Saturday, August 30, 2008

Battle Royale, Battle Royale 2, PTU, Triad Election

I've finally seen Battle rowaiaru (Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku, 2000), about a future Japan whose economy has collapsed, whose students have become delinquent, whose government has passed the 'Battle Royale' act (where high school classes are kidnapped and put on an island to try kill each other off), and it's shockingly bad. Not so much for the violence (Takeshi Kitano, who has a role in this picture, has depicted far more disturbing fare in his own films), as for the sentimentality, basically a bunch of high school kids keening over their best friends' corpses and confessing long-hidden crushes to each other--much more effective upchuck material than the various shootings, decapitations, and skewerings sprinkled throughout the picture.

More amusing are the various villains, sociopaths with generally better weaponry (they're armed at random--supposedly--from semiautomatic weapons to pot lids) who smile maniacally before murdering their fellow schoolmates. Most interesting of all is Kitano, a hunched sad sack of a man with a game show host manner (and in fact he may have been cast for that very reason) when either planting a knife in a former student's forehead, or explaining the rules of the game to his former class (the two main ones being: keep off the constantly shifting danger zones or the necklace around your neck explodes; kill each other off until one survivor is left or on the third day all necklaces explode, killing everyone). Kitano's character ultimately reveals himself to be more pathetic than everyone else and the biggest sentimentalist of all; the game (which doesn't make a lot of sense, when you think about it) less about control of the out-of-control younger generation (why the sadism? If it's meant to strike fear in their hearts, why keep it a secret?) than it is group therapy (with rather permanent results) for an emotionally repressed Japanese public.

Batoro rowaiaru ll: Chinkonka (Battle Royale 2: Requiem, Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku, 2003) is, if anything, even worse than the first movie. Yet another class is kidnapped (don't parents wise up to their kids disappearing on field trips?) and their assignment is to assault an island being defended by the survivor of the first picture, now the head of a terrorist group.

The rules make even less sense (why are they still bothering with danger zones? And what's all this nonsense about pairing them off such that if one dies, the other dies too? Don't they want the terrorists group eliminated?); the battle sequences are directly lifted from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); the sentimentality is stickier than ever. Worse of all, they've replaced Kitano with some nondescript character who would rather chew scenery than anything else (he tries too hard to be scary, and the results are more laughable than menacing).

Johnnie To's PTU (2003), about one night in the life of a police tactical unit, should go wrong in so many ways it generates its own kind of suspense--how long can one go without an actual shootout? How many clichés (from the cop's stolen gun to the hostile officer from a brother agency to the furious gang lord seeking revenge for the death of his son) can be introduced and given To's unique spin on the matter, a combination of cynical visual wit and sharp behavioral observation (he's like one of those Chinese acrobats with fifteen plates whirring in the air at once)? And how much style can To generate to sustain our interest for a full ninety minutes?

One might call this an expansion of the paper ball soccer game in To's Cheung fo (The Mission, 1999), where To and his characters seem to be riffing to pass the time, only the calm is deceptive (I can't help but feel that Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) is also an inspiration--a film about a night spent in Soho that's really a night spent in Hell). Turns out the faint air of corruption hanging in the streets (the affairs of triad and police officers are uncomfortably intertwined) affects everyone, infects everyone, moves them and motivates them in a thousand little ways; by the end of the picture very little has happened, yet somehow everything has changed. Excellent 'action' film, where the tension is in the anticipation of violence, not its actual realization.

And finally there's Johnnie To's Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Triad Election, 2006), the sequel to his previous film, where To pretty much realizes his ambition to create a Godfather like epic set in Hong Kong.

The sequel occurs three years later, when yet another election for the new triad chairman of the Wo Shing Society (the oldest and biggest in Hong Kong, operating in the Tsim Sha Tsui district) rolls around; this time Lok (Simon Yam) wants to stay in power (sounds familiar, anyone?) and is up against one of his rising lieutenants, Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo). Lok's lines sound tired now (he tells each of his prospective candidates that they will be the next chairman, they have his support), presumably from the strain of managing his empire, and from the guilt of watching his son fall into gang influence (one wonders if the boy hadn't been seriously traumatized by past events). Jimmy, however, has his own drama: he wants to go legitimate, and establish a substantial foothold (in his case a gigantic housing and business development) in mainland China (every American corporation's wet dream, incidentally, at least before the recent crisis; nowadays their immediate goal is to stay above water).

To's style here is I'd say subtler, quieter, more haunting--he's capable of images that stay with you for days (maybe the rest of your life): a closeup of Jimmy's face as his boat glides slowly, silently away from another (where a man is being prepared for a watery burial); a shot in profile and without sound of unspeakable things being done to a bound man in a dog kennel; a shot of Jet (Nick Cheung) coming out of nowhere and running for his life from a gang of thugs wielding meat cleavers (again as in the first no guns are used, and the resulting violence is considerably more gruesome)--how and why we don't know, and never find out.

Yam's Lok was the magnetic central figure in the first film; Koo's Jimmy is no less compelling. He's a businessman, first and foremost, and in the beginning, standing on a high hill viewing the vast fields he intends to transform, the imagery is almost biblical--Christ on a mountaintop, being offered the world. To gives us hints of what goes on in Koo's mind, how the various frustrations and obstacles before him aggravate his stubborn determination to scheme, deal, hack, kill his way to his goal. When at one point he suddenly stands up and takes matters literally in his own hands, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck--not because I was seeing a psychopath losing control but because I was seeing a driven man, a man who could very well be myself, the pressure of time and need and money forcing his arm into action.

It's a subtle, near-subliminal performance worthy of comparison to Al Pacino's in The Godfather Part 2, and it's to To's credit that he lets Koo's mask of cool slip only twice: first in a horrific torture sequence straight out of--well, I'm not sure what exactly inspired it, but I wonder if To's action-film contemporaries (Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, John Woo) are capable of thinking up such acts (Danny Lee, maybe). The second is, if anything, even more horrific--a demonstration of power and its application so absolute it leaves you with jaw dropped, hands clutching armrests--yes, Jimmy's dreams are realized (we even have the obligatory scene of the happy man hugging his expectant wife), but at what cost? A great film, I think, this and its predecessor; possibly the two together represent To's most ambitious work to date--even his masterpiece.

Tambolista (Drumbeat, Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2007)

Beat the devil

Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s Tambolista (Drumbeat) recalls Brillante Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot) in not a few ways, though probably not intentionally--both were released in 2007, both are noirish depictions of Manila, both feature multiple characters involved in multiple narrative strands, both use of urban noir filmmaking techniques (handheld shots, soundtrack full of incidental music and ambient sound, restless editing rhythms).

The film also feels inspired by Vittorio de Sica's Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), with the latter's protagonists not unsimilar to Alix's pair of brothers--Jason (Jiro Manio) and Billy (Coco Martin)--struggling to fulfill their unlikely dream (a horse in de Sica's film, a drum set in Alix's), and having their world crumble around them as a consequence; Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950) with its malevolent older youth who corrupts and eventually destroys his young protégé; and Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981), where a boy is driven to murder.

