Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, Rico Ilarde, 2000)


For Halloween, a reprint of an old article on a minor horror classic

Little flick of horrors

Rico Ilarde’s Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud) is an unpretentious yet surprisingly supple example of the horror genre. It’s the story of Mark (Carlos Morales), a promising college graduate whose girlfriend plans to bring him to San Francisco…possibly to pursue a medical career and eventually, marriage and a family. But none of these interest Mark; he wants to be a writer--worse, he wants to be a writer of horror fiction. He had sent samples of a story he had been working on to UCLA, and the university had sent him an application for a writing scholarship. After graduation, he plans to take time out at his uncle’s safehouse in the remote town of San Joaquin, hopefully to finish the story he had started. He befriends a mysterious wanderer, who gives him a mysterious seed. He plants the seed under the light of the full moon (after being given explicit instructions not do exactly that), and a large plant appears. From this plant drops a large fruit; out of the fruit steps out a mute and beautifully naked woman Mark names Sally (Klaudia Koronel). They (of course) have an affair.

The tree and its fruit of beautiful women is an idea straight out of fairy tales, which, when you think about it, are potent horror stories all by themselves (if you don’t think so, read the Grimm Brothers’ original, unexpurgated version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” or “Cinderella”). The concept of having a horror writer at the center of the fairy tale is the kind of cute little conceit Stephen King might have thought up when in one of his more ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ moods (as a matter of fact, King does get mentioned somewhere in the film). Even the characters seem borrowed from King’s novels--Mark, the sensitive and somewhat passive writer-protagonist, ever concerned with his craft, with his (God help us) art, seems to have walked out of King’s The Shining, or The Dark Half, or even “The Body.” Sally, who becomes Mark’s artistic muse, is part ‘woman with dark powers’ a la Carrie or Firestarter, part plot device to get Mark’s creative juices flowing a la Shakespeare in Love.

King isn’t a very fruitful model for Ilarde to follow--his concept of a serious writer of horror fiction is an embarrassing collection of cliches--the need for solitude in ‘natural’ surroundings (Mario Puzo claimed he had to have the noise of wife and children about him to write), the need for sexual ‘inspiration’ to get past a ‘writer’s block’ (William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick used drugs). It would have been much more useful if Ilarde had gone ahead and tried to think through what a horror writer is really like. Making Mark a medical student is a step in the right direction--he could have included a scene where Mark actually asks someone, a professor or friend, various questions on flesh wounds and decomposition, little details Mark might have needed for his story. It would have been just as useful if he had tied in Mark’s enthusiasm with bow and arrows to his writing horror--the fact that archery is an ancient sport with a long history; that arrows can inflict long and lingering pain as effectively as it can kill. There are so many opportunities missed to make this film a minor horror gem--instead of the flawed but surprisingly well-made genre exercise that it is--that you feel a sense of waste, the same time you feel a sense of surprised discovery at just how good the film is anyway, despite the flaws.

Actually, a better model for Ilarde to follow (and he did, to a certain extent) is exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman--and in fact, the huge leafy vegetable out of which Sally steps out of could have come from Corman’s tiny horror classic Little Shop of Horrors, which featured a man-eating plant. Where King’s success has allowed him to suffer more and more from logorrhea (nowadays his books run over a thousand pages--or four kilos hardbound, depending on how you want to measure them), Corman is a master of quickie low-budget filmmaking. He has enjoyed some success but never a huge box-office hit, and this constant persistence on a low-margin level has taught him how to make films swiftly, with little fat or pretension.

Ilarde, fortunately, shows signs of having learned from Corman: he made Babaeng Putik for a mere three million pesos, in about twenty days. And while he doesn’t fully escape from the gassy sentimentality of King (the wanderer gives him the magic seed to “help him with his writing…by putting him to the test”), Ilarde does give King’s nonsense the amount of weight and emphasis it deserves--which is to say, not much.

