Friday, October 24, 2008

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel 2007)

(This is part of the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival which is ongoing until Oct. 29 at the Gateway Cineplex 10, Gateway Mall, Araneta Center, QC.)

If you could see all through my eye

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is based on a book by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do, as friends call him) who suffered a stroke, fell into a coma for twenty days, and woke up with a rare condition, "locked-in syndrome." He could think, smell, hear (faintly), see, but couldn't move a single muscle in his entire body with one exception--his left eye.

Schnabel tackles head-on the challenge which one filmmaker or another has dreamed of, telling a story almost exclusively through a single point of view (Orson Welles planned to film Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" this way; Robert Montgomery actually succeeded with Lady in the Lake (1947), even if the results aren't always compelling). Schnabel succeeds, perhaps not completely, but more than any previous filmmaker I can think of, with the first forty minutes almost exclusively told through Bauby's left eye (exceptions include a brief flashback, and a harrowing sequence where Bauby's immobile right eye is being 'occluded').

Welles' and Montgomery's problem, of course, was in attempting to create the illusion of the protagonist's point of view as an uninterrupted shot (with all its accompanying technical and dramatic difficulties). We know of course that this isn't so--our view is constantly interrupted by eyeblinks and sudden shifts in attention (the eye moving too fast for images to register clearly); it's obscured by eyelashes, momentary blurring, even tears. Schnabel (with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) painstakingly recreates each of these effects with cinematic analogues, using jump cuts (for blinks), flickering shadows (for lashes), out-of-focus lensing and smeared imagery for blurring and tears. Then there are subtler effects, like cutting off the heads and shoulders of people talking to Bauby, to underscore the fact that his view of the world comes entirely from one eye, and that the eye is unable to move.

But Bauby's eye is only half his capability to apprehend and comprehend the world; the other half is his inner eye, which surveys the double realm of memory and imagination. Schnabel conceives of memory as looking like old film footage, with handheld camerawork and the slightly washed-out colors of old Super 8; imagination is granted an altogether different look, with gliding camera moves (suggesting a freedom he doesn't have), opulent colors (suggesting a voluptuousness he can't feel), crystal clarity, and the occasional, defiantly surreal image (a wheelchaired Bauby on a wooden platform standing in the middle of an ocean; the wind whipping a woman's hair into a frenzy of seething serpents; Empress Eugenie running and Nijinsky leaping through the corridors of the hundreds of years old hospital). Perhaps the single most inspiring shot is that of a gigantic iceberg stretching from one side of the screen to the other in all its detailed majesty, collapsing slowly into the ocean; by film's end the process is reversed, and the shards of ice leap up from the boiling seawater to re-form, jigsaw-puzzlelike, back into the glacier--a more bravura image of reversal, renewal, redemption, of defiance in the face of entropy, would be difficult to find in recent cinema.

Audio at the very least makes up half of Schnabel's arsenal. When people talk to Bauby, we hear them through the film's standard stereo track, complete with ambient outdoor or indoor sounds; when we hear Bauby talking to himself it's as if he speaks in a locked room, a small one at that--we can sense the room's size (or lack of) through the voice's reverberations (or lack of).

The soundtrack, which includes Bach and pop standards like Charles Trenet's "La Mer" and Tom Waits' "All the World is Green," betray Schnabel's film-literate orientation (I wouldn't know about the real-life Bauby). He includes excerpts from the lush piano score of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and from the score of Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)--in particular the piercingly beautiful passage when Doinel rides the police van through the night streets of Paris, and the city never looked more magical or unreachable (no accident, I suspect, that the excerpt was taken from Doinel's last night before incarceration). At one point he calls his favorite spot in the hospital--an open terrace looking out on a small suburban town--his Cinecitta, after the famed Roman studio, and indeed there's something of the stage, or dais, or podium about his vantage point, something of the artificially miniaturized studio set about the town in view.

The effect of Bauby speaking out to correct or contradict or protest the images fed to him by his eye can at times be humorous (as when a hospital staff turns off the soccer game he's watching) or heartrending (as when he begs them to leave his right eye alone). It's the helplessness, you imagine, of Montresor rattling his bells inside his walled-in tomb, in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," or of Emily Webb mourning the wasted ruin of her life in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. it's the helplessness and isolation we all feel at one time or another, that we somehow can't fully engage the outside world in the manner we'd prefer, that the universe is a complex and hostile and unknowable place, that we somehow can't connect with one another, no matter how hard we try. Of course, Bauby could only appreciate what he has--or had--just when he's lost them; he seems to connect best with other people, especially the mother of his children Celine (Emmanuelle Signer) only when that connection is at its most physically challenging. It's not the medium that matters, Schnabel seems to tell us, but the content, and the passion with which one wants to communicate said content.

