Friday, August 31, 2007

Insiang, Tinimbang on CineFilipino's pre-order!

New details: two of Lino Brocka's best works, Insiang (1976) and Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) are available for pre-order, soon to be out in September (hopefully, hopefully).

They're some of the best that Philippine cinema has to offer, folks; you want an introduction, you could do worse than start from the top.

Pa Siyam (Erik Matti, 2004)


Erik Matti is a talented and commercially successful filmmaker, but coherent storytelling isn't exactly his strong suit. He likes style, lots of it, slathered heavily over flimsy characters and nonsensical plots, filling up the space usually reserved for a film's themes and ideas. He likes to borrow, magpie-like, images, moods and colors from a wide range of filmmakers--Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, San Miguel Beer commercials--tossing them in without rhyme or reason, to ferment in his celluloid chamber-pots. It would be nice to think he's aware of how hilariously his films play onscreen, but no; he's been heard to declare with the utmost solemnity about this or that oeuvre that he's consciously tried to emulate the works of a master like Ishmael Bernal, only to say "fuck it, I'm going to do things my way." Which he does, with inimitable results. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007), Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007)

Stardust is not (to get that out of the way) great fantasy filmmaking. Too much CGI for my taste, some of the action scenes seem clearly modeled after the Peter Jackson house style (lots of circling shots and mismatched landscapes), and the music could be more original. I hear Gilliam was first offered this, and I wish he did take it; for first half hour I kept thinking he could do wonders with the material. But then 1) Gilliam's done this before, and 2) I can see where it doesn't present too many sides to capture his interest.

Then I learn it's Neil Gaiman, which explains a lot. The script has a macabre humor all its own (seven fratricidal brothers; three witches out to cut out and eat a girl's heart; a sky pirate with a deep, dark secret), and the kind of inventive, tightly paced plotting that betrays Gaiman's comic-book background (writing for comics isn't completely without its virtues--Alfred Bester learned how to tell a story this way, for one). The cast certainly agrees, because they throw body and soul into the project (at the very least it's obvious they're having a great time). Easily outdoes the past two Harry Potter movies in the enchantment (the emotional kind) department.

Herzog's Rescue Dawn--did someone say The Bourne Ultimatum was the best action film of the year, of several years? Beg to differ; there's this film, and Michael Mann's Miami Vice, just off the top of my head.
This is more of an escape picture than an action film, I suppose, but the pleasure here is in Herzog being granted the giant toy train set that's a Hollywood production, and seeing how far he runs with it. I think he can play with the best of them--unlike, say, Greengrass, he knows when to do a shaky-cam (immersive shots where the camera takes on the character's point of view, emphasizing his helplessness) and when to go for smooth crane shots (objective POV, where the point is to create suspense, or a sense of approaching menace). The plane crash--the single most spectacular sequence in the film--glides by with a touch of unrealism: the plane comes down, flames and smoke, breaks apart, and hatches Dieter into the rice fields, like some kind of mosquito larva, all in what almost seems like a single smooth motion. I can imagine Herzog playing with our notion of emergency landings, turning it into some kind of unstated joke, a quick wink at what Hollywood plane crashes are supposed to look like (at the same time outdoing the standard-issue crash with careless grace and skill).

Then there are the touches uniquely his--the great, slow, downward pans from the tips of mountains to their base, filling the whole screen, showing us the immensity of nature; the little cameos of insects, from a beetle whirling on string to a huge butterfly on someone's limb, wings flapping lazily to a caterpillar on a leaf, doing its level best to clamber onto Steve Zahn's face.

There's the sense of heat, humidity, of sheer mass of foliage pressing all around; sometimes the jungle seems like a thousand-fingered hand, reluctant to release Deiter (Christian Bale) and Duane (Zahn), the two Vietcong prisoners making their bid for freedom.

And I love some of the lines, which are pure Herzog. "This is not a village;" "no, it is a village." "I dreamed there was a fire." Herzog's heroes struggle under extreme conditions, and as a result of all that suffering they've lost their grasp of reality, must assert or debate it out loud; Zahn is so unsure of what happened he has to tentatively suggest he only dreamed there was a fire, there, of course, was--yet another of Herzog's sly pranks on his characters.