But Alix's film also has its own virtues--first and foremost the city of Manila, as bewildering and chaotic and claustrophobic a jungle as any megacity on Earth. Alix is careful to exploit the visual possibilities with a digital camera (which while it doesn't have the clarity or color palette of 35 mm--Alix doesn't have the resources to do what Michael Mann did with an HD digicam in Miami Vice (2006)--are not inconsiderable). He's up against a daunting number of previous works that treat the city as a main character--Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night (1980), Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986), Jeffrey Jeturian's Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999), Mendoza's own Tirador.

That Alix doesn't embarrass himself being compared to classics is possibly the highest compliment I can give. Simply by capturing details of the city--the dilapidated lobby of a second-run theater (in Cubao or Quiapo, I'm not quite sure); the cramped alleyway of a squatter community; the teeming afternoon traffic--Alix renders a portrait all too familiar yet somehow still fascinating (like a matured beauty, Manila still has its handsome side, its compulsively photographable (and I don't mean touristy) side).

He complements this portrait with a fractured narrative (screenplay by newcomer Regina Tayag)--like Robert Bresson, he refuses to have his various narrative threads explicitly laid out for the audience; instead we pick them up in media res and follow them through as best we can. Chronological order's no guide either--Alix has mixed things up, coming back to certain scenes again and again (a man watching another enter a movie-theater bathroom; three men pulling a wooden plank in from across a second-story window), and our comprehension only comes slowly, painfully, like in an intravenous drip.

Sometimes too painfully. At one point Billy learns that his girlfriend is pregnant; they share a sullen moment together--you know what they're planning to do--and suddenly, we see Billy bent over a toilet, vomiting. Why? One can guess, but the narrative jump made is too distracting; at the very least Alix could throw in a few connective scenes later on, to fill the gaps.

While we're complaining, Alix might look into improving his fight sequences--some moments of violence--or even of sex (both need careful choreography) don't look as if the doer is really connecting with the doee, if you know what I mean. Little details, but sometimes God (or the Devil) is in the details; you're redeemed or damned accordingly.

Alix adorns his shuffled story with a Christmas tree's worth of lovely performances, from Anita Linda as an old woman perpetually berating her male companion ("all she needs is to get laid," a neighbor whispers) to Rick Davao as the hollowly cheerful father of Billy and Jason, to Sid Lucero (actor Mark Gil's son) as Pablo, the two boys' good friend, who stays with them for a time because he'd been thrown out by his previous landlord for sleeping with the landlord's wife.

Alix has spiced up his picture with sex, a small fistful of scenes, and there's a special frisson from watching men and women who look less than glamorous (in other words, less silicone-implanted than Hollywood) get it on with gusto. Aside from the abovementioned problem of connection, it's about time we saw franker and less inhibited sex on the adult Filipino screen.

Best of all he's pulled his diverse mixture together with a soundtrack composed and performed by the unbelievably proficient independent Filipino filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz (at the tender age of 35 the creator of sixteen features and over sixty shorts (and I don't mean pants)). I've only seen an extremely limited sample of Khavn's prodigious output, but whatever his talents as filmmaker he's impressed me more as a musician: his score for John Torres' Todo Todo Teros (2006) and for Tambolista are urgent, eclectic, crude; the latter's occasionally riffing drumbeat (presumably Jason jamming on a borrowed set) literally function as the film's (and city's) heartbeat, setting its pace and tone and level of excitement. Along with a royal flush of recent Filipino digital filmmakers (John Torres (Todo Todo Teros; Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside (2008)); Raya Martin (Indio Nacional (2006)); Dennis Marasigan (Sa North Diversion Road (On North Diversion Road, 2005)); Auraeus Solito (Ang Padadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)); and Sigfried Sanchez (Anak ni Brocka (Son of Brocka, 2005))), Alix is a welcome new voice in an exciting new field--the most vital in the country, arguably.

(First published on Businessworld 8.30.08)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Star Wars: the Clone Wars (Dave Filoni, 2008)

Cloned Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Dave Filoni, 2008) sucks. How much? Think of the business end of a vacuum cleaner; think a boat caught in a giant maelstrom; think a spaceship tipping into a black hole's event horizon.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars stinks. How much? Think pig carcass stuck in a car in summer heat (I happen to have been watching a replay of Mythbusters). Gas masks and biohazard equipment, for the record, are ineffective at countering a stench this vile.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is hateful. How hateful? I'm seriously considering whether or not I would rather undergo a root canal without anesthesia than watch this again.

It's basically the story of--but I won't bore you with the details. Painful enough trying to piece things together from the mindnumbingly dull narration, the at times pretentious-sounding dialogue (which had all the fizz and verve of flat Coke), the at other times ridiculously childish banter (George Lucas' screenplays have this odd disconnect--it's as if he had written an endless historical epic full of elderly statesmen debating economic and political issues, a junky B-movie script about a band of lobotomized smart-aleck adventurers who try at witty dialogue, and had accidentally mixed their pages together).

The character design--well, Lucas is on record as wanting a look reminiscent of Japanese anime and the 'Supermarionation' of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. By way of review: Japanese anime is designed to use flash and visual impact to disguise the reduced number of frames per second of the animation (frames per second determining the smoothness of an animated figure's motions); 'Supermarionation' is basically stringed puppets brought to life (and more or less enchanting the pants off of a select (and rather lucky) group of kids)--any possible appeal it possesses comes from the brassy music score (you often didn't know whether to listen or march to the music) and the solid, incredibly detailed sets the marionettes pretend to walk around in. Combining anime with 'Supermarionation' successfully combines the worst of both worlds: the clunkiness of Japanese anime (usually hidden by quick editing and various musical and visual punctuations (bursting lights, wind-ruffled hair; blaring music)), the woodenness of marionettes.

Actually, I'd like to pipe up a moment on behalf of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Yes, they basically cooked up silly puppet shows to foreground their incredibly modelwork(the Thunderbirds sequences featuring Tracy Island with its tilting coconut trees (to make room for Thunderbird 2's wings), its swimming pool that slid to one side (Thunderbird 1's exit point) are worth the price of admission (all right, it's TV) right there), but the marionettes were not totally inexpressive--they could lift a hand just so to suggest puzzlement, confusion, just a hint of depression; they could shake their heads and imply desperately conflicting desires; they could hold absolutely still and you'd swear there was a malevolent glint in the corner of a villain's eye. Comparing Lucas' Clone Wars characters to Gerry and Sylvia's rather entertaining efforts is actually an insult--they deserve better.

