Saturday, April 28, 2012

Into the Abyss (Werner Hezog, 2011)

Dead man talking

Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss (2011) opens with a harrowing account by a chaplain of being with each convict as they are executed. He describes how he 'empties' himself of all notions and expectations, making himself a mere vessel to be filled with the experience. All proper and humble, until his voice cracks, and he has to stop and pause; it's at this point you realize that along with all the talk of being 'in the proper frame of mind,' of 'preparing oneself to be filled with the experience,' one must deal with the cost of watching men and women being strapped down and killed, again and again and again.

The documentary is about Michael Perry and Jason Burkett who in 2001 killed Sandra Stotler, her 16-year-old son Adam, his friend Jeremy Richardson. According to police Perry and Burkett approached Ms. Stotler in her house and shot her from behind; they later waited for her son and his friend to arrive and shot them too. The motive? Ms. Stotler's red Camaro.

It's a strange documentary, even for a man known for making strange films. Here Herzog has been criticized for de-emphasizing the facts--he doesn't question the solidity of the case against Perry and Burkett, nor does he even try cross-examining the two convicted killers for veracity, at least not much (Perry claims Burkett committed the killings while Burket claims the opposite). He doesn't develop a case a la Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1998)--doesn't even appear to be trying.

Herzog states right off with his first interview that he's basically against the death penalty; he tells Perry point blank he doesn't have to like the young man, but respects him. He's quite open about his stance, but doesn't seem all that interested in building a case against said penalty.

Instead, for better or worse, Herzog seems to be trying to explore the emotional impact of the crimes on the people involved, the victims included. There's Sandra's daughter (and Adam's sister) Lisa: we hear of the pain she felt, having lost almost all her family overnight, and the consequences to her life from that day onwards. We listen to Charles Richardson, Jeremy's brother, who has to live with the fact that he introduced Jeremy to Michael and Jason.

We listen to the testimony of a warden who oversaw over a hundred and twenty executions, at the rate of two a week; at one point he goes home, and suddenly can't do it anymore--just can't do it. He's firmly against the death penalty now.

Perhaps the most painful and honest interview is Burkett's father, Delbert. There's some sad comedy to their life--at one point father Delbert, son Jason and one other brother are reunited while transporting on the way to their respective placements, and it struck Delbert how embarrassing this all was: a family reunion with hands cuffed and ankles chained. He seems to be the most clear-eyed of all of them, acknowledging just how terrible a father he's been to his sons, how bad his life is right now, and how low he must seem to everyone watching on camera. Hard material to view--no, impossible--without being affected.

You wonder if, as some critics assert, perhaps Herzog has gone all soft-headed here; you wonder why he doesn't ask more pointed questions, confront his subjects with the contradictions in their testimony, strip away the illusions that so obviously shore up their respective worldviews.

I think one clue to what he's doing and why can be found in what's different in his approach: unlike in most of his documentaries he's hardly in this one, preferring to stay offscreen as a questioning voice-over (it's not as if he's unaware of his personal charisma, either--he can play the engaging, somewhat lunatic host-documentarian either in his own work (Grizzly Man, 2005; Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2010) or a parody of such in others (Zack Penn's Incident at Loch Ness, 2004).

Seems to me he's deliberately erasing himself from this film, allowing others' voices to come to fore. At one point he offers the rare--at least in this picture--opinion that Jesus wouldn't agree to the death penalty and tries to get Lisa Stotler to agree that an alternative like life without parole might be satisfactory, to which Lisa smiles and shakes her head. “But some people do not deserve to live,” she says. Herzog does not argue with her.

He seems to be laying out the groundwork, marking the boundaries--the depth and width--of suffering involved in murder, from the killers (legal and illegal) and victims' standpoints. This was reportedly an expansion of one episode in a mini-series to be titled On Death Row, and if he has anything more definite to say, he may possibly say it in further episodes.

