Sunday, April 25, 2010

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)



Island of Lost Souls


It's become a bit of a fashion to bash Martin Scorsese, and that's understandable--in his films of the '70s (Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) he was an exciting independent filmmaker who hurled his personal obsessions on the big screen; a breathtaking experience and, many of us thought, an essential one. The achievement wasn't so much the violence, which can be bloody, or the immediacy of style, which can be a head-rush thrill, but the self-confessional quality of his cinema, the sense that he's flashing us images of his soul. If we at all respond (and there are those that don't--that are in fact repelled by Scorsese's candor), his achievement becomes all the more extraordinary.

How do you top work like that? Scorsese tried; in Raging Bull (1980) he attempted to dissect the psychology of a violence-obsessed brute accursed with a thirst for redemption (come to think of it, Scorsese might have been prophesying the rise of Mel Gibson). In The King of Comedy (1982) he documented the queasy relationship between a battle-fatigued celebrity and his psychopath fan (think of it as Taxi Driver meets Network). In The Last Temptation of Christ (1989)--easily my favorite of his '80s work--he brought immediacy and angst to the ossified story of Jesus Christ (possibly the film's most iconic image for me was Judas half-dragging Jesus past a broken brick wall--Christ, on the mean streets of Jerusalem). This decade was a searching, a restlessness, a reaching out to various genres, time periods, subject matter; often the attempt and approach, the process by which he tried to explore chosen material, was at least as interesting as the end result.

In the '90s there was still some stretching (The Age of Innocence (1993) was an adaptation of Edith Wharton; Kundun (1997) his adaptation of the Dalai Lama's autobiography), but in key films you saw a concerted effort to pull back, to consolidate over familiar ground. Goodfellas (1990) returned to the genre he is best known for, the Mafia film--it became his most acclaimed picture since Raging Bull. Casino, made some five years later, is to my mind the more interesting work, taking actors from the previous production (Joe Pesci, Robert de Niro) and a similar milieu (the Mafia, this time operating in Vegas) and pitching it at the level and magnitude of opera.

This past decade is possibly his most problematic--he has become Martin Scorsese, America's most respected commercial filmmaker and a cinematic institution; he is able to raise a budget and set of expectations few other filmmaker can handle. Some say he can't--that he's fallen from grace, sold out, whored himself to Hollywood for thirty pieces of silver (or the modern Babylon's equivalent, in thousands of dollars). There's something to that argument--his budgets have become larger, he has come to tackle more conventional material, and the results are more decidedly mixed.

I think it's the mixed results that should clue us in to what he's doing--or at least trying to do. Gangs of New York is the Hollywood historical epic brought to seething life in the sets of Cinecitta; more than the plot (a simplistic one of a boy avenging his father), what possibly interested Scorsese was animating Herbert Asbury's nonfiction history, and juxtaposing the struggle of tiny human figures against the background of a city rising, as it were, from primordial mud (you saw that mud in most scenes, plus the wood four-by-fours sprouting like the citizens' mute aspirations out of the sodden earth). The Aviator (2004) was Scorsese's take on the Hollywood biopic; Hughes' life here not only paralleled the lives of contemporary power figures (a post-election George W. Bush, for one) but climaxed with an introverted life-death struggle: Hughes shutting himself in a room, to deal with his inner demons. The Departed (2006) is perhaps Scorsese's most conventional work--ironically it won him the long-coveted Academy Award for best director--but Scorsese manages to recast Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's thriller as an evolutionary struggle between two rival tribes (their tribal leaders, past breeding age, are identified as the source of both authority and corruption), the final shot revealing who is in the best position to eventually inherit the earth.

Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island (2010), an adaptation of Dennis Lahane's novel and, presumably, his take on the Hollywood psychological thriller, is both his least conventional and for many most problematic. The plot is ridiculous, the acting and atmosphere, overwrought. Easy enough to say this is deliberate, that Scorsese intentionally brought the film's emotional tone up to fever pitch, the better to say what he's trying to say--but what is he trying to say? It's difficult to pin down the theme of a Scorsese film; when he's at his best it's well nigh impossible. The best you can say--as with Goodfellas or Mean Streets or a Gangs of New York--is that he's aiming for an immersive experience, that he wants to fill you with the sights and sounds and emotions of a specific cultural milieu. 

This film alludes to Dachau, to abuses at mental institutions, to the Cold War and mind control experiments; the film also pays homage to, among others, Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor and Val Lewton's haunting mood pieces (I think it a disservice to call them 'horror films'). Critics complain that he's tossing out red herrings, he's referring to other films like a film geek (funny, Quentin Tarantino refers to other films in his latest movie, and not as many people pay mind). Perhaps they've lost patience with Scorsese; perhaps they feel that what he's doing has become tiresome, stale. I understand the sentiment.

