Friday, May 30, 2014

Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)


Suffer the little children

Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 starts with a story about shit: an anecdote about a staff member chasing an AWOL youth who, thanks to the influence of heat, fear (the resident--easily twice his size--has threatened him), and time (outside of the facility he has no choice but to follow the runner and talk him into coming back, for hours if necessary (must be some bizarre California regulation)) ultimately defecates in his pants. Said youth comes back, just for the privilege of telling all the other fellow residents how the staff member had soiled his jeans.

Which is what I mostly miss in this picture: the sight, scent and feel of feces being excreted down bowls, squirted in the air like a cologne, flung about in angry handfuls. Feces wrapped in underwear and hidden in clothing bins, shoved in your face during a restraint, molded into cute little doll figures and arranged in a semicircle, sometimes found smeared everywhere in the toilet stall but the bowl--I'm talking a lot of bull, enough to give a picture an "R" rating. Beyond that, and beyond an all-day session of vomiting thanks to intestinal flu (a trash can lined with biohazard plastic takes care of that) and the occasional nosebleed (pinch the bridge of the nose, icepack to the back of the head), I'd say Cretton pretty much captures the sights, sounds, smells and textures of a residency for at-risk youths. 



It's actually startling and not a little unsettling. From the moment the red-headed Sammy (Alex Calloway) runs screaming out the alarmed door (these places are not prisons, and are legally prohibited from locking their doors to prevent escapes), I kept hearing lines said to me, or which I've said myself: "You have to kinda be an asshole before you can be their friend," someone tells Nate, the nervous new staff (Rami Malek). Nate's panic is understandable: this is a new world to him, with egos like fragile eggshells you handle with caution, couched inside kids over six and a half feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds who can turn on you in an instant, for no reason at all. After my first year and third restraint I bought some dumbbells and started doing arm curls--wasn't much, but it gave me a fighting chance.

I seem to know many of these kids, or at least remember working with them at one point or another: Sammy, who when he's not running sits in a corner, a near catatonic; Marcus (Keith Stanfield) the 18-year-old terrified of going home; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) the chronic self-cutter; Luis (Kevin Hernandez) the irrepressible smart aleck. Part of Cretton's achievement is in realizing these types on the big screen without reducing them irrevocably into cliches (he's helped by a cast of wonderfully fresh-faced young actors); part is in acknowledging that staff don't work in a vacuum--they're affected by the kids (by their plight and abuse, both), and carry their own traumas into work. Never mind that official policy forbids it ("Be professional!" "Leave your baggage at the door!"), you can't not be affected by what you see, what you bring away with you, what's done to you inside the facility--inside yourself. 

Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) I related to the most: the laid-back veteran with the repertoire of stories and offbeat humor. I can even empathize with his love for a traumatized woman (don't need to work in a group home to find that kind of relationship), patiently waiting for her to get over it, not realizing (or not being able to accept) that perhaps she never will. Even the lovemaking sequence (where she aggressively comes on to him, then just as aggressively turns on him) is hilariously familiar ground--sadly so: what can you say or do to make a girl trust you when it's your very sex that she both desires and fears? And--here's a disturbing thought--do you deserve her trust in the first place? It's the perfect lose-lose proposition: the less you know, the less you're able to respond to her moods; the more you know, the sooner you realize how hopeless your situation is. 

Brie Larson is excellent as Grace, the film's protagonist, a supervisor who was herself a victim of abuse. Might be my unfamiliarity with California law, but my kneejerk reaction on learning she's also a victim (a former resident?) was uneasiness: yes, she can relate to the kids, but professional distance will be a constant challenge to maintain (is at one point definitely lost), early burnout a near certainty. Hard to believe (with her level of self-involvement) that she lasts long enough to rise to the position of supervisor--but then, again, perhaps they do things differently in that state.  

Too bad Cretton felt the need to impose narrative shape on the material--when the film is content to introduce you to this half-nightmare, half-safehaven world, it's very fine; when it starts to home in on Grace's increasing involvement in Jayden's predicament the picture loses its carefully cultivated realism. That's disappointing, not to mention frustrating--never expected to see my working life depicted with such vibrant energy on the big screen, then have it all turn into a social worker's soap. It's little like opening up to a new acquaintance who is spookily in your head, then realizing she's a political conservative--you feel badly betrayed. 

It doesn't help that Cretton isn't quite there with his handling of the camera. This is raw, intense, intimate stuff; shoving the lens up close and tremulous doesn't help--might in fact put off those of us who dislike blatant emotional manipulation. Doesn't help that some of the crucial plot twists come off so false--can't believe Jack, her boss (the otherwise excellent Franz Turner), would let a resident return to an abusive home when one of his staff has recommended otherwise, no matter how good a friend the parent is;* also can't believe none of the residents show much sexual interest in each other or in the staff, or that 'grooming' is apparently nonexistent (it's a problem, believe me). 

*Think about it: Jack could catch heat from the dad for denying him access to his daughter, but he could always wave Grace's report in the man's face, and it would give him time to dig into the report, see how much truth there is in it. If she's wrong he can let Jayden go, apologize to the dad, maybe penalize or even fire Grace with cause; if she's right he can get the credit for preventing a bad situation. Sometimes the bureaucrat's tendency to do nothing in the face of a crisis situation is the smartest thing to do after all...

Still, half a good film's better than none; one I totally identified with (at least the first forty or so minutes)--that's practically a miracle. Makes me want to knot an American flag round my neck and run, shrieking, out the door. 

