Tuesday, June 28, 2011

French Film Festival 2011

Sandrine Bonnaire in Agnes Varda's harrowing Vagabond

C'est la vie

The 2011 French Film Festival will run from June 9 to 19 at the Shangri-La Plaza, June 23 to 25 : at the Ayala Center Cebu, June 28 to July 2 at the UP Film Institute. Free admission, except for the Philippine premiere of Terence Malick's Tree of Life (whataminit, is that French?) which is by invitation only.

A little frustrating trying to find a single website with all the schedules, and not have to go through an extended Google hunt (makes you think it's some kind of state secret). But some of the films are really, really worth seeing...

...like Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie (The Ceremony, 1995). Adapted from Ruth Rendell's novel A Judgement in Stone, it's a horrifying comedy (or a comic horror story) about two women--one, Sophie, is a housemaid; the other, Jeanne, is a post office worker--who set out to undermine an upper class French family.

It's told with a chilly detachment; one thinks of Hitchcock, Kubrick--yeah, those guys. But Chabrol is a flavor all his own; he wields a scalpel to upper class French society the way a serial killer in training might flay open a live bunny rabbit--slowly, leisurely, with absolute relish. You watch a pair of potential sociopaths conspire together, through the lens of a filmmaker who seems able to assume the point of view of sociopaths with all too apparent ease (Is he or isn't he? Chabrol never really lets on).

Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie (the films is part of a festival retrospective on the actress) is all nervous tension and repressed resentment; Isabelle Huppert is pure amoral, volatile energy--they make a wonderfully odd couple, capable, you feel, of anything (that's what's so funny and scary about them). The ending is, needless to say, horrific and ironic in equal measure, but perhaps the single most interesting image in the film is the final shot--one has the sense of God's hand finally moving, of belated justice on the brink of being served; knowing Chabrol, though, one doesn't quite know if that really is His hand poised to strike, or blind chance playing a final practical joke.

Agnes Varda's Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond, 1985) is, if anything a possibly even more harrowing film. Bonnaire (who plays Mona, the eponymous wanderer) was all but eighteen when she did this, but her face onscreen feels ancient--as if she'd spent centuries wandering hungrily through the desolate French countryside. She meets people, and they form opinions about her, usually not very flattering (they talk about the grime; they also mention the smell). More often than not, their opinions say more about them than about Mona.

Varda's film can seem difficult, inert, much like the central character; at the same time it seems honest, without affectation. Easy to dismiss it as an unenlightening exercise in nihilistic despair, but--again like the title character--it stubbornly sits there, refusing to conform or go away, an uncomfortable reminder not just of the fragile tissue that separates a reasonably good day from unstoppable disaster, but of the utter unknowability of a fellow human being.

I may whine and moan about petty details, but the festival does have its heart in the right place, and one of its more admirable efforts is in promoting some of our better Filipino filmmakers--in this case, Auraeus Solito, who recently attended the Director's Fortnight at Cannes with his film Busong (Palawan Fate, 2011).

That film is not available, alas, but Solito's first feature Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) is, and a good thing too--this is possibly his most accessible work to date. Where Chabrol is distant and Varda inscrutable, Solito is tender, warm, totally open-hearted--he doesn't hide anything from you, nor does he wish to.

It's the coming of age of a gay young man (or as the community sometimes puts it, a "queer boi") and he does not fit the stereotype of the unhappy martyr, persecuted by family and friends; if anything, his family gladly accepts him, a mother substitute nursing his family of older brothers and a father, a startling affirmation of gay life that does not follow preordained patterns or preconceived notions. Yes, there is a drama here, and yes Maximo will go through transformation and not a little suffering, but not quite in the way casual viewers might expect.

Along with this charming little feature is his documentarylike Basal Banar (2002) which is a little difficult to describe--as much chant and meditation on Palawan spirituality as it is a beyond gorgeous celebration of Palawan's rainforests, Basal Banar is pretty much a mystery too, but not mysterious--one feels Solito's love and total absorption for the subject, his need for spiritual transcendence.