Is the reasoning “at least he's directing” so disingenuous? I see him as taking one Hollywood genre after another, and undermining them by tossing out the plot, leaving in the conventions (at least most of them), and telling the story (and we know how little regard he gives story) his way--through the rush of imagery and music, like Michael Powell on amphetamines (and perhaps a few hallucinogens). Perhaps, and this I think is the most serious charge, he has moved away from the sources in his life that made his work such a charged experience--that feeling of stepping into a confessional to listen in every time we step into a movie theater with his name on the marquee. Possibly the well has run dry, and he's had to move on, taking up mainstream Hollywood as the source (monetary, anyway) of his inspiration. Perhaps all he has left is his ability, his skill at telling stories visually--is that such a little thing?

Of his later films, or at least of his visual style when doing the later features (I'm not even going to comment on his documentaries, which I think are tremendous, and a whole other ball of wax) the key film, I think, isn't any particular feature but an omnibus, the 1989 New York Stories, for which he directed the segment “Life Lessons,” an adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Gambler. The key moment there, the single crucial image with which Scorsese possibly identifies the most (still does, for all I know) is of Soho artist Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) standing before a huge canvas, poised and breathless, as if about to dive in. His love life's a wreck, his woman has nothing but contempt for him, he's under pressure to deliver for an upcoming gallery show, he possibly suspects he's lost his soul (I know Scorsese constantly worries about this, and on the evidence of his recent work most critics must be wondering as well), he possibly hopes to regain it through work, and he's about to try--swiftly and spectacularly, in a symphony of flashing brushes, smearing fingers, spattering paint. Not an easy place to be, but I think it's the place Scorsese most wants to be, even if he has nothing to say, even if he has no one to say it to.



First published in Businessworld, 4.15.10

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mario O'Hara's masterpiece on DVD; Palito; New Dr. Who



Just had to put this out: Mario O'Hara's 1976 masterpiece Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) is now available on DVD. Word is it's watchable (whatever that means); no mention of English subtitles, or extras of any kind. 

I'd be happier with just a print in good condition--if you ever have a chance to attend a screening (and not one of those 'projected video' horrors people are fond of having nowadays) then please go. 

Otherwise, if this is the only way you get to see the film...well...

The film, incidentally, has been included in Jaime Christley's blog Unexamined Essentials, basically a list of must-see films that deserve to be, well, seen. 

Also released on DVD by the same company is Lino Brocka's Bona (1980)--the selling point being these are two of actress Nora  Aunor's best-known roles. My article on the film can be found here.


Palito (1934 - 2010)

He gave pleasure; he harmed no one; he was totally unpretentious. We don't appreciate them enough, the Stan Laurels of this world (his comedy was predicated on a sweet passivity, as opposed to Oliver Hardy's petulant aggression), but they give their all anyway.


Dr. Who: The Eleventh Hour

A lot of ink and tears have been spilled over the passing of David Tennant's Doctor in The End of Time to which I nodded "yes, that's very  moving; yes, Tennant's very good; yes, he plays his final scene well," but in my heart of hearts kept thinking: "Screw this, when do we get to see the next Steven Moffat?"

They could cast Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor, for all I cared (Dr. Bean?); it was for the Moffat script that I waited, for over a year, and I was not disappointed. No, it wasn't another nail-biter like Blink (which I showed to my students recently, instantly converting most of them to rabid Whovians) no it wasn't a heartbreaker like The Girl in the Fireplace, no it didn't have the substance, the gravitas of his The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances (his best work in the series, in my opine), but it did have that distinct Moffat voice--quick-witted, eccentric, occasionally unsettling, with just that faint but never absent undertone of melancholy, the grief of people whose grasp of time is never firm, ever uncertain. 

At one point in the show (one of those behind-the-scenes TV spots) someone pointed out that Moffat's concept of science fiction is cracks in the wall, monsters under the bed, children in gas masks, weeping stone angels--in short, anything and everything you see around you, slightly skewed and not a little disturbing. It's everyday objects, in short, cast in a more malevolent light (for forty minutes of thrills, it's hard to top Blink--I've had hardened eighteen-year-old boys shriek like girls when the angels start reaching out and snarling). 

