Monday, March 29, 2010

The Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010)

Paul Greengrass' The Green Zone wants to be a cinema verite expose of what went down during the first year of the American occupation of Iraq, and to be fair the man is uniquely qualified to do this--he started out as a director for a British current affairs show and co-wrote a nonfiction book on British espionage before moving on to dramatic features that employ pseudo-documentary filmmaking techniques. 

It's an honest enough attempt, only God--or in this case The Devil--is in the details. For my taste he likes verite techniques a little too much; the camera seems to jump not so much because of an inexpert hand (even the most amateur of videocam operators know they have to at least try keep the camera still) as of a hand deliberately trying to create the impression of an inexpert hand. The editing is strictly for those with ADHD, the chaos seemingly maintained for the sake of chaos.

Tempting to compare this to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009), only the similarities (Iraq War, desert setting, specialized unit on a mission) are deceptive. The Hurt Locker is a straightforward entertainment that only incidentally touches upon substantial issues (perhaps the most significant being a subtle one, the intrusive nature of the American presence: Iraqis stop whatever they are doing to watch members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit pull on their diving suits, step forward, risk their lives--almost as if the unit had been sent out and served up as evening amusement). The Green Zone is despite its ambitions also entertainment, albeit one trying to pass itself off as serious drama--the picture spins a complicated plot (conceived by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran) full of espionage and a few setpiece battle sequence, serving regular doses of action every half hour. Greengrass' action doesn't have to be coherent, just seemingly authentic, and realistically paced (no slow-motion, for one).

The Green Zone emphasizes hurtling, forward motion as their soldiers hunt for an elusive Iraqi general ("hence," one imagines Greengrass as saying, "my hurtling camerawork"); The Hurt Locker attempts to build tension out of a static object, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) buried or otherwise hidden away, in the ground, in a car, in a dead body. Its camera will often stand poised, suspended, as if terrified of disturbing the soldier bent over his work in feverish concentration. Apples and oranges, in other words.

Except in this case I do hold an opinion: prefer an orange's sweet-tart juiciness, just as I prefer Bigelow's artful simulation of chaotic handheld camerawork over Greengrass' genuine achievement of same. In Bigelow's picture there's breathing room to evoke any number of things--the uncomfortable fact that you don't know any of the people watching you, for one, don't speak their language, can't possibly know their motives. In Greengrass' there's the storyline, which needs mucho explication; when the latest plot point has been impatiently put away, Greengrass proceeds to toss the camera out the window, in the hopes of cutting the resulting footage into a chase sequence (whether it cuts or not, makes sense or not is secondary to the cool effect he's just created). Possibly it's my prejudices speaking, but I still hanker for the violence of yore, the Fordian or Hawksian fisticuffs with their classically proportioned framing and mercilessly precise editing. 

Possibly a more pertinent analogy is between The Green Zone and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010). Both take topical themes and weave speculative fictions out of them; both keep one guessing as to who is the central political figure being parodied (Paul Bremer in the former, Tony Blair in the latter).

There is a critical difference: The Ghost Writer possesses a sharp, supple sense of humor that not only adds to the film's storytelling but encompasses its targets' every flaw, no matter how perverse (in the case of ex-prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), he handily combines the sliminess of Blair with the vacuousness of Ronald Reagan). The Green Zone has zero humor, and in the case of its Judith Miller figure, grossly underestimates her capacity for dishonesty (one can imagine how much fun Polanski would have had with her character). A pity, especially since its source material (the aforementioned book Imperial Life in the Emerald City) so vividly captures the circus-like image of Republican loyalists lost in the dangerously complex Oz that is the Middle East--that brief scene by the pool doesn't even begin to suggest how bizarre conditions were at the time. Couldn't they put in more of the circus, less of the drama, more of the cluelessness, less of the shaky-cam? 

The Green Zone (please skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen either picture) ends on a relatively hopeful note with the truth exposed, if not heard loud enough to stop the blooming Iraqi insurgency (why not the picture never really explains, a bad bit of carelessness, there); The Ghost Writer neatly squares away its every loophole, ensuring that whatever revelations have been made to the audience of a wide conspiracy is buried under evidence of an even wider conspiracy. 

For all the effort it expends on creating an aura of realism The Green Zone comes off as a fantasy, an act of willfully wishful thinking built on the Hollywood expectation that The Truth Will Out, and Good Guys Win After All; for all its stylishness and mischievous wit The Ghost Writer is an altogether different work, saying no matter how much truth you uncover there's always more to uncover, and your biggest victory will at best be your continued survival (which isn't guaranteed, not by a long shot). All things considered, I'd say Polanski's film is the more believable.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010)

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer takes Robert Harris' novel The Ghost and for some reason along the way gives it the title of a Philip Roth novel. 