I'd mentioned the dialogue. The mix of highflown exposition and lowdown comedy is generally regarded as part of the charm (saw the movies again and no, the charm hasn't aged well); I possibly wouldn't have minded this particular screenplay so much if it wasn't for the fact that half the story and dialogue's been recycled, not once but several times throughout the movies--when Anakin is stuck on the planet Christophsis, for example, he's forced to deal with yet another shield generator (what is it with these things that makes them so damned popular? They haven't done squat for anyone who actually used them); after completing his mission he's basically sent on yet another rescue (Star Wars and the opening of Return of the Jedi, anyone?); and while the phrase "I've got a bad feeling about this" is missing from this picture (the first Star Wars movie ever to do so), any number of other worn-out phrases (yes, even "I've got a bad feeling" felt tired way back in the '80s) are repeated ad nauseam (Anakin is described as "a new hope" or "their only hope;" opponents are taunted with "you'll have to do better than that;" a villain's presence is detected thanks to "a disturbance in the Force").

It doesn't help that where the heroes aren't lackluster they're downright annoying--take Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Anakin Skywalker's new padwan, or apprentice; not five minutes from setting foot on the planet she's already sassing Anakin (Matt Lanter, making no particular effort at capturing the especially unparticular voice of Hayden Christensen) and talking like a Queen Bee. Jabba the Hutt had his gross charms in the otherwise charmless Return of the Jedi (1983), but here (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) he resembles nothing more and nothing less than a large turd; in which case his son Rotta the Hut (David Acord) resembles a large dingleberry (if you google that word, check slang definitions), and his effeminate uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) a turd produced by someone who'd been eating purple yams.

(Ziro incidentally, is an offensive stereotype--so if someone coded purple with a woman impersonator's voice, does this mean he's perverted, treacherous, untrustworthy? Anyone looked at Lucas' movies lately? His most forthrightedly gay character, See-Threepio (Anthony Daniels) is an ineffectual buffoon, meant to act as comic relief and foil to the more manly (if diminutive (not putting down short folks, just noting the negative connotations Lucas inserts)) Artoo-Detoo)

The movie's generally considered to be the pilot to an animated series to be shown on Cartoon Network later this year. Now pilots are usually created to test a series; if the pilot did well ratingwise and with the critics, the series was approved; if it didn't, the series wasn't. I more or less have an idea of what most critics think (in a word: "Fpthtpthpthpthpthpthpthpth!") and it's on record as the first ever Star Wars movie that failed to open the weekend at number one--does this mean we're to be spared the TV series? Desperate minds want to know.

(First published in Businessworld, 8.22.08)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Confessional (Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto, 2007)

Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) is a cute little number that opens exactly as its title announces, as a casually winning first-person narrative that is funny and insightful and not a little cynical, tossing in along the way every trick known to an independent filmmaker working on a nonexistent (one million pesos or, roughly, twenty-three thousand dollars) budget--to whit: handheld camera, clever cutting, catchy pop tunes, photo stills, even brief moments of crude, anime-like animation.

And it isn't exactly as if this sort of thing were totally, radically new; it's just the filmmakers bring it off with such charm and effortless, becoming modesty that only a churl would complain about it being less than completely fresh; one certainly can't complain about lack of energy, or inventiveness, or willingness to go wherever the story takes them.

The meandering plot goes roughly like this: editor and at times documentary filmmaker Ryan Pastor (David Barril, a.k.a. director Jerrold Tarog) decides to vacation with his girlfriend Monet (Owee Salva) at the Visayan city of Cebu's Sinulog Festival, hoping along the way to make a documentary that will win the fifty thousand peso (roughly a thousand US dollars) top prize at the local filmmaking competition. At first the film's a parody of a filmmaker's life--hand-to-mouth existence, hard work for doubtful pay, a girlfriend willing to live with him for two years, but perversely too demure to allow him sex during their boat ride to Cebu (Oho, I said to myself, and sure enough later in the film I was proven right).

Arriving at Cebu Pastor's proposed documentary becomes an uneasy, sneakily exploitative two-step as Pastor is adopted, literally off the streets, by a mysterious ex-mayor from the southern island of Mindanao named Lito (Publio Briones III). Lito is unusually candid about certain details of his life, unusually reticent about others; he's willing to mention the name of the starlet he'd shared with a few friends, or the name of the drug lord he'd killed (the drug lord hadn't accorded him enough respect), but as to the exact town he used to preside over, details are for some reason not forthcoming. He about gives away his intentions when he mulls over Pastor's surname (I'd have tried jumping out of the ex-mayor's four wheel drive by now if I were Pastor, on the basis of the looks he's giving me, and the way his mouth savors the syllables of my name).

It's inspired in part by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999) of course, but Tarog and Antipuesto (like George Romero with his recent (and much underrated) Diary of the Dead (2007)) are smart enough not to shackle themselves exclusively to handheld point-of-view cameras (a trendy gimmick long past its sell-by date, I think); its religious connotations of guilt and contrition are partly from, I suspect, Francis Coppola's The Godfather, Part 3 (not a good model to shape one's feature after, and I do think the character of Lito is the least convincing--if most ambitious--in the picture). It does have older sources (the picture wouldn't be half as interesting if the filmmakers didn't draw from deeper wells): Brian de Palma's Blow Out (1981), of course, which in turn draws its premise (the recording of a murder) from Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966); de Palma's early features (the 1968 Greetings, the 1970 Hi, Mom!) which blurred the line between documentary and fiction; and arguably the greatest and most intricate of all mockumentaries, Orson Welles' Verites et mensong (F is for Fake, 1974) which in effect was about forgeries of all kinds, including the filmmaker's.

"Lies + lies = truth" Pastor tells us, and means to have us accept his philosophy without question; by way of illustration he shows us how video footage of a wedding can be improved by the judicious addition of a crucial shot (seeing, of course, being believing). That's the world of advertising Pastor works in; when he arrives in Cebu the truth is not so simple--a nun insists on the religious nature of the Sinulog, an impromptu philosopher mulls over its hedonistic qualities, and a female impersonator points it out as an occasion for gay pride. "I should have clearer answers," Pastor insists to himself; "or maybe ask clearer questions."

Enter Lito. As representative of the dark underbelly of Philippine politics, Lito's got the air of a spoiled, entitled rich brat down right, but his hidden sociopath is somewhat unfrightening; the rotund Briones plays him as a sly charmer, though, mopping his moist forehead as if he were channeling Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil (1958), condescending to Pastor as easily and utterly as Welles did his co-star Charlton Heston, who played an absolutely clueless (yet ultimately triumphant) Mexican police officer. Lito claims never to lie (apparently he doesn't consider not answering a straight question or being evasive as dishonest); he has stories to tell, and Pastor becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their telling: either Lito's lying and one kind of monster or he's not lying, in which case he's another.

At about this point Tarog and Antipuesto overreach, trying to convey a sense of urgency around issues too big for poor Pastor to wrap his head around. If Lito's motives for talking to Pastor were more comprehensible, if he could suggest more effectively (or evocatively) the monster of guilt we have to assume is eating away inside of him (Briones plays charm well, but that kind of angst needs a, well, Welles to convey them properly), then maybe his character would snap into focus.

