Sunday, February 27, 2011

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

One of the rare unsettling images from the movie
Ninety three minutes

Danny Boyle's lifelong ambition to make films tailored for those afflicted with ADHD continues with 127 Hours (2010). The movie is ostensibly about a rock climber / adventurer named Aron Ralston who finds his right arm pinned to a rock at the bottom of a narrow canyon for five days--but don't let the plot summaries fool you. This is yet another occasion for Boyle to rip loose, hurtle his camera down one narrow crevasse after another, give you a bad case of vertigo even while the hero stands stock still in an uncomfortable position, all this time pining away for the bottle of Gatorade he unknowingly left in the back seat of his parked vehicle.

I don't know what it is about Boyle's bouncy, music-video style that grates so; maybe because it so rarely melds well with the material he so often takes up. Zombies with their supernatural serenity--so eerie in the hands of George Romero--in his hands turns into far less interesting blood-infecting savages (28 Days Later, 2002); romantic comedies with attractive lovers (Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz) aren't allowed much time to relax and generate any romance, much less comedy (A Life Less Ordinary, 1997); and while the style in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) does dovetail quite neatly with how Indian musicals look and sound and feel like nowadays, maybe it dovetails a little too neatly. One wonders: why bother watching an overproduced British imitation of a Mumbai musical when you can easily rent the real thing from a neighborhood Asian grocery store (with far more singing and dancing, at that)? Only with Trainspotting (1996) did I think there was a perfect union of substance and sensibility--in effect, Boyle's sense of pacing and imagery most closely resembles that of a heroin addict, who immediately suffers withdrawal symptoms if he can't get his fifteen-minute head rush.

So like I said: man with right arm trapped beneath a rock, but you wouldn't know it from the way Boyle directs the picture. Objects and animals hurtle across the sky like a twenty-four hour video screen; Ralston goes into more flashbacks than an episode of Family Guy. Boyle seems so frightened of boring people to death with the situation of a man with arm pinned under a rock that he cannot give us the physical reality of a man with arm actually pinned under a rock. There's too many interesting things going on at the corner of the eye or behind his back or careening overhead or roiling inside Ralston's skull--a full daily schedule, from the look of it--for us to believe that he suffered much deprivation or boredom. I've had a far more wearisome time doing a double shift, and I can walk around at work; unlike Boyle, I don't have a twenty-four hour video screen running at the back of my eyeballs.

James Franco gives it his all in this picture, and who wouldn't? You're not just the lead, you're practically the whole picture, for great swathes of the running time (at one point the hero stages his own impromptu talk show, complete with annoying guests and audience sound effects). It's the kind of performance that wins a slew of Hollywood awards (you know, those gold-plated statuettes they hand out every year to congratulate themselves on their artistry), the kind of show-stopping physical suffering that inspires Academy members to put their votes behind a man (this year, actually, a woman: Natalie Portman's nearly two-hour nonstop freakout in Black Swan, complete with (some whisper) her own ballet dancing (gasp!) and Grand Guignol fingernail clipping is considered the frontrunner favorite). Franco, despite the warm reception by critics, is not a frontrunner: I suppose he made the mistake of going too far, attempting to trade his right forearm for one of those damned doorstops, and on camera at that.

To be honest, I can't fault Franco--he's just an element, albeit a crucial one; I can't even fault the story, which is what it is, take it or leave it. I do wonder how the whole thing might have turned out if they chose someone else to direct--Werner Herzog, for one. He might have added a touch of mysticism to this portrait of cruel, implacable nature, and a good deal more humor; he would probably have had a more clear-eyed and less romantic view of the protagonist (think of Grizzly Man (2005)). I don't imagine Herzog would be any less exploitative, but his exploitation tactics would at least be more cunning (I'm thinking of the scene where Herzog, instead of playing to us the tape of Timothy Treadwell's death at the hands of a grizzly, listened to the tape himself and allowed us only a running commentary--which whetted our curiosity all the more). His surrealism would have been more genuinely insane, at least (Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) anyone?), would look like no other director's--unlike this one, which calls to mind Tony Scott or Alan Parker on hallucinogens--mild ones, at that.

