Sunday, July 31, 2011

Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)

With a grain of salt

Margot Benacerraf's Araya premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, where it shared the Fipresci Critics' Prize with Alan Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais' film went on to be an art house classic, while Benacerraf's documentary has gone largely unseen, except for a few film festivals devoted to Latin American cinema. Thanks to Milestone Films, the picture has its best chance yet of being seen by a wider audience, in this beautiful restored print, now on DVD.

The film's story is simple to the point of being nonexistent: basically twenty-four hours in the life of three families on the peninsula of Araya, on northeastern Venezuela. Salt is manually collected and stack in mounds the size and height of small hills; the work is brutal, and the salt so corrosive it causes skin ulcerations. Modern mining technology is in the process of being installed (remember, this is 1959), so this ancient way of saltmaking--started almost half a millennium before, when salt was once worth its weight in gold--is on its way out.

The opening image is dramatic: shots of clouds unfurling across the sky. Then a kind of reverse shot: the camera from high up (clouds' point of view), looking down at the bleak, buckled landscape, deep erosions, huge rocks rearing up high, spiky cactus paddles sprouting crookedly over the parched earth. You can see that Benacerraf has an eye: the rock cracks stretch diagonally across the screen, while the cactus paddles reach out spiny crooked fingers at you. One sits in keen anticipation of another Mikhail Kalatzov's Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964), that beautifully shot piece of Soviet propaganda that also went largely unseen till Martin Scorsese campaigned to have it restored in the 1990s. Araya shares some of that visual gorgeousness, though more on the spare side--no camera winding through a crowd of decadent partygoers, climbing down several stories to ease its way into the swimming pool; no camera rising up the height of a building to follow a fallen comrade, hovering high over dead body for several blocks.

The photography in Araya is not so recklessly spectacular, though it has its own uncivilized beauty. It also shares with Soy Cuba a tendency to push stereotypes and melodrama to embarrassing heights, in this case though the use of a voice-over narration that at times sounds like an Earth Day Amateur Poets' Night and at other times like an old-fashioned Sunday Bible sermon. Benacerraf is quoted as saying this was never intended to be a documentary; it's even obvious that some of the scenes are staged (much in the manner of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934)). But really--the verbal poetry poorly serves the visual poetry, which is often more than enough, and would have benefited from a little more sense of mystery (a little more silence, in effect).

I'm not thinking so much of modern documentaries (where people onscreen provide most of the commentary) so much as I'm thinking of the first third of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick had a large outpouring of scientifically accurate narration explain the context in which man's evolution was to take place--then had second thoughts: the narration reduced the sequence to the level of mere documentary, when he was striving for something more, the cinematic equivalent of Homer's The Odyssey (an ambition made nakedly obvious by the film's title). Benacerraf probably wanted a similar effect, unfortunately decided on a different approach.

The film has also been compared to Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), which is a clear influence--you see the combination of documentarylike beauty and cripplingly obvious narration. A more useful model, I submit, would have been Alan Resnais's Nuit et broillard (Night and Fog, 1955), where the narration doesn't mickymouse the imagery, doesn't deliver overwrought poetry (but who knows, we are only familiar with the English translation of Benacerraf's film), instead draws metaphors, makes connections, measures the meaning of the Holocaust against a greater context, against history's grand pageant. The film essay unfolds with becoming modesty as it admits to the impossibility of taking it all in, judging it all--and all this in a mere forty minutes! A similar narration might have helped Benacerraf's film immeasurably.

A final point of comparison: Nana Buxhani and Ditsy Carolino's Minsan Lang Sila Bata (Children Only Once), the Filipino filmmakers' fairy-tale like documentary on provincial child labor. Buxhani and Carolino's spare poetry probably descended from Benacerraf's film, and to some extent their documentary is also handicapped by a too-obvious narration. As with Benacerraf's film, the power is all in the imagery; it's up to you to decide if said imagery suffices to overcome the weaknesses. I think they do--for Buxhani and Carolino and, happily, for Benacerraf herself.

