Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jules Dassin, 1911 - 2008 (a belated tribute)

Night and the City

(Please note: plot of various films discussed in minute detail)

He looked like the gentlest of men, but in Pote tin Kyriaki (Never on a Sunday, 1960) he played an American prude and sexual hypocrite; in Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955) he was a happy-go-lucky Italian safecracker too weak-willed to resist betraying his friends. He looked like the gentlest of men, but one wonders, from what one sees of him in his films, from what one sees in his films, how exactly did he see himself; what, exactly, did he keep hidden inside?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

(Plot discussed in minute detail)

The murk knight

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) is arguably the biggest event of the summer, and not just because of the running time--it's got an endless variety of explosions, an elaborate interlude in Hong Kong, and enough underground, aboveground, interior, exterior, over-water and mid-air stunts, vehicle collisions and fight sequences to satisfy the most jaded of viewers (the only thing missing is a Batsub, with our hero donning a Batlung for underwater action). 

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)

Iron Man can keel over dead, Wall.E rust in a corner, Kung Fu Panda choke on his chopsticks and Hancock sear his black butt on a hot grill; the most satisfying summer movie to date has to be Guillermo del Toro's flat-out beautiful Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

Never been a fan of CGI, not the way it's being churned out by Hollywood nowadays, but del Toro's are actually palatable--he puts in enough texture and seen-through-the-corner-of-one's-eye visual blur that you accept much of it as solid, even real

And more than the solidity is the sheer beauty of some of the creations--the slumbering stone giant, the forest god rampaging in Brooklyn, the prince and princess with their pale pallor and shared injuries. Del Toro gives his pop pulp a poetry he feels it deserves--feels so strongly you're halfway persuaded, yourself.

Along with the elevated visuals are elevated emotions, like soap opera on a larger stage. Liz and Hellboy's relationship enters a new phase, Abe Sapiens finds a new reason to be around, and even the putative villains--a father, son, daughter--are playing out a family drama with consequences that reach beyond their own underground realm. One thinks of them as Muslim insurgents, exiled royalty, sole survivors of a dying culture, and this sense of tragedy colors the film's conflict. As the prince puts it to Hellboy: "You have more in common with us than them, demon."

Great fun, wonderful art. Go see.

Toki wo kakeru shôjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosada, 2006)

Leaping to the top of her class

Mamoru Hosada's Toki wo kakeru shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 2006) is easily the finest animated feature to come out in recent years (never mind Dreamworks' fitfully amusing if infantile Kung Fu Panda or Pixar's shamelessly Chaplinesque and overly sentimental Wall.E, both released this year). If anything, I'd call the film the best animated feature since Hayao Miyazaki's own anti-war epic Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004) some two years previous (Diana Wynne Jones' novel wasn't so clearly anti-war--but this was just after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the impact of its firebombing scenes in the context of the times (arguably the first great film on the war) is unforgettable).

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008); Wall.E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Perhaps the best part of Andrew Stanton's Wall.E (2008) is the largely wordless first forty minutes depicting the robot's goofball infatuation with Eve, the sleek 'droid sent to Earth on a classified mission. Stanton manages to creat a remarkable junkyard world of rusted metal and scrapped items, and his main character (much as Chaplin or Fred Astaire did decades before) turns each sample of pop culture into an object of mystery, inventive comedy, wonderment (funny how much of it comes from '80s America (even the recording of The Music Man (1962) is replayed in the form of a VHS tape)).

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Miss agitated

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) is as direct as a white man's contemptuous glare, as mysterious as a black man's serene gaze.

Fassbinder uses color, stylized theater acting and camera movement to point up the extreme isolation felt (and developing bond shared) by two lovers--Emmi (Brigitte Mira), an elderly cleaning lady, and 'Ali' (El Hedi ben Salem), a young Moroccan immigrant worker who came to his name by mistake (his real full name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha).

Their first meeting at a bar, for instance: we first see Emmi entering the establishment's front door, the row of small tables (topped with a rich red tablecloth) emphasizing her distance from the camera. Fassbinder cuts to a reverse shot where Ali, bar owner Barbara (Barbara Valentin) and friends stare at Emmi as if at a personal affront. Cut back to Emmi, who at this wordless assault gropes for a chair to pull back and sit down.

Ali is asked to dance with Emmi; he goes forth to comply. Cut to the seated Emmi as Ali asks; their shared posture--Emmi at her chair looking to the left, Ali standing behind her bent slightly in the same direction--already has the look of a casual pas de deux. Emmi seems flustered at the question, somehow finds the perfect answer ("why not?") then stands up; like a butterfly shedding her cocoon she drops her black overcoat to reveal a bright white-and-yellow dress; not spectacular, but a bit startling to see on such a humble mouse of an old lady. She and Ali walk to the back, Fassbinder not cutting (as he did when Ali went to Emmi's table) but following them, underlining the drama of their gesture (handsome young man asking, shy senior citizen accepting), the fact that both ends of the bar has suddenly been united.

