Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Centurion (Neil Marshall)

The Lone Centurion--I know, wrong historical drama, but much more entertaining

Sword and slaughter

A world power marches into the mountainous territory of a half-civilized people and quickly finds itself immersed in a quagmire of fierce fighting, guerrilla tactics, terror attacks (at one point a convoy is stopped, and flaming roadside devices are deployed).

The world power is not the United States but the Rome Empire; the territory is not Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan but Scotland. It is the time of Hadrian, and he is struggling to deal with the threat of the Picts, Celtish warriors who paint their faces a bright blue and who like to wield the throwing axe--an impressive weapon that can severe a limb or split open a skull, or with an additional swing fling itself as far as twenty feet to bury its bladed head in someone's chest.

Unorthodox tactics to the Roman legionnaire, whose preferred weapon was the short sword (perfect for quick, precise work, not so suited to berserker fighting). There are ample examples of both styles of combat in Neil Marshall's Centurion, his historical action thriller just released last month on DVD, and it would be wonderful to report that he makes full use of the contrast, but no--there are some intricately choreographed fight sequences, rendered halfway (but only halfway) intelligible by the somewhat frenetic editing (Marshall is no Paul Greengrass, thankfully, but neither is he a Philip Noyce, alas).

The film is basically a long chase--a group of decimated Romans tries to rejoin the rest of the Roman army while a band of bloodthirsty Picts hunt them down. Too often the hunted back themselves into absurd situations (they adopt the strategy of not taking the obvious Southward route, only to find that the Picts are perfectly capable of tracking them down anyway; when trapped they resort to the Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid style of last-minute escape: leaping off a high cliff into a roaring river (doesn't it ever occur to anyone that the water might be shallow?)). There's some inconsistency too: the Picts hunt hard and fast, and sometimes they feel as if they're supernaturally prescient in tracking down their Roman prey, sometimes they seem to slack off and disappear for long periods of time (it depends, you feel, on the needs of the script or the whim of the director, when it shouldn't--you should be too busy worrying about their chances for survival).

The finale is satisfyingly intricate--an abandoned Roman fort acts as setting for three different duels, happening at two different levels. The whole is too dependent, however, on precise editing to keep the fight sequences distinct and comprehensible (Marshall doesn't deliver, alas). Not bad, but not quite first class, either.

The movie does dwell on more realpolitik than is usual for action movies. The survivors are led by a centurion named Dias (Michael Fassbender) and he's not your usual gung-ho, do-or-die military officer--though he does decide to run for miles and miles and risk the lives of four or five surviving soldiers to save a Roman general. Dias has his thoughtful side, as when he says "It's easy to turn to the gods for salvation...but it's soldiers who do the fighting, and soldiers who do the dying, and the gods never get their feet wet." He confronts Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mighty Pictish warrior-woman who wields a spear that might have come out of Liu Chia-liang's Legendary Weapons of China--Etain is a fearsome opponent and a relentless, bloodthirsty killer, but she has reasons: her family was massacred when she was a child and she herself raped, her tongue cut out to ensure her silence.

The good guys have their doubts, the bad guys their motivation; the grounds for opposition shift ever so slightly this way and that. When Dias meets Arianne (Imogen Poot, a much more gorgeous-looking actress than the name might suggest)--exile, healer, reputed sorceress--he finds plenty of reason to at least settle down, if not change allegiance; when he finally accomplishes his mission--when he in effect reaches safe haven--his very presence as survivor of a Pictish massacre is a potential embarrassment to the Roman military. Marshall does a swell job of muddying up simplistic action-movie waters (he did an equally fine job of injecting feminist subtext into his underseen horror thriller The Descent), it's a pity he didn't do more with this, substantiate the characters rather than the choreography, concentrate on the machinations rather than the manslaughter (you saw this unexploited potential in The Descent as well).

The movie is on the verge of being so good it's painful to see how close it managed to get before missing the mark altogether; you want to handcuff Marshall down in front of a desktop and threaten to withhold the key till he comes up with a really good, really thought-through script--concept pushed as far as it can go--this time around. One waits, with some interest, for his next work. 

First published in Businessworld, 12.09.10 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Black Swan, The Fighter, The Tourist, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Natalie Portman, basically trying to do to herself what Aronofsky was doing with this movie

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Michael Apted's adaptation of the latest Narnia movies has plenty the matter with it, of course, and it all starts from how the whole series was conceived and designed--a bit of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (the sweeping, digitally constructed  battle sequences, the rousing martial music, the odd sea serpent or dragon), a bit of Harry Potter (the magic flashes out from hands and objects like so many digitally added laser beams). Whoever the production designer and special effects supervisor were--either Apted signed on without insisting on approving the design or effects beforehand or he's never been one to obsess over a film's overall look or this may not have been a personally significant project for him--they prioritized boxoffice appeal over putting out a distinct product. Ironically, boxoffice receipts in America look to suffer--the first weekend is weak, and only gotten weaker--though the picture is doing better in markets outside the United States (I'm generalizing here, but the picture seems to do better in countries that accept or practice strong Christian tradition).

But that's the boxoffice; how's the film itself? Despite the weaknesses (the effects, the design, the timid air of being a feeble Lord of the Rings knockoff), I do like the film. It may not be a true Narnian film, but it's Narnian enough that you get some of the flavors of C.S. Lewis' classic. 

And Lewis' fantasy series is a classic, I say. Lewis may not be the flavor of the moment the way Tolkien is, and I know the strong Christian subtext puts many readers off, but I prefer his books over Tolkien's for a number of reasons: 

1) He's well-versed in science fiction (he knows enough, say, of Olaf Stapledon to be able to criticize him), and he uses a few of the genre's concepts (the idea, for example, of relative time (Narnia's time flows faster than our world's), of doors that open to other dimensions (see The Magician's Nephew, and The Last Battle), and of Very Large Objects, complete environments within complete environments (some suggestion of this, plus sophisticated examples of dimension-twisting in The Last Battle)). 

