Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah, 1970)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is lovely, despite the fast-forward comedy action, and the fact that I can't believe anyone, no matter how hard up for sex, would allow David Warner to mash their breasts. But Robards gives a beautiful performance and I think Peckinpah comes closer to pulling off an autumnal Shakespearean comedy as done by Robert Altman than I would have thought possible.

And Stella Stevens is wonderful; she's not just beautiful, but a complex, yearning woman with her own priorities and sensibilities. In a DVD interview she tells us that her greatest challenge in the role was figuring out why she falls in love with Cable; she finally decides to call it one of those "mysteries of life." I think it's her seeing how Cable, first attracted to her magnificent pair of breasts as any red-blooded male would be, gradually finds himself falling for the person behind those breasts, and she can't help but respond to his emerging awareness.

All that said, there's something to be said about Stevens nude. The sight of her backside gleaming with soapy water in the middle of the desert isn't just erotic, it's a glimpse of the impossible, a fabulous mirage. One of her other anecdotes was of how she promised herself after Cable Hogue that she and Peckinpah would work again, and she talked to Steve McQueen about doing The Getaway, whereupon McQueen told her that he saw her as competition. I can only imagine what The Getaway would have been like with McQeen and Stevens as the couple instead of cardboard cipher Ali McGraw; what's more, Stevens might have helped Peckinpah give a damn about the film, too.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, 1924

I remember being--what, fourteen? Fifteen? When I picked a library book from out of the pile that was in our room, and saw the words on the hardbound spine: A Passage to India. "What the hell is this?" I asked my Evil Twin Brother, "A travel guide?" "It's a novel," he replies. "Fiction. Actually quite good."

Twenty-five or so years and a David Lean adaptation later, I finally caught up with the novel, and yes, it's "actually quite good." Brings to mind Jean Renoir's The River and Anthony Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy in the way the foreign narrator (or storyteller) is able to evoke the sights, sounds, colors, feelings of another country, respecting its otherness at the same time he provides a fascinating view.

If I remember right, Renoir focused on British expatriates living in India, with maybe a few supporting Indian characters to round out the cast; same with Burgess, who also used a more satiric approach. Forster' novel has its share of humor (I'm thinking most of all of Dr. Godbole, who nimbly pads away with many of the scenes he's in), but there's also a magisterial confidence in the way Forster is able to inhabit the mind of Dr. Aziz (the novel's nominal protagonist), also the way he's able to sketch Aziz's lightly comical interactions with fellow Muslims (he can't relate to their passionate anti-Imperialism [at least not at first]), Hindus (he's suspicious and a bit perturbed at their odd [Godbole in particular] way of looking at things), his evolving relationship with the British (he desperately wants to be a friend, but is acutely aware of their contempt)--a remarkable achievement, really, considering how difficult the task is (Who has succeeded at something similar? Plenty of examples, I'm sure, but the first one that pops into mind is Graham Greene's whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory--made into The Fugitive, a much superior film adaptation to my mind, and by John Ford and Gabriel Figueroa, no less).

It's on its most basic level a withering account of racism in British India. Marvelous all the details Forster gets right (or as right as I can tell)--the way, for example, the British women seem more rigid in their attitudes than the men; the way the British pounce on any apparent lapse and hold it up as an example of Muslim illogic or duplicity (a late response to a summons) or even carelessness (a missing collar stud), when in truth matters are more complex; the excruciatingly funny--and pathetic--bridge parties, ostensibly (as implied by their name) meant to "bridge" the gap between Indian and British, only to emphasize the depth and breadth of it to everyone attending.

The rape trial is a comedy of horrors: the startling way the British community quickly and instantly (almost reflexively) comes together--like pioneers pulling their wagons into an embattled circle--at the news of a sexual threat; the odd detail of old Mrs. Moore's role in the alleged crime brought out, blown up, turned into local folklore (she's briefly deified as "Esmiss Esmoor"); the underplayed slapstick of having the community's most notable figures stand on the court's one-foot-tall platform with the complainant (Adel Quested, probably the only innocent involved in all this) as a show of support.