That said, the result is near-flawless, a fabulously sleek thriller that conveys menace through the very smoothness of its visual texture, the 21-jewel precision of its wit and tone, the absolute confidence of its direction, the effortless way it slides with a sharp click into place among the filmmaker's works.

Arguably the film's finest achievement, though, is in evoking through elements and details every possible implication as to what it means to be a ghost--not so much a supernatural being as an echo, an image, a memory from our past come back to haunt us. 

Ewan McGregor is the eponymous writer named--but he is never explicitly called by name, something you may not immediately realize (if at all) if you aren't listening attentively. The writer is hired as a ghost writer (a professional hired to pen a speech or autobiography for some celebrity, who receives sole credit) for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, channeling the worst characteristics of both Tony Blair and George W. Bush), replacing the previous writer who was found on a beach, drowned. In effect, the writer is asked to act as ghost for a former politician, replacing--'ghosting' if you like--someone who acts as a metaphorical and literal phantom throughout the film.

The writer quickly settles in to his work (he has a month to whip six hundred pages of deadwood prose into sensational life) but matters don't stay settled for long. The writer keeps unearthing clues to and reminders of his predecessor--a mysterious envelope, a  BMW sports utility vehicle, a pair of nondescript slippers. More, hints keep popping up that the previous ghost was quietly investigating Lang, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in Hague for war crimes (in this case for enabling the deportation and torture of four terrorist suspects). 

The faces of the four suspects pop up constantly throughout the film, haunting Lang as thoroughly and constantly as Hamlet's father haunted him. When the writer finally decides (with much queasiness) to sit in the BMW and drive it, the car's GPS system tonelessly insists that the writer follows the dead man's pre-programmed road directions--insists on following the dead man's final steps. Lang's secretary Amelia (a deliciously inscrutable Kim Catrall) is so obviously Lang's mistress, a (sexually speaking) double for Lang's wife Ruth (an equally delicious Olivia Williams, only recently seen doing excellent work in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse); Ruth in turn (as Polanski outlines in a brief but devastating shot) has so obviously slid from Lang's affections that she has literally become a ghost--an impotent, immaterial wraith--in the household. 

Polanski set the film on a New England island so beautifully desolate (actually the film was shot in Germany) one might think it was populated with despairing spirits; the house itself is a soulless, colorless mausoleum breathtaking in its ultra-modernist style, its leather-and-chrome-steel furniture. The lighting is a kind of translucent gray totally devoid of sunlight, yet able to render people and objects with an eye-widening hyperclarity, not to mention pallor. At night, when the rain-slicked asphalt reflects endless arrays of sodium street lamps and blinking neon signs, the film's ethereal imagery comes alive, vibrating with menace.

Does the film tell the story of a man investigating a dead man's last moments? Echoes of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). Does it at one point have the hero standing in the middle of a huge open space, feeling alone and vulnerable? Possible homage to Hitchcock's 1959 thriller North by Northwest (read a critic castigating Polanski for failing to create his customary atmosphere of claustrophobia (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby)--said critic apparently failing to realize that agoraphobia is equally if not more terrifying). Does Polanski's hero climb yet another wire fence, risk life and limb on yet another hazardous jump to save his life? Allusions to similar sequences in Polanski's Frantic (1998) and The Pianist (2002). Is this vast, complex plot woven by some powerful, mysterious figure leading the flawed but essentially good hero astray? Echoes of Polanski's Chinatown (1974). 

I'm sure Polanski is far from unaware of how details from the novel's story somehow parallel details from his own. Adam Lang thanks to the court has been transformed into an international refugee, unable to travel anywhere except the United States and a short list of hilariously uninviting territories. He lives the life of a celebrated exile, haunted by a crime he may or may not have done (to his credit Polanski makes it painfully obvious that Lang is guilty). The filmmaker haunts his film as thoroughly as any of the dozen aforementioned specters, not only narratively but artistically, in the way he suffuses every frame with his unique brand of self-escalating paranoia. 

Then there is the popular nickname for a secret agent--a "spook." Then there is the United Kingdom and the United States' shared past as colonizer and colony, parent and at times wayward son, and Britain's decline from world power to humble follower--a shadow of its mighty progeny.