Or is it as simple as all that? Perhaps Schnabel means to say that medium does matter, that it's the daunting nature of the challenge that forces Bauby to reach out and 'touch' someone. One only has to sit down and see the film, appreciate how natural Schnabel's effects can be, how effortlessly he lets us slip--that's the proper word, I think--into Bauby's shoes (suit, if you like), show us what Bauby's thinking, what he's up against, and what, most of all, is at stake. If the film has any power, if it maintains such a masterful grip on our emotions and imagination, that may be because Bauby's situation is really ours (considerably exaggerated), and his story, realized through Schnabel's tremendous filmmaking capabilities, is our own--we hear him speak for us in his locked-away voice, watch him look for us with fear and wonder at a strange, at times hostile world using his restlessly roving eye.

Interesting--ironic, even--that on its journey from page to screen the film's very story underwent mediation, distortion, transformation. According to an article in online magazine Salon, the women in Bauby's life served radically different roles--the mother of Bauby's children (real name Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld) visited at most a few times, while Bauby's gilrfriend (real name Florence), depicted onscreen as being too frightened to actually go and see him-- was at his side every day.

Should we dismiss the picture for its lack of accuracy, or call the news story a slanderous hoax directed at an international boxoffice success (funny how people rarely if ever sue an international boxoffice failure)? I say this: the truth must out, the truth must be known and told and retold alongside the film's screening venue--one must be aware of Bauby's real story, same time one must appreciate the film's many felicities and innovations. It's a mixed bag of truth and delusion and invention, but then, so is any film, and so are we alll.

Allow me to put it on record, say it aloud as plainly as I can: Le Scaphandre et le papillon is easily the best film of 2007 and Julian Schnabel, with his slim portfolio of films, arguably the finest filmmaker working at the moment.

First published in Businessworld, 10.22.08

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cinemanila 2008

It's Cinemanila 2008 and incidentally their tenth year, hence the slogan: Dekada Cinemanila (The Cinemanila Decade). Schedule of what's showing is here.

It's still hands down the best buffets of films, local and otherwise, available in Manila. Of the cornucopia of goodies available, I recommend--highly-- Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (easily the best film of 2007). Also thought Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) was worth looking at (the film has already screened--but keep an eye out, Cinemanila does do repeat screenings). Also not to be missed: Lav Diaz's massive latest work Melancholia (approximately nine hours long) and Raya Martin's Now Showing and Next Attraction. Have not seen these, but judging from Lav and Raya's previous works, anything they're going to do next is of high interest.

Not a big fan of Park Chan Wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but some of his most avid supporters include New York Time film critic Dave Kehr, and gotta admit, the title of one of his latest films, I'm a Cyborg and That's OK is easily the coolest titles I've heard recently. That, and the fanboy in me just has to has to has to watch Evangelion 1.0: You are (Not) Alone, Hideaki Anno's first-phase reload (four films are planned) of his legendary Evangelion series.

Also recommended: Gavin Hood's Tsotsi (2005), the harrowing tale of a youth that goes on a rampage, then in the back seat of a car meets his destiny. Cold blooded killers on murderous crime sprees are the fashion nowadays; cold blooded killers suddenly confronted with the possibility of renewal and redemption aren't, and are all the more notable when done well.

Of the older films--Cinemanila plans a retrospective of Brillante Mendoza's films, from his latest Serbis (Service, 2008) to Foster Child (2007) to Manoro (The Teacher, 2006) to Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), among others. Mendoza's style can be best characterized as the Southeast Asian cousin to the Dardannes brothers (albeit at a far smaller budget), all handheld camera, little if any moral judgment visited on characters, and no soundtrack music.

Foster Child I especially liked for laying open the mechanism of a child adoption service, and for Cherry Pie Picache's extremely close-to-the-chest playing of the foster mother, with emotions held tight, tight, tight, until you're just about to turn blue, waiting and wondering to see if she at all minds--if she at all cares--that she's giving up a child she's raised as her own.

That said, Manoro is perhaps Mendoza's finest work, about a young provincial girl who's learned to read and write, and is determined to educate her family and neighbors to the point that they can participate in the coming local elections. Relentlessly deadpan in emotional tone and beautiful in its use of ambient sound and casual handheld camerawork, Manoro it seems to me is one model of how Filipino films can triumph over better funded Hollywood films, but rarely do.

Of the rest--Cinemanila will present a selection of films screened at the Director's Fortnight, the prestigious film festival that occurs parallel to Cannes. Among the titles: Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982); Mike de Leon's Batch '81 (1982) and Kisapmata (Blink of the Eye, 1981); and Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004).

Then there's the Lifetime Achievement Award to be given to Jose 'Pete' Lacaba--and as a matter of fact, Lino Brocka's Bayan Ko (My Country, 1984) is to be the festival's closing film.

But that's some weeks away; in the meantime, fun's barely begun. Go! Watch!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Santa Santita (Magdalena, Laurice Guillen, 2004)

Faith healing

Laurice Guillen's Santa Santita (Magdalena, 2004) is a surprisingly strong Filipino film on faith; and unlike Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982)--possibly Philippine cinema's most memorable (and skeptical) take on a favorite and oft-considered subject--it's firmly on the side of believers. 

