Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011)

Deadly bore

Jason Statham doesn't do much acting; in every one of his pictures you see a sullen mouth under a pair of seriously peeved eyes, well-hidden by an imposing crag of a brow. Hero or villain, there's something pure about Statham; you can always rely on him to move into action with all the agility (and lack of humor) of a menopausal Jackie Chan. And you can count on him to do it with the graceless lack of enthusiasm of a bored anthropoid--that's Statham in a nutshell.

That view of Statham was seriously challenged in The Bank Job (2008), an ostensibly routine crime thriller-slash-true-story that under the hands of veteran director Roger Donaldson turned out better than anyone expected--Donaldson captured the gritty reality of '70s London, and in Statham captures the chip-on-the-shoulder class resentment felt by many blue-collar workers at the time (still do, I suspect). Statham's acting here was a startling bonus; who knew he could play low-key smolder well, without once resorting to his larger-than-life action-movie persona? He's so good one actually worries for him when he's being threatened--unlike in his other pictures where a threat is usually prelude to broken wrists, shattered kneecaps, cracked skulls.

Come the rest of his career (Death Race (2008) and all the Crank and Transporter sequels) and no, apparently this breakthrough role didn't signal a significant change in the actor's career--he's still out there breaking wrists and cracking skulls. He did deliver a touch of irony while starring in The Expendables--compared to actors like Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren he's still relatively young and flexible, and his usual sullen expression suggested he didn't deserve to dawdle with such over-the-hill company.

Otherwise--nada; nothing. By the time of The Killer Elite (2011), that intense burst of lower-class realism has pretty much vanished into memory, and there is little apparent hope watching him enter this picture that any of it will be recovered here--he's still Statham, he's still fast and flexible, but there's precious little going on beneath those brows save the trademark annoyed glare, the implied threat that he's going to screw you up seriously if you keep staring at him.

The only ghost of an interesting drama or romance or anything occurs when Statham fetches up against Clive Owen who, unlike Statham, can actually act. Owen's glare suggests genuine danger, complicated by intelligence and a sense of humor; once in a while you catch his mouth edging towards a grin, but it doesn't soften his glare--if anything, it makes him look a tad psycho, as if he'd not just break your wrist but laugh long and loud in the process. Owen--who can upstage Statham with the bat of an eyelash, is apparently too threatening; the producers must have decided to dampen his charisma by gluing a dead caterpillar to his upper lip (you don't for a moment feel like wondering why he looks so glum). Said offending facial hair almost does in Owen's performance--almost. All he has to do is glare a little wider and twist that grin a few millimeters higher, and he's as intimidating as ever.

It's not a bad film, per se; Gary McKendry, an Aussie director making his feature debut, does not strictly adhere to the Paul Greengrass-style of handheld footage cut chop-suey style (case in point: the Jason Bourne movies); he is especially adept at chase sequences and the one major car chase he stages late in the picture ends with a startlingly crunchy surprise. The endless first encounter between Owen and Statham, however, is too closely shot to be coherent; it starts feeling seriously dull when you don't know what's going on--haven't for some time. McKendry does seem to have a feel for the kind of British military machismo (well, Aussie--the picture was shot Down Under) you find hanging out in expatriate bars, and the like. You can imagine the crowd consisting of old friends who have worked together as a team for years, in far less friendly locales...

The veracity question I can't care less about. The movie is based on all-around adventurer and novelist Ranulph Fiennes' The Feather Men,” which he describes as a “factional” work where it's left to the reader to decide what is fact and what not. Frankly, I find the coyness annoying.

Overall it should have been a terrific thriller; if I'm less than enthusiastic that may be because the whole enterprise has the aura--or stink, rather--of a by-the-numbers effort. Even Sam Peckinpah's less stellar films brim over with personality, case in point being his late picture of the same title (borrowed, apparently, without proper attribution).

Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975) if anything makes even less sense, a wildly unlikely mix of rival CIA factions and gratuitous martial arts--if I prefer Peckinpah's over this picture that's because Peckinpah's for all its flaws (it's an ugly-spirited late work) seethes with hate and fury (at what you're not quite sure: corrupt government factions? Equally corrupt film studio bosses?), and that hate is reflected in the martial arts fight sequences, the blows lovingly extended to savor their impact on human flesh. Statham's movie doesn't have that kind of emotion; when I try remember any part of it I come up with a long, undistinguishable blur.

First published at Businessworld, 10.20.11

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, Mario O'Hara, Jon Red, 2011) Part 2 of 2

Best of the year, arguably (Part 2)

Cont'd from previous part:

Then Alfonso accidentally wounds Angelo, and is wracked with guilt; Andrea is abandoned at her wedding, and the mayor's steely facade suddenly shatters; Lucia berates Pepe for his secret trysts. The villains show different sides to themselves, are suddenly made more human to us. It's not magic; we are merely shown their hidden reasons for being who they are. Alfonso (the volatile, intensely watchable Alwyn Uytingco) does what he does partly because he hates Elena for supplanting his mother; Andrea (Nadine Samonte, who as an actress seemed dull and inadquate, but ever since her failed wedding has stepped the intensity up considerably) is all about ambition, but is not beyond being hurt. Lucia (a variation on 'Lucrezia,' not to mention having some assonant resemblance with the name 'Imelda') for all her venom and hate genuinely loves Pepe, and will do almost anything to keep him and her daughter. An especially lovely scene has her and her lover--a trusted flunky in the Deogracias family--asking him for details: is Elena a good person? Do the children love her? Was she happy with her husband? We realize that she's trying to compare notes, trying to find out just how much better the homelife of the competition is, just how utterly she has failed as wife and mother.

We learn that those who fight on the side of angels have their own warts. Angelo the dully perfect police officer hero seems to be playing Carmela against Elsa, and refusing to entertain only one girl. Pepe--possibly the most richly written and ambiguous of characters--is emotionally unfaithful to his wife (who to be fair can hardly be considered the model for marital fidelity). Pacita shows a bit of temper (Alfonso who loves Pacita and not Elena, who treats the younger sister as his adopted mother, seems to have inherited this trait, though the two are not blood relatives). Even mild-mannered Elsa shows fangs, as when a death in the family causes her to assault an innocent visitor--to Deogracias or Ilustre family is all, though Elena the elected official may insist otherwise.

One cannot entirely escape one's instincts, however; in the final minutes of the final episode of this week Elena, backed into a metaphorical corner, decides: “We need Alfonso.” Even if he's a refugee from the law guilty of any number of crimes she can't ignore family, not always, not entirely.

Saint Elena has her less-than-saintly moments, and a good thing too--adds dimension to her character. She can seem insufferably self-righteous, constantly demanding that people live up to her high standards, and it rubs others the wrong way. She doesn't seem at all familiar with the idea that politics is the art of compromise (a crucial survival skill). And there's this: just before Andrea gets married, Elena is visited by Ramoncito. Not a long visit, but long enough for Elena to have a heart-to-heart talk with him. He abandons Andrea at the wedding aisle shortly after.