And yet--sometimes, somehow--Ilarde is able to transform the material. Early in the picture, he gives Carlos Morales a sudden and rather arousing impromptu sex scene to play, and it’s well done--playful and inventive (you can tell Ilarde enjoys the lovemaking in his films). Then Ilarde pans to the wall behind Morales and his girlfriend, and focuses on an anatomical diagram of a man, with skin pulled open and muscles and organs exposed. It’s a startling and enigmatic touch, and strangely reassuring, at least to horror aficionados--it tells you that the director has a few surprises up his sleeve, a few unknown abilities he wants to show you. Later, Morales boards a bus to San Joaquin, and the bus emerges from a bank of thick smoke like a monster out of the jungle mists…the image is Ilarde’s way of telling you that Morales’ magic quest has begun, on the back of this ambulatory creature.

Ilarde’s casting of Carlos Morales is astute--he hardly looks like your ‘sensitive writer’ type, and you can believe he’s a mean son of a bitch with a long bow. He looks like he can take very good care of himself, so when all hell literally breaks loose and he of all people loses his composure, the sudden vulnerability is doubly shocking. Ilarde’s casting of Koronel as Sally, however (a kind of spiritual sister to Corman’s Audrey?) is very possibly a stroke of genius. Koronel has large eyes, a luscious mouth, and breasts the size of watermelons; she has the kind of body you literally cannot believe occurs in real life. She is a walking erotic joke, and as such it makes perfect logic for her to have stepped out of the fruit of an enchanted tree. It would also make perfect logic for her to function as Mark’s erotic fantasy, lending his narrative a psychologically doubtful air--a suggestion that he’s really cracking up from being alone so long and any moment now he’ll go sane and make her vanish into the thin air. Mark’s constantly anxious glances at her suggest the same unsettling thought keeps occurring to him as well.

Babaing Putik’s first half, with its atmospheric imagery and sense of haunted mystery is by far the superior half; when the monster finally makes its appearance, it’s yet another stuntman wearing a rubber suit--worse, wearing a rubber suit that looks suspiciously like the alien in Predator (there’s even a sequence on a bridge that seems like a take-off, or homage to the picture). The characters introduced don’t even do anything more interesting than provide food for the creature’s diet, which apparently consists of human blood and innards. The rules--so carefully outlined by the wanderer--are tossed aside and ultimately ignored (“don’t plant under a full moon,” “feed it only water and blood,” “a source of great pleasure and pain”).)

But even here Ilarde still manages to keep his visuals clean (cinematography by Johnny Araojo, who did the camerawork for Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (A New King)), and his editing coherent. Ilarde even manages to stage a face-off between monster and a squadron of civilian vigilantes that’s like a take-off on the Rambo movies (though if the soldiers had displayed even the slightest knowledge of military tactics the battle would have been less one-sided, far more interesting). Ilarde doesn’t totally squander the good will he built up during the fascinating first half: he manages to whip up a mildly diverting climax, secure a small measure of sympathy for the monster, and suggest just the merest hint of a possible sequel. Not much altogether, and not very original, but not bad either. Considering the budget, the time constraints, the weakly developed script, it’s amazing the film is as good as it is--better, in fact, than some of the recent big-budgeted horror flicks that have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Along with Joyce Bernal for VIVA films, Ilarde is the best of the newest commercial filmmakers working today; can’t wait to see how his next project turns out.

First published in Menzone 2002

Reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

Monday, October 29, 2012

Seven Psychopaths, The Master, Frankenweenie

A Few Good Men

Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths is cinematic Cherry Coke--sweet and tasty, but basically lacking emotional nourishment. It's not just as previous critics have noted that this is recycled Tarantino, it's Tarantino recycled at his least expressive, early enough in his career that Roger Avary still shared writing credit, and the pose Tarantino struck (itself secondhand) was so cool it started a fashion trend in filmmaking, hence the hideous term "Tarantinoesque." 

Well, this film is "Tarantinoesque," and that's a good and bad thing. Good in that on several counts McDonagh writes sharper, funnier dialogue, or at least sharper, funnier punchlines, and serves up twists every bit as witty and entertaining as said punchlines, not to mention the original source. Plus, unlike Tarantino, and as evidenced by the oft-promised shootout that ends the picture, McDonagh seems to know a thing or two about staging, shooting, and cutting action. 