But Boyle took it, Boyle made it, and here we are, stuck with it. By movie's end, you may want to claw at your own hand to get away--ninety minutes of Boyle's in-and-all-over-your-face style has that kind of effect on some people.

First published in Businessworld, 2.10.11

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar hoo-hah: Black Swan and True Grit

About as far as I'm willing to go with these glorified Golden Doorstops--a pair of articles:

With a side of ham

Joel and Ethan Coen's movies are such regulars now and greeted with so much anticipation it's almost impossible not to feel let-down or bewildered or defensive or have some kind of startled reaction when you do finally watch the finished product--in this case, a second adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name.

It's the Coen's most straightforward work yet--a story told simply and faithfully, with minimum snickering and little sideways commentary on the stupidity of the various characters. There's also little of the Coen's usual visual pyrotechnics, or their narrative tricks, or the little side jokes they like to insert into their pictures (one of my favorite being their claim that O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was based on Homer's The Odyssey (it's about as faithful an adaptation as Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) was of George Orwell's 1984--in effect, very loosely).

It tells the story of one Mattie Foster (part-Filipino actress Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was shot by one of his workers, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in a role first played by John Wayne in 1969) to hunt Chaney down; a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Dillon) later joins the oddball posse.

The Henry Hathaway version was a vehicle for The Duke, and it worked; Wayne won his first and only golden doorstop for Best Actor. The Coens in actually reading the Portis novel (there's doubt that they ever cracked open a volume of The Odyssey) give the narrative reins back to Mattie, where it belongs, and this version benefits from her sepia-tinted reading--like hearing a scratchy audio recording of the last remaining survivor of the Civil War.

That's the key to enjoying this film, I think--the novel's leisurely, singular voice. You get some indications of it in Hathaway's film, mostly from Kim Darby (Wayne, of course, was Wayne--rambling, easygoing, indisputably sui generis), but the Coens turn it into a symphony of Southern voices, from LeBeouf's Texas drawl to Mattie's rural Arkansas, with the old Mattie's voice coming out clearest. It's the voice of a true Presbyterian, whose language is spoken with the precision of a speaker long practiced in the rhythm and intonations of the Old Testament, and whose syntax seems to grow out of a 19th century translation of the Hebrew text. More than the sets or the clothes or Roger Deakin's magnificent cinematography, Mattie's old-school style of talking drives home the remoteness of the time period from which she speaks.

That syntax is also key to Mattie's character. Hailee Steinfeld plays her not as an angry child wishing revenge for the death of her father or as some smart-aleck prodigy flexing her hyperintelligent muscles but as a rural bible-thumper, steeped in the morality of Abraham and Moses, demanding an eye for an eye--no more, no less--and implacable in her determination to accomplish this, come what may. Mattie's frankly unsettling will is what sets her apart from the rest; she's aware of this and anyone who comes into contact with her is quickly made aware of this; Cogburn is at first amused by it, then gradually learns to respect it; LeBeouf is initially affronted, then gradually attracted. Character is all in this particular Coen film (the brothers often allow their actors to slip into caricature), and from this sense of character comes much of the film's comedy, warmth, and eventual high drama.

Yes, the film is told straight; no, this isn't the first time the Coens have tried playing it straight. They did it once before, and once before they have reaped Oscar gold, with a crucial difference: No Country for Old Men, from Cormac McCarthy's novel, feels almost top-heavy with its gloomy tone and endless meditations on mortality and meaninglessness (that's not entirely the Coen's fault; McCarthy's novel has this heaped high and just about falling over); Portis seems to acknowledge the violence and bleakness of his characters' lives without denying them the near-defiant humor that sustains them through all that hardscrabble. The Coens bring that tone, bleakness and dry wit and all, to the big screen, and locates most of it in Steinfeld's performance and Elizabeth Marvel's (as the forty year old Mattie) voiceover.

