Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shorts (Hugo; Immortals; J. Edgar; The Killers, three versions)


An intricate clockwork of a movie that spins and shudders, chimes and chatters, striking a brassy bell for the cult of cinephilia. Forget the ostensible story--something about some silly orphan hiding in a railway station (Why doesn't he seek a shelter? Or better yet, why doesn't the film show us why he refuses to seek a shelter?), at the same time seeking the parts to repair a broken-down automaton--and enjoy the film's true subject matter: the love of film, and of filmmakers. Martin Scorsese directs in two modes: with exuberance, and with a crystalline sense of still-eyed wonder, the kind Spielberg used to specialize in until all the honesty in the emotion was strip-mined away. Here it is again, fresh and new-minted, it seems--produced out of the tip of one's ear (after being given up for lost) as if by a prestidigitator's hand.

Yes there is slapstick--a sop for those with attention deficit disorder--but more to the point there is magic, mainly from Scorsese's camera, and mainly from the warmth radiated by Scorsese's irrepressible love for films. Wonderful picture and, thanks to the camerawork (by Robert Richardson) and production design (by Dante Ferretti), wonderful visual texture--one of the best to date to use 3D, easily.


Now this is a surprise--from what all the critics are saying, I walked in expecting a secondhand, second-rate Clash of the Titans remake; what I found instead is a stylishly violent retelling of the Theseus myth. Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) arguably uses a similar style to Zack Snyder (300)--all slow-motion bombast, to follow an intricately dancelike fight choreography (I'm guessing they all get their inspiration from John Woo). Only Singh has been at it at least four years longer than Snyder, and Singh to my mind at least is the superior action filmmaker (his fight sequences are more graceful, more varied, less wearying on the eye). Plus he insists on papering his film with striking imagery--from Jan Svankmajer for early parts of The Cell, from Caravaggio for Immortals (Snyder's main source of inspiration for 300 is Frank Miller; for Watchmen Dave Gibbons). Considering it's mostly a straightforward superhero movie with a subpar script and little to zero characterization (you recognize the people mostly from their costumes, and basic physiognomy) it's not bad; not bad at all.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's Hoover biography is actually pretty good. A little po-mo time-sequence shuffling, a nice little twist at the end reminding us what J. Edgar's been doing all along (controlling the narrative to tell his story his way), a tender little love story, all in that retro-seeming straight-shooting visual package that is Eastwood's trademark storytelling style. Maybe the film's biggest problem is fitting this appropriately to one of the most ambivalently repulsive figures in modern American history--yes, he contributed to law enforcement, the same time placing himself pretty much above said law; yes he possibly loved Tolson, possibly platonically, but denied the same opportunity to many other Americans--I think we need to see this more. Fascinatingly flawed, both film and figure.

The Killers (1946)

Siodmark's German Expressionist style rules this version of Hemingway's short story, which pretty much runs out some fifteen minutes in. The rest of the film tries to answer the question left hanging in the air: just what did he do that made him decide to stop running from death? It's an intricate answer, one that involves a double cross on top of a double cross (on top of as it turns out a third double cross), and a femme fatale as beautiful as Ava Gardner (who comes across as arguably the single most desirable creature onscreen, if not in all of Hollywood). Burt Lancaster as Ole Swede ain't chopped liver either--when he swings into action taking down a gunman, or runs across the screen to shoot his pursuers' tires he's raging-bull huge yet agile; all the more haunting, then, is the image of him lying down (as Hemingway chillingly puts it) “too long for his bed,” passively waiting for his approaching fate. Siodmak shoots Lancaster so that only his middle torso is visible, his head and legs sliced off by the surrounding dark as if by a guillotine; he already looks like a collection of body parts. When warned about the oncoming killers, his disembodied voice full of resignation and despair gives thanks for the warning but declares with finality: “I'm through with all that running around.” Absolute acceptance of an unavoidable fate: that's what great film noir's all about.

The Killers (1964)

Don Siegel's remake (it was an attempt to make the first ever TV feature, or so I'm told) suffers from budgetary woes: the soundtrack is partly borrowed from Welles' Touch of Evil, the racing sequences are all rear projection--poorly done rear projection, at that--and the producers couldn't even convince John Cassavetes to get behind a real set of go-cart wheels (Angie Dickinson, to her credit, is game). Still, the nastiness has if anything been intensified: Lee Marvin strides into a school for the blind and menaces the helpless receptionist; later he gives Ms. Dickinson similar treatment, only rougher. And it's not true that these killers aren't as playful as in Hemingway's story or Siodmak's version--in one scene, while Norman Fell is being sweated by Marvin, Clu Galager pulls off his shades, looks them over, wipes them clean on Fell's damp hair.

Siegel directs with economy and straightforward brutality. The harsh TV lighting and flimsy sets reveal this to be an appropriate version of The Killers for its age: crass and overbright, a nightmare dressed in cheap plastic and garish synthetic fibers, filled with sudden explosions (inserted footage that seems unreal and disconnected from the rear projection footage) and equally sudden impulses--like the one that has Cassavetes taking a swing at and knocking down Ronald Reagan, future President of the United States.