2) He ranges freely over his world, from its very beginning (The Magician's Nephew) to its furthermost reaches (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) to its subterranean habitats (The Silver Chair) to its final destiny (The Last Battle) the way Tolkien never does with his Middle Earth (there is The Silmarrillion--but how many outside of Tolkien completists read that dull tome?). 

3) He is not above adding the inventively imagined creature or situation, or even resorting to the occasionally surreal. Lewis' Narnia has its share of elves, dwarves and dragons, but--a faun with an umbrella, walking past a lamppost in the middle of a woods? A race of invisible creatures (who look even stranger when made visible?)? A sea of lilies, beyond which stands a permanently roaring wave of water marking  the end of the world--which happens to be flat? 

Tolkien has mastered the galumphing blood-and-thunder, sword-and-sorcery style of storytelling, but after reading the whole series through more than once, I've finally found the Ring books endlessly tiresome, endlessly conventional...whereas, I suspect, we've barely scratched the surface of Lewis' Narnia.

Lewis' series is more than just adventure and magic and Christian symbolism, though. At the end of the day it's really all about the Pevensies and their longing for Narnia and Aslan--arguably the greatest imaginary playmate ever created. About Prince Caspian (now king) who has grown older, sadder, hopefully wiser since taking charge of Narnia; about the splendid Ripicheep, possibly the most gallant and great-hearted mouse in all of creation (and I include that insufferably wholesome rat what rules an allegedly magic kingdom down in Florida); and about Eustace Scrubb, an odious little boy who, thanks to the influence of Narnia, becomes considerably less odious.

Apted, who in films like The Coal Miner's Daughter and even Gorillas in the Mist has proven to be skillful (to say the list) in depicting onscreen relationships, does a fine job here; his Ripicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) is small only in stature while his Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter, brilliant) is hilariously self-involved; they meet onscreen like flame and gunpowder, and you enjoy the resulting sparks. The ending, where the Dawn Treader reaches the End of the World and lives are irrevocably changed, is a fine mix of muted tragedy and bittersweet triumph, a fitting capstone to this latest (and, judging from the money that isn't coming in, possibly last) installment. 

The Tourist

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's latest is another one I feel I've got to speak up for, which is a bit of a surprise--I'd seen von Donnersmarck's far better received The Lives of Others and wasn't all that impressed; thought the protagonist in that picture made a few dumb moves, though the film as a whole captures the era's feeling of exhausted despair. 

Critics have called The Tourist "slow" and "muddled," the two leads "lacking chemistry." What I found was an old-fashioned caper film, elegantly paced, with stunts that look realistic enough to be actually dangerous (the rooftop sequence reminds me of Roman Polanski, a master at depicting hazardous heights, though von Donnersmarck makes an honorable enough attempt) and a cleverly structured plot--refreshing change from all the hysterical, frenetically paced thrillers released recently, all noise and heavy artillery and very little style. 

I find that the two stars are totally at ease with each other, are not afraid to play their parts--Johnny Depp here is not Johnny Depp the international star, but a nebbish on the run (he's always been fond of losing himself in his roles). Jolie plays Jolie; that's what the script calls for, that's what she plays. 

The movie is not North by Northwest (to which it owes a huge debt); but then, few movies are.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is, to put it mildly, a hoot and a half. A rising young ballerina feels insecure about her role as lead dancer in a prestigious ballet company's production of Swan Lake (she herself had inherited the position from the company's former lead dancer, who has since gone nuts). Throw in a Mephistophelean ballet director (Victor Cassell), a Stage Mother From Hell (Barbara Hershey), a duplicitous slut of a dance colleague (Mila Kunis), and you realize--with the camp rising in your gorge--that what you're watching is a demented showbiz melodrama on speed: Showgirls in tutu.

But no, Aronofsky isn't satisfied with this. He has to throw in actualized psychodrama--bones cracking, skin transforming, feathers sprouting in the oddest places. Admirers call it a confluence of David Cronenberg with Michael Powell and Brian De Plama; I say Aronofsky is trying to ape the named filmmakers, only he doesn't have Cronenberg's seductive pacing, or Powell's unassuming craftsmanship, or De Palma's comic sense of cruelty.

Winona Ryder goes all Sissy Spacek on us while Natalie Portman looks desperately thin; about a quarter of the movie is Aronofsky zooming into gigantic closeups of Portman's pinched face, revealing half a pound of makeup on her wasted cheeks. Vincent Cassell spends his screen time pounding Mila Kunis, kneading Portman's steamed pork buns, or walking away with the picture tucked firmly in his pocket.

Scariest moment is Barbara Hershey as the Stage Mother from Hell, clipping Portman's fingernails almost to the bone (Hell Hath No Fury like a pissed-off mother wielding a pair of nail scissors). Only time I cringed.

The Fighter

Word is that Aronofsky was supposed to do The Fighter; thank heavens it was given to David Russell instead. Where Aronofsky is all over the place with his Monster Goose psychodrama, Russell tells his story simply, quietly, with as much honesty as he can (he does more with plain sunlight than Aronofsky does with spotlights, shadows, and splashy CGI effects). Bale is fantastic as Dicky, Whalberg quietly effective as Mickey, and Melissa Leo amazing as their hard driving mother (like Hershey she's a Stage Mother From Hell too, only you spend as much time feeling for her as you do laughing at her). 