First published in Businessworld, 6.9.11

Monday, June 20, 2011

Filipino Film Festival in New York


Belated news--

For this year's Philippine Independence Day, Ting Nebrida and Jojo De Vera organized a small film festival at the Producer's Club. Among the films to be shown: Mike De Leon's Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000),  Mario O'Hara's Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010), Remton Zuasola's 2011 Urian Awards Best Picture winner Ang Damgo ni EleuteriaThe Dream of Eleuteria, 2011) and Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys (Heavy Metal Divers, 2009). 

Did my bit by introducing the films I know (and loved)--basically excerpts and ideas from the articles I linked to above. 

The audience seemed to enjoy the films. Arguably Paglilitis is much drier fare--it is, after all, almost all transcripts of the actual trial records--but O'Hara's relatively simpler approach and the agonizing end he gives Bonfiacio seems to have had an effect on the audience--they had plenty of questions, some impassioned, perhaps even angry (I like angry; it means the film has touched a cord). 

So what about you? Care to check these films out? All subtitled, in viewable condition, often thought-provoking, sometimes beautiful, always interesting to watch. Get thee hence!


6.20.11

Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, Mike De Leon, 2000)


Belatedly for Philippine Independence Day, an old article:

This is not a Rizal film

Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000) is Mike De Leon's long-awaited film on Jose Rizal. It took over three years to complete, beginning way back in 1996 with the announcement by GMA Films of a massive, P70 million epic starring boy-toy Aga Muhlach as Rizal. Then Muhlach left, reportedly because De Leon was taking so long; eventually De Leon himself abandoned the production, to announce that he was making his own, independently produced film. No less than three other Rizal films were initiated and finished while De Leon's picture maturated: Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, 1997); Marilou Diaz Abaya's Jose Rizal (1998--ironically, the same production GMA Films intended De Leon to direct, rumored to have an even bigger--P120 million--budget); and Mario O'Hara's Sisa. De Leon's picture was invited--sight unseen, mind you--to the Director's Fortnight at Cannes International Film Festival (which it failed to attend). There were long periods when no one knew what was happening--the project was shrouded in a secrecy as tight and mysterious, it seemed, as Kubrick's own latest (and last) work, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

I finally saw the finished product last week, and can personally testify to the atmosphere of electric anticipation that gripped the audience. Some eighty minutes later, when the film's end credits began to roll, an image and six words popped into my mind. 

The image: Magritte's famous painting about a pipe, and its enigmatic label. 

The six words: "This is not a Rizal movie."

Or, it's not a Rizal film any more than Magitte's pipe is not a pipe.

The film follows two filmmakers (played by Ricky Davao and Cris Villanueva) as they attempt to do pre-production research on a film on Rizal. The two get into endless, impassioned debates; they propose all sorts of absurdities (Rizal Underarm Spray), and make witty observations (Rizal on a devalued one-peso coin is still Number One). They interview people from Rizal's life--his brother Paciano (Joonee Gamboa), his sisters Trining (Rio Locsin) and Narcisa (Cherry Pie Picache), his mother, Dona Lolay (Daria Ramirez), his (reputed) confessor, Father Balaguer (a hilariously villainous Ed Rocha), and his (reputed) wife, Josephine Bracken (Lara Fabregas).

Their conclusion (people who wish to stay surprised may want to skip to the next paragraph...though doing so may ultimately prove pointless) after much hemming and hawing basically boils down to this: Rizal's life is unfilmable. It's the long, shapeless and rather inactive life of an intellectual bum (something I concluded myself long ago, when I was involved in writing the screenplay of Rizal sa Dapitan). De Leon (with his scriptwriter and co-director, Clodualdo Del Mundo) go so far as to allow that many interpretations can be made from Rizal's life--"sari-sariling Rizal" or, roughly translated, "to each his own Rizal." 

Significantly, the film lacks certain basic elements of traditional narrative film: a dramatic story, recognizable dramatic characters--no one is changed or transformed during the course of the film (the two filmmakers, who enjoy star billing, are named "filmmakers 1 and 2"). The last shot has filmmakers 1 and 2 (stand-ins for De Leon and Del Mundo?) throwing up their hands and walking away from the project (as De Leon did, years ago). This is a Rizal movie about the impossibility of making a Rizal movie; in short, not a Rizal movie.

