Saturday, May 31, 2008

Raya Martin in Director's Fortnight, Brilliante Mendoza in Cannes

The director of the brilliant Indio Nacional (2005) has made it not to the official Cannes festival, but to a parallel festival, the Quinzaine des realisateurs, or Director's Fortnight, which has its own more eclectic reputation, that of being the discoverer new, quirkier talent, where the Cannes festival is more likely to screen the works of established filmmakers. This meant the French debut of directors like Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jim Jarmusch, Nagisa Oshima, Michael Haneke, the Dardennes brothers, and many others, and has screened the films of Robert Bresson and Manoel de Oliveira, Stephen Frears. I think Martin makes for an excellent addition to their ranks.

The links lead to two of three (apparently the third isn't available as of this time) video interviews of the filmmaker, who talks about his filming and logistical methods, his scriptwriting style (for his first two features, he didn't have any), and how Indio Nacional, Autohystoria and Now Showing form not a trilogy, but the beginnings of three separate trilogies. Ah, youth! And more power to him, for his ambitions...

Raya Martin talks about his new film Now Showing (2008) Part 1

Raya Martin talks about his new film Now Showing (2008) Part 2

Briliante Mendoza, on the other hand, is an entirely different creature, a teller of conventional yet intense narratives about Philippine life (Kaleldo (2006) was about the lives of three daughters in a provincial town; Manoro (same year) is about a young girl who teaches her illiterate townsfolk how to read, to enable them to cast votes in a coming election; Foster Child (2007) is the quite moving story of a woman who makes it a business to raise parentless children for adoption; Tirador (same year) about slumdwellers in Quiapo). His stories are told in the kind of handheld, cinema verite of the Dardannes brothers, making full use of his uniquely Filipino settings. His latest film Serbis (Service, 2008) was chosen for the Official Competition in Cannes.

In the following video clips, Mendoza talks about the source material for the film (the porn theaters that inspired his premise), and the sound problems noted by some critics, which he maintains is actually an immersive statement, and how surprised he was to have shocked the Cannes audience:

Brillante Mendoza talks about his new film Serbis (Service, 2008) Part 1

Brilliante Mendoza talks about his new film Serbis (Service, 2008) Part 2

Brilliante Mendoza talks about his new film Serbis (Service, 2008) Part 3

Friday, May 30, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Anniversary of Doom

Almost twenty years after his last onscreen outing, Henry Jones Jr., better known as "Indiana" ("Indy" for short) Jones, has been pulled out of the mothballs, dusted off, and put through his paces one more time. Does lightning strike a fourth time? Well--

Perhaps the movie's finest moment comes at the very beginning. Right off we're treated to a drag race a la Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), ending with an assault on a top-secret military base. A car trunk is opened; a man is hauled out, thrown to the floor--but before we see the man's face, we see the hat. Director Steven Spielberg has always loved dramatic entrances, and no entrance in recent memory is as dramatic as that hat--it comes with its own built-in standing ovation (which, truth to tell, was louder than for Indiana (Harrison Ford, reprising one of his most famous roles) himself).

Later a mushroom cloud, emblem of American anxieties and of various science-fiction films of the era, looms over Indy*. It's the 1950s, and Spielberg and Lucas have made it clear that their sources of inspiration are the '50s B movies--science fiction (Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, Howard Hawks' (by way of Christian Nyby) The Thing From Another World--both from 1951--and Gordon Douglas' Them! (1954)); rock-and-roll (Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One" (1953)), rebel youths (the aforementioned Rebel Without a Cause), jungle pictures (Byron Haskin's The Naked Jungle (1954)), even historical epics (Hawk's Land of the Pharoahs (1955)). Indy Jones in the age of rock-'n-roll, and father to a James Dean wannabe (Sheila Beef, or something)--can you imagine?

*(Never mind the question of whether or not lead-lined refrigerators exist (they do), or are capable of protecting one from a detonating nuclear device (the scene recalls the fiery climax to Tsui Hark's much underrated, far more enjoyable Double Team (1997), with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman surviving a huge fireball by hiding behind a Coke vending machine (presumably the ice-cold cans of Coke protected them, in the wittiest and most imaginative example of product placement I've seen to date)); the real question is this: what is a lead-lined refrigerator used in nuclear laboratories doing in an ordinary suburban house?)

