Sunday, February 28, 2010

Love Happens (Brandon Camp, 2009)

Crap happens

Brandon Camp's Love Happens (2009) is not so much a romantic comedy (something of a relief) as it is a romantic drama (oh god) where a man struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife and possibly fall in love with someone new.

And that's pretty much it; if you're interested in the details, you could look it up on the Internet Movie Database, or one of the half dozen entertainment magazines that bother to cover these things, along with which actor is sleeping with who, after breaking up with Madonna. All I could think of watching the picture is: “Boy, Seattle is a beautiful place--”

I mean it, too. The city settles like a quilt onto a group of hills; it's sandwiched between Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east--in nighttime shots it glitters like a crystal and porcelain service set on purple tablecloth for a royal dinner. Movie director Camp for your delectation presents images of the Space Needle at night (which doesn't so much resemble a rocket ready for take off as it does a fairy-castle tower poised to stride across the horizon), of gently sloping cobbled streets, of ravishing mountain forests. At one point the mourner and his prospective girlfriend ride a hydraulic lift to sneak a peek at a Rogue Wave concert (Seattle was the epicenter of grunge music, and today is venue to many alternative bands); at another they visit the tombstones of Bruce and Brandon Lee, which piqued my interest (I've got to go pay my respects someday); they seem to walk everywhere and at all times including late at night, which indicates a nice, safe city to wander in (looking at a few numbers and making a few guesstimates, I'd say there is a rate of roughly twenty-four violent crimes per 100,000 residents per year, which is more than, say, Tokyo (ridiculously safe) but much, much lower than the rest of the United States). If the travelogue patter and statistics don't exactly thrill you, well, neither did the movie thrill me. I do wish they had shown more of the city's vibrant cuisine--I hear their seafood is out of sight.

I suppose I have to talk actors--I've never understood the appeal of Jennifer Anniston, and I suppose I never will; seems like every fluff magazine from People Magazine to, well, Entertainment Weekly does a monthly watch on the woman, because her blank expression stares out of almost every cover in a magazine stand. Bony body, bony face, and far as I can see, bony acting--she apparently started out on some television situation comedy set on a sofa in a coffee shop, then had a middling career on the big screen (the magazines seem more interested in who she's sleeping with than what she's doing professionally).

Aaron Eckhart--here's to hoping Anniston's sleeping with Eckhart, the only possible reason I can think for him to be involved in this project. I thought he was excellent in Brian De Palma's much maligned, much underrated The Black Dahlia--his Lee Blanchard was a scenery chewer, a violent defender of women physically abused by violent men, and while most people thought the performance out-of-control and over-the-top, I thought it the perfect ornament for such a darkly baroque, brilliant film. I even thought De Palma improved on the novel by dropping a crucial bit of information at a point when it would suddenly illuminate Blanchard's erratic past behavior, the same time it would color our view of erratic behavior yet to come.

Eckhart's performance as Two-Face in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was for me the only element of interest in that bloated, overserious megaproduction (for the record, I thought Heath Ledger as the Joker did well in a badly underwritten role)--he managed to locate some human angst under the medium-rare charcoal-grilled porterhouse makeup.

Eckhart gives the picture more heart and heft than it deserves, I think; he pulls off the unlikely premise of a man who uses his wife's death to sell motivational books, tapes, workshops; he even pulls off the unlikelier premise that the man feels ambivalent about exploiting his wife's death this way. The way Camp's camera explores Eckhart's chiseled face you can tell there's so much unspoken feeling jammed up just behind it wouldn't take much for the facade to crack; it was the only thread of much-needed tension in the picture and helped keep me awake, even mildly interested.

Might throw in that the hero's most romantic gesture, the release of a cockatiel into the wild, may not have been a wise move as the bird is native to the wetlands of Australia and will probably not survive the chilly Seattle weather (well, not for long), much less nearby predators--but maybe that's me. And if my petty worries about the fate of a supporting animal character don't exactly thrill you either, well...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Himpapawid (Manila Skies, Raymond Red, 2009)

Raymond Red's Himpapawid (Manila Skies, 2009) is, frankly, ballsy filmmaking. To spend roughly a hundred minutes following the meandering odyssey of an introverted, possibly autistic young man named Raul (Raul Arellano, seen above) is hardly one's definition of popcorn entertainment--one feels no immediate sympathy for him, no leap of sympathy or kinship. His eyes home in on the camera lens laser-sharp; he's intimidatingly, almost frighteningly intense, and he maintains that intensity for the length of the picture. Following in his footsteps, serving as mute witness to his suffering--his lifelong passion so to speak--we find ourselves exhausted and not a little depressed by the experience. 