Otherwise, it's largely disposable (there's a subplot about a Vietnam psychopath that's so transparently a bid to transcend the label 'disposable')--except for Christopher Walken. Walken's psychopath seems to linger in memory because he seems to be the only character in the movie to actually care about something or someone, and we can't help but respond to that in this otherwise emotionally arid wasteland. What makes his performance even better is that he owns a pair of eyes more frightening than even Lucifer's. In Rosemary's Baby the Devil glared through several pounds of prosthetic fur and a satanic pair of contacts; Walken without wearing even an ounce of makeup much less contacts can gaze effortlessly bakc and you know who's gonna blink first. A pair of tired, loving, psychopathic eyes pouched in a cadaverously pale face--what's not to like?

The Matter

I came away from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master thinking it's a collection of superb film moments--sequences, even--that don't really come together much. Anderson proudly and famously never attended a class for scriptwriting and I suspect this creates the tense energy in his films--he's basically a high-wire act, trying his best not to break his fool neck. But it also means a lot of floundering about, and sometimes you suspect it's the floundering audiences come to watch in an Anderson (Paul Thomas, not W.S.) and not the actual film--that, and the chance to maybe see him break his fool neck. 

Oh, but what an act! Overhead shots of the ocean swirling behind a ship; a group of Filipino workers chasing a man across a vast dusty field; Joaquin Phoenix draped lazily past the boundary of a ship's railing, threatening to fall over and not caring; Phoenix later in the film, pressing his lips longingly to the windowpane (he appears to be trying to break through--to what? And why?). Anderson knows how to whip up a striking image, knows how present it--big, baleful, portentous--on the big screen (and I mean big--65 mm on traditional film stock, instead of the standard 35 mm digital video), knows to the microsecond how long to hold an image: long enough that you begin to wonder if you aren't perhaps missing some extra layer of meaning in what you're seeing, but not so long that you start to suspect maybe he's faking it with all the pregnant pauses.

It's not about Scientology--well, not directly about Scientology, which takes a few glancing blows to the rib; it's more about the dynamics that exist within a group not unlike the Scientologists, complete with fanaticists, doubters, and those that vacillate back and forth between the two extremes. And it's about the uneasy friendship that develops between Phoenix's Freddie Quell and the cult's founder Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a low-key yet authoritative performance). Most of all it's about what two men--one a wandering alcoholic, the other the multi-million dollar founder of a cult religion--have in common, and the answer is unsettlingly simple: both arrive at their respective positions in life (near ruin, great success) through hard struggle, and they will respond with rejection, anger, even violence, to anyone who threatens to topple that position. They recognize the same angry, fearful man inside each other, and they can't help but acknowledge that man, even lend him a kind of uneasy support. 

Is it a great film? Hell no; least I don't think so. Anderson could go so much further if he actually knew what he was doing; then again, if he knew what he was doing, he wouldn't be the special flavor that is Anderson--Paul Thomas, not W.S.

A Boy and His

Talk about yet another unconscious, instinctive artist, Tim Burton's Frankenweenie is an expansion of the live-action short of the same name. Presumably Burton had his reasons for turning to stop-motion for the remake: more control over the overall look and the characters' gestures, a stylization that helps sell the sweet-natured premise (which is arguably too sweet, though Disney deemed the original short too frightening for kids) and, well, stop-motion don't need no reason--it's just awesome all its own. 

The film starts with a short film that somehow manages not just to suggest its handmade nature (this in a $40 million Hollywood feature), but one with crude yet innovative special effects--pterodactyl swinging on a string, menacing cardboard buildings; toy artillery firing styrofoam muzzle flash; infantrymen made of cheap green plastic (what boy growing up back then didn't have an odd platoon or two forgotten in his toy chest somewhere?).

The story isn't much more than that: boy loves dog, boy loses dog, boy resurrects dog using recycled household appliances (our protagonist Victor improvises with a ironing board as operating table, an aquarium as battery, and a kite as lightning rod). It's Frankenstein recast as a iconic suburban creation myth, and it's arguably the film's money sequence, its reason for being--all throughout Burton's career there's been an uneasy tension between idyllic suburban home and doomed Gothic melancholy, and as shown in his short Vincent he's not averse to spoofing either sensibilities. With this film's first half, he's finally stitched both into a perfectly monstrous creation that lurches about the attic with gleeful abandon. 

