Sunday, December 25, 2011

All I want for Christmas is the Director's Cut


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Everybody pauses and stares at me
The Director's Cut is gone as you can see
I don't know just who to blame for this catastrophe!
But my one wish on Christmas Eve is as plain as it can be!

All I want for Christmas
is the Director's Cut,
the Director's Cut,
see the Director's Cut!

Gee, if I could only
have The Director's Cut,
then I could wish you
"Merry Christmas."
It seems so long since I could say,
"Action movies are so good!"
Gosh oh gee, how happy I'd be,
if I could only see it (shhhh, shhhh, I'm watching)!

All I want for Christmas
is the Director's Cut,
the Director's Cut,
see the Director's Cut.

Gee, if I could only
have the Director's Cut,
then I could wish you
"Merry Christmas!"
 
Please sign the petition: LET OUR ASIONG GO!!! 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Have yourself an 'Inasiong' Christmas

(For a recap of what happened, please check out this blog post, its sequel, and its second sequel

And just like that, apparently, game over.

Aguiluz had managed to file a court case against the producers of Asiong Salonga. A TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) was issued against the film's December 25 screening. It looked as if Aguiluz's complaints were finally to be taken seriously. 

And they were, to a point--the producers agreed to remove Aguiluz's name from the credits. No print of the director's cut, however, is forthcoming, and the MMFF will be screening the reportedly butchered and tarted-up producer's version. The same version will be sent to film festivals and film markets all over the world; as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the producer's cut is the one and only version of Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story in existence...

And that, apparently, is that. 

It was pointed out in a comment to one of my previous posts that Aguiluz should have expected what happened to him when he dealt with Governor Ejercito--one thinks of the saying "He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.

Well--one tries; the thing about the Devil is that he can make things happen for you, or at least that's the well-known motivating detail that accompanies the classic narrative. Yes, you're going to get burned, yes the outcome is never worth the trouble, and yes you only realize this when all has been said and done (or at least that's how the classic narrative goes). But in the real world, if you want to wait for a decent, straightforward producer to hand you the money to do your dream project, you'll never get started--that's the nature of the business. At least Aguiluz dared and nearly succeeded.

The real loser here, of course, is the Filipino people. As far as Philippine cinema is concerned, the action genre is dead; has been for some time. Aguiluz hoped to clear away the hoary cliches, the l, the ridiculous acting tics and gestures that have encrusted the genre like so many barnacles on an outdated sailing vessel; he had hoped to do a radical redesign, and came close to succeeding. 

It may be small comfort to him, but when it comes to filmmakers who have attempted to remake a genre and were undone by their producers, he is in good company (Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles; Sergei Eisenstein--and that's just including the obvious few).

Maybe someday that director's cut will be seen and, better yet, appreciated. Someday.

Have yourself an 'Inasiong' Christmas, folks. 

(As for the online petition, it may have little to no effect, but I for one would like to be on record as wanting that Director's Cut released in whatever form. I'm not planning to have my signature removed; if anything, I'm proud to keep it there. You can see it in if I remember correctly the number five position on the list...and you're invited to add your own anyway, for principle's sake)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Asiong Salonga--the Director's Version

Asiong Salonga--The Director's Version

(Please take the time to sign the petition asking the producer to release a Director's Cut of the film)

So here is the story the way I heard it:

A film was shot based on the story of Asiong Salonga, a notorious Filipino gangster who ruled Tondo in the late '40s and early '50s. The film was directed by Tikoy Aguiluz, and starred Jorge 'ER' Ejercito, Governor of Laguna, who was also the film's producer.

There were disagreements between director and producer as to the direction the film should take. The producer--naturally--wanted a commercial product; Aguiluz wanted something that would meet the criteria of good storytelling, with a minimum of cliches and an original attack on the classic Filipino action film. This is the compromise they came up with:

Working with his editor and longtime collaborator Mirana Medina, Aguiluz put together a 115 minute cut. This cut, as Ms. Medina outlines in careful detail in her blog, trimmed or edited out scenes that 1) had little to do with the story; 2) included melodramatic (her term was telenovela, or TV soap-opera) acting; 3) involved melodramatic dialogue; 4) employed traditional Filipino action film fighting cliches; and 5) retained traces of Governor Ejercito's former acting persona, which comes across as negative (her term is mala-demonyo, or demonic).

The producer, wanting his own cut, worked with Medina's assistant editor and put back in most of the elements Aguiluz and Medina took out, arriving at a 2 hour 30 minute cut. This was the cut Ejercito is apparently complaining about as 'boring' and 'slow,' not to mention 'overlong' (that's the running time of a Transformers movie which, when you think about it, is boring and overlong). Ejercito claims to have hired four additional editors, who have trimmed down their long version to a reported 108 or 110 minutes. According to Aguiluz some additional footage was shot without his knowledge, footage which included gunfights and an explosion, and this was included in the producer's version.

This was the version that was shown to the CEB, and while the response was good (the film was rated "A") the report noted  "underlying melodramatic tendencies," and that "there are just too many fight scenes." They further noted that "E.R. Estregan seems awkward in some scenes."

Medina in her blog wrote "after watching the raw footage during the first shooting days, we could already see the great chances of Gov (Governor Ejercito) to win an award as Best Actor." I'm guessing his performance could only be improved by the trimming done by Medina and Aguiluz (removing the melodramatic excess, the traditional action film cliches, the former acting persona to reveal a new man altogether).

It probably won't help that, according to Aguiluz, the music composer the producer brought in created a totally unacceptable music score, one that as the director puts it is "meant for a soap opera and not for Asiong."

Things apparently got ugly after the two edits were made. Aguiluz was not informed that Ejercito was unhappy with the film. He was not informed that additional footage was to be shot. He was not invited to the December 17 premiere. His name was not removed as per his explicit request, but the names of his two editors, Mirana Medina and Rolando Eucason were removed and replaced by the name Jason Cahapay. 

It's hinted that Aguiluz was paid a hefty sum for his name, hence their refusal to remove it. I've heard horror stories of this happening before, but it's a shock to hear it still happening--a man can't even control the use of his name? Something seems wrong about that. 

Something equally wrong about removing Ms. Medina's name. As I noted in a previous blog post, Ms. Medina is not only Aguiluz's only acceptable choice to edit his films, she is easily one of the finest editors in the world, let alone Philippine cinema.

Incidentally that hefty sum isn't exactly correct. Aguiluz was contracted to work for eighteen days, and shoot extended up to thirty-six; he should have received P450,000 for the extra eighteen days, but his pay was negotiated down to P200,000 (roughly $4,500--American filmmakers, indies included, please note).