Jeff Bridges to his credit plays Cogburn with no hint of fear or intimidation; given that he has more to play with than Wayne did opposite his Mattie, he manages to step up admirably, and make of himself a suitable foil, drunken long-windedness and all. Damon is amusing as the vain LeBeouf; and Brolin as Chaney eventually reveals himself to be a weak-willed slug whose main faults are his bad luck and lack of self-control.

I'd mentioned Deakin's camerawork. He'd done westerns before, capturing the vast horizons of the Texas-Mexico border, but this film is set in Arkansas (or as close to Arkansas as the brothers could manage) and it's full of grasslands, high hills, and chilly winter forests--a somewhat unexpected but still distinctive, still memorable look.

The climactic rescue is fascinating--much closer to the book, definitely, but (please skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film) Cogburn's long ride to take the injured Mattie to safety has the stylized, fairy-tale nightmare feel of the latter half of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955)--why, I'm not sure. Partly I think it's cementing the link between Mattie and Cogburn; partly it's establishing Cogburn's stature in Mattie's fevered mind--he's saving her life, and he's already killed a horse to do so. It sets up the mournful tone of the final sequences and it adds to the film's magnified feel. Which brings us to the final irony in this film made by filmmakers known for their sense of irony--in doing their most straightforward work, the Coens may have taken their surest shot yet, and possibly hit the bulls' eye.

Release your inner swan!

YES! FOR 24.99 PLUS TAX AND DELIVERY YOU CAN OWN YOUR VERY OWN COPY OF DARREN ARONOFSKY'S THE BLACK SWAN! GUARANTEED TO HAVE YOU PULLING ON A TUTU AND SPROUTING YOUR OWN FEATHERS OR YOUR MONEY BACK! Results may vary; do not watch while operating heavy machinery; do not take alcohol or other controlled substances while viewing; may cause hallucinations, skin rash, and extreme eye redness. Pretty much the impression Aronofsky's latest slasher gave me when I saw it on the big screen.

Oh, it isn't a serial-killer movie? Could have fooled me. Aronofsky's everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking has him swinging the aforementioned plumbing fixture over his head in a threatening manner from the very start; the camera plunges forward and we see dewy-fresh, virginal Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman's), every pore in gigantic close-up, and already you note (that's her entire face stretched all over the big screen, how can you not fail to note?) that she's trembling, sweat popping out on her forehead, capillaries swelling across the whites of her eyeballs (a little sex might go a long way to relaxing her, you think, and of course Aronofsky reads your mind and makes you thoroughly regret that stray idea). We are talking grab-the-straitjacket-get-me-25-cc-Thorazine-stet-bugout-crazy here, and she hasn't even really started to crack up; that comes later.

Not even talking about the movie's real crazy: Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother Erica Sayer is an unholy mashup of Rosalind Russell's Rose Hovick and Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, only instead of wielding wire hangers this stage mother flashes nail scissors. In perhaps the movie's one truly frightening scene, Hershey spots ugly scratch marks on Portman's shoulder, accuses her of causing them with her overlong fingernails, snatches Portman's hand, picks up a pair of nail scissors, and to the refrain of Portman's anguished gasps starts snipping away--far too closely cut, of course. Fade to black, a rare moment of restraint on Aronofsky's part, though hardly original (Roman Polanski did a similar flinch-inducing scene in his 1965 film Repulsion, from which Aronofsky stole a mere truckload of ideas).

Yes, the plot--there is one, though again, you could have fooled me. Nina's been picked to play the Swan Queen in brilliant ballet director Thomas Leroy's new production of Swan Lake, his choice over aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who hysterically accuses poor Nina of sleeping with the director, then promptly does a high jete in front of an onrushing car. Beth spends the rest of the picture recovering from her shattered limbs in a hospital, when she isn't popping up here and there in an attempt (hysterical, of course) to scare Nina to death.

But that's just the menace of the old; Nina's feels even more threatened by the new, represented by Lila (Mila Kunis), an equally young, equally promising ballerina from San Francisco who apparently isn't as sexually repressed, who manages to get along with the other dancers better, who apparently is sleeping with Thomas. Then there's the suggestion that Nina's having hallucinations, that she's cracking under the strain, that she is literally turning into a swan, complete with red eyes, black feathers, and goose-pimply skin. Michael Powell meet David Cronenberg; let's have naked lunch sometime.