The American flag-waving seems a tad much, but for some reason I can actually see Herzog buying into that; it's just something I sense in him, a need to want approval from a country whose commercial cinema has had little use for his own work, save for the occasional plagiarism (see Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now with reference to Aguirre the Wrath of God). He seems to want to take the relationship to a whole other level. 

That said, he does give one a sense that the Laotians aren't stereotypical Asian tormentors or merely sadistic prison guards (check out Cimino's odious The Deer Hunter, or even interestingly enough John Woo's Bullet in the Head). They're people with a sense of real anger (not unjustified) at the United State's unadmitted bombings of their country.

And I love the little details--the question of toilets and defecation in a jungle prison (always an important question, but one you never hear from Rambo), of food and water, and laundry (I love it that they're shown actually doing their laundry). I love the dynamic between prisoners, how emotions of trust and affection and anger flow freely between them, intense and open like irrigation canals. I love how physically expressive Herzog makes Bale and Zahn, always touching each other, putting head on shoulder, cuddling against each other for warmth. That's how people who've spent time--months and years--in prison behave, even stay sane.

It's not Herzog's best, and I can see where the argument that he's sold out might stick, but if he is selling out, I wish he'd done so decades ago; it's head and shoulders better than anything from Hollywood nowadays.


Friday, August 24, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)

Bourne again

Paul Greengrass rounds off Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy with The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), a movie that (as implied by the term) is designed to really move.

The story's a considerable departure from the source novels--Robert Ludlum's spy thriller of the same name, published in 1990, featured an elaborate plot that has Bourne and real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal in a showdown; the movie jettisons the novel's narrative for a more streamlined premise: having lost his identity, his love (Franka Potente, in The Bourne Supremacy (2004)) and his peace of mind, he's come gunning for the man who created him and started this whole mess.

It's not a bad action flick. Greengrass keeps Bourne hopping from Moscow to Madrid to Tangiers to New York (you wonder where he gets the funds, or how with so many false identities he ever manages to log any frequent flier miles); showcases the kind of top-of-the-line surveillance equipment the Mission Impossible team might drool over with envy; stages enough face-smashing, bone-crunching, larynx-crushing fight sequences to leave the audience feeling bruised for a week.

In Matt Damon the director has the perfect Bourne, a blank slate of an actor against which Greengrass can inflict his intensely propulsive style. Damon's responses are--to put it kindly--minimalist (he's miles away from the first movie's Bourne, who managed to put a "gee whiz!" expression on every time he discovers a sudden facility with, say, a throwing knife). Makes some kind of dramatic sense, actually: Damon's Bourne, after all he's suffered and lost, has numbed himself into becoming the flawless tracking and killing machine he's been trained to become; what traces of humanity are left can be read, like so many lightning flickers, on his largely unmoving jaw. Damon is the new millennium's Keanu Reeves--a handsome camera subject who turns passive serenity into Zen and astounding cool.

As for the director himself--it's a bit off-putting to think that the handheld style Greengrass used for Bloody Sunday (2002), his docudrama on the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British troops, could be so handily turned around and used for commercial Hollywood fare like this; it cheapens the achievement of the earlier, better film, suggests that the "you are there" feeling Greengrass created is just his way of pumping up excitement, no matter what material he's handling. To be fair, the camerawork here is genuinely exciting (if a tad incoherent and more than a little nauseating), and manages to suggest Bourne's unstable view of the world, suggest that stripped of a real identity Bourne lacks any firm foundation on which to build an otherwise normal life--hence the jitters.

Sometimes Greengrass does more than mimic Bourne's nerviness--in Tangiers when Bourne runs up a stairway, the camera lingers on a railing for a moment, presumably to appreciate some lovely metal grillwork; later, said camera pauses to capture moonlight filtering down through the waters of Manhattan's East River. Greengrass does know how to create a memorable image; you only wish he would do it more often.

