Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard)

Hero and sidekick's reaction to one particularly intense preview screening

Princess Pixar

Disney was always known for its 'princess' movies--y'know, tamed birds singing accompaniment to a warbling virgin in Snow White (1937), helpful mice stitching together a makeshift (if modestly stylish) gown for domestic-helper heroine in Cinderella (1950).

Easily my favorite is Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) which took the studio some eight years to develop, five for the animation alone. It featured grand-scale music by Tchaikovsky; stunning Medieval- and Gothic-inspired artwork by Eyvind Earle; a suitably princess-y princess (sweet, not a little dull) that might have been turned out from the same plastic mold as Barbie; and, most impressive of all, a magnificently malevolent villainess named Maleficent.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

An innocent abroad
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist has such a vile reputation one wants to walk into it wearing a body condom--acoording to its many detractors, it lacks sizzle, it lacks fizzle, it lacks chemistry, heat, spice, humor, thrills, chills, spills, so on and so forth. It's derivative; it borrows its best (or at least most obvious) elements from Hitchcock, particularly North by Northwest and from Stanley Donen's Charade, among others. Its plotting is dumb, its actors lifeless, its twists nonsensical.
So what did I watch anyway? Angelina Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, a mysterious beauty who boards a Venice-bound train and is required to find a decoy, a patsy meant to throw off all the heavy-duty armed-to-the-teeth with mikes and lenses Interpol and Scotland Yard agents tailing her. At the spur of the moment, she elects to choose...Frank Tupelo, an American math teacher from Wisconsin. Johnny Depp is doing the average Everyman persona he does every other picture (Nick of Time, Donnie Brasco, The Ninth Gate), and truth to tell there's something reductive and inward-looking about him that lends itself towards making him seem so commonplace timid (as opposed to his sashaying, half-sober Captain Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Straight off Elise reveals herself to be something of a manipulator, a fairly ruthless one--yet in the guise of Angelina Jolie, all glorious cheekbones and lips to die for, one might understand an ordinary schoolteacher's impulse to walk into the trap eyes wide shut. Stepping off a cliff is not the smartest way to go, but boy, is the view spectacular. Wouldn't a public school educator from Wisconsin be tempted, even for a moment perhaps?
I can see people and critics alike being disappointed in the film--Hitchcock is a tough bar to beat, and North by Northwest is about the most perfect chase movie ever made. Donen's Charade isn't on that high level I think, but it does have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and--God bless Depp--he isn't Grant, not by a long shot (though Jolie does have the kind of wattage that approaches Hepburn's, albeit with an altogether different flavor). All that said, I can appreciate what Donnersmarck is trying to do: a thriller, but not an obvious one; a romance with a touch more ambiguity; a chase that tumbles through the intricacies not of mere plot twists, but of character development. If Donnersmarck tamps down the heat factor of two very charismatic stars, that may be because he wants to show us gentler currents and eddies taking place between two recognizably human beings, the kind of dynamic found between two unlikely people falling in love despite themselves, and despite one of the lovers' explicitly callous brief ("pick a chump, any chump"). Doonersmarck's is a subtler, gentler approach, and what is revealed here isn't the metoric rise of an Everyman turning Superman--inspired by a daemonic muse--but of a remarkable man revealing even more remarkably commonplace emotions, a--dare we say it?--sweeter, more approachable form of love.
We see this time and time again: extraordinary situations where the people reveal themselves to be more human than the genre usually demands. A rooftoop chase sequence that has all the suspense and realistic vulnerability of a Roman Polanski film (Polanski being the default master of suspense generated by second-floor railings and the odd loose terra-cotta tile). Later, though one cannot visit Venice without running through its picturesque canals in high-speed boats, here the twist is that the boats are dragged down by various cables, hauling various weights--a visual metaphor for what the film is trying to do.
And, of course, the theme of surveillance, of acting as silent voyeur to the object of one's desire, an inescapable theme in Donnersmarck's best-known work The Lives of Others, about an introverted surveillance expert who wiretaps a famous dissident writer. Donnersmarck in this production seems to revel in what Western intelligence agencies with their larger budgets have to offer--video cameras, gun microphones, sophisticated chemical processes that can restore a burnt message back to coherence--all in the service of his overall motif: a human soul under close observation, by a not unsympathetic observer.
The film is such a throwback it's actually something of a revelation--a thriller without loud explosions, a comedy with more wit than crude humor, a romance with more tenderness than outright sexuality. No blatant CGI, no gigantic action setpieces, no loud beat-heavy music score. If people can't appreciate something entirely different from what they're used to, something pitched at a softer, lighter tone than anything they've enjoyed recently, then...what hope is there for anything else as soft or light, as subtle and unobstrusive?
First published in Businessworld, 1.13.11

