Monday, May 30, 2011

You Don't Know Jack (Barry Levinson, 2010)

Al Pacino as the Angel of Death

Angel of death

No doubt Barry Levinson's HBO original feature You Don't Know Jack is liable to divide audiences clearly along political and cultural lines, the very name of Jack Kevorkian did the same; so did--and still does--the issue of assisted suicide.

Too bad; whether you're pro or con on the issue, the film's an entertaining striptease that attempts to ask the question "Who is Jack Kevorkian?" The question's approached obliquely, from an angle; approached the way Kevorkian seems to approach any major decision in his life--with plenty of seemingly random shuffling and mumbling and offhand observations that he somehow pulls together in a coherent whole. Whether you're pro or con on the issue, you have to admit this is an excellent sales job on the man who in many ways incarnated that issue.

It helps that Levinson shoots matter-of-fact footage that seems to capture Kevorkian either going about the business of his own life, or helping others end theirs, then assembles that footage in a manner and rhythm that is both lively and distinct. One thinks of TV (Levinson produced the Homicide series, and directed a few episodes himself) and how fleet-footed and casual it can be (shooting for TV can take as little as a few weeks, compared to a few months for a film); one also thinks of the odd rhythms of jazz, and how the film seems to be cut to a syncopated beat (apparently Kevorkian loves not just Bach, but jazz music, and Levinson seems to be channeling that). If anything, it's a pleasure to see how much Levinson has grown since the early days when he made small character-driven pictures (Diner (1982)), to the big-budgeted, rather boring Hollywood productions (The Natural (1984), Rain Man (1988), Disclosure (1994)) to his later, leaner TV work. Wouldn't call him a distinctive stylist, but he's wonderful with actors, and he does have this recognizable street sensibility that keeps this film grounded, gritty, real.

It helps to have the cast of characters that he has--John Goodman as a steady Neal Nicol, Kevorkian's medical supply man; Brenda Vaccaro as the occasionally fiery Margo Janus, Kevorkian's sister and staunch supporter; Susan Sarandon as Janet Good, founder of the Hemlock Society (a right-to-die group), assistant, and later patient (she tells Kevorkian she has pancreatic cancer and wants to choose her moment of passing). It's a quietly talented group particularly Goodman, who deftly fills out his character with texture and detail, without calling undue attention to himself (he plays out his moments, leaves it at that).

Central to the whole project is Pacino, and while it's difficult not to see the visage of Michael Corleone grinning malevolently at us from the promotional poster (the real Kevorkian was more like a somewhat frail grandfather) on film he carries the role with casual ease--the rather distinctive accent (one thinks of the Minneapolis Midwestern lilt in the Coen Brothers' Fargo (1996)) that is heard most clearly when he's stressed; the fuddy-duddy mannerisms that charm casual observers until the man gets his ire up; the flash of steely resolve when he's backed into a corner and refuses to budge. His Kevorkian isn't monumental, career-defining acting but it's meticulous work, and it succeeds in persuading us that we're witness to a human being being carefully unveiled (hence, presumably, the title).

Levinson doesn't try to be evenhanded; you can tell from the get-go that the film is sympathetic to Kevorkian's cause. He doesn't try to whitewash Kevorkian's fall--with his matter-of-fact manner and unblinking camera lens he records Kevorkian insistence on a showdown with anti-suicide groups, forcing a showdown in court, and how the man gradually and thoroughly shoots himself in the foot while trying to defend himself. The judge looks on with painful dismay; even she has to shake her head at the enormity of Kevorkian's blunders.

As for the very issue of assisted suicide...Kevorkian in an intimate moment tells Janet of how his mother described her bone cancer: "imagine the worse toothache in the world, then imagine it coming from every bone in your body." I've had my share of bad toothaches, and I'd like to say I'm willing to stick it out in the face of news that I have bone cancer--but what I'd like to say and what I'm actually going to say when the moment comes and keeps coming for months are very possibly two different things. I'm Catholic; I believe in the sanctity of life, I believe that suicide is the one unforgivable sin--but it's one thing to declare your belief, another to back it up with actual experience; one thing to believe in a principle, another to try actually force my views on others, particularly as a law. I like to think I can answer for myself when it comes to my own demise; everyone else, I'd say that's their decision to make.

Published in Businessworld, 5.19.11

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)

 Bromance with a British accent
The rain in Spain

Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is basically a fairy tale, in more ways than one.