More, if ghosts are memories of our past and if the past is never quiet, never quite dead, one might say that the past acts as a ghost of the present--basically the reality of the now made immaterial (but not totally ineffectual) by time's passage. 

Polanski's picture tells us that ghosts never rest, that the past will never completely die down (partly because we won't let it, partly because, as the film makes repeatedly clear, the universe tends towards the perverse), but whether or not they will be able to successfully deliver their message to us the living, whether or not we have the wit and intelligence to heed their warning, we may never fully know--onscreen, it's a close race between obfuscation and revelation. Brilliant film, possibly the best of the year--yes it's only March, but at this point Polanski's latest has set the bar impressively high.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Box (Richard Kelly, 2009)

Weird science

The business of being bizarre is a cut-throat competition--you either stand out and stand alone (because you're too out there for most people to take), or you make something more conventional and lose that distinctive flavor, or you try juggle the formula of far-out and familiar in such a way as to snare a wider range of viewers, at the same time smuggling something off-kilter and perverse in the guise of an ostensibly conventional narrative.

Richard Kelly's The Box (2009) borrows from any number of sources: from David Lynch's family melodramas (well--I think Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) are melodramas that involve families, his short-lived TV series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) most of all), taking particular inspiration from the unique sound design found in Lynch's films. The increasingly complicated (less charitable observers would say 'chaotic') plot has the feel of Chris Carter's The X Files (1993-2002) with their many paranoid scenarios (alien technology, underground conspiracies). The basic premise--a button that if pressed kills someone in the world you don't know, the same time you receive a million dollars--is the kind of moral quandary Rod Serling loved to present in his TV series The Twilight Zone, and in fact the script is from Richard Matheson's 1970 short story “Button Button”--Matheson was a regular Zone writer and the story itself was adapted for the 1980 incarnation of the TV series.

With all these varied ingredients, does Kelly come up with a flavor of his own? One sees more emphasis on family and less on sexuality, unlike Lynch (call Kelly a more family-friendly version); whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable (I like sexuality on the big screen myself). As conspiracies go, Kelley's is as complex as anything in The X-Files (though The X-Files does go out of its way to uncover some truly strange phenomena--as witness the case of Eugene Victor Tooms). Can't say Kelly's idea (a death for a million dollars) is any more memorable or ingenious than what one might find in The Twilight Zone, mainly because it IS an episode from The Twilight Zone--just the sort of twisted tale Matheson would cook up, or his contemporary, Robert Bloch.

Sometimes the difference can be found in the details. Kelley builds on a sense of dread--it's the engine that drives his films--and in this picture he adds edge to that dread by keeping the camera at arm's length. Few closeups (unlike Lynch, who will use them, often to unsettling effect), no handheld shots--for most of the film the camera keeps to a medium distance, with a few establishing long shots, and I think the decision to do this is both nutty and brilliant, especially in the scenes where Frank Langella appears as one Arlington Stewart, a mysterious figure with only three-fourths of a face. You badly want to take a better look at that missing one-fourth--if you could only examine it at close range it would be easier to dismiss as a feat of digital manipulation or makeup prosthetics--but you can't; Kelly won't allow you. When the camera follows either Norma (Cameron Diaz, sweetly vulnerable here) or her husband Arthur (James Marsden) down one corridor after another Kelly ratchets up the tension by following some five feet behind; the shot adds to the character's vulnerability--he or she seems diminished compared to the space they're moving in, plus danger, whatever danger is in store, seems able to approach from any side, from any angle.

Kelly is on record as saying he wanted this film to be a more commercial effort, a (one presumes he meant) boxoffice success, which may possibly explain all the explanations that come in the second half of the film. They're really not needed; Kelly's debut feature Donnie Darko (2001) didn't--the accumulation of fans that turned that film into a cult hit over the years provided their own. One understands that a wider audience may demand one, but a hit doesn't necessarily become a hit because it makes sense (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, anyone?), it becomes a hit (and here I'm admittedly taking potshots at dark, shadowy figures) possibly because it offers something no other picture will offer, in a plot plausible enough and uncomplicated enough for the audience to easily follow.

Just have to say for the record that I'm not too impressed with the moral dilemma at the film's heart--Mr. Stewart (Langella at his most menacingly reasonable) late in the story puts forth the solution to the whole problem and it's pretty much what you'd expect, simple common sense (though to be fair, if you're at all aware of how people act or how the world is what it is today, that kind of sense may be simple but it's hardly common). A lot of Serling's Twilight Zone episodes were like that; what you enjoyed wasn't so much the tidy twist ending with its dollop of morality on top but the earlier half, when the protagonist was sensing that things aren't going the way they should be, and he can't quite figure out why.