Did Elena poison Andrea for her future husband? The question she asked--if Andrea really loved him--wasn't she aware of the possible effect those words would have on him? Granted we saw the exchange, and we could clearly see that Elena was talking out of sincere concern--isn't that the best, most unimpeachable way to strike at one's enemy, from a position of moral superiority? Suddenly Elena doesn't seem all that innocent; suddenly she seems more capable, more believable as governor, and you wonder if maybe not all the accusations Andrea, Alfonso, and Lucia have leveled against her are blatant lies.

Directors Mario O'Hara and Jon Red, working on scripts by Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, and Pamela Miras, have in effect re-told Philippine history of the past thirty years. The Deogracias and the Ilustres, like the Aquinos and Marcoses in real life, come to represent Filipino society at its worst and finest, a trick of perspective O'Hara has used before in his noir masterpiece Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986), where an alternate-history province stood in for the real Manila, its classy governess for Ms. Marcos (who at one point was governess of Metro Manila),  its often baroque and at times unwatchable violence lifted directly from anecdotes of the era.

Television is reportedly a writer's medium, and the aforementioned writers did an astonishing job, telling the story of around a dozen characters over a period of several months (not an especially wide scope, but the level of detail involved is intimidating); it helps that O'Hara doesn't attend the story conferences developing the plot lines but does rewrite the script when it arrives on the set, helping keep the dialogue effective and real (or as real as possible within the confines of melodrama). All that said, the two directors helming the project do an amazing job of keeping the series visually distinct. O'Hara's classic style (John Ford by way of Gerardo de Leon) makes for an interesting contrast against Red's young-punk style (Leone by way of Johnny To, I'm guessing, with the occasional homage to Paul Greengrass). Red deals mainly with the younger cast, and his restless, flashy camera reflects their restless, flashy acting style; O'Hara's stoic understatement, on the other hand, perfectly complements Aunor and de Leon--in their scenes together you sense a serenity and quiet intimacy that comes from years of having known each other, worked with each other, at one point even loved one another.

Best television you're likely to see this year? I don't know; I haven't had a chance to watch much Filipino TV (asking around, people do tell me it is). I can say this much: it's the best storytelling I've seen this year to date, and that includes everything released this year on the big screen--Hollywood, independent, international.

The series continues for one more week in October at TV5; the previous episodes are available for online streaming (there are roughly ten episodes to catch up with). If you're at all interested in what Aunor or O'Hara (arguably the two finest Filipino artists alive, in their first major collaboration in over twenty years) are up to, or if you only want some sharp and intelligent storytelling--in this case an imaginatively entertaining re-telling of our history of the past three decades--you could do worse than to watch this. Highly recommended.

Next: Week 4

First published in Businessworld, 10.27.11

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, Mario O'Hara): third week

Best of the year, arguably

(Cont'd from Part 1)

It had been some time in the making. Nora Aunor, on self-imposed exile for something like eight years, was rumored late last year to be coming home. The rumors persisted for months, to the point that no one quite believed she would be flying back till she actually stood there in August, on Philippine soil.

Things moved fast after that; TV5 had a deal with her to do a miniseries, or in the local jargon a teleserye; Mario O'Hara was rumored to direct. A large cast was assembled; this was TV5's first attempt at such a creature, and they apparently were to spare no expense. About a month before its October broadcast, Jon Red was attached to the project as co-director. Unlike other similar efforts, this apparently was to end after a month--it would come, introduce its storylines, and end. No extensions, no outstaying its welcome (the main reason why quality drops, apparently,).

The series opened October 3 to loud media fanfare; it was to be nothing more and nothing less than a sprawling political melodrama, not unlike--well, it's difficult to think of something, anything, it even remotely resembles. I remember hearing of Peque Gallaga's Cebu back in the '90s and in the mid-2000s--the shows were reportedly memorable for the dialogue, acting, production design (most if not all of Gallaga's films have excellent production design); I heard of Chito Rono's Davao, which does for that southern city what Gallaga's does for Cebu. Both are oft compared to Dallas or Dynasty--well-written potboilers done in high style.

Politics often lightly touches Filipino melodramas, and occasionally there'll be a character running for office, but never to my limited knowledge has an entire series been devoted to an election and its elected official's subsequent administration. One thinks not of Dallas, but of Altman's Tanner '88--sophisticated satire where Altman veteran Michael Murphy poses as a political candidate that, in his deadpan seriousness, comes uncomfortably close to resembling the posture of actual candidates (what's pose and what's real then?). Sa Ngalan ng Ina on the other hand is a full-speed-ahead melodrama, all tears and screaming and hair-pulling mixed with backroom intrigues and lurid affairs, plus the occasional assassination attempt. A garish mix of pathos and the grotesque, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus crossed with a small-town fiesta--much like a real Filipino-style election, when you think about it (the series' spirit if not tone connects it to Altman's work more than might be expected).

The series won high praise, but only modest ratings--it didn't pull in the general audience. Watching it, you wonder if it ever could, or was even meant to. Politics despite its tendency to inspire eccentric or even obsessive behavior, has never been popular television fare in the Philippines (or anywhere else, actually); leastwise, people seem to prefer practicing than watching it. For all its plot twists and tearjerking moments, this teleserye does keep a careful eye on the actual politics, the endless fundraising and shifting alliances, the nuts and bolts of administering a local government--one subplot involves the siphoning of provincial treasury funds into a rice stockpile; another traces money meant to buy farm equipment handed over to local mayors.

The series is different because it's about something--the struggle between rival political dynasties; how personal life affects public life; so on and so forth. TV audiences possibly aren't used to this much substance and complexity in prime time--it whizzes over their heads. Or rather, I suspect, it doesn't; they know exactly what's going on. They've seen too much of the shenanigans of real dynasties (the Aquinos, the Marcoses, the Macapagals) to want to watch it realized, however brilliantly, on the small screen (call it “The Tanner Effect”--low ratings due to inspired mimicry).

The first week followed a classic story: aspiring gubernatorial candidate Amang Deogracias (Bembol Roco) is assassinated under orders of Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces), wife of incumbent governor Pepe Ilustre (Christopher De Leon); Amang's wife Elena Deogracias (Nora Aunor) runs in her husband's place, and wins the election. The story is fairy-tale fantastic (a housewife for governor?) and by all rights laughable, only it closely follows the actual career of Corazon Aquino, who ran in place of her husband Ninoy against arch-rival and long-time president Ferdinand Marcos (alongside his infamous wife Imelda), and won. Aside from transposing national events to the size and scale of provincial politics (the province of Verano standing in for the Philippines, the town of Salvacion standing in for the country's capital Manila, the office of governor representing that of president)--so far so faithful.