Moffat has this gift for running--no, not running, more like skating--across a wide range of emotional tones, turning on a dime from horror to comedy to horror to tragedy. Like when the Doctor (Matt Smith) climbs out of an upended TARDIS and meets Amelia (Caitlin Blackwood): the young girl informs him of a scary crack in the wall; he confesses to a hankering for apples. After the Doctor has sampled (and spat out in disgust) almost everything in Amelia's fridge, he finally settles on fish sticks in custard (ech), during which consumption Amelia informs him that she lives with her aunt, who's out working. 

"And she left you all alone?" the Doctor asks. 

"I'm not scared." 

"'Course you're not, look at you. Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard. And look at you, just sitting there. So you know what I think?"

"What?"

"Must be a hell of a scary crack in the wall." 

That's a typical Moffat moment--conversation that swirls in eccentric whorls and loops, suddenly swooping down on the point he'd been eyeing all along. Glad to have you back, sir; a  pleasure to once again listen to someone who actually knows how to write sharp dialogue.

And Matt Smith (who plays the Doctor) to his credit keeps up with Moffat's dialogue, his angular face every bit as lumpy and eccentric as the orbital course of that dialogue, his body wire-alert and fast on its feet (you do a lot of running in Dr.Who, but Moffat seems to promise more than the usual amount of sprinting). Karen Gillan as Amy (Amelia as a young woman) is a fiery, fresh-faced foil to Smith, every bit his equal when it comes to banter, at times even physically intimidating the Time Lord. I can't say Smith right off is the better Doctor; can't help but think Moffat's dialogue goes a long way towards making him such a smart, appealing character (Come to think of it, Tennant--and Christopher Eccleston before him--never sounded wittier or more intelligent than when they were mouthing Moffat's dialogue).
.
There's also a strong sexual frankness to this Doctor (not surprising, not if you've followed Moffat's hit comedy series Coupling). After spending most of the episode rushing about in David Tennant's outfit he finally takes the time to pick out new clothing, and strips his old threads. An offended young man asks Amy "Are you not going to turn your back?" "Nope," Amy replies, smiling, obviously checking the Doctor out. Moffat seems to be out to test the boundaries of Who's wholesomeness, and I for one welcome that.


The episode's unstated theme is trust; this is the story of a young girl--representing us, of course--learning to have faith in the apparently undependable Doctor, a total unknown who has the effrontery to capture our hearts, then leave us for years--maybe forever--without even a proper farewell. Moffat takes the basic storyline of The Girl in the Fireplace and inflicts it on a far less accepting girl; the Doctor finds himself forced to measure up to her expectations. 

Behind the comic banter and pratfalls and the rather ordinary villain (a keen disappointment, if it wasn't for the enigmatic and thankfully not overdone signs of more to come), there's the unspoken assumption of heartbreak. The Doctor has disappointed poor Amelia, time and time again; she's learned the harsh lesson most characters in Moffat scripts learn--that time is an insidious, unstable  ("timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly") thing, that our slow-moving, strictly linear consciousness will often conflict with or collide with or (as most often happens) slowly, painfully crumble away under the interminably corrosive influence of time. Moffat more than any other Whovian writer makes me laugh, but under the comedy you sense trauma, you sense sadness, you sense bitterly shed tears.

Not happy with much else: the corny logo ("DW" in the shape of the police box); the frenetic tumbling TARDIS; the overdistorted theme song; the goofy-looking alien ships (mainly eyeballs set into spinning snowflakes), the brightly orange new interior of the TARDIS (I liked the Victorian 'Nautilus' look of yore, all iron girders and amber lighting; this one looked like the inside of a scooped-out Halloween pumpkin)--the overall look of the new series doesn't grab me. But Moffat's scripts do, and how.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Altar vs. Avatar



Altar vs. Avatar

At first blush the two pictures couldn't be more different--one is a gigantic Hollywood production with a quarter of a billion dollar budget and fifteen-year development period (two months of which were devoted to live-action photography); the second is a tiny independent production with a thirty thousand dollar budget (barely enough to cover the cost of laundering the former's dirty underwear), two months pre-production period and eight days to actually shoot the movie.

Avatar's commercial run had all the impact of a detonated nuclear device--it's difficult to avoid the fallout from the promotional blitz that surrounded this picture, and as difficult to ignore the scavengers gathered round, picking on the corpses (winning all those Golden Doorstop© nominations won't make it any easier for the dust to dissipate, not for some time). Altar, safe to say, didn't make as much of a splash--a few theaters, a few favorable notices, a few film festivals, and the movie has since dropped from sight as thoroughly as its protagonist did from the outside world.

