Friday, December 28, 2007
Death Proof (2007), Quentin Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse omnibus released together in the USA earlier this year, is having its solo premiere in Manila's commercial theaters. How does this slightly longer version play, so many months later?
Pretty much the same. Tarantino has added a few minutes of eye candy--Vanessa Ferlito manages to do her lap dance for Kurt Russell (who luckily isn't wearing his Escape from New York eyepatch) instead of having the entire scene written off as a 'missing reel' (the film for those that need the explanation replicates every aspect of the grindhouse theater experience including scratched prints, mismatched footage (the film's midpoint sequence is in black and white), and lost scenes). Russell later manages to caress Rosario Dawson's dangling toes while passing her car door ("He accidentally brushed against my feet. It was creepy"); I'm assuming the director is indulging his fetish for feet (many of the women wear flip-flops or walk about shoeless or prop said limbs up high at the slightest excuse, purely for our delectation) and perhaps Latina women (Russell closely studies Ferlito's lap dance, enjoys the feel of Dawson's soles).
Tarantino does his level best to reproduce '70s style cinematography, from the garish colors to the bright lighting to the racking focus practiced by Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. More anachronistic are the stealthy tracking shots that glide across rooms past people and furniture (a trademark move by a director who (presumably) likes the sense of foreboding), not to mention the numerous long takes of people speaking pages of his dialogue to each other.
The dialogue--Tarantino's talk is more or less enjoyable, but the rhythms, the way his people chat and curse have become (from the eight previous feature films I've seen) terribly familiar. "You know," says Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), "how people say 'You're okay in my book' or 'In my book, that's no good?' Well, I actually have a book. And everybody I ever meet goes in this book. And now I've met you, and you're going in the book." Rhythm and repetition and recycled twists of syntax are the tricks of his trade, the word 'book' like a regular beat to each sentence (my book, a book, this book), the word 'have' a kind of exclamation point changing the nature of the statement, referring not just to a theoretical 'book' but an actual, physical object Russell produces in his hand. Said dialogue can be funny ("I don't wear their teeth marks on my butt for nothing"), it can be chilling ("It would have been a while before you started getting scared"), but it all sounds as if it had been spoken by the same mouth, composed by the same mind. Tarantino really needs to listen more to the great variety of speech patterns and accents found in the United States at the very least, maybe throw in a foreign accent or three, maybe even a deaf-mute (maybe not; his Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 didn't talk, and she was a dull, dull girl before she was allowed to express herself more in Kill Bill Vol. 2).
I've always declared that Tarantino was a better writer than filmmaker, and perhaps a genius at casting (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; Robert Forster and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, David Carradine in Kill Bill Vol. 2)), that his default style (sinuous or static long takes) was mostly a way for him to present his dialogue properly. The first half of Death Proof doesn't do much to change my assessment--talk, talk, talk, mostly in the one bar, with maybe Ferlito's lap dance thrown in to relieve the verbiage. Midpoint in the movie, when Russell's Chevy Nova smashes into an oncoming car, the collision is all repeated slow motion and (I'm assuming) digitally enhanced carnage (a severed leg, a tire wheel literally rubbing someone's face out). The second setpiece sequence, a faceoff between Russell in a Dodge Charger and a second set of girls in a white Dodge Challenger ("Kowalski!" exclaims Tracie Thoms, recognizing the reference to Richard Serafian's great 1971 road movie Vanishing Point) is a different creature altogether; I wouldn't blame anyone for skipping the film's first hour to sit in at this far superior second one, a duel between two muscle car classics that's shot (far as I can see) entirely without computer effects or even an undercranked camera--just real cars racing at real speeds, a real stuntwoman (Bell playing herself) clinging with near-real panic to the hood of the car.
As an advertisement for feminine empowerment the movie is a dodgy proposition: we're asked to accept the dismembering of the first set of girls by Russell's Stuntman Mike as setup for the second set of girls to take vengeance, with the second set's main justification for surviving being that they don't do booze or drugs, that two of them (like Mike) are professional stuntmen, and (most importantly) that one of them (Thoms) carries a gun. An earlier exchange between the girls ("You can't get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don't." "And you can't get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.") is entirely justified by Mike's appearance on the scene ("See?" you can imagine the less skeptical in the audience pointing out to each other, "Good thing they were packing."). I won't go so far as say Tarantino is anti-gun control, only that he's simply following the anarchically amoral conventions of the genre; it follows, then, that just because an innocent biker gets brutally thrown against a roadside signboard and the girls leave one of their own (Lee, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose only crime seems to be a serious case of stupidity) behind, presumably to be raped, one shouldn't be upset; such elements are only to be expected in these kinds of pictures.
Sure, fine; whatever. Perhaps my biggest problem with this tribute to those kinds of pictures is that it seems so superfluous, at least to us Filipinos. We have grindhouse-type theaters showing grindhouse-type fare, in Cubao, in Manila; we have prints full of scratches and missing reels, moldering away in our unairconditioned warehouses. We have politically incorrect movies--brutal rapes, shameless melodramas, slipshod action vehicles, rubbery monster suits splashing about in gallons of patently faux blood (for some reason, possibly budgetary (and for all I know they've since corrected this), our fake blood is pinker than Hollywood's) of a number and variety to rival any American filmmakers' most outrageous, most perverse tastes.
Here comes Tarantino spending over thirty million dollars (over sixty if you count Robert Rodriguez's contribution) faking what we've been doing for decades and you want to ask--couldn't he just hand all that money over directly to our filmmakers instead? It would be less trouble for everyone all around.
(Published in Businessworld 12/14/07)
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
'Tis the season to overindulge--in my neck of the woods, to stuff one's self full of baked goods. I'd pretty much had them all: fudgy, green-icinged, candy-sprinkled, oatmealed-and-raisined, you name it. I've had lemon coolers and Russian Tea Cookies; I've had horrifying monstrosities of an unappetizingly green hue that resembled something from a short story by Isaac Asimov (strangely enough the creatures--actually marshmallow-and-cornflake treats that for some reason had been dyed a bright lime green--were rather appetizing). Terry--not my wife or girlfriend, just my housemate (don't ask, it's complicated)--was doing a batch for her sister; some days earlier, the sister had been wondering what to do for the cookie exchange she had agreed to join (apparently in this part of rural America such exchanges are common); I suggested lengua de gato, a crisp little treat I used to love as a child. "Everyone and their sister will be baking chocolate chip cookies--maybe oatmeal, if they're imaginative," I said. "Lengua de gato would be something they'd never seen before."
It was not to be, but we did get a box full of other people's produce out of it (one of which is the aforementioned shapeless, green-tinted treat), and a large tupperware full of Terry's leftover cookies: simple chocolate chip, oatmeal, and (simplest of all) sugar cookies that were nice and crisp--almost like a lengua. Call it consuelo de bobo (rough translation: moron's consolation), but I was happy with what I had.
Have to admit, I went totally nuts this year, and I don't mean just cookies. Went to a wine shop to buy a red (for my spaghetti sauces), a bottle of Marsala (for cream sauces and desserts), and a gift for Terry's sister's friend when I looked up at the shelf behind the cash register and spotted a familiar label. "Is that Dom Perignon?" I asked. "Yes," said the cashier." "How much?" "A hundred and forty nine dollars." "Well," I said, after picking my jaw up off the floor, "that's about the size of our holiday dinner budget, I suppose," and found myself for some weird reason actually reaching for my wallet. Before I realized what had happened, I found myself sitting in the car with not three but four bottles clinking away in the rear seat.