First published in Businessworld, 5.22.14
 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)


 
Part of the Michelle Pfeiffer blog-a-thon, managed from this site: Pfeiffer-pforever

(WARNING: plot points of Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) discussed in close detail)

"Life's a bitch; now so am I."

Those immortal words were first spoken on the big screen for the first time on 16 June 1992, and while they haven't exactly changed the world in obvious ways, they have in several thousand little ways, over the many years since. They've certainly stayed with me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

  
Think about the future

Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, his adaptation of the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne dystopian future told in several issues of The Uncanny X-Men, is pretty good--a neat summarization of an ambitious, complicated story, one that set the tone for the decade ahead (even before Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Alan Moore's Watchmen) and for this particular comic book series. 


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (Gerardo de Leon, 1975)

Pictures thanks to Video48

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's yearlong Centennial celebration, there will be a screening of his Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (1975) at the CCP Dream Theater, May 17 Saturday at 4 pm.

The film is also available on DVD here--sadly without subtitles)

Stairway to heaven
 
As individuals director Gerardo 'Gerry' de Leon and lead actress Nora Aunor couldn't be more different. One was a respected lion of Philippine cinema whose career was on the wane; the other was the winner of a singing contest who parlayed her golden voice and morena good looks into a lightning strike of a multimedia pop phenomenon--countless gold singles, a long-running television variety show, over seventy movies in a mere eight years.

What Aunor didn't have despite her meteoric rise was artistic respect, though she did get favorable notices and an acting nomination for her multiple-role performance in the omnibus film Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, the director of the final segment (Caridad) being de Leon. Aunor reportedly liked the experience of working under him so much (the notices and award nomination didn't hurt) she asked to work with him again, this time on a much more ambitious project--Banaue: Stairway to the Sky, an action-adventure epic set at the dawn of Philippine history and, with a budget estimated at 1.6 million pesos, arguably the biggest Filipino production ever up to that point. The film would prove to be the master's last completed feature, an epic that I consider (despite its many flaws) badly underrated today, and in dire need of reappraisal.

Possibly Aunor didn't quite know what she was doing (after over seventy features this was her first ever large-scale project) and gave de Leon free rein; he reciprocated by shooting much of the picture with colored gels framing the images, the blurry edges of the screen adding a level of stylization almost unforgivable in its strangeness (though it must be noted that when a contemporary young Turk like Carlos Reygadas does it the effect is considered brilliantly avant-garde).

There's also something antediluvian about De Leon at this stage of his career, the maddeningly solemn way his characters often gaze offscreen, intoning their lines as if it were holy writ (by way of contrast, the slangy dialogue in Lamberto Avellana's Esperanza portion of the aforementioned omnibus film sounds as current as ever). When you have fresh faces like Aunor's Banawe, Christopher de Leon's Sadek, and Johnny Delgado's Pugnoy reciting what sounds like Old Testament text the disconnect is distracting, to put it mildly.

And yet the film remains compulsively watchable, in part because de Leon has lost none of his talent for visual majesty. The terraces are probably the most impressive achievement of pre-historic Filipinos, and as de Leon's camera pans up and down their sinuous slopes one can't help but look with awe (you need to ignore the travelogue-style narrator though, speaking in an irritatingly plummy American (presumably because they couldn't afford someone British) accent). 

Throughout the course of the two-hour plus film (my copy clocks in at a hundred and fifty-three minutes; not sure what the official runtime is, and IMDb is unhelpful) de Leon's camera continues to give us glimpses of grandeur: a huge boulder tumbles down a slope towards the camera, and as it crashes a wizened arm claws at the screen in agony (Sadek's parents have just been crushed to death); heads loom out of one corner of the frame to counterbalance smaller noggins at the opposite corner--an oddly pleasing demonstration of visual asymmetry--and a charge of electricity crackles up your spine ("yes--He still has It").

Where grandeur fails, surrealist horror blooms. A patriarch is decapitated, and his head journeys from one tribe to another as macabre prize (we see the head pronged on split bamboo, slowly liquefying with the course of time); back home, the patriarch's wife circles her husband's seated, festering corpse as she prays for the head's return (shades of Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, only on a relatively larger scale).


When battle breaks out (which it often does) de Leon shoots head-on, the fighting happening on different planes of action at once; when focused on one-on-one combat de Leon cuts and frames for maximum clarity (as in a dance sequence), the combatants showing a speed and physical prowess impossible to fake with digital enhancement, or unsteady camera, or ADHD editing. "Those are axes and spears and machete blades they are wielding" you find yourself thinking, "with nothing but loincloth and amulet to keep them from harm!"

Banaue would make a rousing war movie if Aunor's Banawe didn't raise the stakes to a whole other level. As de Leon (and writer Toto Belano) conceive her and Aunor incarnates her, Banawe might be the Philippines' first proto-feminist--she's no shrinking violet flinching in a corner as her lover Sadek is wounded and her father's head carried away; she accuses Sadek of cowardice, then organizes a strike force of lightly armed women to attack the enemy camp, hopefully win her father's head back. When one of the women complain that she doesn't have any combat skills, Banawe responds: "Doesn't take much skill to hold a man close, then stab him in the back!" 




If Banawe reserves the right to fight for her father's head, she also reserves the right to choose her lovers--Christopher de Leon's Sadek is the obvious choice for mate (the actors married during the film's production), only the two are separated early on; she meets the fierce Pugnoy, is unimpressed, meets Aruk (Ronaldo Valdez) who whips her--that gets her attention--only the joke is on Aruk, as he ultimately and hopelessly falls for Banawe (Aunor plays a variation of her celebrity persona, a woman irresistible to men--a persona not too far off from reality, as her complicated private life might suggest). 