First published in Businessworld, 7.14.11

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, 2011)

Wish fulfillment

I thought Cars 2 wasn't bad.

No, really.

I'm aware of the poor-to-lackluster reviews; I'm aware that it's a sequel. To be fair, it's the first film director and Pixar head John Lasseter has directed since the first Cars, some five years ago; before that he'd done Toy Story 2 (See a pattern here, themewise? Look in his psych eval folder, under the heading: "What I Played with As a Kid"). In between he'd been putting out one Tow Mater short after another, when he isn't busy writing and producing and otherwise finessing other pictures in his Pixar empire.

Which is my roundabout way of saying: one shouldn't be too surprised that he'd do a sequel, or that he'd pick this picture to do a sequel instead of the far more popular, far more critically well-received Toy Story series, of which the third installment had received near-ecstatic reviews (pace spoilsport notices like my own). Simply put, Lasseter, for whatever reason has developed a fond attachment for the character, and decided to put him front and center of his new sequel (and first new work in half a decade) without considering what the effect of ninety minutes of Larry the Cable Guy in a rustbucket carapace might have on an audience (not very positive; one might argue that Tow Mater is the digtally animated equivalent of George Lucas' Jar-Jar Binks in his wildly popular Star Wars prequels (insert note of heavy irony here). 

Not that I'm trying to defend the truck--I agree, he grates incessantly, both as an idea for a character and as a character within the story, and the picture as a whole doesn't exactly make my inner child go somersaulting with joy (have to confess none of the Pixar pictures have managed to do that), but hey, as an idea of what Pixar is truly good at and where its gifts truly lie, this is not a bad showcase at all.

I mean: an Aston Martin chase sequence--a homage not just to any chase sequence, but to the famously inventive pursuit-and-elude sequence in Guy Hamilton's Goldfinger (1964)--arguably the best of the James Bond spy movies (truth to tell, Cars 2 pays homage to not one but two Bond pictures--Goldfinger, and Diamonds are Forever, with its oil-rig climax). It helps that Michael Caine voices the aforementioned Aston, that the chase is more cleverly entertaining than any found in the official Bond movies, and that Caine outdoes even the official Bond actor in terms of suavity and style (Yes, I'm looking at you, Daniel Craig--you may make for a nicely rough-hewn Bond, but your directors and worse the movies themselves have barely registered on the pop imagination). 

Critics claim the movie lacks heart, and what heart it does have is found in the storyline of the least appealing character--the aforementioned tow truck--but I say: what's the big deal? In my book, Pixar's biggest problem is heart: the studio doesn't know how to do it properly, sometimes resorts to lifting techniques from Lasseter's idol Hayao Miyazaki--often with all the tact and skill of a ten-ton truck. 

I won't bother citing specific sequences--I've done that before. I won't bother citing specific titles I find superior to anything Pixar has done; I won't even name certain themes and acts and subject matter Pixar seems too faint of heart to even dare entertain, much less animate. That's an old game, and far too easy to win. I'll just say this: when Pixar strives to merely entertain, to provoke a laugh and do a clever chase sequence and juggle a complicated (kind of) plot in the air and not much more, it actually does better than when it tries to imitate its betters and falls flat on its face. 

Didn't like Cars 2? Sick of all the endless ads for McQueen and Mater marketing and merchandise and the like? I'd recommend not complaining too much, even if you probably will: this in my book is more Pixar's speed--represents the studio at its unpretentious best, or at least most honest. 


Saturday, July 09, 2011

I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon, 2010); Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

 Choi min-sik smiling for the camera in I Saw the Devil

I kill you dead 

Maybe the best thing about Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010) is that the director definitely does not want to play it safe. He swaggers to the plate and swings for the fences; he bellows defiance at the gods of cinema and saunters across all the bases, daring them to strike him down.

He falls flat on his face several times while sauntering, but you have to like his bravado.

Possibly the picture's best sequence is the opening: girl in a brokedown car, calling for a tow truck. Man offers help; she refuses, calls her boyfriend. Kim cuts to the boyfriend and we watch from his end as he talks to her. Then--he looks nervously around to see if anyone's listening--he starts singing to her. Cheesy, moving, brilliant touch that; you're laughing and tearing up at the same time.