There are claims that a director's cut as Aguiluz has requested is too expensive, roughly P2 million ($50,000.00). Aguiluz points out that this isn't true--the Director's Cut exists in the Bangkok post-production outfit used; kinescoping has already been done with the producer's cut. Assembling the cut, scoring and mixing it shouldn't cost too much more--an estimated grand total of P500,000 (less than $11,500). This in fact is the agreement director and producer arrived at in the first place, before the producer began his extracurricular activities.

It would be in the producer's interest to do this cut. He may be interested in recouping his costs here in the Philippine, but the international film festival circuit, and the market available through this circuit, is a whole different animal. Aguiluz has the experience--he's attended many a festival, not just as guest or juror but as competitor, and directs his own international film festival (Cinemanila); he knows the criteria by which international film jurors and distributors judge entries. He knows the lay of the land, so to speak, and should be the most qualified person around to judge how and in what form the film should be presented abroad.

The word 'respect' has been bruited around, sometimes a bit too often; Aguiluz is known to be pugnacious and unafraid to stand up for his rights, but in this case I think he's also in the right. What was and is still being done to him is too much, and should not be tolerated--not by Aguiluz, not by any filmmaker, Filipino or otherwise. 

(Again, if you feel there is the least bit of rightness to our cause, please take the time to sign the petition asking the producer to release a Director's Cut of the film)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

E.R. Ejercito tries to defend his interference in 'Asiong Salonga'

Update on the Asiong Salonga controversy:

(If you're coming to this only now, please read the petition letter for a summary of the situation and if you agree, please sign the petition)


Some reactions off the top of my head.

"Hindi, basta ako, ang comment ko Direk Tikoy, magaling si Direk Tikoy.



Pero dagdag niya rin, "Pero yung editing and music, hindi niya linya yun. 

"Huwag niyang pakialaman yung area na yun sa movie."

(For me, my comment on Director Tikoy, he's great. 

Then he added: "When it comes to editing and music, that's not his line.

"He shouldn't interfere with those areas of the movie").

Difficult to respond because I haven't seen the film, but we're talking here of Tikoy Aguiluz and his long time collaborator and editor Mirana Medina. She has edited his films since his first feature, Boatman in 1984 and as far as I can see they have never varied their editing style or philosophy when it comes to pacing, rhythm, shot length. And I can say, having seen almost everything they have done, that theirs is some of the crispest, most no-nonsense editing in Philippine cinema.

Aguiluz's practice is to bring in Medina not just at production stage, but pre-production stage, and they plan out the editing almost from the point when they work out the script. 

This has several advantages: Aguiluz knows what's essential to telling the story, what to leave out or fight to keep when money's short, or when things go wrong. He (and Medina) know the bare minimum needed to tell the story properly, even when they're missing several days' footage, or when the production is chaotic. That preliminary edit they share in their heads is their lifeline, to keep things clear, to recognize when they don't have a film and need to shoot some more, and what can be improvised when things don't work out. 

So when Aguiluz says that his film's damaged because a few scenes were added (see this article for an explanation of the changes), my impulse is to believe him. He knows the film's structure, along with his editor; they've lived with this structure for the whole time, from the writing through pre-production, through the shoot, to post-production. To add or detract from a Tikoy Aguiluz film is like, in effect, slicing away or stitching on various appendages to a beautiful woman's face--the result is hideous, no matter what you think of the original visage. You do serious damage to what is essentially a finished product.

In a later article Ejercito declares that he found the pacing too slow, and he hired younger editors (he repeats the word "younger" at least twice) to (presumably) pick up the pacing. To this I reply: but at what cost to the storytelling? Are we to have Bourne Identity style editing when the story is set in the '50s? Will the audience marvel at the 'faster pacing' or laugh their heads off at the inappropriateness of the faster cuts? Does Governor Ejercito  consider the Filipino people to still be cinematically and visually illiterate--that they wouldn't know good or appropriate editing when they see it? I don't declare--haven't seen the final product--I only ask.

Boatman, Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish), Segurista (Dead Sure), Tatsulok (Triangle), Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express) for all their flaws have all been excellently edited, fast-paced films; the actions scenes are exciting to behold and never self-indulgent. Based on Aguiluz's filmmaking record, I frankly can't see where this is coming from. 

Any filmmaker will tell you this; the idea of anyone adding to or cutting from their film can have them shuddering. I've already mentioned Mario O'Hara as having experienced this several times, but everyone from legendary Mike De Leon to maverick Celso Ad. Castillo to the late Ishmael Bernal to Lino Brocka himself has suffered interference, and all to a man will say they don't like it (Brocka has said so frankly in many interviews). It smacks of second-guessing, of mistrust. It suggests the producer has no confidence in his decision to hire the filmmaker in the first place. 

(Again, if you agree with any of this or if you believe in artistic freedom in general, please consider signing the petition)



PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION TO RELEASE TIKOY AGUILUZ'S 'ASIONG SALONGA' UNCUT AND UNALTERED

From the website, a letter describing the situation and what is being demanded. If you agree--if you believe in artistic freedom, and the right of the director to be final arbitrator as to the status of his work--then please sign the petition.
 
We want Tikoy Aguiluz's Asiong Salonga!


Greetings,


This concerns the upcoming film Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story, starring Jorge 'E.R.' Ejercito, directed by Tikoy Aguiluz. Months before it had been announced that Aguiluz was to direct this film, which would be produced by and star the aforementioned actor.

The news was greeted with excitement. It would have been the first Aguiluz movie in eight years, and was seen not just as the first major work of a major Filipino talent, but a return of the action film genre, and of the historical period film to mainstream Philippine cinema. It was to be entered in the Metro Manila Film Festival, and even that was seen as a return to the MMFF of years past, where prestigious films were not only screened but also competed in the festival.

Then on December 14 this article co-written by Bayani San Diego, Jr. and Marinel Cruz appeared:

The trouble with Asiong

The article outlined what was in effect a request by Mr. Aguiluz to have his name removed from the film's credits, his reason being that additional scenes were added without his consent, and that the final edit and music mix were not his. The film in its final form, he believes, is not his film.

These are serious accusations. There appears to have been a breakdown of communications between director and producer, to the extent that the producer has withdrawn control of the film from the director, and has altered the film substantially in ways that the director has not approved of.

The film in effect has been changed in ways that the producer has seen fit; without the director's consent, however, we have to assume that the producer has changed the film to make it more commercially viable, or--being the lead actor as well--to make his role more substantial, his character more appealing. We also have to assume that, without the director's consent, these changes were not applied to improve the film's artistry, or its cinematic values.

We have to assume this because historically speaking, a producer's interference in a film has often resulted in less than happy results. Erich Von Stroheim's Greed (1924) was cut to about a fourth of its running time, and consensus opinion was that this was a great loss; Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) lost its original ending, which was considerably shortened and re-cut, and most film historians believe that the altered ending is far weaker than the original.