Possibly the single most brilliant director of the Philippines (alive or dead) and his closest and best scriptwriter have played a joke on the long-expectant--three years in the making, not to mention waiting--Philippine public. And what a joke! It's long, multi-layered, elaborate; it's richly allusive--drawing not just on practically everything we know about Philippine history and our national hero, but also everything Mike De Leon knows (which is considerable) about film and filmmaking. 

And the punchline works like a time bomb: you may find yourself laughing your head off hours after seeing the film, or--some days later--finding yourself thinking about it and chuckling. Or you may not laugh at all--to each his own reaction to the film.

The film is stuffed with jokes and references. The structure is modeled on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the first twenty or so minutes a fast and funny recapitulation of Rizal's life and significance (a la Kane's life, recapitulated in The March of Time sequence); later we have interviews of the different people who knew Kane--sorry, Rizal. One shot, of a Filipino declaiming in front of a huge banner, recalls a similar one in Welles' film, where Kane is at a political rally; several times we catch the filmmakers poring over a huge blow-up of Rizal's execution--a direct quote from Michaelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up. De Leon's favorite German Shepherd makes several appearances--gently mocking Alfred Hitchcock's tendency to make personal appearances in his pictures.

Other jokes: Cris Villanueva, talking to different people and concluding that their life's story would make a better film than Rizal's. Father Balaguer's testimony of Rizal's last days in prison, which De Leon mercilessly lampoons in all kinds of ways (having read part of Balaguer's testimony, I would say De Leon manages to make fun of him without once exaggerating him). My personal favorite, however, is the moment when the filmmakers finally confront Rizal himself (Joel Torre): his replies to their questions prevaricate hilariously, as befits a true student of Jesuits ("What did you do the night before your execution?" "The Spaniards did what they had to do; I did what I had to do.").

Some reservations: despite the astonishingly wide range covered by this relatively short film, De Leon fails to bring up the matter of money--the difficulty of funding a Rizal film, or any film for that matter (De Leon in the years after his GMA debacle should be more than familiar with the subject). Lara Fabregas ruins the fascinatingly unreliable character of Josephine Bracken (did she marry Rizal, or didn't she?) with a cartoon English accent straight out of Repertory Philippines--I mean, nawbody tawks loyk that! And De Leon blunts the sharpened point of his joke with a voiceover statement at the very end of the film--to sit through all that ambivalence and ambiguity, only to have everything cleared up at the very last second! Del Mundo admits, though, that that final voiceover is still tentative, and may be removed during the film's final sound remixing (here's to hoping they do (note: they didn't which is a pity)).

Where does De Leon's film stand in comparison with other recent Rizal flicks? I can't comment regarding Rizal sa Dapitan for obvious reasons; I do think Bayaning Third World is superior to the monumental Jose Rizal. The first in its eighty short minutes covers more of Rizal's life than the second does in three hours, with more clarity and historical accuracy. The film gives proper--that is, primal--importance to the question of Rizal's alleged retraction, framing the issue thus: if Rizal didn't retract, then he stuck to his principles and died a hero (and heretic). If Rizal did retract and returned to the Church, then he went against everything he had written and said and died a coward (or, as I would put it, a recognizably human being). Jose Rizal's implication that Rizal retracted and is still somehow a hero is, as De Leon's film so eloquently points out (without once directly pointing it out), a complete contradiction.

I can't quite call De Leon's film superior to O'Hara's Sisa (1998); both recognize the difficulty of filming the life of Rizal, both use diametrically opposite approaches--Bayaning Third World filling up the gaps with wit and intellectual speculation, Sisa with imagination and heart. Bayaning Third World displays remarkable ingenuity in trying to make what should have been a dry historical debate lively and involving; Sisa displays equally remarkable ingenuity in trying to make a coherent and even moving historical drama out of an impossibly small P2.5 million ($25,000) budget, shot in ten days (Bayaning Third World, though I can't be sure, must cost at least P5 million or more, shot for over a year). Calling one better than the other is probably a matter of taste (personally--and I think you can see this coming a mile away--I plunk down in favor of imagination and heart). Both films, however, should be a matter of modest pride for all involved: Rizal finally, brilliantly deconstructed on film--twice. This may not be a Rizal film, but it's a remarkable Rizal film nevertheless.

