Sunday, August 29, 2010

James Batman (Artemio Marquez, 1966)




Crap Crusader

Artemio Marquez's James Batman (1966) is, to put it kindly, bizarre; the print is barely legible, from a poor VHS transfer, apparently, and if it wasn't for the subtitles I would probably still be trying to decipher what they're saying to this day.

Beyond the technical difficulties, it's a turgid affair that moves in stops and starts--a funny setpiece here, and there, separated in between by dull bits of business (gun fights, fist fights, car chases, flat expository bits, so on and so forth), not to mention a bizarre melodramatic moment where the heroine (Shirley Moreno) pleads with her father (Ven Medina) not to destroy the world (complicated--don't ask). Marquez isn't known for his storytelling craft; when asked to cobble together a film he does so haphazardly, like making a sausage, fat and gristle stuffed in between the meaty bits.

That said, the meaty bits are nothing short of inspired. Batman is called before an international  league of nations (they don't quite call it the United Nations, and anyway the meeting place isn't in New York, but in what looks like either a government building or a bank lobby) to stop a "dangerous organization" called CLAW (a more vivid acronym for a villainous organization than Ian Fleming's less substantial-sounding SPECTRE). The league isn't content with just Batman, however; they call in James Bond as well, and both heroes stand side by side, full to the brimming with alpha male bravado. "We have a dangerous assignment for you," the league chairman tells the two heroes. "I'll do it--I'm all about danger!" "No, I'll do it!" "No, I'll do it!" "No, I'll do it!"

"It's an organization capable of destroying the world," the chairman informs them. "He can do it." "No, he can do it." "No, he can do it." "No, he can do it."

The scene is funnier when you know that Rodolfo V. Quizon (a.k.a. Dolphy) plays both Bond and Batman, thanks to the trickery of a good, old-fashioned optical printer (no digital nonsense for these people, no sir). 

There's a lovely bit where Batman and 'Rubin' (Boy Alano) slide down their fireman's pole into the Batcave. Batman orders Rubin to fetch a black suitcase and lay it on their worktable; he opens it, takes out a package, carefully unwraps it to reveal boiled rice. With two fingers he scoops up the rice into his mouth. "Needs flavor," he decides; from a pocket in his utility belt he produces cherry tomatoes. Rubin crosses to the chemical laboratory and whips up a clear mixture in an Erlenmeyer flask, pours it into a ramekin. "Vinegar" he explains; Batman slaps him upside of the head. "Idiot," he says; "you can buy some from the corner store for a nickel."

Bond doesn't have anything comparable save for the scene where he's liplocked with a girl in bed; somehow the girl manages to produce a handgun and fires into Bond's belly; she keeps firing, but the bullets only seem to inflame Bond's desire (turns out he was wearing a bulletproof vest). Bond is uncomfortably aggressive here; one might say overly earnest to the point of attempted rape. Dolphy's reading of Bond seems not at all far from mine (and, I'd say, that much more honest): basically a misogynist, a man who hates women, and an unredeemed bastard.

I'd mentioned Marquez's lackluster direction when a scene wasn't supposed to be funny, or sexy, or exciting; when things come to life, though, so does his filmmaking. High-angle shots, low-angle shots, shots that swoop in on their subject, all cut together with remarkable fluency. Even the actors catch Marquez's spirit--jumping onto railings, hanging off of buildings, charging down one driveway after another to give the impression of an actual car chase. On occasion someone will swing and miss, and you would catch that miss clear as sun in a cloudless sky, but even that is a kind of left-handed compliment; at least with Marquez you can see the choreography well enough to know when a blow just missed. With other Batman directors (Christopher Nolan, can you hear me?) the shaky cam is so shaky, the editing so wretchedly slapped together you couldn't tell if they're fighting, much less exchanging blows.

Do I prefer this Batman? It's funnier, though sometimes not by much, which is saying something--I've always suspected Nolan of being humor-challenged, or wit-impaired, and Marquez in his inconsistency can be as bad.  One can make a case for inventive Asians appropriating and subverting two Western pop icons, but the Batman and James Bond storylines don't really mix, don't really accumulate momentum or metaphoric power, and don't really subvert the meaning behind these icons beyond an occasional de-pantsing (well, there's Bond's aforementioned attempted rape, but that's dropped the second it becomes disturbing). 

When the jokes do connect, however, it's like nothing on Earth--Monty Python meets Bob Kane meets Ian Fleming meets Rodolfo Quizon (a.k.a. Dolphy) meets the inimitably hit-or-miss Artemio Marquez, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, I dare you to find a moral lesson in all that. Wonderful stuff--difficult to follow at times, but worth putting up with for the more demented moments.  

