Wednesday, April 30, 2008

VCDs of two major Mario O'Hara films (Bakit Bughaw and Kastilyong Buhangin); plus other DVD releases

Tremendous news--kind of. But still.

Two of Mario O'Hara most highly regarded films--largely unseen for over twenty years--are finally, finally available on VCD format (that's the 'tremendous' part), but unsubtitled (that's the 'kind of' part):
Kastilyong Buhangin (Sand Castle, 1980) and Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why Is the Sky Blue? 1981).

Basically, Kastilyong Buhangin was a pop vehicle for drama queen/music diva Nora Aunor and rising stuntman turned actor Lito Lapid, so the film is a mix of melodrama and action setpieces--a cross, in effect, between George Cukor's A Star is Born and Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire. Stuntmen choreographing their own stunts, Nora Aunor singing a George Canseco classic (if you've ever been to a karaoke bar in Manila--or any Filipino home with a karaoke set--you've probably spotted the title song in their catalogue). What's not to like?

Bakit Bughaw is even better, a Lino Brocka melodrama played with an understatement and laser-beam focus I submit Brocka never achieved in his own films. Some say this is O'Hara's masterpiece; I may not agree, but I understand their regard.

I've written on both films--on Kastilyong Buhangin
here and on Bakit Bughaw ang Langit here, and I cannot, can not recommend them highly enough. VCDs work on my Philips DVD player, so there's a chance they'll work on yours; the video quality will be bad, but this may be the only way the films are ever going to be seen (the prints and negatives are gone, as far as I know, and believe me I've looked). If you're not fluent in Tagalog chances are you'll have trouble understanding the story, so now's your chance to either learn the language or befriend a Filipino, take him or her to your home, and have them watch two of the finest films in Philippine cinema, translating the dialogue benshi-style for your benefit.

Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919) is great, and moving in ways Napoleon (a more visually spectacular and complex film) is not. The storyline is pure melodrama, but the way it's carried out is hard to resist--Gance's hokiness is so much more sophisticated than Griffith's, or even Murnau's, at least in Sunrise (1927) (which can be off-putting, if you're not ready for it).

Again and again Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) proves himself self-sacrificing, totally unselfish and sensitive to the needs of the people and of Edith, the woman he loves (Line Noro), who happens to be married to another man. Your eyebrows rise but you can't quite bring yourself to laugh--Gance has Francen underplay his acting so well, largely subordinates his not inconsiderable visual style to the story so completely that Diaz's deeds come across as simple expediency, dictated by circumstances, with only a trailing whiff of nobility in the air. I for one was completely seduced by this plaster saint posing so effectively as a human being.

The truly three-dimensional figure in the film is Edith's husband Francois (Marcel Delaitre), who makes for a magnificent peasant brute; with his howitzer of a shotgun and battleship prow of a nose, when he glares at the camera (often at Diaz or at his own erring wife), you expect the theater screen to singe a little. All the more moving, then, when he is confronted with his own implacable sense of honor, and his granite facade cracks a little.

Great scenes combining actual combat with reenacted footage, and I don't know if it's an accident or conscious decision on Gance's part, but the soldiers captured on film are faceless figures, foreshadowing the harrowing sequence where the dead rise up to judge the living (Romero's entire work, and even Dante's Homecoming (2005), anyone?). That final scene, with the dead in long shot, even in bright sunlight, is unsettling--they're solid, not phantoms, but you still get this hair-raising sense that they're not completely of this world.

Again, again, that's why I think Romero's slow-shuffling undead (or Kurosawa Kiyoshi's in Kairo, for that matter) are so disturbing. They're don't quite move to our beat--don't swim in the same currents of time. The more recent, faster-moving ghouls (28 Days Later; the Dawn of the Dead remake) are just wild animals on the loose; Romero's (and Kiyoshi's) cry out from beyond.

Finally: Desu noto (Death Note, 2006). Tetsuo Araki's adaptation of the manga by they psuedonymous Tsugumi Ohba. John Powers reviewed the series in NPR, quoting someone as saying this is the best thing to come out of Japan in reecent years.

It's fascinating for the intricate plotting, mainly, and the jawdropping twists introduced along the way. And of course for L, the bug-eyed pale-skinned, honey-voiced (Alessandro Juliani who, if they ever remade 2001: A Space Odyssey, would be a shoo-in to play HAL 9000) genius behind the the manhunt for Kira, the unknown killer who strikes down criminals the world over just by looking at their faces, and writing down their names in an ordinary notebook.