And then there's the rest of the film. After Victor creates the dog, Burton doesn't seem to know what to do next--he fills the picture with busy plotting and made-up conflicts that don't really threaten the status quo (a Gothic child growing up in an essentially benign suburban community), or at the last minute tosses in sketchy characters that shake things up without really clarifying why they do so, though even this has its moments--love the shout-out to Godzilla, and better yet, the classic animated short Bambi vs. Godzilla. The narrative really regains its footing only after the windmill sequence, after which all is right with the world. 


Which doesn't really mean the ruination of the film. Burton was never a consistent or especially skillful storyteller; I suspect that he spent years and millions of dollars to do Planet of the Apes, for example, as an excuse to shoot the moment when man and ape kiss, sending a sexual charge straight up your spine. I suspect he did Frankenweenie to pour all of Disney's considerable resources into producing that creation myth--expressing his love for his long-ago animated short, for the James Whale original, for the neverending tension between Goth and suburb in his life. Everything else was pretty much an afterthought. 

10.29.12
 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)


Ben Affleck's Argo isn't as emotionally profound or thematically complex as his previous works Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but it's plenty all its own--a meat-and-potatoes, no-nonsense thriller remarkable for its unlikely premise and outre details. The situation (six Americans hiding in the heart of Tehran during the height of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) is impossible enough; the solution (disguising all six as members of a Canadian film crew doing preproduction work on a science-fantasy movie) lifts the story to a whole other level, the kind that makes you want to exclaim "this would make a terrific film!"

And lo and behold--

Kudos to Affleck for playing it straight, for (as he puts it) presenting details as they (more or less) were, without too much comic exaggeration or overt mugging so that the humor emerges from the material, in fragile balance with the grimness of the situation--a grimness driven home by the scene where hero Tony Mendez (Affleck playing the lead), being driven through Tehran's city streets, catches a glimpse of a man hung from the end of a high crane. Kudos to Affleck for the effective inserting of unforgettable video footage (the students storming the US embassy) and archival photo images (the burning of an American flag, the aforementioned crane hanging) into the story. Kudos again to Affleck for trying to play fair with the Iranian people by beginning the film with a summary of recent history, outlining just why they're so unhappy with the United States--the intro helps add a texture of ambivalence to the proceedings, as we witness the heroic efforts expended to extricate people from a circumstance their own country's meddling helped bring about. The effort may not satisfy everyone, and when you think about it may not really be enough, but he did make the attempt.   

Perhaps the film's best scenes take place not in Tehran but in Los Angeles; the satire on Hollywood wheeling and dealing is about as sharply observant and hilarious as one assumes an insider like Affleck can make it.

The latter half has Affleck's Mendez entering Iran and trying to shape his six terrified charges into something like a film crew; the finale is pure Hollywood hokum, but done so pulse-poundingly well you can't help but be caught up anyway. Affleck in an interview did defend the additional embroidery as being what Mendez and his fellow conspirators were probably thinking might happen while they attempt escape, not necessarily what actually happened

Critics have noted a similarity between this and the thrillers of Alan J. Pakula, or Sidney Lumet. I don't know--this is somewhat more bizarre than almost anything they've done (Lumet did do Network--but that's more a Paddy Chayefsky film than anything). The film might have benefited from a more wayward, character-focused approach: the suggestion made in the Wired article that helped inspire the film, for instance, that the six really got into their roles, took elaborate measures to change their hairstyles and appearances, started to inhabit their assigned profiles the way Method actors do. Jonathan Demme, a master at eccentric Americana, might have taken to the challenge of suggesting this--think odd genre-bending efforts like Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Citizen's Band, or his masterpiece Melvin and Howard, where people assume roles distinct from their own personalities, the film itself starts to assume a whole other identity, and the plot as a result starts to deflect and detour, like a mis-hit cue ball, in unpredictable and often comic (but not always) directions. The effect would be so much more courageous, so much more strange, but still within the confines of a persuasive realism (think an American Jean Renoir). Affleck, alas, chooses the straightforward path a la Pakula and Lumet; well done, but it could have been so much more than what it is. 