Gerardo de Leon (and Nora Aunor) might be pointing up one aspect of aboriginal culture, that marital fidelity is not a do-or-die proposition, for entertainment or even prurient purposes--but I don't believe it. Banawe meets different men, but she's sincere in her regard and affection for them; she loves them for their different virtues (and sometimes equally varied flaws), she values what they bring to her life. If they hurt her or she hurts them or they hurt each other, it's not deliberate but part of the course of life. I might go so far as to say Banawe is pretty sophisticated about her love life (reflecting the actress' own), showing flexibility, maturity and restraint as needed (maybe not always, but when it counts). I suggest that de Leon (and Aunor) present this aspect of tribal society as an alternative to strict Christian monogamy (a monogamy practiced by many Christians, I might note, more in the breach than observance); not that one should immediately set aside one's wife (or husband) to love other women (or men), but that one should at least be aware that there are other ways of thinking about companionship than the black-and-white "till death do us part." 

It's a complicated way to live; at one point a man, exasperated, cries out to Banawe: "Who do you love more--me or him?" and she replies: "you--him--but more than either, my people." Banawe reserves the right to love not just any man but all men; reserves the right to transcend the merely sensual and strive for the wholly societal--a remarkably complex and thought-provoking thesis for what was supposed to be just another caveman drama, with a popular Filipina celebrity at its center. 

A remarkable achievement in both performance and film production, by a young woman who at the time of the film's release had not quite turned twenty-two. I imagine that if the real Banawe somehow crossed the thousand years separating her age and ours to watch this film, she'd wholeheartedly approve of what Aunor had done--not just established a long and fruitful career as daring film producer and even more amazing actress, but given an old master one last chance at creating a masterpiece.

First published in Businessworld, 5.15.14
  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, Mario O'Hara, 1980)


For Nora Aunor's birthday, a reprint from my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

A castle meant to last

Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) is the story of a boy and a girl. Oscar (Robert "Toffy" Padua) lives with his mother Onyang (theater and radio actress Metring David); Laura (Maila Marcelo) is an orphan, and suffers under stepmother Viring (Bella Flores) and her lover Romy (Mario's brother and character actor Edwin O'Hara), a drunkenly violent man who beats the girl every chance he gets. At one point, Laura confesses that she envies Oscar, who has many dreams and seems to be going somewhere; she, on the other hand, has no place to go. Oscar chides the girl, tells her he'll always take care of her, no matter what; and so their fates are sealed...

O'Hara tells this hard-luck story (from comedienne and scriptwriter Mely Tagasa) with such heartfelt simplicity and directness that the viewer is captivated. Boy befriends girl with a curse; boy and girl help each other, find solace in each other's company. Boy confronts curse, defeats it; with the implacable logic of all fairy tales, curse is lifted from the girl and transferred to the boy, who spends the rest of his youth growing up in reformatory prison.

O'Hara shows us a prison life full of realistic detail and a casual, almost unnoticed lyricism--at one point he has Oscar running through a field of flowers that (we assume) the convicts have planted and cared for over the years. Laura, now staying with Onyang, visits once in a while, and their meetings have the unforced happiness of two childhood friends seeing each other again. Then, almost unnoticed (a quick match-cut from young boy to grown man), the boy becomes Lito Lapid, one of the film's stars, who runs up to meet his visiting "sister:" Nora Aunor, the film's other star.

I described the beginning in some detail because it seems important to O'Hara's concept of the film. Kastilyong Buhangin's prologue painstakingly establishes the fairy-tale tone (perfect for defusing disbelief in a fairy-tale melodrama); presents to us the childhood traumas that shaped the characters; and introduces an all-important fatalist attitude towards destiny--how one may fight and resist it for a while, but ultimately must submit.



It's this prologue with its precisely evoked emotional texture that distracts you--distracts, misdirects, ultimately demolishes from your awareness the fact that this is actually a vanity vehicle for both Lapid and Aunor. Aunor being a singer and actress and Lapid being a stuntman turned action-star, the film is a mélange of pop-song numbers and hand-to-hand combat sequences--an odd combination for a melodrama and usually a fatal one, in that the natural reaction would be to refuse to take any of it seriously. I mean--how can you watch with straight face a cover of "Corner in the Sky" from Pippin (complete with Carpenters-style orchestration and choreography) followed by a deadly gang fight set in a meat market? Somehow you do; somehow you watch not only with straight face but with bated breath, hoping Oscar comes through the meat-market fracas okay--which is O'Hara's achievement. Like the popular song composed by George Canseco that serves as the film's theme and title, Kastilyong Buhangin dives into its emotional core and serves the story up without fuss, shot in O'Hara's uniquely cinematic style.

Aunor's Laura as the rising singer saddled with a problematic lover (think A Star is Born) gives the film its dramatic fire and substance. She's the sensible person hurting because she loves someone much less sensible; she's torn between the urge to abandon that person (the common-sense professional) and the urge to stand by her man (the little girl who still remembers her childhood savior). By this time Aunor was considered a heavyweight drama actress--she had made Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You are the Mother of Your Child, 1979) with Lino Brocka; Ikaw ay Akin (You are Mine, 1978) opposite rival Vilma Santos (Ishmael Bernal directing); and, of course, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), with O'Hara--but there's nothing heavy about her acting here; it's human-scaled and elegantly drawn, with few wasted gestures or unnecessary lines of dialogue. As with Aunor's very best performances, the intensity comes not from her line readings (possibly her weakest moment is when someone is killed, and she cries out, perhaps too theatrically, for a doctor), but from her eyes--huge, dark, eloquent, a silent film actress in a sound picture.