Then the real creativity comes in. Elena has to run her administration the same time she has to administer her four children: stepson Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingo), a hotheaded drug lord; younger stepson Angelo (Edgar Allan Guzman), a police officer; stepdaughter Andrea (Nadine Sarmonte), a local mayor, and Elsa Toribio (Eula Caballero), Elena's daughter out of wedlock. Alfonso is arrested under Elena's orders, and escapes with the help of Andrea; Elena orders a manhunt for Alfonso and an investigation of Andrea, earning their unending enmity.

Angelo and the Ilustre's only daughter Carmela (Karel Marquez) are sweethearts, though Elsa is also in love with Angelo; Andrea plans to marry Ramoncito (Joross Gamboa), who pretty much acts like her heroic manservant / wash rag. Lucia despite being married is conducting an affair--her husband Pepe is paralyzed from waist down, and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to perform his marital duties. Of all the major factions Elena stands alone, with only her daughter Elsa, her younger stepson Angelo and her sister Pacita Toribio (Eugene Domingo) giving moral support and (on Pacita's part) the occasional commonsense advice; against her stand Pepe and Lucia's politically powerful family, two of her own children (Andrea and Alfonso) with their own respective groups and resources, and eventually her own political party (investigating fellow party members for corruption (the farm equipment scandal) did not win her friends). With her is a secret ally--former governor Pepe Ilustre, who as it turns out was Elena's former sweetheart.

The situation is akin to housewife Cory running against the Marcoses' powerful political machinery, only Ferdinand has been harboring a secret crush on her all along. The idea seems to play off on the implausible nature of Filipino politics, where personality counts far more than policy, a man's ties--social, familial, amorous--and not his time or actions in office define him, and theater--a good storyline in particular--is all. Your stepson a drug lord, your other stepson a cop? A former lover your secret ally? Why not? We're taking Filipino politics to the next level: politics  intensified, to the speed and complexity of television melodrama. Call it Filipino hyperpolitics.

Likewise with the characterization. Many of the characters' names are thuddingly obvious--'Angelo' for for what seems to be the province's only good and honest cop; 'Dorinda' (a 'komiks' name if ever there was one, usually a villainess at that) for Elena's vice-mayor; 'Deogracias' meaning 'grace of God' (Elena is only a novena short of sainthood status, it seems). For the first week all the characters play classic types: Alfonso is a hot-headed wild card, Andrea a bitchy manipulator; Lucia is a larger-than-life villainess complete with cunning machinations and chilling monologues (there's a memorable moment where a man is tortured and killed and she sits in her vehicle not a hundred feet away, murmuring lazy sentiments about snakes, and the satisfaction of crushing their skulls underfoot). She's like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and her immediate inspiration, Imelda Marcos (whose native-style gowns and high-seated hairbuns she deliberately imitates).

Next week: Best of the year arguably, next part 

First published in Businessworld, 10.24.11

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Band Apart's 130 Greatest Films

Now on the film blog A Band Apart, a poll of the 130 Greatest Films.

(#1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) 

2. Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino, USA (57 mentions)

3. Taxi Driver (1976) Martin Scorsese, USA (53 mentions)
4. Stalker (1979) Andrey Tarkovskiy, Soviet Union (51 mentions)
5. Persona (1966) Ingmar Bergman, Sweden (50 mentions)
6. Mulholland Dr. (2001) David Lynch, USA (49 mentions)
7. Zerkalo (1975) Andrey Tarkovskiy, Soviet Union (48 mentions)
8. City Lights (1931) Charles Chaplin, USA (47 mentions)
9. The Godfather (1972) Francis Ford Coppola, USA (47 mentions)
10. Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola, USA (46 mentions)
From a list of about a hundred participants, many of them bloggers, some under pseudonyms.

Won't waste breath complaining about what's not there; I know the list by its statistical nature (see Mark Twain about statistics) is an aggregation of opinions and its true value as an indicator of quality (not that the titles are no good--it's a good list overall--but that there are in my opinion better titles left out). Beyond its veracity, though, which I feel is questionable at best, there's a chance to promote lesser-known titles, including a #1 that's not Citizen Kane.

My list of a hundred great films is included; check the link to 'participants,' and click on my name. That's all I'm really looking for; a venue that features (however modestly) all participating lists, and a chance to let my biases be known. This to my mind is the real value of the exercise--that my preferences be known.

When Mao Tse-tung declared "Let a hundred flowers bloom!" it was historically ironic; his declaration was a trap meant to lure dissenters into revealing themselves. I repeat his words in an  unironic sense (unirony I feel being underrated nowadays): let a hundred lists bloom!


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Moneyball, Contagion, Drive, Straw Dogs, Conan, Apes & more...

Notes on recent films and classics, and others in between:


The film avoids almost every cliche in sports movies, is the first sports movie I've seen where an actual overall strategy that makes sense is consistently used, as opposed to "hitting one for the Gipper" or somesuch heroic sentiment.

I liked it; I like the clever mix of video footage both archival and re-enacted, I like the overall low-key tone and obliqueness, I like the loose way Miller has with dialogue--the way people talk over each other, sit back and stare at each other in exasperation, have quite moments of interaction. I think Miller's got a magic touch with actors. Unusually perceptive commentator on imdb points out the sound ambiance in the film is unusually layered and complex. It does sound more like a documentary film than an ordinary mainstream film. Miller's first film, The Cruise, had a similarly layered soundtrack (I thought he kind of lost it in his second one, Capote, glad to see he's recovered here). I'd go so far as to call it the best mainstream movie of the year--considering Malick's isn't quite mainstream, nor is Drive, and I can't think of anything else off the top of my head. Well, there's...


Basically Outbreak for the intelligently levelheaded. Soderberg exchanges cheap thrills for coherence in this well-told, well-organized docudrama of a film that, far as I can tell, pretty much gives us the 'what could have been' of a serious epidemic outbreak, and how authorities would mobilize to deal with it. Two especially chilling points about the movie: this is what could happen if we were very, very lucky (many of the moves done by authorities are in fact based on government policies already in place); and I had to spend most of the picture trying to suppress a cough. I couldn't afford to deal with the stares from my seated neighbors. 


Stylish for the most part; Refn shows a gift for staging intelligent car chases and action sequences. Where Drive sputters is in the romance angle--a bit of attraction to a neighbor a la In the Mood for Love, without Wong Kar Wai's swoony romanticism. Ryan Gosling is nicely self-contained, Albert Brooks a keen delight; Carey Mulligan and the usually fun Ron Perlman are distinctly wasted.

Straw Dogs

A remake in the truest sense, in that it takes off from Peckinpah rather than from the source novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm, Rod Lurie's remake borrows many of Peckinpah's shots, a good portion of his staging, whole swaths of dialogue, and for good measure, snips out every bit of business that made the original the outrageous provocation of a masterpiece it is today. Not just unnecessary, it's maddeningly, infuriatingly bland.