As it is, Lito's an agreeable, fascinating blur, something we can peer at, but never be able to completely ascertain. It's Pastor's reactions to Lito's shenanigans, his appalled yet undeniable ambivalence that manages to keep our interest fixed--we wonder how far this haplessly lean Sancho Panza can follow behind his bloated Don Quixote without falling off his burro. Or, to be more precise, before the Don turns around and skewers him with a non-imaginary lance.

It's all about lies, and their approximate position to the truth (think about it: an honest man simply tells the truth, exposes a lie; a liar is constantly aware of the exact point where he has embellished the truth, however slightly), and while Confessional doesn't do the kind of brilliant, utterly persuasive mythmaking that F is for Fake manages to do (and this within Welles' aforementioned allotted time), it does lie with vigor and not a little charm.

It's all about lies, and in the end, when the lies--sorry, chickens--come home to roost, it's all about the harm that lies can inflict no matter how good the intention (to protect, insult, comfort, take advantage, get on with one's life), and how this is not always a bad thing--an evil necessity, almost (think of a couple that has found out unpleasant truths about each other; what must they do, if they intend to stay together?). Yet another important moment occurs almost under Pastor's--and our--noses when the dance instructor points out that the Sinulog steps are simplicity itself; the words use may be exactly what's needed to boil the Filipino spirit down to a single phrase: "Two steps forward, one step back." It's possibly one explanation why the Filipino's progress has been so slow in this fast-moving era, and why we're so ambivalent about that particular bit of tautology.


Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, Mario O'Hara, 1998)

(My contribution to Goatdog's Movies About Movies Blogathon, this article was first published in Cinemaya Magazine, Issue # 43, Spring, 1999)

A farewell to the Filipino film industry

Raymond Lee, a friend of mine, e-mailed news of the Good Harvest film festival to Jacob Wong, director of the Hongkong International Film Festival. The Good Harvest festival, staged by Mrs. Lily Monteverde, was a one-of-a-kind offer: any filmmaker, veteran or new, can propose a film project on any subject. The catch--you only had a 2.5 million peso budget (roughly US$62,500), and ten shooting days. Jacob’s comment: “it will take a filmmaker with more than talent to make anything even passable out of 2.5 million pesos.” After watching Babae Sa Bubungang Lata, Raymond went straight home and typed on his desktop: “funny you mentioned ‘a filmmaker with more than talent…’”

Babae Sa Bubungang Lata (Woman On A Tin Roof, 1998) isn’t about films so much as it is about the people who make them. Not the film directors or producers or stars (as in Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 or Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night), but the little people on the marginal fringe. It’s based on a play written by Agapito Joaquin back in the 70’s, a little chamber drama about an actor Maldo (Mike Magat) and his faithless wife, Toying (Aya Medel). O’Hara, in adapting the play to screen, has updated all the cinematic references, and changed the actor to a stuntman. He added Amapola, an aging actress (Anita Linda); Nitoy, a billboard painter (Frank Rivera); his stuntman lover, Eric (Renzo Ruiz) and all kinds of subsidiary characters and their stories. The result looks less like a chamber play and more like Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night, like Robert Altman’s Nashville, or Short Cuts: people and their stories weave in and out of each other’s lives, crossing, opposing, loving each other.

O’Hara plays the game of the many-peopled, multiple-story film with consummate skill; even more remarkable is the way he orchestrates each story to provide a different emotional color to his tapestry. Nitoy the billboard painter is quietly and hopelessly in love with Eric; he’s also a film fan, and in him O’Hara incarnates the lover of Filipino films--ever loyal, ever abused, ever martyred and nostalgic and ignored. Amapola the aging actress embodies Filipino cinema’s glamorous past; Maldo the stuntman and his wife Toying represent the industry’s present, with its endless scrabbling for jobs and money and food.

There are sharp comic scenes, like Maldo “auditioning” with his director in the privacy of the director’s van; sad scenes, like Amapola playing “Hindi Kita Malimot” (I Can’t Forget You) on the piano. There are scenes of sudden cruelty, as when Eric violently beats Nitoy; scenes of surpassing tenderness, as when Amapola’s son finally meets her after fifteen years.

It’s all done with deceptive ease; the film, as it progresses in its meandering but never less-than-fascinating way, accumulates power. O’Hara is a master of the understated drama, the narrating of daily life in a manner absolutely true to daily life. He does on screen what Hemingway was always trying to do on paper: keep the flame of his prose, like the flame of an alcohol burner, low, low, almost to the point of winking out, until it explodes.

O’Hara works in the neorealist tradition of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini (a tradition Lino Brocka belonged to), but there’s also a touch of the baroque, of the gothic in him. He stages much of the drama inside the Manila North Cemetery, a vast landscape of tombs and crosses and silent, weeping angels, where most of his characters--so poor they can’t afford a house--live. Against monuments of famous Filipino presidents and statesmen we watch these people eke out a living; amidst edifices of stone and black marble we watch them struggle to survive. It’s a marvelous conceit, a brilliant coup de theatre.

There are endless other details to marvel at or admire: the way the melody of “Hindi Kita Malimot” is played again and again, with various instruments and with an almost infinite variety of feelings (recalling Altman’s deft, satiric use of a movie’s theme in The Long Goodbye). The way the painter’s relationship with his lover puts to shame every recent Filipino film depicting homosexuality, male or female--how the couple is shown with a refreshing lack of pleading or self-righteousness, how their drama is seamlessly integrated into the story’s fabric.

There are flaws (you can’t expect perfection in a US$60,000 production)--a few scenes out-of-focus, a certain amount of narrative confusion--but they are almost laughably unimportant. The clumsiness actually becomes part of the movie’s texture, its visual style--as if this sad, desperate picture were made by the same sad, desperate people the picture is about.

I talk of Altman, Bernal, Brocka, De Sica, Fellini, Hemingway, Rosellini, Truffaut--great artists all--but I do O’Hara a disservice; the picture stands perfectly well on its own. You feel, watching the film, that he has the unique ability to assume a Godlike view of his characters--apprehending them in their painfully frail, all-too-human entirety--and at the same time be down on earth next to them, taking their side, rooting for them, loving them intensely. It’s the source of greatness of all his very best works, from Bulaklak Sa City Jail (Flowers Of The City Jail) to Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) to this film.

