Sunday, September 30, 2012

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011)

My debut article for Cinemas of Asia (a journal of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC)):

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011)

It was a blast to watch, and write about.

9.30.12


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Herbert Lom, 1917 - 2012


Herbert Lom 

He was brilliant as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in Blake Edwards' Pink Panther series (watch him read a tribute to Inspector Clouseau, where people take his desperately smothered titters for barely repressed tears), and an imposing Captain Nemo in Cy Endfield's low budget but still impressive Mysterious Island, but I'll really remember him best as the soft-spoken yet frightening Kristos in Jules Dassin's masterpiece noir Night and the City. How frightening? He terrified the shit out of Richard Widmark.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution; Beast of the Southern Wild; Body Heat

Poetry of the senses

Was looking over Lawrence Kasdan's memorable '81 feature debut and it looks nice enough, all shadows and subdued colors and slinking camera, and he does evoke the moist heat well enough--I caught myself wiping my brow from time to time and wishing for some ass tea. He does best with the male cast: Ted Danson was an amusing best friend, Mickey Rourke a memorably soft-spoken demolitions expert. William Hurt had this lazy, brazen arrogance, leaning back and admitting he was doing his client; Danson's brows rose about the same time as mine.

What screws up the movie (literally and metaphorically) is the girl. As Matty Walker, Kathleen Turner was a gorgeous creature, all creamy skin, flowing blonde mane and husky cigarette voice. But she has reams of dialogue, much of it with her clothes on, and she can't seem to make all those lines work, much less come alive, much less wrap us and bewitch us (the way she's supposed to be bewitching Hurt's Ned Racine) with the sensuality of her passion. At one point Kasdan has her standing opposite Hurt and talking fast and the scene was just dead, it lay between them like roadkill, and no amount of fast talk was going to bring it back to life. Kept waiting for Kasdan to do something, glide the camera sideways, blind us with a little style, but no: he seemed too in love with the words he wrote for Matty, with his words, to do anything other than insist that we sit and listen (Hurt to his credit looked as if he was listening; he even looked persuaded). Turner wouldn't display the kind of heedless eroticism that would be her trademark until two years later, when she would lampoon her sensuality in Carl Reiner's underrated The Man With Two Brains (apparently she's sexier when she's funnier). For real heat I prefer Richard Rush's demented, much underrated Color of the Night instead--Jane March could raise a felled flagpole without even trying, both hands tied behind her back (especially with hands tied behind her back).

Poor lucky Kasdan--muffs his first attempt which becomes a small boxoffice hit anyway, and goes on to have a so-so filmmaking career. His mistake, of course, was to ignore classic noir's prime directive: Cherchez la femme, pardieu! Cherchez la femme.


Poetry of devastation
 
There's a lot to dislike about Benh Zeitlin's debut feature (all about debuts today): details don't make sense (it's impossible to slap a chicken the size of a small turkey on a grill and expect it to cook immediately, and demolishing a levee without showing the consequences--more deaths--seems like questionable filmmaking at best), bits seem underwritten (Why leave the shelter? Granted there were stories of assaults and such during Katrina's rampage, but we don't see the reason here) and the lyricism is sometimes troweled on with such lack of restraint you feel like a Fortunato confronted by an overcaffeinated bricklayer ("for the love of God Montresor!").

But Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is such a strong presence and Zeitlin's film so dense with textural and aural details one can't help but be enchanted, nevertheless. The fictional Bathtub--a bayou located in some unspecified corner of Louisiana (actually the town of Montegut) is like a dank corner of the country's subconscious, where homeless, forgotten wanderers drift in and forage for plywood and chicken mesh to build their dilapidated shacks. Zeitlin achieves the Katrina-like storm effects with almost no budget (a reported $2 million), and his giant creature effects are amazing (mostly forced perspective, some prosthetic tusks, and perhaps a digital touchup here or there)--and of course it makes sense that the aurochs (an ancestor of domesticated cattle) would look like giant feral pigs--they're the only hooved animals Hushpuppy would know about. 

Wallis delivers a memorable performance that is the heart of the film, but most of my admiration is reserved for Dwight Henry's tremendous performance as Wink, Hushpuppy's father. Henry is not afraid to play Wink as an unapologetic monster--he cuffs his daughter when angry, and he's not afraid to yell and toss things around; but he does have love for her, a love that burns as fiercely as any of his other drives (one other would be an independent spirit that refuses to knuckle under to the powers that be).  