Appaloosa (Ed Harris, 2008)

Marshall law

The best thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa (2008), his screen realization of the 2006 Robert Parker novel, is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar, same time that the worst thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar.

Harris, give him credit, has the confidence to take a fairly strong story and let it unfold, to dwell on what interests him (the badinage between two men of longstanding friendship and a woman of dubious character), allowing events of lesser import to swiftly pass us by (of the film's one large-scale shootout, someone had this to say: "That was quick." "Yeah, everyone could shoot.").

The film's strongest and most complex relationship is, of course, between the two male protagonists: Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen): two lawmen-for-hire who have worked together so long, and have known each other so thoroughly that they hardly ever need talk when positioning for a possible gunfight. Cole plants himself front and center, an authority figure and target meant to draw fire; Hitch hangs back, usually seated in a chair or leaning against the corner that grants him maximum coverage, a massive 8-gauge shotgun cradled in both hands.

As it is in war, so it is in love--Hitch sees her first, a vision in tight corsets and feathered hats: Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) has come to town seeking a job as an organist, and Hitch trails after her like a predator sniffing prey, but it's Cole who introduces himself and eventually wins her heart. French shakes matters up between the two men, forces them to focus their sights on her womanly charms, helps create a tension that is eventually settled by gunplay and sacrifice.

In terms of visual scheme Harris the director gives Harris the actor the hero shots as befits his character, but just as generously grants Mortensen the mystery and reserve of a powerful if taciturn ronin, prowling in the shadows until his talents are needed. Time and again the men go into action and you see how they work together, either dealing with the usual problems (disposing of drunken thugs in a bar), or responding to something entirely new (two gunfighters--Cole's equals, he tells Hitch--come into town and change the game considerably).

But have I mentioned the easy familiarity of the material? Seems to me that I've seen this all before, not just in the Westerns of Howard Hawks or John Ford, but in the more recent fiction of Larry McMurtry, whose 1985 Pulitzer winning novel Lonesome Dove I suspect was a tidal influence on Parker's conception of his characters. Cole and Hitch could be reshuffled versions of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call; the scene where Hitch has to hold down an out-of-control Cole could have been Harris' restaging of a similar scene in Dove.

Allison French could be a composite of Dove's Lorena Wood and Clara Allen, only cruder, less substantial--frankly French as Zellwegger plays her is fun to watch, but makes little sense (Why would so much clever ambition come to a small town? Why after showing fickle loyalty does she remain constant, after all?). Very possibly in Parker's novel she enjoyed more coherence, she was the vibrant and complex woman of the wild West she is meant to be here, but the film needs the running time of a mini-series to properly develop its characters (and in fact Dove was adapted into a series--is I think an excellent example of such an adaptation--in 1989). In Appaloosa only Cole and Hitch's characters show any roundedness, their relationship any fullness; as usual, women's roles are sacrificed in favor of the male.

It doesn't help that poor Zellwegger's elfin features are exaggerated to comic extremes by her hair and makeup (the poor girl--who can be very pretty, when properly presented--looks like a leprechaun suffering an allergy attack). It doesn't help that playing the small, practically throwaway role of Katie (a prostitute) is the gorgeous Ariadna Gil, she of the welcoming pout and almost effortless sensuality--beside her, poor Zellwegger has all the appeal of a, well, bee-stung leprechaun.

It doesn't help that Jeremy Irons plays the brutally cunning Randall Bragg. I've got nothing against Irons as an actor, he moves fast in fight sequences and towards the end betrays a sly sense of humor, but who came up with the disastrous idea of having Irons play Bragg channeling Daniel Day-Lewis channeling John Huston in There Will Be Blood? It's too bizarre an effect--like the echo of an echo, bouncing through miles of corridors; you keep dreading the day someone will come up with the idea of actually resurrecting Huston (digitally--or worse), just so he can play bad guy one more time.

Harris is not unclumsy with the bigscreen frame; he manages to create slow sweeps across the landscape that convey unspoken drama, is able to stage crisply edited, strangely ungory action with a minimum of fuss. Harris is not, unlike Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), out to create a newish look for the genre (Assassination appears to have been lit with winter sunlight filtered through the whitest canvas imaginable), nor is Harris able to stage genuinely upsetting violence (In Assassination the sheer size and anatomical detail of the shot wounds are such that you can't help but flinch every time someone points a gun at someone's head). I don't think he's out to do an ironic postmodern take, unlike the Coen Brothers' clever (maybe too clever) No Country for Old Men (2007); nor does he intend to subvert the genre, as David Cronenberg does (brilliantly, I think) in A History of Violence (2005). Harris' film is more like James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), a largely straightforward, slightly absurd, considerably bloated remake of a Western classic. You enjoy it, but it doesn't break new ground, it doesn't show you something startling or new, it doesn't make your blood sing.