Conan the Barbarian

Incredible film, in that it actually made me pine for the Gubernator's laconic wit and subtle acting skills. The director shoots and cuts the action sequences from poverty, with plenty of ideas stolen from oh, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Alien, among many others, not to mention you can tell that the budget was all spent on fake blood and prosthetic limbs instead of irrelevancies like a good script, or talented directors. The villain is forgettable, though his daughter does look hot in bald white makeup and extension claws. The 'pureblood' is hot-tish; nowadays it takes more than a pretty face to turn me on, it takes funny lines, delivered with at least an awareness of comic timing, timing the lead squeeze doesn't seem to have. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The best moments are Cesar's rise and assumption of control over the apes, the most chilling moment when the apes walk out of their cages and meet Cesar's eye, and you realize: this isn't a herd of primates, it's an army acknowledging their commander. The subplot about a virus taking over the world is far less persuasive--Outbreak redux, really? Soderbergh manages to present a more persuasive case (see above). John Lithgow is moving as the slowly fading father.  

8 ½

People call this a fantasy; I think it's one of the most sobering films I've ever seen. The overriding emotion pervading this three ring circus of a film is fear--fear of inadequacy, fear of mediocrity, fear of failure and of admitting to one's failure before the general public. This is the flip side of man's ability to fly high on imagination--at a certain point, you notice the ground far, far away. Fellini put a note on the camera, reminding him it's a comedy (he needs the reminder, it's such grim material), but it's not just a comedy, it (along with Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.) is one of the most beautifully photographed comedies ever made.  

Apollo 13

Is this Ron Howard's best-ever work? Not a great film, but it is a great story, and Howard almost but not quite ruins it. He's got the stylistic distinctiveness of a Big Mac, the melodramatic touch of an elephant, but when he sticks to the technogeek talk of the astronauts and their ground crew, the movie becomes compelling. Then he cuts to Kathleen Quinlan pining away back on Earth or to a CGI shot so flat and blatantly fake my teeth grind again. An almost tolerable two-plus hours.

Wild Rovers

Possibly Blake Edward's masterpiece, a sometimes comical, sometimes violent, mournfully tender film about two cowhands who decide to rob a bank. Not perfect--the bits that seemed borrowed from Peckinpah look exactly that, borrowed--but you might call this Edwards' reply to Peckinpah, that a film can be unflinching and still be concerned about things other than machismo and mayhem. Edwards has a surer, gentler grasp of comedy than Peckinpah (bits of the funny stuff in The Wild Bunch is hard to take), his view of his characters feels more rueful, more subdued (an arguably more difficult achievement I submit), is as densely textured and detailed as a Larry McMurtry western. The widescreen photography is not  shallowly gorgeous: Edwards has a gift for filling all that wide space with interesting compositions.

I Walked with a Zombie

Easily the most stylish adaptation of Jane Eyre ever made, Jacques Tourneur's quietly unsettling film answers the simple question: what if Rochester had never left the Caribbean--if Jane were to meet him there instead? In less than seventy minutes Tourneur's balletic camera describes a world of dreamlike languor and voodoo magic, a world where not just Rochester's wife but all the main characters are, in fact, only half alive, caught between passion's drive and society's demands. The film itself is equally divided in nature, alternating between long, beautifully lit and photographed sequences almost entirely without dialogue (Betsy's first encounter with Jessica, the trek to the Home Front) and monologues from people describing their struggle with passion's consequences with all the fervor of recovering addicts (Tom Conway, Edith Barrett). The ending has been described as abrupt; I can only call it inevitable, lyrical, breathlessly tragic. A great film. 

In a Lonely Place

(Warning: ending discussed in close detail)

Reportedly when Ray translated the source novel to the big screen he did something altogether different: he ditched the serial killer angle, turned it into a more grounded drama. Maybe it's a condition of the times, but serial killers just don't do it for me anymore; they're cartoon villains, an easy answer when asking about the nature of evil (it's like Ultimate Evil is supposed to be Heath Ledger in clown makeup--can be unsettling for oh, ten minutes, then you want something more substantial). Funny how Ray turns proof of Dixon's innocence into a moment of high tragedy--not an easy feat, I would imagine. I admit, you do lose the intensity and terror, but for me making him NOT guilty is ultimately more unsettling. "Serial killer" would have been an easy answer for what he does; for Ray he's a man who has to live with himself and what he's capable of doing--and I say that's a harder fate than life in a mental hospital dungeon decorated with plexiglass. Sunset Boulevard--a contemporary, dealing with a similar milieu--for all its pleasures is a portrait of a grotesque; In a Lonely Place the monster can be any of us. 

It's a Wonderful Life

(Warning: again, ending discussed in detail)

The most supremely depressing movie ever made. Just think, after torturing George Baily for a day and confronting him with the prospect of a wrecked banking career, they send him to an alternate world for about twenty minutes, terrifying him short of shitting in his pants (The again who knows? The screen has no Smell-O-Vision). When they bring him back, he's so blubberingly grateful he accepts the miserable situation allotted to him for the rest of his pathetic life. All done in bright, Hallmark Greeting Card cheerfulness as only Capra can. Can you think of a more pessimistic ending? I'd say only Eyes Wide Shut comes anywhere close, and I don't think Kubrick has Capra's purity of intent and execution. 

Black Girl

Sembene's hour-long first feature is, when you really stop to think about it, a deadpan comedy. She's a fish out of water, a nanny asked to move to Paris who on the day of her arrival is asked to work as launderer, cook, and live-in maid. Basically the girl and her employers spend the film talking past each other--she thought she'd grab the chance to enjoy a glamorous Parisian vacation, they thought they would save her life and acquire an all-around drudge on the side. The results are hilarious, but with hidden fangs. 


Monday, October 17, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (Mario O'Hara, 10/3/11 - 10/14/11)

In the name of the artist

Filipino actress Nora Aunor works best with Filipino filmmaker Mario O'Hara.

There, I've said it. Oh, Aunor--a multimedia, multi-awarded giantess in the '70s and '80s--has done excellent work with other directors (Bona (1980) with Lino Brocka, Himala with Ishmael Bernal, 'Merika (1984) with Gil Portes), but arguably her finest films were with O'Hara (Condemned (1984); Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984); the great Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). If Brocka had his favorite actors (Philip Salvador, Gina Alajar) and Bernal his (Vilma Santos, Maricel Soriano), O'Hara's is possibly Nora. More than a filmography they share a quiet sensitivity, a kind of shyness; they would rather avoid the spotlight if they could help it (but when it falls on them, they step up with the confidence of veteran professionals). In temperament they could conceivably be brother and sister, having practically grown up together as workers and artists in a pitilessly changing industry. 

Talk about pitiless, O'Hara and Aunor have not worked with each other for some twenty-four years, and time has taken its toll--O'Hara has gained a mane of white hair, Aunor''s expression has grown solemn, even careworn. The actress has spent almost eight years out of the country, in seeming exile, trailed along the way by stories of bankrupt finances and a drug possession charge. Now she's come home, and judging by all the media fuss she seems bigger than ever, and we (at least those who've never really forgotten) wait with bated breath for the results of their first collaboration in decades. Will lightning strike yet again? Is the magic still there? 

