Sunday, May 31, 2009

Philippine Customs lifts taxes on imported books; "Up;" "A Woman Cut in Two;" "Sunshine"

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lifts taxes on imported book

Some thoughts on this whole brouhaha:

1) Shouldn't have happened in the first place. I understand the government scrabbling to find ways to earn revenue, but if it had encouraged in itself and in the country a culture that valued education and literacy, then a tax on books would have been unthinkable. As is, one wonders what other unpleasant elements are to be found in its mindset.

2) Let this be an object lesson: vigilance, always vigilance. One needs to watch little encroachments on freedom like these. It would have been all too easy to just shrug one's shoulders and say: "So it goes."

3) If the government is still desperate for cash, couldn't they keep the tax on Twilight?

Peter Doctor and Bob Peterson's Up (2009) is pretty much standard-issue Pixar. You have your crusty old man being taught a lesson by a dewy young boy; you have your dreams (in this case, a house beside a waterfall falling from a plateau straight out of Willis O'Brien's The Lost World (1925)) being pursued no matter what the cost--either the film encourages this pursuit, or urges the hero to abandon his dream for a more achievable goal (in this case, returning an avian mother to her children). Along the way Doctor and Peterson openly celebrate their inspirations--not just O'Brien, but Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986) and many flying sequences in various pictures (Miyazaki, as his fans know, is a master of the aerial flight sequence).

This is a cartoon, of course. We aren't asked to wonder why the hero manages, seemingly overnight, to conceal thousands of balloons in his house (Where did he get the money? Why are they strong enough to lift the house, with what looks like common string? ( has something to say about this)? Why haven't they lifted the building even before they're released from his attic?). We aren't asked to wonder how he manages to construct not just sails for forward propulsion but a mechanism for steering said sails. We aren't asked to wonder how a long-lost explorer manages to amass so many dogs, and how they managed to develop an obsession for squirrels (in South America, no less).

Too sentimental for my taste, though I'm sure this will be a big hit for people who still believe animation is strictly for the kiddies. For my money the year's best animated feature to date is Henry Selik's Coraline, from the novel by Neil Gaiman, which admits to the possibility that childhood isn't just full of wonders, but terrors as well.

Claude Chabrol's La fille coupee en deux (A Girl Cut in Two, 2007) invites, as usual, comparisons to Hitchcock, but from where I'm sitting the most distinctive quality the two share, at least at this stage in Chabrol's career, is elegance in storytelling, elegance in all elements of storytelling, from characterization to dialogue to mis-en-scene to soundtrack (the opening credits roll to the strains of Puccini's Turandot, the plot of which suggests interesting sidelights to the plot of Chabrol's film). Even the title works overtime to raise questions in the viewer's mind--just why is the eponymous girl (local TV weather girl Gabrielle, played by Ludivine Sagnier) cut in two? Because she's of two minds? Because she's desired by two men? Because a whirling blade literally cuts her in two?

One often thinks when thinking of Hitchcock of visual challenges solved with brilliantly, sometimes breathtakingly elegant solutions (the problems of confined space in Lifeboat or Rope or Rear Window; of a shower-stall murder in Psycho; of wide-open spaces and sustaining tension through a cross-country odyssey in North by Northwest). Chabrol in this case solves one kind of challenge: the suggestion of perverse sexual appetites with the least amount of fuss (a head sinks below a table; a girl crawls on all fours in shadow; a private club is visited, and one member asks another a pointed question: "does she know what goes on here?").The story is loosely based on the killing of architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, for a long-ago affair White had with Thaw's wife Evelyn Nesbit, updated with a bit of class rivalry.

Central to the film is the mystery of Gabrielle: is she corrupted innocent or cruel sadist? Middle-class victim or social-climbing instigator? In Turandot, the two main female characters are the eponymous princess and the slave girl, Liu, and Gabrielle seems to embody qualities of both women--she is by turns loyal and loving to her elderly lover, cruel and distant to her young husband. By combining the two in one woman, does Chabrol make his heroine more or less convincing, more or less complex--both, maybe? Sagnier plays her as a cool blonde in the best Hitchcockian tradition (I have to take back I suppose what I said earlier about Chabrol's resemblance or lack of to Hitchcock). Towards the end she's revealed as more innocent and less guileful than she seems--or is she instead completely at the mercy of her own inner demons? She's the lure, the McGuffin, the enigma that draws both men--and herself--to their irrevocably entangled dooms.

Danny Boyle's
Sunshine (2007) for the first hour manages to make you forget all the scientific inaccuracies it so blatantly presented. Boyle wears his influences on his sleeve: the heavy-breathing spacemen and extra-vehicular activity (EVA) from Kubrick's 2001, including one sequence involving explosive decompression (silly it seems to worry about freezing in outer space when the human body loses its heat so slowly); the dripping water and marauding predator in Scott's Alien (1979); the haunted space station in Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972).

Hard to take this wannabe science-fictional philosophical treatise seriously, when it doesn't do its homework. The sun is dying, but no mention is made of the fact that its death occurs some five billion years too early (in the DVD commentary physicist and film advisor Brian Cox mentions the possibility of the sun capturing a Q-ball, dark matter in a specific supersymmetric form--though reportedly the sun isn't dense enough to capture so massive an object). The story's set fifty years into the future but already we have artificial gravity, with no explanation how this miracle comes about.

In one of the deleted scenes they did mention that their payload, a 'stellar bomb' meant to rekindle the sun's nuclear fusion processes, has the mass of the moon compressed into the size of a football field--but this raises more questions than it answers. Why, if the payload generates enough gravity to create one-gee conditions throughout the ship, can people walk on its surface without being crushed (the gravity on the surface would be greatest, less so for objects further away)? Why, if the payload generates gravity, does weight turn on and off like a light switch in the airlock? Why if the payload generates gravity do men in spacesuits float around when stepping outside the ship?

All this can pretty much be forgiven if Boyle had given us a reasonably plausible drama, but late in the game Boyle introduces an incredibly silly supervillain with heavily scarred skin that we see mostly through a distorting lens. The lens gimmick is a terrible idea; Boyle's action sequences are never the most coherent, but the addition of a lens only makes the action even less so. Worse is the gobbledygook that comes out of the villain's well-roasted lips--"When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God." The man is crazy, the laziest excuse for villainy in all of storytelling (he's nuts, ergo he's capable of anything). For all the sunlight in Boyle's picture he does little to illuminate human nature through his villain, or through the conflicts his villain creates.

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