Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson, 2009), Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010), Intacto (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2001)

A scene from Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Cine Europa is on its second weekend at the Shang Cinema, Shangri La Mall in Mandaluyong, and for this year non-realist genres seem well represented.

Case in point: the United Kingdom's Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010), an adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel (using a screenplay by Alex Garland), postulates an alternate-history England very much likenow--dreary buildings, lovely countryside, rustic farmhouses--with only one difference: a caption at film's start explaining that a medical breakthrough in 1952 allows the human lifespan to extend beyond a hundred years. What this breakthrough is, and what the consequences involved, are left unexplained.

Romanek (whose career mostly consists of music videos) takes his cue from Ishiguro and crafts a quiet, leisurely little film about three friends: Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy growing up together in a boarding school, and then a small farm, together. Kathy and Tommy love each other; jealous Ruth steals Tommy away from Kathy. All very bucolic and pleasant except for the occasional odd details that suggests there is more to the film than just Romanek's willfully placid surface: every time the children enter a building they flash badges at a blinking scanner; later a teacher tells them some startling truths about themselves--apparently against protocol, because she's never seen again.

As with Ishiguro, the drama is internal--these children eventually learn of and accept their fate. But what if there's a way out? Through art, perhaps, or love? Like dumb farm animals (is it a coincidence that much of the story takes place in the countryside?) they resignedly fulfill their functions unaware of any alternatives, but faced with even the possibility of a different life they appear upset, even unhappy--more so, one suspects, than if they had been explicitly abused.

How you react to the film pretty much falls into two categories: either you turn off the DVD player and fall asleep, walk out of the theater demanding your money back (unlikely in the latter case, since you spent time and effort to buy the ticket and attend the screening), or you stay till the end, possibly clutching the edge of your armrests in a death grip. The final monologue is perhaps too explicit (it firmly outlines what the film has been quietly suggesting all along), but if--and this is a huge if--the film works for you, the experience is not much different from a frozen icepick sliding silently into your chest.

Spain's entry into the festival, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intacto (Intact, 2001) is cruder, lewder, but a hell of a lot easier to enjoy. Its alternate-universe proposition is that there is an underground economy of psionic talents specializing in probability games--in effect, people who are abnormally lucky. More, some of these people are capable of feeding on the luck of others--are in effect psionic vampires, who can draw your good fortune out of you with a hug and long kiss, or even just a photograph. Fresnadillo directs with shadows and plenty of style--when one man draws another to him you feel dread creeping over you the way it does in some of the better films about the undead (and I don't mean the twinkly kind). The film (written by Fresnadillo with the help of Andres Koppel) focuses too much on the mechanics of lucksucking (I doubt if this neologism will catch on) to fully draw out the various metaphorical and philosophical implications of his premise, but there's enough here to make this a memorable, if not superior, suspense flick. What in no small way helps make the film watchable is Max Von Sydow--at the age of eighty-two (seventy-two when this picture was released) he seems to be enjoying himself as much as he ever did in Ingmar Bergman's films (more, since Bergman is seldom funny, and almost never camp). Here he plays the ultimate lucky gambler, a Holocaust survivor (who else could be so fortunate?), and he does so with quiet humor and humanity (look out for a gem of a little speech he gives late in the movie, about a girl's faded photograph that he keeps in his pocket--he's a monster, but such a sad, charmingly agreeable one!).

I'd seen Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-ever (2002) and aside from a few implausibilities was impressed with the filmmaking overall, a kind of casual hand-held lyricism that helped stylize (without softening much) the relentless poverty depicted onscreen.

Representing Sweden, his Mammut (Mammoth, 2010) follows the story of four people: an American couple Leo and Ellen Vidales (Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams), their Filipino nursemaid Gloria (Marife Necesito), and Cookie (Natthamonkarn Srinikornchot), a prostitute. Their lives interact, separate, come together, so on and so forth.