Meantime Herzog has staked out some powerful, if vaguely organized, material here. He's basically stepped out of the way to allow some  memorable people to come to fore--no less memorable for the fact that I've met and talked to (and come to know) people like Michael, Jason and Charles (some not as far gone perhaps; some as internally anguished). The picture of Michael Perry grinning at the camera is haunting precisely because I've seen that grin so many times before, directed at me. You think: "he can't possibly have a violent thought in his head; he can't possibly be a killer." Oh yes, he can.

Seeing them on the big screen, pouring their hearts out to this visiting German filmmaker, is a remarkable sight (I suspect his accent disarms them--confessing to a stranger can be easier for some people). They spin out their stories, they praise God for what meager blessings fall their way, they express a nervously defensive hope for the future. What one can't see in their faces is a strong sense of security, of serenity in life, of emotional and spiritual peace.

First published in Businessworld, 4.19.12

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Lino Brocka, 1974)

Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa 

Lino Brocka's Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974) shows the filmmaker's versatility in the short form, working with various writers.

The first segment, Tony Perez's Mga Hugis ng Pag-asa (Faces of Hope) has Jay Ilagan play Noni, a drug addict struggling in a drug rehabilitation center. And while the segment is generally considered to be the weakest of the three, it does feature cinematographer Romy Vitug's fine monochromatic camerawork, and the startling image of Ilagan being shaved of all his hair (a shockingly traumatic sight when I first saw it at the tender age of nine).

Brocka is at his melodramatic best with Mario O'Hara's Hellow, Soldier. Hilda Koronel is Gina, a young slum dweller waiting for her American G.I. father to pick her up and take her to America; Anita Linda is Gina's mother Lucia, who wants her daughter to leave, yet is unable to face the loneliness of life without her. O'Hara's deceptively simple story is an evocative metaphor for any number of themes: the lurid legacy left behind by the American Occupation (Lucia was unapologetically the American's mistress, and raised the child herself); the troubling questions that arise when someone tries to do something (should Gina live with her mother or father? And what happens to Lucia?); the bitterness, the rage, the--most shameful secret of all--affection felt by Filipinos for their onetime ally and master and ostensible lover.

Brocka has his actors play their roles at a higher emotional pitch than usual, which may put some off; some, however, will believe that this is unaccountably the right way to go--how can you not be affected, with issues this personal, this deeply felt?

Orlando Nadres' Bukas, Madilim, Bukas (Tomorrow, the Darkness) is Brocka's uncharacteristically gothic short masterpiece. Brocka, who has rarely done a period film and who almost always locates his stories in the urgency of the here and now (almost always in the Manila of today), with Vitug's help creates an airless, languid realm, not so much isolated as abandoned by the outside world.

Trapped is bedridden invalid Atang (the great Mary Walter) and her spinster daughter Rosenda (the equally great Lolita Rodriguez); their relationship together is a study in miniature of a love-hate, master-servant, mother-daughter antagonism of almost unbearable intensity. Enter the ugly-handsome Miguelito (Mario O'Hara, this time as actor), Rosenda's one chance to escape her lifelong imprisonment. The result is a kind of stylized melodrama you wish Brocka could have done more often (if the results can be as wonderful as this)--Brocka's penetrating analysis of human relations, transformed by a fevered imagination and a sense of doomed poetry.

(Published here as apparently the website of CineFilipino--for which I wrote this piece--has vanished, assumed defunct)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cabin in the Woods; Mirror, Mirror; Super Noypi; Citizens' Band; The Shanghai Gesture

The last word

Cabin in the Woods (2012) is fun, a deconstruction exercise the way Scream was only wittier and more imaginative, with some serious muscle behind the evil behind it all.

Best way to see it is go in knowing as little as possible, I'
d say; Whedon's script lets you know quickly what kind of movie this is, then complicates matters as swiftly as possible.

I do like it that the film takes the time to individualize the characters--we get some sense of who they are, care if they survive or not. Also like it that the film pulls some fast ones in plausibility--some unlikely coincidences, some lucky breaks--that stretch but don't snap the rubber bands of credibility (can't recall the proper term, was best I could think of).

