Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Big Bang (Dr. Who 5th Season Finale)

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Moffat's intricately scripted fifth-season finale of Dr. Who--

I like. 

Never mind that it skewered practically every episode of the season and threaded them into a complicated concatenation of unlikely coincidences. 

Never mind that it sewed up every plotline and loophole and issue into one mindtwistingly intricate Gordian knot of a resolution.

Never mind that it did this with snap, speed, and a generous dose of wit and humor.

What I think Moffat's real achievement is, is that he kept his priorities straight. He knew what was important to his idea of the Doctor, and paid due attention to it.

I think nothing illustrates Moffat's priorities better than the moment when River Song--just having been saved from the exploding TARDIS and having to deal with the End of the Universe--strides out to the museum roof, turns to the Doctor and says: "Right then, I have questions, but number one is this: what in the name of sanity have you got on your head?"

Priorities--oh, yeah.

It's not about the Pandorica at all; that's what Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin. Russell T. Davis, god bless 'im for having revived the Doctor so successfully, had at least one major weakness that irked me endlessly: he put too much importance on McGuffins. Daleks, Cybermen, Masters, so on and so forth; it became too soap opera-ty, too grandiose, too End of Time-y; the Doctor's dilemmas became universe-shaking affairs that required a cast of hundreds, including all the Doctor's companions, to resolve. 

Hence: The Pandorica. As it turns out, Moffat has that problem resolved by the Doctor, wearing a fez and holding a mop, popping out of nowhere and handing over a sonic screwdriver. So there, Davies!

What are Moffat's real priorities? Why, screwing up the time scheme and, above all, audience expectations as much as possible (waitaminit, wasn't that the Doctor in the box last episode...?). Trying to fill in Rory's place in Amy's heart. "Will she be safer if I stay?" he asks of the Doctor. "Look at me in the eye and tell me she wouldn't be safer." Moffat grants poor Rory, Amy's much abused and very much dead fiancee, the chance to redress his betrayal and prove his (literally) undying love for her. Instead of spending time on that silly Pandorica--basically a creation of the young Amelia's imagination--Moffat spends the time telling the tale of the devoted centurion, guarding the mysterious box for two thousand years...

And young Amelia. I noticed it throughout the season: Moffat's not afraid to give us valleys along with the mountaintops. I thought The Eleventh Hour was a high note hit far too early, and I was right and wrong at the same time; he'd chosen to hit it at that moment for his own reasons, to fulfill his own ideas about what the whole season would look and feel like. Not saying he had it all planned from the beginning--in interview he's as much as admitted he was racing against the deadlines--but that he had definite ideas about what he wanted to happen in the series, and one of them was to plot a course that deviated from how most Whovians expect the series to go.

Hence, Rory, and River Song with her immortal line about the fez, and the Doctor's equally immortal reply (Song's line has to date turned up forty thousand times on a Google search, and even has its own Facebook page). And young Amelia, who was such a vivid presence in the first episode, and who lives on in the kooky, spiky, sexy performance of Karen Gillan in succeeding episodes. 

This, as I noted before, is really all about Amelia after all, the little girl who waited for her Doctor for fourteen years, and two years after that--if I were to be half-serious about it (the other half being unserious, but only half), all this, all of the Doctor's adventures and sufferings and near-death escapes and running (and oh! has there been so much running), everything and anything he has gone through and experienced the past few months are all meant to bring him back in a gigantic circle so he can pick a sleeping Amelia up in the garden, tuck her back in bed, and tell her a desperate little bedtime story about a very old man and a borrowed blue box. That's Moffat's real priority.

And that's pretty much it, only I have to note that it's really lovely how Moffat can take a piece of folklore ("something old, something new, something borrowed--") that dates back possibly to the Victorian age (though the poem's next line refers to a color that has been linked to weddings since--get this--Roman times) and make it a perfect description of the TARDIS. Makes one actually look upon the little rhyme with suspicion (do you really think the Doctor may have...?), which is what the very best science fiction is all about. It upends conventional thinking (Look at Wells' War of the Worlds and how it upsets our notions of natural superiority). It puts matters--ordinary matters we never much think about--in a brand new perspective (Look at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and how it challenges our notions of what is alive, what is human, and what possesses a human soul). It changes us in ways however small, even something as small as the way we look at an old marriage custom.