Part of why Greengrass uses this immersion-blender style of filmmaking, one suspects, is to draw attention away from the movie's plotholes--why, for example, does Bourne keep chasing the "assets" (CIA speak for "assassins") every time they make an attempt on him or one of his targets? He of all people should know that these men are mere instruments, that he'll learn nothing from them, and that killing them would achieve nothing useful (at one point he actually puts one of his contacts, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), in danger by not going straight back to her). And why, later in the picture, does Bourne let CIA Deputy Chief Noah (David Strathairn) learn his true location? He could have used the extra minutes to get clean away (less suspense, I know, but seeing supposedly smart people act dumb for the sake of thrills is irritating). And since when does an interrogation room in a supposedly high-security building have a nearby window overlooking a river?

Details, details--but God, or at least art, is in the details, one might argue. Greengrass may have hoped to cover flaws up with his docudrama style; at the same time he raises expectations of at least achieving some reasonable measure of realism with that same style (we expect--no, we demand--to see something not altogether fantastic, the same time we expect to see something we've never seen before; Greengrass has to tread a fine line between the plausible and the impossible, and his step is more than a little unsteady).

In the end, Bourne has his confrontation, and fittingly enough, it's with Albert Finney. Yes, I suppose to American ears an English accent is the epitome of evil (why else are so many movie villains British?) but more than just some cliché figurehead, Finney represents the kind of reasonable, even earnest, intellectual you imagine can be found in the government, the kind that using sufficient logic has determined the need for a Jason Bourne--for a living weapon forged from the hollowed-out shell of a man.

Neat climax and conclusion. A tad too optimistic for my taste (what, yet another fax machine saves the day?), and the movie as a whole ultimately lacks heft to be truly memorable. I mean--dirty ops in the CIA? Stop the presses! The only wonder is that not enough attention has been directed at intelligence agencies and their more shadowy activities (governments feel the need for these units, while the press apparently has lost the stomach for rooting them out). But we're talking of Robert Ludlum, of course, who has talent enough to make his plots and settings halfway convincing, even compelling, but doesn't quite have the talent to hit us where we live.

Which reminds me of Fernando Mereilles, and his adaptation of John Le Carre's
The Constant Gardener (2005)--a whole other pot of stew, though the two seem indistinguishable at first. Similar shaky-cam tendencies, similar references to current events, similar attempt at geopolitical entertainment. But Le Carre is after bigger fish--has been for some time. His is a canvas writ large about the sins and subtleties of Big Pharma, of multinational drug companies that underscore market share and profits, sometimes at the expense of African lives.

More, Le Carre has at the center of his taut little thriller the tale of a husband who suspects his late wife of adultery; who attempts to get at the truth of the matter; who by film's end tries to honor her memory and intentions the best way he can. For Ludlum espionage is a means of selling more copies of his books; for Le Carre, espionage is a metaphor for the human condition--the way we are secret to others, sometimes to ourselves; the way we "run" others much as the government runs its agents; the way we often betray those we love even as we believe we're being utterly faithful to their memory. The Bourne Ultimatum is decent fun but there's much, much better out there, if you care to take a look.

(First published in Businessworld, 8/17/07)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

Damian Corvallis at Windmills of My Mind has been doing a gargantuan run of blog posts about Steven Spielberg's entire body of work (to date, anyway), and the post on 1941 in particular caught my eye.

I agree with many of his points--it's misshapen, it goes on too long, too loud, and much of it is simply not funny. But I don't enjoy 1941 (which I saw on the big screen--makes a big difference, I think) for the humor; I enjoy it for being one of the purest, least sentimental, most extended and elaborate expression of Spielberg's graphic talent ever put on celluloid. So he wants to make a musical? I think he's done his musical, only the score is a John Cagelike cacophony of gasps, shrieks, screams, bellows, crashing cars, wooshing airplanes, crunching tanks (John Williams' march acts like an impatient usherette, hurrying the impromptu orchestra along). It's a symphony of chaos, building and building and daring you to dare it to build even more--and calling your bluff every time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

Dodge 'em

Quentin Tarantino's something of a strange case--he's an enthusiast without much discrimination, a director who cares more about framing his dialogue than his images, an auteur wannabe more interested in cramming allusions and homages into his works than actually fusing them into a unique voice. He's got so many references in his movies the frame operate more like hypertext (click on this hat and it's the same type hat used in so-and-so kung fu flick; click on that pack of cigarettes and it's the same brand used in one of the director's previous works)--that much he's up-to-date. To be fair, he does have a fondness for the classic and antiquated that may, after all is said and done, be his finest trait (though his uncritical passion for junk takes a bit of the gloss off that love).