There’s the similarities to the Pygmalion legend, and even more marked similarities to George Bernard Shaw’s play (I’ll stop short of the Lerner and Lowe musical). When you think about it, the stakes run higher in Hooper’s screenplay (which also started out as a stage play) -- Eliza Doolittle was a whole and complete (if a touch unsatisfied) woman of the lower classes whose speech fitted her social status perfectly. In the case of ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth), as close friends and family called him, he’s in line to be king of Great Britain but his stammer stands as a huge, insurmountable obstacle on his path towards being an effective leader.

So Bertie visits a speech therapist, frustrated theater actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush); like Shaw’s Henry Higgins, Logue pokes, prods, and all-around provokes Bertie to blossoming into an eloquent if slightly unsteady speaker. No, we do not have a “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” moment -- Logue achieves small breakthroughs a number of times, usually by means of psychological trickery -- and we definitely do not have a “I could have danced all night” moment; unlike Shaw, or Lerner and Lowe, or for that matter the original myth on which Shaw based his play, Lionel and Bertie develops something more like an unspoken bromance than any conventional attraction, much less full-fledged passion (that would have been an interesting if distracting direction to go).

But there’s another sense in which this film is like a fairy tale: it fudges liberally the facts, soft-pedals the depiction of several people, and in at least one case does a 180° turn on the position of a crucial character.

Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) was more than just a divorcee-smitten king with a troubling interest in Nazism; he was an active sympathizer who spent his honeymoon in the Third Reich, was apparently willing to rule as king under Nazi rule should the Allies lose the war, and was eventually farmed out to the Bahamas because it was thought he’d do the least harm there.

Likewise, Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, a physically odd choice for the role) did not as shown on the big screen favor Edward’s abdication but in fact resisted it, being a close friend of the man. Churchill made speeches at the House of Commons (“almost certainly heavily intoxicated,” suggests columnist Christopher Hitchens, who cites Churchill biographer William Manchester) defending Edward, at the same time jeopardizing his hard-fought political cause of warning England about the growing danger of Hitler.

Overall, the “Politics of Appeasement” pursued by Neville Chamberlain with the support of the royal family has been severely simplified, with some details omitted, possibly to retain the audiences’ sympathy towards Bertie and his immediate family (Edward comes off less well, but we are probably being asked to look at him as the prodigal son who adds color and the whiff of scandal to an apparently stolid family).

Beyond the politics it’s difficult to fault the film; what worked for Shaw and Lerner & Lowe certainly works for Tom Hooper: he focuses on the emotional core of the picture, the teacher-pupil relationship between Lionel and Bertie (with some side melodrama from the self-obsessed Duke of Windsor).

Many of the film’s scenes, and indeed much of the key dialogue take place mainly between the two men, often in Lionel’s study. Yes, this does give away the script’s theatrical roots; at the same time Hooper manages to turn the image into the film’s motif: two men in a room, a few chairs, props, and little else, working out their differences and coming to some kind of mutual understanding. Hooper works variations on this image, at one point expanding the space into the vast vaulted reaches of Westminster Abbey, one of the chairs becoming the Coronation Throne; later we have Bertie standing inside a heavily tented studio (for the acoustics, presumably), delivering the eponymous speech to a microphone. Whatever the size of the space (study, studio, Abbey), whatever the props at hand (chair, throne, microphone), the basic elements stay the same: two men in a room, attempting communication.

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a newspaper reporter declares “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Hooper does that, but it would be smart not to totally forget the facts -- a movie isn’t a history text, but could serve as inspiration for further research, maybe a sequel (King’s Speech 2: Losing Bertie's Lisp).

Maybe this picture’s success could lead to another, less simplistic one, a focus on Great Britain’s appeasement policy and why they pursued it so persistently (basically, the Britons believed that if they entered into yet another worldwide war it would be the end of their empire -- and they were right). Sure, print the legend, but try not to forget that it’s just legend, after all.

First published in Businessworld, 5.12.11

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

34th Gawad Urian Winners

Production art for Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Eleuteria's Dream), the Urian Best Picture winner

To clarify: I don't believe in awards; if it were up to me, I'd have everyone draw up a list and post those lists on a website (let a hundred flowers bloom).

But awards are a good promotional tool, and heaven knows Filipino films are underpromoted.