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Triangle; Shanghai Express; Morocco

Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To's Triangle is the kind of foolhardy enterprise we need more of--but no, I can't see Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola ever getting together to do a collaboration.

This is the next best thing--no, better; at least these three Chinese filmmakers don't suffer from the ravages of gigantism, of dealing with bloated budgets and self-inflicted angst and the ruinous need to be critically respected and commercially successful both; or, at least, they don't seem to show the strain of these pressures (at least one of them successfully balances the demands of all and sundry--is, possibly, the most successful filmmaker in Hong Kong at the moment). 

Ante's upped by the fact  that the three aren't doing three short films but a single film with three directors doing three sections--beginning, middle, end. Difficult to maintain consistency, even with the same editor and cinematographer, much less coherence (which doesn't really happen). 

Of the three I felt Tsui Hark was the least successful. He sets up the situation (to be fair, always the least rewarding task), about a trio of friends planning a heist. Hark has lost something--a zing, perhaps, a clarity and comic-book exuberance that was the hallmark of his Once Upon a Time in China series. Nowadays his action is incoherent, his photography muddled and ugly, his film's overall look and feel undistinctive and mean-spirited. It's not bad, exactly, but seems to resemble the kind of action flick any number of filmmakers--French or even Hollywood--might have made in the past ten years.

When they find the object of desire--a gold-plated armored breastplate--Ringo Lam takes over, and suddenly you're aware of a distinct auteurial presence. Lam was always the master of dark moods knotty relationships, understated drama, and--above all--urban suspense. There's a scene in an abandoned building involving handcuffs and a minivan that's a corker, and a vehicle run (strictly speaking it's not an actual chase) through the streets of Hong Kong that is brilliantly shot and edited, with a breathtakingly sudden climax. But then Lam, of course, is in charge of the middle act--he isn't allowed to end his sequence.

Suddenly suddenly things both simplify and complicate. In a series of economical moves the film jettisons most of the unnecessary plot elements (the pursuing triad, for one), adds its own (a scamming wheel-repair man with Tourette's (Lam Suet, an acting regular who cues you in on who owns this segment); a police officer on a bike). Suddenly the film becomes a dizzying shootout farce complicated beyond compare yet coherent as crystal, by turns funny and thrilling and poetic--sometimes all three at once.

Three filmmakers with three differing styles, doing a film on three friends, one of whom is involved in his own love triangle. It's an intricate stunt of a picture, one that doesn't quite come off successfully, but one applauds the attempt. Allez-oop!

Josef Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express is possibly a perfect film, all the more remarkable for being perfectly realized on a Hollywood studio backlot. The studio location probably helped enhance the sense of stylization, as Sternberg can micromanage every bit of Chinese calligraphy and spoken dialogue (accurate, as far as my limited Mandarin can tell--though I wonder about that clock face with Chinese numbers elaborately printed on its rim).

All in the service of its star, of course, the incomparable Marlene Dietrich, who here is lit and costumed and photographed (by Lee Garmes, with uncredited help from James Wong Howe) to within an inch of her life (to see the results of all this micromanagement, see photo above). Of all of Sternberg's effects, she's the most elaborate, most exotic effect of all: a hothouse German blossom in the provincial Far East, a woman without virtue who saves her honor for only one man, a world-weary cynic who dreams of an occasion to become the ultimate idealist.