Wonderful episode, wonderful season; if I don't think it measures up to the very best of the previous five seasons of the new Doctor, that may be because I consider four of Moffat's six previous scripts for the past four seasons to have set the bar very high. Blink had a more intricate and elegantly structured plot all crammed into a single episode, whereas this finale was developed over the course of an entire season (think of what Moffat achieves here, and of how Nolan's Inception is far less witty, or intricate, on a far more expansive format); The Girl in the Fireplace had more heartbreak (though Rory--and the Doctor himself, towards the end of this episode--did have their moments); The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances turns on a wonderfully original concept, using war-torn Britain as a fitting backdrop (an End-of-the-World scenario taking place against what most Britons at the time must have felt was the End of the World), presenting the chilling image of a boy patiently, implacably, looking for his mother. Moffat's latest joins that august company; here's to hoping his next season will be as good, if not better.   


Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2010)

Mr. Lonely

A Single Man (2010) is one hundred minutes of Colin Firth struggling with his pain, as seen through the honeyed lenses of director Tom Ford's camera.

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

Pure as the driven

Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon, 2009) is Haneke's latest, a glimpse into a past that may have given birth to the sociopathic thugs that terrorized a German family in Haneke's Funny Games (1997).

The film focuses on a town called Eichwald, dominated by three men--the doctor, the pastor, the baron--and whether or not one likes Haneke's work overall, one can admire the coolly understated way he tells their stories and the dozen or so additional tales of the town, how they connect and affect each other.

The doctor (Ranier Block) is a widower, and is having an affair with the midwife assisting him. The pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is a disciplinarian, and punishes his children for the smallest infraction. The baron (Ulrich Tukur) rules with a largely benevolent hand--he helped pay for his workers' harvest festival--but at the same time dismisses his son's nanny for no discernible reason, and has negligently allowed the flooring in his sawmill to rot (as a result, a woman has fallen through and was chewed up by the machinery below). As the film begins, the doctor is riding home on a horse; the horse suddenly stumbles, sending the doctor head over heels to the ground. Turns out someone has stretched a wire between two trees--who, and why?

All this is told by the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), possibly the only innocent pair of eyes in the community (his relative obliviousness is an excellent medium through which Haneke filters the town's secrets to us at deliberately timed moments, the same time he provides a kind of contrast to the overall sense of corruption). He is in love with the baron's nanny, and plans to propose marriage to her.

Call it a psychological striptease; Haneke's storytelling has never been more elliptical, or confident. The characters don't quite devolve into caricatures (they often come close--perhaps cross the line once or twice). Some of what happens is undeniably grotesque, but other moments help make the characterization more human--the pastor, for example, reacts with visible feeling to his son's gift of a caged bird (later the bird is horribly mutilated with a pair of sharp scissors); the baron tries in his own blinkered way to do right by his peasants (even if they end up falling through the flooring); you feel the doctor's pain as he struggles to sit up with a broken collarbone (despite the fact that his sins are more immediately terrible).

Haneke and his cinematographer Christian Berger reportedly studied the films of Ingmar Bergman--the default filmmaker when it comes to European guilt and angst and sexual hysteria--especially Bergman's films with Gunnar Fischer (you can see the influence of The Virgin Spring in this, with Bergman's later cinematographer Sven Nykvist channeling the style of Fischer). The bleakness, though, has an architectural flavor, a geometric precision, that's all Haneke.

For one of the film's closing images Haneke seems to have borrowed a shot from Hitchchock's Frenzy (1972) and sent his camera slowly retreating through the heart of the little village, creeping away from a door tightly shut. That's the central image--the motif, if you will--that Haneke has apparently chosen for the film. Shut doors naturally have this ineffable sense of mystery, of menace; shut doors imply secrets, and a camera retreating from a shut door implies secrets we are reluctant to reveal.

As a kind of ominous footnote, news arrives at the village: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has just been shot. Haneke in interviews has declared that these children will grow up to be adults in the '30s and '40s, that they are basically the generation that grows up to become Nazis, that the sources of Nazism can be found in the film. I'm not sure I'm happy with that interpretation--the Second World War basically grew out of the political and economic mess caused by the First World War. Whatever caused the First World War was in all probability already far along its course by the time the events in Haneke's film have happened.