The performances are all terrific, but it's Russell who does the star turn. His editing rhythms are eccentric, restless; he likes to show, say, a man getting out of a car, then either cutting out a shot of the man crossing the street, or cutting out a shot of the man knocking and entering, or cutting out the shot of the man getting out of the car--depends on how he feels at the moment, and how he wants you to feel. Unlike Aronofsky--who is all huge closeups revealing the human visage as a cratered, mountain-ringed horror--Russell likes to shoot at medium to long shot, basically keeping the drama at arm's length, keeping you conscious and alert of the material at hand.

Only with the fight sequences does he close in, but here he deploys the video cameras used in so many HBO boxing matches, deploys the actual music you would hear from such matches (not for him the Bill Conti symphonic uplift used like a ten-ton truck in the Rocky movies). There's a cheesiness to the music, and the film in general, but it's a self-conscious cheesiness, wielded with a knowing wink.

Like Aronofsky's picture, this is a hoary old storyline, a combination of Former Fighter Finds Redemption and Two Brothers with Differing Destinies; unlike Aronofsky, this is done with an acute, intelligent eye, and great sensitivity. One of the best of the year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, Bernard Tavernier, 1981)

Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert in Coup de torchon

Deus Irae

I liked Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, but didn't feel entirely satisfied with it--was even less satisfied because I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. I thought it had something, despite the critical acid bath it suffered, and thought it at least in one aspect improved on the original, in the casting of baby-faced Jessica Alba as a prostitute with a taste for sadomasochism. That said, it seemed to me that Winterbottom's deadly earnest tribute to Thompson missed the taint if not the tenor of the original.

Took my re-viewing of Bernard Tavernier's Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, 1981) to clarify matters. Tavernier struggled with trying to adapt Thompson into French--he wondered how to transplant the racism against blacks, wondered how to capture the wide-open spaces of Texas, and so on. He hit upon the idea of relocating the action to the sandy plains of French West Africa (now Senegal), where, as Michael Dare in his Criterion article points out, African slaves were first shipped out for the New World. 

Saturday, December 04, 2010

What if Robert Towne had written "The Empire Strikes Back?"

Skywalker crawls away from Vader who follows, looming over his prone form. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."

"He told me enough!" Luke yelled. "He told me you killed him!"

"No. I am your father."

Skywalker without thinking about it whips his lightsabre handle across Vader's mask. CLANG!

In a shaky voice: "I am your brother."


"Your father."


"Your brother."


"Your father, your brother..."


"Your father and your brother!"

Luke's arm freezes. Vader with faceplate dented looks at him, trembling. "Your sister Leia and I...understand? Or is it too tough for you?" 

With apologies to Mr. Towne.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Cinemanila 2010

Movie, movie

From December 1 to 5 at Robinsons Movieworld, Robinsons Galeria in Quezon City it's the 12th Cinemanila International Film Festival--still, for my money, the best and most varied offering of World and Philippine cinema available locally.

So what to watch? Everything. But if you have limited time and budget, I have more specific recommendations:

December 3 (Friday):

Cinema B, 8 pm: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010). The first ever video game movie I've ever liked (actually, a manga-style graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley) samples from all kinds of bright-colored, bright-sounding games, committing to no single title (and managing to be all the better for it). Perhaps key to its success is the premise, a teenage variation of one of the funnier gags in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, where the geeky hero discovers that his lady love has more than one skeleton in her closet (seven, in fact; "Seven Evil Exes," as she calls them), and that geeky hero must vanquish each and every one before he wins her.

Throw in Edgar Wright's inventive sense of visual humor (when Scott urinates in the men's room a "pee bar" empties above him) and pacing and use of cheesy digital effects and the result is like a souffle--it'll deflate once you leave the theater, but while you're enjoying it it's an inimitable experience.

December 4 (Saturday)

In Cinema A at 10 pm: Thirst (Park Chan Wook, 2009). Forget Twilight and even Tomas Alfredson's otherwise excellent Let the Right One In feels thin and timid in comparison. The bad boy of Korean cinema takes a stab--hell, tears a few hunks of steak--off the necrotic carcass of onscreen vampirism. He basically junks most of the paraphernalia (no garlic, no crosses, no changing of form or inviting people in or any of that silliness) and has his Catholic priest hero (Song Kang-ho) infected through an experimental vaccine. The priest sucks and is miserable about it--bad enough, until he meets a beautiful woman (Kim Ok-vin) trapped in an unhappy marriage whereupon the whole thing transforms into The Postman Always Rings Twice with fangs.

Song's fatalism contrasts vividly with Kim's feral will to live, and the results are hilarious, creepy, erotic, and bloody beyond belief even for a bloodsucker flick, thanks to Park. It's also surprisingly poignant, taking on as its subtext the unhappiness of two people trapped in a troubled relationship. If you like vampires, if you like gore, if you like horror, if you like comic horror, if you like stormy love affairs that leave both lovers either unhappy or dead or worse and if you like all this stirred into a delirious mixture (Park has rarely showed much restraint when it comes to sex and violence and judging from the evidence on hand he's not about to start any time soon) delivered hot and steaming in a tall glass, this one's for you.

December 5 (Sunday)

In Cinema B at twelve noon: Bontoc Eulogy (1995) is Marlon Fuentes' haunting mock documentary about Markod, one of the thousand plus Igorots carted off to the St. Louis World's Fair to be exhibited as fascinating 'primitives'--live exhibits for naïve Midwesterners to point and gawk at, marveling at the assumed superiority of American civilization over theirs.