It's poetry; sometimes overdone, rarely under complete control, but legitimate poetry, fashioned from crowding forest and muddy waters. At one point Hushpuppy climbs aboard a makeshift raft, basically the back of a Ford truck mounted on oil drums and tied together with rope, and one thinks Huckleberry Finn himself wouldn't turn down this adventure.

Some compare this picture to Terence Malick's Tree of Life. I can see similarities in tone and imagery--the voiceover narration, the glorification of nature, the profundity slipping occasionally into pretentiousness--only Beasts was done for a fraction of Malick's budget with no name stars, a boatload of heedless courage, and a collective heart as big as all of Louisiana. Not bad at all, but I expect to see more from Zeitlin, hopefully better.

Poetry in motion

Was surprised to see Dave Kehr interviewed on Movie Morlocks; was even more surprised to see that Kehr was a fan of Paul Anderson--W.S., not Thomas--and that he loved Resident Evil: Retribution. Did not know Kehr was an Anderson fan. 

Not a big fan, myself (thought Anderson's Death Race was a mere shadow of Paul Bartel's 1975 satiric original), but I did like Soldier, Anderson's sneaky remake of George Stevens' Shane which, taking its cue from Kurt Russell's expressionless title performance, had an even sneakier--furtive, almost--sense of humor. If you gaze at the soldier's genetically impassive face for any length of time you start reading emotions into it, much like with a Rorschach blot; I thought this both a clever parody of the action hero's traditional impassiveness and a surprisingly effective way to suggest soulfulness (?!) in a science fiction action flick (these soldiers may be genetically altered to minimize the impact of pain, guilt, shame but nevertheless they feel these emotions). Later when you're more accustomed to their stylized (Bressonian?) acting you can read pages into their expressionless mugs: a mountain of sarcasm in a slightly tilted brow, a floodplain of sorrow in a mouth's downturned edge.

Several comments raised my brow in the Resident Evil interview--I suppose one can see Milla Jovovich's Alice being lead heroine as some kind of triumph for the feminist cause, but video games (and their big-screen adaptations) often use sexy female protagonists (Lara Croft, anyone?); it's practically a cliche. Same with the Umbrella Corporation--faceless corporate villains are a classic trope in the genre, nothing truly innovative about their use.

Also a pity he needed to use Anderson to bash Joss Whedon's work. Whedon possibly lost some street cred with the ubersuccess of his The Avengers (he's establishment now, for better or worse), but his writing has always sparkled (Cabin in the Woods) and his directing has its own continuity and flow (perhaps not necessarily in this multimillion production--though I'd cite Black Widow's escape scene early in the picture--but in films like Serenity and the "Once More With Feeling" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). He can even do musical numbers, always a plus in my book ("Once More with Feeling," Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog).

Those points set aside, I can see Anderson's film being a continuation of what the Hong Kong filmmakers were doing in the '80s and early '90s; not so much Tsui Hark as John Woo, with his penchant for fetishized gunplay, stylized homoeroticism. Not much development  in this flick into genuine relationships, homoerotic or otherwise, but plenty of development of action sequences, handgun escalating to  automatic rifle, with side forays into weighted chains and curved blades.  Plenty of actual as opposed to digitized stunts--on occasion Alice will face a CGI creature, which she mostly disposes of with a brief strafing and a belt full of grenades; the real confrontations involve human adversaries, doing non-digital kicks and spins, in knock-em-down-drag-em-out fights that recall (distantly) Drunken Master 2.

And they're dances; they're exuberant exhibitions of balletic motion, done with grace and great skill; Anderson shoots them in such a way that the movements remain clear in your head, that entire sequences remain clear in the head (that glorious moment when, at the beginning of this, Resident Evil 5, we get a slow-motion reverse-play recap of the ending of the previous Resident Evil). Astaire would approve, I think; Kelly too, though really the one who would clap his hands in sardonic appreciation would probably be Bob Fosse. What can I say about Resident Evil: Retribution? Best dance movie I've seen in a while, easy--since Robert Rodriguez's Machete, anyway. 


9.26.12

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jose F. Lacaba receives lifetime achievement award

For the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, a belated reposting of a piece I wrote on one of the dictatorship's more hardcore adversaries:

Jose "Pete" Lacaba receives Lifetime Achievement Award from the 10th Osian's Cinefan Film Festival

Sincerely hope he had the chance to visit the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra. Shah Jahan's monumental tribute to matrimonial love (actually it's less romantic when you learn that Mumtaz Mahal (hence the name) was his favorite wife, and that when his son Aurangzeb deposed him for overspending and imprisoned him in nearby Agra fort to spend the rest of his life gazing at his great love's tomb marker, he had his harem to console him in his loneliness--but still).

