Saturday, August 27, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love

She's too hot for him (and should really be looking at me, instead...but I digress...)


Not crazy, just stupid

Is this the state of rom-com today? Talent and effort and mucho production budget, creating a huge, yawning 'meh' of a movie?

So we have Cal (Steve Carell) married to Emily (Julianne Moore)--and right there credibility just zoomed straight out a window. Try as I might, and I did try for about the length of the picture, I just could not picture Emily marrying Cal short of Emily suffering from, oh, severe mental retardation, or Cal possessing a stack of incriminating photos. She's just too much woman for that wimp.

But--okay, granted we swallow this premise, hook, line, sinker, whale--Emily straight away tells Cal she wants a divorce, because she had an affair; Cal promptly tosses himself out of the speeding car. Nice jolt of a moment, but the gesture sets you up for a movie full of Carell committing all kinds of wild and wacky gestures and, well, this turns out to be his entire quota; nothing quite as out-of-left-field will happen again, though there is an eight-way confrontation late in the story that is intricately amusing, if not as startling.

Carell repeats the schtick he's mastered since Forty Year Old Virgin some four years before--the awkwardly sensitive fortysomething around which the world revolves (hey, he's the producer after all). His is the most fully written and realized character, of course, with every change in feeling or sensibility, every conflict or humiliation or wound to his pride dutifully recorded and given proper recognition. Everyone else trails from far behind, and the women in particular suffer from a lack of character detail--Emma Stone's Hannah, an up-and-coming lawyer, only pops up once in a while until the big reveal (you keep thinking she belongs in another picture entirely--and that is a dead giveaway, plotstructurewise); Ryan Gosling's Jacob, who teaches Cal how to pick up women, is an unlikely confection (he spends so much waking hours chasing women you wonder how he amassed enough money for his awe-inspiring bachelor's pad--is he really a rich kid (where's his rich family, then?)? A drug dealer? Maybe Carell should be a little more careful about associating with him...). Granted Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), the family babysitter who Cal's son has the hots for and who in turn has the hots for Cal, is a reasonably rounded character--but, you keep suspecting, that's only because she's such an important plot function to the storyline of both males.

Most egregious example is Emily--who is she? I mean, really? Gorgeous wife, hot mother, great actress. we don't know what she's like with the kids (besides a four-minute wordless pantomime through glass windows), we don't know what the kids think of her new boyfriend, we don't know what she sees in Cal (hell, we don't know what she was smoking when she saw Cal--I'd at least want to know that much), and we don't know what made her precipitate her affair with the infamous David Linhagen (Kevin Bacon as--believe it or not--the most likeable male in the movie), or why she chokes it off when she does. There are hints of an unhappy, complicated person here--Moore is more than good enough an actress to suggest this--but she's working with thin material. You're constantly aware that all the focus is the prod--sorry, husband.

Of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, former writing team (Bad Santa 2003) turned directors (I Love You Philip Morris 2009) one has expectations, but combined with Dan Fogelman, who wrote the script (not to mention Cars (2006), Fred Claus (2007) Bolt (2008), Tangled (2010), Cars 2 (2011)--guy apparently believes in quantity over quality), the fusion is more family friendly, decidedly toothless. As is true with practically every recent comedy the look is sitcom flat and undistinguished (what was the last good-looking comedy I'd seen? Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet? Maybe. Last good-looking rom-com I'd seen? Wow--Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation” (2003), perhaps?).

Rom-com as a genre is dead, or at least close to total creative exhaustion, and I doubt if this will change matters much. The picture doesn't have the go-for-broke spirit of, oh, the Farrelly Brothers' Hall Pass (which has a penis joke that leaves this movie's penis joke feeling flaccid in comparison). It certainly doesn't have the crisp, swift wit of Steven Moffat, whose TV series Coupling (2000-2004) has four times the laughs, and twice the insight into what makes relationships work (better yet, Moffat manages to write a series of brilliantly hilarious monologues--usually delivered by Jack Davenport--that define clearly and definitively how relationships work). It doesn't even have the piercing romantic spirit and imagination (much less humor) of Moffat's 2006 script for the TV series Dr. Who (The Girl in the Fireplace).

Am I such an unsentimental old curmudgeon, demanding so much of my romantic comedies? I don't think so; I just like to think I have standards, is all.