This applies as well to Filipino film history. Pressure was put on Lino Brocka to change the ending of his masterpiece Insiang (1976), to better conform to censorship laws, and to conform to former First Lady Imelda Marcos' adage that films must reflect “the true, the good, the beautiful” (Brocka was said to have changed the ending, but in a way that he believed would remain faithful to the film's themes). Bernal was pressured to change the name of his masterpiece Manila by Night to City After Dark; his ending too was altered to make the film more palatable to Filipino censors.

Mario O'Hara seems to be the patron saint of interfered-with filmmakers. He was fired from the production of Mga Bilanggong Birhen (The Captive Virgins, 1977); the producer gave the film to another filmmaker, and the result is an incoherent mess. The producer had hardcore pornographic footage inserted into his Bed Sins (1985) without his consent. His Sindak (Fear, 1999) was taken away from him, extra scenes inserted, the final edit changed.

Some might argue that interference from the producer is not quite the same as from the government; both have different interests, of course, not to mention differing stakes. The point is, it's all interference. It's the taking over of a work by people who have not lived with the work day in and day out, for weeks or even months at a time, deciding the final form of something they often only have a few days to look at and familiarize themselves, and the results have almost never come out well. As Erich von Stroheim said of the editor that butchered his film Greed: "The only thing he had on his mind was his hat."

The ultimate loser in all this is the average Filipino viewer. Time and time again he is told that he is stupid, and will not understand more intellectual, or complex forms of storytelling. Time and time again he is told that the violence is too intense, or the sex too explicit, or the film too dark or slow for him to appreciate, or understand, or resist; if he sees it, he might be tempted to kill someone or rape someone else, or kill himself out of despair. What few people seem to realize is that the Filipino viewer is perfectly capable of deciding for himself what he wants and does not want to see.

Aguiluz has asked of his producers that he be allowed to screen his edit of his film to festivals overseas; this is nice for festival viewers overseas, but what about us, the Filipino viewers?

We have had enough. We the Filipino viewers--we the viewers of the world as well--have had enough. We have waited patiently for and have been long excited to see this film of Mr. Aguiluz, Mr. Ejercito and their collaborators. We ask of the producers that they release the film in the form Mr. Aguiluz originally envisioned, and trust in his overall love and passion for filmmaking and for this film that it is already in the best form it will ever be, and any additional alteration would be both wasteful and beside the point.

We believe the Filipino people have long been hungry for a quality mainstream Filipino film, one that tells a well-made, well-written popular story, and we believe Mr. Aguiluz--with the help of Mr. Ejercito and everyone else involved--has done it. It is there, unaltered, already ready to be fed into the projector. We want to see that film, as decided by the artist best qualified to make that decision. We ask that you give us that film.

(Again, if you agree with any of this, or if you believe in the rights of an artist to express himself freely, please sign the petition!)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011)

Superhero salad

Consider poor Theseus. His divine father bequeathed on him godlike strength, but not godlike immunity to life's sorrows; his human father abandoned him to be raised by his mother. He's required to travel to Athens, encountering many dangers along the way, to claim his birthright; when he arrives his stepmother tries to kill him.

Theseus' father commits suicide; his best friend is captured by the Furies. He's considered one of Athens' greatest heroes, but no one would ever mistaken his life for a bowl of cherries. 

For whatever reason Theseus hasn't enjoyed the name recall of, say, Hercules; his life's story hasn't been adopted into half a dozen sword-and-sandal epics, nor has it been turned into a Disney movie musical. He is mostly remembered for his adventure against the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature that lives in a labyrinth--wouldn't be surprised to learn that people are readier to remember the Minotaur than they are his name. He hovers in that Underworld of dimly regarded mythological figures--not quite familiar, not quite forgotten. 

Now he gets the exclusive multimillion dollar Hollywood 3D production treatment--only it isn't what it used to be. 3D has lost some of its luster, ever since the sequels to both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda franchises failed at the boxoffice. This production was obviously meant to cash in on the success of Clash of the Titans, not to mention the larger-than-life bloodbaths found in 300, but some of the bloom has faded from action-fantasy as well (Conan the Barbarian, anyone?). Knowing all this, I walked into the theater expecting to find a second-rate Clash; instead I found an intensely violent, exuberantly stylish comic-book action movie.

Tarsem Singh for much of his not-very-prolific career has been something of an eye-catcher. His The Cell (2000) I didn't much like--it dwelt too much on a cliché of a story, the hunt for a serial killer and his hidden victim--but it did feature said killer's more exotic fantasies, some of which involved hermetically sealed junk and desiccated corpses in the spirit of Jan Svankmajer (a master at conveying physical corruption). His The Fall (2006) was an altogether warmer, more winning project, the attempt by a disabled stuntman and his child friend to weave a fantasy of a story; Singh envisioned slow-motion action in a swirl of colors, set against an electric blue sky, largely desert landscapes, and ravishing Islamic architecture.

Immortals is a step forward and upwards--not a serial-killer hunt, nor an exercise in willed storytelling, but a retelling of the life of Theseus, one of the great Greek mythological heroes. Characterization is minimal--you barely know these people--but their expressions, their gestures, their voice delivery are consistently intense, outsized, intricate. They may be shallow, barely sketched-out people, but they're vividly, memorably so.

Like Louis Leterrier with his Clash of the Titans Singh makes heavy use of digital effects; unlike Leterrier Singh has formidable imagemaking abilities, and an awesome sense of drama--he'll frame tiny figures against a vast set, crawling across a polished floor like so many ants, or throw vivid colors across electric-blue sky and desolate land, against which he parades a procession of outrageous Eiko Ishioka costumes.

Like, say, Zack Snyder Singh likes to make extensive use of slow motion in his action sequences. Unlike Snyder, Singh has a genuine sensibility, one that draws inspiration from more eclectic sources (for The Cell Singh possibly viewed the works of Jan Svankmajer; for this film he's quoted as saying he's trying to emulate Michelangelo Caravaggio). Snyder's sources of inspiration? For 300 obviously Frank Miller (a good draftsman, but his historically distorted view of Thermopylae (not to mention racist and homophobic view of the Persians) plays out on a monotonous color palette--red on black on red on black...); for Watchmen it's pretty much Dave Gibbons (whose closely detailed realism is effective, not exactly inspired--you can't help but suspect the intricate camera moves found in the comics were closely scripted by writer Alan Moore).

Singh's basic approach to the material may be questionable (a comic-book look at Greek mythology?) but the man does know how to wield a camera, and to cut the resulting footage together in a rhythm designed to elicit awe, exuberance, a sense of majesty. Comic book? Well--yes, but consider: mythology was the Greeks' (and for that matter the rest of Western civilization's) way of telling elemental stories of lust, vengeance, ambition, pathos; they were colorful, dramatic, easy to comprehend. The gods were the ancient Greeks' equivalent of the superhero; like superheroes they maintained some kind of secret identity, showing themselves only in times of great crisis, and only to people who have proven themselves worthy. Like superheroes they (and their progeny) represented the Grecian virtues, Theseus in particular: bravery, loyalty, integrity, ingenuity in the face of impossible odds.