Perhaps my biggest reservation with regards to a more or less terrific film is the ommission of the true details about the faux film itself. Argo wasn't just any science fantasy, but a script based on one of science fiction's best-loved novels, Roger Zelazny's Hugo Award-winning Lord of Light. Science fiction enthusiast Barry Ira Geller had optioned Zelazny's novel and brought together some heavyweight talents--Ray Bradbury; Buckminster Fuller; Planet of the Apes makeup artists John Chambers and Maurice Stein; the inimitable Jack Kirby as conceptual artist--in a quixotic attempt to make what at that time was considered the most expensive science fiction epic ever made ($50 million, an unprecedented amount).

Sadly, the project fell apart (it didn't help that Geller had zero experience at film producing, or that one of the backers was a con artist). John Chambers--who knew Tony Mendez--eventually used the script and drawings as basis for the elaborate cover story for the Iran rescue mission.
 



As you might note from the artwork above, at one point Geller was actually proposing a $400 million theme park called Science Fiction Land. The park, based on Zelazny's ideas of free technology and built on the film's leftover sets, would feature guards flying about in jet packs; a thousand-lane bowling alley with robot attendants; a thirty-eight story high Ferris Wheel; Vegas-style "Pavilions of Joy;" and a holographic zoo.
 
 
Affleck suggested that the movie was a discarded studio script for a Star Wars-style science-fantasy movie, with blatant copies of Chewbacca and Artoo Detoo walking around the set. The truth is much stranger: a masterpiece from one of science fiction's most eloquent writers, realized in a series of gorgeous drawings by a giant in graphic art.  If I were an Iranian Republican Guard, I too might be distracted by the beauty and vividness of these drawings.

Affleck must have thought the Science Fiction Land subplot too interesting and complex to include in his film and instead opted for a few cheap shots at Star Wars knockoffs, which is unfortunate; I liked the knockoffs better than the source material, especially Battle Beyond the Stars, which was a knockoff of both Star Wars and Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai (ironically Star Wars itself is a knockoff of another Kurosawa epic, The Hidden Fortress)). The real script and drawings might have given the film a surreal touch and help introduce a second theme, about resurrection and renewal and the power of the self-image (all key themes in Lord of Light)--but that's just me.
 
Come to think of it--did I say the story of Argo would make a terrific film? Maybe so; not just the Iran rescue end, but the whole story, science fiction novel, theme park, scam artists and all.

And lo and behold, it just might

10.16.12

Monday, October 08, 2012

May Nagmamahal sa Iyo (Madonna and Child, 1996), in tribute to Marilou Diaz-Abaya (1955 - 2012)


Another important Filipino filmmaker is gone, and in tribute to her, here's an article on one of my favorite of her films:

Mother Love

May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo
Starring: Lorna Tolentino, Stefano Mori, Jaclyn Jose, Ariel Rivera, Gina Pareno, Tom Taus
Written by: Ricky Lee and Shaira Mella Salvador
Directed by: Marilou Diaz-Abaya

I SAW this picture with a Japanese friend who didn't know Tagalog. We watched the first scene as Louella (Lorna Tolentino) gives up her child to a priest (Rolando Tinio, of all people!). A classic scene, done countless times, but you wouldn't know it watching Tolentino: her hair in a disarray, her eyes slightly wild, her hands clutch the infant helplessly, hopelessly, as she instructs the priest in a trembling voice on the proper care and feeding of her son. My friend didn't need a single word translated.

Seven years later Tolentino is a domestic helper in Hongkong. You have to give the producers credit for actually shooting in Hongkong; but you also give Marilou Diaz-Abaya credit for not allowing the Hongkong shots to look like a moment of Star Cinema spending. The sequence falls seamlessly into place and drives the story forward; it actually adds insight into Tolentino's character. She's taken her motherly love and poured it into her young charge--up to a point. When the time comes for her to go, the child is devastated; Tolentino leaves with hardly a backward look. You find yourself nodding yes, that's how I'd act in her place, and of how many local films can you truthfully say that?