It is. Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) is that rare creature in Philippine television, the political melodrama. Longer and more complex soap operas have been mounted on Philippine television before, and politics has been touched upon before, but far as I can recall there has never been a series (the exact name of the genre is, I believe, the teleserye) fully driven by politics, hinging upon the election into office and subsequent administration of the main character. This particular production will run for only the month of October--meaning the production budget (which is lavish) can and has already be measured out, and the storyline guaranteed, more or less, not to run out of gas (a common complaint, apparently about many a teleserye--that they have overstayed their welcome).

It's a whirlwind of a melodrama--without much wasted breath O'Hara and co-director Jon Red (brother of independent filmmaker Raymond Red) take material written by Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras, and establish the dozen or so characters of the story, their often conflicting motivations, the tumultuous milieu in which they operate. 

Philippine elections have traditionally been a chaotic affair, to put it mildly; I'd call it a cross between an endless town rally and a three-ring circus, with the occasional rival-gang shootout interrupting the festivities. The idea of setting a melodrama during a province's gubernatorial elections is, to put it mildly, genius--the marriage of tone and substance makes such perfect sense it's a wonder no one's ever thought of it before. Complex machinations and even more complex plot twists? Nefarious treacheries and lurid sex? Vicious confrontations among political rivals, long-time friends, blood brothers? Torture, car chases, assassination attempts? Either you're watching a lengthy melodrama (with a Hollywood-sized budget I'm guessing The Godfather, Part 1 and 2) or it's election season in the Philippines, baby; don't forget to wear a raincoat (for the mudslinging and spittle) over your bullet-proof vest.

This is familiar territory for O'Hara; his Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) is set in a large and powerful (if fictional) province, where two rival factions vie for the position of governor of the land. The fictional province is Manila, the office of governor a stand-in for the office of President of the Philippines; the relatively small-scale struggle (relatively; I thought O'Hara had wrought a rarity among noir films--the noir epic) served as metaphor for the nationwide struggle to wrest power away from former president Ferdinand Marcos. 

Sa Ngalan ng Ina while lighter in tone (Bagong Hari received an "X" rating from the censors board for its extreme violence) is broader in scope, ranging from housewife-turned president Cory Aquino's rise to power (she was chosen to run against Marcos for the sentimental value of her husband Ninoy's death--presumably assassinated under orders from Marcos' wife, Imelda), through her struggles as naive Chief Executive (both traditional politicians (trapos) and the military (here represented by the province's police force) alike constantly underestimated her). The series even throws in a subplot involving secret recordings--a reference to the "Hello, Garci" tape scandal that marred former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration. 

Easy to equate the characters to their real-life inspirations: Elena Deogracias (Aunor) is the Cory Aquino figure, her husband Amang (Bembol Roco) the martyred Ninoy; wheelchair-bound Pepe Ilustre (Christopher de Leon) is Ferdinand Marcos, the voluptuous Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces) his ruthless wife. The script introduces several interesting changes to the actual story: turns out Elena and Pepe were once lovers (as Aunor and De Leon were in real life), and their children also romantically involved (a la the late Bienvenido Noriega's comedy musical Bongbong at Kris). The script cunningly links not just to recent political history (Aquino vs. Marcos, with a touch of Macapagal-Arroyo) but to recent popular movie history (Aunor vs. De Leon, both having once been married to each other).

So--topical relevance; high production values; a royal flush of excellent actors (along with the main stars there's Leo Rialp, Raquel Villavicencio, Alwyn Uytingco, Eugene Domingo), a solidly constructed, intricately plotted script. Not a bad vehicle, overall--but a television melodrama? How to reconcile this with O'Hara's reputation as one of the Philippines' better filmmakers?

Actually there's nothing to reconcile; O'Hara has always embraced melodrama--it's where he comes from. He got his first break in a Proctor and Gamble radio show in 1963, years before meeting Brocka, and Filipino radio is nothing if not melodrama. He acted on the theatrical stage; wrote scripts for and acted in Brocka's TV series Balintataw. His script for Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos was originally written for the drama series Hilda, a dramatic showcase for Brocka protege Hilda Koronel. At one point he was the director of the hit series Flordeluna, starring Janice de Belen in the 1980s--you might say he improved the series. On occasion I've caught him directing the odd episode of Lovingly Yours, Helen; he did one of the better instalments for Eddie Romero's 1896 TV mini-series, Alitaptap sa Gabing Madilim (Firefly in the Dark Night) based on a Lualhati Bautista script. Far as I know he's still acting onstage, and on radio. 

In short O'Hara does not put on airs, and has not lost touch with his roots--he takes this project seriously, and has lavished it with his distinct visual and narrative sensibilities. You see it in the camerawork--though O'Hara has always maintained that video is a less expressive medium, you wouldn't think it looking at the film's extravagant lighting scheme (all those large-scale night scenes with their need for floodlights are always more expensive to shoot). 

You see it in big ways--the many parties, rallies and large crowds; in several of the action sequences, the biggest to date being the safehouse assault. O'Hara in films like Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) and the aforementioned Condemned and Bagong Hari has proven time and time again he's a competent action director, and he proves it yet again here. The assault is realistically staged, cleanly shot and edited, and not a little suspenseful (can't help but think that the gang leader's last stand on the mansion's highest alcove is a little bit inspired by the finale of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-ju, 1957)).

(As it turns out, I am wrong--Red directed this. In which case, kudos to the man; it's a very well done setpiece) 

You see it in subtler ways--the first meeting between Elena and Pepe in an old church, for example. Pepe in his wheelchair sits up and turns to look at the camera; he is limned in light against a dark background. Reverse cut to Elena, a dark silhouette against brilliant sunlight, contrasting light and shadow used to contrast two physically and temperamentally different actors (the dusky, quietly intense Aunor, the mestizo-looking, more easygoing De Leon). Later you have party leader Apo Lucas (Leo Rialp) approaching Elena in a gazebo, and the sequence is shot and framed like a stage production not unlike A Midsummer Night's Dream. Which makes all kinds of sense--Apo will offer Elena the candidacy for governor and it's meant to be a quietly moving moment, the episode's dramatic high point. But Apo's intentions are false; he means to use her as a puppet figure. He assumes Elena has visions of power, and that her ambitions are a mere fantasy he can grant or cause to vanish at any time, much like dreams--or much like, as Puck suggests, most of what happens in Shakespeare's play (If we shadows have offended / think but this, and all is mended / that you have but slumbered here / while these visions did appear).

I can't help but play this game, who's directing what scene--I keep thinking most of the sweeping crane shots are Jon Red's (really beautifully done, some of them), and some of the high static overhead shots are O'Hara's (he occasionally likes to assume a God's eye view of the action, to remind us how small and helpless we really are). I'm guessing all the church scenes are O'Hara's, mainly because they have the feel of his work (locked-down camera, simple setup, sharp mis-en-scene).