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)





Sugar and spice, and everything nice

Vincenzo Natali's latest film Splice (2009) is your basic horror fable updated to incorporate genetic engineering into its plot, and while not exactly the freshest or most gruesome take on the genre (David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), anyone?) it does go on to become its own sequel--a comic and not a little macabre tale about what it it takes to raise your own quickly mutating offspring.

The soon-to-be parents are a pair of hotshot geneticists named Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polly), who produce tailor-made DNA for a large biotech company. They have had some initial success; their first creations are dubbed Fred and Ginger, a brother-and-sister tandem that resemble a pair of affectionate puppy-dogs, if the puppies had put on maggot costumes (later Fred and Ginger have a confrontation that gives new meaning to the term 'splatter genre'). Eventually Clive and Elsa hope to develop innovative genetic techniques that will treat various deformities, regenerate seriously damaged major organs, possibly extend the length and improve the quality of human life as a whole. That's not the company's true goals, however; what they are really interested in is the 'ka-ching!' of the cash register every time a gene is ready for the biotech market.

Clive and Elsa; any horror fan knows these names, and like James Whale's classic pair of films, the movie moves on quickly from the initial creation scene--a burlap bag floating in the hi-tech equivalent of amniotic fluid--to its consequences: a little creature that looks faintly like a kangaroo rat, faintly like the dividing segments of a developing zygote. The little zygote--sorry, child--is named Dren (the name of their company NERD spelled backwards); the couple (did I mention they were childless?) adopt it without the company's knowledge and raise it as their own--Elsa in particular loving it as only a mother can. Clive feels different; he'd drown the damned thing if he could (and a bit of irony results when he attempts just that) and he shudders every time he has to look at it, touch it, wipe away its seeping bodily fluids.

But as any parent knows, the trials of childhood--the feedings, the messes, the tantrums, the frighteningly sudden, frighteningly unexplainable fevers--are nothing compared to the emotional, psychological and social complexities of puberty. Dren develops into a nubile young beauty (Delphine Chaneac) with the lower extremities of a hairless goat (talk about being disgusting and a turn-on simultaneously). Suddenly--and here's where matters get really interesting--the dynamics of the little group shift: Elsa starts acting like a strident and restrictive mother, forbidding Dren from keeping pets or leaving the isolated barn she lives in; suddenly Clive finds himself growing interested in the precocious little thing, indulging her, often taking up her side against Elsa.

It's not just turnaround for the sake of turnaround; what makes the film truly disturbing is that the changes in these people actually make sociological sense. It's a parody of a middle-aged family trying to deal with an emerging adolescent consciousness over which they have little understanding, much less control (it doesn't help matters that they barely understand--and have control--over their own urges and desires). And her body still keeps changing, almost every day...

You could see the various influences of various horror films: a dollop of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a spoonful of Ridley Scott's Alien, a chunk of the aforementioned Cronenberg (not just The Fly with its genetically evolving creature, but The Brood's horrific fleshy reproductive sacks, and perhaps the poisoned stinger from Rabid as well)--plus the great-grandmother of them all, James Whale's adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, and the even greater, even more relevant sequel (basically dealing with the consequences of a child's cruel abuse, and the offspring's strangely moving ability to rise above the abuse).

Natali's interesting, not quite great; at least, not yet. His Cube (1997) was that marvelous rarity, a horror-thriller whose ingenious plot turned on basic mathematical concepts (permutations, mainly). This, his sophomore effort, isn't quite as original (though that earlier film did seem to take a page or two from Kafka), the same time it shows considerably more ambition in terms of characterization, emotional tone, overall storytelling. He doesn't quite achieve the "what the f...?!" repulsiveness of the fetus in Lynch's early masterpiece, nor does he achieve the unflinching gaze of Cronenberg, coolly staring down his horrific creations as they lurched and dribbled and oozed across the giant screen. But Natali does understand eroticism in horror, he does have a deft way with humor, and he does introduce something fairly new to the language of horror cinema: the endlessly evolving girl-child whose development parallels (but is not limited to) a youth's development while undergoing puberty. Unwholesome fun.

First published in Businessworld, 8.19.20

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

Audiard's use of confined space in A Prophet

Little Cesar

Prison intakes can be terrifying. You see it in the prisoners' faces--if it's their first time in a penal institution they often don't know what to expect, often don't know if you mean harm or not. Standing barefoot and shivering on bathroom tiles, they are about as naked--physically and spiritually--as a human being can be, and at their most open to life lessons; positive or negative, it depends on who gets to them first (though in prisons it's really no contest).