It's not particularly profound, and it doesn't make any grand statements on the human condition; it's just a fantasy of two youths possessed of extraordinary abilities (as Powers notes, the two main characters represent two distinct types: Kira (a.k.a. Light Yagami) is the handsome honor student, ladies' man, and athlete, while L (real name unknown) represents the weird otaku, or geek). L and Kira are alike, they're deadly enemies, they're also, strangely enough, tentatively good friends, mainly because they are the only two people in the world, apparently, intelligent enough to truly appreciate each other (in a late episode, perhaps the creepiest moment in a series full of creepy moments, L washes Kira's feet).

I don't agree about that 'best thing to come from Japan recently' bit--Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Takeshi Kitano are still working (haven't seen their latest, though), and Oshii wowed me with his last picture--but it's defintely interesting, addictive stuff.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Diving Bell and Butterfly, Comrade X, Force of Evil, Sunrise

Le Schaphrande et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007) has got to be one of the best films last year. I vividly remember Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000) (aside from being what I felt was the finest performance Javier Bardem's ever given (still feel the same way), it was an unforgettably lyrical film); with this Schnabel if anything proves that he is one of the most graceful filmmakers alive (his free-floating, off-the-cuff camerawork recalls early Polanski, particularly Noz w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962)). The point-of-view shots are amazing, as much for what they obscure (out-of-focus filaments suggest wayward eyelashes; watery distortion indicate tears) as for what they reveal (when a pretty woman comes up close, his gaze invariably falls upon her cleavage); even the way he segueways from first person to memory to third person to fantasy is brilliant.
Love the in-jokes--a bit from Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and a snatch of Lolita (1962). What's not to like?

Some critics have complained of the claustrophobic quality of the storytelling, but who wants yet another standard-issue disease-of-the-week flick? Schnabel fits form to Jean-Do Bauby's (Matthieu Amalric) straitened circumstances, his restless intelligence (represented by a constantly agitated eye) unable to escape the cyclopean point of view except through memory or fantasy (the point is driven horrifically home when the doctor declares his other eye 'problematic' and recommends that it be 'occluded'--and we watch, every bit as helpless as the desperately pleading Jean-Do, when the recommendation is carried out).
Is there a place in the world for such personal cinema, such specialized, interiorized stories? But Jean-Do's story isn't as extraordinary as we might like to think: consider the depth of the gap between one person and another, the way we constantly struggle to hear, or make ourselves heard, and our constant failure at perfect communication (which we continue to strive to do, nevertheless). Jean-Do's story resonates because it's our dilemma, mutiplied a hundredfold; in his case he has the stubborness and energy and yes, selfishness to overcome his hurdles, to call out to us one more time in the form of an extraordinary book. Which Schnabel has transformed into an equally extraordinary film.
Comrade X (1940) is maybe not better than Ninotchka (1939) but can it, well, actually hold its own? Vidor is not Lubitsch--i'd hate to even begin to compare the two--but if Vidor doesn't have The Touch, his comedy (very possibly made to cash in on the success of the earlier flick) has more teeth; fact is, the prison and execution-squad sequence comes across as a black-comedy version of something Graham Greene might have written, set in South America. Plus I doubt if Lubitsch has done much in the way of action sequences: here, Vidor throws in a vigorous chase involving a battalion of dancing tanks (how did they do that--remote-control models?) that's a real delight (think Spielberg in 1941 mode, only really set in 1941).

And then there's Lamarr, who's definitely no Garbo; if anything, I think she's even more desireable. Garbo's a beauty, of that there's no doubt, but it's a Teutonic kind of beauty, heavy-spirited and unattainable. Lamarr has a sweet sensuality you can to walk up to and touch, with just enough hint of European mystery to make that walk forward feel daring, dangerous even.

So there're rumors she and Gable didn't get along--so what? I'm not noticing the lack of chemistry; all I can see is Lamarr heedlessly planting kisses on Gable's chiseled mug every five minutes, and thinking I'd love to shove that guy aside and take his place, I really would.

Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948) is, in every sense of the word, awesome. It's set in a great city of steel and stone (Manhattan, of course), only there's a weirdly comic mismatch because crawling all over this tremendous construct are flawed, tiny creatures, eking out a living. Joe Morse's (John Garfield) relationship with his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) is a case in point--they're constantly bickering, but Garfield can't help keeping an eye out for the man, nevertheless. Is Joe the evil brazenly declared in the title? Maybe, but what about his concern for his brother? Is Leo evil? He has principles, but he's basically running an illegal business. How about Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts)? He comes closest to personifying pure evil, but even he has his Achilles' heel, in the form of Edna (Marie Windsor), who has eyes for Joe.