A red spot is turned on; the couple dances slowly under its heavy glow. We listen to their conversation and it's easy, casual; the two feel totally at home with each other, chatty Emmi curious at her dance partner, Ali easygoing and open despite the stumbling block of his faltering German. If there's any electricity to the moment, any tension, it's coming from Barbara and friends, who stare at the shuffling couple as if at a personal affront doubly insulting (now there's two of them).

Emmi returns to her table, Ali following; behind them Barbara walks up to set Ali's beer (which he had left at the bar's other end) on the table. Barbara walks away, and the camera which had held the table in a medium shot glides sideways to catch Barbara stopping midway down the bar to turn and look at the couple; Emmi's table up close, Barbara in mid-distance, the figures at the far end--all three sets of figures plus the bar's considerable length help emphasize the distance between elderly stranger, Moroccan, and disapproving watchers. 

Emmi decides to go; Ali decides to escort her home. As they stand up to leave the camera suddenly pulls back from them, Fassbinder's way of underlining the significance of the moment. But the shot has yet another function: when Fassbinder cuts to a reverse shot it's to Barbara, looking at the departing couple; we realize that the camera has leaped from table bystander to Barbara's point of view--from sympathetic viewers, in effect, to silent onlookers, silently judging the two. 

At the hallway of Emmi's apartment building we see Fassbinder building their intimacy through dialogue, staging and, again, camera movement. The scene begins with a long shot as the two enter the front door; Fassbinder breaks this into two separate shots, cutting from Ali asking questions to Emmi answering. Then Fassbinder brings them together again by having Emmi walk from one side of the room to the other while Ali is standing but behind her, out-of-focus. Emmi is talking about her job; suddenly she turns to look at Ali (who snaps into focus) and notes that he would look better in lighter-colored suits (turning her focus to Ali transfers our attention from her and her past to him). When she talks of children, Ali moves forward to finally stand beside her; mention of family, of being with them and being without, has brought the two closer together. From polite strangers trying to maintain an interested conversation Fassbinder swiftly and persuasively shows them becoming real friends, sharing secrets, sharing vulnerabilities. 

When the two finally become lovers Fassbinder makes this such a natural, uncomplicated development it takes one's breath away: Fassbinder, master of melodrama, baroque storytelling, extremes of suffering and emotion, is also capable of creating scenes of simple tenderness and transcendent joy--in some ways the more difficult achievement. 

As their intimacy grows, so does resistance to their union. Fassbinder uses a variety of means, but the gossipy women chatting in scandalized voices is such an old and familiar device I had to laugh--Lino Brocka, whose sensibility comes closest to Fassbinder's than any other significant Filipino filmmaker I know, has used small-town gossip-mongers at least one other time, in his early masterwork Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) (and in fact there Brocka also had his version of the aliented couple, in the form of a leper and a madwoman (Mario O'Hara and Lolita Rodriguez, in arguably their finest onscreen roles)).

In interracial dramas the character whose race is the issue is often a paragon of virtue, and for at least the picture's first half that's what Ali is: patient understanding, charming, somewhere this side of lifeless. In the film's second half Fassbinder adds flesh to this walking cliché: he grants Ali the right to be willful, self-destructive, even cruel--to be fully human, in effect, free to experience and inflict every form of suffering such a state of existence implies. At this point Fear Eats the Soul transcends its racial issues and becomes a meditation on the mysteries of human nature; the relationship, unhappy because of stresses without, starts to crack from stresses within. The strange and somehow beautiful finale brings the film full circle, and we can see Emmi and Ali continuing on, but on a sadder, not necessarily wiser level (or if wiser, not necessarily capable or willing to act on that expensive bit of wisdom). A great film, one of Fassbinder's finest. 

The Goethe-Institut’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival kicks off on July 5 with a screening of a documentary on the director, I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (3 p.m.), followed by a discussion on Fassbinder by Teddy Co at 5 p.m. and a screening of Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) at 6 p.m. The film festival, which will run until July 26, will be held at the Goethe-Institut Manila, 5F Adamson Center, 121 L.P. Leviste St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. The movies will be screened on Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 3 and 6 p.m. There is also an exhibit of posters of his films which will run during the duration of the festival. For more information, call 817-0978. The screening schedule is available at Admission is free. 

Friday, July 04, 2008

Martha (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

Till death do them part

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Martha (1973) based loosely on Cornell Woolrich's short story "For the Rest of Her Life" is ostensibly a television movie, but the themes, visual look, and complexity of this supposedly minor work (in a supposedly inferior medium) puts most major motion pictures to shame (fact is, can't think of anything that came out of the multiplexes this year or the past few years that could even compare).