First published in Businessworld, 8.18.11

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

The man from Uncle

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, 2010), is ostensibly about an old man undergoing renal failure and his final days--but don't let that synopsis fool you. It's steeped deep in the beauty of Northern Thailand's countryside and jungle--but no, this is not your usual 'beauty-of-nature' flick. It's filled with spirits and strange creatures and even stranger occurrences--but don't let those elements waylay you either. The film is not quite as fabulist as it sounds, and not easy to engage with (for one, it moves at a pace a snail would find leisurely) but can be ultimately fulfilling, if you manage to cotton on to what the director is trying to do.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

L'Inferno and Nosferatu

A still from L'Inferno

The horror, the horror

Thanks to the generosity of the Goethe Institut, the Japan Foundation, The Instituto Cervantes, the Embassies of Italy and Greece, The 5th International Silent Film Festival will unfold from August 26 to 28 at the Shang Cineplex 2, in Shangri-La Plaza Mandaluyong, and oh, wonders of wonders--at least two of them are horror films (well, one indisputably is; so is the other if you stretch definitions a little).

The rarer creature (and borderline horror) is Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro's L'Inferno (1911). This largely forgotten silent was a huge hit at the time of its release, with plenty of applause during and after its premiere screening in Naples (the film went on to gross over two million dollars in the United States). Today it stands as a curiosity, at sixty-eight minutes the first Italian feature ever made.

Mind you, we're not talking D.W. Griffith here; the intertitles do most of the narrative heavy-lifting, giving us a clunky ten minutes of exposition explaining what's going on in Dante's life, who Beatrice is, why he's wandering a desolate wood, threatened by various largely symbolic predators. When Virgil finally takes him under wing (at the behest of his beloved Beatrice, who descends upon the great classical poet like the Good Witch of the North) he is informed that the path to salvation leads first through the depths of hell--you have to know the worst in human nature, Virgil seems to say, before you start trying for the best. It's not going to be an easy path; “abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Dante is warned before entering. The line still retains a chill, even in this film, even now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens (Jon Favreau, 2011)

Boom boom bang bang

What to say about Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens? Like Samuel Jackson's Snakes on a Plane (2006), what you read in title pretty much what you get: hard-riding Western folks battling fanged-and-clawed extraterrestrials. Like the movie or not, you can't accuse 'em of false advertising. Unfortunately.

Story begins with Jake (Daniel Craig) waking up in desert with big metal bracelet in one wrist and no memory. Arrives in small town, is accused of being an outlaw by townfolk, including rich cattleman named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who accuses Jake of robbing his gold. Matters reach state of tumultuous furor (well--bubbly fizz) when aliens arrive in what look like giant metal dragonflies, use hi-tech lassos to snatch people off the ground and carry them away. Plenty folk taken, including Dolarhyde's son Percy (Paul Dano); Jake and Dolarhyde ride out together to try bring 'em back.

Forgot to mention: Jake meets Mysterious Woman (but aren't they all?) named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Doesn't add much to party 'cept when she dies body is thrown into bonfire, resurrected, walks out of flames in her altogether. Wilde perfectly suited for last part, but that's about it far as entertainment value concerned--she can't even strike sparks off of flinty Craig, who has apparently decided to glower for rest of the picture (why, I don't know--artist's expression of aesthetic disapproval over putrid production, perhaps?).

Favreau's career a puzzler; after directing generic comedy fare (Elf (2003)) and special effects-heavy children's book adaptations (Zathura 2005), suddenly ups ante by coaxing Robert Downey Jr. into giving only recent Marvel movie performance with any sense of emotional texture (Iron Man (2008); Iron Man 2 (2010)); now Favreau seems to have dumbed self back down with blow-em-away, blow-em-up summer flick complete with Indiana Jones as grizzly curmudgeon and James Bond as cool-as-cucumber (if somewhat robotic) protagonist.

Granted both played by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who are capable of good work, and Paul Dano who, in films like There Will Be Blood (2007), shown to be capable of more than good work--but what they doing in this piece of cow flop? Favreau set up expectations; proved that with good actor could come up with something watchable, if not enjoyable. Craig under Favreau seems to be phoning--no, telegraphing in (phones not invented yet). Plays cool cowboy same way he plays cool secret agent: stoic, not a little stolid. Ford warmer, perhaps livelier than in last few pictures: here plays what is ostensibly called 'bad' guy, or nasty customer not adverse to tying man between two horses. Meanness mainly show, of course (Dolarhyde cuts man loose from one horse); when this becomes clear movie collapses to ground with soft whispered 'pffft!'

Dano--as said terrific in There Will Be Blood--mostly wasted here. After playing dissipated youth in movie's first twenty minutes, is captured by aliens and kept in storage for most of picture.

Isn't as if Favreau were hotshot action filmmaker. Fight sequences in Iron Man movies never high points; high point was always Downey fooling around, trying to bring comic-book character to life (with Gwyneth Paltrow lending touch of rom-com frisson to proceedings). Given title like Cowboys and Aliens expect decent action sequences, but these look secondhand, as if borrowed from sources of not much higher quality (this year's incomprehensibly shot and edited Battle: Los Angeles; Neill Blomkamp's 2009 District 9; and--thank you much for reminding--Roland Emmerich's ridiculously overblown, just-as-if-not-more-so derivative Independence Day (1996)).

