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--

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