In many ways the film resembles Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (2006) without the muscular, overexerting cinematography and ADHD editing--Moodysson is as good as his name, his camera lingering on his characters' thoughtful faces, trying to guess at their thoughts and feelings. It's a film shot in three countries (by a director from a fourth, Sweden)--a relatively large production--yet the director takes his time to tell the story properly (a commercial kiss of death nowadays), and focuses not on the exotic locations being photographed but on the people wandering these locations, lost in their own sense of alienation.

Think of Moodysson's characters as people in transit, then, waiting to arrive at their destinations. Leo is waiting for a contract to be signed; Gloria is waiting to earn enough money to finish her house back in the Philippines; Cookie is waiting for Leo to take her away to a better life. Ellen--you're not sure what she's waiting for, exactly: her husband to come home? Her daughter to realize that mommy still loves her? Everyone without knowing anything about it undergoes the same kind of suffering: an act of mid-air self-suspension, of keeping their lives on hold, of running hard in place while the world moves on, struggling hopelessly till chance events irrevocably smash the static condition of their lives.

Marife Necesito
A lovely film. Williams has possibly the most difficult role, of sketching her character's unhappiness when on the surface she has little to be unhappy about (That gorgeous Manhattan apartment, complete with balcony for her exercise bike? That pristine king-sized bed with its thick comforter and fluffy pillows? I should experience such suffering)--but suffer she does, and Williams manages to make you believe her. Necesito essays the classic role of a mother pining for her children without mannerism or irony or even a hint of self-consciousness--a straightforwardly intense performance.

The film concludes with a series of events that don't so much resolve the characters' storylines as it does shake up their respective status--they suddenly flee, shudder, change. Their responses not just affect but at times actually hurt the people around them. The ostensibly final image does not suggest a fully happy conclusion so much as it does a break, a brief breather before life goes on and the world continues spinning, just barely if ever under control.

I'd like to take the opportunity to direct a few uncharitable comments at film critic Roger Ebert's take on this picture

Ebert writes “The film intends to make us feel guilty that such people care for us and not for their own. I don't buy that. At least in the case of the Filipinos I've known, they worked hard to win jobs over here, are sending much of their income home, are saving to bring over their kids and are urging them to get an education to help them find jobs when they get here.”

Well, kudos to the Filipinos he knows--they work hard, they contribute to both the Filipino and American economy (the former of which, ironically, seems to be doing better overall than the latter nowadays). Certainly Gloria's story is (or was, for all I know) more common in Hong Kong or in Saudi Arabia; shifting economic fortunes and immigration laws are changing the demographics of the American immigrant population--but can Ebert say he knows every Filipino and their story? Can he guarantee that no Filipino has ever functioned as a domestic helper in the history of the United States, and suffered as a consequence? From where I'm sitting, Gloria's story felt not just familiar but heartrending--I do know people like that, not all of them happy with their circumstances.

And Ebert's footnote--where in the world did he get the idea that the word “mammoth” mean “mother” in Tagalog? Someone should tell him to correct that.

First published in Businessworld, 9.15.11

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fright Night (Craig Gillespie)

"He got me Charley! He bit me! You know what you're gonna have to do now, don't you? Kill me. Kill me, Charley, before I turn into a vampire, and give you a hickey!"

Trite Night

Remakes are funny things--sometimes they capture what made the original memorable in the first place; more often they don't, and instead lie there gasping like beached fish. Sometimes they improve on the original, adding something the original filmmakers never dreamed of; more often they hang lengthy, largely unnecessary extrapolations on the original storyline, seriously weighing it down.

Tom Holland's 1985 debut feature Fright Night was an oddly winning combination of cheesy makeup effects (vampires with extra-wide grins that fit a shark's maw's worth of razor teeth) and uncanny on-camera moments (Jerry Dandrige (an insouciant Chris Sarandon) looking at Charley Brewster (a sweet-faced William Ragsdale) from a distance and flashing him a grin). It had the conviction and passion of a filmmaker doing his first feature, throwing in everything he knows and read about and learned in the course of his relatively brief life; it also managed a clever postmodern spin on its material worthy of a more experienced filmmaker.