First published in Businessworld 10.17.08

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Two Brocka films, out on DVD!

Nino Muhlach and Dolphy in Ang Tatay Kong Nanay

At the Cinefilipino website, with brief articles by yours truly:

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father My Mother, 1978)

The master filmmaker's one collaboration with the near-universally acknowledged King of Philippine Comedy, Dolphy (Rodolfo Vera Quizon). Screen legends working with famed filmmakers rarely if ever create sure bets; it's something of a surprise, then that the resulting picture from these two is so straightforwardly poignant, laced with just enough humor to wriggle past one's defenses.

Lino Brocka's Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974) shows the filmmaker's versatility in the short form, working with various writers.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lino Brocka's 'Insiang' as viewed by American youths

Lino Brocka's Insiang, as viewed by a gaggle of American youths 

(Note: overall story and plot twists discussed in close detail)

Spent a week talking about the Philippines to a few American youths, roughly sixteen to eighteen years of age. Spent a day on general information (location, capital, most common religion, so on and so forth), two days on history (from Lapu Lapu to the 1986 EDSA Revolution), and topped everything off with a screening of Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976).

I know, I know--I assured the Powers That Be the film had no nudity, showed them the DVD cover's synopsis (which reveals altogether too much of the plot--hid that in a desk drawer, so they wouldn't ask to read it), and apparently it's okay. Just before the start of the screening, warned the young 'uns that this would be a very rough-looking film, no glossy production values, no fancy Hollywood special effects, and some of it will be, uh, strong, as in: a little hard to stomach. Then pressed 'play.'

And straight off we're treated to the sight of Ruel Vernal as Dado, plunging his knife into a pig's throat. Young men and women gasped; no dewy innocents, these, I've heard them talk before of the elaborate tortures in Saw and Hostel with lip-smacking relish, and here they were, horrified at the sight of an upside-down pig gushing blood from a large hole in its neck. Had to explain a few details--that the carcasses are plunged into boiling water to make it easier to shave off the hairs, that the pigs are real pigs, and yes, they're really dead (Hollywood's done so many elaborate effects, I suppose, that they have a difficult time seeing the difference--or maybe they've never seen a real onscreen death and couldn't accept the difference, had to ask me to confirm it, or ask questions to help digest it).

Most interesting of all was one young man who'd previously talked at length and with great enthusiasm about serial killers (he'd even mentioned the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, among others)--he slapped his hands over his eyes and turned away. "I thought you'd be used to this sort of thing," I said. "But those were animals!" he replied. "I don't mind humans (I confess, I raised an eyebrow in response), but animals aren't evil--"

He had a point, I suppose (animals according to certain anthropologists, have no sense of shame or guilt (and by implication no moral awareness)). But go figure.

They were full of questions--is that how Filipinos lived today (about 33% do, I said, mostly in the countryside)? Do you live that way (I was middle class, and grateful for it)? Why do they eat with their hands (it's an art, a graceful one, and not as easy as you'd think)? Then came the moment when Insiang's mother Tonya (Mona Lisa), after cavorting with Dado (the butcher from film's opening), first confronts a shocked Insiang, and is forced to squat and urinate in front of her daughter ("the house is that small," is all I could say). The kids exclaimed again, with gasps almost as loud as in the slaughterhouse scene. Thirty minutes into the picture and if the opening scenes of butchery didn't fascinate (same time it shocked and disgusted) them, the premise (which became clear at about this point) definitely did: Insiang in living with her mother was also forced to live with her mother's lover, in the same tiny shack.

Beyond which point Brocka, dead now for some seventeen years, did not for even a second let them off the hook. It helps that Tonya is such a harpy, Dado an unregenerate bastard, Insiang a quintessentially innocent maiden, each a familiar stereotype ready to be shattered.

Dado is possibly Brocka's masterpiece of a villainous sketch: with the film's very first frame we're introduced to the man elbow-deep in blood, a pig-killer (comments ranged from "poor pigs!" to "that's why I don't eat pork"). Helps that cinematographer Conrado Baltazar's camerawork is so claustrophobically tight, with a plainspoken rhetoric--only in the outdoors and once indoors (during a crucial bedroom scene) does the camera actually move, either sideways or forward; only then, it's suggested, is there sufficient space for motion (and in fact the camera barely had any space available; art director Fiel Zabat revealed that the walls of Tonya's little shack was gimmicked to break away and came back together to make room for the camera). I kept thinking that if Elia Kazan had been able to set A Streetcar named Desire in a similarly crowded, similarly wretched slum area, it would have been s more powerful experience.

I'd broken the film down to three sections, to be viewed each succeeding day (they had thirty minutes a day to view a movie), which worked out fine; I'd mentioned before how perfectly structured I thought the film's script was (from the teleplay by Mario O'Hara, adapted for the screen by Lamberto Antonio), and bang on time at the end of each thirty minute interval there was a narrative hook (in the second segment it was a rape, and its immediate consequences).