A few nights later, I was wondering what would go well with that bottle of Dom--cheese? Strawberries? Not bad choices, but I stumbled upon this website, and couldn't help clicking on a few links--whole duck liver: seventy-one dollars. Not that I had seventy dollars lying about to spend on just anything I wanted (and with overnight shipping--a must, considering the item--the grand total was a clean hundred dollars), but a) it's Christmas, and b) for once I could actually afford to buy it without worrying about my electricty getting cut off (again, don't ask). Reason 'a' wasn't all that simple a reason; I loathe Christmas and could care less about celebrating the damned thing...but I've spent too many years (the last five to ten, in fact) under a tight financial leash and a self-pitying funk during the holidays and thought: what the hell--if I'm expected to indulge, I might as well go all the way. I was a weak and unprincipled sinner all last week, you betcha.
The liver arrived exactly five days later (three days for processing then overnight delivery), in a styro box, sitting on cold packs; beside the pale creamy lobes was a pair of duck breasts. I suppose I should be grateful, though I don't remember breasts ever being mentioned in my order form--but never mind; they were a bother and a distraction, but I might as well use 'em. If no one at the dinner table wanted to actually try medium-rare duck liver, the breasts might actually come in handy as some kind of backup dish.
The night before Christmas I was struggling to make a fruit compote--for the liver of course (I hadn't even begun to think about the duck breast); the Dom was chilling away in the fridge. I'd downloaded a recipe, was about to pour my just-bought bottle of Marala into a bowl full of sugar and chopped fruit (peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, dried apricots, dried figs, candied ginger, mint sprigs), when I realized that the recipe called for Madeira wine. Should I just use what I bought? I don't know Marsala from Madeira from manure, which was kind of the point--I didn't feel confident enough to try a substitution. So I sent Terry out to buy a bottle which she did (patient and angelic temperament that she had); the whole watery mess went into a large gallon bowl, which in turn went into a fridge.
Terry stood behind me while I was pouring. "What's all that for?" "Oh, just a compote for the duck liver." "You're going through all that trouble just for liver?" "It's very special liver. It cost seventy dollars, plus a pair of duck breasts." That shut her up for a moment, out of sheer astonishment. "Well," she said, "I was thinking of making my egg rolls too." "Sure, why don't you do that? Just in case."
D-day dawned, and my compote was mixed one more time in early morning (I'd been mixing it every few hours the previous night). I'd also dug up an easy duck breast recipe involving dried cherry sauce, only I didn't have any dried cherries--searched high and low, nope, nothing. Was acutely aware that not a single store was open this Christmas day (actualy I also had a problem with the toasted bread that was supposed to go with the duck liver--but that was a whole other issue).
Took out my 12-inch nonstick, put the breasts in it scored-skin down for four minutes; turned them over, did it again for another four minutes, then transferred the breasts into a baking dish to finish in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes. In the nonstick pan tossed in the 'cherry sauce'--half a cup of red wine, half a cup of chicken broth, a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, salt and pepper, and instead of cherries I threw in the half cup of craisins (dried cranberries) I found hiding in someone's ziploc snack bag, reduce for eight minutes; add two tablespoons of butter to finish.
Then the scary part: with a knife kept continually moist by dipping it in running water, I cut roughly half-inch slices from the duck liver (had to be careful to keep it from breaking apart); added butter to a medium high pan (which immediately started smoking, setting off alarms), and as quickly added the duck liver. Counted to sixty, gingerly lifted the browned slices off the pan and into a serving plate--and came away with roughly eight beautifully browned (only on one side) medallions of pan-seared foie gras, one of the most luxurious foods in the world.
Laid a foie gras on one side of a plate, spooned fruit compote at the liver's one end, garnished with a mint sprig; laid a duck breast on the other side of the plate, spooned craisin sauce at the breast's other end, and yelled "COME AN' GIT IT, 'FORE I THROW IT OUT!" Each plate came with a glass of Dom Perignon.
The medallions were crispy brown one side, unbelievably creamy the other; the sweet, tart compote crunchy with fresh fruit cut through the richness nicely. The duck breast had crisped skin and a red, rare meat, and the craisin sauce complemented that perfectly, too. The Dom was dry and cold, and washed down all that decadence nicely.
Only there was something missing...the texture was there, but the flavor was lacking somehow. It was when I bit into the duck breast, feeling the crunch! of skin against teeth and the skin's strong flavor that I realized what I'd forgotten to do, the most basic step of all: add salt and pepper before you cook the meat.
"Holy--" I ran to the serving dish, sprinkled salt and pepper on the slices; put salt out on the table for everyone to use. But it was too late; the damned hundred dollar's worth of breast and liver was tastewise flat as pancakes. Hundred dollar pancakes, in effect.
Oh, I'd salvaged something from the experience--Picked up two leftover slices of foie gras, salt-and-peppered the uncooked side, seared them for a minute, then invited everyone to taste. Oohhs, and ahhs all around, this time sincere; they finally realized what it was all about. Ah, well. Maybe next year I can afford to do this again--do it right.
Just before I went to sleep some time after midnight, I felt a hankering for something to eat before I turned in. Not foie gras--that was all gone; not duck breast--that was much too rich. Something simple and homely and good.
I noticed Terry's egg rolls, sitting cold on a plate. I picked one up, dipped it in its vinegar and crushed garlic sauce, bit. The flavor of ground pork, chicken and shrimp flooded my mouth, the sweetness of pork and shrimp sharpened by the hint of soy, sesame oil, scallion, coriander leaf; and I could feel the crunch of the wonton wrapper, the crispness of the chopped water chestnuts. Not fancy, not expensive--just time-consuming and painstakingly difficult to make, a real labor of love, and the single best piece of food I tasted that night.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Eastern Promises (2007) is the story of Anna (Naomi Watts) a midwife working at a London hospital who helps a 14-year-old Russian girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) deliver her child. The young mother dies, leaving behind the infant girl and a diary; Anna, who is part Russian, adopts diary and child and sets out to discover what had happened to the mother.
Her quest leads her to the Trans-Siberian, a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Meuller-Stahl); Semyon is all grandfatherly charm, offering to translate the diary; Anna is hesitant--her uncle Stepan (Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowsky) tells her to stay away from the vory v zakone (thieves in law), the Russian mafia, of which Semyon is the apparent local leader. Part and parcel of Semyon's organizational apparatus is his chauffer-slash-foot soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whose primary assignment is guarding Semyon's alcoholically unstable son, Kiril (Vincent Cassell). Will Anna translate the diary and protect the girl? Will she develop affection for, perhaps even a bond with, Nikolai, or will Kiril (who's just dripping with suppressed desires) get to him first? Will Semyon be brought to justice, the young girl avenged?
What do you think? The script is by Steve Wright, who also wrote the screenplay to Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and like that earlier film it's concerned with European immigrants and the way they feed off of each other and struggle to survive. I wasn't that big a fan of Frears' film--thought it (thanks in no small part to Frears' verite visual style) presented a grim enough predicament, but also a solution far too pat and tidy to be believable. Likewise with his script for Eastern--it draws us into a strange world and gives us enough details that we'd be hooked, but later depends on such unlikely devices as a woman's implacable sense of justice, a man's furtive sense of obligation, another man's implausible sense of outrage (on exactly what he is or is not capable of doing) to arrive at a (to Wright's mind, anyway) satisfying denouement. Wright has his heart in its rightful place; it's just his way of getting there that feels so wrong.
Enter Cronenberg, arguably one of the stranger, less sentimental filmmakers around. If I may trot out an old argument I've been making, like fellow master of the bizarre David Lynch he has strong feelings about sex and sexuality; unlike Lynch (a boy scout of a man who believes in the innocence and corruption of the world with equal fervor), there's little that's naïve in Cronenberg; unlike Lynch, who as often as not refuses to close in on the horrific imagery (or if he does, he inserts it briefly into the big screen, like a retinal flash) he's a pornographer of horror who prefers to show every gynecological detail of his monstrosities in all their pulsating glory.