Avatar makes grand statements about the need to protect our environment (particularly our rain forests) and preserve our tribal cultures (Pandora is of course Earth, and the Na'vi are really our long-oppressed aboriginal tribes). It casts a blanket condemnation on large companies, particularly their security forces, and deliberately invites comparisons between RDA (the movie's rather blandly named villainous corporate entity) and private military contractors operating in Iraq like Blackwater (Not a little ironically one can also compare RDA to News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's anonymous-sounding multimedia conglomerate that in turn owns 20th Century Fox, this picture's production company).

Altar--well, you can't be sure exactly what it says. That a man cannot escape his destiny (Anton starts the film in a small room, ends the film in a different small room); that love is a luxury few can afford; that moral responsibility begins with sacrifice, then eats away inside of you for a long time, perhaps all your life. Barely anything earth-shaking or consequential, just little observations that might apply to one's personal life.

The two are not as grotesquely mismatched as you may think. Both are digital films, both feature temperamentally passive protagonists (Jake (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, Anton (Zanjoe Marudo) in Altar) pitted against forces beyond their control, or comprehension. Avatar's director James Cameron is famous worldwide for his fascist directing style and outrageous temper tantrums; I haven't heard any horror stories about Altar's director Rico Ilarde--but then all directors must act like dictators if necessary to finish their films. Ilarde's a veteran of both the commercial and independent filmmaking scene; I'm sure he's had to raise his voice now and then.

Avatar is filmmaking on an epic scale; Cameron amassed an array of groundbreaking techniques (Cameron's recent work has often been accompanied by a number of patents, for inventions developed during the making of the picture) to create and shoot the images he throws on the big screen. The camera swoops and falls and dives, especially in the scenes where Jake rides a Toruk, a giant birdlike predator; the camera takes in impossibly huge images, like the craggy islands that float above the planet's surface, or the thousand-foot-high Hometree that the Omaticaya tribe live in. I've always suspected that Cameron's model for much of his action filmmaking was Akira Kurosawa, especially in the way he tries to keep crucial movements on-camera and within a single shot (the Terminator punching through a windshield; Coffey's sub surging after Brigman's; Harry hanging from a helicopter, grabbing Helen's hand as her limo dives into the sea; the camera making a sweep of the length of the Titanic as passengers run from one end of the ship to the other). To get that shot he will act like an emperor, not giving in an inch until he has what he wants. With the freedom of an almost completely virtual environment his style has changed; now the model he seems to be following is that of Robert Zemeckis, who in his version of Beowulf (2007) showed an utter disregard for the laws of gravity and physics, his camera arcing through the space between Beowulf and Grendel like a third character with its own set of superhuman abilities.

Ilarde with his more modest budget can't afford to express that kind of freedom. His is more of a resurrection of the camera style of Howard Hawks (by way perhaps of John Carpenter and Walter Hill) with his classically simple set ups, his refusal to go shaky-cam even with a relatively lightweight digital camera in hand, his precise editing rhythms. He does use digital software--some wire erasures, some smoke and dust clouds, a pair of glowing eyes--but chastely, like lightly applied makeup. Not to say that Altar is all anachronisms, a throwback--Ilarde's images, as I've noted in other articles, combine Hawksian mis-en-scene with J-horror atmosphere and a digital-indie clarity to depict a protagonist that is pure Filipino male. There's a playfulness to his filmmaking, as well as an edge--he's hungry, his films have never been an outright hit (though the commercial ones have made a respectable amount of money), he's out to prove something both as an artist and a commercial filmmaker. Again, another observation I've often made about Ilarde: he's too much fun, too in love with genres like action and comedy and horror (and too fond of mixing them up in bizarre combinations) to be a pure indie artist, the same time his filmmaking is too visually subtle, his material too esoteric, to relegate him to the commercial directors' pile; like his films, he's an oddball hybrid, a scrappy one.

Perhaps the crucial difference between Avatar and Altar is this: with all that money and technology at his employ, Cameron has finally broken the bonds of mere practicality and created action sequences that are, well, unsurprisingly weightless. The Na'vi are totally imagined? Then their massacre totally feels as if it doesn't matter. The Hometree's destruction is virtually rendered? Then the event is virtually free of tragedy. Cameron worked long and hard and expensively to create the tools that create his world (rendered in bright Day-Glo colors, with people dyed Toilet-Duck blue running about) forgetting to give that world emotional heft, a way to affect us as people, as fellow human beings. Ilarde has no other choice but to affect us--he has no other world to offer other than our own, inhabited by people recognizably sad and funny and sexy and afraid, like us.