Immortals is short on humanity, long on the human body in all its speed, power, grace; watching this makes you almost want to go hurl a javelin, or run a really long course, or do something Olympian. If the gods had to pick an artist to do their 'graphic novel,' they could have done worse, much, much worse.



First published in Businessworld  12.8.11

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ward (John Carpenter, 2010)


Girl gone bad

It starts ominously enough--girl running through the woods, coming upon a house, reaching in an open window with matches to light the curtains, squatting to watch the house burn down...

The cops come and grab her; she resists violently (but if she didn't want to be arrested why didn't she run?). Kristen (Amber Heard) is sentenced to a psychiatric ward with only four other fellow patients, and the feeling of a largely abandoned, mostly empty building. They have meandering, sporadically hostile therapy sessions with a Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) who speaks in an ominously Teutonic accent, and whose primary assistant is named, ominously again, Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney)...

What exactly is going on here? Why is there almost as much staff as patients? Why does the ward look empty most of the time? Why would the nurse leave her station for such unlikely lengths of time? Why does the doctor keep using hypnotherapy? Why would Kristen burn that house down? Why was she running through those woods in the first place? The inconsistencies and unanswered questions are almost more bothersome than the creepy atmosphere, and one wonders if Carpenter went into this with a half-baked script (by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, for the record). To the suspense of Kristen surviving her ordeal is added an extra element of suspense: will Carpenter's first feature film in nine years end in disaster and disgrace for the veteran horror filmmaker?

Well--yes and no. This isn't the clean-cut Carpenter of the early years, who employed techniques pioneered by Howard Hawks to create low-budget thrillers that made much more money than was put into them (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978)); it's not quite middle-phase Carpenter, who gleefully toyed with metaphysical concepts to the befuddlement of his fans (In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Cigarette Burns (2005)). I'd call it hybrid Carpenter, where he's trying to get back to his Halloween roots while still addressing his need to nitpick at the fraying weave that holds our reality together...

The hostility that accompanies this film is understandable--it's misleading, it refuses to explain itself, it doubles back and reinvents itself in a way that might leave the viewer confused, if he isn't paying attention. Or if he's paying too much attention; putting together the picture in one's head, the pieces may not fit, the overall scheme may not provide a satisfying resolution, or even a coherent one.

But--does that matter? Carpenter shows younger filmmakers how suspense is really done. There's a moment early in the film when the girls are in their recreation room and the entire building is plunged into a blackout; the girls are startled, then amused, then begin to panic from the oncoming thunder, the increasingly intense lightning-flash. One girl cries out; another hides. Their panic starts becoming contagious; you wonder if the flashes don't have a shock cut hidden among them that would reveal something truly frightening--

At which point Carpenter cuts to a long shot embracing the entire room. Sudden eerie silence; the lights have just come back on. All five girls stare at each other wondering--did something just end, or is something about to begin? Carpenter manages to make the failure of a “boo!” moment even more unsettling than if a scare did occur--not an easy achievement. 

Later we see evidence that Carpenter's been keeping up; some images seem inspired by Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2002); others seem to reference Eli Roth's Hostel (2005). Not too many, thank goodness; Carpenter's still able to toss in moments that have a flavor all their own--like when Iris (Lyndsey Fonseco) is strapped down to a chair awaiting her grisly end (no digital cheats here; the prosthetic makeup looks reasonably realistic, and Carpenter shows just enough to make us flinch, not so much that it looks drawn-out and cartoonish).

Even better is when Kirsten first undergoes electroshock therapy--the order to have it approved and her strapped to a table is carried out with appalling speed (I hope if I'm ever a candidate for electroshock the doctors would at least put in the proper paperwork, or pause to consider less extreme solutions--an herbal enema, perhaps?). She's whimpering, a tongue block inserted in her mouth, the inevitability of her position all too apparent in her eyes; when shock is applied her head shudders against the leather cushion, which warps in time to her shuddering. Seen from above you see the warping as rays radiating from her head--as if she wore a halo of electric force that flashed in time to the terrible shuddering rhythm...

By film's end Carpenter manages to answer most of our questions; more, he manages to square away any number of narrative sins he's committed during the course of the story. More it's difficult to reveal--suffice to say, I only need mention certain filmmakers or even titles and you'd know what just happened; the twist is hardly new. But this is Carpenter's latest, and it's surprisingly whole and coherently put-together despite the questions posed along the way, despite the speed with which Carpenter whips the story along, despite the countless unanswered mysteries. Not his best, but I could have done much worse things with my ninety or so minutes..

First published on Businessworld, 11.24.11



Saturday, December 03, 2011

Tribute to Mario O'Hara at the Cinema One Awards (11.13.11)

I'm sure you've already seen or at least heard about this before.

Cinema One Originals, which helps produce, screen and promote independent digital films, had decided to give an honorary award to O'Hara, for his pioneering efforts in independent cinema.

Star-studded affair. Ricky Lee handed O'Hara his award; Nora Aunor was a co-recipient. There was reportedly a videotaped tribute to O'Hara, of which, or so I hear (I don't have Cinema One, alas), portions of an interview I did for them was included. 

Now that some time has passed, I thought of posting the full contents of that interview for downloading here.

It was basically four questions (warning, the files are large, as in hundreds of megabytes). 

4. Si Mario O'Hara ay (Mario O'Hara is)_______________



Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shorts (Hugo; Immortals; J. Edgar; The Killers, three versions)


Hugo

An intricate clockwork of a movie that spins and shudders, chimes and chatters, striking a brassy bell for the cult of cinephilia. Forget the ostensible story--something about some silly orphan hiding in a railway station (Why doesn't he seek a shelter? Or better yet, why doesn't the film show us why he refuses to seek a shelter?), at the same time seeking the parts to repair a broken-down automaton--and enjoy the film's true subject matter: the love of film, and of filmmakers. Martin Scorsese directs in two modes: with exuberance, and with a crystalline sense of still-eyed wonder, the kind Spielberg used to specialize in until all the honesty in the emotion was strip-mined away. Here it is again, fresh and new-minted, it seems--produced out of the tip of one's ear (after being given up for lost) as if by a prestidigitator's hand.

Yes there is slapstick--a sop for those with attention deficit disorder--but more to the point there is magic, mainly from Scorsese's camera, and mainly from the warmth radiated by Scorsese's irrepressible love for films. Wonderful picture and, thanks to the camerawork (by Robert Richardson) and production design (by Dante Ferretti), wonderful visual texture--one of the best to date to use 3D, easily.