Depressed, and at the same time exhilarated. Red is back, one can say; Red is back after some nine years of relative silence (after winning the Palme d'Or for his short film Anino) and he seems as obsessed with his themes and subject matter and storytelling style as ever. 

Himpapawid starts off strong, with the simple story of a man (Ronnie Lazaro) who finds jewelry and money literally dropped from the sky, and uses this found treasure to finance his son's education in the big city, in Manila. 

Red photographs the lucky youth head-on, in perfectly modulated sunlight, walking straight towards us with a burden of baskets on one shoulder; he cuts to a matching shot of a young man (Raul) walking towards us with a heavy sack on one shoulder and we know it's the same youth some years later. 

We learn that Raul's luck has long since petered out, that he's living a hand-to-mouth existence as a cargador, a dockside loader, and that he wants to apply for another job, in another country. He asks his boss (Noni Buencamino, sporting a goatee and looking very put-upon) for a day off to apply for that job; the boss explains that in this job there are no days off. He insists. His frustration with his boss' stubbornness and his boss' exasperation with his insistence becomes a study in irresistible force meeting immovable audience.

Raul's troubles only weigh the heavier when he learns that his father is sick; he needs to go home. He takes on the neverending process that is Filipino bureaucracy (a lower circle of hell just as vividly if more thoroughly realized by Veronica Velasco in her Last Supper No. 3) to secure his permit to work abroad, the same time he falls afoul of a hopelessly naive and incompetent gang of would-be robbers (Keystone Kops gone extremely bad, headed by a ranting, raving, endlessly self-motivating John Arcilla).

It's a framework, a skeleton, really for the true star of the picture, Red's incomparable photography, editing, imagery (he's one of the few filmmakers around fluent in all stages of filmmaking, having been making them since he was seventeen). From the experimental exuberance of his first film Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity, 1982)--a great work, possibly his masterpiece--to the honeyed, golden hues of his Anino, he has pared his style down to this lovely, subtly sunlit camerawork with its deep shadows and subdued color pallet (different hues of brown and gray mainly, as befits urban Manila, with the occasional splash of bright red provided by the banners of striking workers). His lenses work the casually lyrical transformation of even the most mundane details (shacks with corrugated roofing and plywood walls; two naked boys bathing each other at an outdoor faucet; barges gliding down the Pasig river) into the gorgeously textured tapestry of a city ever decaying, ever alive.

Through this tapestry Red weaves a bright theme: skies, planes, the act of flying. Red in his interview said he had attempted to remake some of his shorts into features; this was to have been a remake of his short A Study for the Skies, only with two brothers and set in the Philippine American War; the final result bears little resemblance to that original premise and is instead based on a true story involving a Philippine Air Line flight coming from the southern city of Davao to Manila.

For all the talk of skies and flight, though, the overall impression one comes away with is not of free space but, paradoxically, of oppressiveness, of increasingly claustrophobic space, of rapidly closing walls, vanishing options, a dwindling future.

At a certain point, one does find oneself identifying with Raul, despite his many thorny aspects--he is stubborn, sometimes insanely so (as befits an independent filmmaker); he constantly looks upwards (as befits any dreamer) and inwards at himself (as befits anyone wracked with guilt and living in anguish); and he never gives up.  Delusional and very likely insane, he finds a way to leap out of his straitened circumstances into some kind of freedom, some kind of conclusion. An inspiring, frightening, hilarious and tragic film, in equal measure.        

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)

A tasty little 'Meatball'

First-time filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) is a winning little morsel of a movie--sprinkled with topical references to junk food diets and overconsumption, lightly spiced with foodie satire, not too heavy on the moralizing.