I'm guessing some of the sound editing and music cuing are O'Hara's work--as he likes to put it, they're so radio. Conversations from the next scene often overlap the images of the previous scene; at one point the conversation on television runs on in the background while the scene has already cut from studio into the Ilustre's bedroom--a nice way of telling us that, despite all of Lucia's protestations, she does have something to do with what they're talking about on TV.

Perhaps oddest of all is a trick used at least twice, where the image suddenly slows down while conversation runs on ahead. You get a sense of events moving past you, past the characters, past everyone's control, while you're left staring at slowed-down people struggling to catch up. It's easily the series' most disconcerting audio effect.

Easily O'Hara's simplest yet most powerful device would be his musical cuing. No one else I know can cue like O'Hara (he had to help Brocka with the soundtrack of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), for example). He'll keep the scene mostly quiet, the acting mostly subdued, and at a key word or phrase or carefully timed moment he'll sneak in the music--and just like that you're trying your level best not to tear up.

Actingwise, there's very little to fault. Eugene Domingo as Pacita presides over Elena's household and governor's office like a born second-in-command; her salty down-to-earth wisdom makes one think of Sancho Panza, supporting the fragile Don Quixote. Leo Rialp as Apo has few scenes, but what few he has stands out (his charming old patriarch act very much caught me by surprised, as I was at one point thinking this political party seemed too squeaky-clean for its own good--Rialp quickly put paid to that misconception). The lovely Raquel Villavicencio as former Vice Governor Dorinda Fernando doesn't have a consistent presence--the script writes her out of entire episodes--but her character when actually there is wonderfully bitchy, a real power-climber and seasoned survivor. Alwyn Uytingco as Elena's stepson Alfonso has the showy role, the prodigal child, and plays it to the hilt; he knows, however, that when called to play differently (as in the aftermath to the assassination attempt gone wrong) that that is his moment, and he comes through wonderfully. Christopher De Leon as Pepe Ilustre reportedly refused to take direction from O'Hara when they did Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos over thirty-five years ago (though for the record I liked him there); he's apparently learned enough to listen now, as his is a largely restrained performance. His scenes with Aunor have a beautiful delicacy to them, as if the two veterans know they only have to do very little to suggest page upon page of intense feelings between them. Rosanna Roces plots and rants and fumes as Pepe's evil wife Lucia, and you can tell she's having the time of her life with possibly the role of her life, as the melodrama's chief villainess. If Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) is basically a confrontation between two powerful women, so is Sa Ngalan ng Ina (fact is, I think we're ahead of the United States in depicting women taking power onscreen--our women have now reached the level of achievement of Ray's film, in reducing men to pawns and trophy husbands); Roces steps up to the plate across Aunor and delivers an over-the-top performance worthy of Joan Crawford herself.

It's a spectacular success, but what stays in one's memory are the quieter moments. There are the scenes of Aunor and De Leon in church, of course, but then there's the very quiet, very fine scene of Pacita feeding Alfonso, and Alfonso wishing she and not Elena were his stepmother. It's more than just killing time; it helps show us a more motherly side to Pacita, and an altogether more human side to Alfonso--when he does what he does later in the show, we can't forget having seen that side, and it makes his later anger all the more unsettling. Later Lucia confronts Pepe, and we realize that for all her evil machinations and adulteries she does love him, very much; if anything, she does it all out of a sense of love, not hate. You realize you're watching not a virago but a woman after all, flesh-and-blood and full of helpless anguish at the treacheries of the human heart. 

As for Aunor--what else to say about her? When Amang dies on the treatment table the room bursts out in a symphony of grieving. Aunor knows she has to play against that, she has to pull your eyes down, down, down to her diminutive level so you're aware that, while everyone else is being far more demonstrative, the news has hit her the hardest. Later, she has a simple scene with Domingo putting away Amang's clothes where it's her effort not to cry, instead of the usual histrionics and tears, that makes the scene so quietly moving. 

It's not perfect work, and perhaps the most serious flaw in it is Elena's sainted goodness, which is almost too good to be true. But we're only halfway through the series, and hopefully O'Hara, Red, and the rest of the filmmaking team will manage to show us more sides to our heroine, give us the clay feet as well as the halo.

O'Hara helps out; he has Aunor flash out in steely anger more and more often, and I remember a line she delivers to an underperforming police officer that deserves to be an oft-quoted classic ("Remember I had my own son arrested--think what I'd do to someone outside my family!"). Most of O'Hara's work seems to consist of modulating Aunor's glamor, of having the camera treat her thematically, according to the demands of the narrative, instead of protecting her as befits the star of a big production. Often Aunor looks harried and exhausted, and it's heartrending to see her like this (you feel all the problems of the series weighing down on her). Once in a while though O'Hara relents, finds a certain angle...and suddenly she's gorgeous to look at, our Superstar forever, the literal face of Philippine cinema. 

(Cont'd in next part)


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2010)

Passion play

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, one might say, does not do things in halves. He does not waffle; he does not prevaricate; when his films state something they do so declaratively, forcefully. His protagonists faced with the ultimate struggle do not go gentle into that good night--they kick a few garbage cans along the way, shriek their lungs out, and for good measure toss rocks through the back window.

Take Inarritu's latest, Biutiful (2010)--no; backtrack a bit. Inarritu has a tendency to employ multiple story threads in his movies: Amores Perros (2000) used a car crash to unite three separate narratives; 21 Grams (2003) used a hit-and-run accident (vehicular mishaps figure heavily in his pictures); Babel (2006)--his most ambitious work to date--follows four stories in as many countries, and does not involve a vehicle as a major plot element, though a bus rider is, at one point, shot.

With Biutiful Inarritu seems to have forsworn this tendency by focusing on only one protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father raising two kids--seems, that is, until one looks at the protagonist's situation more carefully. Uxbal's wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) is an ex-drug addict and suffers from a bipolar disorder; he is torn between denying her the children and leaving them in her unreliable care. He finds jobs for twenty-five Chinese workers smuggled into Spain illegally; along the way finds himself concerned for a young woman sick with colds (she and her fellow workers sleep in an unheated basement). He sells drugs through a series of Senegalese vendors (also in Spain illegally) and is later saddled with the problem of caring for a Senegalese woman and her child.

Any one of these responsibilities would be enough to weigh down even the strongest men but no; Inarritu continues to pile on the poor man--Uxbal learns that he has prostate cancer, and that with chemotherapy he only has months to live; a friend urges him to put his affairs in order before he goes (duh). He also sees dead people (where did that come from--Shyamalan?) and at at one point has to tell a boy's father that his son was a thief.