There's been much talk and praise for Portman in this picture, that she trained to do most of her ballet steps herself. Wonderful dedication but in my book largely misplaced, since Aronofsky with every frame makes sure we don't notice her dancing so much as we notice her eye-twitching, lip-smacking, scenery-chewing intensity. Perhaps the movie's most impressive effect is Aronofsky having Portman stay over-the-top lunatic for a full hundred minutes, to the point that when the skin on her bare shoulder starts to sprout feathers, you don't even bat an eye; you've been rendered numb to that effect, no matter how well done, about twenty minutes before (that said, there was one unintended result: her goose-pimply shoulder so resembles the gleaming sheen of a Chinese restaurant's roasted goose-skin it made my mouth water--a little hoisin sauce on the side and I might have dove straight at the big screen).

Hershey's Erica doesn't help; she's a fright wig and kitchen knife shy of stalking her apartment rooms, calling out "Nina? Nina?" Aronofsky in his 2000 picture Requiem for a Dream proved he can take some of the finest actresses out there--Ellen Burstyn, who was wonderful in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and even James Gray's The Yards (1999)--and reduce them to a screaming, throbbing, shrieking pile of shameless exhibitionism. He takes the hint of menace Ryder suggested in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993)--that superb scene where she approaches her husband like a vampire its prey--and draws out a full-blown psychopath stalker, complete with nail-file dagger and the magic ability to pop out at the most inconvenient moments. Only Vincent Cassel as Thomas seems to have escaped Aronofsky's clutches, walking insouciantly away with the picture tucked firmly in his pocket (Thomas has great fun tormenting Nina, not to mention getting to squeeze her pork buns).

I'm tempted to call Aronofsky a destroyer of careers, only he seems to have revived Mickey Rourke's (again)--his The Wrestler (2008) for all its excesses is his most relatively restrained, and hence most easily likable. Rourke displays a mileage no amount of makeup can simulate, and there's a magnificence to his doomed trajectory that even Aronofsky can't seem to spoil, no matter how hard he tries (virgins scared of sex on the other hand only make me giggle).

Might as well put out the fairly well-known fact that Aronofsky's director of photography Matthew Libatique is a Filipino-American, and what I've seen of his work in Aronofsky's films it's impressive--he's not afraid to work with digital special effects, and while the results might not totally redeem the digitized nature of the effects (to be honest I really can't think of a cinematographer or filmmaker able to do this), you can see the attempt to bring lyricism to a binary-based viewpoint. I did love his work when little or no digital effects are involved--the dark, claustrophobic look of Spike Lee's Inside Man (2005) comes to mind--and wish I could appreciate more, but Aronofsky has this tendency to cut the life out of the footage he works with. Difficult to appreciate camerawork when the editing snips everything into visual mush.

I mentioned Cronenberg; I mentioned Polanski; I really should mention Michael Powell, only the incongruity of naming him in the same breath as Aronofsky keeps laying me low with fits of laughter. Cronenberg knows how to film horror; he does so with the calm thoroughness of a pornographer shooting a couple's genitals--you want the camera steady and lighting clinically bright, to capture all the details. More, you want the tone of dispassionate professionalism, the better to freak your audience out with. His films are like his onscreen bedside manner (Cronenberg has played surgeons before): scalpel upraised, gray eyes looking straight at you, calm voice murmuring "This won't hurt a bit." It's the incongruity between his reassuring manner and the less-than-reassuring images that Aronofsky needs, badly.

I mentioned Polanski's Repulsion as a direct influence--Polanski was smart enough to know that it's difficult to create a sense of encroaching insanity when your heroine's life is too busy (too many people watching), so he isolated his in an apartment, where she could crack up at her leisure. It's a masterpiece of its kind, though I thought Polanski did himself one better with Rosemary's Baby (1968) where the heroine is confined or limited not by some kind of arbitrary schizophrenia but by the swelling fact of her pregnancy--her increasing paranoia and sense of isolation enhanced not by a self-enforced isolation, but by deliberate conspiracy, or her suspicions of one. If Aronofsky wanted to suggest madness he needed not more shrieks, but more silence.