O'Hara, understanding this, gives her moments where she displays this quality--moments like when she suddenly ends a recording session and sits alone in the studio, all wordless glamor and mystery. Or when Oscar comes to her bedroom drunk, and makes a pass at her--Laura rejects him at first, then thinks better of it. The second example is especially fine: you see from the expression on her face that she's a proper girl who really should refuse him--but she loves him, damn it, and she's tired of being so proper. The wine, after all is said and done, must be decanted some time; just this once she wants to live dangerously.

Laura may be the dramatic spine supporting the film, but Oscar is its central consciousness, its heart. Which is amazing, as from the little I've seen of his other work, Lapid's range as an actor is strictly limited--he has always played this shy, likeable probinsyano (provincial) who comes to the big city, mainly because it's the only part he can play. And O'Hara uses this; he counts on Lapid's shyness and apparent innocence to keep the audience on his side while O'Hara sketches a darker, more complex side to the character.

In effect Oscar, who's eventually released on parole, has adjusted so well to the claustrophobic cells and strict regulations of prison life that the open spaces of the world outside gives him a kind of agoraphobia; he can't help but shrink back in fear. From whiling away the days with his convict friends, he's now expected to go back to school, get a job, become a responsible human being (expectations so daunting to us ordinary people they must seem near impossible to an ex-convict).

And Oscar can't deal with it; he resorts to drinking heavily, falls in with all kinds of dubious friends, gets into all kinds of trouble. In effect, Oscar never left prison--he's just graduated to a larger one with more complex regulations, the locks and restraints applied mainly to his mind where they can't be picked or broken. In one telling scene friends get him drunk, and he responds by giving them a floor show--the kind of gyrating dance men learn from nightclubs and strip joints. Eventually his dancing suggests something more--the release of pent-up emotions, of energies long repressed. Finally he's merely whirling in place, his arms and legs flailing about while he fruitlessly seeks escape, relief, a mammal running helplessly on a treadmill until he collapses, weeping in anger and frustration. He literally has no place to go. 

Through Oscar director O'Hara shows us that innocence is not enough--that in fact innocence will pull us out of step with the world (which is essentially corrupt), will trip us up and bring us down. O'Hara gives us a portrait of a man drowning, and surrounds him with loving, caring people (Laura, Onyang) who can only watch helplessly as he gradually chokes to death.

A word on the violence in this film--there's plenty of it, mainly because Oscar spent most of his time in prison learning (as far as I can tell) a combination of boxing, Karate, and streetfighting. The tragedy is that he might have learned too well; if he wasn't so good at defending himself, if he had been beaten up a few times early on, maybe he wouldn't be so fearless about getting himself into trouble.

As it is, the fight scenes are intricately choreographed, coherently shot and edited, and relentlessly realistic; they mark a major difference between O'Hara and his one-time collaborator, Lino Brocka. While Brocka made noir films (Jaguar, Macho Dancer, Hot Property), and song-and-drama flicks (Stardoom), he could never do action (an essential element of noir) very well--he leaves that to a fight choreographer to arrange, then photographs the results indifferently.

O'Hara is clearly more familiar with violence; he shoots it with flair and a real filmmaker's eye, and in Kastilyong Buhangin it is a major contributor to the grim visual texture. O'Hara even has a final setpiece, a riot in a prison shower room, that outdoes anything I've seen in Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire movies, looks extremely difficult to choreograph and shoot (O'Hara takes advantage of the fact that almost every one in the shower room is an accomplished stunt man to do the near-impossible--and on wet tiles, yet). The musical accompaniment to this orgy of violence is a sad, tinkling little melody, the kind likely to evoke childhood memories--as if Oscar's thoughts had gone beyond the body-blows and splashing blood, to a time when he could be both innocent and happy with the ones he loved.

Kastilyong Buhangin was a big hit, possibly one of the few times the Filipino public would find O'Hara's dark sensibilities so palatable (the song, an anthem to the transience of life, would endure through the years to become a sentimental classic). In later works like Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) O'Hara would push further into violence and brutality, almost uncaring as to whether the public would follow. They wouldn't, but these films remain as signposts marking off the forbidding territories Philippine cinema--or at least one practitioner of the art--is willing to explore.

Menzone, July 2002 


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014); Locke (Steven Knight, 2013); Bendor (Vendor, Ralston Jover, 2013)


(Warning: stories and plot twists discussed in close detail)

Striptease

Liked Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014), not the least because the creature looks like Godzilla, not some generically ugly mutant iguana in search of a hiding hole (looking at you, Devlin and Emmerich). Liked the intro, which plunks Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche in the same car toether (by way of birthday greeting she showers her husband with kisses--you the man, Mr. White!). Fact is, Cranston's storyline provides much of the pathos and emotion in the film--gives us an unsettling measure of the cost of death and loss, a lesson that puts into perspective all the death and loss that follows. When Cranston's character departs (much too early), so does all that dramatic gravitas, with his son (the blandly handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson) serving as an uncharismatic substitute (they would have done better to use Walt Jr.).

Which matters surprisingly less than you'd think. Edwards clearly loves his kaiju the way Guillermo del Toro loved his; he swathes them in mist and shadow, hiding them like so many treasured toys clutched close to his chest, allowing only the most miserly of glimpses--a claw here, a leg there--until the precisely timed moment when they are revealed in all their old-fashioned glory (no shakycam, ADHD-style editing nonsense here).