It's based on the slim, 32-page children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett, which presents the kind of whimsical situation perfectly concocted to catch a child's attention: a town where food falls from the sky instead of rain or snow (never underestimate children's literature--children are the harshest of critics, extremely difficult to please; classics in the genre have a simplicity of appeal that is almost impossible to reproduce (see, for example, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are--a pleasing enough movie on its own, but not a true adaptation of Sendak)).

The Barett's book pretty much presents the situation as is, then proceeds from there in a series of richly detailed illustrations (hotdogs falling from the sky, for example, followed by a cloud of mustard and a drizzle of soda). Much of the appeal (aside from the basic premise and all the little details tucked away in the corners (the town is called Chewandswallow and its paper The Chewandswallow Digest)) comes from the matter-of-fact way the townspeople accept and even exploit the situation--always leaving home with fork and knife in hand (in case of sudden downpours), keeping umbrellas upside-down to catch a splash of orange juice.

Difficult sell; I can imagine the filmmakers reproducing the artwork and doing a slim thirty-minute short, at most (which I'd love to see, personally). To blow the book up to a more commercially viable running time of almost ninety minutes, they presumably had to add the backstory, involving a small town called Swallow Falls. The community has seen better days--its biggest company, the Baby Brent Sardine Company, has long since closed, and the economically depressed townspeople have been largely living on unsold cans of sardines ever since. Enter Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a wannabe inventor who means well but invariably creates technological disasters (but don't they all, at least in American animated movies?)--the town is still plagued by the flock of Ratbirds he once bred. Flint uses a machine, the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (or FLDSMDFR for short) to mutate water molecules into food, draws on too much power, and sends the contraption rocketing into the sky, where it hovers among clouds and starts sending down cheeseburgers.

One wants to ask questions--how to 'mutate' a water molecule, for one, and what about the hygiene issues involving food falling on the ground, or left uneaten for days? And I'm tired of this longstanding disdain for canned sardines--if you're willing to expend the effort, Spanish and Portugese canned sardines are actually quite tasty; Italian ones best of all. Canned seafood from Galicia, in Barcelona, are so carefully crafted and prized a single can costs anything from twenty to seventy dollars (when you open a can of mussels, rich globules of fat float in the golden broth--the juices and oils have merged inside the can, and produced a taste rivaling that of fresh seafood). One can imagine the people of Swallow Falls abandoning their ugly canning factory and going into artisanal manufacture, selling their handmade canned sardines at thirty dollars a pop.

And here's where we entered, bookwise. The movie borrows some of its best ideas from the book--a steakhouse minus roof, where the diners wait for their orders to drop from above, for example. The movie can't quite replicate the wondrous image of a gigantic jello setting in the horizon, but it does turn said jello into a kind of playhouse Flint can romp in with his new date, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), the pretty weather news intern who is reporting on the phenomenon--the animators really go to town with the idea of an elaborate jello mansion.

It's not earthshaking, consequential storytelling, and I like that. There's a message somewhere in here, about moderate eating and care of the environment , but we're not whacked over the head repeatedly with it. There's something about Flint's dad Tim Lockwood (James Caan), who can't seem to express any affection for his son--but the resolution to that potentially sticky subplot is relegated to a brief moment with a brain translator. Unlike, say, Brad Bird's Ratatouille, we are not slowed down by meaningful flashbacks, or attempts at serious drama; instead of half-hearted and rather idiotic attempts at fantasy (say, a rat guiding a cook's hand by tugging the hairs on his head), we go shamelessly whole hog (giant donuts crashing down from the sky and rolling across the town).

Plus, I like the sometimes horrific, sometimes sexual imagery--the giant meatball contains various suggestive orifices, killer roast chickens surround and threaten our hero, and the FLDSMDFR is imbedded in a mountain of pulsating, suppurating meat that calls to mind James Wood's gun-hand (not to mention pulsating belly opening) in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Filmmakers Lord and Miller could have gone a lot further with this and I'd have loved it, but I suppose we have to make do with what we have, and call this a fairly satisfying meal.