So it is with nineteen-year-old French-Arab Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), who's serving six years for assaulting a police officer--he's being strip-searched and has the caught-in-the-headlamps look of an animal whose life is about to irrevocably change. Malik falls swiftly into trouble--his shoes are stolen, and when he tries to recover them he's beaten; at the showers he's offered hashish in exchange for oral sex; when he walks into the recreation yard, he's approached by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), leader of the prison's Corsican gang--they want Malik to accept the man's sexual advances, get close, slash his throat with a razor blade hidden in the corner of the mouth.

Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete (A Prophet, 2009) is a crash course in prison life--what are the gangs, who to join, what is of value and available for buying, selling, smuggling in and out of the prison walls. Cesar finds Malik useful; despite his gang members' racism (they call him "dirty Arab"), he has Malik making coffee, running errands, doing little tasks that help Malik familiarize himself with the inner workings of the prison. Audiard and his writers (Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit) take a page from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather--Michael Corleone's transformation from fresh-faced college graduate to stone-cold gang lord--and transposes it here, complete with Michael's first Mafia-style murder. Malik's first is as agonizingly protracted, far less smoothly executed: as his unwitting target offers coffee, Malik realizes that he's bleeding from the blade hidden in his mouth.

The burst of energy that follows typifies much of what the film has to offer: documentarylike squalor; drawn-out tension; sudden, unglamorized violence. What breathes unruly life into the film are the bits and pieces you haven't quite seen before, not even in Coppola's epic (which in my opinion is overfamiliar, perhaps even overrated)--the hostile faces--Arab, Corsican--staring at each other from across the courtyard; the DVD players and radios delivered by cart to one's cell; the everyday delivery of fresh baguettes, as if hot bread were a right every bit as guaranteed as your weekly phone call.

If Malik is the central consciousness in the film, Malik's knotty interaction with Cesar is the film's central relationship. Certainly there's a father-son affection there, as Cesar lets his mask of brutality slip to reveal a lonely, insecure old man (mind you, this doesn't dilute Cesar's more monstrous qualities, merely makes him grotesquely fascinating). Malik seems to count on Cesar's patronage, but when Cesar at one terrifying point turns on him, pressing a spoon into his eye, the affection seems to shatter. That said, one is never surprised that Malik for all his softness grows into his criminal shoes: the boy is starved for knowledge (in school he learns reading, writing, basic Economics, Arabic; he learns--this on the fly--the problems of negotiating with people, dealing with disparate, distrustful groups), is endlessly ambitious, is watchful, constantly alert. He catches some unbelievable breaks--ever so often he manages to turn a swift ambush into a golden opportunity to network or make connections--but not once does he doubt his good fortune, or question the general velocity of his life; with the swiftness of the very young (and utterly ruthless) he makes his bloody progress up the pyramid.

Might point out the sociological movements reflected in the film: if an army is often made up of the same percentage of Caucasians and minorities, so are jails. Cesar ruled the courtyard back when Corsicans dominated the prison population; now that Middle Eastern populations have been filling the country, they have also filled the prison courtyards.

And always--always the image of Malik's uncomprehending expression during intake haunts one's view of Malik and his gradually evolving, gradually more confident face. The difference between the two faces of Malik's is like the difference between you and me, between potential and fulfillment, between wishful thinking and reality--watching the film, the difference sometimes feels huge, sometimes feels like no difference at all.

Audiard unlike Coppola doesn't have much space in which to develop his epic--his story unfolds largely in the cramp cells and narrow hallways of the French prison. His camera is largely handhold in the verite fashion, but not excessively active; it moves in for quick emphasis, then holds the image till his point is made (sometimes--as with Malik's first murder--the point takes excruciatingly longer to register). Occasionally he uses black masking, reducing Malik's field of vision to a single face, a single object; one thinks of D.W. Griffith's fluid framing, and how it can so effortlessly reflect a determined man's often narrowed focus.

Audiard's narrative line is not always clear (Malik's final series of maneuvers needs a program to keep the characters straight), and the footage of a ghost (Malik's first victim) haunting him is unintelligible (you know something's going on but you're not fully sure what). Overall, though, Audiard does a remarkable job of recording Malik's gradual corruption and rise in power--and here, again, you get this image of a sleeker, more self-contained Michael Corleone, stepping out to quietly conquer the world. An excellent film, one of the best of the year.

In French, with English subtitles. DVD features include deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, screen tests and a commentary with Director Jacques Audiard, Actor Tahar Rahim and co-Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain. 

First published in Businessworld,  8.12.10

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ninanais (Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, John Torres, 2010)



Songs happen like revolutionary refrains


Early in John Torres' latest film Ninanais: Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song (2010) we hear the following words (roughly remembered):

Do not look for us in history or in books written by victors. They are exact and precise; we are uneventful and in between.