Immortals

Now this is a surprise--from what all the critics are saying, I walked in expecting a secondhand, second-rate Clash of the Titans remake; what I found instead is a stylishly violent retelling of the Theseus myth. Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) arguably uses a similar style to Zack Snyder (300)--all slow-motion bombast, to follow an intricately dancelike fight choreography (I'm guessing they all get their inspiration from John Woo). Only Singh has been at it at least four years longer than Snyder, and Singh to my mind at least is the superior action filmmaker (his fight sequences are more graceful, more varied, less wearying on the eye). Plus he insists on papering his film with striking imagery--from Jan Svankmajer for early parts of The Cell, from Caravaggio for Immortals (Snyder's main source of inspiration for 300 is Frank Miller; for Watchmen Dave Gibbons). Considering it's mostly a straightforward superhero movie with a subpar script and little to zero characterization (you recognize the people mostly from their costumes, and basic physiognomy) it's not bad; not bad at all.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's Hoover biography is actually pretty good. A little po-mo time-sequence shuffling, a nice little twist at the end reminding us what J. Edgar's been doing all along (controlling the narrative to tell his story his way), a tender little love story, all in that retro-seeming straight-shooting visual package that is Eastwood's trademark storytelling style. Maybe the film's biggest problem is fitting this appropriately to one of the most ambivalently repulsive figures in modern American history--yes, he contributed to law enforcement, the same time placing himself pretty much above said law; yes he possibly loved Tolson, possibly platonically, but denied the same opportunity to many other Americans--I think we need to see this more. Fascinatingly flawed, both film and figure.

The Killers (1946)

Siodmark's German Expressionist style rules this version of Hemingway's short story, which pretty much runs out some fifteen minutes in. The rest of the film tries to answer the question left hanging in the air: just what did he do that made him decide to stop running from death? It's an intricate answer, one that involves a double cross on top of a double cross (on top of as it turns out a third double cross), and a femme fatale as beautiful as Ava Gardner (who comes across as arguably the single most desirable creature onscreen, if not in all of Hollywood). Burt Lancaster as Ole Swede ain't chopped liver either--when he swings into action taking down a gunman, or runs across the screen to shoot his pursuers' tires he's raging-bull huge yet agile; all the more haunting, then, is the image of him lying down (as Hemingway chillingly puts it) “too long for his bed,” passively waiting for his approaching fate. Siodmak shoots Lancaster so that only his middle torso is visible, his head and legs sliced off by the surrounding dark as if by a guillotine; he already looks like a collection of body parts. When warned about the oncoming killers, his disembodied voice full of resignation and despair gives thanks for the warning but declares with finality: “I'm through with all that running around.” Absolute acceptance of an unavoidable fate: that's what great film noir's all about.

The Killers (1964)

Don Siegel's remake (it was an attempt to make the first ever TV feature, or so I'm told) suffers from budgetary woes: the soundtrack is partly borrowed from Welles' Touch of Evil, the racing sequences are all rear projection--poorly done rear projection, at that--and the producers couldn't even convince John Cassavetes to get behind a real set of go-cart wheels (Angie Dickinson, to her credit, is game). Still, the nastiness has if anything been intensified: Lee Marvin strides into a school for the blind and menaces the helpless receptionist; later he gives Ms. Dickinson similar treatment, only rougher. And it's not true that these killers aren't as playful as in Hemingway's story or Siodmak's version--in one scene, while Norman Fell is being sweated by Marvin, Clu Galager pulls off his shades, looks them over, wipes them clean on Fell's damp hair.

Siegel directs with economy and straightforward brutality. The harsh TV lighting and flimsy sets reveal this to be an appropriate version of The Killers for its age: crass and overbright, a nightmare dressed in cheap plastic and garish synthetic fibers, filled with sudden explosions (inserted footage that seems unreal and disconnected from the rear projection footage) and equally sudden impulses--like the one that has Cassavetes taking a swing at and knocking down Ronald Reagan, future President of the United States.

The Killers  (1956)

Andrei Tarkovsky's directorial debut, an adaptation of Hemingway's classic story. Easily the most faithful with regards to dialogue and text, the film is also the most wayward with regards to visual and emotional tone--the bartender looks like a tubercular Soviet student aesthete, the pair of assassins look as if they would rather order an expresso, and one of the customers seems to have wandered in from out of a Soviet dockyard workers' strike, possibly taking a break, another sports a beret (later Tarkovsky himself walks in, whistling a lively rendition of Lullaby of Birdland). Still, there is style here, a brooding use of camera movement and shadows harkening back to the German Expressionists (and, ironically, Siodmak) that is satisfying to see. Unfortunately, the scene involving Ole Swede's bedroom (directed by Alexandr Gordon) fails to show us the feet sticking out over the edge of the bed--a key detail.

11.27.11 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cinemanila 2011 (13 Assassins; Dario Argento; Jafar Panahi; Nora Aunor)


Cinemanila 2011: Cup runneth over

It's that time of the year again, and Cinemanila--running from the eleventh of November 2011 (All those ones! Put that in your lottery ticket) to the seventeenth at the Market! Market! Cinemas at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Rizal--is easily the best show in town, everything from the latest by Wim Wenders (Pina (2011), about famed dance choreographer German Philippina "Pina" Bausch--in 3D, at that) to the latest by Park Chan Wook (Night Fishing (2011), a 30 minute short shot entirely on an iPhone). Plus films by Lav Diaz (Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)), and Chang Dong Lee (Poetry (2010)).

There are retrospectives on Dario Argento (Suspiria (1977)) and Nora Aunor (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), Himala (Miracle, 1982), Bona (1980)), both of whom are to receive lifetime achievement awards; films by Jaffar Panahi (Offside (2006)) including the latest he did while officially prohibited by the Iranian government from directing films (This is Not a Film (2010)); the latest by Raya Martin (Buenas Noches Espana (Goodnight Spain, 2011)); by John Torres (Mapang-akit (Seductive, 2011)); by Kim Jee Woon (I Saw the Devil (2010)); by Takashi Miike ((13 Assassins (2010)) and by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)). The latest in independent shorts, digital films by Southeast Asian and Filipino talents. And many, many more.

Pick a title, any title...possibly the most audacious aspect of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 'jidaigeki' (period samurai) film, about twelve samurai plus one hired to kill a shogun's psychotically sadistic son) is its unapologetic invitation--dare, almost--to be compared to Akira Kurosawa's three-hour epic Seven Samurai (1954).

Does Miike measure up to Kurosawa's definitive statement on war and violence? Certainly jacks up the numbers--from seven to thirteen heroes, facing at first seventy, then two hundred soldiers, their battle involving not just swords and arrows but slingshots, guns, booby-traps, bursts of flame, huge explosions, giant sliding fences that block off the action and redefine the battlefield again and again. Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't strive for strict realism; the sliding fences look impossibly high, and digital effects help simulate a stampede of burning bulls (no, really). Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't even bother to keep the battle's village setting spatially coherent--he has a main avenue where most of the killing is done, then opens up all kinds of back alleyways and side passages and courtyards for heroes and villains to run through and die in as, if, whenever necessary.