In effect, he's not the greatest thing since apple pie, but he's not cow flop, either. In 1992 he took the plot of Ringo Lam's great Lung fu fong wan (City on Fire, 1987), shuffled the time scheme for variety, dumbed down the understated desperation, and presented it as Reservoir Dogs; two years later he took Godard's declaration that "every film has a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order,” made Pulp Fiction, and won a Palme d'Or in Cannes (funny Godard never got credit for the idea, nor brought home his own Palme d'Or). The 1996 From Dusk Till Dawn might be my favorite Tarantino, if only because the man wrote a clever, genre-bending script for his more visually talented friend, Robert Rodriguez (Rodriguez's problem is in constructing a narrative that moves in reasonably smooth motion, and comes to a satisfying resolution; the two should do more projects together, preferably with Tarantino at the keyboard, Rodriguez behind the camera).

Perhaps his most admirable work was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch. Tarantino moved the action from Florida to California and changed the main character from white airline stewardess to black, mainly so he could use blaxploitation queen Pam Grier in the role. May all directors' whims be so effective--Tarantino's genius has always been in casting (witness Tierney in Reservoir Dogs, or Travolta in Pulp Fiction); with Jackie Brown (1997) the iconic Grier is handed her meatiest role onscreen to date. Grier's Jackie isn't quite like the usual female Tarantino character, either sexual tease, or invincible killer, or wallpaper--she's tough and independent, has accumulated considerable mileage both literal and metaphorical, and is vivid yet likeable enough a presence that you care what happens to her. She's perfectly matched by Robert Forster as a shy bail bondsman attracted to Jackie and aching to help (Grier's scenes with Forster are like a delicate pas de deux, where both parties are presumably too embarrassed (By the racial and sexual implications? Maybe not--they look too sensible for that) to take the relationship to the next level), and she's surrounded by a small constellation of stellar performances--Bridget Fonda as the annoyingly sexy (sexually annoying?) Melanie; Samuel Jackson as the relatively subdued (for Jackson, anyway) gun and drug dealer Ordell; Robert De Niro as Ordell's slyly funny right-hand man Louis; Michael Keaton, trailing just a step behind Jackie as ATF agent Ray Nicolet.

Tarantino drops much of his mannerisms here: the fractured time schemes, the playful devices, the wince-inducing violence; some critics at the time the picture was released complained that this wasn't the typical Tarantino flick, that he'd sold his soul to the Devil to become a more commercially successful (and more conventional) director. Truth is much simpler, apparently: Tarantino is so enamored of Leonard he's assigned himself the task of actually bringing the material onscreen, not twisting it beyond recognition to fit his usual sniggering, wiseguy notions of entertainment.

Of Kill Bill the less said the better. The first half is Uma Thurman as the vengeful Bride, cutting a wide swathe of death and destruction across the American landscape to reach the eponymous Bill (it's a panoramic variation on Bruce Lee's Game of Death (1978) only with clunkier action choreography and filmmaking); the second half is fairly more interesting, a kind of retread not so much of Sergio Leone's motifs, as of his music and emotional tone--at least when David Carradine's Bill finally confronts Thurman's Bride, there actually seems to be a subtext of long-felt pain between the two that they have to deal with before they start trying to kill each other.

Death Proof (2007), Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse omnibus (the other is Robert Rodriguez's sleazier, slimier
Planet Terror) is easily his best work as a filmmaker yet, mainly on the basis of the climactic showdown between the black Dodge Charger and white Dodge Challenger, with the added bonus of stuntwoman Zoe Bell perched precariously on the Challenger front hood. Tarantino had said he deplored the recent trend towards CGI effects in place of real stunts (a sentiment I share), and proceeds to practice what he preached, using white-knuckle driving and Bell gripping the edges of the Challenger's hood to create real thrills. The premise is fairly engaging if a little outlandish, with Kurt Russell as 'Stuntman Mike' a serial killer who uses his 'death-proofed' cars to kill women (though why, after making an earnest attempt to kill a second batch of women, does he leave his car and try talk to them?), but the duel of the Dodge muscle cars is the movie's main attraction--fact is, if you come in an hour late to catch only the duel, you haven't missed much.