Do not look for our story in myths, apparitions, legends filling the gaps. They are bridges; we stretch and fall. Listen to our faces; don't take our words. Our romance lies at the timbre of our voices.

In the end we will reject a revolution and arrive at love.

The words set the tone of the film, suggest what the film's about: not history or historical figures but the everyday people that make up history; not heroic myths or legendary epics but personal, intimate stories. The words even suggest how we should view their story and, in effect, the film: not as a literal, straightforward narrative but as a series of moods, images, metaphors, connections, to be made by heart and intuition, not logic (anyone looking for cause and effect in this picture will come away sorely frustrated).

After all is said and done though, there is a story; matter of fact, there are about three. It's about Nagmalitong Yawa, the beautiful maiden who disguises herself as a man and descends into the cavern named Kurundalan to free her imprisoned love, Humadapnon. Actually, this story (only the first part of an epic tale) is told by the binakod, beautiful maidens chosen when young by the Sulanon tribe in Panay to be set aside (the word 'binakod' literally means 'reserved') to learn the Hinilawod epic--their love story is her lifelong task. 

It's also the story of Sarah, who is looking for Emilio, who she has only met in her dreams; it's her last day as a debt collector, and she is making the rounds of the town of Guimbal, meeting with different people to settle accounts. At one point she is crossing a river--children see her, think she's walking on the water's surface, and mistake her for Nagmalitong Yawa. When she approaches her next debtor he immediately hands over his money, no fuss, no bother (we see her in the distance crossing the river, and for all you know she is walking on top of the water, she is Nagmalitong Yawa, an elemental seeking her lost love--it's this kind of offhand yet evocative imagery that Torres seems to be able to throw up on the screen, time and time again).

Sarah goes on to talk to Tatang Guillermo, who has mistaken her for his long-dead daughter, giving rise to yet another story: that of General Guillermo, leader of the Voluntarios, and General Tan Martin, leader of the Revolucionarios, two rival factions fighting for national independence against the American colonialists. Guillermo lost heart ever since his daughter Lyn died, and in Sarah he seems to have found her again, albeit in a different time and age.

Torres follows these storylines in and out, crossing and uncrossing in a complex weave, a mix of history, myth, personal reflection. He marries these stories and the occasional recited poem to images that, again, follow the opening lines in urging us not to follow the words, but instead listen to the timbre of our voices. We don't see faces so much as profiles, don't follow people so much as knees, elbows, backs of heads; like Robert Bresson, Torres doesn't seem to want to view people in the classic Hollywood manner--either close-up or in long shot, with faces front and center--but instead glimpse them sidelong, from skewed, puzzling angles. We're kept constantly on our toes, aware that we don't know who this is or what exactly is going on, while Torres grudgingly feeds us details, hints, clues.

Torres, by the way, does more than throw sidelong glances at his performers--he changed the names 'Sulanon' and 'binakod' from the original 'Suludnon,' and 'binukot,' taken historical names such as General Guillermo and General Tan Martin, and invented historical details about them as well. Why? Why--why not? If you've been following his opening adage, you shouldn't be listening to his words too closely, but instead to their faces, to 'the timbre of their voices;' you should be paying attention not to precise facts (which are half-fabricated anyway), but the stories of ordinary lives. 

Torres' words (despite his advice not to heed them) at times can be hilarious--as when Sarah describes a dream in which her legs and womb fly off and end up wrapped around a tree (Freudian symbolism, anyone?); his images at times can be threatening, as when intimations of war are spoken, and we see boys in dusty provincial streets selling huge, heavy blades, steel gleaming in the bright sun, of a heft and length and sharpness perfectly capable of lopping off a tree branch, or even a few human limbs. Torres seems to have developed a look; handheld and at times out-of-focus, with a bright palette of colors, the film has the feel of Super 8 footage being played on an ancient projector. Funny how the medium seems to be the default metaphor for old memories, how the blurring and unsteady ratcheting immediately suggests fading recollection. The film is obscure, yet feels somehow precious--like someone had found the rolls in a dusty cabinet locked away in the forgotten room of an old hacienda, lost inside a coconut grove; you thread the film into a projector, throw the switch, watch the flickering light open up the door into a world of ghosts.