The Killers  (1956)

Andrei Tarkovsky's directorial debut, an adaptation of Hemingway's classic story. Easily the most faithful with regards to dialogue and text, the film is also the most wayward with regards to visual and emotional tone--the bartender looks like a tubercular Soviet student aesthete, the pair of assassins look as if they would rather order an expresso, and one of the customers seems to have wandered in from out of a Soviet dockyard workers' strike, possibly taking a break, another sports a beret (later Tarkovsky himself walks in, whistling a lively rendition of Lullaby of Birdland). Still, there is style here, a brooding use of camera movement and shadows harkening back to the German Expressionists (and, ironically, Siodmak) that is satisfying to see. Unfortunately, the scene involving Ole Swede's bedroom (directed by Alexandr Gordon) fails to show us the feet sticking out over the edge of the bed--a key detail.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cinemanila 2011 (13 Assassins; Dario Argento; Jafar Panahi; Nora Aunor)

Cinemanila 2011: Cup runneth over

It's that time of the year again, and Cinemanila--running from the eleventh of November 2011 (All those ones! Put that in your lottery ticket) to the seventeenth at the Market! Market! Cinemas at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Rizal--is easily the best show in town, everything from the latest by Wim Wenders (Pina (2011), about famed dance choreographer German Philippina "Pina" Bausch--in 3D, at that) to the latest by Park Chan Wook (Night Fishing (2011), a 30 minute short shot entirely on an iPhone). Plus films by Lav Diaz (Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)), and Chang Dong Lee (Poetry (2010)).

There are retrospectives on Dario Argento (Suspiria (1977)) and Nora Aunor (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), Himala (Miracle, 1982), Bona (1980)), both of whom are to receive lifetime achievement awards; films by Jaffar Panahi (Offside (2006)) including the latest he did while officially prohibited by the Iranian government from directing films (This is Not a Film (2010)); the latest by Raya Martin (Buenas Noches Espana (Goodnight Spain, 2011)); by John Torres (Mapang-akit (Seductive, 2011)); by Kim Jee Woon (I Saw the Devil (2010)); by Takashi Miike ((13 Assassins (2010)) and by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)). The latest in independent shorts, digital films by Southeast Asian and Filipino talents. And many, many more.

Pick a title, any title...possibly the most audacious aspect of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 'jidaigeki' (period samurai) film, about twelve samurai plus one hired to kill a shogun's psychotically sadistic son) is its unapologetic invitation--dare, almost--to be compared to Akira Kurosawa's three-hour epic Seven Samurai (1954).

Does Miike measure up to Kurosawa's definitive statement on war and violence? Certainly jacks up the numbers--from seven to thirteen heroes, facing at first seventy, then two hundred soldiers, their battle involving not just swords and arrows but slingshots, guns, booby-traps, bursts of flame, huge explosions, giant sliding fences that block off the action and redefine the battlefield again and again. Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't strive for strict realism; the sliding fences look impossibly high, and digital effects help simulate a stampede of burning bulls (no, really). Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't even bother to keep the battle's village setting spatially coherent--he has a main avenue where most of the killing is done, then opens up all kinds of back alleyways and side passages and courtyards for heroes and villains to run through and die in as, if, whenever necessary.

Like Kurosawa Miike follows the classic form, or at least gives passing acknowledgement--there is a recruiting sequence, and some of the characters recruited stay in mind (two that do are drunken nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) and forest hunter Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya)); a preparation sequence that doesn't really explain much (but is fitfully entertaining); and a showdown that takes up almost half the picture (you can tell where Miike's priorities lie). The endless scenes of close combat are long, carefully choreographed (if outwardly chaotic) affairs, with coherent camerawork and editing in the classic Kurosawa manner (Miike may be crazy but he isn't stupid); the final showdown is as operatic and overblown as anything one might wish for from Kurosawa, or Sergio Leone, or any of the classic Western (in both sense of the word) filmmakers.

What makes this exercise in relatively straightforward jidaigeki most distinctly Miike is his villain, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu. Naritsugu enjoys plenty of screen time, enough to establish him as one of Miike's more baroque creations--a hedonist with limitless appetites, a sociopath who finds absolutely no value in human life, a sadistic pervert with (and this may be the most shocking detail of all) no real experience of the real world, completely unaware of how other people think or feel (one speculates that he's lived a sheltered life where his every whim is obeyed, no matter how unreasonable). Played by the blandly handsome Goro Inagaki--it's the nondescript prettiness covering a seething nihilistic innocence that makes the character so unsettling--Naritsugu dominates 13 Assassins in a way that no character in Kurosawa's film ever did; he galvanizes the picture, gives it urgency and a sense of impending doom (the man is on his way to receive a high position from his younger brother, the present Shogun; once promoted the man would be untouchably, monstrously powerful). More, he provides a detached god's eye view of the battle, relishing with greater and greater appreciation his enemy's increasingly desperate tactics (viewing a particularly bloody struggle, Naritsugu asks Hanbei his chief samurai:

You think the age of war was like this?”


It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei; something wonderful has come to my mind.”


Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring back the age of war...”).

