Sunday, February 27, 2011

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

One of the rare unsettling images from the movie
  
Ninety three minutes

Danny Boyle's lifelong ambition to make films tailored for those afflicted with ADHD continues with 127 Hours (2010). The movie is ostensibly about a rock climber / adventurer named Aron Ralston who finds his right arm pinned to a rock at the bottom of a narrow canyon for five days--but don't let the plot summaries fool you. This is yet another occasion for Boyle to rip loose, hurtle his camera down one narrow crevasse after another, give you a bad case of vertigo even while the hero stands stock still in an uncomfortable position, all this time pining away for the bottle of Gatorade he unknowingly left in the back seat of his parked vehicle.

I don't know what it is about Boyle's bouncy, music-video style that grates so; maybe because it so rarely melds well with the material he so often takes up. Zombies with their supernatural serenity--so eerie in the hands of George Romero--in his hands turns into far less interesting blood-infecting savages (28 Days Later, 2002); romantic comedies with attractive lovers (Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz) aren't allowed much time to relax and generate any romance, much less comedy (A Life Less Ordinary, 1997); and while the style in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) does dovetail quite neatly with how Indian musicals look and sound and feel like nowadays, maybe it dovetails a little too neatly. One wonders: why bother watching an overproduced British imitation of a Mumbai musical when you can easily rent the real thing from a neighborhood Asian grocery store (with far more singing and dancing, at that)? Only with Trainspotting (1996) did I think there was a perfect union of substance and sensibility--in effect, Boyle's sense of pacing and imagery most closely resembles that of a heroin addict, who immediately suffers withdrawal symptoms if he can't get his fifteen-minute head rush.

So like I said: man with right arm trapped beneath a rock, but you wouldn't know it from the way Boyle directs the picture. Objects and animals hurtle across the sky like a twenty-four hour video screen; Ralston goes into more flashbacks than an episode of Family Guy. Boyle seems so frightened of boring people to death with the situation of a man with arm pinned under a rock that he cannot give us the physical reality of a man with arm actually pinned under a rock. There's too many interesting things going on at the corner of the eye or behind his back or careening overhead or roiling inside Ralston's skull--a full daily schedule, from the look of it--for us to believe that he suffered much deprivation or boredom. I've had a far more wearisome time doing a double shift, and I can walk around at work; unlike Boyle, I don't have a twenty-four hour video screen running at the back of my eyeballs.

James Franco gives it his all in this picture, and who wouldn't? You're not just the lead, you're practically the whole picture, for great swathes of the running time (at one point the hero stages his own impromptu talk show, complete with annoying guests and audience sound effects). It's the kind of performance that wins a slew of Hollywood awards (you know, those gold-plated statuettes they hand out every year to congratulate themselves on their artistry), the kind of show-stopping physical suffering that inspires Academy members to put their votes behind a man (this year, actually, a woman: Natalie Portman's nearly two-hour nonstop freakout in Black Swan, complete with (some whisper) her own ballet dancing (gasp!) and Grand Guignol fingernail clipping is considered the frontrunner favorite). Franco, despite the warm reception by critics, is not a frontrunner: I suppose he made the mistake of going too far, attempting to trade his right forearm for one of those damned doorstops, and on camera at that.

To be honest, I can't fault Franco--he's just an element, albeit a crucial one; I can't even fault the story, which is what it is, take it or leave it. I do wonder how the whole thing might have turned out if they chose someone else to direct--Werner Herzog, for one. He might have added a touch of mysticism to this portrait of cruel, implacable nature, and a good deal more humor; he would probably have had a more clear-eyed and less romantic view of the protagonist (think of Grizzly Man (2005)). I don't imagine Herzog would be any less exploitative, but his exploitation tactics would at least be more cunning (I'm thinking of the scene where Herzog, instead of playing to us the tape of Timothy Treadwell's death at the hands of a grizzly, listened to the tape himself and allowed us only a running commentary--which whetted our curiosity all the more). His surrealism would have been more genuinely insane, at least (Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) anyone?), would look like no other director's--unlike this one, which calls to mind Tony Scott or Alan Parker on hallucinogens--mild ones, at that.

But Boyle took it, Boyle made it, and here we are, stuck with it. By movie's end, you may want to claw at your own hand to get away--ninety minutes of Boyle's in-and-all-over-your-face style has that kind of effect on some people.

First published in Businessworld, 2.10.11

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar hoo-hah: Black Swan and True Grit


About as far as I'm willing to go with these glorified Golden Doorstops--a pair of articles:


With a side of ham

Joel and Ethan Coen's movies are such regulars now and greeted with so much anticipation it's almost impossible not to feel let-down or bewildered or defensive or have some kind of startled reaction when you do finally watch the finished product--in this case, a second adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name.

It's the Coen's most straightforward work yet--a story told simply and faithfully, with minimum snickering and little sideways commentary on the stupidity of the various characters. There's also little of the Coen's usual visual pyrotechnics, or their narrative tricks, or the little side jokes they like to insert into their pictures (one of my favorite being their claim that O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was based on Homer's The Odyssey (it's about as faithful an adaptation as Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) was of George Orwell's 1984--in effect, very loosely).