Torres' films are intensely personal; the fact that he recites the narration in almost all his films make them so, even if you didn't know that was his voice. It speaks quietly, almost whispers to you, as if Torres were beside you reciting into your ear. This gave his previous films--Todo todo teros (2006) and Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside, 2008)--a confessional quality, the sense that Torres was cracking open his cranium for you to examine closely. Ninanais operates at a more ambitious level--history and mythology mediated through Torres' elliptical, inimitable filmmaking style. The title is of course a play on Nick Deocampo's film Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987); where Deocampo refers to the circular nature of history, possibly Torres refers to the tumultuous effect--emotional, social, and political--melodies can have on our lives. At one point the possibly fictional Emilio declares that all wars are a story of love, echoing what had been said earlier and suggesting that the film doesn't so much end as it does arrive at its beginning and starts again, revolutions and refrains going round and round, ceaselessly. A difficult film to watch, yet unspeakably beautiful; needless to say, it's easily one of the finest I've seen this year.

Ninanais will be shown at the Cine Adarna Screening Room, August 25 at 7 pm.

First published in Businessworld 8.1610

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010)


It's Tony Bl--sorry, Roman Pol--sorry, Adam Lang in The Ghost Writer

Ghost images

Deal with Roman Polanski's films and you inevitably have to deal with the issue of Polanski himself--he's an excellent example of the artist-director who does interesting to great films but whose private life, or opinions, or deeds tend to overshadow that work.

The fact is: Polanski did have sex with a minor, did plead guilty to charges of "unlawful sexual intercourse," did leave the United States to escape arrest (mind you, these are truths everyone can agree upon, but they are not the entire story--every other aspect of that is still very much in dispute). None of these make him endearing, much less admirable--for every one who remarks admiringly of his wit and charm, you can find one other (at least, maybe more) who will call him arrogant and vain. He is, to put it mildly, an extremely polarizing figure.

Worth noting he's also the most recent--D.W. Griffith was condemned for the virulent racism in Birth of a Nation, Leni Riefenstahl for championing Nazism in Triumph of the Will; Elia Kazan named names to the House of Un-American Activities, then (perhaps most audacious of all) in On the Waterfront tried to justify what he did. Speaking for myself, I dislike these people and admire their films immensely (Griffith and Riefenstahl in particular); regarding them and their works is never a comfortable activity.

Possibly the most clear-eyed view of his situation comes from Polanski himself. The central figure in his latest work The Ghost Writer (not to be confused with the Philip Roth novel) is former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a brilliantly droll Pierce Brosnan), exiled in the United States because he's wanted by the International Criminal Court in Hague for war crimes. Lang is confident, charming, massively self-centered; scratch the suave, good-looking surface, however, and you find a self-righteous conservative with a messiah-martyr complex; scratch that, and there's just a hint of the transplanted stage actor, suffering from an acute sense of inferiority. It's a wicked parody of Tony Blair, of course, complete with a seductively persuasive motive for falling in line with Bush Jr.'s Iraq War project (are we sure author Robert Harris--on whose novel The Ghost this film was based--plucked this notion fully formed from his forehead, and not from some Deep Throat source?).

It's also a wicked parody of Polanski, a celebrity in exile surrounded by supporters and admirers. Like Polanski, Lang is a fugitive from justice; like Polanski he either has no comment or a carefully prepared reply whenever he's asked about the crime. Is Lang guilty? His conversations with his people are revealing--not "How can they accuse me of this?!" so much as "How is this or that going to look? What's our next move?" The film saves the answer--is he or isn't?--for towards the end. The ghost (Ewan McGregor, suitably inscrutable) confronts Lang with the question; as with any noir thriller, the protagonist (McGregor's character is so retiring, so diminutive in stature he can hardly be called a hero) has to look into the eyes of the accused and ask, point blank; he has to know. To Polanski's credit as artist and filmmaker, he allows Lang (allows himself, in effect) a totally candid answer--the truth (but not, as it turns out, the entire truth).

If Lang is mostly ego with a trace of insecurity, the ghost is mostly uncertainty with a suggestion (perhaps powerfully repressed, perhaps a last remaining vestige) of ambition ("Don't you want to be a real politician?" "Don't you want to be a real writer?"). As McGregor plays him he's a mirror image, not just of Lang but of Polanski; not the famed filmmaker but the cunning survivor, the Polanski that escaped the Krakow ghetto in his childhood, fled to France when he knew the Los Angeles judge was about to reneged on their agreement. There's something of the lowly worm about McGregor's ghost, just as there seems to be in Polanski--both are determined to do whatever necessary to keep out of harm's way, both are not above stealing whatever pleasure they find offered or readily available (from a willing wife, from a wannabe nymphet).

A wicked parody, not just of Polanski, but of his story, his--and as implied in all his films, our--entire situation: man in exile wanted for a crime committed years ago. If said story is told with grace, wit, and a diabolically seductive sheen, why, one can't imagine Polanski telling it any other way--far as I'm concerned, this is one of the best films to be released this year. Which figures--like any decent specter worth his weight in ectoplasm, Polanski refuses to be irrelevant, or mediocre, or easy to ignore. He refuses to fade away.