As Naritsugu's chief samurai Hanbei Kitou, Masachika Ichimura makes for the perfect foil, a noble samurai who doesn't hesitate to protect his lord, even if his lord is crazy. Theirs (as the poem goes) not to reason why, theirs but to do or die--you can feel Hanbei's distaste, yet he's warrior enough to swallow his sentiments and stay true to his master. Partly because of the loyalty (fanaticism?) of men like these monstrous governments, administrations, kingdoms are made possible, are granted bloody birth.

Perhaps the worst criticism ever leveled at Kurosawa's masterpiece was that it provided little insight into the forty bandits facing the samurai. Miike addresses that lack many times over with his Lord Naritsugu; he manages to give the man his own inimitable point of view, one that survives a final confrontation with the assassins, even affords him a morsel of sympathy. A great action film? I don't know; Kurosawa's shadow looms large over the landscape. But Miike does throw a few clever ideas in, giving the material an interesting spin.

Of Dario Argento--what else can be said that hasn't already been said? Don't consider Suspiria his best work but it's easily his best known: a parody of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) where instead of a massive Oedipal complex we have a malevolent witches' convent; instead of austere black-and-white we have an operatic palette of colors, hue, textures. The shadows are as deep and velvety as outer space, the sound and music (compliments of the band Goblin) as eclectically precise as a collection of surgical instruments; you find yourself strapped metaphorically to your chair with Argento bent over gazing at you, scalpel in one hand. Screaming at this point would be a blessing.

Jafar Panahi is by turns politically astute, irrepressibly satirical, restlessly experimental; to the edict that he be forbidden from directing a film, for example, he responds with a work titled This is Not a Film.

Offside is about a group of girls trying to sneak into an Iranian soccer game (where women are banned). Not just any soccer game--it's the game where Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Comedy this sharp is almost impossible to describe, the way a beautiful kick past a goalie can be impossible to describe: there are no words there are only the motions as the filmmaker sidesteps all restrictions in his production (He can't film the girls in the game, for one thing, he has to hope for the purposes of his script that Iran wins, and for budgetary reasons (not a lot of money for extras) he has to shoot during the actual games). The ending, a victory for the record, is both exuberant and bittersweet.

If there isn't much to add to what's been said about Argento, there's even less to add to the considerable amount of ink that has been spilled over Nora Aunor, on her umpteenth comback with a successful 'teleserye' (Mario O'Hara's Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) recently wrapped and a major film (Tikoy Aguiluz's Manila Kingpin, a remake of The Asiong Salongga Story) coming soon. Aunor in this retrospective can be seen in at least three different aspects, as handled by three major filmmakers: as object of adoration and religious icon (Ishmael Bernal's hallucinatory Himala); as downtrodden maid in an urban melodrama (Lino Brocka's Bona), and as provincial lass turned Japanese collaborator in Mario O'Hara's period epic (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos).

Aunor broke the tradition of using light-skinned screen stars with Westernized faces; hers is the face and figure of the masses, dark-skinned and diminutive, and they love her dearly for this, love her success because it's their success too. She's not only an accomplished actress in the silent-screen manner (those dark eyes!) but an accomplished producer as well--one of her own projects, O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is arguably and in my book possibly the finest Filipino film ever made.

So; go see. Have fun...

First published in Businessworld, 10.10.11

Monday, November 14, 2011

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

Some last thoughts on Sa Ngalan Ng Ina

(With revisions in the 12th, 13th and final paragraphs)

Been a week since Sa Ngalan ng Ina has closed, and have written many an article on the series, but have yet to fully digest the total experience. 

Won't stop me from trying. 

Did it achieve all that it set out to do? I don't think so. I think it set out to be a groundbreaking teleserye that married recent political mythology (the fall of the Marcos clan and rise of the Aquino clan) to full-blown Filipino melodrama. Along the way the political thread was dropped (at about the time both prodigal children (Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingco) and Andrea (Nadine Samonte)) Deogracias reconciled with their stepmother Elena (Nora Aunor)); villainness Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces) started to focus on extralegal means to exact revenge on Elena; and political figures Apo (Leo Rialp) and Dorinda (Raquel Villavicencio) faded into the background. 

It was a pity, I thought; the political element grounded the melodrama, kept it linked not just to everyday reality, but to familiar everyday reality, freshly taken from headlines (the financial scandals; the leaked tape recordings; the deliveries and collection activities of drug gangs). I thought Elena--a naif when it came to political reality and proudly so--was starting to come into her own when she collaborated with her drug-lord stepson. Yes she was making arrests right and left, but this was at the expense of the empire Alfonso had carefully built; if he was to give all that up, he had to have demanded some kind of price, and I would have loved to have known just what (A sum of cash? Concessions to various lucrative but legal activities?). 

The reconciliation between Alfonso and Elena was beautifully done, and I as much as said so; I even hoped that despite the noble sentiments expressed Alfonso would struggle with temptation and perhaps experience a relapse, and Elena struggle with the prospect of arresting her son yet another time. But Alfonso's turned out to be a genuine change of heart, even a lasting one; Uytingco remained a consistently fine actor for the rest of the series but didn't ignite the screen the way he did the previous four weeks.