It tells the story of one Mattie Foster (part-Filipino actress Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was shot by one of his workers, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in a role first played by John Wayne in 1969) to hunt Chaney down; a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Dillon) later joins the oddball posse.

The Henry Hathaway version was a vehicle for The Duke, and it worked; Wayne won his first and only golden doorstop for Best Actor. The Coens in actually reading the Portis novel (there's doubt that they ever cracked open a volume of The Odyssey) give the narrative reins back to Mattie, where it belongs, and this version benefits from her sepia-tinted reading--like hearing a scratchy audio recording of the last remaining survivor of the Civil War.

That's the key to enjoying this film, I think--the novel's leisurely, singular voice. You get some indications of it in Hathaway's film, mostly from Kim Darby (Wayne, of course, was Wayne--rambling, easygoing, indisputably sui generis), but the Coens turn it into a symphony of Southern voices, from LeBeouf's Texas drawl to Mattie's rural Arkansas, with the old Mattie's voice coming out clearest. It's the voice of a true Presbyterian, whose language is spoken with the precision of a speaker long practiced in the rhythm and intonations of the Old Testament, and whose syntax seems to grow out of a 19th century translation of the Hebrew text. More than the sets or the clothes or Roger Deakin's magnificent cinematography, Mattie's old-school style of talking drives home the remoteness of the time period from which she speaks.

That syntax is also key to Mattie's character. Hailee Steinfeld plays her not as an angry child wishing revenge for the death of her father or as some smart-aleck prodigy flexing her hyperintelligent muscles but as a rural bible-thumper, steeped in the morality of Abraham and Moses, demanding an eye for an eye--no more, no less--and implacable in her determination to accomplish this, come what may. Mattie's frankly unsettling will is what sets her apart from the rest; she's aware of this and anyone who comes into contact with her is quickly made aware of this; Cogburn is at first amused by it, then gradually learns to respect it; LeBeouf is initially affronted, then gradually attracted. Character is all in this particular Coen film (the brothers often allow their actors to slip into caricature), and from this sense of character comes much of the film's comedy, warmth, and eventual high drama.

Yes, the film is told straight; no, this isn't the first time the Coens have tried playing it straight. They did it once before, and once before they have reaped Oscar gold, with a crucial difference: No Country for Old Men, from Cormac McCarthy's novel, feels almost top-heavy with its gloomy tone and endless meditations on mortality and meaninglessness (that's not entirely the Coen's fault; McCarthy's novel has this heaped high and just about falling over); Portis seems to acknowledge the violence and bleakness of his characters' lives without denying them the near-defiant humor that sustains them through all that hardscrabble. The Coens bring that tone, bleakness and dry wit and all, to the big screen, and locates most of it in Steinfeld's performance and Elizabeth Marvel's (as the forty year old Mattie) voiceover.

Jeff Bridges to his credit plays Cogburn with no hint of fear or intimidation; given that he has more to play with than Wayne did opposite his Mattie, he manages to step up admirably, and make of himself a suitable foil, drunken long-windedness and all. Damon is amusing as the vain LeBeouf; and Brolin as Chaney eventually reveals himself to be a weak-willed slug whose main faults are his bad luck and lack of self-control.

I'd mentioned Deakin's camerawork. He'd done westerns before, capturing the vast horizons of the Texas-Mexico border, but this film is set in Arkansas (or as close to Arkansas as the brothers could manage) and it's full of grasslands, high hills, and chilly winter forests--a somewhat unexpected but still distinctive, still memorable look.

The climactic rescue is fascinating--much closer to the book, definitely, but (please skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film) Cogburn's long ride to take the injured Mattie to safety has the stylized, fairy-tale nightmare feel of the latter half of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955)--why, I'm not sure. Partly I think it's cementing the link between Mattie and Cogburn; partly it's establishing Cogburn's stature in Mattie's fevered mind--he's saving her life, and he's already killed a horse to do so. It sets up the mournful tone of the final sequences and it adds to the film's magnified feel. Which brings us to the final irony in this film made by filmmakers known for their sense of irony--in doing their most straightforward work, the Coens may have taken their surest shot yet, and possibly hit the bulls' eye.



Release your inner swan!

YES! FOR 24.99 PLUS TAX AND DELIVERY YOU CAN OWN YOUR VERY OWN COPY OF DARREN ARONOFSKY'S THE BLACK SWAN! GUARANTEED TO HAVE YOU PULLING ON A TUTU AND SPROUTING YOUR OWN FEATHERS OR YOUR MONEY BACK! Results may vary; do not watch while operating heavy machinery; do not take alcohol or other controlled substances while viewing; may cause hallucinations, skin rash, and extreme eye redness. Pretty much the impression Aronofsky's latest slasher gave me when I saw it on the big screen.