The three previous movies were set in the '30s and inspired by '40s serial matinees, and we've come to expect the thrills that accompany each installment, which usually ended with a cliffhanger (notice how every other dirt road in an Indy movie abruptly drops off (usually on the right side) in a vertiginous precipice). With '50s entertainments the appeal is different, subtler even: there's a sense of general paranoia and personal turmoil, of vast government conspiracies and violent generational confrontations. The flavor is darker, less innocent somehow; you sense that America was poised to shed its childhood, question authority, examine closely the reputed benevolence and competence of its government (though matters would have to wait for the '60s for everything--gloves, hat, hair, shoes, clothes, inhibitions--to really drop). Plunking Jones in the middle of all this is a bit odd, like watching Rip Van Winkle wake up in the middle of Back to the Future's 'Enchantment Under the Sea' dance--you wonder what on earth he's doing there, dusty hat and bullwhip and all.

It might have worked better if they kept him in '50s America--that way we can have all the Geritol and adult diaper jokes we need. I'm not being sarcastic--we wouldn't have thought less of him if he had to deal with chronic exhaustion and incontinence; if anything, we would have loved him more for having the courage to admit to his weaknesses. I remember when Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa (2006) stated he was old, past his prime; it was a fine moment, maybe the finest Stallone has had in years (unfortunately the movie goes on to have the usual Rocky training montage, and yet another bittersweet defeat that's really a victory).

Still--Indy Jones in the Atomic Age! Indy as a noir hero! Think of the possibilities! All Spielberg and Lucas could come up with are crystal skulls (not exactly an iconic image of '50s) in the jungles of Peru. I'm thinking of a scenario more like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956--not far from the year the movie supposedly takes place) combined maybe with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Indy fighting conformity and repression in a world made strange and frightening not by hostile jungles, or commie villains or sophisticated deathtraps, but by time, age, radiation, the U.S. government, or any combination thereof (Spielberg and Lucas reportedly chose communists because that was what the country was fighting at the time; one wants to ask: did everyone involved forget about the McCarthy witch hunts and HUAC blacklists? They start in Area 51 (which we had a fleeting glimpse of way back in Raiders)--couldn't they just have stayed there?).

On the plus side, this is easily the most handsome-looking picture of the lot, with cinematography by Janusz Kaminski channeling the work of now-retired Douglas Slocombe (to be honest I'm not a fan of Slocombe's photography in these movies--particularly Temple of Doom (1984), where he managed to make India look ugly and desolate). Kaminski for the most part recreates Slocombe's clean action photography (pity there's so much CGI background to mar the visuals) adding shadows and intriguing silvery highlights (it's as if much of the movie takes place under a bright, baleful sun, piercing through an overcast sky). A majority of the stunts are reported CGI-free (computers were employed mostly to digitally erase safety wires), but the freewheeling feel and comic inventiveness of the early movies' stunts (some of which were improvised on the spot) is gone--this is a picture less concerned with having fun than with getting its business done as spectacularly and expensively as possible.

But aren't we all--less worried about fun than about getting work done, I mean? Isn't that what happens when one grows up, reflexes slow down, joints start to ache? Ford reportedly worked out for months, on a strict high-protein diet; certainly he looks good, but there's a grimness to his determination to look so good, a sense of--yes--business before pleasure. Ford might have been better off taking inspiration from William Shatner in Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Yes--that's it. How the Star Trek franchise handled the subject of age and obsolescence (at least in the first few films) made for fine drama. Ford and Spielberg toy with the question awhile, then (like Stallone, eventually) drop it quietly along the way; Shatner, Meyer, Shatner and Nimoy make entropy their major theme, complete with quotes from Dickens and Melville, and give their film an overall lovingly thoughtful, poignantly mournful air. Shakespeare had Falstaff once say: "That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it." Falstaff was of course inviting sympathy for his advanced age, and seemed all the more pathetic for his pains; Indy Jones is perhaps a less intellectual character (despite the supposed fact that Henry Jones, Jr. is a college professor), but his latest (and last, hopefully) outing could have used a flash or two of paunch. Or, better yet, a glimpse of adult diapers, peeking out of the waistline.