Her co-star, Clive Brook, is unfortunately mostly a stiff upper lip; her true equal and an equally baroque grotesque is Warner Oland as Mr. Chang, a mysterious train passenger who as it turns out is a warlord, determined to exchange a valuable hostage for one of his captured officers. Oland skirts villanous oriental stereotype territory, but in Sternberg's hands he's a memorably villainous stereotype: when explaining to one victim what he intends to do to the poor man he runs a red-hot iron spike down a gauzy curtain, leaving behind a trail of softly burning cloth. It's the kind of casual touch that sends chills up the spines of the truly aware or, at least, reasonably alert.

That said, Sternberg's Chan does come out more fully rounded than one might expect--he tortures and punishes for reasons of pride (because he is humiliated, for example), and when he lusts after Dietrich it is with an effrontery us Asian types (in one of our more politically incorrect moods) want to cheer on.

Morocco I prefer for several reasons: the moment when Dietrich in tuxedo drag suddenly snatches a woman by the chin and busses her; the scenes where a simple mirror is occasion for extravagant demonstrations of cruelty and masochism; and the ending. Lee Garmes again does the sensuous cinematography, again with uncredited help by a legendary lenser (this time Lucien Ballard).

Gary Cooper is a far better match for Dietrich: where Brook was a stick in the mud, Cooper held his own with the kind of casual sexual confidence that makes one understand just what Dietrich saw in him (in Shanghai Express I kept expecting her to realize she really loved Chan all along).

As for the ending--the hypnotic pounding of drums; the wives and children, hopelessly and helplessly trailing after their soldier men; Dietrich, wind whipping at her dress and hair, a tall figure framed against a vast desert (think Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky). With the film's finale Sternberg reveals the film's (and his filmmaking's) true subject: passion--heedless, self-destructive, infinitely perverse. In his pictures each protagonist works out the terms of his or her particular obsession according to the unalterable laws of their twisted logic, losing themselves in that logic, ultimately destroying themselves and erasing themselves in the face of that logic. A great work.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Best of 2010

Don't have a perfect system for choosing, don't pretend to have one; basically I try pick whatever had some kind of commercial release in the USA; that, or if they had a release in the Philippines, and I failed to include them the previous year (plenty of those). Or I feel I can actually include them in a 2010 list because they have yet to have (nor will they probably ever have) a commercial release, and I want to acknowledge them anyway. I try to err on the side of inclusiveness.

As for what constitutes "best" as opposed to "notable," purely gut feel, as in: I roll the title down my tongue, and if my gut tingles with similar or greater excitement at the mere sound of the words, it's in; otherwise, it's out. That's why Social Network, which I liked a lot when I first saw it, is relegated to the "notables." Others I like too much but are too otherwise flawed to include in "best."

Which is probably all bull, of course. Look up the titles, read my articles if you like, see if you agree or disagree. I find this more useful than having some half-assed committee sit down and tabulate a vote--as if two minds can actually agree on something valid and worthwhile. And as for all that statistical jazz--averaging out, grade curves, lopping off extreme values, I quote Mark Twain: "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics" and misquote Chairman Mao: "let a thousand best-of lists bloom!"

The best of the year:

The Fighter  - how does it shape up against other recent fight movies? It's different enough to be worth watching, with its video footage and edgy editing, and that's plenty enough in my book.

Forbidden Door - One of the better horror films in recent years...and not a silly swan in sight!

The Ghost Writer - I'd heard the complaints--the story isn't all that much, it's not Polanski's best, how could you endorse the work of a criminal, etc. I say: it's not the story but the style that reverberates, I think it's at least thematically and tonally linked with Polanski's best, a sort of Cinema of the Paranoid, and as for that last part--am praising the work, not the criminal. Have plenty of unpleasant to downright convictable people whose work I happen to like.