Oh, it isn't a serial-killer movie? Could have fooled me. Aronofsky's everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking has him swinging the aforementioned plumbing fixture over his head in a threatening manner from the very start; the camera plunges forward and we see dewy-fresh, virginal Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman's), every pore in gigantic close-up, and already you note (that's her entire face stretched all over the big screen, how can you not fail to note?) that she's trembling, sweat popping out on her forehead, capillaries swelling across the whites of her eyeballs (a little sex might go a long way to relaxing her, you think, and of course Aronofsky reads your mind and makes you thoroughly regret that stray idea). We are talking grab-the-straitjacket-get-me-25-cc-Thorazine-stet-bugout-crazy here, and she hasn't even really started to crack up; that comes later.

Not even talking about the movie's real crazy: Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother Erica Sayer is an unholy mashup of Rosalind Russell's Rose Hovick and Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, only instead of wielding wire hangers this stage mother flashes nail scissors. In perhaps the movie's one truly frightening scene, Hershey spots ugly scratch marks on Portman's shoulder, accuses her of causing them with her overlong fingernails, snatches Portman's hand, picks up a pair of nail scissors, and to the refrain of Portman's anguished gasps starts snipping away--far too closely cut, of course. Fade to black, a rare moment of restraint on Aronofsky's part, though hardly original (Roman Polanski did a similar flinch-inducing scene in his 1965 film Repulsion, from which Aronofsky stole a mere truckload of ideas).

Yes, the plot--there is one, though again, you could have fooled me. Nina's been picked to play the Swan Queen in brilliant ballet director Thomas Leroy's new production of Swan Lake, his choice over aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who hysterically accuses poor Nina of sleeping with the director, then promptly does a high jete in front of an onrushing car. Beth spends the rest of the picture recovering from her shattered limbs in a hospital, when she isn't popping up here and there in an attempt (hysterical, of course) to scare Nina to death.

But that's just the menace of the old; Nina's feels even more threatened by the new, represented by Lila (Mila Kunis), an equally young, equally promising ballerina from San Francisco who apparently isn't as sexually repressed, who manages to get along with the other dancers better, who apparently is sleeping with Thomas. Then there's the suggestion that Nina's having hallucinations, that she's cracking under the strain, that she is literally turning into a swan, complete with red eyes, black feathers, and goose-pimply skin. Michael Powell meet David Cronenberg; let's have naked lunch sometime.

There's been much talk and praise for Portman in this picture, that she trained to do most of her ballet steps herself. Wonderful dedication but in my book largely misplaced, since Aronofsky with every frame makes sure we don't notice her dancing so much as we notice her eye-twitching, lip-smacking, scenery-chewing intensity. Perhaps the movie's most impressive effect is Aronofsky having Portman stay over-the-top lunatic for a full hundred minutes, to the point that when the skin on her bare shoulder starts to sprout feathers, you don't even bat an eye; you've been rendered numb to that effect, no matter how well done, about twenty minutes before (that said, there was one unintended result: her goose-pimply shoulder so resembles the gleaming sheen of a Chinese restaurant's roasted goose-skin it made my mouth water--a little hoisin sauce on the side and I might have dove straight at the big screen).

Hershey's Erica doesn't help; she's a fright wig and kitchen knife shy of stalking her apartment rooms, calling out "Nina? Nina?" Aronofsky in his 2000 picture Requiem for a Dream proved he can take some of the finest actresses out there--Ellen Burstyn, who was wonderful in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and even James Gray's The Yards (1999)--and reduce them to a screaming, throbbing, shrieking pile of shameless exhibitionism. He takes the hint of menace Ryder suggested in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993)--that superb scene where she approaches her husband like a vampire its prey--and draws out a full-blown psychopath stalker, complete with nail-file dagger and the magic ability to pop out at the most inconvenient moments. Only Vincent Cassel as Thomas seems to have escaped Aronofsky's clutches, walking insouciantly away with the picture tucked firmly in his pocket (Thomas has great fun tormenting Nina, not to mention getting to squeeze her pork buns).

I'm tempted to call Aronofsky a destroyer of careers, only he seems to have revived Mickey Rourke's (again)--his The Wrestler (2008) for all its excesses is his most relatively restrained, and hence most easily likable. Rourke displays a mileage no amount of makeup can simulate, and there's a magnificence to his doomed trajectory that even Aronofsky can't seem to spoil, no matter how hard he tries (virgins scared of sex on the other hand only make me giggle).

Might as well put out the fairly well-known fact that Aronofsky's director of photography Matthew Libatique is a Filipino-American, and what I've seen of his work in Aronofsky's films it's impressive--he's not afraid to work with digital special effects, and while the results might not totally redeem the digitized nature of the effects (to be honest I really can't think of a cinematographer or filmmaker able to do this), you can see the attempt to bring lyricism to a binary-based viewpoint. I did love his work when little or no digital effects are involved--the dark, claustrophobic look of Spike Lee's Inside Man (2005) comes to mind--and wish I could appreciate more, but Aronofsky has this tendency to cut the life out of the footage he works with. Difficult to appreciate camerawork when the editing snips everything into visual mush.