(First published in Businessworld 5.30.08)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade)

Indiana Jones and the series of doom

I remember enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out in 1981; I hadn't seen the matinee serials that inspired producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, but I did respond to the junky theme-park ride feel (actually it wasn't so much a theme park ride (that came later) as it was a traveling carnival, complete with walking freaks, lurid exhibits, the hint of sex, and thrills galore). The picture shambled and lurched horribly (there wasn't much of a plot to speak of) but that was part of the charm, and it moved with agreeable speed (the huge fiberglass boulder threatening to roll over Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pretty much set the pace and tone of the picture).

So many decades later, the appetite for movies derived from other movies has been satiated to the point of nausea (for me, at least). Raiders spawned endless clones, some amusing (I'm thinking of Romancing the Stone (1984)--basically Raiders told from the point of view of the heroine, ably directed by Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis), many not (the Richard Chamberlain remake of King Solomon's Mines (1985) and Jon Turtletaub's National Treasure (2004) anyone?). Re-watching the picture, the question of racism comes to fore: do South American savages, Nepalese grotesques, and Tunisian thugs all exist to be mere fodder for Indy Jones to whip, kick, verbally and physically abuse, and--when in a particularly bad mood--simply shoot in the chest?* The picture moves so fast one may miss the subtext, unless one is South American, Nepalese, or Tunisian, or simply non-white...

*Actually, Toshiro Mifune had a--to my mind, at least--far wittier response to the question of gun vs. blade, in Akira Kurosawa's great black comedy Yojimbo (1961)

...Though I'm sure there were nonwhites that did miss the subtext (the movie was an international hit) and I'm sure much of the racism was unintentional (Spielberg was--still is, I'd argue--a political naïf; Lucas even more so), a carryover from the serials of old with their '30s attitude toward darker-skinned people--but a racial slur is a racial slur, even when not intended to offend, even when the victim fails to notice.

Might as well throw in the observation that the climax, involving the Ark of the Covenant sitting inside a 'caldero'-like structure shooting flames into the sky, is partly inspired by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940). And that the Bald Mountain sequence was in turn inspired by the opening passages of F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926)--with Emil Jannings a far more impressive Devil than Disney's rather sexless version, spreading his vast bat wings from horizon to horizon.

Which reminds me of another grand adventure that trod heavily on racial lines--George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939). Indians are depicted here as either ignorant buffoons or homicidal heathens (though the putative villains, the Thuggee cult, did actually exist). It's more difficult to condemn the implicit racism in Stevens' film for several reasons: the producers were cunning enough to present a sympathetic Indian character (the eponymous Din, played by Sam Jaffee), and--better yet--they show the Englishmen to be equal if not bigger buffoons in their slapstick antics.

The cries of racism probably weren't strong enough; in Spielberg's next movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) the attitude towards foreigners--in this case East Indians--is even more virulent. Jones helps a poor Indian village recover their magic Macguffin;* it's not a case of the white archeologist-adventurer recovering a powerful device for the free world, but of powerful and malevolent Indians oppressing their poorer brethren (the white adventurer is merely a benefactor). Spielberg's view of India (a country steeped in dire poverty, ancient architectural and cultural marvels, and great natural beauty) is almost unredeemably ugly, the ugliest I've seen in any picture supposedly set in that country (actually shot in soundstages in Elstree Studios, England, and in Sri Lanka (the location scout must have deliberately chosen the least appealing spots in that country), so that it doesn't look convincingly Indian, either). Offsetting this--well, other than the poor victimized village and a spoiled brat of a prince who turns out to have been under hypnotic control, there isn't any mitigating circumstances (Gunga Din at least had the loyal (if intellectually dim) Gunga Din).

*From Alfred Hitchcock: a "Macguffin" is the plot device (uranium, stolen secrets, ancient talisman, whatever) important to the characters in the picture that drives the story forward, but which we the audience couldn't care less about.

A royal feast midway through the picture is especially insulting, with offerings of pregnant pythons slit open, eyeball soup with distinctly human eyes (that aren't cooked), and chilled monkey brains. Spielberg doesn't even bother to get details of his gross-out fare right (none of these dishes are served in classic Indian cooking,* which has its own share of strange and wonderful dishes).

*the eating of live monkey brains is most often attributed to the Chinese not the Indians--and even then there's little actual documentation.

The sequel does exceed Raiders in number and quality of inventive action setpieces. The Chinese nightclub sequence, for example, with its diamond-delivering Lazy Susan, giant bulletproof gong, and Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in Mandarin, is an Oriental chop-suey wonder (here it's Capshaw's song that sets the tone); the mine scenes feature an innovative (for that time) chase; the battle on the bridge is genuinely thrilling (and not for the acrophobic). If pure popcorn entertainment can in any way justify a picture's cultural insensitivity, this is one of the better arguments I've heard from Hollywood in recent years. It almost--almost--makes its case.