By this time I'd noticed how, well, involved these young men and women were--they'd sit down quick as they could, no fuss at all, and watched in rapt attention, even if the film was in Tagalog and they had to read English subtitles (they even asked to have the volume turned up, as if that would help (actually it probably does--the ambient sound and music helps immerse them in Insiang's world)).

Truth and untruth in this otherwise simple film is, I believe a key issue. I pointed out the dialogue, especially responses to questions--when someone was dissembling or duplicitous, he or she wouldn't give a straight reply, but would return the inquiry with another question: "Do you love me?" "What do you think?" "Are the two of you involved?" "Why don't you ask him?" Interesting to note that the simplest answer of all--"yes"--is the most convincing (with its straightforward manner, eyes leveled directly at the interrogator's face), yet ultimately misleading: the responder's words are truthful up to a point; beyond that, though, is a secretly pursued agenda that the questioner never knew about, or even suspected. It is, I suspect, the answer of a full-blown sociopath.

By film's end there were shocked stares and dropped jaws everywhere. I had to explain the very ending, which involved little dialogue ( I believe Brocka followed O'Hara's teleplay up to Insiang's explanation of her actions to her mother; after which is the conclusion forced on Brocka by the Marcos censors, who insisted that a daughter can't completely reject her mother). I brought up what was arguably the most interesting question of all: who was the worse character, Dado (who raped Insiang), Tonya (who oppressed Insiang when she could and first brought Dado into the house), or Insiang herself?

The answers were varied and illuminating. Many picked Dado for using Tonya and raping Insiang; others picked Tonya for her poor treatment of Insiang; still others picked Insiang herself. A few thought "none of them" (meaning each--unconsciously quoting Renoir--had their reasons), a few others said "all of them" (meaning they're all equally rotten). I admitted to agreeing with the Insiang faction, pointing out Insiang's expression as she witnessed Dado's stabbing. "I think she's getting off on it," I told them. "I think it's exactly what she wanted." I noted, however, that my comments were only meant to support my opinion, that there isn't any one correct and definitive answer, and that theirs is as valid as mine.

I pointed out that depending on where you were in the film, your perception of who was the most abusive changed (for the record: I thought it was Tonya in the first segment, Dado in the second, Insiang in the third), and how much say Tonya or Dado's acts eclipse Insiang's would depend on how grievous one felt their crimes were (Tonya for long-term child abuse, Dado for rape and manipulation, Insiang for--well, for manipulation, certainly; anything more is open to argument). One perceptive young man noted "Insiang has become her mother," to which I replied "we all end up as our parents. You're absolutely right--Insiang didn't just learn the skill of manipulating others from anyone; she learned it from the best, her mother, and in fact exceeded her. Insiang learned her lessons too well."

I tried justifying the butchery at the picture's beginning to the serial-killer enthusiast who covered his eyes--I basically called the scene Brocka's opening gesture, his way of raising a baton high prior to launching into the symphony itself. The opening not only foreshadows the film's climax but also suggests (quoting Marlowe) that this is Manila, nor are we out of it; this is how it is in the big city, this is what happens to those unable to defend themselves. This was Brocka's way of saying "physical violence and suffering can be hard, but there's worse--" Bad as the opening slaughter is, I believe that what happens during the course of the film leaves scars more terrible and more permanent than from any mere physical harm.

One young man commented that Insiang reminded him of a cousin he knew, to which I replied: "Of course; this is the Philippines, a land where people eat with their hands, pigs are slaughtered in hellish conditions and a toilet is a cement hole in the ground. But people are still people, they need love, they suffer, they are kind or cruel to each other. Beyond the exotic location and strange details of a faraway society you know these people (and in fact O'Hara based his screenplay on what had happened to his backyard neighbors). You recognize them as people not so different from yourselves, after all."

Postscript: I added by way of conclusion that "every story has a moral, obvious or not so obvious. What was the moral of this film?"

"Never live with your mother and her boyfriend!" "Poverty can make people do terrible things." "Revenge doesn't get you anywhere."

"Good stuff. But more than a bald statement, I think the film asks a question: did anyone in this film come out ahead?"

"Yeah--Insiang. She got away with murder!"

"Did she? Think about it. After walking away from the prison, what do you think she does next?"

"Marry the boy that loves her (Marlon Ramirez)!"

"And then what? Can you imagine what their relationship will be like? Remember the look in Insiang's face while she watched Dado bleeding? Can you imagine that poor boy living the rest of his life with her?

"Which is basically my point. Hate and anger are not so much cyclical as they are viral. They spread, from unseen father, leaving his wife for another woman, to mother, taking it out on her daughter, to daughter bottling it up till it festered and bubbled and finally exploded. Then she takes it to that poor young man--or any other poor young man she happens to meet. It never ends. It never ends."