The Girl on the Train - Think John Hughes only sophisticated, and possessed of subtler storytelling instincts.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus - a relatively normal (?) Gilliam film, about the doctor and the Devil and a really nasty customer.

Mary and Max - Two friends an ocean and a continent away, talking to each other through the postal mail. One of the saddest and loveliest-looking animated films in recent years.

Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen like Revolutions in a Song) - John Torres' attempt at mythmaking is erotic, funny, and like nothing you've ever seen before

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio) - Mario O'Hara's take on the other great Filipino hero is understated drama, anguished tragedy, a tremendous love story, and in my opinion the film of the year.

A Prophet - The Godfather in French, and in the claustrophobic confines of prison. The coming of age of a young crime lord, and what's so chilling about the story is that he's only too ready to take up the reins of power.

Restrepo - one of the best documentaries about the war in Afghanistan.

The Secret of Kells - the other great animated feature of recent years, an unflinching celebration of Celtic imagery.

 - Tom Ford's debut film is visually gorgeous and dramatically compelling, about a gay man who has just lost the love of his life.

Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio's other (and in my book, far better) nightmare trip, a descent into schizophrenic states of paranoia as only Scorsese can conceive.

Thirst - In a year full of bloodsuckers, the one vampire film that really transgresses, and the first Park Chan Wook film I really like. 

Vengeance (Johnny To) - Basically Christopher Nolan's Memento, only done by a real filmmaker. The plot--a Parisian chef seeking revenge for the death of his daughter's family--is an excuse for extravagant gunfights and thriller sequences as only To--arguably the consistently finest filmmaker working now in Hong Kong--can do em.

Of course you have grand opera slow-motion; of course you have balletic gunslinging; of course you have casually funny sequences of male camaraderie--with Woo you might wonder at the homoeroticism, with To you get the genuine vibe of a bunch of boys hanging out and fooling around (what makes To so moving is that his heroes are often overgrown boys, living up to and enforcing an often fatal code of honor). An example: when it's time to move into action, Anthony Wong tosses a peanut at Suet Lam's face; Lam picks the nut off his cheek and without much forethought pops it in his mouth. Lovely.

The White Ribbon - along with Park Chan Wook the other enfant terrible of World Cinema at his most magisterially measured.

The flawed but interesting, or otherwise notables:

Bakal Boys - Ralston Jover's Los Olvidados, operating in an even more dangerous work climate.

Breathless - funniest, most jaw-dropping version of Beauty and the Beast I've seen in recent years

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - Mostly harmless. But there aren't enough movies about food out there, much less animated movies about food.

Despicable Me - Plays well to your inner bad guy. Mostly funny, minimum sentiment.

The Girl who Played with Fire - an improvement in my book over the first installment, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, in that the aforementioned girl meets her snarling, relentless match.
Himpapawid - Raymond Red's first feature in years is the tragicomic story (partly true) of a man who wishes to fly. 

How to Train your Dragon - Yet another animated picture not Pixar that seems to offer something other than the standard Pixar uplift. Including Jay Baruchel with a voice performance that evokes a teen Woody Allen.

The Hurt Locker - won over ex-hubby's overproduced CGI epic, which is no big feat, but nevertheless a compelling psycho drama, possibly the best yet on the Iraq war.

Invictus - Eastwood's tribute to the Obama administration (at least that's how I read it), and a compelling rendition of an interesting footnote in world history.

Kick-Ass - comic book movie of the year, even if it is morally questionable.

The Killer Inside Me - Winterbottom's graphically faithful rendition is too literal, yet there are touches that make it worthwhile.

The King's Speech - The testosterone version of Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, or Educating Rita leaves us with the image of two men in a room, struggling for domination, and reassurance, and human contact.

Last Supper No. 3 - The Philippines first legitimate legal comedy.

Let Me In - Not a bad remake. Not as good as the original, but it honors its source.

Machete - Avatar reeks like a potful of fermented Smurfs; Inception seizes up like a constipated large intestine; Machete is the action movie of the year. It has balls, it has breasts, it has sweat, it has blood, it has style, it has humor, it has a heart as big as all of Mexico.