One does enjoy the way Kelly seems to want to sabotage himself, providing not just sufficient information but too much of it, giving us a taste of horror then diminishing the impact of that horror by explicating much of it away (those alarming nosebleeds, for example, or that mysterious airplane hangar, or the motel with its unaccountably ominous swimming pool--which Kelly shoots from above the water were about to volcanically erupt). Part of him that wants to push the edge of the envelope further seems at war with the part of him that wants more people buying tickets to watch; the envelope-pusher seems to have won out, but at the expense of everyone involved, and you have to admire that--it has its own kind of crazed integrity.

First published in Businessworld 3.11.10

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Filipino films at the 2010 San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival!

 Mario O'Hara as Berto the Leper in You Were Weighed and Found Wanting

Coverage continues. Now Michael Guillen in The Evening Class has devoted an extensive and very detailed post on the Lino Brocka retrospective there, focusing on Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974).

'Course, that he quotes me extensively is a more than flattering kindness.

Throw in the observation that O'Hara in an interview I did some years back claimed that other than a story outline the script was all his work (could be, drawing from all the sources I mentioned, including Brocka's life, with which he is familiar). And that his work there as a supporting actor there (on paper; I regard him as a lead the way Al Pacino's role in The Godfather is a supporting role that's really a lead) is just amazing, a great and moving performance, easily the film's highlight. 

But it's really an ensemble film with everyone doing admirably, down to the drinking buddies at the local sari-sari (grocery) store.

I'd throw in the photography of Joe Batac, which is clean and simple. The regrettable reddish-pink tones that occur thanks to the print's color degradation I submit actually adds a lovely patina to the film--marking it more than ever as a '70s film, now that many Filipino films of this period look this way. Plus Lutgardo Labad's folk-instrument music (using, I suspect a specially shaped bamboo--that I've actually picked up and played, once--to create that striking Jew's Harp sound) sounds dissonant, beautifully barbaric. 

Michael G. asked me a question and I think it's interesting how certain issues come out thanks to the question--to quote in full: 

Michael G: In the scene where Berto first takes Kuala into his makeshift home, he asks her: "Is your name really Kuala?" and--perhaps I'm making too much of it--but I wondered why he would ask that? Is "Kuala" a nickname of sorts?

NV: Not that I'm aware of. He just isn't aware of her as a person--is like someone meeting his blind date for the first time. He doesn't know her as a person, or look at her as a person.

It's very possibly rape--the woman is hardly fully competent to consent to sex (at least as far as I remember with regards to legal definitions of rape). Basically the rapist grows a conscience and comes to care for his victim. You see this again in O'Hara's own masterpiece, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976).

Might add that looking around, the name 'Kuala' might have some significance, other than being an unusual name for a Filipina, means in both Malay and Indonesian 'estuary,' that muddy region of a river where fresh water merges with salt water. Certainly Kuala in the film might be considered by the men in town 'muddy' or unclean goods, and that she represents a mix of innocent and hedonist (a hedonist rendered innocent by insanity), age and youth, mother and whore.  

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)

The long and winding

John Hillcoat's The Road is an impressive act of courage--of chutzpah, even. Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel had all the emotional impact, the gravitas, that his previous novel No Country For Old Men, published just a year before, aspires to but fails to achieve (ditto with the Joel and Ethan Coen film made from it).

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

The devastatingly sexy Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

Angel of death

Jason Reitman's adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel Up in the Air (2009) is pretty good, considering that it's a comedy about massive corporate layoffs--at first glance a monumentally unfunny subject.

Reitman's film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a career transition counselor (read: hired gun) who flies from city to city, sitting down with various employees of various corporations and informing them, in the gentlest manner possible, that they are fired, briefly listening to their angry or hurt response, then presenting them with a slim severance package folder.

No--when you think about it, not really ripe material for a comedy, much less a sophisticated one about human behavior in times of financial crisis.

Actually, the financial crisis is given the serious treatment; the comedy comes mainly from the film's satiric portrait of Bingham who at one point succinctly says of himself: “We are not swans. We're sharks.” The film's tone takes its cue from Reitman's visual choices, especially in giving the airport terminals and planes and rental cars and parking lots--that entire culture of transition that is Bingham's true habitat--the antiseptic sheen and silence of a world not quite on the same level as our own.