Friday, October 10, 2008

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)

Heart of dankness

Hollywood comedy isn't exactly doing well when the most commercially successful is a Disney pirate franchise and the most critically praised are the tepid, safe-as-houses fantasies of Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin; Knocked Up). Hats off to Ben Stiller then, for making what easily zooms to the head of the mainstream class as the funniest American-made movie of the year (I know I know, year's not over yet--but these are the "ber" months, when solemn fare hopeful of winning The Annual Golden Doorstop are being released For Your Consideration). In a time when people are craving gigantic CGI effects or digital animation or pictures catering to the so-called sensitive side of fortysomething slackers, Stiller still knows the apparently lost art of going for the jugular, at least when it comes to that ridiculous, self-centered, wholly overpaid activity we know of as moviemaking.

Tropic Thunder--about a group of filmmakers who lose themselves in the jungle, then encounter a band of real-life, fully armed heroin growers--peaks early, which may or may not be unfortunate; truth to tell, nowadays you can't expect a sense of control and timing from directors. You can't, for example, expect the kind of perfectly calibrated sense of mounting hilarity Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin used to orchestrate with easy mastery, from titter to yowl to belly laugh to boffo; you can't expect (unlike with Keaton) a distinctive visual style, much less an eye for beauty, in today's comedies. At most you're thankful for the occasional belly laugh, and here you get it when star and actor wannabe Tugg Speedman (Stiller) uses his outstretched tongue to catch the drippings off of movie director Damien Cockburn's (Steve Coogan) severed head (long story). People will squirm in their seats; others will howl (or at least chortle) with glee; suffice to say, the image is a declaration of principles of sorts: it's an announcement to the general public that this will not be a safe movie, it will not for the most part play nice.

Stiller may have shot his load early, but there's enough in this shaggy vet story to make one want to sit it through to the end, more or less--basically what keeps you watching is the subtext that all this is a willed illusion, put together by the filmmakers, and that each of the characters must deal with the fragile nature of that illusion according to their own special circumstances. Hence: Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) must face his ambivalence about his own sexuality; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, blessed with the single funniest line in the picture--won't say what it is, only that he delivers it while tied to a tree) must learn to function despite a massive drug addiction; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., lampooning his own Method intensity) has to pick out, from all the roles he's immersed himself in, his own true identity (not to mention his native accent); and Speedman must learn how to distinguish everyday reality from the hyperreality of movies. Each lunatic is lost in a literal and metaphorical jungle; each has woven his own silken cocoon about him from which he must extricate himself if he's to survive, and each is too mired in his own obsessions and needs--at least at first--to ever want to do so.

Only three characters have enough sense of self to totally avoid the movie's entangling web of confusion: Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey, for once more charming than creepy), Speedman's heroically loyal talent agent (he insists come hell or high water that Speedman is contractually guaranteed his own TiVo); Four Leaf Tayback (A sneaky-as-usual Nick Nolte), whose novel was, if you like, the initiating catalyst that prompted a major Hollywood studio into investing millions into the project (in effect turning his personal illusion into a gigantic hyperreal construction (in short, a studio set)); and Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, giving an unreservedly comic turn here--will wonders never cease?), an unspeakable monster of a studio executive with the power to make his slightest whim come true (speaking, for example, over a wide-screen satellite video link, Grossman demands that someone smack the hapless Cockburn for wasting four million dollars on an explosion none of the cameras recorded--upon which someone immediately complies). If these three compared to everyone else in the movie seem relatively stable and focused, that may be because they have something besides themselves to live for: Peck has Speedman, Tayback his novel, and Grossman--well, Grossman's just too damned powerful to care.

As movie satires about moviemaking go, it's not quite as withering as Terry Southern's Blue Movie (I'm still waiting for the filmmaker with cojones big enough to tackle that impossible project); it's not even Blake Edward's S.O.B. where some of the funniest lines are taken verbatim from actual dialogue spoken in Hollywood. But its take-no-prisoners, anything-for-a-laugh spirit is infectious, and Stiller has imagination enough to take his scorched-earth approach as far as he can, which as it turns out is a fairly impressive distance.

Stiller is not an unskillful filmmaker; he's able to evoke the look of various films (Platoon; Apocalypse Now; Deer Hunter; the climactic moment in Bridge on the River Kwai) on the relative cheap. He gives Grossman's office a vast, cavernous quality reminiscent of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove (he even grants Cruise's Grossman a revealing private moment comparable to Chaplin's Hitler figure in The Great Dictator (sans a prop as eloquent as giant globe atlas, alas)). And in Speedman's climactic self-confrontation, he miraculously evokes the creepy, dust-moted light Vittorio Storaro used to illuminate Marlon Brando's insanity during the latter part of Apocalypse Now.