Unlike Cameron, Rodriguez has a sense of irony about himself; unlike Cameron he feels the Big Message (illegal immigration and racism) in his bones. Unlike Nolan, Rodriguez can actually do an action sequence; this may be his best work yet. It's easily his most consistently sustained.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? - oddly subdued collaboration between Werner Herzog and David Lynch that, thanks to its precisely slanted view on life, oddly stays in the mind long after the credits roll. Indelible images include a vivid no-budget staging of The Eumenides, of a basketball caught in the branches of a sapling, and God coming out of a garage door and rolling down a driveway.

Salt - Old-school action filmmaking (circa '80s) at its best.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - Let me put it this way: Edgar Wright made me like my first video game movie. Small miracle.

The Social Network - Fincher's epic dramatization of an online phenomena fits into his gallery of lonely protagonists obsessed with the eternal.

Survival of  the Dead - George Romero as the ultimate termite artist, doing straight-to-video installments of his legendary Dead series.

The Tourist - Hitchcock redux, yes, but in this day and age of in-your-face action and even louder romantic comedies, secondhand Hitchcock is better than no Hitchcock at all.

The Town - not quite as precise as Heat, not as funny or intense as The Departed, what Affleck's film does have is an ineffable sense of place and time.

True Grit - Coen brothers' straightest shot yet hits the bull's eye.

Up in the Air - Imagine that, a comedy about unemployment. Best portions are the actual interviews of laid-off workers. 

Voyage of the Dawn Treader - Arrives at a point when the Narnia series starts to become really interesting. Special effects are second-rate, but Michael Apted's direction keeps the emotions and relationships clear, as they should be. 

Where the Wild Things Are - Not as good as Sendak's twenty-page original, but as its own creature it's not bad.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Tron Legacy, The King's Speech, True Grit, The Town

Jeff Bridges as a Zen master in Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy

What does it say about a movie that even the pans that put it down seem dull and uninspired? "Great visuals, lousy story, great visuals, lousy story." Say it aloud; rinse, repeat.

Tron: Legacy steals from a lot of films (Blade Runner; 2001) but arguably most unforgivable of all is how much the movie blatantly steals from itself, without improving much on the imagery (well, there's this 3-D gimmick...). Deadly frisbee halos; gleaming turbo-cycles that leave a deadly trail; those big hover-things that are meant to be menacing but come off looking more like oversized stapler bullets--we saw all this in the first Tron (which I didn't much like either); do we need to take away precious screen time to show 'em again, in case the audience doesn't realize this is a sequel?

We get some kind of story--son seeks out father, who turns out to be a Zen master, whose sagest advice is "do nothing." "The portal closed!" daddy tells his son over and over again, his official excuse for being a deadbeat. Nothing really comes out of this; son never really gets angry at his father's long absence, and father remains affectionate and unselfish despite the unapologetically lame excuse (I'd love to have seen the Jeff Bridges of American Heart deal with this young punk--twist him into a pretzel without batting an eyelash). 

If the movie had concentrated on its escape plot the way the original did, it would be some kind of weightless, affectless masterpiece (take the effects from the original, make 'em darker, more shaded, more substantial-looking); as is, the attempts at emotional profundity seem half-hearted, and not a little silly. Tron himself--yes, the character is back, though you would never really notice unless you pay close attention--seems like a lot of effort to very little result (think of how much drama and pathos Stanley Kubrick wrung out of just a camera lens singing a song in 2001: A Space Odyssey--"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true"). 

"Forget it, it's just a movie," defenders might say. I have to agree, it's only too easy to forget this picture; you just have to clear your mind of all expectations, slacken your jaw, let the saliva accumulate on your lap. Wanna see the true legacy of this movie? Watch all the people coming out of the theaters with two hours of their lives snipped out, not a single new thought or idea having formed in their heads during that time period. Yes, watching this movie you experience no worries; you experience no growth, either. Keep on droning, fans.