Keep thinking: Howard Hawks could've done this in his sleep. He master of western genre, knows how to shoot horses riding across Arizona landscape, knows how to stage gunfights, how to get maximum dramatic and comic mileage out of even halfway talented actors (and actresses). Hawks knows when odds are too one-sided how to even 'em up, in inventive and entertaining ways (thinking of literally explosive finale to Rio Bravo (1959)); even has experience in directing alien invasion pictures, albeit on small scale (The Thing From Another World (1951)). Hawks know how to apply special effects (as little as possible), how to stage, shoot and cut action sequences (cleanly and coherently), how to have woman address man (saucily as possible, to provoke not just man but all males in audience). High art or low entertainment, Hawks would produce something that grab attention, or at least be watchable. He at least make girl saucier, instead of hot human body hiding wet noodle alien brain with nada personality.

Not stupidity of basic concept I object to--as suggested, Hawks could have done this in deep sleep, wearing pajamas--but laziness of execution of final product. Back to home planet from whence originate!

First published in Businessworld, 8.11.11

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 'Kulo' (Boil) Exhibit

Mideo Cruz's Poon


I'd been following the recent controversy over the 'Kulo' (Boil) exhibit over at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), from the initial news splash about Mideo Cruz's exhibit to the shitstorm that followed to the closing of the exhibit and resignation of CCP visual arts department head Karen Flores and the artists' response that followed, and I have this much to say:

Art should be free to shock. Art should antagonize. Art should shake up established norms and thinking and provoke discussion. Otherwise, what is it good for? 

Mind you, I'm not saying that artists and the art they create should enjoy zero responsibility, or that they should be totally immune from all consequences; if they offend, why, the offended have every right to protest right back, to agitate, demonstrate, declare in print or audiovisual media their indignation. Viewers and readers have every right to stake out a position and loudly agree or disagree, to boycott or even picket the exhibit's entrance. That's a right too, every bit as important as the artist's to freely create. 

You can even attack the work from an aesthetic point of view, criticize not the artist's morals or intentions (which are irrelevant anyway) but his skill, as Lito Zulueta does in an Inquirer column. Of all the protests against Mr. Cruz, I find Mr. Zulueta's piece the most persuasive. 

Artist act; viewers react. That's what is known as dialogue, the discourse between two opposing views (for an equally if not better reasoned and well-written opposing view, check out Luis Teodoro's thoughts on the matter). Dialogue is a good and healthy thing; what isn't healthy is when the dialogue is silenced, the discourse interrupted, the exhibit closed down, and an atmosphere of threats and fear pervades. When you can't see what the fuss is all about, you can't talk about it; when you can't talk about it, you forget, and perhaps stop talking (or you stop talking because you're afraid to continue).

Mr. Zulueta's article condemning Mr. Cruz's artwork is a good thing; it's two opposing parties responding to each other (or at least one responding to the other--far as I know Mr. Cruz has yet to reply to Mr. Zulueta). Congressional leaders demanding that the CCP budget be cut and worse, cyber terrorists threatening violence and death are not a good thing; they encourage silence and fear, and silence is a friend of censorship, and censorship as an active and consistent policy is in turn an essential condition to foster and maintain dictatorships throughout the world.

Not saying the Philippines is presently a dictatorship--far from it. But from here to September 21, 1972 isn't so much a distance of some thirty-three years as it is a distance of some three to four inches--roughly the distance a pen has to travel to write someone's signature onto a document declaring martial law. And all that was needed to send that pen scribbling over those three inches was a decision on the part of one man, and enough people behind the man to enforce his signature, the document, everything that followed. If it takes a handful of men deciding to act to send the country spiraling down a toilet bowl for fourteen years, how many will it take to repeat what happened today? Starting with the right of free expression? Not much, I'll wager. Not if we keep silent, do nothing, let them have their way with us.

Am I making sense? Is this too much of a leap I'm taking, are the dots I'm connecting too far apart and crazy? That's for you to decide. Discourse and dialogue, not silence and forgetting. If you disagree with me, let's talk--but for god's sake, please don't stay silent.


Friday, August 05, 2011

Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011)

We don't need another hero

Joe Johnston's Captain America (there's more to the title, only I'm not that motivated) is fairly decent entertainment-- moves at a lively pace, has a nice retro look, (circa late '30s to early '40s, complete with Unisphere and the 1939 World's Fair somehow teleported from Queens into Brooklyn), even surrounds itself with a royal flush of vivid supporting performances. Like its newly minted star Chris Evans (who plays the eponymous officer), the picture is a well-made example of standard-issue factory product, and just about as exciting.