Fuentes uses archival images and film footage to tell Markod's story, the wrenching changes he had to undergo to adapt to the weather and culture. He digs deeper, his narrator (who remains nameless) ruminating over his own fate as an immigrant, a fellow savage traveling from tropical rainforest to temperate grasslands, from Third World poverty to First World decadence with barely a moment's pause to adjust. Fuentes in effect tells three stories at once: Markod's leaving his pregnant wife; the narrator, leaving his native soil; and Fuentes himself, leaving home and family never (reportedly) to return. He captures them at a pivotal moment, when they are in the process of assimilation, of dissolution, of fading into the ever-rising hum of America's multicultural society, a kind of simultaneous death, fusion and transcendence that carries its own sense of tragedy, loneliness, and loss. A great film, undeservedly neglected--it would make a fascinating companion piece to Floy Quintos' play St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos (now a musical, with music by Antonio Africa). Where Quintos tells the story of Bulan, a Bontoc prince reduced to being lonely and poor as high tragedy, Fuentes turns the story into an intimate portrait, makes it part of his own story (or his own part of the larger story). 

At 8:45: Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (2009) is a crash course in prison life who are the gangs, which one to join, what is of value and available for buying, selling, smuggling in and out of the prison walls. Audiard and his writers (Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit) take a page from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather--Michael Corleone's transformation from fresh-faced college graduate to stone-cold gang lord--and transposes it here, with fresh-faced Malik coming under the wing, protection and eventually tutelage of gang leader Cesar. What breathes unruly life into the film are the bits and pieces you haven't quite seen before, not even in Coppola's epic (which in my opinion is overfamiliar, perhaps even overrated)--the hostile faces--Arab, Corsican--staring at each other from across the courtyard; the DVD players and radios delivered by cart to one's cell; the everyday delivery of fresh baguettes, as if hot bread were a right every bit as guaranteed as your weekly phone call.

If Malik is the central consciousness in the film, Malik's knotty interaction with Cesar is the film's central relationship. Certainly there's a father-son affection there, as Cesar lets his mask of brutality slip to reveal a lonely, insecure old man (mind you, this doesn't dilute Cesar's more monstrous qualities, merely makes him grotesquely fascinating). Malik seems to count on Cesar's patronage, but when Cesar at one terrifying point turns on him, pressing a spoon into his eye, the affection seems to shatter. That said, one is never surprised that Malik for all his softness grows into his criminal shoes: the boy is a physical and intellectual sponge, starved for knowledge (in school he learns reading, writing, basic Economics, Arabic; he learns--this on the fly--the problems of negotiating with people, dealing with disparate, distrustful groups) and activity. He catches some unbelievable breaks--ever so often he manages to turn a swift ambush into a golden opportunity to network or make connections--but not once does he doubt his good fortune, or question the general velocity of his life; with the swiftness of the very young (and utterly ruthless) he makes his bloody progress up the pyramid. Also showing on December 6 (Monday) at Cinema B, 9:15 pm.

And then--as it turns out--on December 6 (Monday) Cinemanila is extended! At Cinema A twelve noon is Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (2006), a lovely slice-of-life melodrama, where the three interweaving stories of three daughters is captured in bits and pieces over seven summers in the daughters' lives. Of the daughters it's Cherry Pie Picache's story that leaves the strongest impression--Cherry Pie, a character actor of considerable skill who has played supporting roles in films often unworthy of her talent, shines as the quietly suffering tomboy, unwanted and largely ignored by the family patriarch. Mendoza's handheld camera, much in the fashion of the Dardennes brothers and cinema verite, gives the stories a distinct caught-in-the-moment feel.

At 4:15, Yang Ik-Joon's Breathless (2010) at times induces that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by writing the script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (a moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.

This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like
Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time. 
At 9:30 Bong Joon-ho's Mother (2009) is terrific fare, possibly his best work. Where his The Host worked in stops and starts, careened all over the place in terms of emotional tone and genre, in Mother Bong seems completely in control. Hard to see the comedy here, but it is dark comedy, nevertheless--Bong pokes not-too-gentle fun at the stereotype of the smothering Korean matriarch as he spins out for us the tale of one mother's love for her mentally challenged child, the determination and ferocity involved when said child is accused of the murder of a young woman.

On December 7 (Tuesday) at Cinema A is a twelve noon showing of Jeffery Jeturian's Pila Balde (1999) a multi-character, multi-storyline film of modest virtues and modest pleasures, possessed of keen intelligence and a recognizable soul.

So--what are you waiting for? Go forth, and see much more.

First published in Businessworld 12.3.10

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cinemanila 2010 (Dec. 1 to 5, at Robinsons Movieworld)

Schedule is as follows:

DECEMBER 1 - Wednesday

Cinema A (35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Fourth Portrait | Chung Mong-Hong (Taiwan, 2009)
  *Available to Gold Pass holders only
2:05 And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public 
3:55 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri 
(Japan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
6:45 Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009)
9:15 Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng & Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010)
Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
2:00 Passerby # 3 | Shin Su-won (South Korea, 2009)
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
5:30 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2009)
8:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)

CINEMA 1 Opening Film
8:00 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / Philippines, 2010)

DECEMBER 2 - Thursday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00  Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng &  Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)
2:00 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)
4:30 The Sandwich Man | Hou Hsiao Hsien, Wan Jen &  Zhuang Xiang Zeng (Taiwan, 1983) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
6:30 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / 
Philippines, 2010) (Intro, Q&A w/ director)
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
8:30 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong  (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:55 Ang Ninanais | John Torres (Philippines, 2010)
4:15 Halaw | Sheron Dayoc (Philippines, 2010) 
6:00 Ang Panagtagbo sa Akong mga Apohan | Malaya Camporedondo (Philippines, 2010) + Eskrimadors |  Kerwin Go (Philippines, 2010)
8:15 Chassis | Adolf Alix Jr. (Philippines, 2010) (Intro Q&A)
10:00  And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010)

7:00 Philippine Premiere: Return to Manila: Filipino Cinema | Hubert Niogret (France / Philippines, 2010) 
AFM Screening room, co-hosted by Alliance Francaise