There's something old-fashioned, determinedly medieval about the film, and Haneke and Berger's gorgeous black and white cinematography emphasizes that sense of the past (at the same time evoking yet another Bergman drama, the 1957 Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal)). I would say this is more Haneke's portrait of personal, relational evil, of evil inflicted face-to-face, motivated by such recognizably human emotions as hatred and lust. The announcement of the Archduke's assassination is also an announcement of the arrival of a new kind of evil, one motivated by the principles of mass production and powered by both the electric generator and the gasoline engine. The film is a reminder--a documentary, if you like--of an evil that has lasted for millennia (and persists to this day); it is also a warning of worse to come.

First published in Businessworld, 7.8.10

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

The sleep of reason

It's okay. Easily the best movie of the summer, though from what I've seen so far that's not saying much. Easily the best thing Nolan's ever done to date, though from what I've seen of his Batman movies that's not saying much either.

Monday, July 12, 2010

100 Filipino films updated (slightly); Harvey Pekar 1939 - 2010

My list of 100 best Filipino films--subjective, biased, and personal, as always--has been tweaked a little. Links have been updated and added, a few more films included, a few removed. 


Harvey Pekar, 1939 - 2010 

What can one say? Seems appropriate that a Cleveland publication would have a far more detailed tribute on Pekar than the New York Times--he is, as inspiration and collaborator Robert Crumb put it, "the soul of Cleveland." A little splendor has left our lives.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Soredemo boku wa yattenai (I just didn't do it, Masuyuki Suo, 2006)

 Law and ordered

Masayuki Suo's Soredemo boku wa yattenai (I just didn't do it, 2006) starts with the simplest of cases, a young man groping a girl in an overcrowded subway train. Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase) is accused of sexual harassment by a 15-year-old student; he's dragged off to the police station, where he's asked to just pay the fine. But he doesn't; he insists he is innocent, and that, from a very real and practical point of view, is his first big mistake.

It's amazing what a number, properly wielded, can do for a reputation. The Japanese legal system is proud of one particular number: 99.9 percent. That's the rate of guilty convictions they have won over the years, and it's an impressive figure any way you slice it--it implies that once a man is accused of a crime in Japan, 99.9 times out of a hundred there will be enough of a case, backed up by sufficient evidence, to prove that the defendant is guilty.

Akira Kurosawa showed us some of that ferocious law enforcer thoroughness in his crime drama High and Low (1963), when Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, soft-spoken excellent as always) directs his army of detectives to catch a kidnapper and blackmailer. Kurosawa never does things by halves; the detectives throw themselves bodily into work--interviewing witnesses, examining super 8 film footage, visiting public phone booths from which the kidnapper may have peered up at his victim's house. Every sense is alert, every analytical technique primed for immediate implementation; Kurosawa so thoroughly ratchets up the tension in his search for the kidnapper that when someone looking out a window points out a damning plume of pink smoke--the only splash of color in this relentlessly black-and-white film--the moment feels electric, like a climactic release. The case has broken; the kidnapper (who has just burnt a crucial briefcase designed to emit the aforementioned colored smoke) will soon be arrested. At one point, Detective Tokura encourages his officers by saying they shouldn't settle for kidnapping when murder would be a better crime to pin on the man. It's an inspiring bit of motivational talk, only after watching Suo's film I can't help but feel that the remark has acquired a more sinister undertone.

Suo's would make an interesting companion piece to Kurosawa's thriller; both are procedurals, both record in excruciating depth of detail two opposing ends of the legal process--the former outlining the methods by which the police catch their quarry, the latter the methods by which the police and legal system draw, quarter, and hang the carcasses out to dry. 

 The process starts innocently enough: Teppei with some difficulty finds himself a defense lawyer in Arakawa (Koji Yakusho, the charming salaryman turned dancer in Suo's 1996 Shall We Dance?); Arakawa in turn educates Teppei on the intricacies of the system. Odd things start to happen: testimonies are altered, reports are either lost or declared nonexistent, specific questions are pointedly not asked. The judge is changed mid-trial, and the new judge is fond of denying the defense's line of questioning or declaring their evidence irrelevant in favor of the prosecution's.