A final note: the heroin growers, members of the Flaming Dragon gang, are no mere cardboard Oriental villains; if anything, they seem to be the most grounded people in the entire picture, with no delusions as to what they're doing and why they're doing it (if they've misunderstood anything, it's the true status of Simple Jack, a gigantic flop of a Speedman movie which they play over and over again on an old VHS tape, and worship unreservedly). Their reaction to the actors and filmmaking crew that have landed suddenly in their midst seem less comical than sensible: they regard the intruders as annoying, possibly dangerous distractions. Rightly so--there's nothing more unlikely, chaotic, and corrosive to one's sense of reality and morality and proportion, Stiller seems to be saying, than a movie crew out to make a movie.

First published in Businessworld 10.10.08

Sunday, October 05, 2008

My Best Friend's Girl (Howard Deutch, 2008)

Your best friends' nose

Howard Deutch's My Best Friend's Girl (2008) starts out interestingly enough; Dane Cook is Tank, the go-to guy for when one's relationship or engagement is in the toilet, and drastic measures are required. As in: the girl would rather marry you than go out with Tank again, so hideous a rectum Tank has been to her (upon delivering one offended date to her apartment, for example, he demands on-the-spot oral sex before he will agree to go to bed with her). "What did I do?" Tank asks, and director Deutch promptly gives us a David Letterman-style countdown of the Top Ten Things Tank Did to Make Her Evening a Living Nightmare.

Tank is paid handsomely for his extracurricular services of course (his regular job is amusingly complementary: training customer-service employees of a corporation manufacturing air purifiers (that don’t work) how to refuse refunds to customers). Of course, the punchline to this setup is Alexis (Kate Hudson), a girl who isn't fazed by Tank's gross antics so much as she's turned on.

In the hands of say the Farrelly brothers this might have gone somewhere, but it doesn't: Tank's sulfuric personality dissipates when he encounters Alexis. What should have been a memorably spiky war of the sexes (with the air constantly blistering with profanity) becomes a wan, standard-issue rom-com (what a disgusting word--as if the genre of Jean Arthur, Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper had been trash-compacted into a desktop computer hard drive component) complete with a Redemption Scene, a Revelation Scene and a Reunion Scene. Rom-com fans will know--shame on them--what I'm talking about; the rest should run not walk for the exits.

That's all I pretty much have to say on this comedy; of director Howard Deutch, the best I can say of him is that he knows enough about his job not to walk in front of the camera while it's running.

Dane Cook's impact on the viewer may vary, but I do think he makes a convincing and reasonably funny Prince of Darkness. If the movie didn't go softheaded--if, for example, it had followed up the scene of Tank crying while watching Patrick Swayze in Ghost with a scene that punished him for his tears (instead of suggesting that sobbing to Jerry Zucker's mostly unintentionally funny movie actually reveals a sensitive side to Tank's persona)--Cook could have been revealed once and for all as the astringent antidote to Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, The Forty Year Old Virgin). An alternative, in effect, to the man-baby with all the funny lines who wins the hot chick by movie's end that every middle-aged Caucasian apparently wants to be in their most secret of secret hearts.

I like my laughs pitched at a more adult level, thanks. And while we're on the subject of comedies that involve love and hate and the opposite sex, why oh why do we have a surplus of vehicles and leading comic parts for reasonably talented actors, an apparent drought of vehicles and leading comic parts for talented actresses? Hudson is pretty enough, her comic high point I suppose drunkenly singing to a misogynistic rap song (that, or grooving in a strip club), but beyond that she's a pretty face in a blonde wig, nothing more. Cook not only has the meatier, spicier role, he gets the long tracking shot where the camera backs away in mounting fear as the man shifts in slow motion to full Tank mode (Dr. Jekyll never had a simpler, more unsettling transformation into Hyde (well--there's James Nesbitt), and for maybe a second we glimpse a hint of the edge Cook is capable of delivering in a properly honed comedy).

And as if to confirm the fact that the filmmakers are writing strictly for boys, they give some of the best lines and single funniest bit to Jason Biggs as Dustin, Alexis' neurotically creepy fiancé. Biggs basically ages his adolescent persona from American Pie a few years--instead of sexually assaulting an apple pastry, he's sexually assaulting the notion that a sensitive, caring man is the ideal candidate for marriage, or at least a long-term relationship. Biggs throws himself into the role--you can't imagine a more tactile, more hyperaware lover, nor can you imagine anything more annoying; his body seems to contort into all kinds of painful postures at the prospect, the terrifyingly mortal fear that he's going to screw things up for the woman he loves (a self-fulfilling fear, of course). Tell you the truth, the picture isn't so much a romantic comedy (okay, rom-com) as it is a buddy movie--two men who never in a thousand years would admit it, but are deeply involved with each other. Oh, there's this cute blonde wig between them, but really, it's the men that count.

On the title, it's an old joke: "You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose." Watching this movie is a lot like spending Friday evening with your best bud: you start by drinking beer, eating nuts, cracking jokes, whatever; some time during the night, however, you find your middle finger buried up to the third knuckle in your companion's left nostril, and you'll have no idea how it got there.