But the novel's so much more than its (accurate, acerbic) portrait of colonial era racism. It's as beautiful an evocation of a land through alien eyes (Forster's India ranks up there with Conrad's Africa, Greene's Mexico, Burgess' Malaysia) and it does something quite extraordinary, I think: where most writers would home in on a rape trial and its verdict as the novel's centerpiece and climax, Passage instead presents a number of storylines and zeroes in on the least likely thread--the friendship that develops between the accused (Dr. Aziz) and the town's school principal, Mr. Cyril Fielding. It's this friendship, more than the trial and its possible disastrous impact on Aziz (a lifetime in a British jail for rape, for starters) that provides the momentum, the pull, even the thrill that keeps one reading--not "will Aziz come through all right?" or "will Adela keep up this monstrous charade?" or "will the Indians show up those stuck-up Brits?" but "will Aziz and Fielding clear up their misunderstandings, and become friends again?"

Amazing how Forster is able to convey the effortless intimacy that can sprout between two sympathetic souls--and, conversely, how said intimacy can vanish for indefinable reasons (a misunderstanding; the steady venomous work of other, more jealous friends) only to spring up again, as unlikely as ever, at a later date. I'm tempted to say Forster's homosexuality at that time and age must have forced him to cultivate such platonic friendships, but the effortless way it speaks to many readers--the way it thrills some chord inside them, me included--makes me wonder if he didn't create something more universal.

I haven't seen Lean's film in a long time, and I do remember liking it quite a bit, but there's this crucial point where the film fails the novel, or fails to achieve the novel's greatness--the Lean of Lawrence of Arabia unable to resist the big drama scenes, and focusing on the trial, the rest of the book seemingly more like an afterthought, pinned on afterwards to forestall any accusations of infidelity to the source material. If Lean had taken the riskier route (a choice the Lean of Brief Encounter might have made), he could have followed the novel's meandering path more faithfully, tried dramatize it within the confines of a two-and-a-half or three-hour film without putting audiences to sleep (as is, I imagine the very title--can you really blame me for mistaking it for a travel book?--is not one to inspire passionate interest).

But even more than the sharp satire, lyrical evocations, delicate delineation of various relationships, there's the mysticism, the sense that Forster was constantly looking beneath and beyond the surface of things (and may have had more inside information--that's the impression I got reading the book--on the underpinnings of existence than any of us might suspect). Maybe one of my favorite moments involved Aziz trying to winkle out of Dr. Godbole the secret he suspects the man is withholding about the Marabar Caves; try as he might, though, Godbole refuses to respond, refuse even to admit he's refusing to respond, or that anything at all is the matter--as Forster puts it "the comparatively simple mind of the Mohammedan was encountering Ancient Night" (love the capitalization, the sense you get of a forbidding Hardyesque allegorical figure suddenly popping up in the midst of a sharply scribed comedy of manners). It's the slightest of omissions, a tiny little knot of nothingness--a foretaste, of course, of the Marabar Cave's mysterious echo.

That echo and Forster's evocation of it and what it means lies at the very heart not just of the novel, I suspect, but of Forster's philosophy, point of view, metaphysics. If, as someone proposed, one of the novel's main theme is "the unity of all things," and if the echo represents the most terrifying consequence of said theme (its single most terrible quality being that it reduces all sounds--from a simple clap to the recital of a beautiful poem--to one level, to the same massively lifeless roar), one wonders, perhaps even trembles, at Forster's view of things. The novel isn't all that dark, though there are passages where some characters undergo fearsome struggles, but that echo threatens to swallow everything (the satire, the setting, the extraordinary characters) into a single featureless "bo-um;" it does succeed in swallowing poor Mrs. Moore and all her idealism (of all the characters her fate is perhaps the real tragedy).

Preceding that echo is the my opinion far more disturbing (not to mention far beyond Lean's considerable powers of filmmaking to evoke) image, of a completely enclosed cavern--or not so much a cavern but a hollow egg, an empty space that "mirrors its own darkness in all directions infinitely." A mischievous reference to the central image in Forster's one science fiction story "The Machine Stops," perhaps (in that story, people are encapsulated--and enfeebled--by living all their lives in fully automated wombs, or eggs)? Or an awful summation of Foster's fatalism, his awareness of dark despair trapped inside unfeeling stone for all eternity--hell (or an unsuspected heaven) in an eggshell, in effect? I remember Kurosawa Kiyoshi's vision of the afterlife in Kairo (Pulse, 2001)--was Forster's echo and egg chamber something similar? Could--stray thought here--Kyoshi be the perfect choice to remake Forster once more on the big screen, at least when it comes to this crucial scene?