Might add that Temple of Doom had a subtler, more insidious effect on future popcorn movies: as far as I know, this was the first time a chase was explicitly shot and edited as if it were an amusement park ride, with lengthy inserts of the action as seen riding inside the mine car. It's a special-effect wonder--I remember reading production stories about how a camera was mounted on little tracks, riding up and down scale model recreations of a mine--and here, at least, the connection made (between chase and roller-coaster ride) is witty; the elaborate effects were in the service of jokes, at least one of which was actually funny ("Water! Water!"). With time and endless repetition, however (by anything and everything from the Star Wars prequels (1999 - 2005) to Ice Age (2002), Chicken Little (2005--notice how American digital animation features are the worse offenders?) and the recent Horton Hears a Who! (2008)), the cliché has become tiresome and annoying.

The louder cries of racism and a temporary ban in India may have prompted Spielberg to reconsider: with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Spielberg abandons the use of foreign cultures as hate effigies and takes aim at a more convenient villain, the Nazis (when the swastika appears midway through the picture and Jones slumps back, saying "I hate Nazis," it's almost with a sigh of relief; at least, Spielberg seems to say, there won't be any protest letters from minority groups).

Spielberg took care to include a little local color: the incomparable canals of Venice, of course, and the amazing stone facades of Petra, a desert city carved out of a mountainside, acting as stand-in for the ancient temple hiding the Grail (for a series with a supposedly strong geo-historical orientation, I shudder to think what image of the world the movies present to millions of children). Middle Eastern characters are at best loyal sidekicks (Sallah, played by the Englishman John Rhys-Davies), ambivalent antagonists (The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, who at some points cross paths with Jones, then drop out of the picture entirely), or cannon fodder.

The action setpieces are--serviceable (maybe three stand out: a young Indy Jones clambering his way through a chugging circus train; a flagpole used against a motorcycle; a fighter plane and an umbrella in deadly confrontation). The movie's feature attraction is really Indiana's ambivalent relations with his father (Henry Jones, Jr., played by the by-now legendary Sean Connery). Of the three, Raiders comes off as perhaps the 'freshest' (considering most of its elements were secondhand), Temple of Doom staged the best action (and worst violence), Last Crusade was the most politically acceptable (was, at least, not out-and-out offensive), and emotionally complex (which isn't saying much, actually).

The series as a whole is a fine example of popcorn entertainment (if you can set aside the frankly racist content of the first two pictures) but compared to earlier entertainment, well...

Take Gunga Din. The Indy movies barely have a story--just a Macguffin hidden way in some remote death-trap for Jones to uncover; Gunga Din, which does do its share of borrowing, borrows from the best: the basic plot and premise of The Front Page transposed into an army comedy, where one officer (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) threatens to marry and leave the British Army while two fellow officers (Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen) scheme to keep him enlisted. If the Indy movies have one star turn (Ford, and at one point Connery), Gunga Din has three (Fairbanks, McLaglen, a magnificently physical Grant); if the Indy movies have Rube Goldberg action setpieces, Gunga Din has Rube Goldberg comic setpieces (and who's to say a comic setpiece is not an action setpiece, only funny?), plus a rousing finale that makes full use of all the character detail and comic goodwill built up in the past couple of hours. All in all, the Indiana Jones series aren't all that bad; it's just that there's better out there, if you're willing to go and look for it.

First published for Businessworld 5.23.08)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Santiago! (Lino Brocka, 1970)

It's odd thinking of Lino Brocka directing a big-budget action epic, much less directing the late action-star-turned-presidential-candidate Fernando Poe, Jr. in a World War 2 epic--but there you are; even if you watched Santiago! again and again, it still feels odd.

The film is difficult to like at first. Oh, it starts well enough, with Brocka taking a page from Jules Dassin's Du Rififi chez le hommes (Rififi, 1955): a nighttime attempt to sabotage a Japanese munitions store in the little town of Santiago, done without music or dialogue. But then comes the shock: Gonzalo (Fernando Poe, Jr.) discovers that the schoolhouse they are about to blow up is filled with women, old men, and schoolchildren (put there discourage exactly what they're trying to do); the school explodes, and Gonzalo is knocked unconscious.