DECEMBER 3 - Friday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00 Sunday Morning in Victoria Park | Lola Amaria (Indonesia, 2010) 
2:00 Taipei Exchanges | Hsiao Ya-chuan (Taiwan, 2010) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010)
5:20 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Japan, 2010) 
8:15  The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010) (Intro and Q&A with director)
10:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009) (89 mins)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Diujung Jalan (The Road)  | Tony Trimarsanto (Indonesia, 2010)
1:30 Dekasegi  (The Migrants) | Rey Ventura (Director present) + Sunday School  | Joanna V. Arong (Philippines / China / Zambia, 2010)  (Director present)
4:00 Balangay | Sherad Anthony Sanchez and Robin Färdig (Philippines/Sweden, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
6:00 ‘Di Natatapos Ang Gabi (The Night Infinite)  | Ato Bautista (Philippines, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
8:00 Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World | Edgar Wright (USA / UK/ Canada, 2010) 
10:10 Primary! | Ivan Noel (Spain, 2010)

DECEMBER 4 - Saturday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh  (Vietnam, 2010)
2:10 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) 
4:35 The Door | Anno Saul (Germany, 2010)
6:00 The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010)
8:05 Juliets | Yu-Hsun Chen, Hou Ji-Ran & Ko-shang Shen  (Taiwan, 2010) *Available to Gold Pass holders only
10:05  Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009) 

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
11:30  Seminar: 3D Animation, featuring team behind RPG Metanoia | Luis Suarez (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 HIV (Si Heidi, Si Ivy at Si V) | Neal “Buboy” Tan (Philippines, 2010) (Q&A, Intro)
4:00 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
6:05 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Competition
7:30 The People I’ve Slept With | Quentin Lee (USA, 2009)
9:15 Animal Town | Kyu-hwan Jeon (South Korea / USA, 2009)

7:00 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Exhibitition
Cinemanila Awarding Ceremony

DECEMBER 5 - Sunday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Beyond the Circle | Golam Rabbany Biplob (Bangladesh, 2009)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) (Lead actor, Ananda Everingham, present for intro and Q&A)
4:15 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
6:15 Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh (Vietnam, 2010) 
8:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Bontoc Eulogy | Marlon Fuentes  (USA / Philippines, 1995) + Fall of the I-Hotel | Curtis Choy (USA, 1983)
2:15 Inhalation | Edmund Yeo (Malaysia, 2010) (director present) (17 mins) + The Tiger Factory |  Woo Ming Jin (Japan / Malaysia, 2010) (producer present, intro and Q&A)
4:30 Happyland | Jim Libiran (Philippines, 2010) World Premiere
7:00 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
8:45 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

Cinema 1:  Closing Film 
8:00 Amigo | John Sayles (USA, 2010) 


DECEMBER 6 - Monday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Kaleldo | Brillante Mendoza (Philippines, 2006)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) 
4:15 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2010)
7:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)
9:30 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Layang Bilanggo | Michael Dagnalan  (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 Limbunan | Teng Mangansakan (Philippines, 2010) 
4:00 Please Don’t Disturb | Moshen Abdolvahab  (Iran, 2010)
5:40 Memories of A Burning Tree | Sherman Ong  (Tanzania / Netherlands / Singapore / Malaysia, 2010)
7:20 Thorn in the Heart | Michel Gondry (France, 2009)
9:15 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

DECEMBER 7 - Tuesday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:50 Riding The Stallion of The Dream | Girish Kasaravali (India, 2010)
3:50 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
5:30 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
7:25 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) (124 mins)
9:10 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Red Dragonflies | Liao Jiekai (Singapore, 2010)
2:00 Father is a Dog | Lee Sang Woo (South Korea, 2010)
4:00 Year Without A Summer | Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia, 2010)
5:45 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
7:30 Directors in Focus: 10 Years of Ishmael Bernal (Cinemanila Awardees for Most Outstanding Young  Filipino Filmmaker) (200 mins)


5:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)
7:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)


Surprise Screening


Brod | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2010)
Endo | Jade Castro (Philippines, 2007) Critics’ Picks (Phil Dy)
Wanted: Border | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2009) Critics’ Picks (Oggs Cruz)
Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato | Mes de Guzman  (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Rolando Tolentino)
Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Richard Bolisay)
Sheika | Arnel Mardoquio (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Nonoy Lauzon)

Note:  Schedule subject to change without prior notice. Customs, censors,  clearance delays or other unforseen circumstances may affect the screening times.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (David Yates); Unstoppable (Tony Scott); Fair Game (Doug Liman); Giallo (Dario Argento)

Ralph Fiennes, nostrils flaring  as he plays He Who Shall Not Be Sniffed At

Deadly boring

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the seventh Potter movie I've seen, and the sixth I've pretty much had to tolerate, checking my watch and trying to guess when this endless marathon of a movie would end.

Not sure which Potter movies I prefer (or dislike less). The first two directed by Chris Columbus are bland kiddie pap, it's true, but the rest--increasingly darker in atmosphere and tone--aren't all that distinctive either. They possess the kind of grimness you find in most graphic novels or in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies--a lust for seriousness, to be taken (or mistaken) for adult fare. This, the filmmakers believe, means a solemn (read: funereal) tone, an escalation of violence, a near-complete absence of wit or humor or jokes.

Does the fault lie with the books themselves? I don't know; haven't read them. I do notice some kind of pattern running through the Potter adaptations: that whenever Potter or his friends come up against insurmountable odds, whenever they are faced with an irresistible opponent (usually He Who Cannot Be Named (but could use serious cosmetic surgery)), what usually happens is either Dumbledore or Hermione figure out some loophole or trinket or magical power tool that they wave around and--poof--everything comes out hunky-dory. This bit of cheating wasn't too offensive the first time around, but this seventh time it has gotten extremely tiresome, not to mention annoying. 