Whatever. A great novel, sure, by a great writer; I was enthralled.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ask the Dust (Robert Towne, 2006)

Ask the Dust (Robert Towne, 2006)


John Fante was a relatively unsung poet of '30s Los Angeles, his novel "Ask the Dust"--featuring Fante's alter-ego, the ambitious and insufferable Arturo Bandini--a relatively unknown but intense autobiographical rant against the City of Angel's racism and implacability, and his own self-loathing self. The book possibly influenced J.D. Salinger--his Holden Caulfield sounds like a younger, better-fed version of Bandini. Charles Bukowski--who calls Fante his "God"--describes his discovery of Fante thusly: "one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was…like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table." Michael Tolkin (who wrote "The Player") is an admirer; and writer-director Robert Towne nursed a longtime dream of adapting the book to film.

It wasn't easy. Towne had discovered Fante's work back in the early '70s, when he was researching his script for "Chinatown;" at one point, just after the first two "Godfather" films became a huge hit, Francis Ford Coppola had planned to do Fante's "Brotherhood of the Grape" using a script by Towne. Johnny Depp waited a year for Towne to get the financing together; Towne never did. Even Leonardo DiCaprio was at one point attached to the project.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995), and my favorite animated films

Discussion in a film by:

Kevin John:

Dear Tinas and Louises -

I'm starting to think I have a biological blockage preventing me from giving a rat's ass about feature-length animation. Witness:

1. I think HEAVY METAL is the worst film ever made (not that I think about such things often).

2. FRITZ THE CAT is up there too (or is that "down there?").

3. BAMBI is the most overrated film of all-time (assuming anyone still rates it highly).

4. FANTASIA follows very closely behind.

5. Why on earth anyone would opt to see AKIRA before, oh, any of Brakhage's hand painted shorts is beyond me.


7. And now I hate WHISPER OF THE HEART. When sitting through these things, I always ask myself "Why is this film animated?" And in the case of WHISPER OF THE HEART, I honestly have no clue. I suppose I should be asking the opposite of other films: "Why is, oh, RIO GRANDE not animated?" But there's a related question to ask of WHISPER: "Would this film be special were it not animated?"

And here I have more of a clue - no! Apart from some pretty scenes with that debonair kitty cat, most of the film is shot in ye olde long shot-medium long shot-medium close up-shot/reverse shot-zzzzz style. Where's the animation Hawks? Who is its Mizoguchi?

This is without mentioning the film's practically bullying sense of a life
trajectory. OK, I can sorta understand junior high schoolers feeling career pressures this early in their lives. But romance? I mean, hand-wringing, "I (already!) found my soul mate" sturm und drang kinda stuff. Sheesh - the main heteros threw themselves around almost as stormily as Maria and Marlon in LAST TANGO. Heavy, miserable stuff. Where is the magic in all this?

My ostensible question for y'all then: given the above, should I even bother with GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES and/or SPIRITED AWAY?

For what it's worth, I absolutely adored A SCANNER DARKLY. Now there's a film that needed to be animated or would have been much lesser had it not been (or had it not been animated in the way it was). Every single frame of that film gave you the feeling of a world infinitely scannable, a perfect bon bon to the keepers of various Patriot Acts. It also highlights what few resources we have at our disposal to avoid perpetual scanning. A quantum leap over the parade of know-everythings in WAKING LIFE. Adorno would have loved it.

And what's with all these people professing not to understand the thing? I didn't read the novel and I grasped the film fine. Rick's précis a few weeks back seemed like a clearly stated plot synopsis. What's not to get? It's all right there on the surface anyway.

Another favorite: THE IRON GIANT (am I hopelessly Western in thsi regard?)


The very gay and thus one-sided Kevin John

From Kevin:

In all seriousness, I found WHISPER unbearably oppressive. To my eyes/ears, it never stood back to examine these imperatives of career and, especially, love.

Whoa, hold on--examine what? Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor (not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?). (Whispers) is a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?

As for the "why is it animated?" schtick, well,
I've heard it a thousand times, and will probably hear it a thousand more--the genre of ultrarealistic anime in Japan is quite popular, and the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are in my opinion fine examples. Why so many I don't know--maybe the people who enjoy it are idiots?