Almost wished I was knocked unconscious too. At the moment of Gonzalo's realization Brocka cuts to the children, to the saboteur's panicked face, to the sparking fuse, each shot shorter and shorter in length as if to suggest the increasing sense of urgency building up inside the man. Problem is, it isn't very well edited--Brocka's films are almost never sharply edited (the one exception being in my opinion the French financed (and edited) Orapronobis (Fight For Us, 1989))--this sequence in particular is cut as if Fernando Poe's thought processes suffer from mental hiccups. Doesn't help that Brocka pours on the music, and it's a typical Lea Productions score, full of bathos and easy emotion; doesn't help either that Brocka shoots footage of the school burning in excruciatingly slow motion, as if he knew that this was a money shot, and he'd better have as much of it onscreen as he can.

Doesn't help that Gonzalo upon coming to his senses seems hysterical, or at least as hysterical as Poe is able to manage. FPJ (as Poe is affectionately called) is a gift of an action star, in that he's exactly as he seems to be: no facades, no Method acting, none of that nonsense. He's metal of the purest kind, and asking him to do something beyond the chemical properties of his particular element is like asking a fish to walk or a pig to fly; the fish just lies there, flopping, and the pig will patiently wait for you to feed him. You can ask FPJ to suggest a surprisingly large palette of emotions through his ever stolid face, but you cannot make him act them out for you, clearly and explicitly, as if in a soap opera or on a theater stage.

It does help that Brocka had for cinematographer the great Conrado Baltazar. You could tell it's Baltazar from the way he shoots domestic night scenes--he was a master at creating incandescent lighting, at making you believe a room was lit by two thirty-watt bulbs and little else. For the burning schoolhouse he manages to capture the rich orange glow, the lazy way the flames lick at the rooftop--like some fiery predator squatting atop the school, feeding on the people underneath.

The film's second half shifts the action to a small coastal town. Gonzalo has found amongst the wreckage of the schoolhouse a survivor, a seriously burnt girl (Hilda Koronel, in one of her earliest roles). Gonzalo asks a young man (Jay Ilagan) for help in carrying the girl to the young man's home; there for the next few months, Gonzalo with single-minded intensity nurses the girl back to health (shades of Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession (1954)). During the few months the girl spends under Gonzalo's care she falls in love with him--which is a problem, as the young man has in turn fallen in love with her. To complicate things, the young man's older sister (Boots Anson-Roa) has also fallen for Gonzalo, even if she's already engaged to another man (Dante Rivero).

Outside of the young man's home, Gonzalo walks among the villagers like an out-of-place titan; the locals look at him with awe, and not a little jealousy. Rumors fly, of course, and quite a few malicious stories are cooked up and spread around. It's interesting watching Brocka orchestrate the dynamics of rumor-mongering, and how the community's sentiment seems to waver, then draw itself together against Gonzalo. It helps that Gonzalo's character has been backed into a role Brocka identifies with intensely, the outsider who provokes local gossip (Brocka was born an illegitimate child, and for a time lived with--and was maltreated by--his mother's relatives). Brocka would deal with the subject on a broader yet more detailed canvas in his first genuine masterpiece, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974); here it's interesting to see Brocka direct a community's scorn not at a leper, or a mayor's illegitimate daughter (as in Tinimbang), but at a folk superman. Poe as Gonzalo handles the burden with becoming grace and humility, and it's in these later scenes that his performance, well within his comfort zone, really shines.

If in the film's early parts we glimpsed bits of Brocka's immaturity poking through all the glamorous production values (the fast (if erratic) cutting; the attempt at making FPJ 'act;' the frequent and at times unnecessary flashbacks*), several later scenes reveal early signs of Brocka the great Filipino dramatist. One sequence I particularly admire begins with Gonzalo's adopted family sitting around in their living room. It's a quiet scene, with not much action--dramatic or otherwise--going on; the younger brother, guitar on hand, starts to strum the lovely folk song Ikaw (You). Yet from the despondent expressions on the peoples' faces; from their body language and languid gestures; from the way they seem to listen--and yet not listen--to the song; most of all from the way the seated figures are arranged (like ikebana cuttings) before the camera, you can tell that there's a tension in the air, a sense of electricity, of anticipation.