Joss calls this his reaction against torture porn; damn straight. We need more of this kind of horror, less of that dull torture fare.

Only wish Joss had directed it--think he's a fine director, that he can do more with the camera (even the handheld kind) than most directors his age, or younger.

It's just a fantasy

And to continue with the genre-benders, Tarsem Singh's Mirror, Mirror (2012) is every bit as sloppily told as his Immortals--sloppier, in fact--but for all the cheesy effects, the story does enjoy the benefit of a genuinely funny script, and a cast as good-naturedly game as it is energetic (the standout being Armie Hammer as the unreservedly silly prince--for once, genuinely charming--and Julia Roberts as the deliciously evil queen).

The film's real star is Singh, who (unlike, say, Gary Ross) knows how to stage and shoot sword fights--they come off as both coherent and inventive. He knows how to wring every ounce of drama out of his always impressive sets (a ballroom with a gigantic bow of an entrance; a cozy dwarves' den; an enchantingly enchanted forest) and his outrageous costumes (designed by the late Eiko Ishioka, whose work on this film was, alas, her last).  

Super hero

 Quark Henares' Super Noypi (2006) isn't without its share of problems--okay, more than its share of problems--and you can see what a frustrating experience this must have been for the filmmaker: he's finally gotten a decent budget, a chance to show what he's got, and he's forced to fashion what he feels to be a piece of ordure. 

But after all's been said and done--the movie isn't that bad. Yes, the effects are terrible and some of the sets and costumes worse; yes the storytelling can at times seem painfully awkward. At the same time it manages to communicate the essential sanity of teens, it's inside them the way John Hughes likes to think he is (mostly with upper middle-class Caucasian teens, and a lot less often than you'd imagine). 

The plot twist when it comes is genuinely surprising, and surprisingly moving, and you can't help but note the differences between this and something like Chronicles: in the former the anti-hero commits crimes in the name of a wronged father or mother or beloved other; in the latter the anti-hero suffers his past hurts and his angst and doesn't really give a damn about anyone else...

Talk radio

Jonathan Demme's Citizen's Band (1977) is a lovely tribute to middle America--to ordinary people reaching out and annoying each other from hundreds of miles away (anticipating the Facebook culture by some twenty-six years). It's a colorful cast--a bigamous trucker; a hooker operating out of her trailer home; a seductive-voiced siren; an eager operator determined to enforce the rules of on-air courtesy (Paul LeMat) at the risk of life and limb.

The last is the hero of the film, for no other reason than that he has the most screen time, and has the unthankful task of trying to rein in his fellow conversationalists--not going to happen, but we have a time watching him try.

Charles Dickens might have written the screenplay to this movie, if he ran a ham radio: the sense of teeming, overwhelming life; the occasional touches of sentiment and pathos; the sympathy for all people, no matter how 'little.' These qualities shine through and feel like a updated version of his fiction, only Demme's has an unmistakable American quirk to it--every character there realizes he possess by birthright the opportunity to reinvent him or her self on a larger, more vivid scale, befitting the larger, more vivid landscape, and does so accordingly.

Come with me to the casbah, darling
Adopted from a play by John Colton, Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture (1941) had to turn the original brothel into a casino, the drug addict into a degenerate gambler--but what a casino, and what a gambler! The club rises in a series of concentric circles, with a roulette wheel spinning at the very bottom, each circle embraced by wrought metal rails depicting paradisiacal birds and lush forests, the floors teeming with Asians and Europeans of every type indulging in every kind of vice. Think of Rick's Cafe conceived as an oriental Dante's Inferno--hell choking cheerfully in its own cigarette fumes.

(And who else should be spinning the bottom roulette wheel but Marcel Dalio himself? Obviously Michael Curtiz or his producers had seen this film and appropriated the man as a kind of Seal of Authentic Decadence for their own (frankly impoverished-looking) gambling den, in a far more wholesome (read: bland) melodrama)

As for the beautiful Eurasian Poppy (the name being the only hint left of the girl's original addiction), the censors kept Gene Tierney from really cutting loose, but she and Sternberg did their level best to suggest hedonism at its most amoral and monstrous, and damn if they didn't come close, with Tierney draped over every available sofa and bar counter and man, her luscious body poured into the various slinky gowns designed for her by her then-husband Oleg Cassini.