I mentioned Cronenberg; I mentioned Polanski; I really should mention Michael Powell, only the incongruity of naming him in the same breath as Aronofsky keeps laying me low with fits of laughter. Cronenberg knows how to film horror; he does so with the calm thoroughness of a pornographer shooting a couple's genitals--you want the camera steady and lighting clinically bright, to capture all the details. More, you want the tone of dispassionate professionalism, the better to freak your audience out with. His films are like his onscreen bedside manner (Cronenberg has played surgeons before): scalpel upraised, gray eyes looking straight at you, calm voice murmuring "This won't hurt a bit." It's the incongruity between his reassuring manner and the less-than-reassuring images that Aronofsky needs, badly.

I mentioned Polanski's Repulsion as a direct influence--Polanski was smart enough to know that it's difficult to create a sense of encroaching insanity when your heroine's life is too busy (too many people watching), so he isolated his in an apartment, where she could crack up at her leisure. It's a masterpiece of its kind, though I thought Polanski did himself one better with Rosemary's Baby (1968) where the heroine is confined or limited not by some kind of arbitrary schizophrenia but by the swelling fact of her pregnancy--her increasing paranoia and sense of isolation enhanced not by a self-enforced isolation, but by deliberate conspiracy, or her suspicions of one. If Aronofsky wanted to suggest madness he needed not more shrieks, but more silence.

Finally, Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (1948). Brilliant ballet movie--not just the filmmaking, but the way it captures a ballet company's group dynamics (the camaraderie, the backstage love affairs, the tantrums and petty jealousies). In his staging of the eponymous ballet Powell gets at the delirium great art can sometimes induce, the stage bursting its boundaries to become something more than a stage, the ballet taking flight to become something more than a ballet. In his direction of Moira Shearer's Vicky he gets under her skin (without being so all-out literal as to actually dive subcutaneously) and shows us what both the aforementioned delirium and the prospect of life with the man she loves mean to her, exactly. When she's confronted with a decision to make (Anton Walbrook's Boris Lermontov at her side, whispering; "Sorrow will pass, believe me; life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before!") you know enough to realize just what she's going through, just what she's giving up if she chooses one over the other. You're in her shoes, in effect, the anguish tearing you apart.

Again, what Aronofsky needs--not so much the morphing effects of ballet (roasted gooseskin!), but its allure, its capacity for transcendence, such that you understand how an artist is tempted to sacrifice his or her life on this particular altar, to this particular god. Black Swan is fun, I enjoyed it; I laughed throughout much of it. Can't say I respect it though, and I certainly don't consider it a work of art.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)


Family guy

Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth starts off in possibly the only way it can possibly start: with a father coming home.

About the quietest, most quotidian beginning to a film that you can imagine, and that's on purpose. Father coming home, the house he comes home to large, with an expansive garden complete with pool and a high fence surrounding the property, but otherwise--nothing remarkable. 

Maybe the first indication that all is not what it should be is when we hear a tape recorder playing vocabulary words in the background, the words being explained totally nonsensical: "A motorway is a very strong wind; 'sea' is a leather armchair with wooden arms; a carbine is a beautiful white bird." Later, straight out of nowhere, a young girl asks the mother what a "zombie" is and the mother, without batting an eye, tells her it's a "small, yellow flower."

Strange, but stranger yet is the way Lanthimos allows the full situation to seep into our brains, like an IV drip hooked to a bottle containing hallucinogens. That house and grounds, so spacious at first impression, gradually begins to collapse when we realize that it's the family's whole world, and only the father dares brave the unknown outside. He's their processor, their procurer, their protector, and their punisher, in ascending order of significance. Among other things, he warns them of the dangers stalking the house perimeter, such as the fearsome, vicious, deadly creature known as the "cat."

Perhaps the strangest element in the film is the camerawork (by Thimios Bakatakis)--critics have noted how odd the compositions are, often off-center with heads or limbs lopped off, the lighting either diffused and low key, or bright outdoor sunlight. Oddest of the odd are perhaps the group compositions (see above)--they seem flattened, the people in them carefully posed as if Lanthimos were trying to evoke an old-fashioned family portrait. I've heard the film being likened to the works of Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke (without the moralizing) and a more domesticated Stanley Kubrick, but the style and subject matter I'm actually reminded of is Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (2008)--the same group arrangement with flattened perspective, the same tyrannical father and rebellious children, the (most striking similarity of all) same sense of airless stillness, of claustrophobia, as if the family had been captured and put in a display jar, to fester and seethe in their own virulent emotions. Some marked differences too--Davies' film is steeped in nostalgia and melancholy regret; it's rich in emotion and a sense of community, of belonging; Lanthimos' film is like ants caught under glass, a colder, more sardonic picture with precise edges.

As for Lanthimos' motives--I've heard people speculate, (it would be ridiculous not to, the symbols are so obvious), I've heard people refuse to speculate (it would be futile, the symbols are so confused). It's obviously a satire on family, on the way a father can oppress his family (perhaps the great film on the subject is Mike De Leon's more harrowing (because it's so real, so personally urgent to the filmmaker) Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981)); it's also possibly a metaphor for how a totalitarian state can leave its subjects so helpless, their view of reality hopelessly warped (North Korea, anyone?). 