Lately he's moved away from straight horror and into the realm of straight drama--without, I submit, losing that sense of unblinking strangeness that is the hallmark of all his films. Cronenberg, gazing upon a man's face and not some outsized vaginal orifice, seems to regarded that face as if it were a vaginal orifice, and still manages to communicate his sense of alienated unease to us, sans prosthetic makeup.
Hence, the strangeness of the film. Wright wrote a a tearjerker asking us to cry for a poor little prostitute and her hard-luck life; Cronenberg took the script and turned it into a meditation on the perversities inflicted on the human body. A teenage girl stands unsteadily in a drugstore, faints in a pool of her own blood; a man is kept frozen in a freezer, thawed out with a hairdryer, has his frosty fingers snipped off; another strips naked standing in a ring of old men, in an arcane ritual evoking everything from James Woods declaring fealty to the New Flesh in Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) to Jeremy Irons in scarlet high-priest robes, ready to perform medical alchemy in Dead Ringers (1988). The naked man's body, incidentally, is covered with intricate tattoos (in the Russian mafia, tattoos not only identify a person, it tells his story--where he came from, what he's gone through, who he's affiliated with) and Cronenberg's camera gazes upon those tattoos as if they were some Ballardian message inscribed by aliens, or worse; a message waiting for us to translate it, with no guarantee at all that we will like what we read.
As the medium for that message and Cronenberg's actor of choice nowadays when it comes to internally conflicted, externally stoic protagonists, Viggo Mortensen gives a marvelous performance. It isn't just the accent, delivered with Meryl Streeplike skill; Mortenson moves differently in this film, moves like a cautious, courtly Russian who knows he has to navigate carefully through a strange city; his sense of alienation from the culture and society around him, his inability to treat anything and anyone outside of his "family" with any amount of ease (he's perhaps at his most comfortable with Kiril, his boss' sociopathic son, who happens to be in love with him) turns him into our default surrogate--our eyes, in effect--in this world made just a tad unreal by virtue of being filtered through Cronenberg's sensibilities.
Cronenberg mentions that he wanted to avoid guns in the film, and I think he's right to do so--knives are so much more precise in the kind of damage they can do to human flesh as demonstrated in his setpiece action sequence, an attempted assassination in a bathhouse. The sequence (an attempted rape by Kyril by way of Semyon?) has some of the homoerotic poetry of the sauna murder in Orson Welles' great Othello (1952), some of the complex fight choreography and stuntwork of the climactic prison shower riot in Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980--well, perhaps not as intricate as the riot; O'Hara was working with stuntman-turned-star Lito Lapid and his daredevil colleagues, and they were given carte blanche to do pretty much whatever they wanted (and on wet tiles, yet!))--some of the sense of bloodletting and violated flesh of a Cronenberg film. Not a perfect production, not by a long shot, but a fascinating, fascinating work, nevertheless.
(First published in Businessworld 12.7.07)
Friday, December 14, 2007
Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007) from a script by himself, Mara Paulina Marasigan and Nikki Torres, is his sophomore effort at filmmaking following his marvelous adaptation of Tony Perez's Sa North Diversion Road (North Diversion Road, 2005), and it's evident he knows a thing or two about filmmaking, or at least film editing. The first few minutes--images of a fall, of talking heads, of silence and foreboding--are cut together with a strong sense of drama; Marasigan has had a long career in theater, and the showman's flair gained through long experience has helped, I think. He doesn't simply escalate the intensity of the imagery; he knows when to pause, to prolong, to punch home with the right words for maximum impact.
I'd go so far as to say that "Tukso" is proof positive that Marasigan wasn't just coasting on the excellence of Perez's classic theatrical piece but possesses a talent for filmmaking all his own. Perez's play posed special challenges--how do you present a theatrical conceit (two actors playing ten different characters) on the big screen? Onstage the constant shift of story and setting kept the viewers off-balance, guessing at what's happening and what's going to happen, and this held their interest for the play's relatively short performance time; onscreen you only had to change car, costume, highway exit and it's obvious where you are, who you're with, and why. Marasigan solves this by shifting emphasis away from said conceit and relying on purely cinematic devices--employing a restless cutting style that maintained the tension, shooting (on the near-nonexistent budget these digital films usually enjoy) from as many angles as he can manage, treating the car as a little theater venue (the windshield and side windows act as surrounding proscenium arches), using stylization (special lighting and costumes and even acting styles) when necessary, and essentially leaving center stage clear for his two lead actors (John Arcilla and Marasigan's wife Irma Adlawan) to shine (not as easy a feat as you might imagine--tempting for a first-time director to try show off, demonstrate how much he's learned from his cinematographer, film textbook, DVD collection).
With Tukso the challenge is in a way even greater--how to stimulate (again with a tiny budget) visual interest in a screenplay that evokes memories of a legendary Japanese film (Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1952)). He draws from documentary and crime procedural conventions (including those used in Kurosawa's film)--the talking heads, the overlapping event (in this case, a woman leaving her lover's Range Rover), even the falling woman that opens the film. Does he succeed? Not quite, but it's a worthy effort.
Perhaps the picture's biggest problem is in allowing itself to be compared to Kurosawa's unforgettable statement on the unreliability of perception and impossibility of objective truth (this isn't even the first Filipino film to make the attempt--there's Laurice Guillen's Salome in 1981). It plays the game cleverly, in no small part thanks to Marasigan's talent as filmmaker, but doesn't play it cleverly enough--the testimony of each witness, for example, includes scenes that he or she can't possible have seen or known, or more crucially would never admit to an investigating officer of the law (Shamaine Buencamino); some clues practically scream out portent and significance (doors slowly closing on the camera lenses, implying that the people behind them are Up To No Good). It's a brave attempt but unlike, say, Brian De Palma's stylish thrillers, which gleefully invite comparisons to Hitchcock, it isn't able to present to us a fully persuasive justification for its homage--an entertaining spin on a classic tale, say, or a way of taking the original's premise a step beyond where the earlier picture was prepared to go.
All that said, the script is a clever enough construction, and in a genre that Philippine cinema rarely if ever tackles (I can't remember Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal ever doing a whodunit thriller, myself; when Mario O'Hara did try something in that area with Condemned (1984) it was I thought a well-done but rather minor element in a memorable noir vision)--kudos to Marasigan, then, for at least doing a decent execution, for keeping the whole complex plot coherent in his head, that he may transfer it with full clarity into ours.
But it's in the details of mood and tone and character that Marasigan excels--the way, say, Bal (Soliman Cruz), looks at his daughter Monica (Diana Malahay) in a manner that sends spiders crawling up your spine (Rashomon, meet Mike de Leon's in my opinion far more unsettling Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981)); or the way ambitious architect student Carlo (Sid Lucero) looks charmingly fresh-faced in one scene (when receiving praise for his work), distant and duplicitous in the next (thinking of Monica while embracing fiancé Gail (Anna Deroca)); or the way Gail's father David (the always excellent Ricky Davao) smiles while his eyes steal sidelong glances at Carlos and Monica, calculating possibilities, dangers, consequences.
Might as well add that one might accuse Marasigan of nepotism re: Ms. Adlawan for the way he seems to find her roles in his films, but the plain truth is that Ms. Adlawan is one of the best if not the best actress working in Philippine cinema today (one only has to see her brief but vivid moment as Virginia Parumog in Tikoy Aguiluz's Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, 1995), or as the suffering Perla--raped physically, then metaphorically--in Jeffrey Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001), or most impressively as half the acting coup in Marasigan's own Sa North Diversion Road). Adlawan here gives arguably the film's finest performance as Fe, the spinster who desires Emer (an also excellent Ping Medina (let's face it, the entire cast is terrific)), Monica's childhood friend (and unrequited admirer). With a few sidelong glances and a tentative way of delivering her lines, the actress effortlessly sketches for us a soul tormented by loneliness, attempting to reach out to someone incapable of seeing her as a woman, a sexual being. Tukso isn't quite as impressive as Sa North Diversion Road--easily one of the best of the Filipino digital films I've seen to date--but it's impressive enough, and it shows the growth and development of a promising filmmaker.