First published in Businessworld, 12.9.99


The Hangover 2 (Todd Philipps, 2011)

The Next Day Blues

Beer goggles

I have to admit, I enjoyed parts of Todd Philips' The Hangover 2 while actually watching it; some jokes were funny, some performances amusing. Coming out of the theater I experienced a sense of gassy bloat--a sour-scented hint of worse to come, if I don't get myself an Alka-Seltzer, fast.

The Hangover (2009) didn't make much of an impression; thought it was Animal House only with the frat boys all grown, a tiger and Mike Tyson thrown in; that the action was set in Vegas exploited the city's familiar tag line ("What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"), presumably with the city's wholehearted approval.

The Hangover 2 is actually an improvement; where in The Hangover much of what was implied turned out to be more threat than actual danger, in The Hangover 2 much of what is implied is actually carried out. There's a sense of raised stakes--instead of a missing tooth we have half a face tattooed, and a severed finger wearing a ring; true the tiger has been reduced to a Capuchin monkey, but the monkey overall is far more entertaining--he puffs cigarettes and cops an attitude and when hurt plays for sympathy as well as any veteran ham.

There's not much more to be said about the movie; on paper I can see what Philips and his writer are trying to do, with much of the comedy arising from the participants' appalled reaction to the debaucheries of the previous (and unremembered) night. Sounds like a smart move, and I'm surprised there haven't been more classic comedians who have tried building a feature out of the premise--I remember a sequence or two, mainly from Chaplin in City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925).

Perhaps actually playing drunk (both feigned and real) is more comically rewarding? Chaplin managed to turn a soused man's homecoming into at least one classic short (One A. M. (1916)); W.C. Fields parleyed drunkenness into a career (The Bank Dick (1940) among others). Fields' last starring feature Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) had the distinction of suggesting that the film's director and writer (Edward F. Cline and Fields himself, writing as Otis Criblecoblis) were dead stinking drunk when they made the picture--it was that bizarre.

I do like this sequel's manner of escalation, how one situation worsens into another; I like Ed Helm's hapless dentist, here engaged to be married to the lovely Lauren (Jamie Chung)--here he's the movie's emotional core, a Milquetoast trying to stand up and be counted a man. I like Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow, returning as a generalized Asian gangster (I don't really remember him from the first picture, and if he makes a bigger impression here I suspect that's because not as much time has passed). Zach Galifianaki's man-child is every bit as infantile but his routine's old hat; Bradley Cooper's trying for action-star status (he figured in Neil Burger's Limitless--actually quite good), so to further prove his manliness his character is shot in the shoulder. The cellphone pictures that end the movie suggest a much funnier comedy was in the works--too bad the photos are all that's left.

I do think there's a Steven Moffat-written Dr. Who episode somewhere here, a timey-wimey thriller a couple of script drafts away from perfect execution--perhaps a more intricate narrative structure and wittier dialogue would have helped. Perhaps not--why waste effort on what in effect is already a presold commodity, the sequel to a low-budget boxoffice hit? People are going to watch--why bother make it actually good?

A few minor complaints. First: I've known men like Mr. Fong, Lauren's father, who at one point compares Stu to tasteless rice porridge (please skip this paragraph if you intend to watch this movie--which I don't recommend); I don't believe for a second he would have a change of heart. Men like Fong enjoy bland rice porridge; more, they enjoy having rice porridge for their son-in-law, and woe to the rice porridge--sorry, son-in-law--that dares stand up to the man. A lot of the movie was downright unlikely (that Capuchin monkey, the chase through Bangkok), but Mr. Fong softening like that? No way, Jose.

Second: Bangkok has its edgy side, sure, but I don't believe for a second the city's fleshpots can compare to a wild night in Metro Manila. I'll give them their kathoeys--met a few and they are pretty--but let them meet our "banana cutters" and "toreros," then maybe they can say they've actually seen something special. And if the so-called Wolf Pack craves a little danger, just have them visit Pasay one weekend--we'll make 'em feel welcome. Dark side my ass.