The article goes on to mention Lino Brocka, for whom Lacaba penned many of Brocka's best-known works--Jaguar (1979), a superbly structured drama based on Nick Joaquin's news article "The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society," and featuring great noirish cinematography by Conrado Baltazar; Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985), which took genuine courage to write during the last few years of the Marcos dictatorship; and Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), which took courage of a different kind, saying that the then hugely popular Corazon Aquino (not a dictator, but she had so little control over what was happening it was practically chaos) was "worse than Marcos"--an accusation currently being leveled against present president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Written during this period as well was his one screenplay for the Philippines' one genuine genius filmmaker ('genius' with all the virtues and limitations the label implies), Mike de Leon: Sister Stella L. (1984)

What to say about the films? Lacaba has a strong voice in his scripts, I submit, so strong that otherwise powerful personalities like Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon (and if you think the reclusive de Leon doesn't have a powerful personality, ask the men and women (especially the women) who act or work for him) are subsumed under his intense, no-nonsense sensibility. Melodramatic Brocka becomes coherent and even understated (?!); De Leon loses the baroque edge of cruelty of his more personal works (Kisapmata, 1981; Batch '81, 1982). I don't believe the films show either director at their very best (they become, I submit, Lacaba's translators to the big screen), but they are strong, well-shaped pictures--superb examples of agitprop--with an electric political awareness and unselfconscious modesty I wish I could see more often in other Filipino films.

Lacaba does when given the opportunity to do so (which doesn't happen very often--his filmography is relatively spare, compared to more prolific Filipino writers) uplift the work of almost any other filmmaker. Chito Rono, for example, was inspired to create what I would consider his masterpiece from Lacaba's script for Eskapo (Escape, 1995)--the early scenes of paranoia and fear, when Marcos' freshly declared Martial Law hung silently over every Filipino head, are unmatched in any of Rono's other pictures (or almost any other picture in Philippine cinema, for that matter).

With filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz, I submit they brought out the best in each other. For Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, 1997) Lacaba wrote what I thought was an honest, beautifully spare historical drama, perfect for Aguiluz's no-budget guerilla-style filmmaking (full disclosure: I wrote a draft of this film (a rather improbable affair full of conspiracy intrigues and arnis combat and scenes of Rizal exorcising the demon out of a possessed woman, of which only a little of the dialogue and even less of the plot was used)). For erotic noir thrillers like Tatsulok (Triangle, 1998) or Segurista (Dead Sure, 1996), Lacaba brought tautness to a well-structured plot that Aguiluz (and Aguiluz's longtime collaborator, writer-editor Mirana Medina-Bhunjun) exploited for maximum tension and (thanks to Aguiluz) memorably unglamorous eroticism.

Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine, 1995), about the trial and execution of Singaporean domestic worker Flor Contemplacion, is part dramatized footage, part documentary, almost all masterpiece--an innovatively structured film (Aguiluz claims the inspiration was Ian McNaugton's And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)) sprinkled with Lacaba's no-nonsense dialogue (Lacaba once said he strove to write the way people talk), dealing with an urgent Filipino issue (the plight of our overseas contract workers--source of much-needed foreign currency, backbone of our fragile economy, target of an endless number of employer abuses).

One remembers the film for the power of the dramatized scenes (Contemplacion's farewell to her family) the power of the documentary footage (the interviews of various overseas workers and Singaporean citizens), and for the image of Flor pressing hand against window, trying to feel the touch of her children's hands through the glass. A great film, easily the best of the collaborations between Lacaba and Aguiluz (arguably, Lacaba and anyone).

Congratulations, Pete; you deserve the honor many times over (not to mention the financial rewards--Hollywood rarely pays its writers well, much less the Philippine film industry). God willing we'll get to see more of your work, and of the same rare calibre, for years to come.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom, Irene Dunne, Ingrid Bergman, and a little Rudy Vallee

Moonrise Kingdom

Maybe liking Wes Anderson is a matter of perspective; maybe one needs to see his films from a chair lowered some six or so inches--maybe this miniscule adjustment's all that's really needed to love his work with little or no qualms.