Edwards actually proves to be a remarkably supple filmmaker--he adopts the same strategy used in Jaws, when Spielberg realized that the mechanical shark wasn't working and had to indicate the creature's presence through indirect means (a stratagem used as early as Jack Arnold's The Creature From the Black Lagoon back in the '50s). 

The tactic serves another purpose. Never personally been sold on the solidity, much less realism, of digital constructs; no matter how careful the rendering or how much money they throw at all the workstations, the end result always seemed insubstantial, lightweight. This filmmaker seems to have gone a way towards solving that problem--as with Spielberg's flimsy mechanical shark, as with Arnold's clumsy scuba-diving fish suit, Edwards sells the effect by obscuring it with thick fog and even thicker dark, enveloping you with a shiver-inducing wall of sound (the nightmarish chittering of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), for one--like cockroaches the size of city blocks, moving just a few feet beneath you). 

Instead of smash-and-grab scare tactics, the slow burn; instead of monsters that dart forward like real-life predators, a stately (though not necessarily slow) and stylized glide across the nighttime landscape, maybe a fateful pause with clawed arm lifted high above the cable-supported motorway.*

* Sadly, Edwards doesn't seem to have any more idea than Christopher Nolan does on how suspension bridges really work; the cables snap and a large portion of the bridge remains up--by sheer force of script, for all I know.

David Edelstein in his review rakes the movie over coals for changing the original message (we are poisoning ourselves) to something more optimistic; I came out with a different takeaway--that Man is so feeble and unnecessary he's not even needed to deal with these kaiju (Godzilla will take care of it) and anyway he'd only screw it up (exhibit a: the aforementioned Taylor-Johnson); that if anything the Japanese and not the can-do, never-say-die Americans are more likely to understand the mysterious ways of nature. Wouldn't be surprised if American audiences stayed away in droves, or that local critics hated this (didn't happen). 

As for me--always liked a striptease, even from a nine hundred foot radioactive lizard, so long as the payoff at the end delivers. This in my opine delivered, filmmakingwise.


Close combat

Steven Knight's Locke (2013) is a nice little chamber piece with at most three elements--man, car, cellphone--that's it. Two kinds of suspense ensue: whether or not the man loses control of his car or his temper; whether or not the director (the more difficult challenge) manages to hold your attention for the full ninety minutes.

Knight does quite well, employing side windows and windshield like video screens where he can throw images, backgrounds, suggested interior states; sometimes he shoots the reflections directly, adding a third layer as we see the landscape beyond the glass, the driver, the background behind the driver. 

The sound design's nicely done too--mostly a claustrophobic cushioned silence, punctuated by road sounds and the eponymous' Locke's voice (Tom Hardy, soft-spoken and seductive with his rich Scottish brogue). Not a lot of music--but then the man is understandably in no mood for music: he's just left one of the most important engagements in his career and his wife to be at the side of a woman giving birth to his child, and he's desperately placing calls right and left, trying to keep his chaotic life together. 

When it comes to the challenge of shooting in enclosed spaces one thinks of Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Rope, and above all Rear Window, and one smiles; in addition to telling a compelling story in a confined space Hitchcock (at least with Rear Window) also manages to raise important points about privacy, and our voracious need to live life through others. Knight does well here, but he's not quite up to the level of the master, yet. 


She works hard for the money

I'd noted before that Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys gave us some of the most harrowing working conditions a Filipino youth--or any youth, for that matter--has ever experienced; with Bendor (Vendor, 2013) Jover pulls back to give us this character study of a woman who works hard selling dry merchandise by a street corner, though her real breadwinning activity is to act as front and liaison for abortions (an illegal procedure in predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines). 

Jover again uses his cinema verite style to immerse us in the retail industry that is the Quiapo Church plaza, where everything and anything is for sale, from plastic shopping bags to prayer candles to grilled skewered chicken feet (they're called adidas) to rosaries to aborfacients of dubious effectiveness (you think of Christ and the money changers at the temple, your hand just possibly itching for a leather whip). As the eponymous entrepreneur Blondie, Vivian Velez masks her legendary sensuality (not completely, hard as she may try--she's still a strikingly handsome woman) to focus with laser intensity on the bottom line--and the thin blue line; when the abortionist she works for runs afoul of the police, Blondie has to run literally for her life, everything else fallen by the wayside. 

Everything else seems to have fallen by the wayside for Jover too; his focus on his protagonist is every bit as intense as hers is for the profit margin, and you wonder ultimately what point he's trying to make--most intriguingly, what point he's trying to make with the doppelganger figure Blondie glimpses once in a while from the corner of her eye and follows, sometimes to good fortune, sometimes not (you think of the similar figure in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and wonder, darkly). 

As with a laser, by film's end (it runs for a brief seventy-five minutes) Jover's storytelling comes to a sharp and startling point, not through anything that happens but rather through something that fails to happen; not through any action but rather through unexpected and eloquent inaction. Suddenly the film snaps into focus, and you see the clever, clever design in all its entirety--the whole eloquently and wordlessly expressed in Blondie's careworn face. 


Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013)


Little big man

You might say Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant is one-third Of Mice and Men (two friends, one of them not ostensibly smart), one-third Oliver Twist (boys seduced into stealing for a modern-day Fagin) and maybe less than a third Oscar Wilde's fairy tale. Fact is, the eponymous giant's status in this picture is rather ambiguous: the title might refer to unscrupulous junkyard dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder--terrific actor, if not exactly of impressive stature); to the tall steel-and-concrete structures looming in the film's background; to any adult seeing these kids and failing to act decisively (pretty much all of them, when you think about it).

Barnard borrows from the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh (Loach's Kes being an especially vivid precursor), borrows from the kind of kitchen-sink realism Great Britain specialized in back to the '60s; one also suspects the presence of the Dardenne brothers in the gene pool--the focus on the poor and marginalized, the mostly handheld camera, the total lack of music (other than what you hear from a passing radio, or what onscreen characters sing or whistle aloud), the naturalistic acting, the often bleak urban landscape, the even bleaker weather. Barnard does make the style her own, however: once in a while she inserts what Ozu might call "pillow shots," images that bridge the transition from scene to scene--long shots of transmission pylons, transformer stations, nuclear reactor cooling towers, all often shrouded in haze like immense figures striding straight out of myth and legend. In Barnard's case her repeated use of these larger-than-life constructs (the majority of which for some reason--they're the biggest and easiest to find?--involve the power-generating industry) suggests that the story takes place in some fabled fallen kingdom, the ruins a reminder of the glory that was postwar industrial England.


Enter Arbor (Connor Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas); the two had just been kicked out of school for fighting. Good for them; they'd much rather work for Kitten, salvaging junk metal and cable copper from wherever and whenever. Barnard again makes a point, following these children as they drive a horsecart through the streets of Bradford, West Yorkshire: in this depressed economy the enterprise of choice isn't innovation or manufacture, but salvage--clambering in and out of junk piles, ripping motors out of fridges and washing machines for the coils of precious copper, on occasion stealing the wire out from under an unwary neighbor's nose. A police officer spells it out for Arbor's mother: stealing cable (and not in the digital download sense) is a criminal offense that could land them in jail. But Arbor doesn't care; school's a waste of time, bills need to be paid, and he has nothing better to do with his life.

What follows has the quiet desperation of ants crawling over a dead horse's near-clean carcass, of little creatures competing fiercely over increasingly slim pickings. The boys have to contend with police, with social workers, with their own occasionally worried parents, with property owners who care about their pilfered property, with other adults on a similar mission who wouldn't mind shoving aside a smaller competitor if it meant snatching a hunk of metal worth ten quid at Kitten's. Kitten is equally unscrupulous; when Arbor had been paid a particularly generous bounty, Kitten pulls out a few bills from Arbor's hand and calls it "tax, collected direct." Arbor still doesn't care; he has a little pocket money now, and Swifty can help pay for his family's overdue electric bill. Along the way Arbor talks yearningly of boosting power cables from the transmission pylons standing like sentinels over the Yorkshire countryside; like Wilde's titan they also hold up treasure of a value beyond dreaming, plainly visible but just that far out of the boys' reach.  

That said, the town of Bradford is not exactly Hell on earth. Barnard's film isn't as harrowing as Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados, where the Mexican slums teem with murderous adults, uncaring-to-the-point-of-perverse parents, and out-and-out child sociopaths; nor are the working conditions as bad as in Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys where kids use cheap plastic snorkels to dive for scrap metal in the sea, of all places (Jover notes that a child goes missing every other week, thanks to underwater currents, or sharks, or who knows what else). 

Interestingly, Bunuel and Jover opt for a chillier, more distant emotional tone, knowing that with material as harrowing as what they have you don't need to pump up the drama for a strong film, that in fact you need to tone it down considerably or else it all becomes too much--the audience is in more danger of breaking out in laughter than breaking down in tears. 

Barnard gives us a bleak but relatively benign milieu where the children are taken care of (albeit indifferently) and the adults do stop short of seeing their offspring as literal prey. In this not-quite-best-of-worlds, a purgatory if you like caught between extremes (with perhaps a bias towards the lower), she's free to do the vulgar thing, reach out for the melodramatic, explicitly touch our hearts.

First published on Businessworld, 5.28.14

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

H.R. Giger (1940 - 2014)



H.R. Giger, 1940 - 2014

Sadly, I never felt he found a film project that would truly wield his designs like the bio
psychomechanicasexual provocations they really are. Ridley Scott's Alien came closest, but it's basically a haunted-house movie (borrowing its one great idea from A.E. Van Vogt) that uses Giger to stage its single most atmospheric sequence (when they leave the planet, they leave much of that atmosphere behind them). It's very effective, maybe even good, but...

Species was where Giger met digital effects--some startling moments, but the whole sank from the weight of a subpar script (basically Alien disguises itself as a supermodel--or if Ripley could turn into an alien and vice-versa, ad nauseum).

Jodorowsky's Dune might have done a better job, and the sketches (see below) are awesome, but alas, it was not to be.

Paalam, Ginoong Giger; magkita nalang tayo sa kabila ng lahat.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)



On the occasion of Roberto Rossellini's May 8 birthday (I'm late, I know), a reworking and expansion of an old post (warning: story and plot twists of Stromboli, Europa '51, Journey to Italy and The Flowers of St. Francis discussed in detail)

Cinema is dead

Simplest description of Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (Viaggo in Italia, 1954): two Northern Europeans' odyssey through the mind and sensibility of a Southern European filmmaker. Second simplest description: the fracture and eventual disintegration of a middle-class marriage.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

Tight spot

Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) at eighty-one or so minutes is arguably the leanest, tautest noir ever (the competition is, heh, tight; off the top of my head I can think of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and not much else). It’s not so much the compactness that’s impressive as how much Fleischer manages to cram into the small space--aside from providing characterization for roughly eight significant characters (including two leads), the small film manages to sketch an entire milieu (the American passenger railroad system), and make some kind of statement about misleading appearances (the story turns on a trio of killers’ quest to assassinate a woman they have yet to identify).

 
Even the overall theme is initially deceptive. When the film opens, one is made to believe that this is a strict delivery job, and that all the two police officers (Charles McGraw as Det. Walter Brown, and Don Beddoe as Det. Sgt. Forbes) have to do is transport crucial witness
Mrs. Frankie Neall, widow of a mob boss (the gloriously slatternly Marie Windsor) to a California courtroom; the officers’ banter about first impressions and the five-dollar wager they make (on whether she’s going to be the standard-issue gun moll) sounds just like that, banter; later we realize it's a crucial exchange, implying a major theme.


Noir is often noted for the distinctiveness of its lighting (or relative lack of), less frequently for a sense of claustrophobia; but I submit that the latter is almost as indispensable a quality, at least in the very best examples of the genre (The web of pursuit tightening around Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M; the dingy hotel rooms, bars, filthy alleyways and sewage-choked bridges in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil). I’d go as far as to say that if you don’t have any difficulty with your breathing come story's end, then maybe the film isn’t noir enough. The majority of Narrow Margin’s hour-long-plus-change running time takes place on a train, and Fleischer is about peerless in realizing not just the locomotive’s narrow corridors and tiny compartments, but its everyday bustle—the conductors punching tickets, the dining-car waiters clearing tables, the passengers whiling away time by smoking or snacking or hanging about in the space between cars (the only privacy available to passengers, short of a sleeping compartment).

In more recent films set on trains--in more recent action films, or films period--the director often sends the camera down one passageway after another; Fleischer worked with handheld cameras in this picture, but moves his camera only for emphasis (like the breathless moment when Mrs. Neall runs for safety to her compartment). Too much movement would break the spell of extreme confinement that surrounds the film (of course the decision to do this was as much practical as it was aesthetic: the cameras then were bulkier). Fleischer often positioned his camera at or near corners looking down the corridor’s length with the unseen far corner marked by someone appearing or disappearing around it. He makes use of the right-angled network of rectilinear spaces to create the impression of a maze, with only so many twists and turns (even the room to maneuver within this maze is limited).

The style creates other incidental effects: either the gangsters approach and expand in size, suggesting greater threat, or the witness and her protector move away, their shrunken forms signifying diminished presence. There’s also this awareness that the whole contraption is in constant motion at sixty miles an hour, a difficult effect to achieve especially when the production to save money was shot mostly on fixed, unmovable sets in-studio (Fleischer ingeniously suggests unsteady movement by jiggling the cameras not the sets), the paradox again playing into the overall theme of deceitful appearances. Fleischer later increases the sense of hurtling narrative by adding a pursuit car, flying down a road parallel to the train; we constantly glimpse the car through the train’s small windows, a silent, ominously inescapable Angel of Death looming over the passengers’ destiny.




I’d go so far as to suggest that Kurosawa must have studied this before making the tour-de-force train sequence in his own noir masterpiece, High and Low, that Hitchcock must have borrowed the hiding-in-the-foldout-bed gimmick for his greatest of chase films North by Northwest, and that every other filmmaker since who has toyed with trains (Sidney Lumet in Murder on the Orient Express, Arthur Hiller in Silver Streak; Peter Yates in the 1990 remake of this picture) has tried to emulate Fleischer’s compositions, to diminishing degrees of success. Fleischer’s noir gem is I submit inimitable; feature films are no longer so brief, nor so densely conceived, nor do they make use of so limited a space so brilliantly.

6.7.09


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)


On the occasion of Welles birthday--a short piece (warning: story and plot twists discussed in detail)
 
A Touch defensive

Orson Welles' Touch of Evil has a great subject: the fall of a cop and flawed human being. Everything points to his corruption and eventual descent, including the border town's garbage-choked streets and congested canals--a vast web of concrete and asphalt, all lines converging on Captain Hank Quinlan's (Welles') corpulent carcass.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)


Courtesan au chocolat

What's a Wes Anderson film like? Describing one's a task I find both easy and difficult--easy in that I can talk till the moon goes dim, difficult in that everyone else has taken a stab at it and practically everything insightful or original has already been committed to the printed (or digital) page.

Nevertheless, three attempts--

Anderson's films are like dioramas. You notice the numerous miniatures, monomaniacally detailed (what, for example, looks like a funicular clambering up the cliff face), occasionally in motion (the ski-and-bobsled chase sequence, done in real time--when Jopling (Willem Dafoe) launches from the ski jump he flicks into the air like one of Mischa Auer's circus fleas); you also see various sets and props that look as if they were miniatures, toylike representations of themselves (the gloriously chichi Mendl's Bakery boxes, candy pink cardboard which with a pull of the ribbon assemble themselves into carrying cases, with a tug at the knot fall apart to reveal the pretty pastries inside). The people in his films--and you realize with a start that, yes, there are people in his films--often pose like diorama figures, staring straight at the camera with a helpless or resigned expression on their faces (in a way they evoke the films of Terence Davies, only Davies seems to want to suggest the yellowing photographs from an old family album, while Anderson is more interested in a stylized comedy). 

You also sense the stale air of a diorama, especially in the later titles--the sense that these brittle figures were conceived in a studio, and are too fragile to be exposed to fresh air, or see the light of day (their colors would fade!). The scent of slowly browning newspaper and dessicated insects and mothballs, that's the smell of a Wes Anderson film.