With this tender moment served, Director Kim ( and killer) swoops in for the kill. Harrowing moment of blood and plastic wrapping. Then the jaw-dropper: she begs him to let her go. Why? Because.

Did I say funny and moving earlier? This time it's worse, with no recourse or relief in sight.

The movie doesn't hit quite as hard afterward, but it has its moments--mostly found in the escalating cat-and-mouse game between the serial killer Kyung chul (played with lusty relish by Choi min-sik) and top secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) who happens to be--talk about bad luck--the murdered girl's fiance.

Soo-hyeon is no ordinary seeker of revenge; no, he has to mete out as much suffering as his girlfriend endured, perhaps more. He tracks Kyung chul down, chokes him unconscious, smashes his wrist, then lets him go with an envelope full of money. Kyung chul walks away, befuddled; when he finds another victim (the nurse who treated him for his injuries) Soo-hyeon again swoops down; this time inflicting worse injuries; Kyung chul limps away more helpless than before.

Interesting concept, something Park Chan Wook might have thought of if he hadn't moved on from his Vengeance trilogy. I thought Park's revenge scenarios were too involved, too far-fetched, but Kim makes Park look like a plodding realist--a secret agent? Really? Kim Soo-hyeon's violence is outrageous and unlikely, even for a genre known for its outrageousness; one remembers bits like a tracking and surveillance capsule (how can the capsule monitor audio when it's traveling down the alimentary canal?), or Kim Soo-hyeon's super-human speed and precise timing (he's faster than a man with a knife, faster even than a man with a gun).

What are the odds that Kyung chul would pick Soo-hyeon's girlfriend for a victim? And later, the odds that Kyung chul would in turn be picked up by a serial-killing duo, and that a knife fight would ensue (superbly shot and edited, but totally ludicrous in concept)? How can a serial killer with the on-the-job training of a bus driver acquire the skills to track down a family's address, faster than Kim Soo-hyeon can drive through highways? Kim Jee-won flaunts the absurdity of the whole thing, but there's a point when even the flaunting stops being effective, when improbability piled upon improbability starts looking like carelessness, and you sit back, arms crossed, wondering if the director will ever manage to square everything away (he doesn't).

The one most persuasive effect Kim Jee-won wields to great effect is Choi min-sik as Kyung chul. Choi comes off at first like a repulsive animal, but when Soo-hyeon starts tormenting him he acquires the persistent likeability of a shambling, slobbering clown: you start cheering him on because he takes everything Soo-hyeon dishes out and still manages to swagger. Choi wears a wet mop of straggly hair, a pair of shades, and a loud t-shirt; immediately you recognize yet another of the director's inspirations: Martin' Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991) with Choi as a Korean Max Cady, charismatic and sleazy at the same time.

One wishes Kim had taken less inspiration from Park Chan Wook and his Vengeance trilogy and more from another Korean filmmaker and film: Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (1990). The two couldn't be more different: where Devil is baroque and cartoonish, Memories is elegant and elegiac; where Devil is complicated to the point of ludicrousness, Memories casually lets go of the plot threads--the murders are, in effect, a mystery that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.

Where in Devil the pursuer is a black-clad secret agent who works alone and can do no tactical wrong (at least in the beginning), in Memories the pursuers are police officers who are all too human, who offer contradictory theories and who sometimes massage the evidence to fit their theoretical framework. Where Devil feels as if it takes place outside of Korean political history, Memories tells the story of a specific time and place, when South Korea was a police state, when quelling riots took priority over protecting lives, and when torturing suspects into admitting guilt was standard operational policy.

Call me prejudiced, or conventional, or a fuddy-duddy moralist--whatever you like; the contrast just snaps everything into perspective for me. I Saw the Devil, for all its humor and somewhat inventiveness, remains a self-indulgent exercise in sadism, while Memories of  Murder is the great serial-killer film of Korean cinema.