First published in Businessworld 12.7.07)
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Includes the list of at least two Filipino film critics--Alexis Tioseco and, heh, yours truly. My titles (in alphabetical order) below:
Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz)
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza)
We Own the Night (James Gray)
Zodiac (David Fincher)
That's just the list, with articles I wrote on each film linked when available; to read the brief comments I'd written for Sight and Sound (plus the lists of better known critics) you'll need to download the largish PDF file.
Just a minor cavil about the lists; I'd been made aware that my list should consist only of films released in 2007. Now I know the UK sometimes exhibits certain films late, and I'd actually submitted some titles hoping I can sneak in some that I saw in the Jeonju Film Festival, but nope; strictly 2007 was the reply. So I made my list accordingly.
Now that I flip over that massive (47 pages long) PDF file, I learned that people had submitted films from 2006, even works by Mikio Naruse (I love Naruse, but no way no matter how great a filmmaker he is did he make a film in 2007). The whole brouhaha made me want to raise a brow and ask: "what's going on here?"
But I'm being ungrateful. It's an honor to have been asked to make a list, and I'm proud--tickled bright pink--to be in the company of Geoff Andrew, Derek Malcolm, Adrian Martin, Olaf Moller, Tony Rayns, Brad Stevens, Alexis Tioseco. Our lists are very different, showing a vast range of taste and orientation, and that's all to the good; we need the variety.
Anyway--if I had to make a list of films I'd seen in 2007 that had possibly been released or had yet not been released in the UK in the same year (this being the rule I presume Sight and Sound is following, and that anything released in 2006 possibly qualifes), this is what it would look like (in alphabetical order):
Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters (Mamoru Oshii)
Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet) - Who knew Lumet had so much juice in him? I liked Dog Day Afternoon, I enjoyed Deathtrap (I know, I know--bite me), but this is possibly one of his best works, showing more grace and expressiveness, I think, than the entire oeuvre of the Coen brothers combined.
Bug (William Friedkin)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costas)
Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
Exiled (Johnny To)
The Go Master (Tian Zhuangzhuang)
Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (Lav Diaz)
Indio Nacional (Raya Martin)
Inland Empire (David Lynch)
No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen) - Not bad, easily one of their most entertaining. Can't take it more seriously than that, thanks to Bardem's effective but outlandish demon assassin--but it's a fun time in the movies, if your tastes go that way (and mine do, somewhat, for better or worse).
The Other Half (Ying Liang)
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
Salty Air (Alessandro Angelini)
Sweeny Todd (Tim Burton) - a triumph of emotional and visual textures, a wonderful realization by Dante Ferretti of Victorian London by way of Eddie Campbell. Johnny Depp plays Todd like a berserk Edward Scissorhands, a Dark Knight with a taste for straight razors, an Ed Wood with a real talent for mayhem; his singing is more acting than belting, a way of burrowing into his character to find the massive malevolence within.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Todo Todo Teros (John Torres)
We Own the Night (James Gray)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
Zodiac (David Fincher)
And that's all she said--unless I have a chance to see Brian de Palma's Redacted, to check out for myself what the fuss about them is all about.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Friday, December 07, 2007
To the people responsible for the picture;
This is a bad movie. No, I agree, you don't need people telling you it's bad; you need them telling you just how bad. Let me put it this way: if you churned this up and spread it in a field like any other fertilizer, nothing would grow. No self-respecting seed would sprout in manure this rank.
So how did your collective wits come up with the idea that Santa (Paul Giamatti) should have an older brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) who works as a Repo Man in Chicago, and that he should help out this holiday season? I mean, whatever you were sniffing--could you get me some? Has to be good, I think, to scramble your brains so thoroughly that this is what you managed to come up with. Yes, I know that in the Philippines turnaround time for making movies, from story idea to finished script to first commercial screening is maybe three months, four at most, and that the result is an incoherent, often unwatchable mess--what's your excuse?
Director David Dobkin gives the movie all the depth and visual flash of a Christmas card (not even a Hallmark Christmas card); the cast's acting is in two distinct styles: chew-the-scenery desperate (Vaughn, Giamatti, and Kevin Spacey as villain) or stand-about-like-mannequins clueless (Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the undeniably pretty love interests (though what a beautiful woman with an English accent is doing in Chicago as a meter maid--and why the filmmakers didn't at least try and get comic mileage out of that--I haven't the slightest clue)). The special effects are standard-issue CGI--even Tim Allen's Santa Clause franchise had more convincing effects (and I loathe those pictures); the message is standard-issue holiday crap, about feeling good about oneself and doing a bit of good for others. "Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men"--Hollywood movies champion these values with such blatant, unembarrassed hypocrisy that you want to convert to Judaism, Buddhism, Communism, Satanism, anything to get away from the mosquito whine.
There are exactly two funny jokes in the picture: Fred attending a Siblings Anonymous meeting with Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton; and Kevin Spacey's Clyde Northcut, efficiency expert, standing triumphant and about ready to put a kibosh on Christmas when Santa looks him squarely in the eye, recognizes him, and says: "I should have given you the Superman cape you asked for in 1968…"
Otherwise--zilch, nada, nothing. If comedy was an ocean and a good joke a drink of water, this picture is the far side of the moon in terms of moisture.
But really, who's to fault you filmmakers? You only follow where the money is, like hyenas to rotting meat. The real villain is the season itself, corrupted by a lust for dollars, pesos, euros, yen, yuan to pad out retail stores' end-of-the-year cash balances. Just look at the moral of the movie--is it "love thy brother?" Hell, no; it's "gift-giving is important, even if one has to force a thousand little callused hands to work all night (and are they being paid overtime?), send a traditional winter conveyance with no aerodynamically viable means of motive force whizzing all over the world blind to do it." Everyone must have a gift by Christmas morning (note the emphasis on a deadline; cash on hand, in financial terms, is always more valuable than cash promised); otherwise, Santa's shop will be deemed a failure, and closed down (ironic, considering Santa is probably the biggest, most blatant symbol of capitalism this side of McDonald's and Disney).
It's not as if the birth of Christ, which all this is allegedly about, is all that important, at least not on the Catholic calendar. Far as they're concerned, the start of the Yuletide season three weeks before Christmas (at American shopping malls the season starts after Thanksgiving; at Filipino malls it starts on the "ber" months--September, October, November) is merely the start of the Liturgical Year; it's almost incidental that this also happens to be the birth of the Church's main protagonist (and not even the actual, historical birth--that probably happened around springtime). The year's true climax, theologically speaking, is Easter, when said protagonist's mission is fulfilled ("It is accomplished!" he says in the Gospel of John).
But none of this is news, of course. I suppose I’m being tiresome, pointing out how the commemoration of a simple birth in a Middle-Eastern country (and isn't it ironic that the attention of the world is back again on that region, after all is said and done?) has grown all out of proportion into this monstrous carcass of temple-priest commercialism, bloated with gas, heaving with maggots, just stuffed full of holiday goodness and cheer. I leave you with this simple thought: rotted corpses burst, eventually, and those closest to the body, feeding on its long-dead flesh, will be inundated. You have been warned.
(First Published in Businessworld, 11/30/07)
Sunday, December 02, 2007
The Man with the Golden Palm
Earlier this week all the newspaper articles came out about a Filipino winning an award at the Cannes International Film Festival. And not just any award; he had bagged the Golden Palm, the highest honor the festival can bestow.
True, it’s for the Short Films Category…but it’s a genuine Palme d’Or, and as in the Feature Films Category, the filmmaker was up against ten other competitors from all over the world (having beat out a reported seven hundred other entries, also from all over the world, just to enter). The list of jury members is impressive, including as it does Hollywood actress Mira Sorvino (Academy Award winner for her role in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite), filmmaker Claire Denis (Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, Beau Travail), and filmmaker Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, the 1999 Palme d’Or-winning Rosetta) as jury head.