Censorship be hanged--it's a heedless spectacle where Victor Mature recites Omar Khayyam-like verses with all the relish of a Penthouse Forum Letter of the Month, where Ona Munro as Mother Gin Sling lovingly describes her sexual degradation from one big-city harbor to another, and Walter Huston as Sir Guy Charteris smiles icily, thinking himself protected by money and power, unaware of the fatal course his destiny is describing--a gradual but inevitable spiral into destruction and despair. A masterpiece, in short.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)

The Love Boat 

No doubt about it: at a rumored budget of $250 million, with whispered stories of a long, difficult shoot; then a triumphant film opening in Japan, and huge boxoffice takings thereafter (not to mention Best Picture Oscar buzz)—Titanic has got to be, right here, right now, The Greatest Show On Earth (Last year's Greatest Show On Earth, the death & funeral of Princess Diana, has already lost its fizz). 

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Sticks and stones

Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011), his adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is, for the most part, a hoot.

The film begins with the camera slowly swooping down on a playground, where a group of youths (led by one Ethan Longstreet) follow a youth (named Zachary Cowan). Words are exchanged, shoving ensues; Polanski holds the shot--we don't have any idea of what they're saying to each other--until Zachary takes the stick he's been swinging and whacks Ethan across the face. As a kind of punctuation Ethan's stunned friends gather around him while Zachary angrily kicks over a nearby bike.

Cut to Zachary's parents Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) talking with Ethan's parents Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) in the Longstreets' apartment. They have just drawn up a carefully worded statement of what had happened, and the Cowans are preparing to leave; they make it as far as the elevator lobby before being invited back in again to sip coffee and taste Penelope's cobbler. The interaction so far has been civilized but as the conversation continues (and more abortive departures attempted) the protective enamel of civilization starts to wear away, revealing behavior not much more mature than what we saw in the playground.

Polanski's adapted plays before (Death and the Maiden (1994) and Macbeth (1971)--excellent adaptation, I think--come to mind); he's set films in confined spaces before (Repulsion (1965), Knife in the Water (1962) and much of The Pianist (2002) come to mind)--so this is hardly new territory. One actually wonders, though, why Polanski bothered; the play hardly seems to deliver on the promise of its title, even if said title was meant to be metaphoric (at most we get angry revelations, 'in vino veritas' and all). Polanski's nothing if not a master at chipping at civilization's brittle veneer, but in this case the unmasked faces aren't any more frightening than what you'd encounter at an office Christmas bash, or neighborhood block party.

Perhaps that's the point; perhaps what's meant to be unsettling isn't that the people are so grotesque (they are, in a more recognizable folks-cross-the-hallway kind of way) but that it takes so little to uncover their grotesquerie (all it takes, really, is a stick across the face). Perhaps Polanski was looking for an excuse to exercise his filmmaking muscles and this was the swiftest, cheapest way to do it.

I don't mind, actually; Polanski is possibly twiddling his thumbs here, but what twiddling!

I've pointed out the first shot, with its perfectly timed shock punchline; then there are the various ways Polanski maintains the tension--the Cowans constantly on the verge of leaving, Alan constantly (and infuriatingly) being called away to answer important cell phone calls (and snorting derisively as he does so).

A spectacular--almost hideously so--accident (involving Nancy, and possibly Penelope's apple-and-pear tart) forces the two couples to separate and confer privately, the Longstreets in the living room to clean up the mess, Cowans in the bathroom to clean up themselves. This is perhaps the least cinematic sequence in the film, involving Polanski crosscutting between the Cowans (where Polanski does get to use the bathroom mirror to acquire extra angles on the two) and the Longstreets (some amusing slapstick involving a hair dryer here). I imagine this could have been more cleverly presented onstage, perhaps with the two couples under separate spotlights, performing simultaneously (Polanski could have used a split-screen, but possibly felt this would be a superfluous effect). It's a necessary sequence, though; we need to know how the husbands interact with their wives, and how they view the opposing camp--sort of establishing a baseline on their private behavior before we see it start to degenerate.