It's also possibly a metaphor for the difficulty of ever truly knowing the world outside, or even the world outside your immediate circle. Here I'm thinking of Plato's cave, how we're fearful savages peering at flickering shadows, trying to guess at the shape and temperament of the creatures waiting outside. Looking at matters this way perhaps Dogtooth isn't as introverted a film as we'd like to think, its premise not as doggedly irrelevant. Terrific work, and it's amazing the Oscar voters decided to include it as one of five Oscar-worthy foreign films--it's edgier and more out-there than the usual pap nominated.
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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Three by Nora: 'Merika (Gil Portes), Condemned, Bulaklak sa City Jail (both by Mario O'Hara)


(Note: re-posted, refurbished, and re-styled for the For The Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, this year raising funds for the restoration of The Sound of Fury



If you wish to contribute to the salvation of this important noir film, please click on the donation link above)


Three faces of Nora

Gil Portes' 'Merika (1984) opens the same way any ordinary life will usually open--in the morning, in bed. But Mila (Nora Aunor) can't seem to get out of bed; she can't seem to bring herself to touch the icy floor with her feet, or brave the chill air beyond her room. She has to sit there, shivering, her comforter wrapped around her like protective coating.

Portes films the story in frozen weather and I think the decision is deliberate, brilliant even. Jersey City (where much of the picture was shot) can take on the unfriendly look of an anonymous urban population center and at no time is it more anonymous or more unfriendly than during the wintertime. There's plenty of sun but it's a weak sun, a pale sun, with rays that can barely warm the fingers, much less melt all the ice. This is a cold city, cold people, cold country--to even touch someone or glimpse his face you need to free the people from their layers of scarves, mufflers, sweaters and long sleeves before you reach human skin.

Mila is in effect living The American Dream, or at least the Filipino's idea of the American Dream. She's a nurse in a hospital with green card in pocket; she's earning well, she's living comfortably if sparely, and presumably she sends money home to her family, money that I'm sure is much appreciated. When push comes to shove, however, when the 'melodramatic' subplot kicks in (she has a lover named Mon (Bembol Roco) who wants to marry her; turns out he possibly needs to marry her for her green card), it's almost unimportant--a precipitating event, in effect, that only serves to crystallize her decision to go back home.

“Why?” Mon pleads with her. “What can I do to change your mind?” Nothing really--the achievement of Portes' film is to show us the answer without using a line of dialogue, in the endless vista shots, the series of lost, lonely gazes Aunor gives the camera, the constant flow of work/TV/bed/rise/work again, the utter meaninglessness a life lived in America can have. One pursues the Dream, but whose Dream is it really, who decides it's worth pursuing, and who decided that you must be the one to pursue it?

Portes does this subtly, simply, a Yasujiro Ozu chasing nuances of emotion across people's faces but employing Naruse's even more self-effacing camera style (no tatami mat-level shots, here). With Aunor he helps create one of the actress' finest performance, where the answer to Mon's question is really found in the emotions that flit across her luminous eyes, like shadows on a still pond. “I can't tell you why,” Aunor informs Mon; “you can't find out if you don't already know it, if you don't already feel it.” Any Filipino who has left his beloved shores, has spent any time at all in lands alien to his skin and sensibility will know--not so much “home is where the heart is” as it is heart hearkening to home's call. The motherland, the land of one's birth, the land of one's friends, family, childhood, making its irrefutable claim on one's soul. .

Portes' 'Merika is Aunor at her most realist; Mario O'Hara's Condemned (same year) is Aunor at her most baroque and noirish. O'Hara populates the streets of Ermita (the heart of Manila's sordid night life) with pimps, prostitutes, transvestites, cruising straight and gay men and women; with couriers, snitches, corrupt cops, gang lords, bodyguards, killers. As in Lino Brocka's most famous film Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) it's a vision of Manila as one of the lower circles of hell. But not a depressed hell, not a hell where the inhabitants accept their fate with sad resignation--this inferno crackles with the diabolical energy of the damned dancing their way from one torment to another, stabbing and shrieking and fornicating and, well, not giving a damn.

Caught in this seething cauldron is Yolly (Aunor) and her younger brother Efren (Dan Alvaro), who have fled to the city because of some murder case. Yolly survives by selling long-stem roses; Efren is the lover of Connie (Gloria Romero), the upper-class leader of a gang of dollar smugglers. Connie is angry; someone has killed her couriers and stolen half a million of her dollars (a lot of money, and for once even by American standards), and she wants it back. Connie comes to suspect Efren, and wants to use Connie to get to him. Complicating matters is the case of “Boy Rosas” (The Rose Boy) a serial killer whose trademark is to leave roses on the bodies--apparently Connie's son Dennis is a prime suspect, as Yolly accidentally saw him knifing his girlfriend.