Even the list of competing films--in outline, at least--appears varied and not uninteresting. They come from all over--from England, Belgium, France, New Zealand, Brazil, Norway, Australia, Korea, and Russia. The Russian entry, Sergei Ovtcharov’s La Pomme, is an animated short featuring the tales of Efim Chestnyakov, a painter, writer, and poet; the New Zealand entry, James Cunningham’s Infection, is a digital animated film about a superhero hand with three fingers.
Raymond Red’s Anino (Shadow, 2000) is a thirteen-minute short about a photographer from the provinces (Ronnie Lazaro) wandering about the streets of Manila. He meets a man in black (John Arcilla) just outside a church, and is nearly run over by an old man driving a car (Eddie Garcia); in between, he has a quiet interlude with a child (Ronnie Pulido). People meet, then meet again; harsh words are spoken, and violence inflicted. The film ends on what may be seen as either a hopeful or ironic note--it’s up to you to decide which.
The film is beautifully shot (on 35-mm film stock) and the storytelling, while terse, is often strange. The film has an improvisatory feel; there are moments where you aren’t sure what direction the story is going to take--and, you suspect, the filmmaker doesn’t either. It doesn’t feel as if Red has lost control when this happens, though; on the contrary, it’s as if he’s confident enough to let events flow, taking him--and us--to wherever the currents out there will take us.
It’s the first Golden Palm for the Philippines and it’s quite an achievement, considering that great Filipino filmmakers like Mike De Leon, and Lino Brocka--both veterans of Cannes--have never won a Grand Prix, or even a Special Jury Prize. For a country crushed by reports of a generally depressed economy, political scandals, bank closings, kidnappings, terrorist bombings and accusations of having started the Love Bug virus, this is more than welcome news.
The irony in all this is that everyone seems to treat Red as some kind of hotshot newcomer out of nowhere when in fact he is not, far from it. He’s actually been making short films since 1982, having done two feature films, a TV movie, and countless commercials along the way.
His first short Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity, 1982) is, in its twenty-five densely packed minutes, possibly one of the strangest Filipino films ever made. Its casually freewheeling camerawork evokes the giddy freedom of silent films, when the camera wasn’t tied down by cumbersome sound equipment; its oddly angled shots and shadowy visual textures recall the German Expressionists.
It’s about a young man named Juan who suffers from crucifixion nightmares when asleep, endures the contempt of a fat man in an old office when awake, and is followed around by mysterious woman in a black veil. Later he searches for a book, "Ang Magpakailanman," which has the power to grant immortality--sort of like Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate on a smaller budget and wilder imagination. The film, which Red shot, wrote, and directed, went on to win the 1983 Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ student film competition, and is listed in the Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia on Film as one of the significant works of Philippine cinema. Not bad for a budding filmmaker only seventeen years of age.
His next few films--Kamada (Companion), Hikab (Asthma), Kabaka (Buddy), and Pelikula (Film)--were seen by British film critic Tony Rayns. Rayns (presently Asian programmer for the Vancouver film festival and consultant for Pusan), who was astonished to find in the Philippines of the mid-‘80s a thriving independent filmmaking community. He was particularly impressed with Red, calling him “a talent on a Wellesian scale; this kid of 21 can do anything--write, direct, edit, operate a camera.” Rayns compared the flavor of Red’s films to Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges--writers Red only began reading when he was told his films resembled their works.
In 1986, a collection of Red’s short films went to festivals in both Edinburgh and Hawaii (where Red met Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien); to the Berlin Festival’s prestigious Forum section and to Hong Kong in 1987; to the PIA Film Festival in Tokyo; to an eight-city tour of Germany, and a ten-city tour of United States. Along the way, his Sketches won a minor prize in the 1987 Montreal Short Film Festival, and he did a music video in 1988 called Filipino Artist in Berlin, where he filmed people spray-painting the Berlin Wall.
In 1992 he made his first feature film, Bayani, (Hero) about the Philippine revolution of 1896. Red, who proved that he was a master of the short film form, had trouble trying to tell a story in ninety minutes instead of nine; despite the film’s arresting visual style, the story felt inert, stillborn. Nevertheless, the film went to Berlin’s Forum section, then competed in the Tokyo Film Festival.
In 1993, Red made Sakay, about the famous Filipino bandit (or revolutionary, depending on how you saw him) who fought against the Americans during the Philippine-American war. Again the drama seemed lifeless, despite some arresting images.
In 1996, Red remade one of his earlier shorts, Kamada into a TV movie, about a young boarder intrigued by the couple (a man with a cough, a beautiful woman) living in the room next to him. Then he lapsed into a four-year silence (except for the occasional TV commercial), until Anino.
Some excerpts from an interview:
N: How do you feel about winning the award?
R: Overwhelmed. To be honest I didn’t expect it. Of course, on the way to Cannes I was hoping--it’s a competition, after all. But for me getting selected for the competition was already a victory. It was a foot in the door. I know in Cannes they like to show a director’s continuing work--once you get in, they’ll be interested in inviting you in the future.
Also, with the invitation--and I guess, with the win--I can now try selling the film. I spent P150,000 ($4,000) of my own money to make Anino, though if you put a price to everything the film probably cost P400,000 ($10,000).
N: How did you figure all that? What did you spend for, and what was given to you?
R: Fuji Films donated negatives, and print stock. LVN Studios gave me a discounted price on developing the negatives and Roadrunner gave me free postproduction use--negative cutting, sound mixing, everything, though I had to pay for labor. The P150,000 was spent on transport, food, rental. Filmex provided the major equipment--the lights, the cameras.
A lot of the people worked for free--only the crew and set men were paid. The assistant director, the production manager, and the cast were all volunteers.
N: The cast? You mean Eddie Garcia, one of our biggest stars? John Arcilla? Ronnie Lazaro? You just asked them to work for you and they did?
R: Don’t forget Hermie Concepcion--she was the old woman in the church.
N: How about the boy?
R: Ronnie Pulido was given money, gifts, clothes. He’s really a street boy from Malate. What you saw in the film was exactly what he wore in real life--dirty shorts, no shirt, barefoot all the time.
N: What do you think this will mean for Filipino filmmakers?
R: I’m hoping as I said in my speech--which wasn’t prepared, I was caught completely off guard--that this would be a new sign of hope for all of us. That this would prove the Filipino filmmaker is as good as any in the world.
N: What do you mean you weren’t prepared?
R: The other shorts were very, very good. The French film, for example, was really outstanding. Then there was this New Zealand film--
N: You mean Infection, the digital animation--
R: That one was technically superior. I told myself, if the judges went by technical standards, the New Zealand film should win. Dolby sound, perfect prints, the color grading was outstanding. At least I could say of my own film that it achieved a certain level of quality that won’t distract the viewers.
N: What gave you the idea for the film?
R: I’ve had the story of the film in my mind for some time. I had the idea of someone--a laborer, I was thinking--wandering the city, and that this would show the gap between rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, etcetera. I also had the idea of a rich man confronting a poor man, what they would do, and a scene where the hero confronts a strange man in a church.
Then in 1999 I went to the Pusan Festival, and saw the new cinema in Korea. I also saw how the Koreans watched Lino Brocka’s Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) and how strongly they reacted, and I said to myself “I wish I could move an audience like that.”
Then I went to the Shang Yang Festival in China, where I met Zhang Yimou again (we had met twice before, in Berlin, 1987, and Rotterdam, 1993). His Not One Less inspired me in my approach, especially the camerawork--a lot of telephoto shots, a lot of semi-documentary stolen shot, a lot of realism. I thought--that’s how to do it. Shoot my film in the streets of Manila, with the actors interacting with real people. Improvise the dialogue. Even the scene with John and Ronnie in church was improvised--I fed them a few basic ideas, then left them to develop it.