First published in Businessworld 6.9.11

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Tati playing his alter ego, M. Hulot
Magic to do

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010) comes with a fair amount of baggage. It's based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati some time between 1956 to 1959, reportedly his intended follow-up to the successful Mon Oncle (1958). Tati's name alone sets up expectations: of comedy routines done with visual panache and minimal dialogue, of a distinct and inimitable tone that balances delicately between precision and anarchy, melancholy and delight.

Then there's the more complex, less amusing issue of just who the young girl in the film is meant to represent--Sophie Tatischeff, Tati's legitimate daughter, using the filmmaker's real surname, or Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, the daughter he refused to recognize and subsequently abandoned some time in the Second World War? Tati's grandson Richard McDonald claims that the script was written for the latter as an expression of his feelings of guilt over her, and that Chomet's adaptation is an attempt to whitewash this aspect of the script.

So--baggage. Watching the film it's easy to read this as a late tribute to the great filmmaker, who at his very best observed and parodied our love-hate relationship with the modern technological world; it's also possible to read it as a tribute to old-fashioned artistry of all kinds--to Tati, to the music halls from which he came from, to largely handpainted feature animation (which has grown increasingly more difficult and expensive and rare, especially with the flood of mostly cheap-looking digital animation in today's multiplexes). One might also see the outlines of a gallant gentleman's shy courting of a pretty young woman (a la Chaplin in Limelight (1952)), or--faintly, faintly--the outlines of a guilt-ridden father trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. One wonders: does the extra weight give the film heft, or drag it down?

A bit of both, I think. I liked Chomet's previous feature, The Triplets of Belleville (2003), but he's no Tati; he doesn't have the precision, or craziness, or mastery of onscreen space that Tati reveals to us in his greatest comedies (Mon Oncle, Play Time (1967)). He does throw in a rather alarmingly feral rabbit with a psychotic tendency to nip at outstretched fingers, the single funniest running gag in the picture (I imagine Tati would never have allowed (nor would he be capable of allowing) a furry mammal to upstage him). Given a script that Chomet tells us Tati didn't feel was appropriate for his persona, Chomet doesn't set it aside but goes ahead and produces it--and I think Tati was right. This is a tad too cloying, too self-conscious of its own frailty, its noble irrelevance in the scheme of things (in this it suffers a weakness similar to Chaplin's aforementioned film, which is more about his tragic decline and doom than about anything or anyone else).

Tati was rarely sentimental; he introduced the merest hint of bittersweet, sprinkled lightly over his alter-ego Monsieur Hulot, then goes ahead with the story. Full-blown tragedy may garner all the awards and recognition, but in my book comedy and especially Tati's comedy is more heroic--it acknowledges suffering same as tragedy does, but presents it solely for our pleasure, denying the pain any self-indulgence. Hulot's pratfalls are at some level sad, but it's up to you to realize this; Tati the filmmaker will never openly admit it to us.

But this is a Chomet film not a Tati film, and the director of record must if he is worth anything make the picture his own, even if the script were from a master like Tati. If he casts the protagonist not as Hulot but as some amalgam of Hulot and the man behind Hulot that's his prerogative; if he swirls beyond-gorgeous landscapes behind Hulot, throws wet-from-rain, cobblestoned streets under the man's feet, surrounds him with a magic-kingdom Edinburgh splattered in glorious watercolor style with the colors of the rainbow run riot that's his right as well, absolutely, even if he does so at his peril. The overwhelming visual style gives off a faint whiff of insecurity, of someone trying to compensate for a serious flaw by lifting the entire work to a higher (or at least busier) visual plane.

To which I say: that's good--probably the best thing about the film. Chomet's ravishing color palette and evocation of a specific place and time allows him the courage to set up his own (considerably stickier) tone; it allows him to set up an ending that acknowledges not just Hulot's alienation but Tati's ambivalent feelings as a father.