So, in the spirit of, I don't know, fellowship and all--

BEST PICTURE - And Damgo ni Eleuteria
BEST DIRECTOR - Remton Siega Zuasola (Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria)
BEST SCREENPLAY - Arnel Mardoquio (Sheika)
BEST ACTOR - Sid Lucero (Muli)
BEST ACTRESS - Fe GingGing Hyde (Sheika)
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY - Christian Linaban (Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria)
BEST EDITING - Willie Apa, Jr. and Arthur Ian Garcia (Sheika)
BEST MUSIC - Jerrold Tarog (Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria)
BEST SOUND - Dempster Samarista (Limbunan)
BEST SHORT FILM - Wag Kang Titingin by Pam Miras
BEST DOCUMENTARY - Kano: An American and His Harem by Monster Jimenez

NATATANGING GAWAD URIAN (Lifetime Achievement Awardee) - Jose "Pete" Lacaba

GAWAD URIAN AKTRES NG DEKADA - Gina Pareno and Cherry Pie Picache

PELIKULA NG DEKADA - Tuhog (2000), Batang Westside (2001), Babae Sa Breakwater (2003), Magnifico (2003), Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004), Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros (2005), Kubrador (2006), Serbis (2008), Kinatay (2009), Lola (2009)

Some notes:
Pete Lacaba's award is much deserved and long overdue--but even better would be a new project for him to work on.

Many of the winners are independent digital film productions-- which I'd say goes to show that the independent film scene is the most creative and vital segment of the industry.

Thought John Sayles Amigo was an odd choice - but the film is apparently a Filipino co-production. 

Wondered what happened to Mario O'Hara's Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, which I thought terrific, or John Torres' Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen like Revolutions in a Song)? But I haven't seen those that were nominated either, and am hardly qualified to judge. 

I have seen a good chunk of the Best of the Decade titles; where applicable, I have linked an article to the title. My own list would have looked somewhat different--but this is theirs, of course; I can't change it, only disagree, somewhat, agree for the most part.

Congratulations to the winners!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) (revised 5.15.11)

Bloody hell

(Revised 5.15.11)

Finally got to see Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009). Apologize for the two-year delay; I can only say said delay was partly due to life getting in the way, partly due to technical difficulties...

Finally got to see the film, finally can directly respond to Roger Ebert's plaintive declaration that this is "the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival" by saying: Mr. Ebert--grow up.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)

A terse image from Monte Hellman's far more eloquent film

The crass and the ludicrous

Coming into a The Fast and the Furious movie expecting a tight script, good characterization and logical storytelling's like settling down to a long sit on a toilet bowl and expecting perfume, flowers, classical music. Not going to happen.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011)

Arthur (the original) at his bath

Shrunken, not stirred

Steve Gordon's Arthur (1981) was an unlikely triumph--a comedy about a drunken millionaire deft enough to pilfer your approval, perhaps even a little sympathy (drunks and millionaires sympathetic?). It took inspiration from P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves escapades, added a dollop of '30s screwball, and brought the whole unlikely concoction up-to-date with some choice profanity and '80s sensibility (New York, for one, is recognizably from the Ed Koch era).

It helps to have a scintillatingly comic cast. There's Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, fresh off his success in Blake Edward's 10 (1979), doing the equivalent of ninety minutes of standup with deceptive ease ("Don't you wish you were me? I know I do."), the diametrical opposite of what, say, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies was doing (the joke with Inspector Clouseau was that he was a perfectly serious detective that everyone found funny; the joke with Arthur was that he was a perfectly pickled comedian that no one found funny). 

Moore's foil, of course, is John Gielgud's Hobson, the string to his helium balloon, the tart lemon juice to his fizzy champagne; where Arthur howled with laughter, Hobson sniffed disapproval and punctured Arthur's exuberance with an acerbic riposte, made contemporary with an obscenity or two ("Perhaps you would like me to go in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit."). Toss in a royal flush of comic performers--Liza Minnelli as Arthur's brassy New York love interest Linda Marolla; Barney Martin as Linda's unashamedly gold-digging father Ralph; Jill Eikenberry as Arthur's undesirable fiance Susan Johnson; Stephen Elliott as Susan's even less desirable father Burt; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Arthur's ferocious grandmother Martha ("We are a ruthless people--don't screw with us!")--and you have an irresistible souffle, a glittering little gem of silliness.

Come to think of it, even more charming than Gordon's fairy-tale metropolis was his vision of a New York generously populated with memorable eccentrics, where even the bittiest player had a democratic chance to shine (Lou Jacobi as an avariciously delighted flower shop owner ("You're the rich one? The one that drinks?" "Mm-mm." "How does it feel like to have all that money?" "Feels great." "What a dumb question."); Jerome Collarmore as the Johnsons' extremely frail butler ("Are you sure you want to be a nightclub comic?"); Peter Evans as the hapless Long Island patsy Preston ("Preston--would you be divine and get me a gin and tonic?" "Scotch for me, Preston." "You'll wait for me here?" "With a wildly beating heart!")).