The more interesting question is: why doesn't America do this sort of thing? Well, that rotoscoping bit in Bakshi's American Pop--but that's notable as the exception more than the rule, and even then it was roundly reviled. Why do Americans insist that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'

In the case of Grave, the best answer I can think of--and I don't consider it definitive, not by a long shot--is that animation was the chosen medium of this particular filmmaker. If it had been done live-action, it would not be Takahata doing it (and in fact it has--a live-action mini TV series, interesting in that the focus was more on the 'villainous' aunt's point of view), and even if he DID do it (he's done live action--documentaries, if I recall correctly), it would probably be done differently.

Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed Whispers, was animation director in Graves, by the way. Isao Takahata--who's the equal if not superior of Miyazaki--shows breathtaking range, from war drama (Graves) to domestic drama (Only Yesterday) to light family comedy (My Neighbor the Yamadas--which I prefer to Edward Yang's Yi-Yi), to epic ecological fantasy Pom Poko). I do think he's far less sentimental than Miyazaki.

Iron Giant was okay--maybe the best American animated feature in recent years. It's not on the same level of sophistication and subtlety as Studio Ghibli, though, at least in my opinion.

And as for animation in general--well, I love Dave Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, Jan Svankmajer's Faust, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Paul Grimault's The King and the Bird, Taiji Yabushita's The Orphan Brother, Takahata's Grave and Pom Poko, Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know lists are frowned upon round these parts, but someone asked; I responded.

Michael Kerpan: I prefer the work of Takahata to his junior colleague Miyazaki. And I prize the work of Yoshitoshi Abe (artist and sometimes writer) as much-- he is the visual eye behind Texhnolyze and the creator of Haibane Renmei (albeit not the director).

Michael--Haibane Renme IS intriguing--I like it that they never explain too much, and that the imagery is as surreal as it is soft-focus. Technolyze I need to see more--I could barely make it through the first episode.

Neon Genesis--oh, it's okay. Excellent mecha stuff, with a few subversive elements (the cannibalism, the outre violence, the emotional extravagance). I do think it's monumentally self-centered, and that the main character is ill conceived--more annoying than interesting, a real whiner). It does have a masterful 'clip show' (Death and Rebirth, especially the Death part--love the counterpoint with the musical sessions, as if linking what the director was doing to what the instrument players were doing--variations on a theme).

I might recommend another series,
Master Keaton (note: Keaton discussed near bottom of webpage (additional note: just inserted additonal material on succeeding episodes)), some kind of archeologist / adventurer / insurance agent who ranges all over the world, fighting crime and injustice on behalf of Lloyd's of London. Witty, sometimes very well done. Realistic animation, I'm afraid--but here we go again.

Kevin John:

> Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor(not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?)>

Well, it's always healthy to step back from such imperatives. But SINGIN'wasn't ostensibly about these relationships. It offered soooooo much more than mere possible couplings, het or homo. And it certainly wasn't about finding a soul mate (at, what, 12 years old?), a venal idea that sets up cruelly unimplementable expectations in so many dreamers, both het and homo. By contrast, WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very little else. As I stated previously, it's more than probable than I'm missing something. But so far, I haven't heard any substantial defenses of the film.

Michael Kerpan opted not to defend it due to the apparently bullying nature of my post and I respect that 100%. But, Noel, you say: "It's a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?"

It seems as if this film is impervious to criticism, positive or negative.Why can't we deconstruct light romantic comedies? (They might require it even more.) We're critics, are we not? Isn't that part of our job? (Oh and judging from IMDb and Amazon comments, you'd NEVER imagine that WHISPER was not a major film of ANY stripe. In fact, the almost unanimous euphoria greeting it makes one think Citizen Kane and Gertrud had a baby and named it WHISPER.)

I talked about all this with a friend last night who loves WHISPER and owns some Ghibli box set. He said he didn't even remember any of this soul mate hand-wringing. But he did offer that he simply loved the look of the thing; he loved marvelling at all the details which obviously (and thankfully, I'd say)tore him away from the story. Is that a sophisticated analysis? No. But at least it was something.

Well, I did step back from that question and tried to look at films from the other direction ("why isn't this film animated?") so at least grant me that.

I'll leave that to Fred Camper to answer.

Again, there's the great A SCANNER DARKLY. So I'm clearly not one of those Americans who believe "that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'" And for the record, I don't consider SCANNER very science fictiony much less fantastical. Also, THE IRON GIANT as well as all the great Fox Sunday amination series are at least as realistic as WHISPER, no?