No, it's not a Tati film, and to Chomet's credit I don't think he ever meant it to be--it must stand on its own, not even attempt to scale such heights. But it is a wonderful anachronism of a film, a recognizably distinctive work from Chomet, and in my book one of the best animated films of the past few years, in a period that has already seen the release of fine works like Adam Eliot's Mary and Max (2009) and Tomm Moore and Nora Toomey's Secret of Kells (2009). Worth a look--on DVD if you have to, on the big screen if you can, where--word of warning, here--it might put your eyes out from sheer visual beauty.

First published in Businessworld, 5.26.11

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Comic book fare (X Men: First Class, Kung Fu Panda 2, Thor)

Charles and Erik share an intimate moment

Multiplex munching

"You're Thor? I could hardly walk!"

Kenneth Branagh's Thor is a disappointment--but, come to think of it, what can one expect from Branagh? His best work was arguably his Shakespeare pictures, his single best film--a 1989 adaptation of Henry V--cribbed its very best scene (the St. Crispin's Day defeat of the French) from the Battle of Shrewsbury that Orson Welles shot for his Harry Bolingbroke adaptation (Chimes at Midnight (1965), in my opinion one of the greatest films ever made) at a fraction of Branagh's budget and many times its impact.

Thor captures some of the epic soap involved--the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) acting arrogant and being banished to Earth for his pains; Loki (Tom Hiddleston) scheming desperately for his father's approval; and so on. Perhaps the movie's highlight is a clash between the God of Thunder and a metallic 'Destroyer'--an oversized, modernized version of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) complete with death ray, devastating a small town.

The town's crucial, I think; it helps provide a familiar background against which two powerful beings can come to grips. Also helps that when Thor strikes The Destroyer you hear the vast metallic clang of metal under extreme stress--goes a long way towards selling the idea that you're witnessing titanic forces at work. When the stakes are raised--when Thor finally ascends to Asgard and takes on his Asgardian brother--the dramatic impact feels paradoxically diminished. Hard to care about a shiny kingdom you've never seen before (approached by what looks like a psychedelically lit and painted polyurethane bridge), hard furthermore to care about godlike beings whacking at each other without any apparent harm. 

Could barely stay awake throughout Thor; the special effects are bland, the hero's bland (only Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins as Odin look as if they're having any real fun), most of the battles save for the sparring in the small town are bland; there's little actual (as opposed to digital) substance for me to hold on to emotionally, much less form any interest over. They would have been better off releasing the Kraken--at least that creature (along with a hundred-foot lemon wedge) might have kept my interest. Kept me salivating, anyway.

"Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow"

Thor had one thing going for it (that small town melee, possibly inspired by a similar scene in Richard Lester's Superman II (1980)); Kung Fu Panda 2 has--oh, maybe one and a half: the lovely mixed-media animation design (2-D animation, the use of Chinese motifs, even shadow puppets), and the unlikely image of Gary Oldman's voice coming out of an evil peacock's throat. Oldman's Lord Shen sounds on paper like an unlikely choice for a supervillain, but the combination of a vividly written and realized backstory (he's the son of a royal clan sent into exile for committing atrocities), a collection of deadly blades hidden in the wing feathers, and Oldman's inimitably reptilian delivery help sell the menace.

Jennifer Yuh does better than Branagh with the action--for one she understands the concept of 'flow;' for another, she understands that setting the action against a background of familiar locations helps enormously (villages, caverns, Daoist temples--locations fans of wushu movies will swiftly recognize and appreciate).

It's not a great movie--too much time spent on psychoanalysis, too much angst about lost parents. Where the original focused on a fat loser who aspires to eat his dumplings with a pair of chopsticks (a wonderful scene probably inspired by Jackie Chan's gift for turning everyday objects into weapons and bits of unexpected comedy), the sequel is about a hero seeking to resolve childhood issues and achieve 'inner peace.' Give me the dumplings and a pair of chopsticks any day.

"They're just kids."

Finally: Matthew Vaughn's X Men: First Class doesn't have the brash violence of his Kick Ass (2010), nor does it have the wit and startling sweetness of his Stardust (2007), but it does give new life to a franchise that in the hands of hack extraordinaire Brett Ratner was on its terminal stages.