Made in about ten shooting days and for a fifth of the budget of an ordinary film, Babae Sa Bubungang Lata is an eloquent repudiation of every film that has ever cost over 10 million pesos (the normal budget for a Filipino production), with all their waste and bloat and arty pretentiousness. At the same time, it’s a sad farewell to the business O’Hara has worked and struggled in for over twenty years. “The industry is dying,” he seems to be telling us, a message we’ve heard before; but the rich ambivalence in his voice, the dark, deeply felt tones of anger and affection and regret make the message almost unbearably moving. You almost feel that the industry doesn’t deserve a tribute as lovely as this picture. It’s possibly the best Filipino film made in the past twelve years.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wall.E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)


Perhaps the best portion of Andrew Stanton's Wall.E (2008) is the largely wordless first forty minutes, when the filmmakers crib from the best of Chaplin (particularly his City Lights (1931)) to depict the eponymous trash compactor's goofball infatuation with Eve, the sleek 'droid sent to Earth on a classified mission (might as well note here that the 'droid's flying sequence seems inspired by similar sequences from Hayao Miyazaki's great Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984)). Stanton manages to create 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 artifact of pop culture (funny how much of it comes from '80s America) into an object of mystery, inventive comedy, and ultimately, wonderment.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Kurosawa Kiyoshi

One of two contributions to The Evening Class' Kurosawa Kiyoshi Blogathon (the second being an article on Kairo (Pulse 2001) in Senses of Cinema:

Zen and the art of horror filmmaking

The runaway success of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (Ring, 1998) in Manila shows there's an audience for stylish horror out there--the film has been frightening audiences since December, easily outgrossing the poorly made (if more expensive) American remake, with a sequel poised to scare up even more money. Now that we've proven we can appreciate more sophisticated terrors, are we ready for something a little more...well, disturbing?

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, we're about to find out. For the past few years the Foundation has been featuring weak comedies and tepid melodramas (though their anime program has been consistently interesting); now they've decided to bring in the big guns. Free, from February 26 to March 21 at Shangri La Cinema, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and the UP Film Center, is the Eiga Sai 2003 Film Festival, with a focus on Kurosawa Kiyoshi (no relation to the legendary director of Seven Samurai).

Kiyoshi, along with Nakata, has been described as the "vanguard of Japanese horror"--you might say Kiyoshi's latest, Kairo (Pulse, 2001), is his own take on "Ringu."

Kyua (Cure, 1997) begins with a series of murders--a prostitute, a housewife, a police officer among others, killed with, respectively, an iron pipe, a kitchen knife, and a revolver. The only common factor among the murders is a deep "X" carved into the chests of the victims; that, and the fact that the murderer is easily caught--or hasn't left the scene of the crime at all. Bewildering? As one detective observes, most people expect a pattern in a series of killings; the truth is, most killings don't make sense at all.

It's ironically the most sensible statement anyone makes; the police procedural that takes up the first hour doesn't do much more than add to the confusion of the investigating officers. It's only when they step back from each individual killing that they begin to see: the killings don't have a pattern, they have a principle--in fact, they have an entire way of thinking behind them. That's what makes Kyua so different from (and much better than) all other serial killer flicks since, oh, John McNaughton's chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer eight years before.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi dabbles in the kind of quiet terror Nakata parlayed into a multinational hit (Kiyoshi's film came earlier); if Kiyoshi hasn't achieved Nakata's level of box-office success, it may be because his methods are more uncompromising. Kiyoshi's music and sound effects and camerawork are, if anything, sneakier (the film's final long take is an intricately choreographed picture of normalcy that just might freak you out without knowing exactly why). And unlike Nakata, he is able to suggest that the plot inconsistencies are really part of the effect he's trying to create--which may leave you applauding his brilliance, booing his effrontery, or applauding his brilliantly deadpan effrontery.

And Kiyoshi, unlike Nakata apparently, isn't concerned with merely scaring you (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen or plan to see the film). Halfway into the picture we meet Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), the man apparently responsible for the killings; every time he meets someone his first question invariably is: "who are you?" I don't think this is, as is later suggested, just a psychological technique; I think it's his way of insisting on the primary importance of basic identity, of knowing who you really are and what your ultimate purpose is. Mamiya's philosophy is only vaguely glimpsed (the way the most unforgettable images in horror cinema are), but seems to consist of an awareness of the utter void at the center of existence, and of reacting to that void appropriately. Kiyoshi's achievement is not in attaching this philosophy to a horror story but in showing us the horror of the philosophy, in a story.

Karisuma (Charisma, 1999) is in some ways a sequel to Kyua; the same actor (Koji Yakusho) playing a police officer, again faced with strange phenomena. Yakusho's character has been disgraced and dismissed from the police force. He wanders into a forest, where he finds a lonely tree someone names Charisma; the tree is said to be filling the forest with deadly toxins. A power struggle ensues over Charisma--some people want it cut down, to save the forest; others want it saved.

Apparently made on a larger budget after Kyua, the film doesn't seem as fine-tuned--the tone swings from deadpan comedy to cold-blooded horror without much sense of control, and at one point Yakusho sits to tell us what the film's all about (a mistake Kiyoshi never makes in Kyua). Kiyoshi gave the script to the Sundance Institute back in 1992, where it won him a scholarship; the inexperience shows, I think, despite the years between script and finished product...

That said, there are amazing sequences in the film--the tense hostage rescue that ends in the officer's dismissal; the abandoned sanitarium; the vicious slapstick as various factions battle over the tree; the ominous final image (Kiyoshi seems to have a talent for unsettling closures). All this photographed in Kiyoshi's coolly distant style: no close-ups (except, perversely, to focus on some unimportant detail when you badly want the camera pointed elsewhere); mostly long takes emphasizing the ordinary texture of the world at large, against which extraordinary horrors might suddenly break through. Again, Kiyoshi takes an ostensible story--here, several groups disputing an ecological issue (to destroy or not destroy a killer tree)--and brings out the inherent philosophy (not to mention comedy and mayhem). This may be the first film ever to treat the act of tree poisoning as an existential process.

Ningen Gokaku (License to Live, 1999) is about a boy that falls into a coma for ten years; when he wakes up he has the body of a grown man, though emotionally he's still a child. Any other director would've milked the situation for melodrama, and many have, but Kurosawa keeps a witty, slightly surreal distance; he records in a precise, clinical style the absurd ways the boy turned young man tries to live the rest of his as-yet unformed life. Yes, there is pathos in the end--the boy's dilemma calls for nothing less--but Kurosawa earns it honestly, with patiently accumulated details. He approaches tragedy from an oblique angle, looking at the target with sidelong glances; you never hear him coming until he's right behind you, ready to blindside you with a single, overwhelming blow.

If there's any obvious message to the film--I'm only guessing here, I pretend to no definitive answers (and Kiyoshi isn't volunteering any)--it may be that life is an extremely fragile and temporary condition, arbitrarily granted, arbitrarily taken away. You waste your time fooling around with junk like abandoned refrigerators strictly at your own risk.

Watching these three films, you can't help but wonder if Kiyoshi is perhaps in love with death, or more to the point, with the nothingness that seems to lie beyond death. All three films deal with this fascination at different levels (personal, social, global), and from different directions (drama, ecological horror-comedy; crime thriller). I had wondered, Ningen Gokaku being my first ever exposure to Kiyoshi years before, how he could have ever been slapped with a label more suited to Nakata ("vanguard of Japanese...etc., etc."). Having seen the three I think I know why: because he finds the most commonplace situations (yanking at an abandoned refrigerator, digging at tree roots, picking up a kitchen knife) horrifying, and the most horrifying situations (the loss of one's youth, of one's soul, of the world) disturbingly commonplace.