Which may be why filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron chose to do what he chose to do--namely, the third installment of the Potter franchise. The Prisoner of Azkaban felt different because (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film) its bit of deus ex machina came with its own built-in fascination: the spectacle of seeing one's story told a second time, with all the flaws and loopholes and inexplicable moments repaired, filled in, explained along the way. Azkaban could arguably be a meta-commentary on the typical Potter movie, a way of poking fun at Harry's tendency to make it through no matter what the odds, at minimum expense to himself and his loved ones (he uses a time-traveling device, silly!). I'd call it the most narratively complex of the Potter movies, and as such, the most promising for cinematic interpretation (which Cuaron did, brilliantly). Cuaron turned down the chance to do more Potter movies--possibly he knew exactly what he was doing when he did that. He just went on and did more good work, elsewhere.

Then there's the sense of invincible entitlement Potter seems to wear about him all the time. It's prophesied or implied or at least suggested from the first picture onwards that Potter is fated to kill Voldemort and become a great wizard, perhaps the greatest; why, then, should Potter bother studying so hard? Why even show up for classes? Why should he--and we--worry about the encroaching darkness, the machinations of evil? Potter's going to kick their asses anyway--who cares?

It probably doesn't work out that way in the books; possibly it's made clearer that Potter doesn't control his future, that prophesies don't necessarily come true, and that Potter better dig into those books a little harder, because the tests are no cakewalk. In those books, and I'm only guessing here, you get a better sense of what happened in the intervening years, who hooks up with who, how relationships develop (and I don't mean just heavy petting). Humor and the sense that you've gotten to know these characters well are, or so I hear, the chief pleasures of reading the Potter books, and it's probably these elements that are cut out of the movie adaptations.

In Deathly Hallows 1, when the guests arrive at the wedding soon after their harrowing, near-fatal escape (why, I asked, do they throw a wedding after taking so much trouble trying to hide themselves? I know the question is raised and answered in the movie, but I'm not convinced--are you?), I stare frustratedly at one guest after another. Who was that? A pair of twins? I hear they make quite an impression in the books; in the movies I barely remember who they are, much less what kind of people they are. Having watched the last installment a year ago, it's all been a blur, and I'm not about to dip into the Sacred Texts to refresh my memory. Potter looks tired, the movie feels tired, I'm tired. And we have over two more hours of this to wade through? Voldemort help us.

Tony Scott was interesting when he took up interesting material--Deja Vu and Enemy of the State come to mind. Now he's filming braindead stuff that better befits Michael Bay, a huge step backwards.

Scott's style is legendarily assaultive; you don't go to him for subtle, self-effacing filmmaking. When it came to creating an atmosphere of paranoia (Enemy of the People), however, or at least an unsettled time scheme (Deja Vu) that style fitted well. On the other hand a train, runaway or not, goes in only one direction--forward--and the way Scott's camera careens all over the place you aren't sure if the train has stopped or gone off the rails; you aren't even sure if the climax had arrived or if everyone was just taking a cigarette break (Scott films a man smoking in the same bombastic way he films two trains in a head-on collision; the effect is not just numbing, it's downright dull).

Go watch Runaway Train instead--saw it recently, just to see if it holds up, and it does, spectacularly. With a script by Akira Kurosawa, gritty direction by Andrey Konchalovskiy, and a flat-out ferocious performance by Jon Voight as a desperate escaped convict, the picture shows you what a real action film looks and feels like, with something to say about man's role in the world (especially if his position in that world is exceptionally low), and about redemption--the kind paid for in blood and suffering.

By film's end, Konchalovskiy throws a quote from Richard III on the screen: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, therefore am no beast." It is Konchalovskiy's, Kurosawa's, and Voight's achievement that they do full justice to those startling words with this startling, hot-blooded film.

Lest we forget

There are complaints that Doug Liman's Fair Game is merely a rehash of headline news, that it preaches mainly to the converted, that events have long since passed, exceeded and rendered this story irrelevant. I don't quite agree. For one, the film also tells the more personal story behind the headline news, that of Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, and the consequences of what happened when Plame is exposed as an agent--not just career and work, but lives endangered, possibly killed, because an agent was suddenly and maliciously rendered inoperative.

More, the film outlines, in quick and economical strokes, the strain that is put on their marriage. Character is key to this film, and I like the fact--very true, I think--that character dictates someone's course of action, even when their world is falling down around them. Hence, if Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) has been defined all his life by his principled outspokenness, then he reacts by his principles, speaking out loud and clear. If Valerie (Naomi Watts) has been defined by her loyalty to the CIA, then she reacts accordingly. Scorpion and frog, acting according to their natures, in a fateful embrace. 

Liman directs, I believe, with great honesty; he tells the facts, dresses it with as little Hollywood hoo-ha and sensationalism as possible. This is about the quietest mainstream Hollywood drama I can remember, definitely quieter than most, and his actors despite their name brand take their cue from Liman's direction and deliver quietly felt, quietly intense performances.

As for relevance--funny, but I think the scene where Wilson delivers a talk pretty much sums it all: this has been their story, the reason why they did what they did, and the consequences of what they did to their own lives. Then Wilson turns it around and reminds his audience--reminds us, in fact, that now we know the smaller story, ther is a larger story, one that has been lost in the media firestorm that resulted from Plame's unmasking, and that we are victims as well. Nice to be reminded what it's all about, and why we fight the good fight--and still have to, especially today, post-elections.

 Killer good time

It's amazing the kind of negative reviews Dario Argento got for his latest work Giallo (2009). Most consistent complaints point to what they consider to be bad acting, a poor script (Argento didn't write it, though it was written with him in mind) and--worse of all--the largely uninspired killings that tend to cut away when the going gets interesting (read: when matters get bloody beyond belief).