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper's The King's Speech might seem like yet another comfortably likeable comedy about those crazy British royals; it bends too far backwards in its attempt to ignore all the important figures and dramatic occurrences that surrounded King George VI's reign, the better to emphasize his triumph (King Edward VIII's abdication in favor of a divorced woman, for instance; and Winston Churchill's far better-known (and far more crucial) role in bolstering British morale ("We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets"). It offers an ultimately benign view of the Royal Family (arguably Britain's--and the world's--longest running reality series) and, as such, presents few valid reasons for existing at all, other than as entertainment one might label "Mostly Harmless."

But there's more, thankfully; the film's heart can be found in the sessions between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his Australian therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Hooper stages these as largely chamber pieces, a duet between two actors on chairs in a room, and little else (the pattern is repeated in Westminister Abbey--actors, chairs, and little else--to an even more dramatically stark effect).

It's in these moments that the picture's best reason for being emerges: not because George VI was crucial to victory against the Nazis, but because he wasn't. The story isn't so much a nationwide triumph for the British as it is a personal one for Bertie (affectionate nickname for George VI), the poor, left-handed, knock-kneed child of George V (the intimidating Michael Gambon, whose very presence and booming voice makes the son's stammer understandable, if not inevitable). If someone so physically and spiritually timid can overcome his limitations, the movie seems to say, then so can we--the real reason, I suspect, the movie has resonated with so many viewers.  

True Grit

The Coen Brothers' True Grit is yet another crowd-pleaser in the No Country for Old Men mode; unlike that movie, I think this is a better fit--no ostensibly profound message meant, no pall of doom hovering over the characters, or at least no pall heavier than what you find in Westerns nowadays.

I like the Coens when they do period; they tend to come off as being warmer, more stylized, and it gives their chilly sense of humor a considerably more human aspect, as if they feel more indulgent viewing the follies of humans past than they do the follies of humans present (the two notable exceptions to this being Fargo (which had Mrs. Joel Coen in a lead role--make of that what you will), and the aforementioned No Country (a Western by default, not to mention a Cormac McCarthy novel)).

But the Coens do this one straight, with perhaps the most consistent Coen twist being that practically every character suffers from an apparently irresistible need to talk to each other to death. This isn't an unpleasant thing no; it's actually a pleasure to hear, oh, Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld try outlast each other verbally, their cadences working up and down the scale as if the words were being read from the King James Bible (which as a matter of fact a good chunk of them are).

I love it that the film is cut to an older rhythm, that of Ford and Hawks (or at least Eastwood); that the promise of a Wide, Wild West shot by Roger Deakins is left largely frustrated--the story takes place in woody, hilly Arkansas--except for a few glorious shots of Cogburn riding across the horizon (their snow scenes, however, are softly, hauntingly rendered). I love it that the final ride has the fairy-tale qualities of Charles Laughton's great Night of the Hunter--as in that film, half-asleep children race against death across a dreamlike landscape that is both tender and menacing. 

The Town

Ben Affleck's The Town is a heist film, or at least a Boston crime film. It's not a great crime film--it doesn't have the magisterial clarity of Michael Mann's Heat, it doesn't have the mercurial intensity and humor of Scorsese's The Departed, it doesn't have (if we're talking great here) the geometric precision and ruthlessness of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing

What it does have, however, is a deeply rooted sense of place, and community, of a people Affleck has known and lived with all his life.

He gives himself the lead role here, and in that he may have been a touch too self-indulgent--Affleck heroic is Affleck at his most conventional; when he directs his brother (as he did in Gone Baby Gone) he's free to give the protagonist all the ambivalent shadings the character can bear; here he is in full-on heroic mode, and the lines of morality, of right and wrong, are a touch too clearly drawn to achieve true ambiguity. The film, in effect, is a requiem, when it should really be an anatomy--a breaking apart and laying out and cold-hearted analysis of a tragedy. Too bad, nice try, looking forward to seeing his next work.