It doesn't help matters that, for all of Avatar's one hundred and sixty minute running time it's surprisingly light on characterization (well, perhaps not that surprising--Hollywood megaproductions (Transformers 2, Sherlock Holmes) seem to go over the two hour mark nowadays, making one wonder: why are they taking more and more time to say less and less?). Hence the RDA gang, with Stephen Lang chomping on choice bits of scenery and Giovanni Ribisi spreading across the screen like the oiliest of smears--I'm no fan of the military, but even I find myself objecting to Cameron's treatment of his villains. To add insult to injury, RDA's game plan makes little sense--how can they even attempt a policy of “winning the hearts and minds of the natives” when they're bulldozing rain forest without the natives' permission? Why all the withering condescension towards the Na'vi when they know some of their own have defected to the other side, with knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses? Bad enough RDA security is revealed to be so racist--do they have to act retarded as well?

On the other hand the Na'vi are so pure, so noble, so in touch with nature you can't help but feel a little nauseated--they seem ready to zoom straight to heaven, pneumatically sucked up by the sheer force of their virtuousness. Their tactics make little sense either--why hide in a gigantic tree which, strategically speaking, is just one big fat target? Why if everything is interconnected worldwide is the Tree of Souls so important--can't they just go to another tree and plug in? Doesn't the biosystem employ multiple redundancies, for a more stable network?

(Actually, I can answer that last question: the Tree of Souls is important because the movie needs a vulnerable spot where the good guys can stage a “do or die” battle--yet another occasion where plausibility is sacrificed to corny effect)

And why (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen Cameron's movie (which is unlikely) and plan to do so (which I don't recommend)) if Jake or his human friends are aware of the RDA security forces' strengths and capabilities, don't they plan for the possibility of losing? Which does basically happen. Which is only turned around at the last minute when the entire planet fights back--which, if you want an overall message, isn't exactly the positive one Cameron had in mind: never mind losing the immediate battle, Mother Nature is sure to step in and help win the war. How passive, how perfectly suited to the Na'vi's faux “child of nature / noble savage / guerrilla warrior” philosophy. Might add that another child of nature, Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Nausicaa, knew better; that a military victory meant hard choices, painful sacrifices, and doing less than admirable things to win (one notices Avatar's similarity not just to Miyazaki's Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984), but to the filmmaker's Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997)--not that I think Cameron was canny enough to watch these films, but that Miyazaki's influence on environmental drama is so pervasive even the self-proclaimed King of the World can't avoid it).

Ilarde's characters by way of comparison are equally cartoonish but at a brief ninety minutes the shallowness isn't as grating--it's a horror / action / romantic comedy and pretends to be nothing more (no demands for golden statues, no claims to be a Big Event) and nothing less (no compromising with flashy filmmaking or elaborate digital effects).

That would be Altar's final virtue--its sense of proportion. Ilarde gives the film the right weight and heft, adds just enough of a subtext emphasizing a personal theme (the responsibilities of an able if modest Filipino) to give it a depth of flavor, an emotional sting, a touch of piquancy that lingers in the mind long after the credits roll. With Cameron sense of proportion is the first thing that flies out the window--he's a believer in Bigger is Better, the More the Merrier; a rather simpleminded philosophy. Does he deserve the billions of dollars in boxoffice, the dozens of honors bestowed upon him? Absolutely. It's what he wanted, it's fitting and proper that he gets it; good luck in the long run, when the buzz dies down and the next dozen multimillion dollar productions roll in, bringing their own turmoil and excitement.

By movie's end, Cameron's overblown video game has most audiences cheering for its heroes (they beat the bad guys after all, and Jake gets his girl). The conclusion to Ilarde's film leaves us in an altogether different mood: a little troubled, a little sad, a little sorry for our hapless, helpless hero--human-sized emotions allowed to take root and flourish in a relatively quiet, human-sized picture. Altar or Avatar? Given a choice, I'd take the former--it's more moving, after all. 

First published in the March 2010 issue of Rouge Magazine

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

Phallus envy

Yes it is; that's what it's all about, really. You think not? Let me put it this way--

In 1997 James Cameron won the Best Director statuette for his two hundred million dollar superproduction Titanic--went up to the stage, thanked a few people, raised his gold-plated phallus symbol high in the air and declared “king of the world!” And he was right to feel that way--the movie still had to win Best Picture, earn a few hundred million more dollars to become the biggest boxoffice hit in history.