At one point judge questions defendant. Suo shoots judge and Teppei head-on, then cuts between the two with increasing frequency as the judge proceeds to take Teppei's story apart. It's a marvelous (and blood-chillingly deft) performance, with the judge treating Teppei's testimony like a boiled crab--pulling the story open, using one detail as a pick to tease out every contradiction, every damning implication. By sequence's end Teppei looks angry and violated; the judge gazes down at him to give a polite smile (you can almost see the remains of his story, piled high and steaming, on a plate in front of him). The man has practically done the prosecutor's job for him, and Teppei looks that much closer to serving time.

Forget Rob Zombie; forget Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier--this is possibly the most harrowing film I've seen in recent years. Suo, who has always seemed satisfied to do crowd-pleasing (if skillfully made) comedies (the delightful Shiko funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, 1992); the enchanting Shall we dansu? (Shall We Dance, 1996)), here applies his considerable comic skills to the dry, deadpan, and utterly persuasive depiction of the Japanese legal system's less salubrious side--turns out that 99.9% number doesn't mean all those people arrested are necessarily guilty, but that the entire system is geared and motivated and paid very well to maintain the 99.9% guilty rate. That means every one, from the arresting officers to the prison guards to the judges at the bench will suggest relentlessly but ever so politely to you to just cut out the bullshit and confess your crime.

What makes Suo's vision of hell (and it is in my book a veritable Hell on Earth) unique is how utterly neutral and unexciting it is. At moments of high drama he will bring the camera up close for emphasis, but those are the only times I've caught him doing anything overtly entertaining. Usually he seems content to simply state the facts, shooting defendant and the lawyers surrounding him full-on, under bright florescent lights, amidst modern plastic furniture. Teppei might well be an applicant for a job, or a new driver's license, or any number of activities and services that run on bureaucratic machinery. And yet Suo keeps us on tenterhooks; we wait with bated breath for the grindingly slow gears of the legal apparatus to turn, turn, turn, and we hope against hope that perhaps, maybe this time, Teppei just might be one of the lucky 0.1 percent of defendants who are, in the face of overwhelming evidence in support of his case, acquitted.

What gets me is that the system works, more or less; the Japanese people have not risen up in arms to protest the injustice inherent in their legal system, at least as suggested by this film. Someone once said that everyone gets the government they deserve, and apparently the Japanese feel this is basically the system they want, despite the occasional casualties; I don't see much sign of the status quo changing anytime soon.

Interesting to compare this to Filipino filmmaker Veronica Velasco's 2009 Last Supper No. 3. That film is also about a relatively minor offense blown up into a Sisyphean situation, with the defendant climbing an endless amount of stairs to face down an endless amount of paperwork, civil workers, court hearings. Velasco's film is more overtly comical and absurdist as befits the Filipino legal system, which is also overtly comic and absurd; Suo's film shows a system that makes all too much sense, a vastly efficient mechanism designed to grind down one's sense of innocence to a paltry 0.1 percent. Different hells for different people, I suppose.

I'd love to visit Japan again someday--it's a lovely country, as films and TV shows and my one visit years back suggest to me. But I would definitely think twice about the possibility of committing a crime--even by accident!--there. 

First published in Businessworld, 7.2.10

Monday, July 05, 2010

Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010)

What if Buffy instead of Bella had met Edward and Jacob?

(Bella in the parking lot, walking from her truck to school. Suddenly a careening van heads towards her. Bella flinches, too frightened to move away. A crunching sound)

Edward: Are you all right?

Bella: How did you stop the van?

Buffy: He didn't; I did. (Bella and Edward look to their right; Buffy's arm is thrust straight out, the fist sunk into the van's crumpled face)

Bella: How did she stop the van?

Edward: (Pressing hand on Bella's face, he shoves her to one side) Get lost. (To Buffy) How did you stop that van?

Buffy: I work out. 

Edward: I'm Edward.

Buffy: Buffy. First day in this school. Had to transfer here after my old school in Sunnydale sank into the earth. Long story. 

Edward: I'd like to hear it sometime.

Buffy: I'll think about it. (They walk to class, chatting. It starts to rain. Bella sits on her butt in the parking lot, slowly getting wet).

(Later, Buffy and Edward are at Edward's house, talking)

Edward: Will you tell me how you stopped that van?

Buffy: I'm a vampire slayer.

Edward: I'm a vampire. 