What I do miss, though, is the kind of purity that created something like Richard C. Serafian's Vanishing Point (1971). Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a car delivery man assigned to take a Dodge Challenger (yes, the same one--down to the white paint--used in Tarantino's picture, and several characters explicitly refer to the film at several points) from Boulder, Colorado to San Francisco, California.

He never makes it to San Francisco (mainly, as Serafian reveals, because they didn't have the budget to shoot there); instead he side-swipes police cars, barrels the wrong way down divided lanes, runs up inclines, down country roads, and pretty much out-turns, outsmarts and just plain outraces anything on wheels. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of all this is--why? Kowalski has the entire weekend to deliver the car; why risk life and limb to try do it in fifteen hours (which would take an average speed of 85 mph for the length of the trip)? Serafian offers fascinating hints and glimpses in Kowalski's former life--he's a war hero, a bike and car racer, a former police officer discharged for beating his partner (the man was trying to blackmail a young girl into having sex). The question looms larger and larger as Kowaski rushes nearer and nearer to his ultimate fate, and almost effortlessly acquires philosophical and metaphysical dimensions. Tarantino's movie is good, trashy fun, but Vanishing Point leaves you stunned, a tragic fable unfolding a hundred miles an hour on a two-lane blacktop.

(First published in Businessworld, 8/10/07)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976): one of Sight and Sound's 75 Hidden Gems

Sight & Sound for their 75 anniversary had put together this special issue and asked me to contribute.

The paragraph actually published in the issue has some cuts in it, presumably to shorten the entry (Apparently I was luckier--fellow Filipino critic
Alexis Tioseco contributed not one but three (including Tatlong Taong); they only published one). Not exactly perfectly happy, as it rendered my liddle bit of prose a tad choppy (to me, anyway).

So here's the entry then, in its (relative) and uncut fullness:

Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) is an epic drama (or as epic as a million-peso budget (around 400,000 in 2007 dollars) will allow) about the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines during World War 2, and a young country schoolteacher's struggle to survive the ordeal.

O'Hara inspires sympathy for the girl's plight the same time he keeps the drama at arm's length (a difficult trick); he combines the classic compositions and editing rhythms of John Ford with the odd baroque image (a parody of a crucifixion; a re-creation of the "Pieta;" a gallery of religious icons gazing down without pity); he combines visuals and blocking with sound, music and dialogue in a way that recalls Orson Welles (like Welles, O'Hara worked in both theater and radio, and the influences show).

Most of all he touches with a delicate yet unflinching hand a still-sensitive topic: the cruelty and humanity of the Japanese military during the war. Countries with firsthand experience of wartime occupation still produce films that look upon the Japanese with unwavering hatred; O'Hara's film is the rare exception (and in fact the picture was attacked for this) that attempts to suggest the Japanese were other than monsters. He presents the atrocities in an often oblique suggestive manner that somehow enhances the horror, the same time he allows for the possibility that a Japanese officer is capable of compassion, even love.

The film of a small nation in effect depicting, encompassing, understanding, even forgiving the crimes of a far more powerful one--that is the unique achievement of this film.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

100 Best Filipino Films

This is a late (very late) reply to AFI's 100 Greatest American Films of All Times (not to mention my way of defying the sense of loss felt from all the recent deaths); instead of coming up with a hundred American movies, though, I'd thought (for the sake of not repeating the work of dozens of perfectly good film blogs) of coming up with a hundred Filipino films.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Summer movies

So many targets, so little time.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Gore Verbinski) is not exactly my idea of of "constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic"--or, leastwise, it is that, but not in a good way. Despite Ryland Walker Knight's spirited and beautifully written defense of the movie, I remained unconvinced; yes it complicates the world of the first picture beyond its ostensible ambitions (making millions off of a chintzy amusement park ride), yes it sketches a complicated relationship between the sea and its denizens, but if I can't have my proper fix of Depp subverting yet another crass effort at Hollywood moneymaking I'm not having the fun I put my mony down to buy.