Tolentino comes home to an embittered mother, Rosing (Gina Pareno), and a neglected boyfriend, Nestor (Ariel Rivera as--an honest policeman?). Her recent experience as babysitter has left her vaguely dissatisfied; she wants to find the child she gave away long ago. Her search leads her to Conrad (Stefano Mori), a dirty, disheveled urchin. Their eyes meet. Could this be her son?

I sat with bated breath, waiting for that fatal moment when the soap-opera plot slips on its frothy suds. It's a new form of suspense, uniquely Filipino, developed from years of watching promising local dramas that ultimately disappoint.

The moment never really happens. Like an unlikely swan the film flaps its wings once, twice, catches an oncoming wind, and soars; you're left in your seat with your face slowly turning blue.

An unlikely swan, indeed. You'd never guess it from Marilou Diaz-Abaya's previous film, Ipaglaban Mo, an exercise in feminist hysterics. Here she's cooler than she's ever been; her touch has never been more sure. You see it in her deft handling of the superb cast. She takes Ariel Rivera's wooden acting and brings it miraculously to life: an honest cop is unbelievable, but a cop as earnest and awkward as Rivera is funny and rather endearing. Who cares if he's fictional? You can hear the Rivera fans in the audience falling in love all over again with this subtly seductive illusion.

Claudine Barretto is unusually fine as Louella's young sister. It's a small role, but in a film like this there really are no small roles; each is given a life of his or her own. Gina Pareno as Tolentino's mother gives a gem of a performance. Like Louella, she's an abandoned mother, and she can't forgive her daughter for following in her footsteps. Pareno tortures Tolentino with tight-lipped, angry silences. When she has anything to say, the words come out swift and barbed; Pareno takes them and whips them across Tolentino's face.

Jacklyn Jose turns in a luminous performance as the housemaid who rescues a child (Tom Taus) from physical abuse. She manages to make her virtuous character not just believable, but moving, and for once her performance snaps into place as part of an ensemble, instead of sticking out in an acting vacuum. Taus plays the abused victim with horrific realism; when his bruised cheeks stretch into a tentative smile, you can't help but shudder.

Stefano Mori is everything you hope for in a child actor and almost never get. His Conrad is a rebel; dirty, spirited and profane. He'll punch a nun in the stomach, then charm her with a gap-toothed smile. What keeps his performance from being sickeningly cute is the fierce, hot core of anger you see in him. He's been abandoned by his mother and the world; now he wants--what? Revenge? A mother's love? The film's biggest flaw may be in not pushing this character to its limit; we might have ended up with the despairing cherubs of Shoeshine, or the angel-faced demons of Los Olvidados or Pixote. This reservation aside, Mori handles himself well--so well you want to see him in stronger roles.

Tolentino as Louella is passionate, confused, loving, torn. She never tries for easy dramatics; you cry long before she even sheds a tear (witness the scene when she gives up her son). Her intelligent, understated acting looks better and better with every movie she makes; this one could well be the performance of her life.

Kudos to the production crew: the quietly beautiful photography (by Ed Jacinto), the crisp, clean editing ( Jess Navarro and Manet Dayrit), the (for once) unobtrusive music (by Nonong Buencamino). As scriptwriter, Ricky Lee has never been stronger or more dramatic. Unusual for Lee, the script is also well-balanced and free of moral rhetoric--no one breaks into a speech in this picture, no one stands to deliver a sermon. The Hongkong scenes at the beginning and the ship full of children near the end, both big-budget production scenes, don't overwhelm the rest of the film, which remain focused on Louella and Conrad. You wonder how much of this, and of the remarkably believable dialogue, is the influence of Shaira Mella Salvador, who (as far as I know) is writing for the first time.