That's probably Reitman's finest achievement in this picture, that world. Bingham in Kirn's book dubs it “Airworld,” which he describes as “a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency -- the token economy of airline bonus miles that I've come to value more than dollars.” His stated goal in the novel is to earn an unprecedented one million of those miles; the film's unstated objective is to examine that goal, and its true worth.

For all that, Reitman does make that world look handsome. Planes take to the air with mesmerizing ease, against a sky of deep orange or cool gray or pure blue; the terminal hubs are impeccably cleaned and carpeted and air-conditioned; the cafes and magazine stores offer the same comforting frappes and cappuccinos and issues of Vogue, People, USA Today. Reitman only needs to tweak the scenario a little here and there to update it--granting Bingham a wi-fi laptop, upping his ante from a million to ten million bonus air miles.

Bingham moves through this world, sharklike, his wheeled suitcase like a chihuahua on short leash following him obediently down escalators and up hotel elevators, smoothly cornering at hallways with the slightest of rubberized squeals. He flips out his frequent flyer card with the dexterity of a practiced prestidigitator, and is at least on nodding acquaintance with the stewardesses and ground staff.

All of which makes for a marked contrast with what he does on the ground. On the ground he's like an angel, descended from a higher world to deliver grim news. When he strides through a financially stricken corporate office you know he doesn't belong there--the confidence and energy marks him as different. When he listens to an employee he's just informed has been fired he has the demeanor of an undertaker, listening with discreet sympathy, giving the aggrieved his total and undivided attention.

Some of these casualties are actors (J.K. Simmons, very fine in a tiny role); some are real casualties from St. Louis and Detroit, who have been laid off and were asked to respond the way they might have if they had a few minutes to rehearse. They sit across from Bingham and growl, snort, wheeze, bark; their behavior is unusually free of mannerisms. Reitman gives them their moment in the sun, their time in the spotlight; he turns the movie screen into a privileged moment, an intimate diary recording the largely improvised anger and frustration of men and women who after decades of hard work suddenly finds themselves unwanted--perhaps not Reitman's finest moments (the idea exudes just the faintest whiff of exploitation), but easily some of my favorite.

Kirn's novel is basically an encyclopedic collection of observations about 'Airworld' with the suspenseful gimmick of a deadline thrown in (Bingham has to amass his millionth mile before his boss discovers his resignation letter). Reitman (with the help of co-writer Sheldon Turner) adds a different kind of tension by providing Bingham with a comic foil--Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who picks up Bingham's job and takes it to its logical hi-tech conclusion: if you can farm out the unpleasant task of firing your employees to a contractor, why not let said contractor farm out the task of actually informing said employees to a laptop, through a telecommunication video link? Bingham sputters all kinds of excuses, the most persuasive being that you lose that personal touch (which carries his argument only up to a point--judging from Bingham's own smooth, soothing style, one can hardly discern anything personal about his method either); Reitman and Turner put Keener on a tryout tour with Bingham, to test her idea on the field.

To portray Kirn's angel of doom Reitman could hardly have done better than George Clooney. He looks every bit as serene and sterilized as the world he belongs to--as if he had just stepped down from an escalator, deigned to come share his presence amongst us, and spread the news that “this is not the end.” He meets his match in Alex (the devastatingly sexy Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. If Keener is meant to shake Bingham's complacency, Alex is meant to mirror Bingham--to play his game of gathering no moss and (as it turns out) one-up him in the process. Not bad at all, as I noted earlier, and it adds to the novel's premise some of the desperate urgency of the times--possibly why it's been such a hit to both audiences and critics. If it misses being great, that's probably because Kirn and Reitman's shared concept for the picture eschews the stink of blood, stays away from any sense of true desperation--the film is a victim of its own stylish detachment. 

First published in Businessworld 3.5.10

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lino Brocka, Paul Morales' 'Concerto,'

Lino Brocka (in glasses) on the set of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag

From the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival (March 11-20, 2010) blog, an essay I wrote:

The festival will focus on Filipino films, with a retrospective on some of Brocka's best-known works. The festival includes some shorts and Raya Martin's Independencia.

Finally got a chance to see Paul Morales' highly praised film Concerto (2008)--about a family of Davaoenos who lived in close proximity to a Japanese military camp during the Second World War. 

I found the film unsettling at first, and not in a good way--where were the wartime atrocities, the scenes of imprisonment, pillage, and torture found in classics of the genre, in this country and in others? Thinking about it later, though, I'd realized that part of Morales' achievement was to avoid treading on what's been done before, to tell his own story (he wrote the screenplay, based on his great grandfather's book Diary of the war: World War II memoirs of Lt. Col. Anastacio Campo), on its own terms.