And then you realize it's not that they're waiting for someone that's coming, it's that they're waiting for someone that's missing. And just when that realization blooms in one's mind, Brocka (with--this time, anyway--a supreme sense of timing) cuts to a shot of Gonzalo sitting outside, the camera angled just so that to the upper left of the screen you see the window of the very living room where the people who care about him sit, waiting.

A beautiful sequence, and not the least among its achievements is the fact that if the scene works no one should notice anything--yet everyone watching is undeniably, if unknowingly, moved.

The film's latter half devolves--harsh word, I suppose, but after a scene like that--into a series of standard-issue (if well produced) action sequences, including some low-key if impressive stuntwork, and a lengthy tracking shot of villagers crossing a flooded underground tunnel to safety. FPJ mows down his share of Japanese villains--you know the drill: a vigorous sweep of the semiautomatic and everyone with slanted eyes drops to the ground. Interestingly, when Celso Ad. Castillo directed FPJ in Asedillo (1971) the star refrained from any superhuman acts of killing; he was just a schoolteacher turned rebel hero, and if anything seemed outsized and near-mythical about him it was probably due to Ad. Castillo's expressive direction (the film's theme, after all, was the making of an ordinary man into a legend) and Sergio Lobo's larger-than-life cinematography. Interesting too, that when Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero directed FPJ in Intramuros: The Walls of Hell (1964) the film had realistically staged (if inventive, even tense) action sequences. FPJ there was like a Latin James Dean, all tilted head and youthful arrogance and the camera (and audience) can't help but love him, but no, no wholesale slaughter of the Japanese at the pull of a trigger.

To be fair, De Leon, Romero and even Ad. Castillo when they worked with FPJ were already veterans; Brocka on the other hand was a neophyte director making his sophomore effort. He was lucky to land an assignment with FPJ, and if the star of the production wanted to kill scores of soldiers in a single sweep, who was Brocka to say otherwise?

Still, Santiago! has its place in Brocka's oeuvre: an early draft for Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; a rare moment in the man's career when he stepped outside of his melodramatic domain; an honest attempt at epic period filmmaking a la Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976). And one can see how Brocka, even with the burden of a large-scale production full of extravagant special effects (unlike Tatlong Taong or Intramuros, this film boasts of large, intricately detailed models of churches and bridges being blown up with genuine explosives, not New Year's Eve firecrackers--always an expensive undertaking), even with star producers dictating terms, even with the limitations of the war drama genre, still manages to make the film somehow personal, somehow his own.

* On those flashbacks--I'd say they were mostly unnecessary save one, a black-and-white, wordless interlude where Mario O'Hara and Caridad Sanchez play a married couple whose happiness is torn asunder by the Japanese. What is it with Brocka's intensely told side-stories (especially when O'Hara is acting in them (see also: Tinimbang)), that they often steal attention from the rest of the film, and are often more interesting than the main narrative line?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Perfect Creature (Glenn Standring, 2006)

Perfect stinker

Perfect Creature (2006), which Glenn Standring singelhandedly wrote and directed, apparently did not get a decent commercial release in the United States; none of the major papers reviewed it (New York Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, so on and so forth), none of the major critics (Roger Ebert for one (not that I consider him authoritative in any way on matters of cinema--only that he has a popular TV show and some pull at the boxoffice)) gave it any attention (or even a brief mention). "Straight to video" is the term I'm looking for, I think, which does not bode well for the movie's quality.

Or does it? Sometimes one finds a gem in the discounted DVD bin. King of the Ants (2003) suffered a similar fate: Stuart Gordon's compelling little exploitation flick showed us the kind of terror that can be conjured from a malevolent George Wendt (unrecognizable without his overstuffed business suit, or the calls of "Norm!" trailing in his sizable wake) and a simple golf club. The film took Gordon's gift for Lovecraftian grotesquerie in films like Re-animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Dagon (2001) and inserted them into decidedly more realistic (read: suburban) settings; it gave us a charmingly sympathetic hero (Chris McKenna) doing decidedly unsympathetic things (stalking women, murder), provoking all kinds of complex feelings from us along the way (Is McKenna a creep? A horrifically helpless victim? Some inextricable combination of both?).