Finally, Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (1948). Brilliant ballet movie--not just the filmmaking, but the way it captures a ballet company's group dynamics (the camaraderie, the backstage love affairs, the tantrums and petty jealousies). In his staging of the eponymous ballet Powell gets at the delirium great art can sometimes induce, the stage bursting its boundaries to become something more than a stage, the ballet taking flight to become something more than a ballet. In his direction of Moira Shearer's Vicky he gets under her skin (without being so all-out literal as to actually dive subcutaneously) and shows us what both the aforementioned delirium and the prospect of life with the man she loves mean to her, exactly. When she's confronted with a decision to make (Anton Walbrook's Boris Lermontov at her side, whispering; "Sorrow will pass, believe me; life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before!") you know enough to realize just what she's going through, just what she's giving up if she chooses one over the other. You're in her shoes, in effect, the anguish tearing you apart.

Again, what Aronofsky needs--not so much the morphing effects of ballet (roasted gooseskin!), but its allure, its capacity for transcendence, such that you understand how an artist is tempted to sacrifice his or her life on this particular altar, to this particular god. Black Swan is fun, I enjoyed it; I laughed throughout much of it. Can't say I respect it though, and I certainly don't consider it a work of art.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Three by Nora: 'Merika (Gil Portes), Condemned, Bulaklak sa City Jail (both by Mario O'Hara)

(Note: re-posted, refurbished, and re-styled for the For The Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, this year raising funds for the restoration of The Sound of Fury.)

Three faces of Nora

Gil Portes' 'Merika (1984) opens the same way any ordinary life will usually open--in the morning, in bed. But Mila (Nora Aunor) can't seem to get out of bed; she can't seem to bring herself to touch the icy floor with her feet, or brave the chill air beyond her room. She has to sit there, shivering, her comforter wrapped around her like protective coating.

Portes films the story in frozen weather and I think the decision is deliberate, brilliant even. Jersey City (where much of the picture was shot) can take on the unfriendly look of an anonymous urban population center and at no time is it more anonymous or more unfriendly than during the wintertime. There's plenty of sun but it's a weak sun, a pale sun, with rays that can barely warm the fingers, much less melt all the ice. This is a cold city, cold people, cold country--to even touch someone or glimpse his face you need to free the people from their layers of scarves, mufflers, sweaters and long sleeves before you reach human skin.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)

It's not easy being Green

Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet has taken such a pummeling from critics I was ready to take a raincoat to the theaters, in anticipation of the deluge of garbage I'd been warned will descend on me from the movie screen. Brought rubber boots and an umbrella too, just in case; hunched down in my seat, and waited for the abuse to begin; and waited, and waited. And waited.

Mind you, the movie is not as prodigiously beautiful as Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik! or as hydrochlorically caustic as Tim Burton's Batman Returns or as waywardly lyrical as Robert Altman's Popeye; this was not some titanically idiosyncratic artist taking a popular genre and transmuting it with his inimitable storytelling style into a popular work of art that is fabulous and supple and unique, sometimes all three at once. Call it a well-meaning project that went horribly wrong, then somehow, some way, went right, in  a horrible way (Mary Shelley's classic novel still has currency, especially in the hothouse climate of modern-day Hollywood).  

Gondry has a definite style, but as shown in his previous work he needs an intellectually rigorous and equally imaginative writer to inspire him--Charles Kaufman, basically. His Human Nature (which Kaufman wrote)--about emotionally unstable scientists struggling to tame and train a human being raised as an ape--was disturbing and funny and sad; his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also written by Kaufman)--about a woman who decides to artificially wipe all her memories of her true love--is all that taken to a more deliriously surreal level (the film, incidentally, is one of many examples that demonstrate one does not have to completely depend on logic or linear causality to create a thriller sequence). Left to his own devices (and script), he's capable of a Science of Sleep, where the imagery is gently dreamlike but the picture itself seems ready to blow away with the wind (the movie lacks Kaufman's ability to take an outlandish proposition (man raised as an ape, memories erased as if on magnetic tape) and weigh said proposition down with his endless thoughts on life, art, women).