When all four finally come back together--ah, then the games really begin. Polanski plays them like a chess master, swinging them across the board in attempted flanking movements, having them hurl feints, ripostes, frontal assaults (both verbal and at times even physical). The players (pieces?) take up and dissolve alliances, their formations changing as they do so: early in the film we see Penelope and Michael facing off against Nancy and Alan; later Michael and Alan retire to the liquor cabinet (Alan is stunned at the quality of Michael's 18-year-old Scotch) while Nancy and Penelope glare at them with undisguised hostility. Loyalties and antagonisms are drawn and redrawn across social classes, sexes, marital lines; and yes, purses will be thrown.

Jodie Foster's is probably the most straightforward performance as liberal progressive Penelope Longstreet; all Polanski asks of her is to be intense, and she is, tremblingly and reddishly, demanding enlightenment and getting only ennui. John Reilly has more fun as her husband Michael, all shambolic working-class camaraderie hiding a baleful resentment of the more educated types (like his wife). Nancy Cowan is arguably the most vaguely drawn of the lot--one wonders what really drives her, or turns her on (we do learn that animal cruelty freaks her out, and that she should perhaps stay away from fruit cobblers). Slyest of them all is Christoph Waltz as Nancy's faintly foreign husband, the corporate lawyer with the soft voice that delivers the sharpest, most caustic barbs; his endless phone calls are a source of endless annoyance, but at the same time results in one of the funniest punch lines (exceeded only perhaps by Nancy's cobbler response).

All of this spinning intricately, effortlessly atop the director's confident palm. Minor Polanski, almost weightless in its insignificance, but the precision with which he pulls it off reminds one of a straight razor--thin and almost painless, but very, very sharp.

First published in Businessworld 3.29.12

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

Let the games begin

If The Hunger Games were real, Katniss wouldn't have lasted a day, I'd say; maybe not even an hour. 

Think about it. She'd been advised beforehand not to try for the Cornucopia at the start of the games--told it'll be a bloodbath, with all the tributes trying for the best weapons and survival backpacks, and she'd be better off running for the high ground, finding water, and making her own bow and arrows. So what's the first thing she does when the starting signal is given

Goes for a backpack. Nearly gets killed for it, too.

Actually, Katniss nearly gets killed a number of times (have not read the Suzanne Collins book, for the record, so I'm mainly judging the movie) and the only thing that saves her is some last-minute intervention by some other tribute for some complicated reason of his or her own. For someone so highly rated at survival, she seems to need the help of a lot of people.

Plus she needs to work on her short game. She's deadly with arrows we're told over and over again, okay, but arrows are basically long-range weapons and over and over again predators and adversaries find a way to dodge her arrows, and after that--well, it's rescue time again. Doesn't seem all that good with her knife, either; she should try get a machete, or perhaps a spiked club. 

And she needs to stay away from rivers or streams. Every time she comes upon a river or stream she insists on walking straight down its middle, instead of sticking to the trees. It's like walking in broad daylight in the middle of a road, dead center, yelling "Shoot me! Shoot me!" 

At one point director Gary Ross gives us a giant closeup of Katniss' foot stepping on a dry twig, loudly and crisply snapping said twig into brittle pieces. I'm reminded of an appreciation by Mark Twain of the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper:

"He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one."

(It's with some gratitude that I recall Twain has been dead for over a century now; if he were still writing he'd probably scribble a thorough takedown of The Hunger Games an hour before breakfast and still be three times funnier than any critic out there) 

But that's Katniss' skills (or lack thereof) as a gamer; director Ross doesn't do much better. His idea of effective filmmaking seems to go something like this: 1) glance at the script; 2) note instruction: "FIGHT SEQUENCE;" 3) shake camera as if it had fallen asleep; 4) repeat. 