The director in his imaginings even hazards a guess as to what his end might be like in Lang's ultimate fate (just as random, just as absurd): a confrontation with the vengeful parent whose child he once harmed. You see it in Polanski's expression, whenever a camera happens to snap his photograph: a combination of intense annoyance that it's a camera, and absolute relief that it is only a camera. If fate were to arrange for his destiny to catch up with him, I have the feeling that Polanski wouldn't be surprised, not one bit.

Article first printed in Businessworld, 8.5.10

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Salt (Philip Noyce)

"Say hello to my noo friend."

Assault and battery

Philip Noyce's Salt is ridiculous, it's reactionary, it's over-the-top and whaddaya know, it's a lot of fun.

It has many of the virtues something like Christopher Nolan's Inception lacks--it's cleanly made; it doesn't ask to be taken as anything other than what it is, a meat-and-potatoes action flick; it's amped up not a little by the butt-kicking presence of huge-eyed, prehensile-lipped Angelina Jolie (Who I will take over Leonardo DiCaprio in a heartbeat, anytime, anywhere).

Jolie plays Salt, as in Evelyn (Not, alas, the Roald Dahl version). She apparently was captured and tortured by the North Koreans ("Give her the spicy kimchi"), eventually traded for one of their own spies (Probably boxoffice gold that the United States and Russia just recently made a similar exchange, and with a beautiful spy to boot), suspected of being a Russian double agent, and again trapped, presumably to be interrogated again.

I wouldn't know what American intelligence agencies use nowadays to persuade their prisoners to talk--Hannah Montana reruns, I suppose, played in an endless loop. The prospect might make one demand a return to the relatively more humane practice of waterboarding or, in Evelyn's case, drive her to break out of her cell, shoot her way out the building, create radical new traffic patterns in the surrounding roadways, perhaps kill the president of Russia along the way (A top agent assassinating her own president? Only in Russia!).

The whole thing is ludicrous enough to be funny, and I'm not sure the effect was entirely unintended. It's also hugely reactionary--the Koreans torture Evelyn half-naked (This is actually more disturbing than I suspect it's meant to be); they are obviously seen as brutal sadists (Not rapists? The film is firmly silent on the matter). The Russians are worse--paranoid war-mongers who do little else but cultivate deep-cover superspies and plot to provoke the Muslim world into attacking the United States. A key plot point is revealed by (ta-dah!) Fox News, and we're supposed to take this as gospel truth (it's the only stretch of logic I have difficulty believing). But this is Philip Noyce we're talking about, the director of, among other things, Rabbit-Proof Fence" (2002) and a recent adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American (same year); based on all that he's not one to swallow conservative American political doctrine wholesale (he even injected a subversive undertone into the flag-waving Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994)). Noyce has got to be kidding. Right? Right?

Whatever. The movie's so cartoonish, the proceedings so lacking in pretension and flag-waving bombast that it's difficult to take offense; it's almost like protesting that Road Runner cartoons are too violent (they are, but you have to be nuts to think kids (of the right age, anyway) are in danger of taking them literally). For all we know Salt IS meant to stand for the Road Runner, a near-invulnerable character with no inner psychology (other than what fleeting glimpses we see in giant closeup of Jolie's gorgeous face) and no intention of being more than an instrument of motion--of violence dealt out with verve and inventiveness.

That said, it's refreshing--no, more than that, it's downright invigorating--to see a filmmaker do solid, old-fashioned action filmmaking. Noyce is a veteran, and a fan of clear action sequences with minimum use of the shaky-cam (when he does use it, it's for brief emphasis, as just one in a wide variety of tools). He doesn't cut the image to the point of incoherence and when he can, he uses on-camera effects (sure there's some digital work, but it's kept in one corner under a strict leash, and not allowed to dominate the proceedings). Some of his best effects are the simplest, though--a breathless interval when Salt hangs outside a window ledge; or when she's crouching behind a car, surrounded by hundreds of cops and with nowhere to go; or when a crucial pair of handcuffs is unlocked (or better yet used, with startling effectiveness). Sometimes it's the still moments and not the violent ones that have your pulse racing the fastest.

Funny but it took five years and two Batman movies for Nolan to learn to slow the action down, to use editing precisely and not incomprehensibly, to refrain from shaking the camera like a baby rattle, in the mistaken assumption that the audience would find the gesture more exciting. Noyce has been directing movies since Nolan was in grade school, and you can see his long experience in the way he shapes and stages his action--no fuss, not a lot of lingering (just the occasional slow motion to allow you to follow what's happening), and enough real-time thrills to fill half a dozen lesser action flicks. Noyce doesn't need multiple dream levels or teams of specialists or elaborate metaphysical conundrums to make his film interesting (even the plot, twisty as it is, reveals itself to have an elegant simplicity when it's fully unfolded). He serves the action straight, no ice, no chaser; you can feel it burning as it goes down the throat.