Buffy: I'm feeling deja vu

Edward: Would you like some music? (Turns on his CD player)

Buffy: Clair de Lune is nice, but I prefer Sarah McLachlan.

Edward: Care to dance? 

Buffy: I'd rather not right now.

Edward: Hm. Well, I can always make you.

Buffy: Not scared, sorry.

Edward: Well, you really shouldn't have said that. 

Buffy: Is that a threat?

(Cut to a gorgeous long shot of the forest, the trees waving under a vast Northwestern wind. The camera moves in closer to catch Buffy clinging to a tree top. Edward is trussed up and hanging from a rope, upside down)

Buffy: You apologize?

Edward: I do. I offer a complete and utter apology. The threat was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair action, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my words may have caused you or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such statement at any time in the future.

Buffy: Okay. (Busses Edward) You're cute. (Wrinkles nose) But you've got to wash your hair! Smells like a rat's nest where the rat died a month ago. 

Edward: I haven't shampooed since a month ago. It's how I keep my hair standing.

Buffy: Either you wash your hair and use gel to keep it standing or I rip the scalp off your head (Tugs hair, painfully). Capish?

Edward: Yes, ma'am. I promise, ma'am. 

(Later, Jacob meets Buffy and Edward)

Jacob: You like shapeshifters?

Buffy: Better than bloodsuckers. At least this bloodsucker.

Jacob: I think I'm in love.

Edward: Hey, what about me?

Buffy: Go suck a lemon.

(Jacob and Buffy together, talking)

Buffy: So what does this mean when I've 'imprinted' on you?

Jacob: It’s not like love at first sight, really. It’s more like… gravity moves. When I see you, suddenly it’s not the earth holding me here anymore. You do. And nothing matters more than you. And I would do anything for you, be anything for you… I become whatever you need me to be, whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend, or a brother.

Buffy: That's the lamest load of crap I've ever heard.

(Jacob tries to kiss Buffy. Buffy shoves him back, lightly slaps his face)

Jacob: Next time you want to hit me, use a baseball bat or crowbar, okay?

(Buffy punches him; he's knocked sideways a few dozen feet. Teeth fly in the same direction a few feet further)

Buffy: Is that better?

(Jacob and Edward fighting over Buffy)

Edward: I love Buffy!

Jacob: I love Buffy!

Buffy: For the record I'm not Switzerland, I'm Hiroshima, and I'm about to go nuclear on both of you if you don't stop acting like morons.

(Later: Buffy, Edward, and Jacob in the tent, Buffy freezing)

Jacob: Good thing I'm warm and alive, right?

Buffy: Just don't try anything. 

Edward (To Jacob): You have no idea how loud your little fantasies are. It’s like you’re shouting them at me. 

Buffy (To Jacob): That's not your tail you're wagging.

Jacob: Don't be stupid. Don't you like having ten toes?

Buffy: I'm warning you!

Jacob: And you'll do what, exactly?

(We hear a crunching sound)

Jacob: (in a very high voice) Yes ma'am. Won't happen again, ma'am. Please let go ma'am--they feel as if they're about to pop open.

Buffy: Goodnight!

(Later: Buffy stakes Victoria, who dissolves into dust)

Edward (taking Buffy into his arms) Now we can be together forever. 

Buffy: You know, I've been wondering: would it be easier to trust you or stake you? Do I even need you?

Edward: Don't you trust me?

Buffy: Didn't I ask you to wash your stinking hair? (Raises stake)

Edward: Not my heart!

Buffy: I'm not aiming for your heart (spins him around, bends him over). Say "Ah!"

Edward: Aaaah! (Walks away funny) My heart. If only you aimed for my heart instead of--oh! (faints, falls backwards; stake sinks in deeper

Buffy: All things considered, I'd rather be in Sunnydale.

(With apologies to Joss Whedon)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

"Psycho" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Mama's boy

(Warning: story discussed in close detail)

It's been fifty years--half a century--since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho first screened in theaters, and for the occasion there are plenty of articles written for the occasion. Jack Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal insists that Bernard Herrmann's slashing music score not only enhanced the infamous shower scene, but saved the film; J. Hoberman sketches the historical context in which the film appeared (it was released in roughly the same period as Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura), then reprints in whole Andrew Sarris' then freshly-minted appreciation:

“Psycho should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience...the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface...