombs--what we have instead is your standard-issue CGI apparition, leaping at the camera and doing its level best to scare the daylights out of viewers. I could barely keep from walking out, myself.

Why do adapters of Dickens' classic short story always stumble into this pitfall? Why don't they ever realize that “A Christmas Carol” is a triumph of prose more than narrative (a simple allegory, told in three parts (five if you include the introduction and aftermath), that it is the tone and atmosphere that sells this story, more than the occasional supernatural shenanigans? Ghost tales are a dime a dozen; what makes the “Carol” immortal is the sense of creeping dread you feel as Dickens plays you with all the expertise of a flutist, his fingers running up and down your spine. Then there's Scrooge--a monster with a frozen heart, the heat of the supernatural gradually thawing his frozen features into some semblance of a human face.

In a sense, the “Carol” is the worse possible choice for Zemeckis--he's a master of the quick sight gag, the elaborate pan with tiny jokes tucked away in the corners, the difficult stunt pulled off with energy and drive, if not grace. He seems permanently enamored of the motion-capture process, and he's constantly trying to sell it either as an artistic alternative (a brawny, ultraviolent (and to my mind ludicrous) version of “Beowulf”) or as a possible commercial draw (“the Polar Express,” this movie). “Beowulf” barely made its $150 million budget back; this picture is struggling to recover its $200 million budget, though one imagines it can be (god forbid) a holiday perennial, much like Tim Burton's (far more textured, far more visually inventive) A Nightmare Before Christmas.

Jim Carrey, by the way, makes for a tolerable Scrooge--he doesn't really mug, Carrey-style, or at least he doesn't go too far in his mugging (in a way that's a pity; I still remember the impression he once made--like sticking a finger in a power socket--with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Zemeckis manages to safely encapsulate Carrey's antics inside the character's parameters, more or less shunting aside his usual excesses towards some of the more outrageous personas Carry happens to play (the various ghosts). Gary Oldman fares better as both the hapless Bob Cratchit and the freakish Marley.

I'd love to see the “Carol” properly done, as a Gothic ghost story with a quietly celebratory ending (no heavenly choirs, please!). If the Muppets can turn the tale into a comedy musical and Zemeckis into a CGI extravaganza, then Kurosawa Kiyoshi can turn it into a seasonal J-horror classic (maybe Hideo Nakata--he's more of a narrative traditionalist). One can imagine a terribly patient Ghost of Christmas Past shambling forth out of the video screen, its long hair hanging forward, its stumbling gait inevitable, inescapable.

In the meantime we have this--not too bad (the “Carol” has strength enough to survive any number of undignified adaptations), but nothing to shout from the housetops, either. Have yourselves a mumblety-mumble Christmas and a harumph-hmph New Year, folks.

First published in Businessworld 11.27.09


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