First published in Businessworld, 7.29.10

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan)


The last hurrah

Surprise, surprise--it’s not as bad as everyone is saying it is.

That doesn’t mean it’s especially good. Seems to me Shyamalan had written The Last Airbender as a much longer movie, and that the movie was drastically cut down to keep the running time under two hours. Long stretches of voiceover narration suture the transitions, in the hope of linking disparate scenes together; at one point a budding love affair has to be telegraphed in terse Twitter-like messages, rather than developed through fully formed dramatic sequences.

The world is divided into four: Fire Nation, Air Nation, Water Nation, Earth; those with the ability to manipulate these elements are called benders--hence: 'waterbender,' 'firebender' so on and so forth. Hook of the story is that the Fire Nation has been naughty, wiping out or conquering all the other elements while no one was looking. Some Water Nation natives discover Aang, an airbender, frozen in an iceberg; turns out he's an Avatar, a bender able to control all four elements, and they look to him to liberate them from Fire Nation tyranny.

I was never a big fan of the original Nickelodeon animated series. The cartoon took a mishmash of Asian cultures, everything from Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, Yoga meditation techniques, Tai Chi exercises and Shaolin fighting stances, and stuffed them all into some kind of postapocalyptic fantasy burrito. The most jarring effect, however, is of seeing boys and girls sport shaven heads and silk tunics, and then hearing them speak English in a broad American accent. Why do things properly and use real Asians in your show when you can do things half-assed and look wishy-washy in the process?

The same sensibility is carried over on the big screen, with the odd proviso that most of the Fire Nation people are distinctly dark-skinned--Prince Zuko is played by Dev Patel, who is Indian; Iroh is played by Shaun Toub, who is Iranian; Fire Lord Ozai is played by Cliff Curtis, who is Maori. Is this some cute conceit of Shaymalan? Is he simply postulating that when one is constantly exposed to and manipulating fire one eventually develops a dusky complexion? Or does he dream of a world dominated by people of East Asian, Middle Eastern and Oceanic descent, granting them absolute power--a power not all that different from what the United States enjoys at the moment--the same time he lays them open to the corrupting influence of that power? One wonders; one even wonders if an entire article can be written on the subject of Shyamalan's casting strategies.

Noah Ringer plays Aang, and he's visibly Occidental; as actors go his performance is serviceable, sometimes less than that, and every time he bends something his forehead lights up like a one-way street, but when he's going into his airbending routine he stops looking silly and starts looking forceful and eloquent (turns out he's a Taekwondo champ). More interesting is Patel's Zuko, who seems to harbor a chip the size of the Empire State Building on his shoulder; his father Lord Ozai has exiled him and refuses to take him back until he has captured Aang. The way Patel plays Zuko you could spend pages upon pages of paper speculating on the frustrated Oedipal anger directed against his father; he's the kind of ambivalent antagonist that makes a conflict that much more interesting (Aang, for all his lost heritage and dead friends, doesn't exhibit much of anything except a wicked roundhouse kick).

Whither Shyamalan? Again, believe it or not, he seems to have grown in the making of this film. He's basically copying from Peter Jackson's playbook when he stages the siege of the Water Nation's walled city (the Fire Nation's assault forces resemble Orcs in Viking ships), and his CGI effects are wretchedly inadequate--I'm okay with second-class CGI effects if they're done with speed and wit and brashness (i.e. Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell), but Shyamalan seems to be under the impression he's producing a straight epic here. It's as if Lord of the Rings were being done on an effects budget the size of Epic Movie.

That said, he's finally learning to do action sequences--here Aang weaves and twists and turns, and the camera whips from him to his Fire Nation target, who is suitably stunned, glides to another Fire Nation soldier being overwhelmed, glides back to Aang, and so forth. It's a devilishly difficult shot to stage and execute and it does more than provide impressive action; it suggests that the world is as the benders say, a constant flow of energies that clash and intersect and balance--in effect a system in restless, ceaseless motion. Only when the camera stops and the actors step up to woodenly deliver their painfully cheesy lines (one example: "I offer my condolences on your nephew burning to death in that terrible accident" being a marvel of clunky exposition) does the life leak out of the movie. One wishes Shyamalan had gone for broke and shot the entire film this way, as a single shot constantly gliding, constantly changing its perspective and focus--call it impossible, call it impractical, call it filmbending, if you like; I'd watch that with unreserved pleasure.