He's incredibly consistent on this; you might almost call it a virtue if it wasn't so damn annoying. And I'm sure it's more than just a knee-jerk reaction on his part--thinks this way he can avoid the dreaded "R" rating (the MPAA can't slap the rating on him if they can't see what's going on, can they?). Poor soul doesn't seem to realize that it's possible to direct an effective action sequence without showing too much blood (see Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies, or even his recent War Horse--not a huge fan of the picture, but it does render something of the horrors of war without ladling on too much tomato sauce; just takes talent, is all).

Or you can go all the way and show the violence for what it is--destructive, wasteful, horrendous--just the way Kinji Fukasaku did in Battle Royale (2001), about a class of fifteen-year-old students kidnapped, brought to a remote island, armed and forced to kill each other.

Have a lot of issues with Fukasaku's film--the melodramatic music; the sticky sentimentalism; the rather muddled plot logic (why would parents even allow their kids on field trips if they know this could happen (or do they know? It's never made all that clear...)). One thing Fukasaku does do well is violence--gallons of it, from the knife sprouting out of a student's forehead to the various stabbings, shootings, decapitations, to the fireball finale that closes the picture. Fukasaku's camera is pitiless; it neither flinches nor shakes. You know exactly what's happening, to whom it's happening to, and why. 

No such luck with The Hunger Games; the camera may linger on Katniss (an unconvincingly well-nourished Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (a dewy-eyed and rather limp-looking Josh Hutchinson) sharing a tender moment, but God forbid that they should quarrel! The very idea would send Ross' camera a-quakin'.

(Why am I so concerned with the portrayal of violence? Mainly because I think in most cases violence when depicted should be upsetting, should be repugnant, should not be glamorized or in any way sanitized (if we are glamorizing it, it should be for a purpose--to show the psychological effect of violence's appeal on those who inflict it, and on those inflicted upon. Soft-pedaling violence for the purpose of getting a PG-13--and in effect bigger boxoffice--is in my book hypocrisy of a high order)

In Royale it isn't all about the kids. There's the character of Kitano, former schoolteacher turned competition director, played by--who else?--filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, a multimedia celebrity artist who comes with his own built-in sense of irony. The presentation of violence a two-edged sword? Kitano cheerfully acknowledges this, satirizes it without saying a single explicit word on the subject, and adds an indefinable melancholy tang to the picture. Just his presence alone complicates the film's moral texture; his sad-sack face, the oddly self-conscious scenes involving him (at one point he phones his daughter, who professes to despise him; at another he unveils a painting--which I'm guessing he did himself--that is in itself a commentary on the whole bloody business). Hunger Games has no such self-awareness; its 'satire' consists mainly of cheap shots at reality shows and the electronic media. Thematically the movie is about as substantial as a District 11 dinner.

(Oh, and on the issue of Collins ripping off her ideas from Battle Royale--she can rip off the Bible (which has its own share of violence and murdered youths) for all I care, as long as the result is something honest and at least halfway interesting. Which this isn't.)

What else? The fire forcing Katniss to run towards her opponents is a clumsy idea (in Battle Royale, if you didn't go where they wanted you, the collar round your neck detonated--pow!--and you're an instant raspberry juice fountain); the parachuting gifts beeping--beeping?--their way down is a stupid idea (what's to stop opponents from finding said gift and picking you off as you approach?), and the arbitrary rule changes are an even stupider idea (in Royale (did I mention how much more I prefer that picture?), if on the third day no winner is declared all necklaces detonate).

Big boxoffice success, of course; nothing I or any other nonfan can say will change that (as if  I give a fig). Ross' cachet will only improve (about which prospect I do give a fig); he may be assigned to do the rest of the franchise (frankly I'd like to see Joe Dante take a swing at it; then the satire might acquire real teeth)--in which case, more Hunger movies. Not holding my breath.