The souffle fails to rise a second time with Jason Winer's remake. Russell Brand makes for a bizarre Arthur--instead of an overgrown child in an endless pursuit of happiness, either through the bottom of a whiskey glass or through the laughter of others, we have a rock star, an overgrown brat with huge appetites and even huger crotch bulge (the number of scenes where Brand is caught in colorful underwear displaying the sock collection he hides between his legs is annoying--you start to wonder if he's trying to tell you something). His nasal whine seems perfect for a modern celebrity portrait of androgynously decadent dissipation, but hardly what you might have had in mind for a romantic comedy.

In a bit of stunt casting Helen Mirren plays Hobson, and as great an actress as Dame Mirren is, she's wrong, wrong, wrong for the part--she plays Hobson as a long put-upon nanny who mutters her replies. Gielgud tossed darts dipped in acid; he only had to raise his eyebrow and you felt like giggling (it helped that he had more bare territory to raise that brow over; Dame Mirren is handicapped by her beautiful mane of hair). Greta Gerwig as Arthur's love interest is a total disaster--playing sweet and innocent opposite this lewd orangutang and you wonder why his hands aren't crawling all over her blouse like a pair of tarantulas. Moore was ably served by Liza Minnelli, who could more than hold her own when it came to comic delivery and improvisation ("Nice place; I love a living room you can land a plane in."); Minnelli's Linda was a New Yorker through and through, who when accused of shoplifting from Bergdorf Goodman takes out a pen and notepad and demands the store detective's name and address. Faced with police officers (she's operating a tour guide business without a license) Gerwig's Naomi doesn't even try to cope; she just turns and runs.

Director Winer, like Gordon, comes from television--why does one do so well on his transfer to the big screen and the other doesn't? There's wit to Gordon's directing that we don't see in the other; in the scene where Arthur's father sits in his office couch to deliver his ultimatum (marriage to Susan or the loss of his family fortune), Gordon has Arthur walk across the room past the old man and out the camera frame, fuming: "I'll get married when I fall in love with somebody!" "Fine," the father responds, "I respect your integrity. You just lost seven hundred and fifty million dollars."

A beat. Offscreen, a door slams shut. "Actually, Susan is a very nice girl," Arthur tells his father as he walks back into the camera frame.

Winer does the same scene almost line-by-line, only he inserts a shot of Brand facing the door, and it's a glass door, and it whispers shut. Then he turns and starts talking about Susan. No sharp staging, no surprise, and as a consequence, no sense of a visual wit at work.

The production design is perhaps more successful. Arthur's room is a sleek and gleaming wonder, with a bed floating off the floor via magnetic levitation that actually figures in the movie's slapstick. And I love his car collection, particularly the specially modified DeLorean (not a big fan of the Batmobile, though, which comes from the Schumacher and not the Burton Batman films). I wonder at a comedy, though, that relies less on line delivery and comic timing and more on gimmicky vehicles and costumes to get laughs.

Even more unlikely, Susan and her father have been thoroughly retooled, with hilarious results. Jennifer Gardner is a fiercer, more carnivorous Susan; decked out in dominatrix leather (with metal studs), she looks like she could eat Brand for lunch and have the leftovers for stir-fry dinner. Nick Nolte is a stunner--where Elliott was an unsettlingly vicious sociopath, Nolte seems considerably larger, more menacing than that, a monster even (when Arthur is careless with a nail gun, Nolte's Burt growls "it's nothing," and pulls a nail out of his arm's meaty side). This Susan is a fitting mate for Arthur--a woman who will crack her whip and keep him in line, plus a father-in-law who at the slightest excuse will pull out his intestines and use them for dental floss). I found myself thinking it's a pity--a tragedy even (skip the rest of this sentence if you plan to watch the movie, which I don't recommend)--that they don't end up together, a sentiment that is possibly the movie's finest, funniest joke. Too bad it's largely on the filmmakers.

First published in Businessworld, 4/28/11

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Dr. Who Season 6: The Impossible Astronaut / The Day of the Moon

I liked it overall. Part 1 (The Impossible Astronaut) works better  basically for the lakeside picnic scene, and the visual grandeur it lent the episode (Utah's a lovely place, wish I could visit someday). Also liked the succeeding scene at the diner, which answers two questions ("1. When you take an irreparable step just seven minutes into a season premiere, how do you carry on for the rest of the episode?" and "2. Who does the Doctor trust most of all?"), and the scene at the TARDIS immediately after ("A mysterious summons. What, and I go, just like that?"). One, two, three: Moffat introduces the theme of mortality (every memorable legend from Robin Hood to King Arthur has to have a memorable end, and I feel Moffat has just mustered the effrontery to start preparing us for the Doctor's), shows us the reaction of the Doctor's friends to this theme (introducing a gigantic twist along the way) and, on top of that, shows us the all-too-human, all-too-understandable reaction of the gigantic twist to the twist ("Why should I trust you?").