It's at about this far in that you want to throw up your hands and yell “Okay!” Innarritu doesn't know when to stop; it's his most glorious virtue and most damning curse. The movie ranges all over the place, from urban hyperdrama to domestic melodrama to Twilight Zone supernatural; each narrative is accompanied by its own garish color scheme, each strains for its own memorable climax.

If anything in this escudella i carn d'olla--a kind of Catalan Christmas stew--sticks out, if anything in this overheated, overflowing bowl of mushy potage remains distinct in memory, it's Bardem. He's like the MGM lion with sad, Castillan eyes, a monument of a figure with a magnificently sculpted head and mane (Bardem's hair worn loose and long is like a mark of Biblical profundity--that's why the ridiculous 'do forced on him by the Coen brothers was so unforgivable, Oscar award or no Oscar award); he is like a supersized silent stone figure meant to commemorate some great tragedy (in Inarritu's eyes, three or four of them). Bardem as Uxbal somehow makes all this work; he sells the absurd plot with his heroic forbearance, his almost inhuman way of glaring at one unspeakably sad image after another and making his reaction somehow fresh and honest (even if for the film's last hour he's been racking up enough tragedies to fill a dozen socialist operas full to brimming).

Bardem does more than his share in selling this silliness--you almost want to bow to him in respect for what he's trying to do. You want to say “what a pile of shit!” but the scorn catches in the throat; the attempt, after all, is made with noble (if simpleminded) intentions, and the failure is still of Brobdingnagian scale, and impressive as hell.

The picture does remind one of other, more successful attempts: one remembers the Dardennes brothers' La Promesse (1996) which also dealt with illegal immigrants, but was as beautiful and persuasive in its austerity as this is confusing and ridiculous in its prodigality. It helped that the Dardennes filtered the story through the eyes of a child; when detail after damning detail finally clicks into place in the child's quietly perceptive mind, he (and through his eyes we the audience) gasp at the monstrousness of what's going on. The understated heroism of the child's final gesture seems earned, where the tragedy of Bardem's downfall here--and it does feel tragic despite, not because, of all the hoo-hah--seems forced and artificial. The Dardennes are masters of gracefully neorealist storytelling; Inarritu, it seems to me, is a master of garishly sensationalist poverty porn. All in all, I much prefer the Dardennes.

First published in Businessworld, 10.6.11

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival's Dragons and Tigers Award 2011

Poster for Eduardo Roy's Bahay Bata (Baby Factory)

From Tony Rayns, regarding the Vancouver International Film Festivals Dragons and Tigers Award 2011:

This year’s jury comprised (in alphabetical order) Simon FIELD from Great Britain, Ann HUI from Hong Kong and YANG Ikjune from South Korea. 

The jury has decided to award two Special Mentions.

The first goes to BABY FACTORY by Eduardo ROY Jr from The Philippines. The jury admired the film’s unique mixture of documentary and fiction. The film addresses the cruel realities of overpopulation in a country where birth control is neither taught nor freely available, and we salute it for its candour and directness.

The second goes to RECREATION by NAGANO Yoshihiro from Japan. The film focuses on a case of lethal youth crime. We admired its unique atmosphere of ennui mixed with apprehension, and the brilliant interaction of the cast. Strangely enough, given the cruelty and desperation of the story, the film never for a moment loses its sympathy for the characters.

The 2011 Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema goes to:

THE SUN-BEATEN PATH by the Tibetan director Sonthar Gyal from China. The jury admired its remarkable cinematic qualities, and its ability to tell a moving story with complex emotions through one face and one landscape. We were also impressed by the way the film draws such distinctive characters and by its persuasive evocation of Tibetan culture. It brings us a powerful voice from a new ethnic cinema.


Friday, October 07, 2011

Hannah (Joe Wright, 2011)

Ronan looking suitably shell-shocked in Hanna

Little killer girl

Hanna, Joe Wright's first attempt to direct an original screenplay as opposed to a literary adaptation, is fun in a lowbrow way, easily his most enjoyable work yet. It's silly from the get-go and not as smart as it thinks; the fight sequences range wildly in quality, from incomprehensible to derivative. But the imagery is vivid, and the performances compelling and memorable.

The basic premise goes like this: Erik Heller (Eric Bana) trains his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) to be a remorseless, relentless killer in the icy reaches of Finland. The girl is hunted by intelligence officer Marissa Wegler (Cate Blanchett), who's trying to clean up the mess left behind by an old CIA program involving unwanted fetuses and genetic manipulation.

The story so far seems like the kind of fantasy scenario dreamed up by ambitious young college students while still in film school--and in fact is the product of a film school graduate, one Seth Lochhead (with additional polish provided by TV writer and playwright David Farr). What brings the movie down to Earth and in the realm of human emotions is what happens when Hanna escapes--she falls in with a hippie-ish family out on a camping vacation, and makes friends with their daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden). Life with Sophie and her parents affords Hanna her own fantasy, that of living a normal life, with normal friends--even a potential boyfriend, without the prospect of snapping his neck.

Ronan plays Hanna like a robot or android with its human infiltration software imperfectly installed--but instead of crippling her performance, this not-all-there quality only intensifies it, makes it mysterious and (hence) fascinating. The girl has a pale wintery beauty that befits the Finnish snowscape; when taken on the camping trip she's hilariously out of place--an ethereal fairy lacking only a pair of wings to fly off and sprinkle pixie dust all over everyone.

As her father Eric Bana does creditably well--a mix of training coach and father, with all the accompanying baggage of patriarchal guilt and pride (it doesn't hurt that he's in perfect physical condition to kick ass). As CIA Officer Wegler Cate Blanchett easily steals the show; she lays her Texan accent about her like a cudgel, and fires laser glares at her opponents from her brilliant blue eyes (she's more than a match for Ronan, gazewise). She gives the movie the campy charge it badly needs, and indicates a potential direction the picture sadly refuses to take--the whole thing could have been more persuasive, sold as a more explicitly comic romp.

Director Wright isn't one to inspire admiration--his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was widely and highly regarded, though I much prefer either Colin Firth or Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle or Greer Garson as Liz Bennet anytime (Kiera Knightly as Wright's Liz was too, I don't know, contemporary-looking; too bony; too slight in terms of talent and charisma to really count). I thought his 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement was a beautifully staged misfire, with a wretchedly edited crucial love scene near its beginning (again featuring the perennially miscast Miss Knightly), a pretentiously overextended post-battlefield tracking shot near its middle, and a finale (narrated by the great Vanessa Redgrave) that practically begs you to shed tears (and I would, for wasting Redgrave in this). I had my suspicions with Pride, but Atonement that pretty much confirmed it for me--Wright doesn't really know what he was doing.

With the kind of premise the movie has--killer girl chased by intelligence agency--you'd think the action sequences would be crucial, and you'd be right. Wright, unfortunately, only gets it partly right--he tends to shoot far too close in for us to see what's going on clearly, and doesn't seem to know how to use the judicially applied cut to create mounting tension. That said, a fight scene where Erik fends off four attackers in a single, constantly re-framing long take is impressive, the best single action sequence in the picture, until you realize Wright is cribbing from Park-Chan Wook's far more impressively staged and shot Oldboy.