It helps to have a young and attractive cast, to have above all James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender (as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (a.k.a.Magneto) respectively) play out their budding bromance with youthful flair (the electricity crackling between these two could sizzle bacon), and to set the whole thing during a vivid moment in American history (the Cuban Missile Crisis).  

Also helps that Vaughn--as evidenced in Kick Ass and this picture--has the filmmaking chops to exceed even original X Men director Bryan Singer, at least in the action sequence department.

What the movie's missing--what it lacks to make it memorable, maybe even great--is the sense of urgency that Singer brought to the first two pictures. X Men and X Men 2 seethed with the fury of the marginalized, the dispossessed; Magneto may not be right about how to achieve what he wants to achieve, but when he tells us "...there is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else" he does so not with the malevolence of a supervillain, but with the weary despair of someone speaking from long experience.  

"The war is still coming," he informs us; "I intend to fight it, by any means necessary." More than the shock of invoking Malcom X for its closing lines, there's the sense that Singer's X Men movies were a political statement, a declaration maybe not of war, but of defiance: we are here, we're alive, you're not ridding yourselves of us so easily. You don't get any of that in X Men: First Class.

6.7.11

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Dr. Who Season 6: The Doctor's Wife (Richard Clark, 2011)

The Doctor's eponymous spouse (not dressed thusly in the episode, sad to say)
The Doctor's great love

"What's in that book?" 
"Spoilers!" 
"Who are you?" 
"Professor River Song, University of--"  
"To me. Who are you to me?"  
"Again: spoilers!"

Was looking at Steven Moffat's Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead again, from the fourth season of Doctor Who.

Was not a big fan of this, first time I saw it. Too busy, I thought; too much recycling of past Moffat devices (the zombielike masked figure repeating his eerie phrase over and over again in The Empty Child, for one). Plus, following Blink-- easily one of the most intricately written and frightening Dr. Who episodes ever written--anything less than a home-run masterpiece was bound to feel disappointing. 

But the episodes grow on you, especially on repeat viewing, especially after what we know now about Dr. River Song--after her little soliloquy involving 'the worst day in the world' for her, as outlined in Season 6's Day of the Moon.

It's all here, in our first meeting with Dr. Song. She meets him, she talks to him; when she realizes that he doesn't know her, she's devastated. Actress Alex Kingston doesn't overplay this--it's there if you happen to know what you're looking for--but the absolute agony on her face, knowing she's meeting the Doctor (David Tennant) for the very last time and he doesn't know it, is harrowing to watch. Possibly Moffat has invented a new sub-genre in drama--the character whose subtext deepens and develops with repeat viewing (perhaps not, but--he did make me pause).

While we're at it, kudos as well for The Beast Below, from the fifth season. After the exuberance of The Eleventh Hour, this episode came off when I first viewed it as another sharp disappointment (I remember feeling that maybe Moffat shouldn't have taken the role of showrunner after all, that he's finally assumed a position that's simply too much for him).

On re-viewing however--yes, there are flaws; yes there's too much invention (flying cities, interstellar whales, mass migrations, police states, long-lived royalty, elections with accompanying memory wipes) crammed into a little over forty minutes; yes the poor Smilers are given short shrift--from being potentially as frightening as the Weeping Angels they're relegated to being low-ranking enforcers of British law, quickly dropped and forgotten. Yes the ending may be a tad too life-affirming, the so-called police state ultimately too benign for good drama.

But the episode's not about scaring your pants off (though for a moment there it may have been touch and go); it's more about Amy (Karen Gillan) learning a crucial bit of information regarding her traveling companion, the 'mad man with a box' (Matt Smith, taking over from Tennant). It's about acquiring empathy for all kinds of creatures, great and small, especially long-lived ones unable to articulate their loneliness. It's also about two strangers thrown together who in  crisis learn how to work with each, trust each other. As an episode about character, about one more piece to the puzzle that is the Doctor's personality--in my book a crucial piece, that gives us a hint as to what drives him onwards--I think it's an excellent and poignant example of the genre.