Elena's character suggested bits of ambivalence especially during the third and fourth week; besides running to Alfonso she delivered a particularly menacing threat to an underperforming police officer ("Remember I had my own son arrested--think what I'd do to someone outside my family!"); beyond that, the only indication that she was a less than perfect woman was when she admitted to fathering a child with Pepe Ilustre, played by Christopher De Leon (but then apparently half the women in the Philippines seem to want to do that--why should she be any different?).

Then there was the way Elena broke up Andrea's marriage to Ramoncito--I thought then that that was a masterstroke of hidden puppeteering, the loveliest touch being that Elena meant well, and acted exactly like a concerned, caring mother. But nothing more was made out of it, and Andrea never suspected, apparently; she became and remained till the end of the series a staunch Elena Deogracias supporter (here's to hoping she doesn't read this blog).

It wasn't quite (as I'd hoped at first) the Filipino equivalent of Robert Altman's Tanner '88: too many opportunities missed, too many plot threads simplified instead of rendered more complicated. Elena started out humble, ends up heroic at worst; Alfonso has the dramatic heart ripped out of him when he realized he wasn't eating his Aunt Pacita's humba

 Likewise Lucia--I would have loved to have seen her develop as a character, but then she decides to take the for me least interesting route: jealous housewife gone totally insane. Pretty much tossed her sometimes ingenious manipulation of media and law to the side when she decided to kidnap Elena; after that, her options were strictly limited, more of the Norma Desmond After Shooting Joe Gillis variety ("I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!").  

The series' great theme, I thought, dealt with establishing boundaries: how one separates politics from family relationships, and vice versa. I had hoped the series would delve deeper into this issue, show how the various figures (Elena, Andrea, Pepe, Lucia, and in retrospect Amang) negotiated this division within their work, within themselves. 

Not really; in the final weeks the series devolved into a  struggle between two women (Elena and Lucia) for the love of a good man (Pepe Ilustre). Not a bad struggle to depict, but--it could have been something more (see paragraphs above).

But on that other complementary major theme--that the demands of politics and demands of family are often similar and easy to confuse, even interchange--I have to say the series is a howling success. Andrea and Lucia often personalize politics (Andrea by using her wedding as a promotional gimmick, Lucia by using her husband's emotional infidelity to justify her campaign against Elena), and I suppose it's to the credit of the writers (Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras) that you see their gradual influence on Elena, on her eventual personalization of her politics (she bends the rules to forgive Alfonso, she learns to hate Lucia and call her a demon). Should the series have explored this further, shown how Elena may have changed her moral principles? Should there be a scene where someone tells her that she has changed her moral principles? At least one scene of self-examination, where she looks back and ruthlessly criticizes her brief career? Alas, we may never have that scene...

I might add that O'Hara adopted a similar approach in Bagong Hari, where the hero remained mostly heroic despite the darkness and corruption surrounding him. Possibly O'Hara didn't feel this was needed, then or now; that the plot was complex enough without adding complexities in the protagonist's nature. That the politician slowly corrupted by politics is too familiar a story, and what was needed was the story of someone fully engaged in politics but was not corrupted (as Marcos was), nor rendered ineffective by eventual circumstances (as Aquino eventually was). A middle way, if you like, with some necessary compromises made.

While the series largely dropped the politics in favor of melodrama, you had to admit it was superbly told melodrama--fast-paced, mostly understated, in its own observant way truthful. Lucia may have gone nuts, but she never devolves into anything less than human--she constantly touches on her primary motivation for doing what she does, her love of Pepe and daughter Carmela (Karel Marquez), her hatred of Elena (I keep thinking the hate tends to overshadow the love--or is it one face of the same coin?). When Lucia  surrenders to the police, director Jon Red gives her a magnificent send-off scene worthy of (inspired by?) Gloria Swanson's similar scene in Sunset Boulevard. No--this is better; writer-director Billy Wilder had frozen Norma Desmond's face into a Kabuki mask of insanity, with little human left in her (the mask cracks only towards  the end, and only to deliver a final childish cry of totally irrelevant, if passingly poignant, delight). 

Rosanna Roces starts out the opposite of frozen, her Lucia broken and alone, utterly defenseless, totally devastated; she looks into the mirror (her only witness) and--this is the magnificent part--somehow finds it in herself to slowly pick up a brush and start building up her face, slowly (in effect) pick up the shattered shards of her life, slowly piece together the ever formidable, endlessly invincible persona she had created for herself: Lucia Ilustre, daughter of a storied political family, wife of the region's former governor, leader of a major drug cartel,  powerful political force.