At World's End is ambitious world building without the storytelling smarts (why is Kiera Knightly mistaken for Calypso? What's the point of getting Chow Yun Fat, then relegating him to background filler and an early exit? Why spend so much time on 'fey' Bloom and 'intense' Knightly, when Depp has more feyness and intensity in his little pinkie than either of them? Why waste so much money on CGI effects for an elaborate naval battle scene without even an attempt at halfway intelligible (much less intelligent) military tactics (Peter Weir's Master and Commander (2003), anyone?)?), and without enough of a central performance to keep one's attention focused or at least amused. If Verbinski is trying to build his version of, oh I don't know, Blade Runner--an elaborate fantasy world with its own set of rules--no, I don't think he's succeeded at all.

Michael Bay's Transformers, the Movie is about as inevitable an apotheosis of a career as anything I can think of. Cars that turn into robots--perfect for Bay's wham! bam! thank you ma'am! style of filmmaking, I suppose.

Only even with this low, low level of expectations, Bay still--still--misses the mark. Transformers traipsing around in the garden without the parents noticing? Great, but why does it play as crude and lumbering as a Scooby Doo cartoon (think of the all-male gang hiding in a young woman's bedroom while the father looks suspicously around in Tsui Hark's Do Ma Den (Peking Opera Blues, 1986) to see this kind of hijinks done right)? Why, if the fate of the world rests on this doohickey being kept out of the Decepitcons' hands, do the Autobots entrust it to the care of some puny biped mammal running down a street? And why, if you take so much care to create robots with dents and scratched paint, doesn't the camera stay still long enough to give us some sense of that lived-in texture? They should have forgotten Bay and handed the project over to someone with real talent, like Hark or Ronny Yu; then we'd have some real fun.

Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2006, but it only reached my multiplex this year)--I don't get it. Admittedly I'm not the target audience (middle-aged Asian man) but I like to think I've got as much empathy as anyone around (I love Jane Austen; I love George Romero; I love Dr. Who; I love Spongebob Squarepants), and I still don't get it. Guy goes to bed with hot babe, gets her pregnant. Maybe a few funny moments here and there, but the touchy-feely bits just leave me scratching my head; if I wanted male angst, Alexander Payne speaks to me more. Doesn't help that Apatow's view and realization of Seth Rogen's man-titted pothead and his gaggle of geeks is more nuanced and sympathetic than Katherine Heigl's hot babe (she's sometimes vulnerable but never funny, and she's made up more of reaction shots than a definite point of view (at least with Payne you understood Virginia Madsen's Maya more)). Plus Apatow's got the flattest visual sense this side of Hanna-Barbera.

And lest people think of me in as being in a particularly unforgiveable mood today, Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) is lovely, simply lovely. Adapted from a story by Alice Munro, Polley's film plays like a reel of memory imperfectly spooled through a projector; scenes jump back and forth, and at certain points she manages to associate the overexposed light one finds filming in snow landscapes with the bright fog surrounding vague memories (or at least, one's cinematic idea of a vague memory). She can make one bark out in laughter from a woman's sly forgetfulness (is Christie's Fiona really suffering from Alzheimer's, or taking revenge on her husband?), or cry from a man's sudden desperation (Gordon Pinsent's Grant quietly begging Fiona not to leave him).

Possibly the best I've seen this year so far (again, released last year, but only able to reach a nearby arthouse screen recently--I swear, the distribution of some films...). Talk about hot babes, Julie Christie at sixty-plus makes me forget there were any women in Knocked Up (not that Apatow made it easy to remember), or that Francis Coppola's daughter's sophomore effort was so well received a few years back (it starred Bill Murray, I remember that much).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

Kiddie meal

Brad Bird's latest project for Pixar tells of a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who upon reading the cookbook of famous chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garett) wants to be a chef; Gusteau has since died of a broken heart thanks to a nasty putdown by powerful food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole, in an all-too-brief performance), and appears to Remy as a floating spirit, repeatedly consoling him with his favorite motto: "Anyone can cook!"