 

The films are like fish tanks. Again the same narrow depth-of-field, but you also sense a thick pane of glass (the camera lens?) blocking your view. And the creatures within! Colorful, trailing lacelike gossamer fins and languidly wavering lances and barbs, they often stare at you with huge goldfish eyes and make weak little gulping motions with their mouths. Behind stand fairy-tale castles and forests of kelp--though sometimes the water is so cloudy and full of disintegrating fish flakes you can't be completely sure. Occasionally there is a distortion in the image, either an effect of internal water currents or a flaw in the camera lens--hard to know which. 

Anderson didn't come by this look immediately--his debut feature Bottle Rocket was set in the sunlit reality of Texas--but by his second feature Rushmore, easily the most memorable moment in the film was Max Fischer's production of Heaven and Hell, a high school stage play where a toy helicopter hovered over a small-scale Vietnam jungle, and a full-scale flamethrower hosed fire on the sets. His The Royal Tenenbaums was set in a mostly realistic New York City, though the color palette looked suspiciously coordinated; in his succeeding features (The Life Aquatic with Seve Zissou; The Darjeeling Limited) the stylization gradually took over, till with The Fantastic Mr. Fox (arguably my favorite of his works) Anderson has dropped all pretenses and made a full-on stop-motion animated picture.  With Rushmore Anderson reportedly wanted "slightly heightened reality, like a Roald Dahl children's book;" by the time of Mr. Fox he was adapting Dahl directly to the big screen. 
  
If the look of his films have gradually changed, his characters--with their lances and barbs and lacelike gossamer fins trailing behind--have always been stylized, always seemed out-of-sync with the real world (arguably Bottle Rocket with its everyday Dallas, Texas setting is his weakest feature). Practicality is a sought-after quality in Anderson's films, mainly because few of his characters actually possess it--and yet even in those fantastical enclosed worlds it's a necessary virtue to have in order to survive. Hence the melancholy, the sense of loss.  


Which brings us to Grand Budapest's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes). He appears to be yet another doomed Anderson fish with his freak proudly worn on the sleeve, fins, barbs, lances and all. But he's a survivor; he thrives, ruling the small world of his hotel (hundreds of rooms and as many employees) with benevolent tyranny, extending feelers into the outside through the rich old blonde women he beds, and the invaluable help of the underground concierge network. 

It's a changing world, however--the Second World War is on its way, and fascistic thugs chase Anderson's heroes across the fairy-tale (occasionally snow-powdered) landscape. Perhaps Anderson's barbs and lances and fins have an evolutionary purpose after all, in some nostalgic past; they served Gustave well, but are near-useless in this modern industrial landscape. 

Anderson in interviews mentions yet another influential writer: Stephen Zweig, largely forgotten now, who wrote fiction set in a vanished central Europe (one of his best-known, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, was adapted into a film by both Max Ophuls and Xu Jinglei). George Prochnik, who has just written a book about Zweig, notes that Anderson's film is markedly different in tone but does manage to capture Zweig's sense of flawed--even forbidden--pleasure, consistently indulged; he also notes how the film (like Zweig) is a "celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy."
 

Gustave you might say incarnates those principles, in the way he savors elderly blonde patrons and Mendl's sugary concoctions both (one of which turns out to be hazardous to his health), and in the way he celebrates a lifestyle he knows will soon pass (he stares at the Nazi-like thugs threatening violence with the wariness of a farmer staring at storm clouds--rain would be good, but a flood would wash away crops). 

I've never really warmed to Ralph Fiennes as an actor; in the Holocaust drama Schindler's List he was a humorless thug, in Graham Greene's romantic The End of the Affair a humorless lover, in the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan a humorless comic lover. Fiennes doesn't really crack a smile in Grand Budapest but does do something better: play a man so dedicated to the idea of civilized living he's willing to risk life, limb, liberty to uphold it, doing so with the impossible energy and elan of an old-school hero (perhaps it's all those high-calorie Mendl's sweets?). Fiennes has discovered a trick Buster Keaton mastered back in the silent cinema days: focus on what you're doing with all your heart and you'll be funny anyway--never mind grins or laughs; that's for the audience to experience. 

I did promise a third stab at describing a Wes Anderson, didn't I?

The films are like Mendl's pastries. Impossibly, almost ridiculously beautiful creations on a  miniaturized scale--as if someone had taken a handful of big ideas and reduced them (like Japanese bonsai) into pocket-size knickknacks, concentrating the flavor of their charm along the way. They have the delicately crisp exteriors of the most cunning profiteroles, contain an unhealthy amount of chocolate filling (like a ganache only richer thanks to the egg yolks and sugar, and not a little bitter thanks to the chunks of semi-sweet chocolate). They're dipped in brightly-colored glaze (in matching brightly-colored containers), decorated with a totally unnecessary filigree of white chocolate, and topped with a single (acrid, not a little crunchy) cocoa bean. 

Biting into these courtesans--I imagine--must be like nipping Venus' nipple: wrong but oh so good. The teeth shatter the brittle shell, the filling floods the tongue with a mix of cream and bitter (always the bitter), the latter flavor heightened by the burnt crackle of roasted bean. 

And then the taste passes; you roll your tongue to seek surviving pockets of filling, but they've vanished, a haunted dream; you search for shards of profiterole but find soggy remainders. All that's really left is a memory of the experience: short and sweet and--of course--not a little bitter.

First published in Businessworld 4.24.14