(First printed in Businessworld, 2.28.03)

King Kong 2005

And yet another belated contribution to the 12 Grand in Checking New York in Movies Blogathon:

Monkey see, monkey do

You could imagine Peter Jackson as a nine-year-old, boy seeing Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong for the first time, marveling at the images (the screaming blonde in a gargantuan grip, the monster battling a vicious Tyrannosaur, the climb to the top of the Empire State Building) and sparking the interest that would someday lead him into filmmaking. Cut to twenty-five years later and here it is, Jackson's Kong, at a hundred and eighty-seven minutes almost twice as long as the original and at $207 million around three hundred times more expensive, it's poised (according to all reports) to be a critical and commercial smash, possibly Jackson's dearest wish come true. He should remember, though, the dangers of wishes coming true: the film is a bloated, overlong, sticky-sweet bore.

King Kong 1933

The killer inside me

As my belated contribution to the 12 Grand in Checking's New York in Movies Blogathon, an old article (plot discussed in very close detail) about perhaps the most famous New Yorker (well, he did stay maybe all of a few days, a month at best--but isn't that true of most of us?) of all time:

King Kong revisited

Saw King Kong again after--ten? twelve?--years and better still, recorded it. Crummy VHS copy, but better than staring wistfully at the Netflix link to the Jessica Lange remake (good luck to the Peter Jackson production--he has huge shoes to fill).

Wanted, Effi Briest, Shall We Dance? Exiled, Election

Wanted (2008) is absurd; yes, the filmmaker (one Timur Bekmambetov, who directed the fitfully entertaining Nochnoy Dozor (Nightwatch, 2004)) in all likeliness wanted it that way, but there's intentionally and well-controlled silliness, and then there's the suspicion that the director hasn't any idea what he's doing. So what's the scientific rationale for curving bullets--telekinesis? Angelina Jolie's magnetic personality (don't you dare shoot me, you relative unknown of a lead actor)? And in that scene where one car uses another as a ramp to flip over and fire into a bulletproof limo's open sunroof, why would a billionaire paranoid enough to install bulletproof windows in his vehicle leave the sunroof wide open?

But that's small change (about as significant as shooting the wings off a fly). Maybe my biggest problem with the movie--along with the huge dose of "I so don't care" that I felt watching it--is the fact that I'd seen this done before, only better. Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) also told the story of an expert killer hired to do a job that turns out to be of great significance, only O'Hara did it earlier, in 1986.

Granted this might be a classic premise that's been done to death over the years (The Manchurian Candidate, anyone?)--comparing the two, one finds that O'Hara's picture tells its surprisingly complex story (aside from the basic plot there's an election going on, and a vast power struggle to put various candidates in office) with a minimum of fuss: no fast cutting, no shaky-cams, no CGI to hide flaws or plot loopholes or actors who can't really fight. O'Hara takes the classic action sequence style of Ford and Kurosawa (a combination of medium and long shots carefully edited together to leave the fight choreography intact) as passed on by Gerardo de Leon to every subsequent Filipino filmmaker, and yoked it to an epic noir fantasy that's careful to stay rooted to its milieu. In fact, the film operates as a kind of parallel universe that, with a bit of exaggeration, can pass for Metro Manila of 1986 (or: the Philippines under the increasingly desperate, increasingly uncertain grip of the Marcos dictatorship). If Bagong Hari, like Wanted, has delusions of grandeur, I much prefer the former's delusions--it approaches its ambitions in a more persuasive manner, using cruder effects on a far smaller production budget.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Effi Briest... (1974) is unusual not only for having one of the longest titles in world cinema (the full title is Fontane - Effi Briest oder: Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen) but for being a book Fassbinder loved so much what he has done with the adaptation is nothing less than an attempt at translating the text to the film screen, in as comprehensive a manner as possible, and still be able to call it a film.

Huge swathes of text are displayed onscreen; Fassbinder himself narrates long passages that piece together and at times comment on the onscreen action. The connection between word and image may on occasion rival in complexity what Robert Bresson has tried in his adaptations--I'm thinking of the long tracking shot where Fassbinder's lenses follow Effi (Hanna Schygulla, in a perfectly controlled performance) while Fassbinder describes an episode of great emotional turmoil, full of weeping and guilt and shame--but "not properly, and not enough," or so Effi tells herself, and us. One watches her stride across the screen with the same fascination one watches a car-crash survivor, or rape victim--you look for signs of what happened on her face, interpret what few clues you see to support the theory you happen to be entertaining at the moment (she's upset; no, she's unhappy; no, she's tired). Instead of tired melodrama (the tears, the yelling), Fassbinder presents a strolling enigma; the passage quoted becomes, as a result, unforgettable.

It's tempting to call Fassbinder's adaptation an illuminated manuscript, complete with miniature illustrations lined with silver (the mirror images that occur throughout the film). Of course Fassbinder planned to save money using these techniques, but he's also turned a quite serious limit on resources into a unique (even amongst his own pictures) filmmaking style. A great film.

Looking at Masayuki Suo's Shall we dansu? (Shall We Dance? 1996) and it seems crazier than ever that they would have thought of doing an American remake, even with Hollywood stars. The whole psychology is wrong--Americans are often comfortable about impulsive acts such as joining a dancing school; they're all about taking themselves out of a rut and seizing the day (at least in movies they are). It's funnier that a Japanese salaryman should step off his subway ride and indulge in the shameful act of ballroom dancing; it's like watching a bunch of secret cultists indulge in kinky sexual rituals--even more embarrassing, I submit, since at least with kinky sex there's some primeval drive behind it that you can easily understand, perhaps sympathize with. Dancing is a near-incomprehensible urge, and Suo's achievement is in giving us the form and flavor of the act's hidden pull, its subterranean appeal. When Mr. Aoki (Naoto Takenaka, who's wonderful) executes a sudden left turn with barely hidden glee in his face, it's as if a child were acting out some shared, secret joke--we know without being told that he's one of them, and we should watch out for him in the future.

The DVD includes a trailer of the remake, and the remake's version of the hilarious scene where Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) and Mr. Aoki are caught in the men's room, in a clinch. In the 2004 remake Peter Chelsom shoots Richard Gere and his partner head-on, with the men's room door directly behind them. Anyone who enters will immediately see the two, so when the door opens, the partner has no choice but to collapse immediately, causing a flurry of distress and worry.

Suo's timing is much more confident. We see Sugiyama and Aoki on the left side, the urinals on the right. A fellow office worker walks past the couple looking straight at the urinals (which is plausible--men tend not to look at other men in public bathrooms), giving us this single awful second where the two are locked in a frozen embrace while their colleague unzips his pants. It's when it starts to register on the colleague that something odd's going on that Aoki is struck with the inspiration to faint--what makes the scene isn't Aoki's brainstorm, but that jawdropping pause between sidelong observation, eventual realization, and brilliant improvisation.

Looked at Johnnie To's Fong juk (Exiled, 2006) again, and the setpieces are still breathtaking, the colors striking, the moments of male bonding moving and funny and comforting, in the way French fries done with passion and style are comforting.