Remy makes his way to Gusteau's restaurant, where he meets Linguini (Lou Romano), an awkward youth applying there for a job--any job, presumably as janitor or better; Remy eventually finds his place in the restaurant under Linguini's toque, his paws tugging at the young man's scalp to control the hands marionette-style (Are we supposed to take the hair-pulling as mind control? Or dismiss the conceit as some kind of Gallic follicle?) as he creates the finest dishes in Paris.

Bird took over from an idea and characters first created by the Czech-born British animator Jan Pinkava (who ended up with a co-directing credit); the result is a fairly convincing rendition of the French culinary scene, thanks to advise by The French Laundry chef Thomas Keller (he designed the climactic version of the eponymous dish, which is lovingly rendered down to the slightly thickened juices dripping from precisely sliced vegetables). As celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain notes "The tiny details are astonishing: The faded burns on the cooks' wrists. The 'personal histories' of the cooks." Putting aside the fact that Bourdain gets an end credits "thanks" (for 'input early in the film') he's not for the most part exaggerating--the animated cooks handle their animated knives correctly, with that curious rocking motion that's so efficient (and on the fingers), toss their spices and condiments in that show-offy, cavalier way (it's for a more even sprinkle) professionals do.

Most impressive is Gusteau, who I suspect is an allusion to the rotund Fernand Point, master of la grande cuisine, and "Father of Nouvelle Cuisine" (Bourdain writes about how when he was ten his parents once locked him in their car so that they could dine at Point's fabled La Pyramide). Point never declared that "anyone can cook," but he did serve anyone he liked regardless of their ability to pay, from the richest nobility to the humblest laborer (though Point would rather close his place down than serve Nazi officers). La Pyramide was set in the countryside not the middle of Paris, but his spirit lives on in some of the dishes served in the movie (or rather his spirit possibly lives on in Keller, and of course Bourdain).

A few cooking bits seem off--the omelet Remy prepares for Linguini is way overdone in my opinion, and I don't think any self-respecting restaurant that once held three Michelin stars would ever erect a storefront sign that vulgar, bristling all over with that many light bulbs (they blink, too) on its rooftop (possibly villainous chef Skinner (Ian Holm) had the sign added--but this is never made clear). And Ego is far too rich to be a critic, at least one with some semblance of integrity (there are those able to amass money, sure, usually by having something going on on the side (a best-selling book, a TV show)--which we don't see in Ego, who's just a filmmaker's idea of a critic).

The picture also makes a few missteps storywise: can't believe Linguini would be stupid enough to dismiss Remy for any act short of his friend actually defecating in the food (spoiling the food, yes; stealing it--hell, no!); the boy should be smart enough to know which side of his bread is buttered, and I'd sooner believe he'd cage Remy and force him to cook forever than allow the rodent to leave. And cooks are pragmatic creatures; when presented with the claim that a rat is a culinary genius, I'd think it more believable that they'd at least demand a quick demonstration before walking away (you can tell Bird (or at least one of his four collaborators) was taking shortcuts with the script).

Overall, I'd say the picture's Pixar's recent best (their sterile Cars (2006)--a mechanical remake of the lugubrious Doc Hollywood (1991)--isn't even a serious contender), and Brad Bird easily the finest director of commercial animated features in the United States (though I'd consider his The Iron Giant--based on Ted Hughes' 1968 children's book "The Iron Man"--to be his masterpiece).

Which when you think about it isn't saying much. Ratatouille isn't bad, just far from great, and I'm mystified by all the hosannas. Scott in The New York Times considers it "one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film" (in the same league as Jacques Rivette's La Belle noiseuse (1991); Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (1990); Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980); Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972); Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrey Rublyev (1969); Jean Luc Godard's Les Mepris (1963); Yasujiro Ozu's Ukigusa (1959); Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957), Jean Cocteau's Orphee, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve; Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948)?). The movie's the latest example of a trend I've noticed since the '70s--where American animators sweat and strain to create something smart enough to perhaps appeal to adults, only to learn that the Japanese have already been there years before.