Fast forward to 2010. Cameron is again nominated, again for the biggest boxoffice hit in history, the quarter-billion-dollar Avatar. Against him this time, however, is ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, for her far smaller (a mere fifteen million dollars) Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker--probably the first time a divorced couple competed against each other for the prize, and only the fourth time ever a woman was nominated.

You could read the writing on the wall when the presenter strode onstage--Barbra Streisand, who has been nominated and won everything in sight except the award in question (come to think of it she has never even nominated). When she pulled out the card to read she remarked: “It's about time!” Cheers and adulation. Bigelow's, apparently, were bigger and hairier than Cameron's, and the proof was the gold-plated John Thomas she held in her slim hands.

People remark on how Cameron has created “a spectacular new world beyond our imagination,” how he “pushes every boundary for his vision.” All I see is a quarter billion dollars that could have funded sixteen pictures the size of Hurt Locker, spent instead on the manufacture of a shiny new paint brush (basically a phallus with hair at one end)--a brush that, in my book, Cameron hasn't even fully mastered.

Bigelow on the other hand deals mainly with the humdrum real world, only in her hands the world is hardly humdrum--it vibrates with menace. Bigelow's style here may evoke the Paul Greengrass school of action filmmaking--all shaky-cam, with ADHD editing--but when Guy Pearce in a brief walk-on cameo walks cautiously down the railroad track in his Kevlar-and-blast-plating-clad bomb suit with what seems like the entire Iraqi community watching, the filmmaker that comes to mind isn't Greengrass but Costa-Gavras, the political firebrand who in films like Z (1969) and State of Siege (1972) employed cinema-verite techniques to thrilling ends. You have the same immediacy, the same “you-are-there” gut feel--the shots of different people staring silently evokes the point of view of a man desperately trying to cover everyone from every direction, knowing it's impossible yet doing his level best anyway. Bigelow veers away from Costa-Gavras when the bomb actually detonates, opting for surreal details such as the earth leaping as if atop a pounded drum, the bomb suit falling forward in dreamy slow-motion (you can't help but notice that the hardened acrylic/polycarbonate laminated visor is spattered from the inside with blood).

I'm not equating Bigelow with Costa-Gavras; the latter wears his leftist politics proudly on his sleeve (and unlike Cameron, he doesn't seem to feel the need to overcompensate for any shortcomings), whereas you often wonder if Bigelow has any politics, even in this movie. It's pro-military in the sense that the soldiers rarely do anything less than heroic; it's anti-military in the sense that Bigelow seems to be trying undercut the main character's machismo by equating his wildman antics to that of a drug addict--but even then, one wonders. The picture is perhaps too thrilling, its seven setpieces (each a bomb or situation of increasing complexity and lethality) too effectively drive out rational thought in favor of the idea that at any moment, at any time, and for any reason, the person you happen to identify with most closely (Staff Sgt. William James, played with live-wire panache by Jeremy Renner) may be wiped off the face of the Earth (Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le salaire de la peur (Wages of Fear, 1953) anyone?).

The explosive climaxes in this picture are thuddingly real--no gasoline flames, only smoke and flying debris and a huge thump! as if a giant hand had shoved you hard in the chest. The bombs are often thoroughly phallic--huge cylinders impassive in their lethality; Sgt. James' struggle to master them is basically a pissing contest among Alpha males, his way of saying to the Iraqi bombmakers “mine are bigger and hairier than yours.”

Then there's the question of psychological realism--Sgt. James could not have become a veteran EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) officer by being such a cowboy. As several actual members of the unit have noted, a vast majority of bomb disposal operations are carried out by robots--a man doing otherwise is either quickly demoted (for deviating from standard procedure), or blown to little pieces. A living, breathing Sgt. James shouldn't exist--he is , in effect, a walking contradiction. Renner does manage to invest his officer, implausibilities and all, with a charisma that helps sell the man to the audience, but that's Bigelow advancing her movie through style and sheer momentum rather than solid characterization. What style, though--easily some of the best of the year.

If Bigelow's is the biggest and the hairiest--if Bigelow is this year's 'Cock of the Walk'--allow me to point you back to the year 1949, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room. Talk of twisted bomb disposal experts, Powell and Pressburger's World War II film has David Farrar, who possessed the most impressive pair of brows in all of cinema, tormenting himself for the loss of his leg (he wears a prosthetic); meantime the Nazis have been dropping strange black cylinders all over the countryside, killing people (children especially) when they pick up the devices. Eventually Farrar in his self-hating trajectory will encounter one of these cylinders, and may the hairiest, most potent phallus win.