The original Night was a fairy-tale set in modern-day suburbia; Spielberg had directed E.T. and produced Poltergeist three years before, and Holland probably felt this many-times proven setting would serve yet another American fantasy-horror story well. The tale itself, though, is over two and a half thousand years old--Aesop's “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the eponymous character carefully recast as a modern American youth. Making him a horror fan made sense: he would be steeped in supernatural lore, would be familiar with all the classics (come to think of it, some of the cheaper effects in the movie--not to mention some of the more effective ones--seem to have been inspired by these pictures), would know all the stars and cult figures. And it's his very expertise on the subject that undermines his credibility--when he yells “vampire!” people roll their eyes and think: “too many late-night horror marathons.”

Implicit in the story is that old adage: be careful what you wish for. Charlie's lifestyle suggests that these creatures of the night are real to him, matter more to him than everyday, ordinary life, that nothing would be cooler than to meet such a creature. What Charlie wishes for with such intense fervor, Charlie ought to get--which he does, to his lasting regret.

That's the heart of the tale: a boy who learns the the value of credibility, of abandoning childish things to embrace adulthood, of growing up. Above and beyond all that, it's about the ineffable value of true belief, of faith in a power greater than your own. Not a bad subtext on which to build a movie that stays in memory longer than most people expect.

You don't get that in the remake. The characters are cannier, more sophisticated, more skeptical not just about vampire lore, but about life in general. In a key moment, the vampire (Colin Farrell) pleads to talk to Charley's mother (the always-a-sight-for-sore-eyes Toni Collette) and you can tell the filmmakers have made her smarter because she refuses--it's not vampires she's wary of (she still doesn't believe in them); it's the idea of meeting a stranger her son clearly disapproves of, is even scared of. She listens to her instincts better than most adults in these fairy tales usually do.

Which tears the fragile bubble right there. The original Charley spends a little more time trying to convince people as to the seriousness of his cause; with this remake screenwriter Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, a TV series not a little influenced by the original) short-circuits the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” storyline and has everyone concerned believing Charley, mainly because the Jerry in this version proceeds to chase their four wheel drive into the nearby Nevada desert, doing serious damage along the way.

Things happen a beat faster here, and I suppose Noxon (a smart, sassy writer who incidentally has an amazing singing voice) wanted it that way, partly to throw us off (a remake needn't be completely faithful to its source), partly because smarter characters need a smarter, more aggressive adversary to put up a credible opposition. What's lost, of course, is that sense of isolation you felt as one by one Jerry (the original) wins each member of Charley's family and friends over to his side. They are out to scare the living daylights out of you, the filmmakers seem to be saying; beguiling you with the retelling of a millennia-old fairy tale, that's not really on their agenda.

“You've got to have faith!” Dandridge declares to Charley, over and over again; it's practically the movie's official mantra. It also plays into the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” theme--the world doesn't trust Charley--why should it? He believes in childish things, refuses to put them away. At the same time Charley--do we need to point out which one we're talking about?--struggles with his lack of faith in those same childish things and in himself, so when he confronts Jerry alone he's in over his head. That struggle is dropped like so much roadkill in the new version; presumably it's too cheesy to mention too often, and besides they have an elaborate finale involving a darkened basement and dozens of sleeping vampires to stage and shoot. Set character and witty dialogue and sharp storytelling aside; it's time to bring in the special digital effects--in 3D, no less.

First published in Businessworld, 9.8.11

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan)

There's something about Lizzie (Cameron Diaz) in Bad Teacher

Not bad enough

Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher is forbidden fruit for teachers. It's their fantasy of what they'd like to do with (or to) their beloved students if they ever got the chance, if either parent or principal weren't breathing so hard down their necks. It's what we'd all like to do, if we dared, if we had the balls. The eponymous character at first glance is a refreshingly rude blast of flatulence from an odorless, flavorless summer-season lineup (I mean--Cars 2? Transformers 3? Harry Potter 7?).