From the intensity of Brutal, through the realism of Moral, to the gothicism of Karnal, Diaz-Abaya has always been on the side of women, and it shows: the film has almost no significant male characters except for Nestor, who's thoughtful and passive. To this recurring theme she adds the subject of blood, the importance we give to it, to our actual relatives as opposed to friends and relatives we choose. Blood is a favorite Filipino obsession. At its extreme, this obsession leads to nepotism, racism, power dynasties--corruption in the name of blood. At its most extreme, it leads to feuds, battles, war: blood spilled in the name of blood. With this film, Diaz-Abaya suggests that the alternative--the son or mother you choose, the bond that two people form--can be as strong, if not stronger, than mere blood.

It's a measure of Lee, Salvador, and Diaz-Abaya's achievement that none of this heavy philosophizing weighs down the film. You don't really notice anything else: for minutes at a time, what's onscreen is life, real life, and you are under its spell. An enthralling film. 

(First published in The Manila Chronicle, 2/3/96; reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson); Dr. Who: The Angels Take Manhattan (Nick Hurran)

Coming around again

Rian Johnson's Looper--about a hit man assigned to kill targets sent to him by the future who ends up face to face with an older version of himself--is pretty good fun, a clever mash-up of The Terminator and The Fury or to be more accurate, of "Jon's World" and Dr. Bloodmoney (Johnson is a self-admitted Philip K. Dick fan). 

He doesn't get it all perfect (warning: major plot details discussed in detail); a subplot about TK (telekinesis, or the ability to manipulate small amounts of pocket change) seems to stick out like a sore thumb--you just know it's going to figure in a more crucial manner later on. All those people hanging about in mid-air with their legs hanging loose seem so, well, Chronicle (I thought De Palma did this effect best, in near-dark, where the sense of disorientation would be greatest). The guns--anachronistically called 'blunderbusses'--seem more tailored to the demands of the script than practical with an effective range of at most fifteen feet, we're told time and again (that extreme short range plays into a number of admittedly exciting and well-staged action sequences, not to mention the finale). Our hero (played alternately by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Willis prostheses) manages to wipe out an entire building of gangsters with some assault rifles and a beltful of hand grenades (isn't anyone else but him at all halfway competent?), not to mention everyone's aim when wielding a firearm while normally excellent starts to suffer precisely when the script calls for it to suffer (otherwise the movie would end right there). 

And oh, the Rainmaker; little is known about the Rainmaker except what's whispered furtively, sparingly, just enough to let you know he's basically a plot function meant to raise the dramatic stakes more than a little. 

The climactic killing (I did say I was going to discuss crucial plot details, didn't I?) has the protagonist vanish; nothing spectacular, just a digitized wipe. That says something to me when the same results could have been achieved with two or three cuts and some strong mis-en-scene--that the filmmaker isn't quite as confident about his abilities as he should be, a flaw I think he shares with one Christopher Nolan

The crucial difference, I think, is that Johnson with only his third feature reveals himself to be a more inventive, more sensual, more humorous and (thank goodness) more coherent genre filmmaker than Nolan has proven to be so far. Gordon-Levitt and Willis play both ends of the same character brilliantly; someone pointed out that facing each other they remind you of the mirror sequence in Leo McCarey's Duck Soup. The twists as with Nolan are surprising; unlike Nolan Johnson is careful to populate the complex plot with humanlike characters who crack wise and have goofy moments and actually exhibit something of a libido.

And Johnson has his oddball  moments--I mean really oddball, like the close-up of the cream swirling in a cup of coffee. What does a reference, several in fact, to 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle have to do with the movie? Who knows? I just happen to love it, is all.

Unlike with Dick, Johnson gives the film a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful ending, which I suppose marks the difference between the two: Johnson has to work with a budget however modest, and has to come up with an ending that would earn the necessary boxoffice to repay his backers. Dick worked alone; he may have tried to write for a pop audience, but couldn't help straying from the commercial path to follow his own dark, dangerous visions. 


"It's called marriage"

There's complicated (as in Looper), faux-complex (as in Memento and Inception) and then there's timey-wimey. Nick Hurran's realization of Steve Moffat's script "The Angels Take Manhattan" (Doctor Who Season 7, Episode 5) is about as dark and eerie a recent Doctor Who episode as I can think of. Not, perhaps, as frightening as the Angels' first outing--can't think of a more frightening episode than "Blink," at least on television--but at least Moffat and Hurran have managed to bring back some of the chills.