Powell and Pressburger use realism with just that much dash of stylization to present their story; unlike Bigelow, their hero is a fully formed character--contradictory at times, but when all pieces are assembled, fully coherent. He makes sense, he makes you care for him despite his monstrous self-pity, and when he puts his life on the line on the sands of Chesil Beach, hands locked in mortal struggle with yet another of the Nazi black cylinders (the most sinister of the phalli yet mentioned), you may perhaps for the first time find yourself dwelling on the full significance of the word “breathless.” Highly recommended (and available on DVD), though Bigelow's The Hurt Locker isn't a bad alternative--in fact, the two would make for an interesting double feature. As for Cameron's oversized turkey--I'd be glad to tell him what he can do with the three decidedly minor gold-plated phalli he won last March 7, only this is a family-oriented newspaper. 

First published in Businessworld, 3.18.10

Book of Eli (Albert and Allan Hughes, 2009)



Hellbound hardbound

Albert and Allan Hughes' Book of Eli (2009) starts off interestingly enough--Denzel Washington as an enigmatic Mad Max figure, walking the desolate roads of post-apocalyptic America. Actually it's more than interesting--it's brilliant. Tall, laconic figure in trench coat and shades, crossing the length of a two-lane blacktop. How much more elemental, and intriguing, and evocative of introverted self-sufficiency can you get?

The Hughes Brothers actually sustain it, for a time. We first see Eli (Washington) lying quietly in wait for the chance to harpoon some cat creature--the camera moves from the cat (actually it resembles a rabid mutant chihuahua) across the silent forest floor to Eli and his ready crossbow. The tension, the mystery of the image is considerable, released only by the twang! of the crossbow.

Later Eli confronts some potential ambushers and the Hughes cut to a long shot of Eli under a bridge, in deep shadow, dispatching his attackers with a pair of long knives, or short swords (they resemble the Moro barung or barong, with holes punched out in the blade to streamline the cut--I suspect a Moro design, since Washington was trained in martial arts fighting techniques by Filipino-American master Dan Inosanto). It's a lovely image, the camera locked down while it gazes at Washington spinning and slashing his assailants--the static set-up and its implication of a pitiless observer watching combatants live or die remind one of Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and of Park Chan-Wook's legendary corridor fight sequence in Oldboy (2003).

Even later we see Eli watching as a group of marauders attack a couple, whispering to himself that he will nto get involved. Again, an intriguing sidelight on the character--he may have a working system of moral beliefs, but he will not allow them to screw up his chances for survival. There are priorities, and a mission he must accomplish.

The movie pretty much tosses this sense of reserve and mystery by the roadside when Eli arrives at a small town; Carnegie (a scruffy Gary Oldman) rules this town with his brutal band of thugs. Eli confronts the thugs in a bar and manages to kill them all, and immediately one can see a problem: up front and personal, in broad daylight and not deep shadow the Hughes Brothers' action is frankly a mess--shots too close in for you to tell apart, shaky-cam incoherence, and just enough Inosanto-inspired knife action that you want to see matters clearly and are frustrated that you can't.

Not that I don't want to see Oldman's Carnegie--far from it. Oldman can always be depended on to be the scruffiest, most repulsive character in the room, and he does not disappoint here; his Carnegie is a hedonist, an intellectual, a tyrant, and each facet of his character grate against each other in all kinds of irritating ways. His intellectualism marks him as smarter than (and more contemptuous of) the rest, his tyrannical leadership style inspires terror in his minions, and his hedonism means he has a taste for helplessly beautiful women that (it's suggested) he enjoys in an unspecified kinky manner (What can you do with a blind mistress? Nothing appropriate that can be mentioned here, for starters). His appetites focus the movie's previously rambling plot into a laser-sharp point: he is looking for a book, he will not stop until he finds it, he will terrorize innocents including women in all sort of unpleasant ways. Unbeknownst to Carnegie that book, of course, happens to sit inside Eli's dusty backpack, and he's just as determined to defend the book as Carnegie is to possess it.

Welcome developments, at the same time unwelcome. What is that book--National Register of Army Depots? Nuclear Weapons Made Easy? Psychic Powers for Dummies? What kind of knowledge can that book posses that Carnegie should obsess about it? Turns out it's no great secret--it's the Bible, King James version, and while I admire that particular edition for the grandeur of its language, I can barely see the relevance to postapocalyptic America. This Carnegie fellow is nuts, I'm beginning to think, and Eli's just as nuts for thinking the same way. The Hughes Brothers may believe otherwise but for me the stakes have dropped precipitously.