N: What was it like trying to make this film?
R: I had a very hard time. I was producing the film and directing it. I was doing a lot of the work myself--making the props, putting on blood makeup on Ronnie, trying to figure out where the cast and crew will eat. I don’t mean no one else worked hard. Bong Salaveria the assistant director was a big, big help--he did the blocking, he talked to the actors, among other things. Most of the people working on film were filmmakers--Ruben did sound, he did a good job using primitive equipment, and him and several others all pitched in for free. It was difficult but fun and fulfilling--the first film for a long time where I had total freedom.
I have to admit this--I didn’t have total freedom in Bayani, Sakay, and Kamada. You would think I was free in Bayani since it was funded by a grant--but even there I struggled with different sides as to what to do. There was pressure from the producer, and from ZDF (2nd German Television). They were thinking of a TV movie to be shown on German TV, I was thinking of a Filipino film. Pressure from local filmmakers--after all, this is my first feature. Can I measure up?
Bayani didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I was also a co-producer, so I couldn’t concentrate on what I wanted to do as a director. My biggest mistake was in doing something too ambitious for budget I had--$80,000 for a period film!
It happened again in Sakay” The producers promised freedom, but they also applied pressure. They were trying to help me, but the original timetable was for one year--a year to do additional research, to write the script. We started in early 1993 with a target date of December 1993, or the Metro Manila Film Festival. Midway, it was suddenly announced that we were committed to a June opening, to catch the Manila Film Festival instead! It was a traumatic experience. I haven’t been able to do a feature film since.
N: What about the TV movie?
R: Kamada was an attempt to do something creative. At the same time it was TV. The whole idea was half-baked--you can’t do everything you wanted, not for TV. A TV movie has to be cut up into segments, has to adjust, there is a formula to making a TV movie. I totally disregarded that at first, and it meant trouble later.
But when it finally came out, I thought it wasn’t too bad. It was refreshing to see something different like that broadcasted on TV.
But Kamada wasn’t supposed to be the only remake of one of my short films; Sketches for the Sky was a first draft for a full-length film, Ang Himpapawid (The Wind). That was the original project I submitted and got a grant for.
It was going to be about these two men in the Philippine-American War, and they are trying to build the first flying machine. They don’t care about the war; all they care about is flying. Then they read about the Wright brothers, lose heart, give up, and end up helping in the war anyway.
N: That would have been a great film to do.
R: Unfortunately, I was in Berlin writing the screenplay and missing the Philippines, so I started to read some history books, and became interested in the Philippine Revolution. So I asked if I could do that instead, and I ended up doing Bayani. It might have been the biggest mistake of my life…
N: Is Anino your favorite among your works?
R: Anino is one of the films I enjoyed doing, and where I had total control. The people really believed in what I was doing, and totally supported me.
N: And your next project is…?
R: Makapili was written with my writing collaborator Ian Victoriano--he did Sakay and Kamada--on a Huber Bals grant which the Rotterdam Festival awarded to us in 1993. That was seven years ago.
I presented GMA Studios with a storyline; I didn’t want to give them a script until I got co-producer credits and full creative control. Unusual, but it’s been done in Europe. Derek Jarman does it all the time, just pitch a proposal to Channel 4. They can see that I don’t do it for the money. Trust me and my treatment, and I’ll show the screenplay.
It’s more or less finished, but still evolving. Producers want to see screenplay, then commit. I want commitment, before I show them the screenplay. A chicken and egg thing. I may be dreaming, but the changes I will do are not costly. I want to change lines, do improvisation. One of the reasons I did Anino was to prove that it could be done. Using Eddie Garcia proved it could be done with a major actor. He improvised most of his dialogue.
N: I noticed something common in all your films. In Ang Magpakailanman, there was a playfulness, a willingness to toy with the medium. The way you shot everything in fast motion, for example…
R: Ang Magpakailanman was my way of emulating a silent movie. I didn’t have black and white super 8 film, so the next best thing was to tint the print and show it in speeded-up motion to get that old-fashioned, silent movie effect.
Essentially, I was looking from the point of view of a filmmaker from the 1920s trying to make a futuristic comedy. Hence the look of Ang Magpakailanman.
N: It’s that inventiveness of Ang Magpakailanman and of your early shorts that I miss in your feature films.
R: Bayani was half-baked. Not that I don’t like the film, but it was the result of my compromising everything until everyone was happy. I should have stuck to what I wanted. You know what Bayani was really supposed to look like? Something like Woody Allen’s Zelig, a sort of fake documentary. You saw some of that in Bayani’s beginning--stills, voiceovers, some black and white film used sparingly--but I should have gone all the way. If I had gone all the way, I would have been ahead of Forrest Gump.
Sakay was even worse--I was trying to do a straight historical epic, a Gandhi.
N: I see Anino as a return to your more imaginative films, but with a place in it for social realism a la Lino Brocka or Zhang Yimou.
R: Makapili will have something like that. Generally, it’s a straightforward narrative. There is a story, characters developing, intertwining. But there will be elements of the absurd, surrealism, playfulness, a bit of dark humor, deadpan humor. Everything will be real but at the same time frightening. There will be situations that will make people laugh, but laugh out of fear.
We actually want historical accuracy---which is why we are doing so much research. We want the sense of ordinary people caught up in war, set during the Japanese occupation, but we won’t show too much of the Japanese, just the conflict among the Filipinos themselves. This film won’t be about Japanese atrocities; it will be about how war destroys ordinary people, how it drives them into betraying others.
The film will play with the myth of the Makapili that is popular today. Ask any old man today about them, and the reply you will get is that they were informers who wore bayongs--woven bags--over their heads to prevent identification. Man with a bayong on his head, going around, betraying people to the Japanese.
Actually, the Makapili was a movement formed by officers of General Aguinaldo’s former army--colonels, generals and all kinds of officers, so angry with the occupying Americans that they sided with the Japanese. They actually believed the Japanese’ Co-Prosperity Sphere. They felt they were right.
The Makapili were not mere traitors or informers. They were a formal movement. They didn’t wear bayongs over their heads--they were known, the people knew them, they went up to people and pointed to them directly, without hiding. They were proud of what they did, and you can see it in the root words that formed their name, the “Makapilis”--the “Makabayang Pilipinos” (Filipino Nationalists). The film won’t try justify what they did, but it will try and show why they felt justified in what they did.
N: I hope you will be casting unknowns. It doesn’t matter to the international market if the actors are known Filipino stars or not, and you can save on the salaries.
R: That’s another reason why I made Anino--to prove that stars didn’t matter. Ronnie Lazaro isn’t a star, yet he was the one pointed out the most in the film--I talked to some Koreans who found him very charismatic, with expressive eyes. Luc Dardenne, the jury head, came up to Ronnie and told him that he looked very beautiful on the big screen.
N: Any other interesting reactions to Anino?
R: Oh yes. Robert Mallengrau from Belgium came to me immediately after the screening and said he loved the film, it was the best of the lot, but that he may be biased about the Philippines. Some of the festival staff cried when they saw the preview tape--said they felt for Ronnie and the street children. They also said that when they saw it on the big screen, they cried again.
N: And the lesson learned from this entire exercise was…?
R: You have to do what you want; that’s all. Nothing less will do. I forgot that when I did Bayani and Sakay, and I learned that again when I did Anino. You have to do what you want to do. I wanted Eddie Garcia, and I refused to settle for anyone less. I didn’t know him, never met him before. I called him up, said I wanted to work with him, but couldn’t pay him. He said yes.
Likewise with Cannes. I knew it was unlikely, but I called up the website, submitted my application there, faxed in the other requirements, and kept calling long distance to follow up. I spent for the English subtitled video, sent it by DHL, kept faxing. I spent for the subtitling, and for sending the print.