First published in Businessworld, 7.22.10 

Claire's Knee (Eric Rohmer), Jenifer (Dario Argento)


Two erotic tales

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Sunny perfection. What makes Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee, Eric Rohmer, 1970) so funny are Jerome's (Jean Claude Brialy) elaborate declarations defending and justifying his position. If you take what he says seriously he's the most moral, most sophisticated man with the noblest aspirations; when you watch him he's a middle-aged creep who doesn't know what to do with himself around normal teenagers. Matched up with the young Laura (Beatrice Romand) he's easily outmatched--she radiates a sensitivity and common sense that quickly outs his hypocrisy; she even knows how to deal with an infatuation, even her own (sit it in a corner and make it behave itself, basically). 

Molly Haskell in her Criterion essay has harsh or at least condescending words for Claire herself (Laurence de Monaghan), "one of those knockout blondes who grow less rather than more interesting with time." Claire is certainly less eloquent than her stepsister Laura and possibly less complex, but she and her tall Nordic boyfriend enjoy what one might call the rude vitality and confidence of health--that, more than any superficial prettiness, gives Claire her appeal. I think it's possible to view her the way Nabokov viewed his Dolores Haze--young, crude, impossibly energetic, shallow, yes, and full of ridiculous enthusiasms, but in the end a soul, one capable of sensitivity and insight and even deserving of love, as evidenced by Humbert's epiphany during the last few pages of the heartbreaking novel. 

I think there's a bit of a mystery in the film's climactic scene--just what was going through Claire's mind, anyway? She must know the man is having some kind of unwholesome moment with her knee, why does she allow it? Is she so full of her grief that she just doesn't notice--or doesn't care? Is she submitting to him in her defeat? Is there some awareness in her and for whatever reason she allows his liberties--perhaps (in a perversely masochistic way) enjoys it? Or is this a fantasy pieced together out of Jerome's fevered imagination? It's an uncomfortable moment, but--for the men in the audience anyway--an eroticized one that puts many a scene of explicit onscreen acrobatics to shame with its mystery, complexity, intriguing dash of grotesquerie.

It's a tribute to Rohmer's self-effacing style, I suppose, that one has a tendency to talk more of characters and narrative than of cinematic technique when talking of his films, though of course that's the most difficult technique of all to achieve. The pace may appear languid, but if you look closely, the editing is really that of a comedy--exact and lively. There's something offhand about the blocking and lighting--you might think of a video production, with a handheld camera--but there's also a precision to the camerawork hidden beneath all that casualness (the problem, for example, of lighting and shooting two seated figures for the film's climax--in less-than-perfect weather, at that, on a location that's not fully indoors, nor entirely outdoors). Legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros developed his sunshine technique with Rohmer, a technique that avoids most shadows, most melodramatic effects, and is therefore that much more subtle. Even the storm at the film's climax is of a specific character--ever threatening, never entirely manifesting, putting out more of a sad drizzle than a serious downpour. A great film, all the greater for its delicacy and souffle-light humor (and elusive sense of melancholy).

Dario Argento's Jenifer could be considered the polar opposite of Rohmer's masterwork. Easy to put Argento down in favor of Rohmer, but I think both Argento and Rohmer like to take humor and sensuality and put them to extreme use, at either end of the tonal spectrum. Argento takes Bruce Jones and Bernie Wrightson's ten-page classic and turns it into a lurid big-screen comic-book (as Argento in an interview notes, this is hardly made for the small cable TV screen) with Wrightson's extreme camera angles accompanying Argento's deep color palette (the original comic was black and white, with striking shadow-work).

There is subtlety to be found here, despite the premise (girl with monstrous face and heavenly body seduces police officer). Steve Weber, who plays the police officer and adapted the story, notes that the actress (Carrie Anne Fleming) during the first few days she wore the makeup acted quiet and depressed--she wasn't used to looking so ugly. Then she came to realize that her effect on people hadn't diminished--if anything, it intensified. The actress discovered what Argento knew all along, that a combination of the sensual and  the horrific has an unholy power all its own.

I can't recall Argento ever doing something quite like this--in most of his films, beautiful women are victims; if they aren't then they're evil succubi, but they're not visibly monstrous. Adapting Jenifer into a short film helps him I suspect explore the connection between beauty and horror in a new, more integrated way. "That head on that body!" a mental hospital staff exclaims (Argento is not one to avoid putting things explicitly); then you have a later scene where the woman bends over her lover, her body outlined through her thin dress, her haunches shifting slowly, sensually. You don't see her face or breasts (always a jaw-dropping juxtaposition), but you feel the collision of both qualities, and you're accordingly disturbed.



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