Bird and Pinkava, in choosing to depict the passion and artistry of French cooking, takes in my opinion a safe route; the French know and love food, but I believe the Japanese are nuttier in their enthusiasm, their willingness to try something--anything--different; combine this with Japan's gargantuan animation industry, and we're not talking chopped liver.

Animated chefs? Masami Anno's TV show Chuka Ichiban (Cooking Master Boy, 1997), about a thirteen-year-old master chef named Liu Mao Tsing who has wide-ranging adventures and competes in intense face-offs (the latter possibly inspired by the TV series Ryori no tetsujin (Iron Chef, 1993)), shows a wider, wilder range of cooking than anything you see in Bird's movie, with one foot in science fiction (a chef with a fantastically sharp knife slices a beluga sturgeon open, pulls out the roe, presses the edges of the wound together, and allows the fish to swim away whole and unharmed), another in fantasy (every time a dish is presented it glows with an unearthly light; every time a judge tastes a dish he's  transported to another world). That said, there's a passion for food and cooking technique in this series that's rock-solid real no matter what special effect or cooking device is featured, the depiction of which sometimes approaches genuine complexity (despite the admittedly crude animation).

In one of the better episodes Mao confronts Shouan, a former star pupil of Mao's mother Pai (one of the greatest chefs in China); Shouan left Pai to travel the world and learn on his own, eventually joining the Underground Cooking Society, a feared gang of renegade chefs bent on domination and power. The competition involved tofu (some of the most memorable contests often involved simplest of ingredients), both its fermentation (which must happen overnight) and incorporation into a dish. Mao's tofu is sabotaged some time during the night, forcing him to improvise a way to ferment, cook, slice up the tofu and create his dish all in one box (you have to see it to believe it). Mao's solution is brilliant yet simple, his resulting dish a delight; Shouan's dish is genius--tofu pasta topped with a meat-like fried tofu and a tofu-based sauce. "Stereosonic tofu," Shouan called it, because the tofu is presented three ways in one dish, approaching the diner from all sides.

When the dishes are voted on, it's Mao who wins out; one reason and the strongest being that one of the judges had tasted Shouan's dish before, from Pai's restaurant, no less. The loss is a blow to Shouan--he's wandered the world for years in search of techniques that would go beyond that of his former master, only to find that he's at most run (in one breathtakingly animated shot) the length and breadth of Pai's outstretched palm. The episode  poignantly comments on the absolute hierarchy of creativity and talent (there's good talent, great talent, talent so immense it's inescapable), the need for roots and identity (you must know who you are and what you're capable of before you attempt something truly original), the love-hate relationship between a master and her prodigal pupil. Anton Ego's sudden zooming back to the supper table of his childhood is nicely done (I could have done without the zoom), but compared to Shouan's bitter epiphany, Ego's flashback is child's play.

Then there's Mamoru Oshii's Tachiguishi retsuden (Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006), a jawdroppingly dense and at times excruciatingly funny meditation on Japanese fast-food lore, post-war history, and largely existential philosophy. A group of con men (Moongaze Ginji; Foxy Croquette O-Gin; Beefbowl Ushigoro; Hamburger Tetsu; Frankfurter Tatsu; Medium Hot Sabu (Tarantino can only dream of inventing aliases half as colorful)) visit various food stalls and noodle shops and pull elaborate scams to get out of paying for the meal; the characters are rendered as flattened, two-dimensional figures, as if they were paper cut-outs (Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling calls it kamashibai, or a story told in a series of picture cards) suddenly brought to life.

At one point the noodle shop owner declares "it's only a bowl of noodles!" Moonshine Ginji transfixes him with a glare and observes that it's not only 'a bowl of noodles,' but a bowl of noodles made from bogus (read: inferior) ingredients--despite which Ginji, thanks to his powers of perception and imagination, is able to devour the noodles at the peak of flavor, a moment before they disappear forever. The narrator (who speaks at an relentless pace, presumably because there's so much information to convey) declares that only words can bring back that experience, and in such a way as to surpass the intensity of the original.

Now, if Bird (or any other American talent) can come even close to expressing that kind of transcendental culinary moment in an animated work, I'd be a happy (and hungry) camper.

First published in Businessworld, 7/27/07)