Polonsky takes an eloquent script (by Ira Wolfert based on his novel (with additions by Polonsky)) and fashions a terrific noir from it: grey, drab on-location exteriors match equally drab interiors; when danger lurks, it's high-angle shots and expressive shadows; when danger steps out in the open it's all quick cuts and abrupt, point-of-view shots. Polonsky (this is his debut as a director) orchestrates all with a confidence and elegance Martin Scorsese can't help but admire.

Then there's the finale, which can only be described as something out of Dante, a descent into a hell if not exactly frozen over, just a few degrees short of it. Joe climbs down past massive structures and vertiginously steep staircases to end at a desolate beach, where he faces the basic fact of his life thus far, and realizes what he must do in response. A great film, absolutely.

And finally (with thanks to Dave Kehr for pointing it out), this brilliant review of Murnau's Sunrise. It's critics like these (okay, maybe not a critic--but what's he doing putting forth on this subject, anyway?) that make me so optimistic about the future of cinema.

Some thoughts: maverick opinions are not of themselves valueless--actually, I think all opinions are equally of value (or are equally valueless); what adds substance and authority to an opinion is the thinking that brought the writer to that opinion, and O'Neill's way of thinking is, to put it politely, not exactly reasoned, logical, or even well informed. If instead of just noting the film's high reputation he showed some understanding of why the film's so highly regarded, then proceeded to show why such regard was flawed, why, he may have something.

It's not as if it's a perfect film, after all. Many sequences are justly famed (the tracking shot that reveals The Woman From the City; the tram sequence (Murnau, shooting through the tram windows which somehow refract the images of the surrounding forest just so, manages to give the trip a floating, dreamlike feel); the gigantic sets of the city). The story is simple, even for silent films, even for Murnau--Man, Woman, other Woman, basically--but Murnau takes advantage of Hollywood's considerable resources to create a mostly reality-based (if hugely exaggerated and stylized) vision.

Maybe my biggest problem with the picture are the subtitles. They're obvious and hokey, even for the time, even compared to Griffith's (and Griffith could be unbelievably sentimental); worse, Murnau went on to animate his titles. The effect is not unsimilar to underlining what's already obvious, highlighting it with three different color markers, then sprinkling all with glitter; if anything, I suspect the sense of over-the-top melodrama one has of the film comes largely from the titles.

Don 't get me wrong, I love the film; it's just not my favorite Murnau (that would be Faust (1924), with its opening image of a magnificent bat-winged Emil Jannings, looming over a volcano (that image has influenced films as diverse as Disney's Fantasia (1940), Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ridley Scott's Legend (1985)), its passages of Faust flying over blasted landscapes (inspiration for some of the finest passages of John Boorman's Exorcist 2: The Heretic (1977), and its final heartbreaking sequence of the beautiful Camilla Horn, struggling to survive a winter storm with her bastard child).

Still. Not a big fan of the Oscars or of its organizers, but even they and their running media dogs should know better than to nip at the long-dead hand that, if it isn't exactly feeding them now, did much to create the reputation of quality they enjoy (and have almost entirely failed to uphold) today. Shame on them--on Cameron Diaz too, incidentally, for involving herself in such cheap shots (she should grovel on used razor blades for a chance to star in a film anywhere near as great as Sunrise).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

Beep beep!

The Coen brothers' latest No Country for Old Men (2007) is well made, in many ways terser more economical than even the Cormac McCarthy novel it's based on. Plenty agree this much with me, apparently-- it rolled up most of the major golden doorstops in the latest Academy Awards nights (the one supposed to be crippled by the recent writer's strike) including the Best Picture doorstop.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Shutter (Masuyuki Oichiai, 2008)


And the trend of remaking Asian horror continues--after an abysmal
Pulse (Jim Sonzero, 2006) from Kurosawa Kyoshi's great apocalyptic thriller Kairo (2001); a ludicrous One Missed Call (Eric Valette, 2007) from Takashi Miike's supernatural thriller Chakushin ari (2003); and an indifferent The Eye (David Moreau, Xavier Palud, 2008) from the Pang brothers' Gin gwai (2002), we have Masuyuki Oichiai's Shutter (2008), remade from Banjong Pisanthanakum and Parkpoom Wongpoom's 2004 original.