I love it that Dr. Song is offended, even angry; I love it that she seems just as offended by his choice of No. 1 Most Trusted ("This is cold; even by your standards, this is cold..."). I love it that Rory has to act as hapless go-between to the Doctor and the women, and later, as patient hand-holder to an awestruck newcomer ("It's bigger on the inside than on the outside...").

The business of the girl on the phone, the mysterious spaceman, and the even more mysterious Silence feel smaller, less urgent by comparison (though I do like Stuart Milligan's improbably likable Richard Nixon, and the latest addition to the Doctor's circle of friends, Canton Everett Delaware III (Mark Shepard)). We have heard the chimes at midnight, so on and so forth; we know time is limited (by two hundred years, true, but still...).

By Part 2 (Day of the Moon), however, the strong start seems to be falling apart. The business about Canton chasing them down; the astronaut suit; the Silence's prosthetics being a tad sillier-looking than, say the Weeping Angels' (those floppy fingers)'s one thing after another, helter-skelter, and we end up feeling a bit confused, bewildered, even disappointed. All a bit much, I think, so we rebel by withholding our total involvement in all this. 

It's not a bad episode--by any other standard than Moffat's it's excellent, with its emphasis on the wonders of the Apollo program, its sharp but sweet moment of poignancy ("there's a first for everything, right?"), and its lift-us-off-the-couch final revelation ("I'm dying. But I can fix that. It's easy, really...").

But overall, compared to, say, the fishsticks-and-custard scene in the previous season premiere (or the Doctor facing down his real opponent at the end of that episode), this feels like a more scattered--I'm tempted to say scatterbrained--effort. Compare either season's high points to Moffat's singletons (The Empty Child; The Doctor Dances; The Girl in the Fireplace; Blink)--to my mind Moffat's best work in the series to date--and in my book at least neither pass muster. There was something to the way Moffat could hook us, make us laugh, make us cry (or as close to crying as we'd care to admit), delight us with endless twists and surprises in the space of forty minutes (or an hour and a half) that was well-nigh miraculous. He came within the neighborhood of touching those previous highs with his work this past two years (The Eleventh Hour; the season finale), but has yet to exceed them (I'm actually more impressed with the episode he wrote for Sherlock, his updated take on the legendary detective).

It'll do for now, I suppose, but I'm hoping Moffat settles down and makes use of all the puzzle pieces he lays out, and that what we're seeing is mostly beginner's blues. I expect--no, hope--to eat my words, and gladly.


Jeonju Film Festival features Kidlat Tahimik

Heads up, Kidlat Tahimik is enjoying a career retrospective of his films at the 2011 Jeonju International Film Festival. 

An excerpt from the writeup:

For the past 11 years, JIFF has gone through retrospectives of master directors such as Chantal Akerman, Hsiaohsien Hou, Glauber Rocha, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder, Shinji Somai, Ritwik Ghatak, Peter Watkins, Béla Tarr, Jerzy Skolimowski, Pedro Costa, showing their works that have left important marks in the history of film. JIFF2011, in celebrating its 12th edition, has chosen Kidlat Tahimik, the godfather of Filippino independent cinema, who has continuously explored the Third World issues such as post-colonialism in a provocative and experimental manner for three decades.

I do have my own selfish reasons for promoting this: a book on Kidlat has been published in time for the retro, and features an article I wrote on the filmmaker. A brief excerpt:

Kidlat Tahimik's name in Tagalog means "Quiet Lightning"-- a paradoxical moniker which, when one looks at his films, turns out to be entirely appropriate. He's a termite craftsman tucked away in his own little corner of the world fashioning handmade films, but fashioning them his way, on his terms; he's an independent filmmaker who takes on big topics such as neocolonialism and cultural identity but without the kind of white-hot anger that, say, the late Lino Brocka (possibly the country's best-known director) wielded when dealing with the social issues of his day. He is physically small with a modest build who managed to marry a strikingly beautiful German woman; when you talk to him he has this affable modesty that gives little to no hint of the kind of confidence and drive that produces several feature films and a number of works in progress in both film and video without any studio support (but with plenty of help from friends and family).