Like Kurosawa Miike follows the classic form, or at least gives passing acknowledgement--there is a recruiting sequence, and some of the characters recruited stay in mind (two that do are drunken nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) and forest hunter Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya)); a preparation sequence that doesn't really explain much (but is fitfully entertaining); and a showdown that takes up almost half the picture (you can tell where Miike's priorities lie). The endless scenes of close combat are long, carefully choreographed (if outwardly chaotic) affairs, with coherent camerawork and editing in the classic Kurosawa manner (Miike may be crazy but he isn't stupid); the final showdown is as operatic and overblown as anything one might wish for from Kurosawa, or Sergio Leone, or any of the classic Western (in both sense of the word) filmmakers.

What makes this exercise in relatively straightforward jidaigeki most distinctly Miike is his villain, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu. Naritsugu enjoys plenty of screen time, enough to establish him as one of Miike's more baroque creations--a hedonist with limitless appetites, a sociopath who finds absolutely no value in human life, a sadistic pervert with (and this may be the most shocking detail of all) no real experience of the real world, completely unaware of how other people think or feel (one speculates that he's lived a sheltered life where his every whim is obeyed, no matter how unreasonable). Played by the blandly handsome Goro Inagaki--it's the nondescript prettiness covering a seething nihilistic innocence that makes the character so unsettling--Naritsugu dominates 13 Assassins in a way that no character in Kurosawa's film ever did; he galvanizes the picture, gives it urgency and a sense of impending doom (the man is on his way to receive a high position from his younger brother, the present Shogun; once promoted the man would be untouchably, monstrously powerful). More, he provides a detached god's eye view of the battle, relishing with greater and greater appreciation his enemy's increasingly desperate tactics (viewing a particularly bloody struggle, Naritsugu asks Hanbei his chief samurai:

You think the age of war was like this?”

Perhaps.”

It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei; something wonderful has come to my mind.”

Huh?”

Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring back the age of war...”).

As Naritsugu's chief samurai Hanbei Kitou, Masachika Ichimura makes for the perfect foil, a noble samurai who doesn't hesitate to protect his lord, even if his lord is crazy. Theirs (as the poem goes) not to reason why, theirs but to do or die--you can feel Hanbei's distaste, yet he's warrior enough to swallow his sentiments and stay true to his master. Partly because of the loyalty (fanaticism?) of men like these monstrous governments, administrations, kingdoms are made possible, are granted bloody birth.

Perhaps the worst criticism ever leveled at Kurosawa's masterpiece was that it provided little insight into the forty bandits facing the samurai. Miike addresses that lack many times over with his Lord Naritsugu; he manages to give the man his own inimitable point of view, one that survives a final confrontation with the assassins, even affords him a morsel of sympathy. A great action film? I don't know; Kurosawa's shadow looms large over the landscape. But Miike does throw a few clever ideas in, giving the material an interesting spin.

Of Dario Argento--what else can be said that hasn't already been said? Don't consider Suspiria his best work but it's easily his best known: a parody of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) where instead of a massive Oedipal complex we have a malevolent witches' convent; instead of austere black-and-white we have an operatic palette of colors, hue, textures. The shadows are as deep and velvety as outer space, the sound and music (compliments of the band Goblin) as eclectically precise as a collection of surgical instruments; you find yourself strapped metaphorically to your chair with Argento bent over gazing at you, scalpel in one hand. Screaming at this point would be a blessing.


Jafar Panahi is by turns politically astute, irrepressibly satirical, restlessly experimental; to the edict that he be forbidden from directing a film, for example, he responds with a work titled This is Not a Film.

Offside is about a group of girls trying to sneak into an Iranian soccer game (where women are banned). Not just any soccer game--it's the game where Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Comedy this sharp is almost impossible to describe, the way a beautiful kick past a goalie can be impossible to describe: there are no words there are only the motions as the filmmaker sidesteps all restrictions in his production (He can't film the girls in the game, for one thing, he has to hope for the purposes of his script that Iran wins, and for budgetary reasons (not a lot of money for extras) he has to shoot during the actual games). The ending, a victory for the record, is both exuberant and bittersweet.

If there isn't much to add to what's been said about Argento, there's even less to add to the considerable amount of ink that has been spilled over Nora Aunor, on her umpteenth comback with a successful 'teleserye' (Mario O'Hara's Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) recently wrapped and a major film (Tikoy Aguiluz's Manila Kingpin, a remake of The Asiong Salongga Story) coming soon. Aunor in this retrospective can be seen in at least three different aspects, as handled by three major filmmakers: as object of adoration and religious icon (Ishmael Bernal's hallucinatory Himala); as downtrodden maid in an urban melodrama (Lino Brocka's Bona), and as provincial lass turned Japanese collaborator in Mario O'Hara's period epic (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos).

Aunor broke the tradition of using light-skinned screen stars with Westernized faces; hers is the face and figure of the masses, dark-skinned and diminutive, and they love her dearly for this, love her success because it's their success too. She's not only an accomplished actress in the silent-screen manner (those dark eyes!) but an accomplished producer as well--one of her own projects, O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is arguably and in my book possibly the finest Filipino film ever made.

So; go see. Have fun...

First published in Businessworld, 10.10.11

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, Mario O'Hara, Jon Red, 2011) fourth week



Some last thoughts on Sa Ngalan Ng Ina


(With revisions in the 12th, 13th and final paragraphs)

Been a week since Sa Ngalan ng Ina has closed, and have written many an article on the series, but have yet to fully digest the total experience. 

Won't stop me from trying. 

Did it achieve all that it set out to do? I don't think so. I think it set out to be a groundbreaking teleserye that married recent political mythology (the fall of the Marcos clan and rise of the Aquino clan) to full-blown Filipino melodrama. Along the way the political thread was dropped (at about the time both prodigal children (Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingco) and Andrea (Nadine Samonte)) Deogracias reconciled with their stepmother Elena (Nora Aunor)); villainness Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces) started to focus on extralegal means to exact revenge on Elena; and political figures Apo (Leo Rialp) and Dorinda (Raquel Villavicencio) faded into the background. 

It was a pity, I thought; the political element grounded the melodrama, kept it linked not just to everyday reality, but to familiar everyday reality, freshly taken from headlines (the financial scandals; the leaked tape recordings; the deliveries and collection activities of drug gangs). I thought Elena--a naif when it came to political reality and proudly so--was starting to come into her own when she collaborated with her drug-lord stepson. Yes she was making arrests right and left, but this was at the expense of the empire Alfonso had carefully built; if he was to give all that up, he had to have demanded some kind of price, and I would have loved to have known just what (A sum of cash? Concessions to various lucrative but legal activities?). 