Hak se wui (Election, 2005) is a more substantial proposition (To admits he did Fong juk to take a break from the effort of making this picture and its sequel)--if one didn't know any better (and who's to say for certain if one does or doesn't?), one might imagine that the film is To's satire on elections, maybe the previous year's Hong Kong legislative or even American presidential race, with an ambitious if abrasive Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai as John Kerry?) taking on the more likeable, more establishment Lok (Simon Yam as George Bush?) in a contest for the chairmanship of the Wo Society Triad.

The movie is really all about the smoky rooms in which elderly men drink tea and conduct deals and negotiations--To seems to be saying that the difference between political parties and crime organizations is slim, which is hardly news (Coppola said as much decades back, only his accusation was leveled at large families and American corporations ). What's interesting is how thoroughly To covers the process by which power is transferred--not just what's explicitly debated and brought to a compromise, but even suggesting what isn't (you suspect, after all is said and done, that Lok had the elections sewn up and in his pocket long before Big D made up his mind to run for the position), and how this affects everything and everyone.

Emblematic of the whole film is the scene where Big D and his men stand on a high rock, dropping boxes down the steep hillside. Innocuous enough image (if at first glance puzzling), innocuously staged and shot with long lenses, until you eventually realize what's in those boxes. The horror and violence is there all the time, hidden by a latticework of wood, and the appearance of banal normalcy.

There's a subplot about a stolen Dragon's Head Baton, symbolizing the chairman's power, and later a few violent rubouts, but they're window dressing, meant to keep you keyed-up and interested; the meat of the film is in the process by which Lok tries to finagle his way into the top position.

It's difficult material--makes Mou gaan daou (Infernal Affairs, 2002) look straightforward by comparison. In an interview To admits he sat on his usual visual pyrotechnics while telling the first half of the story, to keep the plot front and center and coherent. But To can't help pulling off the occasional coup de cinema--the aforementioned hilltop scene, for one; for another, the scene of the various Triad heads locked away, and To's camera in yet another long shot watching them in their cells, side-by-side, an image and comic effect I'm thinking might have been inspired from Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) (the people are like animals in a zoo reacting to their isolation and impotence--in To's film they yell and raise fists; in Tati's they watch television).

David Bordwell cites Cheung fo (The Mission, 1999) as his favorite To, and I understand the choice; the film for its innovative style and sheer cinemaness may be To's masterpiece. But in terms of breadth of theme and depth of treatment, in terms of capturing a crucial element in not just Triad but Chinese culture (again, referring to To's interview, these crime organizations have apparently existed for four centuries) at a specific point of time (the 2004 Hong Kong legislative elections), of commenting in a sophisticated way not only on Triad power struggles but on power struggles in general, of unfolding a complex plot within a complex milieu, one might say that this is To's (and Hong Kong cinema's) The Godfather--a film with considerable commercial and artistic impact, well-told (isn't it strange that a director noted for his wordless action sequences is capable of a film so dense with (yet deft in its handling of) dialogue (with, of course, scenes that turn the tendency memorably on its head)?).

There are moments here that recall Coppola's epic, but with their own spin--the endless tea drinking, of course (healthier I suppose, especially in large doses, than the drinking of Italian wines); the large parties (here--and this I think was brilliant--the aftermath of a party that ended up being canceled); the glance and shout a father gives his son--throwing him the car keys and counting on him in that one gesture not only to understand what's happening, but to actively participate and block off all means of escape (it's like the entire subplot between Michael Corleone and his father collapsed into one electric moment).

But it's not just Coppola being referenced here; the immediacy, the camerawork, the often profane, often comical male camaraderie recalls Martin Scorsese's gangster pictures: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. One might say To's attempting to tell a Coppola-sized story through Scorsese techniques--all filtered through his unique Hong Kong-based sensibilities. Excellent, perhaps great film.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Adam and Steve (Craig Chester, 2005)

Brokeback Manhattan

Craig Chester's Adam & Steve is a 2005 gay picture that for some undecipherable reason the distributors thought would actually make money in Manila theaters, three years after its initial commercial run, (don't ask me--I just write about them, I don't decide them). Might have worked too, for all I know; problem is, they should have picked a comedy--a funny one.

Chester's picture starts out amusing enough: Chester plays Adam, dressed and made up as a Goth; Malcolm Gets is Steve, a Danceteria Dazzle Dancer Adam for once in his loser life manages to take home with him. Steve does a striptease, commits a traumatically embarrassing act (he'd been doing some serious cocaine, cut with all kinds of inappropriate substances), and runs off forever.

Fast forward fifteen years later. Adam's rushing his dog into the emergency room--why there and not a veterinary hospital, I don't know. "We don't treat animals here" a security guard naturally and very sensibly tells him; Steven, now a psychiatrist, agrees to treat the canine anyway. Adam doesn't recognize Steve from years before, but sparks fly; before you can say "Holy powdered laxatives!" they're dating each other steadily, in post-9/11 New York.

Odd sidenote: the movie wears its New York City setting proudly on its sleeve. At various points we're treated to a longtime New Yorker's walking tour of the city, from rowboating in Central Park's Lake to crossing the length of the Brooklyn Bridge's wooden walkway, with its magnificent East Side view; it's constantly throwing in details of the city's social life, from exotic coffees and soda drinks to rehab meetings for various addictions. One might consider it the gay, low-budget equivalent of Sex and the City; it's certainly self-absorbed enough--New York is the entire universe, the rest of the world just some shadowy afterthought existing in the margins. And there's sex everywhere, and the need--no, hunger (no accident, I think, that Chester looks vampiric in the pic's opening scenes)--to connect.

For the most part the whole unlikely thing works: Chester and Gets make a remarkably sweet couple, and even the occasional running gag about beer bottle-tossing homophobia has its appeal, with a punchline that one may or may not find amusing, depending on one's tolerance for amateurish flinging. They get able support from Parker Posey and Chris Kattan as their respective best friends, and a minor constellation of comic talents: Sally Kirkland, Melinda Dillon, among others.

Maybe the comic high point of the picture is when Adam presents Steve to his family, incurable victims of the Bernstein Curse. Adam's mother turns out to be Julie Hagerty, which explains a lot about Adam--she's as wide-eyed and demented and unflappably cheerful as she's ever been, from Airplane! (1980) to Lost in America (1985).

That's the good stuff; the movie starts to fall apart when Chester decides to get serious on a decidedly unserious premise: he has Steve recognize Adam as the hapless Goth he'd turned onto drugs (among other shameful acts), and breaks up with him. One wants to ask: why this, why now? Because the picture's been coasting along on good will and character detail, Chester must be thinking, and requires some kind of third-act conflict, to wrap things up (too bad--if he had ended on a less hysterical note, we might have found out what a collaboration between Jacques Rivette and John Waters might have played like).