Perfect Creatures doesn't inspire that kind of fascination, but does show considerable ambition--it's not our future the film depicts, but some kind of steampunk variation of it. High-tech dirigibles glide across the sky; policemen wield what look like Luger pistols; people drive '40s-style cars down streets overshadowed by towering Gothic constructions. Vampires are not just real, they're an accepted and vital part of society. They have formed an elite class called The Brotherhood and established a comfortable symbiotic relationship with their mortal brethren: humans (in a parody of the Catholic Eucharist) offer up their blood willingly for consumption, while The Brothers offer theirs as a means of curing human diseases and prolonging life.

It's a conceit worthy of Joss Whedon, that master integrator of wildly different genres (vampirism and the teen angst flick (Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)); Westerns and pirate flicks with science fiction (Firefly, 2002, and the feature film made from it three years later)) in such a way that they comment on each other, mutually reinforce each other, give each other fresh nuances that each alone otherwise wouldn't have. Would that Standring have imbibed some of Whedon's wit, or consistent hand with a story. Standring posits a world with vampires and humans in harmonious balance; that balance is thrown off by Edgar (Leo Gregory), a vampire gone berserk: he goes around openly attacking people and drinking their blood (the victims obligingly spray their blood around in arterial spurts--startling at first but you'd be surprised how quickly that gets old).

Edgar turns out to be a pawn in a greater conspiracy staged by The Brotherhood--but the details don't really matter, because when all is finally revealed it doesn't carry a lot of dramatic weight. Partly that's because the actors (Dougray Scott as Edgar's dour older brother Silus; Saffron Burrows as Silus' equally dour love interest and police-officer-slash-crimefighting-partner Lilly) have been ordered to pitch the emotional tone in their performance at a level slightly above icewater (only Edgar is told otherwise, with his emotional dial nailed at "massive landscape mastication"). Partly it's because the details are so fuzzy: The Brotherhood, we're told, is corrupt, evil, repressive, but aside from the odd revelation here and there, we don't really see what they do (it doesn't help that other than Silus and Edgar, no other member of The Brotherhood really stand out--it's like fighting shadows, only shadows in the right director's hands (Stuart Gordon comes to mind) might present a more palpable threat). And the battles are predictably one-sided: Silus sets up one trap after another, some of them well-planned; Edgar pops up and promptly whips Silus' butt; Silus barely escapes by the skin of his teeth. Pause; repeat cycle again, and again, and again. One wonders: are the two really brothers, or has Silus been less than straight with us? Is Silus congenitally incapable of at all handling his younger brother, or has the virus brought everyone's IQ level except Edgar's down to single digits?

There are compensatory scenes, I think--Edgar's escape, for one (he's held prisoner in one of the picture's genuinely brilliant designs, a personal restraint system built on the principle of the falcon's claw: struggle, and sharp projections dig deeper into one's throat); Edgar and Silus facing each other down (Gregory's and Scott's glowering brows are a memorable match) and taunting the other to make the first move. Sometimes a moment feels right, like when Silus contemplates Lilly's sleeping arm--he gazes at a gently pulsing vein, then gives the wrist a cautious sniff.

For the most part, though, Standring pads out the picture's running time with gimmicky camera moves borrowed from Sam Riami's Evil Dead movies (you know what I mean--point-of-view shots that skitter from one ventilation shaft to the next, sometimes nosing past a squeaking rat, sometimes zooming close on a man cocking his gun) to indicate superhuman senses, and fills the many dead spots with aforementioned pointless fight sequences where Edgar keeps winning. Perfect Creatures comes close to being a good movie; it comes so close one could almost smell with one's nose how close it is, missing a few centimeters at a time, all the time.

First appeared in Businessworld, the Weekender section, on 5/15/08

Friday, May 09, 2008

Deception (Marcel Langenegger, 2008)

De suction

Noel Vera

Marcel Langenegger and Mark Bombeck's
Deception (2008) is some kind of minor camp classic. It posits Ewan McGregor as Jonathan McQuarry, an accountant too shy to get laid--which, considering the man's filmography (there was a point before he started playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' excruciating prequels when he seemed contractually obligated to bare his bottom in every project), is reason to start sniggering right there.

So: Jonathan has trouble meeting girls (pffftkhkhkhkh…'scuse me); enter Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman, refreshingly villainous after doing all those heroic X-Men sequels and gloomy romantic leading roles). Wyatt introduces Jonathan to The List, an exclusive club whose members (all good-looking and smashingly successful) call each other, arrange a meeting, and have hot yet discreet sex in expensive hotel rooms (sort of like a cross between and American Express).