Easy to say the worst thing ever to happen to this long-troubled project (it started out as a George Clooney vehicle) is Seth Rogen. Rogen comes with his own emotional and thematic baggage, a self-conscious slacker steeped in the pop culture of the '90s and determined to feed his own man-child sense of self-importance--if he's successful, I'd say that's because he mirrors every ambitious slacker's dream to make a hit comedy about his libidinous search for sex and approval. A Rogen project, now that he's a successful writer-producer-star, is a project all about Rogen, and the actor was apparently determined to shape Gondry's production to his own specifications. Director and star seem headed for a showdown, a clash of sensibilities--if not in real life, then on the big screen.

Only the results aren't that bad. Gondry loves throwing us odd moments, unexpected images, narrative detours; Rogen likes to improvise, deviate from script, deliver the unexpected. Rogen is particularly steeped in superhero lore, especially superhero movie lore; he loves taking what we expect and love from the Batman, Superman, Spider-man and what-not, pile it all up high, pour gasoline over the untidy heap, and toss a lit match in. Gondry photographs the unholy mess in a relatively straightforward if lustrous manner, save for the occasional baroque flourish--a sequence, for example, where word is sent out that there is a million-dollar prize on the Hornet's head. A woman tells another, the screen splits accordingly; the two tell two others, the number of screens double into four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four; so on and so forth in one apparent take, 'ad delirium.'

That's Gondry's contribution; Rogen's is to imagine every wise-ass question everyone asked of the TV show and answer them as thoroughly as possible. Hence: "Why if Kato's smarter and more kick-ass than the Hornet doesn't he try and take over?" Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) not only tries to take over operations, he goes for Lenore (Cameron Diaz), the Hornet's rather expendable love interest (think of Robin trying to date Catwoman, or of Jimmy Olsen making time with Lois Lane behind Superman's back).

Chou has a nice physicality (aided not a little by judicious editing and the odd camera angle). If the movie has a flaw, Chou might be it--he's a pretty face and all, but his chemistry with Rogen is strictly limited, he being strictly eye candy (I'd loved to have seen what original choice Stephen Chow might have done with the role). Christoph Waltz, so memorable in Inglourious Basterds (in my opinion the only one there, alas) does better as the neurotic Chudnofsky, who worries about his suit and hair and wonders (in a funny scene with an uncredited James Franco) if he's frightening enough.

This is basically Rogen's party, though, and for once I'm with him. Knocked Up was a Rogen fantasy about impregnating a hot babe; Superbad was basically a Rogen fantasy about teenage friendship--too much Rogen-ish self-regard for my taste, overall. Here Rogen is confronted with a mythology and protagonist already fully formed and, almost petulantly, proceeds to pick him apart. It asks the single most pointed question in the movie--"what good is the Hornet anyway?"--and his answer is both logical and at the same time perversely true to the formula of the original series (a hint: Rogen makes a cogent case for the idea that the Hornet is the Inspector Clouseau of superheroes).

So--Gondry and Rogen actually making a visually and conceptually interesting movie? I think so. Am I nuts? You decide. Me, I'll just sit back, relax, watch the Hornet and Kato kick the living crap out of each other. Beats, I'm betting, having to endure the onanistic solemnity of Christopher Nolan's newest Batman movie.

First published in Businessworld, 1.20.11

Gulliver's Travels (Rob Letterman)

Gulliver's travesty

I can see the appeal of making a Gulliver's Travels for the kiddies--that, for better or worse, is the most common way of attacking this material. Average guy finds himself marooned on an island with tiny men, and animals, and buildings. It's the ancient fantasy, indulged in hundreds, even thousands of years of modelmaking, of toy houses, of playing with costumed, articulated dolls (sorry--action figures): in effect, to be a giant loose in a world of small stature, the Big Man in a tiny town.