Adam plays the part of the jilted bride and is by turns hurt, bitchy, furious. No cliché is left unmolested, no sentimental device left brutally unmilked; in the movie's extreme low point, Steve pulls Adam aside and sings him "Something Good" from The Sound of Music (1965). No stomach was left unturned.

It doesn't help that the dialogue, which up to this point had been more or less persuasive (besides the constant subliminal "I love New York" advertising) descends to treacly sloganeering: "I may be damaged goods, but I'm goods none the less;" "I choose you! I choose you!" Was not aware that there was an urgent need in this world for a gay equivalent to Jerry Maguire--the original was blood-curdling enough as is.

It doesn't help that Chester has all the visual sense and gift for depth of a publisher of pop-up books; it's possible he's trying to emulate John Waters' it's-all-there amateurishness but for all of Waters' faults, he had a distinct and powerful philosophical view: perversion and pleasure and pain are indistinguishable from each other, and should be savored accordingly; Chester doesn't seem to have anything more on his mind than a simple romantic comedy, with onscreen diarrhea thrown in for good measure.

Just think what the late, great Joey Gosiengfiao might have done with all this, and on a considerably smaller budget? Gosiengfiao would have thrown in the laxative (only with more immersive results), would have included the surrealism (only with more wit), would definitely have made sure there were dance numbers (only more gracefully staged), and even had someone sing something out of Sound of Music, only it would have been horrifyingly funny, instead of just horrifying. A wasted opportunity, all around.

(First published on 8.2.08 in Businessworld 8.1.08)

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson, 2008)

A Good Job

Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job (2008) is a crackerjack B-movie thriller, the kind of small-scale, unfussy film you don't really see anymore--not since Steven Soderbergh inflated the caper flick into celebrity-studded megaproductions with his Danny Ocean movies.

Based on the true story of the Baker Street Walkie-Talkie bank robbers back in 1971, it quickly sketches the circumstances before the robbery: protagonist Terry Leather (Jason Stratham) owns a car-sales garage just a few unsold vehicles short of bankruptcy; he's contacted by old flame Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) who suggests that he knock over Lloyd's Bank--seems that the bank's alarm is being set off by the rumble of a nearby train, and is being replaced; in the meantime the vault just sits there, unmonitored, ripe for the picking.

Terry and his gang of petty criminals leased out a leather goods shop and began tunneling past the Chicken Inn restaurant to reach the bank vault. By way of a lookout, they have Eddie (Michael Jibson) as lookout, communicating with the tunnelers via walkie-talkie (sort of like a cellphone, only about the size of a good-sized barbell). One might wonder at the stupidity of the idea--two-way radio is about as private as shouting messages from a rooftop--but apparently that's what the gang did, and more it almost worked: no one took notice of the radio signals, and they were careful enough not to identify themselves, or their location.

Almost; one Robert Rowland had been playing with his ham radio set when he overheard these conversations; he had their talks recorded, and tried warning the police (it's these recordings of the transmissions, later broadcast to the public, that gave the gang their nickname).

The heist itself is competently staged and filmed; perhaps not as vividly as in Jules Dassin's Du Rififi chez les hommes (1958)--still the standard by which one measures all other cinematic heists--but competently enough. The real suspense starts after the robbery--turns out the gang had stolen more of value than they realized; turns out some of the items were of enormous value to a ring of corrupt police officers who promptly attempt to hunt down the gang members, and that another box contained a secret that if revealed would rock the royal family.

(There might be more to this subplot than the filmmakers are willing to admit, according to a Chicago Reader article--apparently one of the producers has talked to two of the men involved in the heist)

Anything beyond that was open to speculation for decades: four days after news of the robbery broke, a "D order" was issued, silencing all further news on the affair--and that was more or less that. Much of the stolen goods were never recovered by the police, and the loot that they did recover were mostly left unclaimed.

Donaldson, working with the scriptwriting team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (British TV veterans who once wrote for Tracy Ullman and, recently, Flushed Away (2006)), used the input of one George McIndoe (an 'associate producer,' he had actually met two of the robbers) to flesh out the missing pieces behind the heist. It's a tangled web of conspiracy stretching from the streets of London to the rainforests of Martinique, and Terry's gang turn out to be as much string puppets as they are puppet masters.

The cast is excellent--I'd point out the gorgeous Burrows, Richard Lintern, Daniel Mays, Peter de Jersey and above all David Suchet as being especially fine. Statham as an actor I consider--to put it charitably--severely limited (if Dorothy Parker had once said of Katherine Hepburn that she "ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B" (a charge I disagree with, incidentally) Statham would be hard put to inspire thoughts of a second alphabet, much less one). Here, though, Statham is rendered life-sized--no more, no less--and this locating him in a realistic setting for once makes for a startling change: he's grounded, he's definitely lower middle class, and he's surprisingly persuasive as a man sitting on a pot of both gold wired with dynamite, wondering if he'll make it through, or if it'll all go up beneath his butt.

Donaldson, Clement and La Frenais not only manage to keep each strand clear and distinct, they manage to maintain a lively pace without resorting to the modern editor's tiresome bag of tricks--jump cuts, freeze frames, so on and so. When at one point a captured gang member is questioned, the scenes of his interrogation are done in a harrowingly direct and simple manner: show the equipment, show what it can do, let the audience experience the rest in their heads (all this done in roughly the amount of time it would actually take--Eli Roth or the filmmakers of the Saw movies would, by way of comparison, have lingered over the scene).

It's a particularly keen pleasure to see Donaldson directing again a modestly financed but expertly crafted effort. I still remember how it felt watching Smash Palace, the remarkable 1981 drama he had directed and co-written, about a junk yard owner and his bitter divorce from an unfaithful wife--the film had a crude poetry to it, the way it allowed the huge piles of crushed cars to effortlessly become a metaphor for the couple's shattered lives. This was during an equally remarkable period in New Zealand and Australian cinema--George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981) and Peter Weir's Gallipoli had hit the screens the same year, and Bruce Beresford had released Breaker Morant the year before. At that time the studios Down Under seemed like a magic place, their filmmakers artists who could do almost anything.

Donaldson showed skill not only at writing dialogue and handling actors, but also at staging effective, coherent action sequences, and managed to parlay this skill into a career in Hollywood (Donaldson also knew how to stage knockout sex scenes (witness the heated exchange between Bruno Lawrence and Anna Maria Monticelli)--but to date, aside from a neat introduction to No Way Out (1987), he hasn't done much with this equally interesting talent). It was a deal done with the Devil; Donaldson went on to do increasingly impersonal work (Cocktail (1988), Species (1995)) while honing his action filmmaking skills (No Way Out in particular was a fine example of sustained suspense in a confined space). I'd talked to a filmmaker friend of Donaldson, who reported that he was constantly bemoaning the fact that he couldn't do a Smash Palace anymore--the money was too good, no matter what he might think of the results. The Bank Job represents at least a partial return to form--a good story told as well as possible. Here's to hoping he makes a full return, somehow, someday.

First published in Businessworld, 07.25.08