I mean--all the archness that seems so gratingly off in adults seem perfectly natural, even dignified, in a child. The bizarre yet somehow benevolent adventures--there's violence and even death but not a lot of cruelty, much less flinching--seem more heroic, even infused with a miniature grandeur when children (or stop-motion animals) go through their paces. And a love scene involving a kiss or stripping down to underwear can seem annoyingly coy in adults, but daring and even creepy in kids.

Even the adults here seem transformed--their shenanigans and eccentricities (an adulterous affair, a nosy professional, a dedicated scout leader) all-too-familiar in other Anderson films feel fresher somehow, more mysterious, when seen through a younger (and shorter) pair of eyes.

Moonrise Kingdom then, along with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is Anderson's most satisfying work in years, and all due to this slight physical adjustment in the audience's subjective height. Maybe they were right after all--size does matter.

Ingrid Bergman day at TCM

The list is full of familiar (maybe too familiar) classics--Casablanca and Gaslight, anyone? But the gems of the lineup are the pair she made with Roberto Rossellini, the relatively less well-known (though highly regarded by those in the know) Stromboli and Europa '51.

Stromboli, about a newly wedded woman who experiences culture shock (to put it mildly) when brought to the eponymous island, is really about learning that there's more to life than mere survival, than the creature comforts of urban life. She may not like the epiphany, she may never accept it, but it's there, raw and open as a belly wound. Rossellini's attack is beautifully ambiguous--Bergman's Karin is the ostensible protagonist and we feel for her fish-out-of-water status (mirroring Bergman's own circumstances as an actress shooting for the first time in Italy without knowing a word of Italian), but as we get to know her we realize she's also selfish and limited, and we're reminded that she largely created the whole situation for herself (she volunteered to marry her fisherman husband to gain a visa out of the prison camps). The natives at first come off as provincial and ignorant, but as we come to know them we realize this is how they've adapted to the meanness of their environment, a blasted landscape largely formed by the volcano of the same name.

It all comes together in the film's finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to see the film, and I wish you would), some ten minutes of largely wordless mountain hiking that ends as tumultuously as any disaster film, only the tumult is mostly internal (the volcano itself is content to rumble threateningly, majestically). Hollywood audiences stayed away due to the scandal, but the few who did come and watch expecting another Casablanca or Notorious came out scratching their heads, wondering if there was a missing reel somewhere (and apparently an alternate version  exists (which Rossellini disowned) that has Bergman going back to her husband). What happened? RKO and American audiences got their first taste of Rossellini is all, and not the Rossellini made famous by Paisan or Rome Open City, but a Rossellini already evolving beyond the limits of neorealism (a genre he helped establish) to something else entirely, take on a subtler, more spiritual (and far more interesting, I think) style of filmmaking. What happened--total disillusionment or searing epiphany? I'd like to think that Karin escapes the island but life hereafter would be a joyless affair, the poor woman painfully, everlastingly aware of the huge hole in the middle of her self where her soul should be. 

Europa '51 starts with the death of a child, ends with the immolation--of sorts--of a saint. Rossellini charts Irene's (Bergman) descent (or ascent if you will, again he's masterfully ambivalent about it all)--into social awareness and near-madness with pathological precision, starting from inconsolable grief to blind groping for a purpose in life to a dawning realization of the nature of her obligation to her fellowmen (Rossellini's film can be seen as spiritual brother to Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, also about a personal crisis inspiring life changes). Parallel to this is her family and husband's dawning realization that her mind and spirit are drifting away from them, and their panic at what this may mean for their reputation as a respectable upper-class family.

Interesting to contrast Rossellini with his near-contemporary Robert Bresson, arguably the only other director seriously concerned with depicting the human spirit onscreen at this time. Bresson's techniques quickly become more uncompromising, more perversely pointed in unusual directions (a focus on hands and feet for one), lasting for unusual lengths of time (sometimes a minute past the point where a conventional director might cut away). Rossellini's style is precise as well, but his innovations stay carefully within the confines of commercial cinema. 

Even within those limits, Rossellini comes up with startling effects--Irene's arrival at a mental institution is an impressionist tour de force, the camera acting as her eyes picking up details here and there--the immaculately white walls, the patients' slack faces, the staff carefully locking doors and shutting windows--and we share her growing panic at the prospect of staying in this terrible place. And yet there is no inappropriate hysteria, no excessive drama--when asked why she does what she does, Irene calmly and perceptively replies "hate:" hate for herself, hate for her inadequate response to the sufferings of the world, a cause hopeless enough to drive anyone insane. 