First published in Businessworld, 1.28.10

Messengers 2: Scarecrow (Martin Bernawitz, 2009)

If it only had a brain

Martin Barnewitz's Messengers 2: Scarecrow (2009), prequel to the Pang Brothers' Messengers (2007) gets the full theatrical release treatment in Manila--why, one can only guess. After gathering dust in the shelves of barely busy Blockbuster stores (the once mighty chain has cut operating hours, and is giving discounts and free rentals away as if the world might end way before 2012), I suppose the distributors expect supposedly less educated Asians to bite what supposedly savvier American audiences turn down.

Hope not. We have our happy quirks (where else but in the Philippines would a gay-themed melodrama like Olive Lamasan's In My Life be such a hit?), but if the '2' appended to the title isn't ample warning, the fact that this went straight to video in the United States should give local moviegoers pause. Just think, people: if garbage as bad as Planet 51 hung around American multiplexes for weeks before expiring, what are movies that shun big-screen exposure like?

In this case, you've been warned: Messengers 2 plays like a parody of Pumpkinhead, Children of the Corn and The Shining, only not as funny--the dialogue sounds stilted if not downright unnatural, the acting is wooden, to put it kindly, and the scares are strictly of the pop-up variety (to be fair they're sufficiently loud to help wake me whenever I nod off). Barnewitz uses enough handheld camera footage to be counted among the new generation of horror filmmakers, and I hate the new generation--not a coherent sequence among them.

Still, that's not what really reeks about this picture; it's how the movie seems to be subtly selling itself to conservative Christians while indulging the 'R'-rated fantasies of the pimply horror-geek crowd. Note such details as John Rollins (Norman Reedus) having trouble with his corn about the time when he's stopped going to church; note his good wife Mary (Heather Stephens)--mother of God, get it? Get it?--is a sensible, old-fashioned housewife who frowns at beer-drinking, cursing, and taking the Lord's name in vain. By way of contrast, when the bad guys come they bear six-packs, mutter insidious ideas (“reap what you sow, John”), and offer tempting visions of sweaty women dousing their naked breasts with bottled water.

I know, I know, I'm probably being paranoid--can't see some Christian conservative film production outfit putting out a subliminal “Jesus Saves!” promotion campaign in the guise of a mildly gory, mildly erotic horror flick, and for all we know the scriptwriter (Todd Farmer, who recycled his largely discarded script from the original “Messengers” for this picture) only meant to exploit Bible-belt agricultural workers, not glamorize them. That said, you can't help but wonder why the scarecrow is hung up in cruciform position, and why John later finds himself in a similar fix. Then there's the moment when a sardonic neighbor looks on John and says “I see who wear the pants in this family;” John in another scene repeats the line, and adds “isn't the man supposed to be the strong one?” Granted this is a drama about a man's corruption, and those lines are meant to be taken as sexist markers on John's progress towards, one can't help but feel we're supposed to nod in tacit agreement, not recoil in disapproving horror. Later, there's a lovemaking scene between John and Mary that comes uncomfortably close to rape; nothing is made out of it afterward, and Mary doesn't even mention the incident to her ex-beau Tommy (Atanas Srebrev)--it's as if no one knows what to make of the assault. Anyway it's between husband and wife, so that's okay. Right?

Then there are Jude and Miranda Weatherby (Richard Riehle and Darcy Fowers, respectively), who put on the most painfully obvious Mephistopheles act this side of a Sunday school kindergarten drama. Fowers has the pneumatic breasts and skanky look of a Fox Network newscaster; Riehle at least makes some attempt at subtlety--he heaves up the six-pack as an offering and can't seem to imagine why a body might refuse.

I'd mentioned Stanley Kubrick's The Shining--that film chronicled a father's breakdown and a family's disintegration. I kept thinking back to that film when John is confronted with a police officer's dead body and desperately tries to explain to his wife “it's the scarecrow! It's the scarecrow!” Sounds pretty much like blame-shifting, and maybe it's just me but the fact that a scarecrow does pop up to terrorize Mary, validating everything John has said, sounds like unbelievably good luck. Towards the end of Kubrick's film the monster comes out in the open as well, only he doesn't wear cheap makeup effects; he's simply himself, father and husband and head of the family, his inner demons revealed at last. Now that's horror.

First published in Businessworld, 1.21.10