N: That’s unusual; most festivals will pay for the shipping of prints when they’ve been invited.
R: Most festivals, yes, but not Cannes. You have to ship it to them, and they are very strict with deadlines--you have to follow them exactly. But they will pay to ship it back to you. At least they will do that much for you.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Dear Messrs. Askarieh, Besson, and Gens;
Congratulations on your new film Hitman (2007); it's very handsomely made, and it looks great--you can see every quart of arterial blood and every fleck of brain matter fly across the room and spatter on the faces of all concerned (that's how it is in real life, you know). I love how the bullets make holes in people's heads, like a pumpkin being smashed (compliments to the sound effects crew for the way they capture not only the sound of spraying blood, but the stickiness of it--the way the droplets splash across the skin, slowly expand, stick there (all suggested by sound!)). And I love how, in that scene with Belicoff's brother, you had my character spot the fact that every gun on that table is fake--I agree with you, if that was really me, I would have seen that right off. You've totally captured every element in my life, exactly the way I live it; except for a few details here and there, I might even call this a documentary, or at least a docudrama. Every shot, every explosion has the ring of undeniable truth.
The man playing me, Timothy Olyphant, is quite good, if not quite as handsome; he captures my complete and utter determination not to show even a trace or suggestion of emotion. In our training, of course, we're given numbers instead of names (hence my number: '47'); more, we're taught to ignore any and all matters irrelevant to our training: fear, affection, anger, passion, humor. Even the one joke I make--what was that again? Oh yes--"I have a gag for annoying little girls." Did that joke seem lame, a limping target for my traveling companion to effortlessly shoot down? Yes, but that doesn't matter. We are not trained to tell jokes; if forced, we will improvise, but only if forced. Saying something actually interesting, much less funny, is irrelevant.
Perhaps the only scene I disliked is where that annoying little girl (Olga Kurylenko) climbed on top of my character in bed. The insolence of that girl, trying to arouse me! And her lines--did she sleep with the writer, to be given all kinds of "funny" replies to my questions? That scene is what I think people are supposed to take as comical, and I don't appreciate that. It is better off cut, and I urge you gentlemen to have it removed from the picture. It should be dipped in gasoline and lit on fire; it should be sliced into inch-long pieces, dropped in a blender, and shredded. Is my dislike for the scene irrational? I don't think so--it makes me look like a fool.
I remember little girls like her; I despise them, with their soft curves and pouting lips and huge eyes and needy whine; they are more trouble than they are worth. I like hard things, smooth and unfeeling things; why do you think I'm more eager to insert my finger into a trigger guard than I am into nasty little girls?
Perhaps the worse thing about the picture is the suggestion that I actually came to care for her. Me? The best in the business, with an all-time high body count, caring for someone so weak and contemptible? The picture is so close to being a masterpiece, gentlemen, it's so close to being an honest and undistorted account in the life of an actual hitman, it's a pity that you don't make it completely honest, completely undistorted. Little flaws, gentlemen, but the effect they have on me! I almost want to line you all up in a row, handcuffed to your chairs, myself with an automatic pistol in hand standing before you…
Apologies; that was uncalled for. I'd like to point out that the action is largely well done, only Mr. Gens cuts too often in the close combat sequences to see my blocks and strikes clearly, not to mention my stances (Balance, as anyone well versed in the martial arts knows, is all; and balance always comes from a good stance, good footwork. An action filmmaker who gives due attention to the fighters' footwork is an action filmmaker who knows what he's doing). I love it that they give due emphasis to the different countries in which I have operated in the past--Turkey, Russia, those little dictatorships in Africa (But wait--no China, Vietnam, the Philippines? Didn't the budget allow for it?).
As for the rest of the cast, I congratulate them all; they died handsomely. It's as if their faces and bodies were blank canvases against which I can wield my paintbrush, creating masterpieces. I like to think that, humble skill that I possess, I do have something of the creative spirit in me; I like to think that somehow, in some way, I can be considered an artist.
Of my co-stars, I would especially like to single out Mr. Dougray Scott as Mr. Whittier, the Interpol officer assigned to arrest me. Mr. Scott is a fine actor, and a wonderful boon companion; I would have much rather spent more screen time in his presence, with his warm eyes and soft hands that look at me so intensely (and believe me, I return the gaze!), than I do with that irritating hussy. I remember insisting that you gentlemen write in some kind of wrestling scene between me and Mr. Scott; I find it strange that you would be so unenthusiastic about that--I'm sure it wouldn't have hurt the boxoffice any.
Still--details, details! This production is, due respect to Mr. Besson aside, much preferable I think to his Leon (1994) with its equally implacable assassin (Jean Reno) saddled with yet another whiny little slut (I did not like the ending so much, which is redolent of what I believe is called "irony"--if I had asked for as much iron, I would have it planted firmly between my enemies' eyes). It is, I believe, much preferable to the supposedly great hitmen films of the past--Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967), whose body count hardly compares to mine; Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), which is tainted too much with that even weirder element called "black comedy;" Seijun Suzuki's Koroshi no rakuin (Branded to Kill 1967) and Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera 2001) which frankly I just didn't understand. No, this picture is all too easy to understand--loud, wet, uncomplicated, boasting of an astronomical body count. My congratulations to all--I predict it will make millions!
Your humble servant:
(First published in Businessworld, 11.23.07)
Monday, November 19, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
Yojimbo (1961)—about a wandering super-samurai (the late Toshiro Mifune) who cleans up a lawless town—is supposed to be Kurosawa’s comic masterpiece, but it’s easy to overlook that fact. The film is overwhelmingly grim, dealing as it does with violence, murder, and wholesale genocide. In the opening sequences, Kurosawa swiftly establishes a mood of threat and sudden danger—a dog walks by with a human hand in its jaws; minutes later someone’s entire forearm is chopped off, and presumably the same dog will carry away the even bigger trophy. The only clues Kurosawa allows in the picture suggesting that the whole thing is really a comedy are the bouncy, sardonic music and the editing, the kind of precisely timed cutting you find in slapstick, or in great silent comedy.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Things change; fact of life. I've been fond of Coppola's gangster epic since I was but eight years old, catching snatches of the Cuba sequence in my grandfather's private viewing screen (long story), seeing part 1 several years later and revisiting both every year since. I grew up practically developing my sense of cinema on those pictures, learning about theme and character, the use of music, cinematography, location and design to create a sensibility, a distinct vision.
And things change; sensibilities change. The virtues of Coppola's first two films have become a touch too familiar (the third I’m learning to appreciate a bit more for the ugly yet not entirely charmless duckling that it is); the famed line "leave the gun; take the canoli" has become almost tiresome in its ubiquity--instead of being a sharp line of dialogue it's become the punchline to everything from Godfather jokes to parodies on TV (and in fact Anthony Bourdain staged one such parody in his travel show not too long ago). Things change, and while the films will hopefully remain enjoyable pop spectacles, full of iconic images (rough sex at weddings; horse heads in bedrooms; handguns wrapped in towels; epic massacre sequences) it's about time, I feel, that I found something new to admire.
Or, rather, I've found something new and developed this little theory to explain my disenchantment with the former (though to be honest I've been growing less and less fond of them for years), my fascination with the latter. James Gray's We Own the Night (2007) is arguably not just the best American film of the year so far but the best American crime thriller in several (aside from Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006) his massive and beautifully brooding reinterpretation of the hit '80s cop show). It traces the trajectory of two brothers, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) as they look over and cross each other's boundaries in 1988 Brooklyn. Joseph is a newly promoted officer in the NYPD's narcotics department; Bobby is the manager of a hot new Brooklyn nightspot Caribe. Both are up-and-comers in their respective worlds, with Joseph being advised by his father, Chief of Police Burt Grusinsky (a fine-as-ever Robert Duvall) and Bobby being the protégé and confidant of Caribe owner Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). What gets things rolling is Marat's nephew Vadim Nehzinski (Alex Veadov)--word is that he's about to land a huge shipload of drugs (actual type is never really specified, but from all the sniffing I assume it's cocaine), where or when nobody knows. Joseph asks Bobby: has he heard anything about it and if he has, is he willing to help?