As in all classic noir the plot (by Jose Javier Reyes, Frank Rivera, and Mario O'Hara) is complicated, and gets even more complex as it moves along. O'Hara cuts at a restless, no-nonsense pace; if your attention flags you might lose track of at least one important thread in a tangled web (which matters less than one might think--here speed and not clarity is priority; O'Hara whips the film along at a brisk pace, building up momentum to keep the whole ungainly mess from collapsing). The look is dark, dark, dark--O'Hara wraps the film in shadows and deep reds; when he leaves the lurid strobes of Manila's nightclubs it's to the harsh incandescents of a merchant ship, where Yolly is brought and eventually tortured.

Condemned is a rich brew of sudden violence, baroque cruelty, and sardonic dark humor. Everyone is on the make; everyone is screwing everyone else to try get ahead. When Yolly visits her friend Mayette (Gina Alajar, in a brightly played cameo), the girl promptly coaxes her American boyfriend to buy her a dozen roses at two dollars a flower, "if you love me," Mayette adds; the poor sap promptly buys the bunch. “Oh, Robert, I believe you really do love me!” “My name is not Robert, it's George.” “Never mind, it's the same. Thank you.” The exchange shouldn't work, but no one cares--they're too much in a hurry to take the money and run.

What sets Yolly apart from everyone else, though, what keeps her human as opposed to the animals around her rutting and ripping each other apart, is her love for Efren. Efren is a handful: sweet, dedicated to his sister, but possessed of a short temper and a fearsome capacity for violence. The two cling to each other like orphans lost in a dark wood; when Connie snatches Yolly, Efren's fury is aroused, and the stage is set for a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred confrontation between Efren and Connie's entire gang.

In perhaps my favorite scene Yolly confronts Connie in her darkened living room. Gang lord versus flower girl, matriarch versus maiden, Gloria Romero of the '50s Golden Age versus Nora Aunor of the '70s Golden Age--it's a face-off cinephiles can only dream about, with Gloria's imperious gestures and insinuating tones pitted against Aunor's implacable stare. Efren may be a handful, but Connie should really be watching out for Yolly--hell hath no fury like a Nora scorned.

Noir films have many tropes; one of the oldest and most familiar--and, I would argue, best-loved--is (warning: details of the ending to be discussed; please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) of the treasure trove of cash or whatever flung to the four winds, a signal that the hero (or heroine) does not care for the ostensible objective any more, that the noir world has broken him or her down, and he has opted to step out of the race, whatever it may be, and declare himself free. It's been used as far back as John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), as recently as Johnny To, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark's Triangle (2007), but rarely has the moment been as quietly heartfelt (or heartbreaking) as when O'Hara has Aunor do it here. Handful after handful of dollar bills--so passionately lusted after, so bitterly fought over--liberated by strong wind to sprinkle the sea. She could have used that money; they could have escaped to the provinces together, had a decent life together, but the dream was not to be. If she tosses the cash, it's because there's literally no reason for her to keep it--it's about as valuable to her as a suitcase full of garbage.

In Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, again 1984--Aunor was on a roll that year) O'Hara combines the stark realism of 'Merika with the noir elements of Condemned, this time setting everything in a women's prison in Manila. Aunor plays Angela, a cellmate newly initiated into the prison hierarchy (the initiation ritual is, to put it mildly, harrowing). O'Hara includes a constellation of small stories, from a veteran prostitute who works extra hard to install her son comfortably in the men's section of the jail, to a mother driven mad by the death of her only child, to a woman determined to escape, if only to revenge herself on her husband's mistress.

Angela's storyline dominates the film, of course--she's just been informed that she's newly pregnant, but this doesn't stop her from trying to break out any chance she can. Her narrative arc moves from total rejection of her maternal status to grudging acceptance to eventual love of the baby growing inside her. As her belly grows so do her problems when making a prison break--and so, it seems, does her determination to give birth to the baby outside of prison.

O'Hara takes full advantage of prison corridors to create narrow spaces that shrink with distance, creating a sense of claustrophobia; he finds equivalent spaces outside of prison, when the convicts are on the run--one refugee finds herself hiding inside the dormant cars of Manila's Light Rail Transit, long after closing time, the boxlike interiors uncannily recalling the squalid hallways the woman had so recently fled. She never really escaped, O'Hara seems to be telling us; she had the choice, but her mind was never really set on freedom--she's been running up and down the same barred corridors all this time. Later, Angela breaks out herself and is tracked down to Manila Zoo. Trapped in the lion's cage, sitting in filth and pleading for mercy, her horrifyingly bloodied figure drives O'Hara's point home--this is hell, nor are we out of it. 

Women in noir films are common; they are often femme fatales, beautiful and often untrustworthy figures that drive the plot, or ensure the hero's eventual doom. Aunor's Angela is unique in this sense, that she is both a central character and a strong woman and a mother in a recognizably noirish world, a feminist figure (novelist and screenwriter Lualhati Bautista did the script) struggling to survive a world most often dominated by male institutions, male authority figures, at the very least male heroes--and not needing a husband or male lover's help in her struggle. More, she's fighting not for her man, or for money, or for some jeweled bird statue hidden under layers of lacquer, but for her child. Does this dilute the film's noirishness? I don't think so--if anything, it raises the stakes, makes the odds even more hopeless, the urgency of her struggle all the more emphatic (not for a man, or for money, but for her own child!). 