True, true, true. And yet--there's something to be said about the film. Word has it that the producers interfered endlessly, but Argento here also seems to be reaching out for something different, something perhaps less explicit yet as stylish (and I submit this is as stylish as his other films, from the use of various locations around Turin to the subdued (for Argento, that is) yet modulated use of color to the subtly pleasing compositions and bits of editing, the kind found in the work of any real filmmaker). Perhaps Argento knows he cannot always compete with the Eli Roths and Saw filmmakers of this world (not just because of their larger budgets, but because of the law of diminishing returns) and decided to go for baroque (sorry) in terms of emotions, not violence.

And I think it's not just emotionally baroque, but unusually structured--both cop (Adrien Brody) and killer (Byron Diedra) have their flashbacks, both cop and killer have their parallel characteristics and actions (and as a matter of fact, both cop and killer (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie) are played by the same actor--the name of Byron Diedra, who plays Giallo, is an anagram of Adrien Brody.

The clues are uncovered quickly, effortlessly almost; the manhunt, I suspect, isn't Argento's (or the film's, anyway) true priority. This is more of a character study, an examination of a man's life--how obsession can fill that life, take it over, warp it, color it a specific color. Brody, far from chewing scenery here, I submit, is very fine--he's trying to maintain the tricky balancing act of winning your sympathy the same time he gives you the unsettling felling that all is not quite right in the man's life. If the critics don't fully appreciate what Argento's trying to do here, I might suggest that the expectations raised by the director's past work colors their view of his intentions here, perhaps a bit unfairly.

The whole exercise leads up to and climaxes with a single shot: the camera following Brody's officer as he walks away, a woman behind him flinging devastating accusations. The film might be good--perhaps great even, in a cruel way--if it ended there, but it doesn't; for some reason Argento (the producers?) softens the blow with a brief coda, revealing a crucial character's fate. Too bad; the film, like its eponymous villain, lurches on its unhappy way, seeking appreciation from a largely unreceptive public.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

Happy together

Adam Elliot's Mary and Max (2009) is, along with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells (same year) arguably the best English-language animated feature I've seen in years--in several years. And yes, I've seen that latest Pixar movie, the third one about the talking toys.

A huge part of the film's appeal is that it's so relentlessly retro. The film is stop-motion animation and unlike other animators who resort to CGI to render their effects, Elliot sticks to stop-motion all the way--flames leap and dance by crinkling red cellophane; a rainstorm pours down by agitating fishing wire; a toilet flushes by photographing KY Jelly spiraling down its drain. Cityscapes are not 3-D digital constructs; they are elaborate models, extending from one side of the screen to another. Every object has been especially built, down to the fully functional Underwood typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build (A typewriter! Remember those fossilized creatures?). Sensibilities are remarkably retro too--the two (Mary from Melbourne and Max from New York) live at a time before email was even possible, and correspond through the traditional written letter; they wait for days (at one point, even months) for the other's reply, creating a suspense we don't really experience anymore, not in this age of chat forums and instant messaging and Twitter. Plus, there is this idea--old-fashioned, possibly dangerous, entirely unwholesome and definitely inappropriate for children (thank goodness): that watching animation can be an adult activity, focusing on adult manners, even when children are involved in the story.

Maybe the film's most remarkable quality is this: though Elliot is Australian, grew up in Australia, and remains based there, it's the New York sequences that are the most vividly realized. Elliot cuts to a long shot of the city and you want to drink in all the densely textured skyscrapers, especially the Chrysler building with its outstretched eagle heads (every time the film cuts to New York I keep looking for those marvelous eagle heads). Everything, every detail seems of the city, and not just of the city, of a specific period in the city's life, from the cat with the missing eye to the air-conditioner that falls out of its moorings to the half-blind neighbor with the gigantic spectacles, to all the prepackaged versions of traditional kosher food (I couldn't find the exact labels, but I could find similar examples in the frozen section of my local supermarket).

And Max--you could imagine Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud creating him (as a matter of fact he's based on someone Elliot corresponded with for twenty years). As voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he's a remarkably truthful character, as accurate a portrait of Asperger's Syndrome as you can find on the big screen, down to the anal-retentive obsessiveness with details and the little booklet of facial expressions (to help Max identify what emotion a specific facial expression is supposed to express). More, he's unrepentantly true to himself--when at one point he has a stroke of good fortune and finally has the means to fulfill all of his and Mary's fantasies, he doesn't follow the feel-good formula and give us what we expect of him--he just goes along his stubborn path, in his ingrown, introverted way.

And it isn't as if Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child, Toni Collette as an adult) were your run-of-the-mill protagonist--she's cute at first, but somewhere along the line she betrays the onset of a burgeoning sexuality, to which Max reacts by having an anxiety attack (he stands in a corner stool and sways back and forth, his pants cords swinging like a light bulb on a wire). Mary has needs, and they're messy needs, more than Max can handle; to Mary's credit, when it's Max turn to make demands Mary performs the needed sacrifice, no matter what the cost, and in this film when something costs the price is more than just an arm or a leg--it's deep depression, possible alcoholism, even the destruction of a marriage.

