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