Saturday, January 31, 2009

And the loser is --

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's that time of the year again.

2009 Oscar nominees

Some notes:

Mildly surprised they didn't nominate Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for a dozen statuettes--it dabbles in current events, it has the heft and pretentiousness (with a message sufficiently grabled that voters might think it's a pro-civil rights, anti-terrorism cautionary/inspirational tale), and a beloved dead actor's final performance to capture the nostalgia vote, and best of all, it's a boxoffice winner. Hell, film and statue deserve each other; neither has a sense of humor or of shame, both are free of the taint and stench of art, or of artists striving for greatness.

I'd written about David Fincher's Benjamin Button already. Suffice to say, I think Button with a script by Gump-ish writer Eric Roth is populist enough, with a wistful enough message ("nothing lasts") that the voters thought it Oscar-worthy. They're apparently too thickheaded to suss out the film's true theme, the majestic passage of time, and the enduring variety of the world and its seasons.

Have not seen Gus Van Sant's Milk (but will, this weekend). Yes, he's done conventional work (Good Will Hunting, and To Die For) same time he's done more interesting fare (Elephant; the Psycho remake (what can I say? Don't knock it till you've seen it, especially screened side-by-side with the original)), so I for one remain hopeful that it was nominated by mistake, and that there's more to it than its ostensibly liberal (if nevertheless important) message.

As for Slumdog Millionaire, my position is this: why waste perfectly good money watching some tourist of a Brit filmmaker steal story ideas from his Indian betters? Slumdog's entertaining, and especially in the scenes of the pickpocket ring it has a gruesome energy (So why is the man and his minions picking up homeless kids? The answer makes one think of an episode of Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror series (not so much that it doesn't happen--apparently it does--but that Boyle insists on filming it in a pulp-horror manner). But--fantastic premises (a street kid as finalist in a million-dollar TV game show)? Outrageous coincidences (kid and his love interest keep bumping into each other with little trouble in Mumbai, a city of over thirteen million people)? There's nothing here we haven't seen done before, and done better, in the films of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, and many others.

As for shamelessly melodramatic climaxes, the one employed here implies a hundred and eighty degree turnaround on the part of a major character. I know, I know plausibility is not the picture's strong suit, nor was it meant to be, but said character is consistent, was dramatically plausible, despite everything; it would have been easy to rewrite him to follow his true, piratical yet generous, nature.

Give me instead the equally shameless yet to my mind far more effective climax to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, even if Eastwood does for a few grating moments croak the words to his own song. Slumdog's ending just drops in out of nowhere; Gran Torino's (a lovely act of theatrics and mindfuck psychology) is carefully prepared from the film's earliest scenes, feels true to the character he plays, and is still courageous in its outlandish convictions. Fact is, I wonder why didn't the Academy nominate Eastwood's film? It's the kind of high-quality soap Hollywood used to be good at churning out in its olden days, with a generous dose of politically incorrect humor (leavened with unspoken sensitivity) tossed in for flavoring, and it's Eastwood's cleanest, simplest, least pretentious film in years.

Do the Academy voters feel they have to be serious now? Do they feel they have standards to keep, artistic merit to reward and uphold? From where I'm sitting, they have no standards; the Oscars are a whorefest, a badly dressed one at that, long and dull and totally pointless (the career statue they gave Robert Altman is a capstone insult to the career of a great artist, the competition statue they gave Martin Scorsese a consolation insult to an artist still growing and developing and working in so many interesting ways). Altman and Scorsese are too tactful as human beings to tell the Academy where they can really stick their goldplated doorstops; I for one wished they were not so gracious.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

Whomping Matilda

Baz Luhrmann's $130 million epic Australia (2008) is possibly the single biggest event to ever come out of that continent--possibly the single biggest event that ever will come out of that continent for decades, if this worldwide economic meltdown has anything to say about it.

I'm not kidding about the size--Luhrmann (who probably snowed his investors with promises that the project will be another Moulin Rouge (2001)) had to shift gears on his long-awaited Alexander the Great project when Oliver Stone pre-empted him with an Alexander of his own (yet another box-office flop, incidentally); Luhrmann decided to set his next project in his own home country, presumably for the ease and convenience, then proceeded to escalate the production beyond any hope of finishing easily and conveniently. Entire sets--including parts of the town of Darwin circa the '30s and '40s--were constructed from scratch, the Darwin sets subsequently bombed; not one but two herds of cattle were driven over harsh Aussie terrain, raced through the built-up towns, and into holding pens; a grand ball was staged, with star Nicole Kidman at its center, and star Hugh Jackman as gentleman gatecrasher.

What to make of such follies? That size doesn't matter? The filmmakers grew too big for their britches? The bigger they are, the harder they fall? I actually don't mind multimillion dollar productions, if the director had a vision crazy enough and daring enough to justify the craziness of the cost--think D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) with its gargantuan Babylonian sets, or Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) with its three full-sized movie screens flashing at once; think Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) with its candlelit photography and Napoleonic battle sequences, or Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento, made the following year, with its delirious tracking shots taking in huge swathes of the Italian countryside, or even Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) with its ringing phone linking together a fractured narrative structure, spun out from an opium pipe and spanning forty years. For these artists, it's not just the money, the money was just a means; it's the vision, that demented whatever-it-is they were trying to achieve (a multiple-thread chronicle of hatred throughout history; a biography of a great and controversial Frenchman; an outsized adaptation of a minor novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; a comic-book history of Italian Socialism, through World War 2; a hallucinatory dream of Jewish gangsters in Prohibition America) come hell or high water.

Certainly Luhrmann blew a comparable amount of money (adjusted for inflation) if not more for his picture, but for what? Cattle barons plotting to steal the deed to a ranch (wasn't that story old when color was invented)? The high-class lady that rides into town and falls for the rugged cowboy? The young orphan who becomes a beloved sidekick and adopted son? All small-minded, uncomplicated ideas, undeserving of a lavish production of this scale. To compensate for the puniness of his vision, Luhrmann heavily quotes not only from Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) but also, tellingly, from Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001), another recent epic that employs modern digital effects to present hoary Hollywood conventions. He basically has the heart of a little boy drunk on movies--but he better do something soon; it's starting to smell funky, floating in its formaldehyde jar.

And he better do something about his directorial "voice." Early in his career this consisted of hyperkinetic camera moves, the nervous editing rhythm of a Tourette's patient, and a color scheme that shrieked for attention. Strictly Ballroom (1992) was a charming dance movie (too bad an elderly Spaniard had to show Luhrmann and the entire film up simply by striking a pose--showing us for a brief, magnetic moment the inimitable quality of a man confident enough to stand absolutely still). His 2001 movie Moulin Rouge was basically Verdi's La Traviata lobotomized and tarted up and swollen into a hundred-and-twenty-seven-minute music video. I confess to being partial to his Romeo + Juliet (1996)--compared to Franco Zefferelli's sticky travesty of an adaptation, Luhrmann's looks like a masterpiece (though again with the music-video style--does he have ADD or something?). In Australia he's finally slowed camera and cutting down, unfortunately to the point of being soporific (Luhrmann, it must be said, rarely does things in halves) and hideously conventional: high-angled widescreen shots of the Aussie landscape; giant two-shots of lovers dancing; long tracking shots of the cattle running down Darwinian streets. This is stuff David Lean mastered back in the '60s, only with genuine grandeur (think of the assault on Aqaba in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962)); Luhrmann, I suppose, is trying for a kind of secondhand, second-rate Lean.

Australia is cast mainly for the faces, not for anything as subtle as an actual character--look closely and you can spot the hairy dude from the X-Men movies, (the one with straight razors for fingernails), and Kidman (who's pretty enough, and actually quite good when asked to perform in a real film (Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) comes to mind), and then there's the usual cast of thousands of aborigines, standing in the background for local color. I suppose I'm not being fair, three faces do stand out--Brandon Walters as the aboriginal child is a charismatic cutie, and an entire feature focusing on his story as one of the "Stolen Generation" (tribal children taken from their parents with the intention of having them civilized) would have been fine by me (but I forget, it's been done--Philip Nonce's excellent Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)). David Galileo as the aboriginal "King George" is a wonderful camera subject, with his wide smile, gentle eyes, and mysterious access to a world miles beyond this one.

Then there's Bryan Brown, whose lopsided, quintessentially Aussie grin practically defines star power down under. Figures that Brown would take an essentially thin role (dashing but ruthless but likeable millionaire entrepreneur who plays rival to Ms. Kidman's ingénue wife) and leave such an unforgettable impression in his brief screen time. While Brown is in the picture, Australia seems to threaten to develop into something actually interesting: when he exits it's just an oversized, overextended, overproduced studio backlot.

First published in Businessworld, 1.30.09

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A blog (this one) wins an award, a festival (Rotterdam) hosts hungry ghosts

First things first; hugely proud of the fact that Peter Nellhaus' Coffee, coffee, and more coffee has seen fit to pick this blog as one of five for the Dardos Awards, for "recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

"Dardos winners must do the following:

1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award."

So in that spirit, I choose five other awardees:

1). The Search for Weng Weng - Andrew Leavold not only papers his blog with the coolest wallpaper image ever (of Weng Weng, of course), but also uncovers with fanatical thoroughness more details about pulpy Asian films in general and Filipino films in particular than any kwailo has the right to know (we plan to deal with him soon enough--we have sufficient bamboo) Plus, if you happen to search for it, the blog contains as far as I can see complete filmographies of Celso Ad. Castillo, Gerardo de Leon, and other exotic and incredible riches.

2) Concentrated Nonsense - Alex Tioseco is that rarity of rarities, a film critic who's also a male model (no, really). But if girls find him good looking (personally I wouldn't know--I'm not a girl) I find he also has a working awareness of international cinema, and brings that perspective to his increasingly infrequent (what gives, Alex?)writings on Philippine cinema. He's also founder and editor of Criticine, possibly one of the best online journals about Southeast Asian cinema.

3) Lessons from the School of Inattention - the irony being that oggsmoggs' rapidly expanding blog implies he's anything but inattentive. Oggs is a lawyer--young one, too--and for him film criticism is more a hobby (it was the same for me once, is so again); but his sharp legal mind stands him in good stead, as he shreds hack filmmakers' defenses to shreds....

4) Sari-Saring Sineng Pinoy (roughly translated, Differing Filipino Films), Jojo De Vera's blog is a cornucopia of screenshots, plot summaries, and cast lists of Filipino films mostly from the'70s and '80s, some of them I've never had a chance to see. De Vera's an enthusiast, but at least once he's done something I've only dreamed of doing: save a Filipino film. Browsing in a garage sale, he came upon what is now believed to be the only surviving Betamax copy of Lino Brocka's Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1970)--the actual negative has long since turned to vinegar. A hero, in my book.

5) Ka Pete, which is basically the formidable Pete Lacaba's venue for his articles, thoughts, what-have-you. Lacaba's more literary in orientation (he's an accomplished poet and essayist); what makes his blog a cinema blog as well is the fact that he's responsible for perhaps half a dozen of the Philippines' finest films. I'd also written about his absolute sense of integrity, almost to the point of obstinancy. Another hero, both in the shadow world of films and the real world of politics and moral action.

The Rotterdam International Film Festival is hosting a special section devoted to ghost stories, and has been kind enough to ask me to write a short article on the subject (if the article's at all available online, I'll post a link). I've seen perhaps six of the films in the selection, two of which, Rico Ilarde's Altar (2007) and Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Under the Cogon Grass, 2005) I've written about before. As for the other four--

4bia (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom, Paween Purikitpanya, 2008) is an omnibus film of four shorts with wildly differing styles, tones, subjects. The first--about a girl trapped in her apartment because of a broken leg (Rear Window, anyone?)--does an admirable job of keeping a tight grip on our attention, even when the thirty or so minute running time has no dialogue (the filmmaker drops the ball towards the end, though, I think). The second is basically a variation on the Final Destination movies. The third, a camping trip where one of the members dies and haunts the rest of the group, is easily my favorite, a bizarre mix of The Others and, of all things, Deliverance (comic horror is so rare and hard to do, I appreciate what little comes my way). The fourth is the most handsomely produced, a female version of George Miller's remake of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in the Twilight Zone movie, only here the stewardess doesn't deal with a gremlin on the wing of the plane but with the plane's only passenger, a fresh corpse.

I keep mentioning influences; I don't mean to imply that the filmmakers slavishly imitate their Western counterparts--if anything, they use the source material as jumping-off points to create truly bizarre scenarios. In the case of Lee Kwong Yiu's Yes, I can see dead people, the influence of The Sixth Sense is clear, only Lee adopts a breezy tone and at one point has his hero admit that almost all his friends are dead, and that he can see them still walking afterwards. The film becomes more straightforward unfortunately, the breeziness lost, but for a few minutes it's nuttier and creepier than anything Hollywood has come up with for the past few decades.

Shinya Tsukamoto's Akumu Tantei 2 (Nightmare Detective 2) takes a page from Tarsem Singh's The Cell (which in turn takeas its cue from Roger Zelazny's The Dream Masters) and offers us a gumshoe who stalks the alleways and mean streets of our nightmares--only (and this is Tsukamoto's one clever stroke) all nightmares are really outgrowths of the detective's nightmares, all childhoood tramuas a reproduction of his own childhood trauma. Not crazy about Tsukamoto's shaky cam style (I like my J-horror imagery preternaturally still, the way Hideo Nakata or Kurosawa Kyoshi does it), but he does possess a distinct (his breakout feature was Tetsuo the Iron Man) sensibility.

Then there's Joko Anwar's Pintu Terlarang (Forbidden Door, 2009), which doesn't seem immediately inspired by any Western film at all--well, you see a bit of David Lynch in the surrealism, the horror of reproductive sex (and isn't that the white picket fence from Lynch's Blue Velvet making a cameo in one scene?). Anwar seems to know that the most effective ghosts are really guilt-drenched memories, the most frightening curses of all self-imposed. Excellent film, one of the best I've seen from this lot, and one of the best in Asian horror I've seen all year (but I forget--the year's only beginning).

Fly Me to the Moon (Ben Stassen, 2008)

Shoo fly

If you think flies are annoying and inconsequential, then this movie--about eighty-four minutes' worth of bright blue (as in bluebottles?) and strangely hairless pests hitching a ride on Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon--is in all likelihood not for you.

You wonder what on earth (well, maybe that's the problem right there) the filmmakers were thinking when they set out to make this picture--was it a desire for profit? The movie did $12 million in domestic gross, not enough to make up even its lowly $25 million budget (it did $34 million worldwide--but you need to earn at least twice that to pay for prints, advertising, theatrical fees, all that good stuff).

Was it a desire to educate? The flies may be blue and hairless, their child maggots a repulsive shade of pale (you think of armless, legless little pink babies, wriggling about and chewing on rotten meat), but the Saturn V rocket, Apollo capsule and lunar modules that help carry the astronauts (and their tiny stowaways) to their ultimate destination are lovingly rendered and realized. The astronauts use accurate terminology (a mid-course correction made by firing small rocket nozzles is called a burn), do authentic maneuvers (the astronauts clamber from capsule to module, which disengages and lands on the moon), and in fact Edwin Eugene "Buzz " Aldrin, Jr., voices his own digitized character. Seems to me NASA, or at least Mr. Aldrin, hoped to remind people of the historical significance of this moon shot.

(And in fact the film was meant to educate, or at least wasn't meant to only be a mindless summer feature--a 49 minute version was shown in various museums and theme parks from the summer of 2007 onwards; a 13 minute version was being shown in at least two Six Flags amusement parks. Which makes one want to ask--what kind of script can you construct from a theme park ride, or what kind of script can you construct from a story meant to break down into hour-long and quarter-hour-long versions? I mean, aside from The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), which became a freak hit basically because Johnny Depp decided to toss the script out the window and enjoy himself?)

In which case, why yoke that true story to this blandly saccharine one? The Apollo flight had more than enough share of drama and thrills to fill any normal-length film--that moment where, for example, Neil Armstrong looked out of the lunar module's window and discovered that the computer was landing them in a crater surrounded by rocks--that was real, the danger was real. A straightforward, digitally animated sequence wouldn't be my idea of a perfect cinematic realization of the scene but trust me, not having those bratty little bluebottles along to make cute remarks and suck floating globules of Tang would be a vast improvement right there.

It's not impossible, spending an entire animated feature on a space mission; matter of fact it's been done before, with Hiroyuki Yamaga's magnificent Ōritsu Uchūgun: Oneamisu no Tsubasa (Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, 1987), where a fictional country on a parallel Earth struggles to send a man into space. The level of thought, the complexity of detail the animators poured into the film is staggering: the nozzle assembly of the giant engine resembles that of a Soviet Soyuz (Russian for 'rocket') engines; the country's entire society is fully realized, from the doughnut-shaped coins and triangular spoons used in everyday commerce to the faintly risible feathery caps worn by the space cadets.

The film's tone isn't one of relentless scientific optimism, either. At first the space force doesn't enjoy a high reputation; if anything, people regard it as something of a joke. The cadets and scientists have to earn the right to be proud of themselves, work hard to solve all technological problems, undergo rigorous training, stay above the local and international political intrigues that threaten to overwhelm the program.

It's an amazing film; if it wasn't for the fact that one of the pilots makes a misguided attempt at assaulting a woman, I'd recommend it for children, easy.

If we're talking about something more fact-based, why, check out The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman's often hilarious, often thrilling, hugely entertaining epic about the astronauts of the Mercury program. You name it, Kaufman's picture in all likelihood has it: rocket planes and spacecraft hurtling to the edge of Earth's atmosphere and beyond; military officers inflicted with inane (sometimes insane) tortures designed to test their preparedness for outer space; a do-or-die struggle between scientists (who regard the astronauts as mere test subjects) and astronauts (who regard themselves as pilots in full control of their ship, dammit, none of this 'spam-in-a-can' nonesense!).

And the filmmaking's tremendous--not just the flying sequences (which have the crude, propulsive look of early NASA documentary footage), not just the special effects (the view of the Earth from a plane or from space was created by avant-garde filmmaker Jordan Belson), but iconic shots such as the Mercury astronauts walking towards the camera in slow motion, to the tune of inspiring martial music (a shot Tarantino would steal so many years later for his Reservoir Dogs (1992)).

Again, wonderful stuff to show to kids, if it weren't for the scene where astronauts contribute sperm samples for testing.

Seems that scenes of dubious wholesomeness are a chronic problem with films about space--but when you think about it, the raunchy humor reflects space travel's essentially juvenile nature. You get this impression from both Oneamisu and The Right Stuff that a strong streak of immaturity runs through the men administering and undergoing the enterprise--and even that would be an interesting angle to explore, even in an animated feature. Anything but this flavorless, nutritionless, freeze-dried excuse for a movie here.

First published in Businessworld, 1.23.09

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

Out, out, brief candle

David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is a beautifully stated film, easily one of the loveliest I've seen last year. The near-three hour running time didn't bother me; felt I could have sat through a hundred twenty minutes more, easy.

It wasn't meant to be experienced that way, apparently. Based on a slight short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, scriptwriter Eric Roth must have wanted to do a prequel to his Oscar-winning project Forrest Gump (1994), complete with Gump figure (Brad Pitt as the eponymous character), love interest (Cate Blanchett, gorgeous no matter what age she's playing), a panoramic view of the twentieth century (both World Wars, the moon shot), and a quotable bit of dialogue that Roth must have hoped would hit big among viewers, the way "life is a box of chocolates" did in Gump (a distortion, by the way--in Winston Groom's novel Gump says "bein' an idiot is no box of chocolates," a more honest statement than anything said in the movie).

Out of Button and his ability to sail through most of the 20th century unscathed Roth has fashioned the most passive protagonist imaginable--Ben waits for his adopted mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) to save him from falling down a stairway, waits for a Captain Mike (Jared Harris) to take him to a brothel and initiate him into the mysteries of sex, waits years for Daisy (Cate Blanchett) to finally come around on her love for him. When something awful finally happens, when say Captain Mike's boat encounters a German sub in the open seas, Ben conveniently drops behind the boat's wheelhouse while the U-boat's anti-aircraft gun shoots the vessel full of lead. Hank's Gump at least suggested something alert and astringent (the only such figure in an otherwise sticky movie) with his erect, ugly-duckling posture--a wide-eyed wariness that knows the world hates the unintelligent, knows it has to be ready for anything, at any time.

Worst of all is Roth's bon-bon of a philosophy. "Nothing lasts, and what a shame that is." The shame is that they gave Roth this project--Gump was about the stickiest, most softheaded film of the '90s (it arguably encapsulates the cockeyed optimism of the Reagan '80s); if Roth completely had his way Button would have been the Gump of the new millennium.

Thank Fincher then, for taking the script and fashioning something darker and altogether more fascinating. In the previous year's Zodiac Fincher gave us the decade-and-a-half-long hunt for the Zodiac killer, complete with a brief sketch of the people investigating and being investigated (roughly a dozen characters), plus a startlingly comprehensive (if not definitive) summary of all the dates and events and facts involved; more impressively he gives us a distilled feel of the process needed to finally reduce the number of suspects down to a single man, leading to a confrontation between protagonist and murderer in a hardware store.

That climactic confrontation was almost a side issue for me, and in fact Fincher shoots it with almost zero fuss or emphasis--I’m guessing it's a side issue for him, too. What ultimately mattered (and I suspect was what he was aiming for all along) was the overwhelming sense of time passing, the weight and mass and heft of weeks accumulating into months accumulating into years accumulating into decades. It was Zodiac's great unspoken, unforgettable theme, and it delivered considerable emotional force--all those years passing before the protagonist finally (if not conclusively) arrived at the truth.

Zodiac focused on a single task (the uncovering of a criminal), and felt more like a focused, intimate portrait, despite the outsized scale; Benjamin Button widens the canvas, taking in an entire life as it plays out against the background of a century. This is the true subject of Button: not Roth's wimpy "nothing lasts" (an insulting truism), but that time passes, slowly, magnificently, irrevocably over us all. Dialogue in Zodiac was an adornment, a distracting chatter that masked the preternatural calm lying beneath the film's surface; dialogue is as unimportant in this picture--this is a hundred and sixty-five minute feast for illiterate senses (imagery and music and sound engineering, not to mention the moments of silence).

Fincher's seductive style (not a big fan of Se7en (1995) or Fight Club (1999) or Panic Room (2002), but he did develop a dark, velvety texture from each of these earlier films that he now wields authoritatively) is the true star of this film, Brad Pitt merely an effectively used mannequin (or as Alfred Hitchcock liked to put it, cattle) that personifies the film's main character. If I've never been a fan of early Fincher, I'm even less of Hollywood star Pitt: he was ludicrous in Interview with a Vampire (1994) (despite Neil Jordan's gorgeous visuals), hilarious in Legends of the Fall (same year), petulant in Troy (2004), unthreatening in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)--you get the picture. He's most effective in comedy, when asked to make fun of his pretty-boy looks (the Coen brothers' recent Burn After Reading comes to mind). Here the prettiness is hidden under prosthetic makeup aging him thirty years, and the results are becoming; he acquires a reticence, a becoming modesty that runs counter to the self-absorbed quality of his showier parts. When he smiles as a seventy year old there's a preternatural brightness to the smile, an inconsistency that makes you want to look twice; Pitt seems to enjoy himself immensely playing Button (he's gloomier when he takes off the makeup and plays his boringly handsome self), and we in turn enjoy his pleasure in the role.

Fincher elaborates on time's passage though various chronometers in the picture (mantelpiece, wrist, digital, even a giant station clock); marks its progress by the changing seasons, fashions, cityscapes (from New Orleans to Russia to Paris to New York); announces its advance through the roar of a motorcycle, the chug of a tugboat, the fateful glide of a car through narrow streets (on its way to crush a dancer's leg); demonstrates its bloom through nighttime encounters between two lovers; even in one bravura passage defies that relentlessness with a shot of soldiers leaping out of shell craters, their shrapnel wounds miraculously closing, their legs pumping back towards the trenches from where they came.

Best of all the effects Fincher creates is Benjamin's face, how (like the soldiers' backward run) the camera gazes in rapt attention as creases vanish and the hair thickens into brown tufts; in a parody of aging Benjamin lets go of memory, intelligence, and bladder control on his backward dash towards the tomb (interesting how Fitzgerald and Fincher equate the extremities of life with each other--both require the wearing of diapers and rinsing of bottoms; both involve endless helpings of helplessness and humiliation). It's as if Fincher had installed this elaborate time-motion sculpture of a human countenance deteriorating, then set it in reverse--by focusing on that, and not on the sentimental history-lesson of a script, Fincher manages to suggest by some small measure the poignant majesty of time.

First published in Businessworld, 1.9.09

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Yearender 2008 (Sight and Sound, and Businessworld)

Poster for John Torres' Years When I Was a Child Outside

The best and the rest in 2008

(List appended and including some films not yet released in Manila; plus my contribution to the Sight and Sound Magazine Films of 2008 (pdf file))

So what was worth watching and what--at least in my opinion--was a total waste of time and money in 2008?

Dave Filoni's Star Wars: The Clone Wars aims to be a cross between Japanese anime and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 'Supermarionation,' successfully combining the worst of both worlds: the clunkiness of Japanese anime), the wooden inexpressiveness of marionettes. Easily the most execrable of producer George Lucas' recent product (though Revenge of the Sith (2005) could give it a run for its, for its--well, let's call it "money," and leave it at that), and easily the foulest mainstream Hollywood movie of the year.

The best thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa his screen realization of the 2006 Robert Parker novel, is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar; the worst thing about the movie is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar. It's 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, doesn't make your blood sing.

Frank Darabont's The Mist faithfully follows Stephen King's novella (which, frankly, I'd always thought owed no small debt to John Carpenter's terser, tighter The Fog (1980)), and plods along without much verve or distinction, falling into the standard-issue postapocalyptic melodrama between us (politically and culturally enlightened folks) and them (Christian fanatics led by Marcia Gay Harden, ironically the only actress to leave any kind of impression because she gives the material the respect it deserves (as dietary roughage)). With a twist ending that practically redefines the meaning of the term "cheap thrill."

Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who? is a largely inoffensive effort from a largely inoffensive writer (Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Suess). In terms of animation the movie's not exactly Studio Ghibli--it isn't even substandard Pixar--and its largely undistinguished digital animation fails to either excite or enrage a viewer. In which case one is tempted to ask: "who cares?"

Byron Howard and Chris Williams' Bolt represents Disney's latest attempt at 'family-friendly' fare so totally devoid of point and bite and flavor that the movie ends up like an order of McDonald's French fries confined under glass. The concept (a dog deluded into thinking the episodes of his weekly TV show, brimming over with super ninjas, attack copters, and gasoline fireballs, are his real life) borrows heavily from Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), which in turn borrowed the idea from the late, great Philip K. Dick's brilliant 1959 novel Time Out of Joint--to considerably lesser effect, in my opinion.

Jon Favreau's Iron Man for maybe the first fifteen minutes plays like glorious satire, with Robert Downey Jr. putting forth an entertaining Portrait of the Rich Weapons Manufacturer as degenerate bastard; then things become considerably less interesting (and less honest) when said weapons manufacturer sees the light and fights to redeem himself by donning shiny red-and-gold armor (you wonder what he uses for polish). Mostly inoffensive, save for the waterboarding scene--folks, for the record, waterboarding was inflicted on suspected terrorists, not the other way around.

Somewhat more acceptable politically speaking is Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk mainly because the Hulk represents nonconformism, and his story plays out as a kind of comic-book protest against military paranoia in general (the Hulk is superhumanly strong; ergo, the generals believe, he must be controlled, or destroyed). That said, it's hard to like this conventionally told, action-oriented Hulk, especially when Ang Lee's far more fascinating 2003 version--with its hints of child abuse and Oedipal rage--is available on DVD.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg might have acknowledged the changes time has wrought on Indy and his world by dealing with Indy's aging body, with the escalating paranoia found between nations, with the increasing untrustworthiness of the American government (all not altogether irrelevant issues at the time of this movie's release). Instead Spielberg has the hero hide inside a fridge to escape an atomic explosion, then fly off to South America to delve deeply into the urgent issue of crystal skulls and extraterrestrials. A wasted opportunity.

On Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight--let me sum up: sodden melodrama decked out with unimpressive vampire trappings (and frankly cheap-looking CGI effects), storyline basically stolen from the second season of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (difference is, Whedon's a wittier, far more imaginative writer than Meyer could ever hope to be). To add insult to Filipino audiences' injuries, Meyer's sucky little romance is tinged with sexism (the heroine can only be fulfilled and satisfied by her man, and waits patiently to be either protected or rescued by him) and racism (the heroine ignores the token Asian, the token Native American, the token African-American villain, and zeroes in on the pretty Caucasian with sparkly-white skin).

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight isn't exactly a bad movie; it isn't the Second Coming either, which is basically the problem I have with the picture. It's a largely photocopied version of the Batman comics, with a motiveless (and as such uninteresting) Joker played with one-note intensity by the late Heath Ledger (no, I don't believe in giving an actor a break even if he did pass away). It borrows elements from respected comic writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller (among others) without borrowing their often mordant sense of humor. Writer-director Nolan crams hot-button issues (terrorism, the question of civil rights, the issue of domestic surveillance) into his picture without bothering to integrate them, or restate them in creatively dramatic terms; he shoots car chases and fight sequences as if he had liquored up his cameraman first, then cuts the footage together for maximum incoherence. An overproduced, overpraised, underimagined mess.

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is apparently the movie to beat in this year's Golden Doorstop race--but why bother? What Boyle tries to do in this glossy, feel-good movie about the virtues of the poor and miserable Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, and many others have already done, and done a better job at that.

Andrew Stanton's animated feature Wall.E (you wonder at the quantity of digitally animated features--are we having some kind of Golden Age? Or, considering the quality of much of this, a Tin Age?) starts out somewhat interesting, then quickly fizzles out. The first forty minutes are a largely silent Chaplinesque pantomime interspersed with excerpts from Hello, Dolly!, and can easily be seen as a parable--or at least an extended sketch--on loneliness. Unfortunately Wall-E himself is designed to mercilessly jerk tears from an audience (those uptilted binocular eyes beg you to pick him up and cuddle him), and the movie's latter half wastes its time on an easily resolved conflict that dramatizes the dangers of couch potato-ing. Like The Dark Knight not an especially bad picture but compared to what Studio Ghibli, Studio 4°C, Madhouse, Gainax, Production I.G., Radix, Bliss Pictures, 2.4.7 Films, Les Amateurs and Aardvark Animations have done, mostly simpleminded kiddie fare.

Speaking of kiddie fare, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda is the kind of high-concept digital animation I actually find more tolerable, mainly because it doesn't put on airs or strive for romantic tragedy--no Chaplin bathos, just slapstick. With an arguably livelier voice cast that includes Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and the original drunken master himself, Jackie Chan (underused--but then, how can you use the still physically eloquent Chan when all you have is his voice?), and perhaps one inspired sequence, where the panda and his sifu battle with chopsticks over a steamed dumpling.

By many standards Peter Berg's Hancock is inferior to Nolan's better-produced, better-promoted superproduction. The plotline has a helter-skelter quality; the picture's tone careens from low farce to high tragedy (with lumpy, ugly bits of violence tucked away here, there); the director in all probability thinks he's got more originality and control of the material than he actually has. But Will Smith makes for an appealingly unkempt, unwholesome superhero, and the idea of him and Charlize Theron once being a hot item generates more electricity onscreen than a dozen Iron Men. It's not a perfect movie, maybe not even a good one, but it has a subversive spirit (even if not much else is), and the determination to pull its superhero down from his ten-foot marble pedestal and get him dirty. Or at least a little mussed.

Matt Reeves' Cloverfield takes a clever concept and runs a fair distance with it--basically informing us that the world today is seen almost exclusively through digicam eyes, and that even a giant monster loose in the streets of Manhattan cannot be appreciated, much less comprehended or feared unless properly viewed--that is, on a video screen. So what if the characters are written and acted like so many computer constructs? Sometimes an idea, executed with sufficient skill, can evoke its fair share of pleasure.

Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is darker, more satisfyingly ambivalent fare than the previous installment (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), with Lucy, Edward, Susan and Peter as the former kings and queens of Narnia, called back to face a more human enemy, the Telmarines, who invaded their kingdom hundreds of years ago. C.S. Lewis' fantasy masterpiece, ostensibly pitched towards younger readers, on further reading reveals itself to be more sophisticated than anything Tolkien might have dreamt up (the concept of relative time, for example--where one year on Earth is equivalent to a thousand on Narnia).
Adamson's competent, and has actually improved since his last feature effort, but one wishes for an adaptation done by a real filmmaker--John Boorman or Julie Taymor or even Guillermo del Toro come to mind.

'Twas David Edelstein's end-of-the-year list that tipped me off about Patricia Rozema's Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. This ain't cutting edge filmmaking folks, but it does put front and center on honestly established dramatic terms an economic Depression we may find ourselves dwelling on and mulling over with greater and greater urgency, as the present depression plays itself out.

Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job is a fine example of that most termite of termite arts, the well-made genre picture (in this case, a bank heist), with maybe one twist--it's a truer story than the filmmakers claim, with one of the producers actually having met two of the real-life robbers. Director Donaldson first came into international attention with the evocatively low-rent divorce drama Smash Palace (1981), flew to America, and hasn't made a decent film since. One appreciates this recent evidence that he can still turn in a crisp, finely tuned thriller.

The aforementioned Julie Taymor is the kind of wild-card filmmaker that infuriates as much as fascinates. Her idea in making
Across the Universe (2007)--an extended music video of the Beatles' greatest hits, held together by little else than a g-string of a plot and the sheer brilliance of her style--suggests she owns a huge, bulging brass pair, and that she's not afraid to use them. The film is as much a failure as it is a success (whether more success than failure or vice versa is a matter of opinion), but one thing you can't accuse it of being is boring.

There's termite art, and then there's Chris Carter's The X Files: I Want to Believe, possibly the most underrated mainstream Hollywood movie of the year. Coming out years after the demise of the TV series and even more years after the first feature, this film doesn't aspire to earth-shaking revelations, or end-of-the-world scenarios; instead, it's a small-scale investigation into a series of kidnappings that includes the odd grisly detail (an amputated arm, a head on ice). Better yet, it's the story of Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson, more gravely beautiful now than before), partner to former FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, still boyishly charming), and her crisis of faith. Should she believe in Mulder? Should she believe in the telepathic and precognitive powers of a former priest and child molester (Bill Connolly)?

It's not the X Files we knew and loved, at least not completely; no aliens popping out of shadows, not a word said about government conspiracies, and our heroes have left the FBI years ago--they have no badges to flash, guns to wave. On the other hand Mulder and Scully are still partners; you feel the weight of their years as friends (and perhaps more than friends) sharing a profound trust and intimacy, the weight of their years as agents sharing risk and danger. In the end Carter's film is less a paranormal thriller than a delicately wrought character study, and is all the better for it.

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, a shamelessly melodramatic mediation on machismo and race relations has the courage of its convictions, which is exactly why I like it, think it's Eastwood's best since Unforgiven (1992). Sure it has a moment or two of Eastwood singing in his gravelly voice (?!), but it's largely funny (intentional), and actually quite clever, climactically speaking (comparing this improbable climax with that of Slumdog's in terms of both audacity (Dirty Harry as a Christ figure) and plausibility (Eastwood carefully prepares you for the unlikely moment), I much prefer the former to the latter).

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. His
Tropic Thunder is possibly the comedy of the year, if only because it provokes gigantic laughs out of a severed head among other grotesqueries, and applies all that grossness to the ridiculous, self-centered, wholly overpaid activity we know of as moviemaking.

The Coen Brothers hit a home run last year with
No Country for Old Men. Their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's action-packed dirge on inevitable mortality has enough solemnity to overwhelm their usual snarky persona, and impressed enough audiences and critics to create a boxoffice hit, earning along the way a gold doorstop or two.

Not a big fan of No Country; I don't think it's McCarthy's best (that arguably is the more deeply felt The Road), nor is it the Coens', who seem strangely muted in this picture.

With Burn After Reading the brothers are back to their usual, irredeemably cynical selves, and we realize what we were missing all along: a free hand at writing the material, a determined lack of seriousness, the ability to express their philosophy freely, without lip service to humdrum humanist sentiment. Burn is uncut Coen, done in a rare ensemble mode (their usual schtick is to surround a chosen protagonist with a cast of eccentric characters). Not all comedies should be this unrelentingly, self-consciously, preciously odd--that would be unbearable; but thank God this one is.

Talking about dark comedies, Stuart Gordon barely made a ripple with a low-budget based-on-a-true-story film called Stuck, but the picture should really be better known; if Nolan's idea of absurdist horror is Ledger cavorting with a faceful of psychedelic makeup, what till he gets a load of Stephen Rea in this picture, hanging on for dear life from the windshield of a car.

What could be odder (and more exciting) than Gordon flying under the radar with a new horror-thriller? How about Johnnie To, flinging together elements from Silence of the Lambs, Eyes of Laura Mars, The Killing, and even what looks to be a more complicated version of the climactic gunfight in Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966) to create Sun taam (Mad Detective, 2007). The film would make a fascinating double bill with Carter's X-Files movie; what Carter treats as a desperate drama past almost all possibility of hope or redemption, To treats as a deeply comic obsession, with enough bravura filmmaking and traces of melancholy to make the mix uniquely his own.

After spending all this time lambasting big-budget digital superproductions, I suppose it's ironic that one of my favorite films this year happens to be a Hollywood superproduction. Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army has the color, style, and romanticism, pitched at an epically conceived level, that Nolan's The Dark Knight could only dream of achieving--and this with what is essentially a workplace comedy (think The Office only with demons and monsters and underground elves thrown in). This is about the most perverse superproduction I've seen in recent years, with huge CGI action sequences that reach their emotional crescendo not when the hero wins, but when a monster passes away; elaborately constructed sets that del Toro's camera glances at in passing, focusing instead on two friends singing Barry Manilow's "I Can't Smile Without You" (the film's emotional high point). The picture was probably too much of a good thing--it made modest boxoffice business before being crushed by the bat juggernaut. But of course--the film is a rare delicacy that needs proper savoring (in private, like a kinky indulgence); anything else would have been like pigging out at McDonald's.

I mentioned one possibility for a double bill; let me propose another--Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (his best work in years), paired with Arnaud Desplechin's Un conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale). If, as Tolstoy once put out, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Demme and Desplechin's respective families demonstrate the truth of that statement with a wealth of sharply observed details. Demme's Buchmans with their multicultural, multiethnic nuptials have every reason in the world to be happy, and somehow still manage to miss the mark; Desplechin's Vuillards are cooler, less accommodating, less affectionate overall, and yet manage to be startlingly openminded when it comes to casual adultery (or maybe it isn't casual, is why they're so supportive). The source of either family's pain is the premature death of a child; the source of their redemption (or at least basis for some kind of truce) being accommodation, the spirit of tolerance, no small helping of hypocrisy or inertia or even just plain laziness (too tired to break off relations, in effect)--in other words, anything and everything that will help maintain or regain for them the precarious balance of their lives.

Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, NY is easily his best, most complex, most ambitious work, which may be both its glory and downfall.
On a purely superficial level I appreciate his moving on after years of writing about introverted protagonists with adolescent longings for beautiful women (Craig's for Maxine in Being John Malkovich (1999), Puff's for Lila in Human Nature (2001), Charlie Kaufman's for Susan Orleans in Adaptation (2002)), though I see he still hasn't lost his fascination for self-reflexivity. With Synecdoche he's finally managed to write about a bittersweet, longstanding relationship with not a little poignancy (well, there's Joel and Clem in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but that film involved amnesia--Joel still at one point winds up gazing at Clem with adolescent longing).

I like it; I even appreciate what Filmbrain points out are Kaufman's Jungian attempts to fully integrate his hero's life. The way I saw it, though, was as yet another dramatization of Kaufman's apparently incurable writer's block, only more massive and immovable than ever--not for nothing, I suspect, did Kaufman choose to set Caden's project in a warehouse (a homage to Welles' Citizen Kane (1941)?). There he wanders about, planning and cataloguing and constructing sets and events and bits of dialogue, many of them for all you know brilliantly staged and acted out. But that first step of sitting down and writing out the merest sketch of a story for his production to even begin, that simple act he can't do.

And so it goes, and so he goes, and the joke that's his life becomes more and more elaborate, with a smaller warehouse standing in for the big warehouse, and a stalker named Sam standing in for Caden's stage Caden, et cetera, et cetera--it's the spectacle of a man running helplessly in place, unable to gain any traction, a Red King's nightmare. Its very insularity and opaqueness are part of Kaufman's insular, opaque point.

A hugely unsettling film, and I might have agreed that it's a great one if Kaufman had hired an actual filmmaker (former collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry come to mind) to direct--the fractal idea of the warehouse within a warehouse within a should really give you more of a tingle than it actually does. Still--an impressive achievement.

With Zodiac (2007) David Fincher fashioned an impressive three-hour epic meditation on the time it would take to accomplish a single goal--in this case, the identity of a killer. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button his sights have been raised to a higher, more ambitious level--meditating the passage of time sufficient enough for an entire life. Never mind Eric Roth's wannabe sentimental script (practically a clone of the one he made for Forrest Gump (1994)); never mind that Brad Pitt playing the eponymous character has for the first time in his life turned in an impressive performance (or at least is so perfectly cast that he failed to ruin this one)--the real star of the film is Fincher's beautifully measured filmmaking, with its amazing palette of subdued hues and tints (all done on HD digital, mind you).

Then there's Gus Van Sant's Milk, which may seem like a conventional biopic at first glance, but later reveals itself to be a graceful, lyrical video-and-film collage of an important figure in American history, easily the best mainstream narrative film to come out of Hollywod this year.

Talking about indulgences, some of the best films I've seen this year come not from the Hollywood compost pit with its digital ordure but from the Filipino independent filmmaking scene, arguably the most vital and creative in the country (maybe the world). Seen just a small sample but what I've seen is impressive, from Adolfo Alix's Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007) an edgy and poignant drama about two youths dreaming of buying a drum set (and the price they ultimately pay) to Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) 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, to Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007), with its Rashomon-like fractured narrative revolving around a murder (his sophomore feature after the excellent Sa North Diversion Road (North Diversion Road, 2005)) .

Two of the finest of this year's digital productions are Rico Ilarde's
Altar and John Torres' Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years when I was a child outside).

Child held captive by diabolical circle in Rico Ilarde's Altar

Altar is by turns cheesy and memorable and unique. You can see that the film is the product of an unrepentantly pulp imagination, as full of pop references and borrowings as Quentin Tarantino's; unlike Tarantino (who it must be remembered made his first feature some four years after Ilarde debuted with Z-Man), there's a purity to the film that's appealing, even infectious. It takes genres and their mixing seriously; you don't see quotation marks, or irony, or any kind of postmodern posturing in the scenarios dreamt up. As such Ilarde might be less like Tarantino and more like fellow pop purveyor Joss Whedon, who has also shown the courage--and power, and magic, if you will--of his romantic convictions. Ilarde believes, and that's what makes us believe in his unlikely concoctions.

The film, incidentally, is caught in a rather unenviable bind. It's too subtle, too stylish to be a run-of-the-mill genre exercise that at most wants to scare the pants off of you. On the other hand it's too obsessed with the trappings of genre filmmaking--the monsters, the martial-arts action, the gothic atmosphere, the music and sound effects--to settle for being a straight "arthouse" product. 

Torres' film is if anything as strange if not stranger. It pulls together various strands and characters and documentary footage, and fashions out of the mess an eerily touching film essay on Torres' discovery that his father had a second family, with three previously unknown children (Funny how three of my favorite films this year involve individuals overwhelmed by the central struggles of their lives--Benjamin by a quirk of hormonal fate, Caden by the attempt to catalogue and dramatize his ever-accumulating history, Torres by the outsized figure of his philandering father--and how this results in fractured, memory-rich narratives/lives). 

Both this and Altar have been made with less money than would fund the catering budget of a normal-sized Hollywood production. Both reveal a range of technique and imagery and imagination that bigger Hollywood directors can only wish they were blessed with; both are arguably the finest films I've seen all year (not counting the DVDs of classics and rarities I've managed to rent or somehow borrow). The best, the rest of 2008; enough said. 

First published in Businessworld 12.19.08