(First published in Businessworld, 9.26.08)

El Orfanato (The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007)

Lost boy

El Orfanato (The Orphanage, 2007) shows the limits, possibilities and differences between a fairly talented newcomer and a mature craftsman in the genre of horror. Director Guillermo del Toro considered Juan Antonio Bayona (the film's director) so promising a protégé that he lent his name as producer and "presenter" to be displayed prominently over the film's title in theater posters.

The film is hardly original--more of a masala of borrowings from various gothic films like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) to Jack Clayton's great The Innocents (1961) to Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) to del Toro's own "The Devil's Backbone" (2001). Bayona inherits a tradition Clayton and Wise helped developed, that Amenabar practice with impressive skill: films slow on pacing, and long on atmosphere, with little to no makeup or CGI effects, the chills developed more through suggestion and creeping camera moves than shock cuts and gross prosthetics (though the film does have its small share of them).

Most impressive of all is Bayona's handling of sound--the lack of your standard-issue creepy music score for the most part, and instead a dependence on ambient sound (the grunt of suddenly burdened floorboards, the soft shriek of old door hinges, the exhalation of an uncovered long-hidden passage). Sound is a much neglected and ignored part of the horror film, something one rarely notes or bothers to praise or even complain about, until a particularly inept practitioner comes along (I'm thinking of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" (1999), an otherwise well-made thriller spoiled for the most part by the director's use of obvious sounds to mark "boo!" moments).

I'd say the script is, after the sound and musical cuing, the film's most notable element--Sergio G. Sanchez's script gives us the obvious story (Laura, the mother (Belen Rueda) searching for Simon, her adopted son (Roger Princep), who she assumes was kidnapped by a group of ghostly playmates), and the story behind that, almost Jamesian in its ambiguity (again you see the size of the debt owed to The Innocents): is the mother imagining all this, imagining an elaborate vengeance she feels must be visited upon herself, for surviving where others did not? Is this some kind of power struggle between her and Simon, Simon expressing his anger and disappointment at learning that 1) he's not her real son, and 2) learning he's dying of HIV? And is Laura in hunting relentlessly for Simon working out the guilt she feels for rejecting the boy when he demanded attention at an inconvenient time (to a child no time is ever inconvenient; the crisis is always now, it's always a matter of life and death)?

And what of Carlos, Laura's husband (Fernando Cayo)? The sanest and most resilient--well, maybe less resilient than reasonable I suppose--of the three, he seems to play perfectly supportive husband until the point when he finds himself unable to support her and her obsession anymore. Cayo's role is the easiest to overlook of the three, but he's the touchstone, the standard of normalcy by which we measure how far Laura has allowed herself to be pulled by the tide of her obsession. The pain he feels, talking to her, confronting her, is I think no less great than the pain she feels having lost her son.

It's a good script, with an iron emotional core made up of a mother's need to protect her child, and a child's need to make his dreams and desires heard. It plays on a parent's guilt, not just at neglecting her child, but at actually wounding him with a careless word or gesture; what to the parent might be an outburst of impatience at an unreasonable request may for the young one be an unforgivable affront, a confirmation that he or she is not the center of one's world, an ineradicable feeling of distrust or disaffection one may need a lifetime to correct, if ever.

It's a good script, too good I think for Bayona's impressive if immature abilities. Yes he gets some of it right--I've noted the sound, the conservative effects; might as well throw in his impeccable sense of timing, the languor of a moment made tense and unsettling by the off-kilter detail (a group of children playing with a mute scarecrow towering over them; a trail of footsteps leading not out but deeper into a seaside cave; metal tubes in a small closet, too heavy and huge to be of any conceivable use in there). Then there's his use and staging of children's games-- the treasure hunt, an elaborate, unspoken transaction worked out between two people across years, even across the gulf between life and death; the statue game, where the player must acknowledge that he cannot see (and hence, cannot control) the actions of his or her co-players all the time.

At times, however, Bayona seems to lack the confidence to gracefully work out the script--the subplot of an old lady's accident is too hamfistedly staged and shot, and some of the later scares involve the kind of intrusive sound effects he'd so successfully eschewed so far. That old lady also represents several plot loopholes--what did she think she could accomplish in the garden shed, and why now when she had decades beforehand to do so? How'd she escape attention all those years she was working in the orphanage? Why should she have an accident, and at that precise moment?

Amenabar worked with an equally implausible plot in The Others that, when you think about it, is simpler and apparently less moving than Bayona's; but Amenabar is able to wield visuals much more firmly under the dictates of a personal vision, and one is ultimately seduced by the poetry of his camera moves to pay much attention to any mere inconsistency (it helps that Amenabar had the benefit of directing several of the better thriller/fantasy features to come out in recent years). The skilled craftsman uses poor materials to achieve more, while the relative novice overcompensates by collecting everything he knows and throwing it at the screen with the prayer that something sticks. That way works too--this film scares and entertains, basically--but it's done with so much sweaty exertion there isn't as much fun or pleasure to be had in watching.

First published in Businessworld, 10.3.08