Unlikely and a bit much perhaps, but O'Hara and Bautista's achievement is to make the premise at least halfway convincing--O'Hara by using camerawork and setting and performances that are grimly, indisputably realistic, Bautista by having Angela fight back through plausible means (a hint: she needs help, and negotiates shrewdly to get that help). A wonderful, solidly entertaining film.


First published in Businessworld 12.17.09.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)



It's not easy being Green

Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet has taken such a pummeling from critics I was ready to take a raincoat to the theaters, in anticipation of the deluge of garbage I'd been warned will descend on me from the movie screen. Brought rubber boots and an umbrella too, just in case; hunched down in my seat, and waited for the abuse to begin; and waited, and waited. And waited.

Mind you, the movie is not as prodigiously beautiful as Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik! or as hydrochlorically caustic as Tim Burton's Batman Returns or as waywardly lyrical as Robert Altman's Popeye; this was not some titanically idiosyncratic artist taking a popular genre and transmuting it with his inimitable storytelling style into a popular work of art that is fabulous and supple and unique, sometimes all three at once. Call it a well-meaning project that went horribly wrong, then somehow, some way, went right, in  a horrible way (Mary Shelley's classic novel still has currency, especially in the hothouse climate of modern-day Hollywood).  

Gondry has a definite style, but as shown in his previous work he needs an intellectually rigorous and equally imaginative writer to inspire him--Charles Kaufman, basically. His Human Nature (which Kaufman wrote)--about emotionally unstable scientists struggling to tame and train a human being raised as an ape--was disturbing and funny and sad; his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also written by Kaufman)--about a woman who decides to artificially wipe all her memories of her true love--is all that taken to a more deliriously surreal level (the film, incidentally, is one of many examples that demonstrate one does not have to completely depend on logic or linear causality to create a thriller sequence). Left to his own devices (and script), he's capable of a Science of Sleep, where the imagery is gently dreamlike but the picture itself seems ready to blow away with the wind (the movie lacks Kaufman's ability to take an outlandish proposition (man raised as an ape, memories erased as if on magnetic tape) and weigh said proposition down with his endless thoughts on life, art, women).


Easy to say the worst thing ever to happen to this long-troubled project (it started out as a George Clooney vehicle) is Seth Rogen. Rogen comes with his own emotional and thematic baggage, a self-conscious slacker steeped in the pop culture of the '90s and determined to feed his own man-child sense of self-importance--if he's successful, I'd say that's because he mirrors every ambitious slacker's dream to make a hit comedy about his libidinous search for sex and approval. A Rogen project, now that he's a successful writer-producer-star, is a project all about Rogen, and the actor was apparently determined to shape Gondry's production to his own specifications. Director and star seem headed for a showdown, a clash of sensibilities--if not in real life, then on the big screen.

Only the results aren't that bad. Gondry loves throwing us odd moments, unexpected images, narrative detours; Rogen likes to improvise, deviate from script, deliver the unexpected. Rogen is particularly steeped in superhero lore, especially superhero movie lore; he loves taking what we expect and love from the Batman, Superman, Spider-man and what-not, pile it all up high, pour gasoline over the untidy heap, and toss a lit match in. Gondry photographs the unholy mess in a relatively straightforward if lustrous manner, save for the occasional baroque flourish--a sequence, for example, where word is sent out that there is a million-dollar prize on the Hornet's head. A woman tells another, the screen splits accordingly; the two tell two others, the number of screens double into four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four; so on and so forth in one apparent take, 'ad delirium.'

That's Gondry's contribution; Rogen's is to imagine every wise-ass question everyone asked of the TV show and answer them as thoroughly as possible. Hence: "Why if Kato's smarter and more kick-ass than the Hornet doesn't he try and take over?" Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) not only tries to take over operations, he goes for Lenore (Cameron Diaz), the Hornet's rather expendable love interest (think of Robin trying to date Catwoman, or of Jimmy Olsen making time with Lois Lane behind Superman's back).

Chou has a nice physicality (aided not a little by judicious editing and the odd camera angle). If the movie has a flaw, Chou might be it--he's a pretty face and all, but his chemistry with Rogen is strictly limited, he being strictly eye candy (I'd loved to have seen what original choice Stephen Chow might have done with the role). Christoph Waltz, so memorable in Inglourious Basterds (in my opinion the only one there, alas) does better as the neurotic Chudnofsky, who worries about his suit and hair and wonders (in a funny scene with an uncredited James Franco) if he's frightening enough.

This is basically Rogen's party, though, and for once I'm with him. Knocked Up was a Rogen fantasy about impregnating a hot babe; Superbad was basically a Rogen fantasy about teenage friendship--too much Rogen-ish self-regard for my taste, overall. Here Rogen is confronted with a mythology and protagonist already fully formed and, almost petulantly, proceeds to pick him apart. It asks the single most pointed question in the movie--"what good is the Hornet anyway?"--and his answer is both logical and at the same time perversely true to the formula of the original series (a hint: Rogen makes a cogent case for the idea that the Hornet is the Inspector Clouseau of superheroes).