It's no accident that Bobby and Joseph's surnames don't match, by the way; Bobby has taken on his mother's. He jokes about it, saying "Grusinsky" is too hard for most people to pronounce, but the real reason, presumably, is that Bobby refuses to be tied to his family, especially to his father Burt (the other reason may be that in the coke-snorting circles in which he circulates, having familial connections with the police may be a liability). In a later scene Joseph professes to feeling jealous that Bobby has pretty much been able to do what he pleases (not without clashing with Grusinsky senior), while he, the prodigal's brother, mostly obeyed their father's wishes. Joseph's words seem ironic, considering what follows.
We're introduced to Bobby's world first, with an eye-popping Freudian scenario, if Freud edited Penthouse Magazine: Amada (the luscious Eva Mendes) is curled up in a gold-upholstered couch, in a kind of erotic haze; on the soundtrack thumps out (what else?) Blondie's Heart of Glass. Bobby makes his entrance in the distinct Gray manner (striding towards the camera, the doorway framing him from behind, the ambient light growing stronger at his approach). He bends down to his feline pet curled up in her golden womb (a mother figure and object of desire in one fabulous package) and caresses her between the legs, slipping his fingers under her black panties; a nipple pops out, startling in its perfection, and he applies his lips to it with infantile greed.
Admittedly this type of film and its emphasis on family and relationships (and, of course, sex and violence) could never be made without the huge success of Coppola's Godfather pictures, and in fact the general shape of Gray's narrative shows striking correspondences with the earlier films: the way one brother stands outside of family affairs (Bobby is the film's Michael Corleone); the way a near-fatal shooting in the first third of the film crystallizes the crisis; the way Bobby transforms during said crisis from amoral hedonist to loyal family member, and is put through a harrowing test; even the way he is at one point pulled aside and told "I didn't want all this for you…").
The similarities are fascinating, but so are the differences. Where Coppola drenches his films in rich gold hues (I like to say his cinematographer Gordon Willis must have poured extra-virgin olive oil on the lenses), Gray adopts a chillier palette: the Grusinsky home, the various apartments and motel rooms, the police station, the streets themselves seem dim, autumnal, even (appropriately) a varied shade of concrete gray (only Marat is rich enough to build his house with dark wooden floors and walls)). The net effect in Coppola's first Godfather film was to lead some critics into accusing him of glamorizing the Mafia, to which he responded in the sequel with a cooler scheme of Nevada stone (Coppola reserved his warmer colors for Cuba, Sicily, and early New York). Gray's film is more strikingly urban: nightclubs, alleys, underpasses and abandoned warehouses (a climax in a field of tall grasses is the marked exception); where Coppola's film is locked away in the past, encased like a fly in amber so to speak, Gray's is here and now (even if it's a 1988 kind of 'here and now').
And while Coppola's film seems like the very height of American cinematic art (at least compared to recent gangster flicks), one sometimes has to remember that it was based on a bestseller written over thirty years ago, and that the adaptation had every expectation of being a commercial hit (that Coppola had turned pulp entertainment into a family saga was, at least to popular perception, icing on a cake). It's Coppola's telling, but of novelist Mario Puzo's story; Coppola's pacing and camerawork, but Puzo's structure and themes (one goal Coppola declared, coming out of the success of the films, was to try develop a more personal cinema). Gray creates out of whole cloth, and his storytelling is, arguably, even less commercial than Coppola's--aside from the jawdropping opening sequence it's a long slog till the first big sequence, the police raid on Bobby's nightclub, with its swirling, panicking crowds and its horrific touch of a bottle of charcoal poured into someone's mouth (it evokes a similarly repulsive scene in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1969)).
A long wait, that is, unless you manage to notice the grace notes Gray scatters throughout the film--the little pirouette Marat's wife makes, for example, as she and Bobby waltz into the dining room to meet her husband, or the kiss Bobby gives Marat in the forehead as he takes joyous leave of him (a new nightclub was to be established, possibly in Manhattan, and Bobby was to take charge), or the wary look Joseph and Burt give each other when Bobby arrives at a policeman's function with Amada in tow. There's the way Amada and Bobby make love to each other, lost together in their little world (hence the cocoon-like nature of the couch), and how later Amada remains at Bobby's side no matter how reduced his circumstance, wordlessly showing that her passion for him is more than just sexual, and how even this brave face changes, and the passion dies. Amada (and Mendes's interpretation of her--perhaps the capstone of her career) is I think a gem of a creation in a constellation of fine creations--a woman in a film where women are often shoved aside to the margins, but who stubbornly refuses to remain a cipher, who refuses to completely knuckle under and become just another faceless trophy-wife.
Gray is a master of the little detail that says pages about the character; he often frames said characters in medium distance from waist up, close enough (but not too close) to catch their gestures and expressions as they reveal themselves to us. The pleasures he gives us are so subtle it's almost an intellectual exercise trying to pick them out (which is probably why all three of his films to date have not grossed much more than thirty million dollars); better yet to lean back, relax, and sense those pleasures from the back of one's mind (maybe come back for a second viewing, for a better glimpse of the marginalia).
Then there's the car chase in the rain, a sequence that takes off from a similar chase in William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) but swiftly and spectacularly becomes its own creature--Gray knows how to work against the material, to use not heavy metal music or even heavier metal sound effects Michael Bay-style but instead a heavy absence of sound, the kind of awful silence you hear in the stretched-out seconds before a car hits (in the background Gray lays on a metallic thumping beat that somehow manages to sound both regular (like a stamping machine) and out-of-control (like a runaway heartbeat)). That plus judicious use of the handheld camera, so remarkably absent throughout the rest of the film; unlike in, say, Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne movies where the camera is whipped about indiscriminately (hence, less effectively), here the trembling lens suggest Bobby's chaotic state of mind, evoke his utter helplessness in the face of matters going horrifyingly wrong.
Then there's theme and content, to which Gray in a recent interview attaches prime importance (he can attach all the importance to it that he wants; to my mind he may be a tad confused about priorities, but remains every bit as good a stylist as he is a narrative storyteller). We Own The Night, Gray tells us, is the capstone in a trilogy--the first, Little Odessa (1994) was about the Russian Mafia; the second, The Yards (2000) about corruption in the city government; the third, this one, deals with the police. It's been noted that the film has a more clearly demarcated line between good and evil, which is partly true; the police aren't corrupt, they have an antagonistic rather than ambivalent relationship with the Russian Mafia--but corruption isn't what the film's about. This is basically Bobby Green's story, his trajectory from a kind of sensual innocence (that womblike gold couch) to a state of moral awareness stranded in a gray limbo. Bobby eventually decides he wants to do the right thing, but it costs him, the way it cost his brother and father, and Gray expresses this through the visual scheme of his film (from warm gold to tomblike cold). He gets glimpses of that paradise here, there--that's why, I think, the field of golden grass was so tempting, and why he caught a glimpse of Amada in an audience--he keeps longing for it, but it's lost, lost, lost. If Gray's previous film The Yards begins with Phoenix and Wahlberg saying "I love you;" "I love you too"--an expression of sibling solidarity that the film proceeds to break down, in We Own the Night the declaration of love comes at the end of the film--a kind of consolation prize they present to each other, in the face of the desolation that is their lives. If we believe in Bobby's success, if we at all believe in his redemption, it's because we believe in the width and depth and range (more, Gray makes us believe it) of the price he had to pay to achieve that redemption.
(First published in Businessworld, 11/9/07)