Isn't exactly your average Pixar movie, or Pixar's idea of a poignant movie. The first ten minutes of, say, Up (2009) is oft cited when listing the multi-billion-dollar-grossing studio's achievements, but that is a saccharine attempt at poignancy, one that pulls back the moment the viewers feel the slightest twinge of pain. Elliot does not pull back, not in the bite of his sarcasm, not in the emotional force of his images. He follows each character to their respective bittersweet fates with an unrelenting focus that can be exhausting, if it wasn't so mordantly funny--fact of the matter is, there's something autistic about his unflinching manner of storytelling (a reviewer called the film "heartwarming," which in my book would be accurate only if you think of a piece of cardiac muscle being grilled over coals). If I find this film more visually distinctive, more texturally fascinating (every object handcrafted, visibly shaped by human fingers), more laugh-out-loud funny, more emotionally complex, more--and this above all else--honest than anything Pixar has ever done, I beg your pardon; that's how I feel about the matter. Highly, highly recommended. 

first published in Businessworld 11.25.10

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright 2010)

Game on

Not a big fan of video games. The last game I took even halfway seriously was Missile Command, back in the '80s--there was something somehow addictive about the imperative to keep all those relentlessly approaching nuclear missiles from wiping out everything you know and love, something somehow traumatic about the big flashing "THE END" that eventually signaled you had failed. That, plus the cool trackball spinning in one hand, sending the crosshairs skittering across the screen--what's not to like?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

(Lina Leandersson as Eli--accept no substitutes)

Does not suck

Matt Reeves' Let Me In (2010), his remake of Tomas Alfredson's remarkable Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008) doesn't push its gore effects in your face; keeps most of the digital effects in the realm of the plausible (or at least halfway acceptable); finds a voice distinct from the original while still being recognizably from that original--not necessarily a good thing, but at least intentions are honorable. In other words, director Reeves (for whom this was a sophomore effort, after the fairly interesting monster-mockumentary (monstermentary?) movie Cloverfield (2008)) is obviously not out to cash in on a much-admired cult hit--he felt he had something to bring to the party, so he did it.

Reeves' picture revolves around Owen (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), a young boy living in a small New Mexico town who meets Abby (Chloe Moretz), his next-door neighbor. Abby's a vampire, something Owen doesn't realize at first; he's too preoccupied by the gang of older boys who bully him in school. "You have to hit back," Abby advises him; "I can't, there's three of them," Owen replies. "Then you have to hit back even harder."

Way to go, Abby, setting him up for eventual success. The heart of Reeves' picture can be found in this portrait of American middle-school life: the impersonal educational-institution setting; the predatory youths; the oft unheeding adults. Alfredson's picture does include bullies who (along with his protagonist and most of his cast) seemed to have been chosen more for physical variety and the memorably odd visual contrast than for mere prettiness, but for Reeves school is the source of much of the picture's horror and pathos, the bullies here more vividly if conventionally drawn (cast for larger size and intimidating presence), Owen more clearly a target of their cruelty.

Reeves' treatment of Owen and Abby is more openly emotional, more unabashedly romantic. When Owen asks Abby "Do you want to go steady?" it's an "aw shucks!" moment--you badly want to pinch their cheeks and pet their heads. Reeves gets deep under Owens' skin: the first time he meets Abby, the thrill of her touch, the dawning awareness that she is lying next to him wearing nothing, the despair when she appears to be leaving him--all this Reeves plays at a distinctly higher pitch, with Owen's face trembling in response to each situation like a tautly drawn drumskin (you can see the tension, the fragility). You even see Reeve's intentions in his lighting scheme, which makes greater use of sodium lamps that give off a warm amber glow (Alfredson's lighting, in comparison, seems to emanate more from the snow than from anything else--talk about winter light, it's as if the very camera lenses were made out of crystallized ice).

Not bad at all--compared with the Twilight movies, this is vampirism with visual intelligence and an authentic emotional core. But where Reeve's picture is basically a sad story about a vampire girl who seeks a friend, Alfredson's film is a far more understated, far more chilling creature. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) isn't the frightened victim that Owen is; in fact, he's a little creepy--when whipped in the cheek he gives off a soft exhalation, as if sexually aroused; when taking out his pocket knife and threatening a tree, you get the sense that he's not just acting out of frustration and a desire for vengeance, but out of lust, a desire to usurp the bullies' physical power, and use--or abuse--it accordingly. Watching him you sense that, given a chance, he may prove to be even more of a sadist than his tormentors.

Reeves loses the neighbors found in Alfredson's film, and as a result we lose sense of the tiny apartment community that the vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) quietly infiltrates, and victimizes. More, we lose the crucial figure of Virginia, one of Eli's victims, who is given a choice: death or living death. Her decision stands in stark contrast to Eli's and gives the film a touch more moral complexity, as well as one of the film's most starkly beautiful, most horrifying moments (a bonfire that literally lights up the center of the screen).

Actually, Reeves loses many of Alfredson's beautifully horrifying moments (not an oxymoron in my book--in fact I believe the very best in horror contains not a little beauty). The original's first attack, done from high up and in a single shot, underlines our helplessness as Eli wraps herself around her victim; Reeves, while taking his time and using a commendable silence for his aural background, prefers to come in closer (apparently in Hollywood horror filmmaking consists mainly of pushing the gore effects in your face--or, in Reeves' case, pushing it from a point about five feet away, compared to Alfredson's forty). The final swimming pool scene, so oddly serene and weightless in Alfredson's film (I think key to its unsettling power is that serenity), is dutifully replicated in Reeves, with the usually Hollywood additions of just a touch more noise, just a touch more gore, just a touch more effects.

But that's just details--incidental consequences, basically, adorning Alfredson's thesis: that Eli is not just a sad-eyed little girl with supernatural powers but also a seductive manipulator, scheming to sink her hooks into the tender flesh of a budding serial killer. And yet she is, at the same time, still that sad-eyed little girl yearning to befriend Oskar--the ambiguity, the possibility that they are one or the other or even both--is what gives the film its unsettled, and unsettling, subtext. By all means, see Reeves' film--it's a decent adaptation, made with care and skill and talent; but be aware that Alfredson's is the superior version, and you're best off seeing that first.

First published in Businessworld, 11.11.10