So--Gondry and Rogen actually making a visually and conceptually interesting movie? I think so. Am I nuts? You decide. Me, I'll just sit back, relax, watch the Hornet and Kato kick the living crap out of each other. Beats, I'm betting, having to endure the onanistic solemnity of Christopher Nolan's newest Batman movie.

First published in Businessworld, 1.20.11


Gulliver's Travels (Rob Letterman)

Gulliver's travesty

I can see the appeal of making a Gulliver's Travels for the kiddies--that, for better or worse, is the most common way of attacking this material. Average guy finds himself marooned on an island with tiny men, and animals, and buildings. It's the ancient fantasy, indulged in hundreds, even thousands of years of modelmaking, of toy houses, of playing with costumed, articulated dolls (sorry--action figures): in effect, to be a giant loose in a world of small stature, the Big Man in a tiny town.

And Jonathan Swift, who wrote the original Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (a title which hundreds of years of eager readers have glibly ignored, preferring to call it by its more famous nickname) helped encouraged this fantasy. His precise prose created a comprehensively miniaturized world with a scale difference of 1 is to 12, carried out consistently throughout every aspect of that world: the Liliputians, for example, are six inches high; their horses four and a half inches (not very tall animals); the city walls two and a half feet high and eleven inches thick; so on and so forth (Swift has even carefully considered how much oxen and wheat and beer is spent in feeding Gulliver's appetite). One is to twelve is of course the classic scale by which modelmakers build models, and dollmakers build their dolls; it's a handy scale to remember (an inch equals one foot) and broad enough a canvas to allow us to see every detail clearly.

But but but--Swift's novel is so much more than a fantasy of the Big Guy. It's a treatise on humanity, on all-too-human foolishness; on the silliness of human society when viewed from a high vantage point (Gulliver's view of the silly, squabbling Lilliputians), and the foolishness of that vantage point when viewed from an even higher position (the Brobdingnagians' view of silly, squabbling Gulliver). It's a shocking, scatological novel, pitiless in its sarcasm, relentless in its anger, endlessly, wonderfully imaginative. It's not a perfect work--the third portion, where Gulliver encounters the Laputians and the Struldburgs, you can feel Swift struggling to live up to the energy of his two earlier creations and not quite succeeding. But as a piece of satire it's brilliantly sustained (for the most part), and passionately felt (that passion is important; God save us from 'ironic' satires that assume a 'godlike' distance--if Swift didn't care, he wouldn't have invested so much care into his work).

So what to say about Jack Black's Lilliputian effort, this puerile, bowdlerized, largely infantile adaptation of Swift's Brobdingnagian book? We waste time establishing Black's character--a 10-year slacker veteran of the corporate mailroom--and love interest (Amanda Peet, playing a character dumb enough to accept a direct steal from Time Out and Fromme's without even being the least bit suspicious). More time is wasted on a subplot about a princess (Emily Blunt, otherwise pretty) and her commoner lover (Jason Segel). Chris O'Dowd manages some traction as the general in charge of the Lilliputian army (though most of the satire involving him turns out to be mainly small beer) while comic veterans Bill Connolly and Catherine Tate--talents large enough to do full justice to Swift's take-no-prisoners brand of humor--are wasted on the sidelines.

Instead, we get Black. Lots of Black. Black with rolling hips; Black with undulating love handles and man-boobs; Black being given the Wedgie of His Life (okay, not entirely unsatisfying). Instead of a definitive adaptation of Swift's masterpiece (aided by state-of-the-art digital effects and some post-production 3-D) we get an encyclopedia of Black shenanigans and the results are, frankly, too disappointingly bland to bear. Perhaps the only scene that even approaches Swift--when Black saves both palace and king inside by pissing on the flames--is taken directly from the book, a rare moment for the movie. Perhaps the best moment not originally from the book--when Black is dressed up as a doll and played with by a Brobdingnagian brat--is funny only because we badly want to see the man humiliated (it would have been more faithfully Swiftian if Black suffered indigestion and the girl had been slow in applying the diaper).

Rob Letterman--director of animated features like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tales (not exactly top-drawer titles)--directs this as if it were itself an animated cartoon. Black acts in it--if you can call his overfamiliar schtick 'acting'--as if Gulliver were a pathetic slob destined to become rock-star hero (which Black is in practically everything he's in). Neither seems to recognize Swift's novel as a work of infinite wit and high moral fury, or its protagonist as an Everyman who starts out as cheerful innocent and ends up a raging misanthrope. Infantile, crude? Yes, but that's not my real problem--Swift could often be both and worse, in the space of a few pages. Black's movie feels like a wet towel snapped at one's naked behind; Swift's novel is more like an unapologetic kick to the nuts. May I make a modest suggestion for the sequel? Black in the land of the Brobdingnags, stuck on a spit and roasting slowly over an open fire. My mouth waters.

First published in Businessworld, 1.6.11
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