It helps to be so unabashedly noir, from the handsomely lit ambiance of New York in the late '30s to the lush shadows that wrap the hallways and stairwells of the hotel Winter Quay (ominous name, that--like a frozen harbor or something as bleak).

I liked the Angels' two-part second outing well enough--stuff like "The image of an Angel is an Angel" helped expand their deadly capabilities--but I've always preferred this, their original modus operandi. Something about flinging a man backwards through time, away from friends and loved ones, always struck me as a horrible way to go, especially when you've just met the love of your life (thinking of you, Detective Inspector Billy Shipton).

Thirties' New York should have been our cue: this is a return to classicism, of sorts. The Angels return to their former eeriness, the Ponds (you know I've got to talk about them at some point) to their former roles, with Amy as the strong heart and decision-maker of the relationship and Rory as the hapless yet faithful fall guy who not only accepts but exploits his repeat-dying routine as a way to defeat his adversaries--the ultimate punchline, with the joke being on the Angels ("Rory, stop it. You'll die." "Yeah, twice, in the same building on the same night. Who else could do that?"). I liked that.

I like it that Moffat draws on all of Amy's episodes (which means practically all of the fifth, sixth and seventh seasons) for motifs, in-jokes, gratuitous references; I like it that River Song is present for their final adventure, and that Amy calls her "Melody"-- belatedly and briefly but no less authoritatively she's River's mother, giving her daughter the benefit of an instinctive but quick-witted wisdom. 

I love it that Smith's Doctor is casually, unthinkingly cruel ("No, you get your wrist out; you get your wrist out without breaking it"), and that River despite her brief if interestingly sequenced lifespan is the more mature of the two in marriage ("Never let him see the damage"); I love it that that though Rory makes the crucial decision that saves everyone's lives Amy makes the crucial decision that determines the rest of her (and Rory's) life. 

I love the lines: "You've changed the future!" "It's called marriage, honey." Moffat it seems to me has taken all the wit and feeling he developed writing scripts for the sex comedy series Coupling and poured it into those two lines, lines that sum up the episode and pretty much sum up the Ponds. Which could be thought two ways: that he's shallow for being able to summarize everything he stands for in two sentences, or that he's genius for being able to summarize everything he stands for in two sentences. River's glib reply is a feint, a deception, of course; when Amy repeats it later on she does so with infinitely greater emotional force and resonance. This time it works--no hiding, no deception, only change. 

As for the Ponds' ultimate fate--I don't buy into the complaint that Rory doesn't get to do anything or say goodbye; the very sting and poignancy of an Angel death is that it's a total shock, that you don't get to do anything or say goodbye. If Moffat has the Angels back to doing what they always did, kill with kindness, then Rory must go back to doing what he always does: die, this time taking fifty years to do so.

Amy writes to the Doctor, assuring him they lived happy lives. I don't know about that: the Angels are known for killing with kindness, and we only really have Pond's secondhand word for it that they're happy (not that I really want to know; sometimes it's better not to). 

But even if they were happy, it's the kind of happy that comes at a cost: no more rides with a madman in a box, no more careening through all of space and time. The slow path, someone once said to the Doctor; having traveled with him, how can anyone stand it? Moffat may have dressed matters up the best he could, put on a brave face and told us (through a disembodied voiceover) that they had had a happy life, but when all is said and done, this is a tragedy: the Ponds are dead, the Doctor is once more left alone. 

Know what I think of all this? Moffat might be a Weeping Angel himself--take your eyes off him for a second, and he'll kill you with kindness.

10.4.12

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The only real crime is the cybercrime law


No libel
 

No slander
 

No derogatory remarks
 

No sexually suggestive innuendos
 

No unkind words
 

No negative comments
 

No exposes
 

No wit

No sarcasm
 

No irony
 

No truth
 

No freedom
 

No way



Some links:

Full text of RA 10175
 
Human Rights Watch: New 'Cybercrime' Law Will Harm Free Speech

10 scary things about the cybercrime prevention act 2012

Netizens rally against cybercrime law

Forbes: The Philippines passes a Cybercrime Law

The heroic opposition


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