Finally, thanx for reminding me about great feature-length animation I forgot. Big fan of Lotte Reiniger's ADVENTURES OF PRINCE AHMED as well as Svankmajer. Hoberman's right - CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE is indeed one of the ten best films of the 1990s (so was Cronenberg's CRASH...and so was SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE [big up to Brian for spilling his love for all those skyscrapers growing like jungle vines]).

Momma I'm so sorry I'm so obnoxious,
Kevin John

Michael Kerpan:

> WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very littleelse.

Not even close to true. The boy is obsessed with violins. and the girl is obsessed with finding some talent -- and she focuses on trying to write.

I don't really consider Scanner Darkly animated--rotoscoping seems more like a stylization than anything. I do like it, but I can take it with or without the rotoscoping (or whatever they call the digital equivalent)--maybe slightly better without, as I think fantastical sequences are better served by a realistic background or setting. And I was thinking the Cronenberg of Naked Lunch could have made interesting work on this film--I can hear that jazz score playing around the movie's narrative.

I agree with Michael--the soul-searching is just one element; as important is their need to excel at what they do--the boy at violin making (it wasn't in the manga from which this was adapted), the girl at writing stories.

Should we criticize lightweight romantic comedies? Sure. Should we ask them to assume weight and profundity? Hell no--then they wouldn't be what they are. Do it as an exercise, perhaps? Maybe, but where does this particular exercise get us?

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Scary movie?

(Warning: plot of this and Rosemary's Baby discussed in explicit detail).

When The Exorcist-- that sensational horror flick about a girl possessed by a demon-- first screened in the early '70s it was touted as the most frightening film ever made; for almost thirty years that reputation has held-- has, if anything, grown.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou, 2006)

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou, 2006)


I'm not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the '80s and '90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For director Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a film that announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth Generation" of mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later, with "Hong gao liang" (Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong deng long gao gao gua" (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped establish the house style of the Fifth Generation--at once old-fashioned in its embrace of melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or two to "The Postman Always Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack of cynicism (the unabashedly romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's" love scene); voluptuous in its use of colors, shapes, textures (the dyed cloth in "Ju Dou" filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering scarlet, purple, gold) yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate impact (repeated shots of the compound's imposing rectangular floor plan in "Da hong deng" emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment). The 1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling to keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result, I thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its countryside grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.

He's struggled ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu qin mu qin" (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks, as the lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died father (I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad too self-indulgent); "Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like a reworking of Charlie Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the illusion of a better life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers in comparison (you also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory overtones--all these middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind girl--in what Zhang strenuously tries to present as an innocuous situation).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976)

A Love Story

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) starts on an ominous note: artillery and fire; corpses swept up by waves onto a beach; war and destruction. A narrator tells us that the three years during the Second World War when the Japanese occupied the country were "three years when there was no God."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964)

Looking at The Fall of the Roman Empire again recently, and it really grates on me how blatantly Ridley Scott's Gladiator rips this film off--from to the menacing feel of the Northern forests (the trees look like hostile giants ready to fall upon the Roman army) in the film's first hour, to the suggestion of incestuous feelings between Commodus and his sister (a lingering caress of the face), to the one-on-one showdown between Commodus and his former general Livius.

What rankles even more is that Ridley Scott doesn't improve on what he stole; Gladiator is essentially a dumb-down, druggy, digitally dolled-up remake. Joaquin Phoenix is not Christopher Plummer (who would be hideously miscast a year after as Captain Von Trapp in the (as Plummer himself put it) boxoffice smash The Sound of Mucus); Russell Crowe is not Stephen Boyd (who replaced Charlten Heston (Fall was to be Chuck and Mann's follow-up epic after the successful El Cid) but who, judging from their work together in Ben Hur, was a finer, slyer actor than Clueless Chuck could ever be); and in no way can I imagine Connie Nielsen as being anywhere near as desirable as Sophia Loren (who in this picture shows everything she owed to pasta, thank you very much).

And Ridley Scott is no Anthony Mann. Livius and Commodus are complex, driven men who grapple not just with each other but with various principles of politics and economics. Mann shows the realpolitik struggles that go on in these circles, and it's as taxing as any physical battle.

The battles themselves are spectacular--a million digital puppets simply can't compare to a few thousand extras running around in full Roman armor, a largely virtual coliseum isn't half as impressive as a full-scale fully constructed Roman forum (said to be the largest outdoor set ever built).