At a certain point guns are pulled out, which is both welcome and unwelcome in a Hughes Brothers film--as they've shown in both Menace II Society (1993) and Dead Presidents (1995), the Hughes know guns, are more than familiar with the use of them, and know how to stage and shoot extended battles involving their deployment (that's why I wondered about Eli's two short swords--judging from their action sequences in the less-than-successful From Hell (2001), they aren't quite there yet with regards to blades). Unfortunately when guns are fired the bullets--well, either Carnegie's dumb enough to hire nearsighted morons for gunmen, or Eli enjoys some kind of low-level aura that deflects bullets. He just stands there looking around while Carnegie's men fire away to little effect.

What was that about? Do the Hughes Brothers mean to give Eli a more-than-mystical quality? If they mean to, they should take it all the way and perhaps take a moment to explain or prepare for it a bit beforehand; if they don't (which is hard to believe), then what on earth were they thinking?

The movie recovers in fits and starts--Michael Gambon puts in an memorable appearance along with Frances de la Tour as a pair of charming cannibals, Tom Waits is nicely grizzled as a store owner, and Malcolm McDowell pops up near the end as a relatively benign museum curator (that's where that book belongs in this world, actually--in a museum). The finale involves a series of revelations that don't really add to the story (let's just say the Hughes Brothers are unlike Hitchcock a bigger fan of surprises over suspense), and  elements of science-fiction classics as diverse as Isaac Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (a great book by the way--one of the best). Whatever; The Book of Eli actually isn't that bad, and any movie that champions the value of literature should be recommended, but I for one sure wish it was better.

First published in Businessworld, 3.18.10

Empire's Worst Movies, the Kraken remarkin, the dragon entered

Don't even want to talk about the kinkiness of this image, taken from Mel Gibson's snuff flick

Empire's 50 Worst Movies
 
Was going to talk about how the list has no historical perspective, that it focuses on big-budgeted Hollywood movies as usual, and so on and so forth.  

Wanted to disagree on some choices, assert that Heaven's Gate was more a great folly than a bad film (that rollerskating sequence cited is breathtaking), that Raimi in Spiderman 3 did a better job evoking a giant anthropoid loose on Manhattan than Peter Jackson ever did, and that the worst film ever made (and believe me the competition for this honor is fierce) is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, whose many historical and biblical inaccuracies, and merits as a motion picture I talk about here. Then I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it and realized--that list is right.

Oh, I disagree with a few titles here and there, would rearrange the whole thing, and would honor Gibson with not one but two entries (the second being his racist Apocalypto), but the list is good, excellent even--a first from a not very respectable, much less credible, source. In short, on the subject of the worse films ever made, for my money Empire is right on the money. 

Saw Clash of the Titans, have two things to say:

1) I miss Ray Harryhausen, now more than ever, and;

2) I think the movie would go better with a tub of tartar sauce and a lemon wedge*

* I'd first proposed this to Tony Rayns in Jeonju--that Filipinos are not fond of making monster movies (other than vampires, manananggal, and various other creatures depicted by stunt men in rubber suits) because they do not always have the desired effect.

Filipinos are a hungry people, food-crazy and startlingly adventurous; if a swarm of killer bees, or rabid dogs, or bloodthirsty piranhas, or marauding birds, or what-have-you ever got loose on the streets (or waterways) of Manila they wouldn't get very far without being clubbed down, sliced thin, and served up sizzling on a hot plate with a ramekin of soy sauce and fresh-squeezed kalamansi. Filipinos don't see the various giant creatures in classic Hollywood movies as monstrous, or a threat; they see them as bar chow. 

How to Train Your Dragon, Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders' animated version of the book by Cressida Cowell is in many ways a dumbed-down adaptation--reducing the thorny give-and-take between dragons and Vikings to a hunt-or-be-hunted situation, and Hiccup and Toothless' relationship into something altogether more sentimental, a Boy and His Dog bonding in vast forests.

All that said, it's surprisingly entertaining--the eponymous dragon is a sleek, black-scaled wonder that acts like a sleek, black Porsche 911 with the temperament of a puppy dog; Jay Baruchel's voice acting grounds the picture with its earthy line readings, its often funny hemming and hawing (he sounds like Woody Allen shot up full of hormones). Possibly its best ideas--know your enemy, he may have good reasons or might not even be an enemy--are taken from Hayao Miyazaki's Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984), only without Miyazaki's philosophical rigor and moral complexity. 

Not bad--not on the level of Miyazaki, of course, but not bad. Prefer this over any of Pixar's recent offerings, or James Cameron's overblown jungle epic.
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