That's the drama, and excellent drama it is, too. What Mario O'Hara achieves with the Deogracias household (in contrast with the anguish in the Ilustre household) is, if possible even more impressive: he makes everyday happiness seem special. Kidnappings, killings and tortures; hair-pulling, shouting matches and confrontations--that's the very lifeblood of soap operas, what they thrive on. More difficult to do well are scenes of everyday life where nothing more dramatic is happening than, well, eating a meal. If, say, Lucia's surrender is the teleserye equivalent of an episode out of Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky, you might call the scenes in the Deogracias household--especially at this point in the series--the teleserye equivalent of Tolstoy, whose most unique achievement was the depiction of ordinary domestic life.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the shot where the Deogracias' manang (Lilia Cuntapay) is serving lunch. She pauses with the food, looks up, touches the arm of stepson Angelo (Edgar Allan Guzman); he looks in the same direction, touches Alfonso's arm; he looks in turn, touches Andrea's arm; she looks and smiles. The camera, which has been shifting from face to face to face, finally glides past all the faces to find Elena standing at one side of the room dressed in white, easily the first time she has done so in the series. The meaning is never spoken aloud but couldn't be more clear; she has stopped mourning the murder of her husband Amang (Bembol Roco) by Lucia; she's ready to move on. 

If Lucia's surrender moves us to pity (for her despair) and admiration (for her strength and dignity), Elena's (which isn't even a scene really, more like a brief shot) moves us ineffably with its simplicity and grace. After all she's been through--after the death of her husband, the stress of election, the strain of running a province, the sharp sting of her stepchildren's ingratitude; after being kidnapped and beaten and tortured in various imaginative ways; after all that, it's almost painful to see Elena in white, smiling her shy Aunor smile, her incomparable eyes twinkling with wordless joy. It's not just happiness it's hard-earned happiness, it's sunshine after what seemed like a month of neverending tears. After going through all that to finally arrive at this we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to respond with a few tears of our own.

That final meeting between Elena and Pepe--I know it's a concession to their fans, to see Nora Aunor and Christopher De Leon at least act out their fantasy of coming back together; it's also the playing out of an even unlikelier fantasy, where two rival political families (the Aquinos and the Marcoses) settle their differences and come together in a harmonious marriage. But I see a third interpretation: of a filmmaker and his acting muse coming together after decades apart, marveling at how they have survived all these years, marveling even more at being given the chance to work together again, and at such a high (if not the highest) level. No, this may not be the ending of our dreams--it doesn't have the teeth, in my book, or the tragic grandeur (I would have liked very much to have some tragic grandeur)--but it is ending enough, a capstone to one of the most memorable collaborations in Philippine cinema...

11.11.11 (revised 11.14.11)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, 2011)

Peter Maloney in the far superior 1982 verison

Stinks on ice

Far as I'm concerned, Matthijs van Heijningen's The Thing isn't a proper prequel, isn't even a proper remake--rather, it's a lame, lunkheaded effort at tribute that misunderstands everything that made John Carpenter's 1982 remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World (1951) a genuine horror classic.

According to interviews the filmmakers were interested in the Norwegian side of the story, what happened before their camp was demolished. Turns out 'what happened' isn't half as persuasive, or as entertaining, as what happened in the American camp; apparently the Norwegians are taciturn loners who seemed perfectly comfortable living for months in the deep snow. They don't have the Norwegian equivalent of 'copter pilot McReady trash-talking a computer chess-program, or men rollerskating down hallways, doing what they can to kill time. The enclosed conditions would drive anyone nuts, and in fact someone points to assistant mechanic Palmer (David Clennon) in one corner listening to his Walkman as an example of someone who's already cracked. The incongruity between nobility of the men's duties and pettiness of their actual actions recalls Kubrick's introductory shots of the bomber crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)--another nightmare comedy about the possible end of the world.

Actually, this picture's characters slavishly avoid resembling anyone in Carpenter's film--to this end we are given paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), on loan to the Norwegian station to help with their new discovery. Winstead in interviews insisted that her character not experience any sexual or romantic tensions, this being “inappropriate”--but when you think about it, what other kind of tension can there be in an Antarctic ice station when women are present? Does the most tangible tension onscreen have to be the need to be politically correct? Hawks himself didn't avoid the problem; if anything, he faced it head-on, made it not just part of a scene but its liveliest, spiciest element--his women are known to be strong, provocative characters who didn't wilt in the face of male machismo, but responded with their own brand of proto-feminism, formidable adversaries for strapping men.

Carpenter didn't use women in his film, ostensibly because there were no women in John Campbell Jr.'s original short story (Carpenter's is a more faithful adaptation than Hawks'). That said, a homoerotic subtext can easily be read into the men's interactions, particularly in the simmering rivalry between the Caucasian McReady (Kurt Russell) and the African-American chief mechanic, Childs (Keith David).

No such interaction--sexual, romantic, homoerotic--to be found in Heijningen's movie; if anything, all we remember are Winstead's Lloyd and (a distant second) Ulrich Thomsen's Dr. Halversen (mainly because he is not Winstead, and after her is onscreen longest). More vivid in memory are the creature's various incarnations, many of which are digitally enhanced, and the way said incarnations kill or assimilate human fodder (xenoeroticism, anyone?).

Concerning treatment of the creature--Heijningen insists that mostly practical effects were used, the shots lit and framed to conceal them; the CGI enhancements are plainly visible, however, especially when the creatures leap and run after their prey. Heijningen's creature tips its hand early, when it uses its arms like living grappling hooks; later, in the movie's most effective scene, the creature fuses into its human victim, grows legs, crawls away. Carpenter's different; there was a progression in the way his creature revealed itself, a kind of strip-tease where each shadow fell away exposing dog-thing shifting to man-thing shifting to worse. And (as with the best of Carpenter) there are images of unmatched horror, tinged with an eerie lyricism--meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney) sitting in snow comes to mind, his hand unnaturally distorted, his cry an unhuman bellow.

Some sequences go beyond poetry into a kind of nightmare slapstick--the moment, for example, when the head of geologist Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) drips to the floor and scuttles away, and Palmer looks on with incredulity: “You gotta be fucking kidding!” The effects, impressive enough for their time, have abandoned the realm of relative realism and strayed into the surreal/corporeal horror of Bunuel, Cocteau, Cronenberg; we need to express our indignation at Carpenter's effrontery, and Palmer's words are the perfect expression of that outrage. The whole thing isn't just for the sake of being grotesque, either--it's a crucial moment that plants the idea in McReady's head, of how they can beat the monster.

By way of contrast the most imaginative response anyone has in Heijningen's picture to the creature is to shoot and run--no funny exit line, no existentially defiant response to a patently unbelievable sight ("you gotta be--"). The humans take the creature as seriously as it takes itself, and we resist believing accordingly; the picture's too literal, too straightforward for its own good.

Frankly, it's easy to distinguish between Heijningen and Carpenter; you only need distinguish between novice and seasoned master. Heijningen's finest moments are perhaps the scenes where people are in a room reacting to an attack; he eschews quick cuts to keep the action coherent, and his staging is fairly inventive. Carpenter often opts for even simpler setups--like when McReady applies his test on the rest of the crew, and has the unproven ones tied up, including the corpses (a reasonable precaution). The creature's reaction immediately reveals a flaw in McReady's scheme, and they have to scramble to save the situation (it's just the sort of fast-moving, quick-thinking action Hawks might have staged, if he had the money and technology available).

For its finale the action moves out of the base and into the alien ship--and here the picture practically buries a pickaxe into its boot. The idea of an alien loose in fairly familiar surrounding--an Antarctic base--is at the very core of the original's appeal; even when earlier films set the action in outer space, they were careful to give their hallways an industrial-factory look, complete with pipelines and leaking steam valves (Ridley Scott's Alien, 1979). An alien ship by its very nature is exotic, threatening; you're so primed to see every odd shape, every dark shadow as disguised menace that when the creature itself finally appears you don't feel any sense of escalation (the best disguise, of course, being a simple shadow). You need the contrast.

By story's end the prequel attaches itself smoothly and effortlessly into the beginning of Carpenter's film--and here you wonder if you aren't seeing the core problem of the whole production. It's so obsessed with dovetailing with the better film, with 'reverse-engineering' what happened at the Norwegian base, that the movie's plot is seriously distorted, a case of confused priorities; it wants to be consistent when its first duty is to be entertaining, and imaginative. At best this serves as a case study of why one film is better than its successor; at worse it's like a monstrous outgrowth of the creature itself, more eager to mimic and meld than it is to develop its own identity, be its own creature.

First published in Businessworld, 11.3.11

Friday, November 04, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, Mario O'Hara, Jon Red), Week 4

Love in a Tupperware
Continued from Part 3

On wondering how Mario O'Hara and Jon Red's Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011) is unique to Philippine television--or to Filipino cinema, for that matter--one thinks of the expansive format (an hour every weekday, for one month, roughly twenty hours' running time), and the set limit (one month exactly, though recently there has been word that the series will run for an extra week). The format guarantees us complex storylines, rounded characters, a royal flush of grand performances, confrontations, dramatic climaxes; the limit assures us that the series will not go on and on recycling story plot points, stretching running time with pointless or repetitious dialogue, adding climax after climax after climax till the series has worn out its carefully cultivated sheen of credibility. If the series ends as originally envisioned, it should crescendo at the proper time, swiftly wrap everything up in a grand and intricate knot, leave us wishing for an extension however limited, not its swift and painless death. 

Easier said than done.

I've talked about how the series took recent political history (Marcos' powerful wife Imelda; Ninoy Aquino's martyrdom and his wife's rise to power) and used this as a jumping-off point to weave its own unique mythology: that of Elena Deogracias (Nora Aunor), widowed wife of Amang Deogracias (Bembol Roco), running against incumbent Pepe Ilustre (Christopher de Leon) for the office of governor of the province of Verano and somehow winning, the Cinderella of the ballot box. 

I've noted how for all its patriarchal trappings and show of Filipino machismo (the brothers Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingco) and Angelo (Edgar Allan Guzman) Deogracias, the shadowy Zaldy Sanchez (Ian De Leon, Aunor's real-life son), the show has really been a struggle for domination between two diametrically opposed women: Elena Deogracias and Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces), wife of Pepe and true instigator of Amang's death. That this is really a duel between two actors with differing styles--Aunor with grim mouth and lustrous eyes, Roces with feline growl and eloquent body language. 

Aunor is the more experienced actress but cannot act in a vacuum; Roces, faced with a formidable opponent, steps up her game, proving time and time again to be a worthy adversary--one only has to cite their various confrontations, from the free-for-all on muddy fields to the catty remarks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. More impressive are the various fulminating soliloquies Lucia delivers with regards to her diminutive foe. "I'm the hero of this story," she insists at one point, making explicitly metaphysical what she has been implicitly suggesting for the past fifteen or so episodes; Aunor replies with one of her eloquently intense glares.

Word has it that Aunor's vocal cords were damaged in a surgical accident, and that's a shame; you can hear the damage in the occasional hoarseness of her voice. But the directors of her scenes (mostly O'Hara, I hear) uses that hoarseness to her advantage--at times the voice suggests a woman tired beyond endurance, having lost a husband and gained an entire province to care for; at other times the voice suggests a woman so choked up by emotion it comes out rough, grated, as if torn from her throat. 

The voice problem also suggests how the director can handle her in large crowd scenes--by posing her against a background of heightened emotion (a sea of wailing faces, say) against which she often serves as dramatically still center (see Amang's death, or Alfonso's surrender). This also shapes her approach to her character--that Elena is a woman constantly suppressing her feelings, biting her tongue, the classic stereotypical Filipina with superhuman self-control, who often lulls other into off-balanced complacency thinking she won't fight back (see Apo (Leo Rialp), the party leader; Dorinda (Raquel Villavicencio) the vice-governor; later Lucia herself). Her Elena delivers few soliloquies, but her actions time and time again (her handling of the tape-recording scandal; her response to the death of Pacita (Eugene Domingo), her sister and close adviser) speak pages of a political challenger willing and able to match Lucia's veteran chess master.
I've also mentioned how the writers (Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras) have cleverly weaved into the storyline allusions from series' star Nora Aunor's own film career, from the classic tandem of Bembol, Christopher, and Nora (the same casting used in O'Hara's own Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years without God, 1976)) to her own uncomfortable yet affectionate dealings with De Leon's Pepe Ilustre (a sly nod to the actors' own failed marriage and complicated shared past).

I love how the characters actually undergo change over the course of the series, perhaps the most dramatic being Uytingco's Alfonso Deogracias, Elena's drug-kingpin stepson. What makes his narrative arc so satisfying is that he makes both a convincingly defiant prodigal son and an equally passionate repentant sinner. Nadine Samonte's Mayor Andrea Deogracias hasn't been able to make her villainous mayor all that distinctive in her villainy, but the young woman does hurt and vulnerability very well--when she calls out for her stepmother, it sounds and feels like a true crie de coeur.

Perhaps a subtler metamorphosis can be found in Christopher De Leon's Pepe Ilustre. His wheel-chair bound political veteran at first seemed meant to allude to everything from the sinister Dr. Strangelove to the heroic Ron Kovic, but the figure he eventually resembles is Carlito Brigante--like Carlito he finds himself nose-deep in politics; like Carlito he seeks a way out, here finding it embodied in his political opponent. 

One can do a psychological case study on the man: from energetic campaigning as electoral contestant to hurt sullenness as defeated candidate to quietly heartfelt supporter of his nemesis the character of Pepe Ilustre feels many-faceted, patiently drawn, complete. Every time he gives Elena help it's made explicit what the consequences will be to his own political power and long-amassed family fortune, and he dismisses the issue with casual cheer; he has a heavy debt to pay. De Leon manages to suggest a man fully aware of the burden imposed by his many sins in a too-long political career; one senses in his introverted, understated performance a man who has felt trapped in the maze-like hallways of power, and has finally sniffed a way out--not easy, not quickly realized, but something he can work on with patience and determination. 

Then there's the notion of food--in particular Filipino comfort food (we like Hobbits do love our meals--from agahan (breakfast) to tanghalian (lunch) to merienda (afternoon snack) to hapunan (dinner)). I've complained since time immemorial that food is one major aspect of Filipino culture that has been sadly ignored by our films; at most the scriptwriter throws in a few lines: "Eat that, I prepared that, it should be delicious," or a mother will say: "have you eaten, child? I've prepared your favorite dish..." not of course bothering to mention what dish has been prepared and how, and what relevance all this could have on the film's story. 

Not quite so with Sa Ngalan ng Ina. Almost every major scene has either the Deogracias or Ilustres talking over a meal; a crucial scene has Alfonso bonding with Pacita over a meal of humba (pork in pineapple sauce)--one major reason Alfonso is so fond of her (as opposed to his stepmother Elena) is that she makes the humble yet delicious comfort meal exactly the way he likes it. Later, when Pacita is killed and he goes into hiding in defiance of his stepmother, his young brother brings him a small Tupperware container from Elena. Alfonso plucks out a piece of pork and tastes it. "Ah," he says, "so she's learned to cook like her sister. This is just like Pacita's cooking." 

Angelo laughs. "Elena has been cooking this for you all along. Pacita is allergic to pineapple." Alfonso looks down on the container of pork and--love this gesture--whips off his sunglasses to take a better look. He has this brief twisted expression--as if the piece of pork he had just eaten had turned into a lump of live coal in his belly--and informs Angelo that he wants to surrender. 