It's a mixed bag, really--a pair of beautiful killers confronting each other; a chase over Finnish snowscapes, Moroccan deserts and an abandoned amusement park (a location that manages to be both evocative and pretentious); a director only half in control over his material,  a script written back in film school. It makes you long for the equally pretentious but far more entertaining visual stylings of Luc Besson, who at least know how to cut, and use slow motion, and the like--a man Terence Rafferty once described as “The end of French cinema as we know it.” Wright doesn't represent the end of anything, though you wonder why he keeps bothering. For the record he's doing another adaptation, his most ambitious yet, of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina--this some fourteen years after Bernard Rose's version (critically lambasted, though in my book an underrated gem), with gorgeous Sophie Marceau as Anna. Rose is at least twice the filmmaker Wright is; why oh why does the man even bother?

First published in Businessworld, 9.29.11

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Dr. Who Season 6 finale: The Wedding of River Song

"It's an eyepatch; I wear an eyepatch now. Eyepatches are cool"

Some notes (warning--story discussed in close detail)

1) The vision of London where all time is happening at once is pure delight--I love the high towers, the cars on balloons (steampunk always talks longingly of lighter-than-air transportation, this actually looks like a quick and near-practical way of getting that talk realized, with existing vehicles), the elevated rails, the Romans on chariots, Pterodactyls flying above city parks, Churchill as Ceasar with Cleopatra as his date, Amy introducing herself ("Amy. Amy Pond"--you can tell Moffat was saving that up for a special occasion), then bringing the Doctor to her office-on-a-train (shades of Once Upon a Time in the West, perhaps?).

If I had serious complaint about the episode, it's this: do we really have to make all that go away? Because it looks like a wonderful place to live in...

2) There's talk of the Doctor spending too much time in that world--which I think ridiculous; if anything they spent too little time there. I think the time spent makes for a good clarifying device: Churchill's as confused as we are, so the Doctor has to fill him in (and us along the way) with the details.

3) Madame Kevorian captured--how'd she get there? Amy boss of a secret organization and Rory her faithful but oblivious second in command--when did that happen? Why keep the Silence locked in the pyramids? How'd Amy and River build a distress signal? Lots of questions unanswered, and I for one thought: who cares? If the ride's fast enough and fun enough, that's all we need; questions are secondary.

That's a tricky position to take, though; sometimes Moffat's scripts aren't that satisfying (Day of the Moon comes to mind; so does much of Silence at the Library and Forest of the Dead, at least the bits that didn't involve River--the inventiveness is there, or the attempt to be inventive, but I'm either too confused or not entertained enough). Fine line Moffat's treading, and he's not going to please every one, every time (me included).  

4) There's this interesting article which argues why this finale's better than Season 5's. Lots of good points--this finale does make more sense; this ending is more carefully prepared (instead of just inserting shots of glowing cracks in different episodes a la Season 5), and the breaking of the season into two helps shape the narrative from a rising action (the Doctor believing more and more in his own press) to a falling one (the Doctor feeling more and more he's better off alone and dead).

That said, I still prefer Season 5's--it's more emotionally satisfying. The Eleventh Hour is easily one of Moffat's most delightful and poignant episodes (basically The Girl in the Fireplace retold, only funnier, and with a happier (somewhat) ending). The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang ties that first episodes' questions all up, more or less, adhering to the principle (which I find perfectly valid) that enemies and big events and narrative buildup should be secondary to character and emotional needs (it's All About Amy, in effect), and you can pretty much get away with anything so long as you're witty enough about it ("It's a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool."). 

If the 6th season is a carefully shaped and prepared run-up to River's wedding, the 5th is basically The Eleventh Hour and its two-part conclusion separated by a series of fairly discrete adventures; that one season is more integrated than the other doesn't necessarily make one superior to the other--that depends on the plotting and dialogue of each episode (profundity and poignancy too--it's not how much time is spent in the telling but how good the writing is). Fact is, Moffat as much as hinted that the next season might just focus more on discrete episodes instead of a season-long story arc; did he hear my complaints, sense the lack in his work, perhaps...?

5) River--I hear a lot of talk about the direction her character's taken; I suppose it is true, familiarity breeds contempt. I do think Kingston does well for the most part--stepped up the dramatic stakes at River's wedding, for one. Think she's still gorgeous--looks great in any dress, even an eyepatch. 

Did Moffat shortchange her wedding? In classic screwball comedy the weddings are as often unelaborate as they are elaborate; they're sometimes done on the run, sometimes even under the gun--I for one find it more romantic that way. Anders, who wrote the article I link to above, thinks the Doctor may have been pressured to marry her, just to save the universe. I don't believe it--he wants her in the worse way. You see it when they're together, the chemistry is palpable. And they've definitely flirted enough that he has to marry her, just to stop all the scandalous talk. 

Anyway; your husband throwing away the universe, just to save your life--who can resist a gesture like that? The Doctor loves her; his wedding's rubbish, but then he's said as much before ("I'm rubbish at weddings, especially my own"). I'm sure he made it up to her on their honeymoon. 

It's the emotional high point too--if I had to kill my husband right after marrying him, I might shed a tear or two. Throw in other high points--Amy confronting Madam Kevorian about Melody's kidnapping, Rory being a true badass (again), that moving tribute to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (nice one, that). Overcomplicated, timey-wimey stuff? Not really--it's still about characters and their feelings, with this one focused on the Doctor trying to reassure his relatively young bride that he loves her, forgives her, wishes her a long and happy life.

6) Then that question that's in front of everyone all along--no, none of us saw that coming, did we? Anyone claiming otherwise--yeah, right. 

Well, a few, actually.

7) Some more clarification of plot points (thanks to Jason E.):

The fixed point in time was River shooting the Teselecta. When River refuses to kill it, that created the rift. Then the Teselecta and River kisses at the wedding, that's the healing of the rift. If River had kissed the real Doctor, that wouldn't heal the rift, because she has to kiss the Teselecta.

Then River shoots the Teselecta. They burn the robot, the Doctor escapes in the TARDIS inside the Teselecta--he gets a little singed in the process. Teselecta gone, all burnt up (presumably it's been preset to incinerate itself, to escape detection).

Everyone watching and the rest of the universe assumes that the fixed point of time is River shooting the Doctor. It isn't; it's River shooting the Teselecta. In fact I'll bet you that if River shot the Doctor all hell would break loose because that's not the fixed point time recognizes. She has to shoot the Teselecta.

And where was the second TARDIS in Utah? Inside the Teselecta.

Confused enough? I think it's brilliant, now.

8) No, The Wedding of River Song isn't Moffat's best (but then after two seasons, can even Moffat keep up the pace and quality of his best work?), but it's far from his worst; it's also a satisfying end to a pretty good season.