First published in Businessworld, 6.16.11

Monday, July 04, 2011

Paul (Gregg Mottola, 2011)

The buddies in an intimate moment in Paul

Love thy brother

What would happen if the writing team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) were to meet the acting-writing-directing team of Seth Rogen and Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland)? Such questions don't exactly keep movie viewers up all night (doesn't me), but since someone must have posed the question out loud and someone else answered that question by putting up the money and relevant people, might as well take a quick peek at the results.

It's no Shaun of the Dead (2004)--actually, not a lot of recent comedies have been as inventively funny as Shaun, which basically wrung variations off of a single concept (the British stiff upper lip remaining stiff, even in the face of a zombie apocalypse). Wasn't as big a fan of their follow-up picture Hot Fuzz (2007), though the very unlikeliness of the premise (Simon Pegg as a pistol-smokin' cop?) seemed to galvanize that picture. Director of both Shaun and Fuzz happens to be Edgar Wright, who seems to have a lock on visually ingenious comedies--one only has to remember Shaun and his gang's encounter with his best friend and her gang, or the great shot of Shaun walking through his daily morning routine the day after the world ended, or check Wright's use of digital video game effects in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to see what I'm talking about.

Paul's director Gregg Mottola is from the (for want of a better term) 'slacker generation'--he seems fond of doing character-driven comedies with plenty of profanity and a casual, easygoing, ganga-puffing--slacker, in short--vibe. It's visually sloppy, with a comic timing that can only be charitably described as inebriated; you miss the snap Wright can give to this material (hell, I miss the snap Wright could have given something like Superbad or Adventureland).

What does seem to improve despite Mottola's somewhat limp direction--what makes Paul, after all is said and done, a worthwhile endeavor after all--is the central relationship between Pegg and Frost. "Bromance" hardly describes what they have going here: a pair of friends so thoroughly at ease with each other they resemble a long-married couple more than anything else (the passion having died years ago, to leave a warm, lasting glow). Shaun captured this best; the actors were simply playing themselves only with zombies involved, and even when zombies finally got in the way--well, you know what they say in vampire movies nowadays. Love never dies.

That's what went wrong in Hot Fuzz--Pegg and Frost were so much themselves onscreen in Shaun they probably felt they had to move away from that, hence the introduction of Pegg's 'supercop' character. And Pegg just having met Frost isn't as much fun as catching them together after many years, ringing jokes off of their comfort level with each other ("I'm sorry Shaun." "That's okay." "No, I'm sorry Shaun." "Oh God, that's rotten!" "I'll stop doing it when you stop laughing." "I'm not laughing!").

Glad to say they're back in 'together for many years' mode, with Paul; better yet, they're together on the geekiest of causes: the search for alien intelligence. From SF convention to actual desert (Area 51, to be precise), the action couldn't be more suited to drawing the pair closer together, in near-marital bliss. Even Paul the alien can't get between the two, at least not at first; he has to resort to disappearing tricks, magic healing powers, profanity, beer guzzling, and the occasional amusing anecdote ("Agent Mulder was right!" "Agent Mulder was my idea!"). Seth Rogen--Mottola's longtime collaborator--fits in nicely as the eponymous alien, annoying and endearing in equal measure, the street-smart wise-ass potty-mouth steeped in pop culture (having invented a good deal of it himself, including providing Steven Spielberg the inspiration for his lost-alien movies) who helps two naive geeks navigate the shoals of middle America.

It's no Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); it's definitely no E.T. (1982)--the movie's a touch sharper than that (and would have been sharper still, I can't help but imagine, if Wright had been available). It's also no Cloverfield (2008), where the alien is merely some gigantic hulking man-hungry lobster barely glimpsed at through a videocam, and definitely no Gremlins 2--arguably the sharpest, most media-savvy satire on aliens ever made, if said critters could actually qualify as aliens (they don't, and that's too bad). Call Paul a road movie with an alien in tow, said alien sitting behind an ole married couple still bickering, still together, still genially funny and fun to be with after all their years together. I could think of worse ways to waste two hours of my time. 

First printed in Businessworld, 6.2.11