Well,maybe it's not all that simple--as
Kristin Thompson's excellent review of Shilo T. McClean's book suggests, the fault may not be in digital effects, per se, but in the director's (Scott's) inability to serve up a story compelling enough to take our eye off the effects (hence our need to nitpick 'em to death). Not just script and acting, but a film style able to subordinate the effects to the storytelling, not allow them to call attention to themselves as mere objects of spectacle.

Commodus' showdown with Livius is excitingly staged and coherently shot and edited--no shaky camera shit or chop-suey editing for Mann, thank you (that he does it in aforementioned huge outdoor set--which would pose serious competition for the audience's attention--makes the accomplishment all the more impressive), plus I can't help but think Zhang Yimou borrowed the 'wall of shields' in this duel for his
Curse of the Golden Flower. And this Commodus doesn't cheat (as in stabbing his rival before the contest); he waits until he's been fatally wounded by Livius, and then gives out treacherous orders. That's villainy with a dash of honor (not much, just enough to make the mixture intriguing) for you.

And to think Gladiator won the Oscar horse race for best picture. What bullshit.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)


I hope there isn't anyone out there who still clings desperately to the belief that The Passion of the Christ isn't a hate-filled, anti-Jewish snuff movie. Despite the evidence--Gibson basing his script not on the Bible (as he claims) but on the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (allegedly Emmerich's--there's a possibility that German poet Clemens Brentano forged them), who at one point confidently wrote that Jews fed on the blood of Christian babies; despite his portraying Jews as sinister, avaricious, bloodthirsty (True, Christ, his mother, and Simon are exceptions, but in Gibson's mind, they aren't Jews--they're really early Christians)--the few cries of protest were drowned out by the hysterical wave of love shown the picture in Manila.

And then the drunk-driving incident. Oh my, how inconvenient--in vino veritas, and all that. Fanatical viewers may refuse to remove the redwood log jammed in their eyes, but the photo of Gibson grinning drunkenly from his arrest photo seems to have taken most of the wind out of their enthusiasm.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Andrew Leavold, Trash Video

Dear Mr Vera,

I hope this email finds you busy as ever and in good health.

My name is Andrew Leavold, I'm a filmmaker and writer based here in Brisbane, Australia. I'm also a huge fan of Filipino cinema, and devoured your book Critic After Dark on the plane to Manila (it was a lifesaver!).

I have just completed a Manila Tour Diary of my research trip and documentary shoot to the Philippines last November. It's a monster (at 10,000 words, one of the longest articles I've ever written), but doesn't even start to include the interview material I collected. I'm thinking of sending it to a publisher as a proposal for a much longer book. Of course, that means coming back to Manila in February to do research for Part 2...

Please let me know what you think about the sample treatment - I really value your opinion.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006), further discussions

The link I provide above leads to a post on Quiet Bubble on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Aside from quoting extensively my post (which is not a little flattering, I can tell you), it does provide Matt Zoller Seitz's interesting response, and my response to said response. I wish the discussion didn't end there, but it did go further than I ever imagined it might.

The film hasn't opened in Manila yet, which gives me a chance to develop my thoughts on the film a little bit more, hopefully.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2006)


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" (2006) is excellently directed, I think; what I'm not sure of, even when the end credits have started rolling, is exactly what it's directed at.

Is Inarritu trying to make some kind of statement about communication--the more connected we are, the more isolated we've become? I thought Kurosawa Kiyoshi in "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001), for one, has delved into that issue on a far more metaphysically and metaphorically imaginative level. Was he trying to show us the impact the United States and its citizens have on other countries--how an incident involving two American tourists can create a firestorm of social and political turmoil on one hand, and how a vast American construct (its fenced and guarded southern border with Mexico) can dash the hopes and dreams of a humble illegal immigrant on the other? If so, what's the Japanese storyline for? A tenuous link is proposed, but it's a laughably farfetched one: you come away with the somber if headscratching moral: "guns do not good presents make."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Todo Todo Teros (John Torres, 2006)

The spy who loved me

John Torres' Todo, Todo, Teros is, simply put, a lovely film. Part video collage of found footage, glued together with bits of poetry (by Joel Toledo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Torres); part espionage drama; part documentary look on the Manila of today (the sights, sounds, feel of it, the excitement, energy, jacked-up paranoia); part meditation on relationships and the impact one has on others, the film is by turns funny, disturbing, tender, erotic.