The ending (skip if you haven't seen the film!) shows some kind of transcendence, but one can easily read it as Irene finally embracing her madness--her husband and mother and friends walk sadly away while her new adopted family of underclass folk look up at their precious saint, already tucked safely away behind bars (the way statues of the the most famous saints in ancient cathedrals are often kept, high and unassailable, heavily draped with their jewels and gold-stitched capes). Easily one of the most harrowing (most exultant if you like) endings I have ever seen.

Irene Dunne day at TCM

In A Guy Named Joe (1943) the real source of comedy is between Van Johnson and Tracy, particularly Tracy's trademark brand of the slow burn--being dead to him is like being father of the bride, you're impotent and omniscient, and the combination is frustrating. Dunne is the film's heart--she's lost Tracy, and she's too hurt and frightened to accept the ardent Johnson's offer of a new life. Victor Fleming mixes miniatures and actual footage of planes and battle sequences to great effect; even filmmakers nowadays can learn a thing or two about making an action sequence vivid, memorable, even somewhat frightening. It does get a bit wordy with all the endless speeches delivered to no one in particular--but you've invested enough in the characters that you keep watching anyway.

My Favorite Wife (1940) is a wonderful comedy, and I can't help noting that the hoary device of the third party going off to war while the object of desire marries someone else has been used again and again, as far back as Odysseus, as far away as Raj Kapoor's Sangam, and as recently as Michael 'friggin' Bay's ludicrous Pearl Harbor.

I do think the script succeeds at stepping up the momentum, adding an Adam (Grant's longtime 'roommate' Randolph Scott, which throws this whole Cary Grant-Irene Dunne conflict into an altogether more interesting life), and a judge that seems to have stepped in from a Frank Capra courtroom comedy. The ending is a less successful reprise of the finale of The Awful Truth, but 'less successful' is relative--it's a terrific scene, full of charm, and the film overall is wonderful fun. That said--

The Awful Truth is near perfection; it features the first appearance of screwball Grant, a slapstick master with glowering brows and a whole menagerie of glares, slow burns and elaborate double takes hidden under his leopardskin bathrobe. Here you see the germ of ideas Hawks would later steal--and, some would say (including me)--perfect in His Girl Friday (1940): Grant playing off Ralph Bellamy's granite-swift uptake; Grant scheming to one-up his wife; Grant playing off an inanimate prop--in His Girl Friday a writing desk, in The Awful Truth an ill-fitting hat--to create the perfect piece of slapstick, largely wordless, exquisitely timed. 

The finale, with Grant building up a furious storm of bluster and embarrassment in an increasingly desperate attempt to sneak into Irene Dunne's bed reaches comic apotheosis with the sight of Dunne staring helplessly, hopelessly at him, lips half-parted with frustrated ardor.

Could it have been improved with nudity? I don't think so. Nudity would have been a distraction, would have actually detracted from the perfection of the moment; no one could manage to be so peerlessly hilarious and jaw-droppingly desirable at the same time, the sensuality adding edge to the hilarity, the hilarity adding spice to the sensuality. Take it from someone who has watched (and enjoyed) more than his share of pornography and perversion; this was hot.

The Palm Beach Story

The comedy of remarriage, given a perverse twist by Preston Sturges (he'd push perversity a step further with Miracle at Morgan's Creek). Claudette Colbert, delectable as usual (is it getting hotter in here or is her unbuttoning scene with Joel McCrea that sexy?) decides she needs to go out and use her looks to raise money for her struggling inventor husband; said husband naturally wants to stop her (if he didn't it'd be a more European kind of film, I suppose), and that's the motor that drives this film forward. Rudy Vallee is wonderfully unflappable as John D. Hackensack III, one of the richest men in the world; he lives according to his principles to the fullest ("Why do you travel around in a lower berth?" "Staterooms are un-American") and he's every bit as adorable as the rest of the screwball characters. 

Maybe the only flaws to this film are Mary Astor, strangely unappealing in maneater mode (thought she was miscast in The Maltese Falcon, and doubly miscast here) and the way the hapless black porter is portrayed. The finale should be a flaw--talk about contrived endings--but somehow Sturges prepares for it with the equally nonsensical opening ("They live happily ever after" followed by "or did they?") failing to explain anything with anything except that this whole other subplot is somehow involved with the main plot (it ties everything up in a single neatly Gordian package--amazing what Sturges gets away with in terms of what needs to be explained and what doesn't). The second time "happily ever after" appears one is doubly satisfied--now the two lovers should be happy with their lot in life--and then Sturges tops the topper with a second "or did they?" Here we go again.


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