The reconciliation between Alfonso and Elena was beautifully done, and I as much as said so; I even hoped that despite the noble sentiments expressed Alfonso would struggle with temptation and perhaps experience a relapse, and Elena struggle with the prospect of arresting her son yet another time. But Alfonso's turned out to be a genuine change of heart, even a lasting one; Uytingco remained a consistently fine actor for the rest of the series but didn't ignite the screen the way he did the previous four weeks.

Elena's character suggested bits of ambivalence especially during the third and fourth week; besides running to Alfonso she delivered a particularly menacing threat to an underperforming police officer ("Remember I had my own son arrested--think what I'd do to someone outside my family!"); beyond that, the only indication that she was a less than perfect woman was when she admitted to fathering a child with Pepe Ilustre, played by Christopher De Leon (but then apparently half the women in the Philippines seem to want to do that--why should she be any different?).

Then there was the way Elena broke up Andrea's marriage to Ramoncito--I thought then that that was a masterstroke of hidden puppeteering, the loveliest touch being that Elena meant well, and acted exactly like a concerned, caring mother. But nothing more was made out of it, and Andrea never suspected, apparently; she became and remained till the end of the series a staunch Elena Deogracias supporter (here's to hoping she doesn't read this blog).

It wasn't quite (as I'd hoped at first) the Filipino equivalent of Robert Altman's Tanner '88: too many opportunities missed, too many plot threads simplified instead of rendered more complicated. Elena started out humble, ends up heroic at worst; Alfonso has the dramatic heart ripped out of him when he realized he wasn't eating his Aunt Pacita's humba

 Likewise Lucia--I would have loved to have seen her develop as a character, but then she decides to take the for me least interesting route: jealous housewife gone totally insane. Pretty much tossed her sometimes ingenious manipulation of media and law to the side when she decided to kidnap Elena; after that, her options were strictly limited, more of the Norma Desmond After Shooting Joe Gillis variety ("I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!").  

The series' great theme, I thought, dealt with establishing boundaries: how one separates politics from family relationships, and vice versa. I had hoped the series would delve deeper into this issue, show how the various figures (Elena, Andrea, Pepe, Lucia, and in retrospect Amang) negotiated this division within their work, within themselves. 

Not really; in the final weeks the series devolved into a  struggle between two women (Elena and Lucia) for the love of a good man (Pepe Ilustre). Not a bad struggle to depict, but--it could have been something more (see paragraphs above).

But on that other complementary major theme--that the demands of politics and demands of family are often similar and easy to confuse, even interchange--I have to say the series is a howling success. Andrea and Lucia often personalize politics (Andrea by using her wedding as a promotional gimmick, Lucia by using her husband's emotional infidelity to justify her campaign against Elena), and I suppose it's to the credit of the writers (Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras) that you see their gradual influence on Elena, on her eventual personalization of her politics (she bends the rules to forgive Alfonso, she learns to hate Lucia and call her a demon). Should the series have explored this further, shown how Elena may have changed her moral principles? Should there be a scene where someone tells her that she has changed her moral principles? At least one scene of self-examination, where she looks back and ruthlessly criticizes her brief career? Alas, we may never have that scene...

I might add that O'Hara adopted a similar approach in Bagong Hari, where the hero remained mostly heroic despite the darkness and corruption surrounding him. Possibly O'Hara didn't feel this was needed, then or now; that the plot was complex enough without adding complexities in the protagonist's nature. That the politician slowly corrupted by politics is too familiar a story, and what was needed was the story of someone fully engaged in politics but was not corrupted (as Marcos was), nor rendered ineffective by eventual circumstances (as Aquino eventually was). A middle way, if you like, with some necessary compromises made.

While the series largely dropped the politics in favor of melodrama, you had to admit it was superbly told melodrama--fast-paced, mostly understated, in its own observant way truthful. Lucia may have gone nuts, but she never devolves into anything less than human--she constantly touches on her primary motivation for doing what she does, her love of Pepe and daughter Carmela (Karel Marquez), her hatred of Elena (I keep thinking the hate tends to overshadow the love--or is it one face of the same coin?). When Lucia  surrenders to the police, director Jon Red gives her a magnificent send-off scene worthy of (inspired by?) Gloria Swanson's similar scene in Sunset Boulevard. No--this is better; writer-director Billy Wilder had frozen Norma Desmond's face into a Kabuki mask of insanity, with little human left in her (the mask cracks only towards  the end, and only to deliver a final childish cry of totally irrelevant, if passingly poignant, delight). 

Rosanna Roces starts out the opposite of frozen, her Lucia broken and alone, utterly defenseless, totally devastated; she looks into the mirror (her only witness) and--this is the magnificent part--somehow finds it in herself to slowly pick up a brush and start building up her face, slowly (in effect) pick up the shattered shards of her life, slowly piece together the ever formidable, endlessly invincible persona she had created for herself: Lucia Ilustre, daughter of a storied political family, wife of the region's former governor, leader of a major drug cartel,  powerful political force.

That's the drama, and excellent drama it is, too. What Mario O'Hara achieves with the Deogracias household (in contrast with the anguish in the Ilustre household) is, if possible even more impressive: he makes everyday happiness seem special. Kidnappings, killings and tortures; hair-pulling, shouting matches and confrontations--that's the very lifeblood of soap operas, what they thrive on. More difficult to do well are scenes of everyday life where nothing more dramatic is happening than, well, eating a meal. If, say, Lucia's surrender is the teleserye equivalent of an episode out of Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky, you might call the scenes in the Deogracias household--especially at this point in the series--the teleserye equivalent of Tolstoy, whose most unique achievement was the depiction of ordinary domestic life.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the shot where the Deogracias' manang (Lilia Cuntapay) is serving lunch. She pauses with the food, looks up, touches the arm of stepson Angelo (Edgar Allan Guzman); he looks in the same direction, touches Alfonso's arm; he looks in turn, touches Andrea's arm; she looks and smiles. The camera, which has been shifting from face to face to face, finally glides past all the faces to find Elena standing at one side of the room dressed in white, easily the first time she has done so in the series. The meaning is never spoken aloud but couldn't be more clear; she has stopped mourning the murder of her husband Amang (Bembol Roco) by Lucia; she's ready to move on. 

If Lucia's surrender moves us to pity (for her despair) and admiration (for her strength and dignity), Elena's (which isn't even a scene really, more like a brief shot) moves us ineffably with its simplicity and grace. After all she's been through--after the death of her husband, the stress of election, the strain of running a province, the sharp sting of her stepchildren's ingratitude; after being kidnapped and beaten and tortured in various imaginative ways; after all that, it's almost painful to see Elena in white, smiling her shy Aunor smile, her incomparable eyes twinkling with wordless joy. It's not just happiness it's hard-earned happiness, it's sunshine after what seemed like a month of neverending tears. After going through all that to finally arrive at this we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to respond with a few tears of our own.