Jonathan meets a slew of beautiful women, played by everyone from Paz de la Huerta to Rachael Taylor, though easily the most remarkable of the lot (their cover-girl glamour tends to get monotonous fast) is Charlotte Rampling, she of the unsettling cool grey eyes and mysterious smile, still a stunner at the age of sixty-plus (they have to put her on a Forbes magazine cover as a "Wall Street Belle," of course, to explain the fact that she looks far too intelligent to have ever walked a fashion ramp).

Now, if Jonathan had stuck to the Belle we might have had something, but instead he meets "S" (Michelle Williams, looking as trashy as ever), a woman who he had caught a glimpse of in the subway a month back, and has since been obsessing over. This should have lead to some extra-steamy sex, but Jonathan is so lovestruck he can't even pork his inamorata; he has to sit up in bed looking at her while she (and a good portion of the audience I saw the movie with) sleeps peacefully.

So far, so lame. Turns out this isn't some profound exploration of human sexuality and obsession; turns out it's actually a financial thriller, with a blackmail plot involving Jonathan's accounting job so elaborate and unwieldy one imagines it would have been easier to be appointed into the present Bush administration and steal money straight from taxpayers (Jackman is certainly handsome enough, and it isn't as if Republican candidates have never been drafted from Hollywood before). Jonathan's head spins so fast he can't even follow-up on the water pipe leek in his overexpensive apartment bedroom (a detail so blatantly and repeatedly noted it's bound to figure in the plot--and Langenegger's such a hamfisted moviemaker you can hear him dragging said detail into position a mile away). The moviemakers are so worried about keeping their elephantine extortion scheme moving forward they forget along the way to make our hero care about the death of an innocent bystander (which is okay, I suppose; we forget to care about our hero, too).

If you think the blackmail is ridiculous, wait till you see Jonathan's designs for revenge and reversal (Hint: he manages to obtain a fake passport, an airline ticket, and a way of blocking Bose's electronic fund transfer to a bank in Madrid. All this born full-blown, seems to me, within the few seconds that Jonathan stares at a photograph--and still he has to depend on "S" not just changing her unreliable mind, but showing up at the right place and right time with a handy pistol in her purse)).

I didn't care; I really didn't. I'd given up about an hour before, and just sat back to enjoy the many moments worthy of catcalls and flung popcorn bags (this amidst the several patrons with their heads bent back, snoring unashamedly). I'm ready to go so far as to call this a cult classic, only poor Langenegger (whose feature debut this is) doesn't have the talent to make the picture as delirious visually as it is narratively (Langenegger can't generate much thrills out of the suspense sequences, while the sex is shot and edited to resemble perfume ads).

It's not as if erotic thrillers have to be logical to work--Alfred Hitchcock's great Vertigo (1958) featured an absurdly cumbersome murder, and a film as recent as Richard Rush's much underrated Color of Night (1994--which, come to think of it, owes much to Vertigo, or at least Hitchcock's earlier Spellbound (1945)) manages to juggle half a dozen suspects and still make the real killer's unmasking a surprise.

Then there's Brian De Palma, who not only uses ridiculously intricate storylines but makes a fetish of them. Take something like Femme Fatale (2003)--the real suspense isn't whether or not Rebecca Romijn-Stamos will come out okay in the end; it's if De Palma can (after the bizarre whirls and twirls of his hypernoirish postmodern narrative) still land right-side-up on his own two feet.

These films transcend their hoot-worthy storylines through a prodigious use of style--through throbbing reds and oily golds and luminous greens splattered across the big screen, through unforgettable uses of light and shadow (a nun's startling silhouette; an image-multiplying prism; a gemstone's brilliant sparkle) while intricate, largely wordless sequences unfold in their own hypnotically sweet time, revealing filmmakers every bit as obsessed as their protagonists with their one great, true love (cinema, of course).

Looked at on those terms, at the tremendous platters of moist flesh on display (and if you think there aren't any in Vertigo, look again--at Hitchcock's lovingly giant close-ups of Kim Novak, dunked (in seawater) and undunked, rouged (thickly) and unrouged), Deception is more like a weenie on a toothpick--but a tasty weenie, nevertheless, full of spice and odd, at times off-putting, flavors. Not bad for a quick, unnourishing nosh.

First published in Businessworld, 5.9.08