Basically Elizabeth (the forever game Cameron Diaz) is an unabashed gold digger who sullenly returns to the teaching job she thought she had left forever (her fiancee's mother stepped in between them). The understandably frustrated young woman can barely muster enough interest in entertaining her students, much less educating them--for the first few weeks she shows the class a gaggle of clich├ęd education dramas (Dangerous Minds (1995), Stand and Deliver (1988)--which I liked, for the record) while slouched behind desk and a pair of dark shades, sleeping off a hangover. Her mind is focused on more important things--like rich young volunteer teacher Scott (the forever creepy Justin Timberlake) and the $10,000 boob job she's always dreamt of having.

Can't say the teacher doesn't know what she wants, or how to go about acquiring the object of her desire. Her ears perk up when she hears of a $5 thousand-plus dollar bonus to any teacher able to motivate her class to produce the highest state test scores--easily half the cost of her proposed new chest. The next day she has a whole new program set up, with her poor students the unwitting cadets in an educational boot camp of her own devising.

It's a great concept--not so much an unlikeable character as a character who doesn't give a fuck if you like her or not (that's what makes her interesting). Not so much a heroine as an anti-heroine, who has you following her not despite but because of her antagonistic tactics. Movie critics complain that she doesn't really have a worthy opponent, mainly fall guys that leap to the air and flop to the ground if you so much as touch them--but, hey, there are great comedies like that, comedies with room for only one outsized personality, everyone else just straight men to bounce punchlines against (see: W.C. Fields or, collectively, the Marx Brothers). Likewise the complaint that the school kids aren't all that well-sketched either--that they come in stereotypes (the popular girl, the retard with slack mouth)--has a similar reply: they're props, to be used and abused by a great comedienne once she steps onstage.

And when she does step up? Diaz is great for about, oh, twenty minutes; when it becomes clear that the movie doesn't have a radical direction to take, that the character is not going to go as far as initial momentum promised, you find yourself settling down to a vaguely unsatisfying comedy, coasting on the goodwill engendered by Diaz. The actress is always being slammed for being a pretty if lightweight comic actor, and you see her resentment of years of such remarks brim over in her performance; she snarls, she slinks, she purses her Donald-Duck lips so tightly all the men in the audience groan in frustration--they want to kiss away that pout (only the privilege, they know, is going to cost them dear). Problem is, you warm to her because she's trying, you come over to her side because her basic likeability eventually shines through, not because you've accepted her on her own spiky, take-no-prisoner terms.

Maybe it's helpful to compare Diaz's Elizabeth to oh, say, Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa (2003). Thornton enjoys the juicier target (who hasn't been tempted to take down Santa Claus once in for all, the fat freak?), has the more fearless director (Terry Zwigoff, who made his mark with a documentary on legendary comix artist and feminist lightning rod Robert Crumb (Crumb, 1994)). Diaz takes the bigger, more courageous leap (her role as sweetly ditzy blonde in the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary (1998) is more typical of her) and her collaborators aren't exactly known for their edgy sensibilities (Jake Kasdan's most significant feature is the 2007 Walk Hard: the Dewy Cox Story while his writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky are mostly known for their work in TV's The Office). Plus I suppose there's a kind of handicap in a beautiful woman trying to act irredeemable, while Thornton just from appearance alone might make a rehab center director throw up his hands in despair.

There's an essential if breathtaking self-destructiveness to Willie in Bad Santa that you can't help but think you can achieve, if you perhaps inherited his share of bad days and poor decisions (“there but for the grace of God...”). Like standing at the edge of a high cliff, the shudder going through your spine being the wayward thought that you could just step off and nothing you or anyone else can do can stop you. Elizabeth's situation doesn't seem dire enough to warrant such a shudder, much less a shrug; by movie's end she's just another familiar figure in the school hallways--the kind-of-cool counselor who'll set you straight, if you knock on her corner office door.

First published in Businessworld, 9.1.11

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Phiippine Cinema (Jose B. Capino)

Nora Aunor in 'Merika

 My article on Jose Capino's Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema is available online, at the Cineaste website.

It was a pleasure to read the book, and a pleasure to write about it. Go, buy, read, enjoy!