That final meeting between Elena and Pepe--I know it's a concession to their fans, to see Nora Aunor and Christopher De Leon at least act out their fantasy of coming back together; it's also the playing out of an even unlikelier fantasy, where two rival political families (the Aquinos and the Marcoses) settle their differences and come together in a harmonious marriage. But I see a third interpretation: of a filmmaker and his acting muse coming together after decades apart, marveling at how they have survived all these years, marveling even more at being given the chance to work together again, and at such a high (if not the highest) level. No, this may not be the ending of our dreams--it doesn't have the teeth, in my book, or the tragic grandeur (I would have liked very much to have some tragic grandeur)--but it is ending enough, a capstone to one of the most memorable collaborations in Philippine cinema...

11.11.11 (revised 11.14.11)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, 2011)

Peter Maloney in the far superior 1982 verison

Stinks on ice

Far as I'm concerned, Matthijs van Heijningen's The Thing isn't a proper prequel, isn't even a proper remake--rather, it's a lame, lunkheaded effort at tribute that misunderstands everything that made John Carpenter's 1982 remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World (1951) a genuine horror classic.

According to interviews the filmmakers were interested in the Norwegian side of the story, what happened before their camp was demolished. Turns out 'what happened' isn't half as persuasive, or as entertaining, as what happened in the American camp; apparently the Norwegians are taciturn loners who seemed perfectly comfortable living for months in the deep snow. They don't have the Norwegian equivalent of 'copter pilot McReady trash-talking a computer chess-program, or men rollerskating down hallways, doing what they can to kill time. The enclosed conditions would drive anyone nuts, and in fact someone points to assistant mechanic Palmer (David Clennon) in one corner listening to his Walkman as an example of someone who's already cracked. The incongruity between nobility of the men's duties and pettiness of their actual actions recalls Kubrick's introductory shots of the bomber crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)--another nightmare comedy about the possible end of the world.

Actually, this picture's characters slavishly avoid resembling anyone in Carpenter's film--to this end we are given paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), on loan to the Norwegian station to help with their new discovery. Winstead in interviews insisted that her character not experience any sexual or romantic tensions, this being “inappropriate”--but when you think about it, what other kind of tension can there be in an Antarctic ice station when women are present? Does the most tangible tension onscreen have to be the need to be politically correct? Hawks himself didn't avoid the problem; if anything, he faced it head-on, made it not just part of a scene but its liveliest, spiciest element--his women are known to be strong, provocative characters who didn't wilt in the face of male machismo, but responded with their own brand of proto-feminism, formidable adversaries for strapping men.

Carpenter didn't use women in his film, ostensibly because there were no women in John Campbell Jr.'s original short story (Carpenter's is a more faithful adaptation than Hawks'). That said, a homoerotic subtext can easily be read into the men's interactions, particularly in the simmering rivalry between the Caucasian McReady (Kurt Russell) and the African-American chief mechanic, Childs (Keith David).

No such interaction--sexual, romantic, homoerotic--to be found in Heijningen's movie; if anything, all we remember are Winstead's Lloyd and (a distant second) Ulrich Thomsen's Dr. Halversen (mainly because he is not Winstead, and after her is onscreen longest). More vivid in memory are the creature's various incarnations, many of which are digitally enhanced, and the way said incarnations kill or assimilate human fodder (xenoeroticism, anyone?).

Concerning treatment of the creature--Heijningen insists that mostly practical effects were used, the shots lit and framed to conceal them; the CGI enhancements are plainly visible, however, especially when the creatures leap and run after their prey. Heijningen's creature tips its hand early, when it uses its arms like living grappling hooks; later, in the movie's most effective scene, the creature fuses into its human victim, grows legs, crawls away. Carpenter's different; there was a progression in the way his creature revealed itself, a kind of strip-tease where each shadow fell away exposing dog-thing shifting to man-thing shifting to worse. And (as with the best of Carpenter) there are images of unmatched horror, tinged with an eerie lyricism--meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney) sitting in snow comes to mind, his hand unnaturally distorted, his cry an unhuman bellow.

Some sequences go beyond poetry into a kind of nightmare slapstick--the moment, for example, when the head of geologist Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) drips to the floor and scuttles away, and Palmer looks on with incredulity: “You gotta be fucking kidding!” The effects, impressive enough for their time, have abandoned the realm of relative realism and strayed into the surreal/corporeal horror of Bunuel, Cocteau, Cronenberg; we need to express our indignation at Carpenter's effrontery, and Palmer's words are the perfect expression of that outrage. The whole thing isn't just for the sake of being grotesque, either--it's a crucial moment that plants the idea in McReady's head, of how they can beat the monster.

By way of contrast the most imaginative response anyone has in Heijningen's picture to the creature is to shoot and run--no funny exit line, no existentially defiant response to a patently unbelievable sight ("you gotta be--"). The humans take the creature as seriously as it takes itself, and we resist believing accordingly; the picture's too literal, too straightforward for its own good.

Frankly, it's easy to distinguish between Heijningen and Carpenter; you only need distinguish between novice and seasoned master. Heijningen's finest moments are perhaps the scenes where people are in a room reacting to an attack; he eschews quick cuts to keep the action coherent, and his staging is fairly inventive. Carpenter often opts for even simpler setups--like when McReady applies his test on the rest of the crew, and has the unproven ones tied up, including the corpses (a reasonable precaution). The creature's reaction immediately reveals a flaw in McReady's scheme, and they have to scramble to save the situation (it's just the sort of fast-moving, quick-thinking action Hawks might have staged, if he had the money and technology available).

For its finale the action moves out of the base and into the alien ship--and here the picture practically buries a pickaxe into its boot. The idea of an alien loose in fairly familiar surrounding--an Antarctic base--is at the very core of the original's appeal; even when earlier films set the action in outer space, they were careful to give their hallways an industrial-factory look, complete with pipelines and leaking steam valves (Ridley Scott's Alien, 1979). An alien ship by its very nature is exotic, threatening; you're so primed to see every odd shape, every dark shadow as disguised menace that when the creature itself finally appears you don't feel any sense of escalation (the best disguise, of course, being a simple shadow). You need the contrast.

By story's end the prequel attaches itself smoothly and effortlessly into the beginning of Carpenter's film--and here you wonder if you aren't seeing the core problem of the whole production. It's so obsessed with dovetailing with the better film, with 'reverse-engineering' what happened at the Norwegian base, that the movie's plot is seriously distorted, a case of confused priorities; it wants to be consistent when its first duty is to be entertaining, and imaginative. At best this serves as a case study of why one film is better than its successor; at worse it's like a monstrous outgrowth of the creature itself, more eager to mimic and meld than it is to develop its own identity, be its own creature.

First published in Businessworld, 11.3.11