Mind you, not all Asian horror remakes are bad--Takashi Shimizu's 2004 The Grudge pretty much captured both spirit and flavor of his 2003 Ju-on (I didn't have a problem with the remake so much as with the original's story, which seemed more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive horror flick); and while in the strictest sense it wasn't a remake, I thought Hideo Nakata's 2005
The Ring Two was a vast improvement over Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002) with its slapstick ending (Naomi Watts doing a no-gainer from a vacation cottage's first floor straight into its basement). More, I thought Nakata's film--his American debut--superior to Walter Salles' Dark Water (2005), the official Hollywood remake of Nakata's own Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002), from which Nakata in a spirit of parsimonious economy drew much of his ideas and imagery (the lesson here apparently being: trust a filmmaker and not some hired hand no matter how talented to execute his own ideas properly).

These two notable exceptions aside, the results have been consistent, even predictable: when a horror picture becomes a hit in Japan, Thailand or even the Philippines (Yam Laranas' 2004 Sigaw (Echo) is being turned into a Hollywood flick), you'll soon find a stitched-together monster of a remake rearing its ugly, slime-dripping head up to walk, tottering, in the original's footsteps. One might imagine a steady stream of ghosts, unearthly creatures, supernatural entities of all kinds wandering nimbly out of one country to conquer the world, the other responding with its own series of stunted, computer-generated abortions gimping gamely after, in a pathetic parody of the former.

Oichiai's remake isn't bad; not great, but unlike say The Ring, or Pulse or One Missed Call or The Eye it's not offensively awful--just markedly unoriginal. We have your standard-issue loving couple, Benjamin and Jane Shaw (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor, respectively) being haunted by a malignant spirit (shades of Ju-on) named Megumi Tanaka (Megumi Okina); we have a mystery that the couple needs to unravel to be left alone in peace (Ringu, Chakushin ari). Instead of a cellphone, or a videotape cassette, our anxieties involving this technological age revolve around the ordinary handheld camera (35 mm, digital, Polaroid, so on and so forth).

We have eerie silences and airless, abandoned rooms; we have ordinary images (Jane's hand caressing her husband's neck; Jane looking out the subway train window; Jane snapping a photograph) suddenly turned creepy (Jane has been outside the apartment all this time shopping; a grinning corpse is glimpsed through the window glass; the photographs yield a ghostly figure). We have at least two quotes from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), where the protagonist approaches a seated figure from behind not once but twice.

Then there's the issue of plausibility--why, for example, are a series of photographs kept hidden instead of destroyed when they're more likely criminal evidence than blackmail material? And why, if the spirit's apparent motivation is revenge, don't the parties involved come together and actually do something (Sure at one point it's only Benjamin Megumi's after, but when things started to happen didn't it occur to them that perhaps they would be affected as well…?)?

More damning than the improbabilities (The genre after all is full of them; I mean--a videotape that kills? A hand coming out the back of one's head? A killer cellphone?) is the wasted opportunity. Oichiai surrounds Jane with moments that develop her sense of paranoia and loneliness, moments when a beautiful model eyes her more intently than is usual, or when she finds a lovely photographer's assistant pushing Benjamin up by his bottom as he bends over a ladder (He's taking overhead pictures of his models--pictures, incidentally, that look like standard-issue spreads from Vogue or Cosmopolitan, hardly the kind of work worth importing all the way from the United States). Nothing results from these moments--it's as if the filmmakers wanted to develop Jane's situation into something more interesting (she does, after all, realize that Megumi is more than just a vengeful spirit) but in the course of filmmaking forgets about the idea.

All that said, Oichiai's not without ability. He knows not to rely too much on fancy hand-held photography, and he keeps his editing largely unfussy and clear. He does come up with the occasionally inventive image (Megumi stalking Benjamin in the dark, for example, the only means of tracking her progress the occasional flashbulb burst); the story itself is not entirely without surprise--there's a twist at the end that reminds one of some of the more outlandish adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (the surprise is pretty much given away, however, when Benjamin steps on a weighing scale and the nurse throws him a glare, wordlessly accusing him of eating too many red bean sweets). Given better, more distinctive material, Oichiai might actually develop into a major filmmaking talent, at least in the horror genre.

Not too bad, but nothing great, either. Much prefer the low-budget fare found in our own independent digital movement, which substitutes imagination, atmosphere, and inventive on-camera effects for big-budgeted, digitally rendered wraiths--I'm thinking in particular of Rico Ilarde's Altar (2007), which manages to not just be consistently creepy but also funny, erotic, even moving.

Endorsing Ilarde and his fellow filmmakers feels like a two-edged sword, however--should one spotlight the Filipino indie filmmaker, shift attention to his talent, allow his work to be pimped up, Hollywoodized, all-around bastardized? Is it the Filipino independent's turn to spend a session or two inside the House of Pain, later stumbling out stitched-together, dripping slime, tottering? The very idea seems, well horrifying.

First published in Businessworld 4/4/08