So there you have it--a major turning point has just occurred, and over a piece of pork! Crazy? Nonsensical? When you think about it, aren't we Filipinos driven not so much by our hearts but by our stomachs, the strongest emotional call being from our favorite childhood dishes? Isn't a mother's care most clearly expressed through her cooking, and isn't her most secret, most powerful ingredient the love she puts into her dishes? And isn't this sentiment the kind found--unspoken, unremarked, but nevertheless securely, unmistakably there--at the heart of every Filipino?

Alfonso's spectacular surrender--a major setpiece by Jon Red--has all of the series's major dramatic guns firing. Dozens of extras; a fleet of police vehicles with flashing lights; TV vans and reporters; a brief statement from the fugitive as he is handcuffed; a heartfelt hug of reconciliation with his mother. What makes the scene, however, is a throwaway gesture from Elena where she turns away and mostly unnoticed by everyone (except us) wipes away a tear. Again Aunor, doing what she does best--with all the turmoil around her she performs a quiet little gesture and simply but surely steals our hearts.

Later is a scene almost as moving--and Aunor doesn't even do a thing. Andrea has had a miscarriage; a series of dissolves (faultlessly timed by O'Hara, I'm told) shows Elena faithfully watching over her as she sleeps in a hospital bed. She wakes up and finds Elena, exhausted, asleep by her side. Simplest of gestures, really, for Andrea to lift up her hand and stroke Elena's sleeping head--but it's easily Nadine Samonte's finest, most tender moment as an actress.

Then there's the confrontation between the incarcerated Alfonso and Elena, sitting together in a near-bare set (one wonders if it is a set--looks like an everyday room dressed at the last moment to stand in for the city jail's visiting area). The scene starts simply enough, with just ambient sound in the background (none of that teleserye music they're so fond of pouring over almost every scene): Alfonso, standing, tells her that one of his men will keep feeding her office information. They both act shyly, unable to look at each other; unnoticed by Alfonso, Elena lays out a Tupperware container. 

Alfonso asks about Angelo (he had shot his younger brother by accident, while aiming for Pepe Ilustre); Elena says he's fine. You hear the krikk! of Tupperware lids being fussed with. Alfonso turns at the sound and for the first time looks at Elena "You're ruining my reputation," he tells her, referring to the way he's being pampered in prison. At this point Red (with the help of composer Carmina Cuya) introduces music with a few hesitant notes from a piano (a welcome change, that--using actual instruments instead of a generic synthesizer). 

Alfonso informs Elena that he knows Pacita was allergic to pineapple. She seems to accept the full implication of this (that he knows she's been cooking his humba all along). Red (with diabolical timing) starts the theme proper when she says the line 'it's your favorite dish"--a cliche thing to say, but here somehow perfectly appropriate (she's earned the right, so to speak, to use the line). When Elena tells him she loves all her children including him, Alfonso's face twists and he asks in an agonized whisper: "Why?"

Two things come to mind when viewing this scene. One thinks of the voluptuous sense of dread a torturer creates in his victim--sometimes it's the anticipation of pain rather than actual application  that feels not just agonizing, but exquisite (pain so intense it's perceived as pleasure). I'd have sworn O'Hara directed this, but Red--well, my respect for his abilities has multiplied, tenfold, after  this. 

One also thinks of the moment in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, where the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) declares himself unafraid of the possibility of hell--but is terrified at the prospect of heaven. Uytingco's Alfonso is in a similar bind; he's perfectly willing to go to hell for his sins, but the possibility of being loved unconditionally churns inside him like a knife in the gut. Aunor's dark eyes accept what he expresses absolutely and without judgment--they are a vast bottomless lake, as awesome (and frankly terrifying) a vision of mother's love as anything I've ever seen. 

I say 'terrifying' because this love while pure, isn't purely goodness. Alfonso has many crimes under his belt, crimes that Elena seems perfectly willing to overlook in her zeal to welcome him back (he's responsible for the torture and death of Amang's bomb-thrower for example--and later we learn that the man wasn't as guilty as we first thought). There are implications to Aunor's heroic motherhood, some of them not as saintly in nature as we might initially assume--her capacity for inspiring fanaticism, for one (particularly in Alfonso, the most violent member of her clan); her insistence on professionalism in governance being another, of separating family ties from government affiliation (said principle having apparently been watered down or compromised, if not fallen by the wayside).

If the series ended here or not long after (and in the next episode there were indications of where the series might have been headed prior to concluding), this could easily have been declared a major work not just of Filipino entertainment, but of art; politics and family fused into a popular art form, one illuminating its complex, corrupting influence on the other--that, it seemed, was this teleserye's grand theme. Elena's kidnapping and subsequent torture by Zaldy and Lucia seems to derail all that--suddenly Lucia isn't as plausible a monster anymore; suddenly the episodes are saddled with scenes of Elena's children weeping and gnashing teeth, praying for her safety. Were the writers caught off-guard when the extension was announced? Did they have to inject some makeshift work, add filler to meet deadlines? I don't know; all I know is if the series ends as is, capped with this  inconsistent hiccup, it'll merely be one of the better teleserye yet produced, when I'm hoping it's the best thing--on TV or on the big screen--I'd seen all year.

Well, they have another week to recover. Here's hoping for the best.