Moffat despite his inconsistent record is possibly one of the better writers on Who--but just this past few weeks we've seen evidence of a writer as good if not better: comics writer Neil Gaiman, who penned The Doctor's Wife

Yes, I've heard complaints about Gaiman. His narratives tend to meander, he studiously avoids conflicts with heroes and villains, he as studiously avoids resolving said conflicts, anointing a winner and a loser by story's end. 

Personally I like unconventional storytelling, where conflict isn't apparent and heroes and villains almost indistinguishable--but I can see where an exclusive diet of this can seem wearying, and Gaiman's fiction at its most careless can devolve into a series of static tableaus and stillborn images (conflict, after all, being the motor that drives narrative).

There's definitely a motor in The Doctor's Wife--a malevolently intelligent planetoid out to consume the Doctor's TARDIS--but as with all things Gaiman you know (you just do, that's all) where his priorities lie: in the delineation of character, the working-out of a character's personality and psyche, and how this interacts with other characters. 

Gaiman is a longtime fan of the show, you see it in the way he sets most of the action in a junkyard, arguably alluding to the opening scene of the very first episode ("An Unearthly Child"), or evoking details from various Who episodes ("Edge of Destruction," "Castrovalva," "Logopolis," "The Five Doctors"), but perhaps his one stroke of genius is to take this imposing mountain of continuity and lore and with the snap of his fingers send them spinning into orbit around a single central idea: that the Doctor's TARDIS has suddenly been incarnated as a beautiful if eccentrically dressed and coiffed woman (Suranne Jones). 

Beyond Rose, beyond River Song, beyond Romana and all the women and men and aliens and such the Doctor has known and rescued and cared for throughout the star systems and centuries, this is the central relationship of the show. If anything, the basic Who formula boils down to: 1) Doctor arrives at a strange time or planet in his TARDIS; 2) Doctor is separated from his TARDIS; 3) Doctor must resolve issue before reuniting with his TARDIS or die. Or worse. 

Dramatically speaking, the need to separate the two is obvious--not much suspense possible if you can simply pop back and make things right. But corollary to this we often see the Doctor running after his beloved police box in episode after episode, their eventual reunion almost always an occasion for celebration. It's inevitable--if he doesn't get to her by episode's end, there won't be another episode (either that or it's a cliffhanger).

Gaiman's recasts this narratively and dramatically necessary relationship in fleshy terms--not between man and machine, but between man and woman. Given a mouth, the TARDIS takes a nip at the Doctor's ear: "Biting is excellent! It's like kissing, only there's a winner." Given a mouth, she spouts other equally outrageous statements--among others, the idea that she stole the Doctor, not the other way around ("What makes you think I would ever give you back?" she asks); also the idea that she takes the Doctor not where he wants to go, but "where you need to go."

Oh yeah. The seemingly opposing qualities of random eccentricity and dramatic necessity in the long-running television series are squared away into narrative coherence with that single statement. I've seen fantasy writers work with as much imagination; not sure I've ever seen one work with as much audacious elegance.

Readers familiar with Gaiman's work may spot reworked material. Idris (the enfleshed TARDIS' nickname) with her eccentric line deliveries, her obsession with the precise definition of a word, her ability to conceive of time not as a series of moments the way we mere mortals do but all at once--all that seems to have been inspired by the figure of Delight, one of the Endless in the Sandman comic books. The Doctor himself at certain moments assumes a distinctly Morpheus-like pose (When he hangs sadly from a sling, say, fiddling with the TARDIS' innards).

I love it that the episode's publicity makes such a big deal about showing us hitherto unknown parts of the TARDIS--which turn out to be yet more corridors (the series is notorious for the number of passages its protagonists have sprinted through). I love it that with a series of hallways and a pair of fleet-footed humans, Gaiman still manages to inject a note of unmitigated horror. I love it that all that footwork leads them to the Ninth Doctor's control room--quietly kept stored away ("for neatness," Idris explains).

I especially love the moment when the Doctor introduces Idris to Amy, and explains what she is. "Did you wish really hard?" Amy asks sarcastically. Heck, I wasn't even really looking for anything specific--just a sort of generalized hope for a good season, with maybe a handful of outstanding episodes--but here it is.

6.4.11
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