Monday, July 30, 2012

China 9 Liberty 37, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Magic Mike

Monte Hellman's China 9 Liberty 37 starts out with a spaghetti-ish (not to mention noirish) premise. Legendary gunslinger Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is offered a deal: be hanged or go shoot the railroad company's former killer-for-hire Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates) whose farm stands in the way of said railroad's expansion. When Clayton arrives at Sebanek's farm, he chances upon Catherine (the luscious Jenny Agutter) bathing naked in a stream.

The stranger who comes upon an isolated house and an ambivalent marriage; we pretty much know how this plays out, only with Hellman we don't exactly know how things plays out, and character as much as conflict has a role in determining the narrative's wayward progress. Hellman's trademark pacing (something a bit more leisurely than a horse's lope) sometimes erupts in sudden, vicious, superbly staged and shot violence (a showdown between Clayton and one of Matthew's brothers comes to mind); said pacing also hides the tensions simmering beneath. Matt knows Clayton was sent to kill him; Matt and Clayton like each other (both are hardened professionals tired of their profession); Catherine and Clayton like each other too. If the actors look as if they're a little lost that's not a flaw in the performances but a natural reaction to being in a Hellman film: so many undercurrents and subtleties crossing each other you have to be careful not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. 

Arguably the most confident performer here is Oates; having given Hellman the definitive portrait of American machismo at its most unconfident in Two Lane Blacktop he knows enough to armor Matthew with the most obtuse of surfaces, the better to hide his true intentions--which we learn about anyway, of course. Hellman puts up people with varying skills at deception and self-deception (even Testi's open-faced Clayton plays the game), that in the course of his films are gradually stripped of their defenses, leaving a raw, aching awareness. A great western, of course, not the least because it feels so much more than one. 

Tarsem Singh can't really tell a story properly, but he's such a heedlessly fertile imagemaker one doesn't quite care. Mirror Mirror is his modernized take on the Snow White legend, and frankly it's a mess; it's also fun, with Lily Collins as the impish heroine and Julia Roberts in full-on comic mode as the malevolently vain stepmother queen. Scriptwriter Marc Klein and playwright Jason Keller manage to come up with sparkling rom-com dialogue between Collins and her Prince Charming, the heroically game Armie Hammer (he gets considerable comic mileage out of a less-than-dignifying spell that compels him to act like a dog), but the true star of the film is Singh's distinct visual style--exuberant and restless (but not to the point of ADHD), with a gift for imagery (Snow White's minaret palace rising high over a crystal lake from an impossibly curved crag) and dramatic sets (the hushed winter forest; the dwarfs' underground lodge; the ballroom with its breathtakingly cavernous entrance). 

A good chunk of the film's visual appeal are the costumes, by Singh's collaborator Eiko Ishioka with their soaring collars, sweeping capes, and ridiculous swan and sailing-ship hats (sadly, this was to be Ishioka's final work--she died before the film was finished). Call me smitten, but I think it all works--the actors are content to be smart and sassy and shallow, leaving all the real magic to be worked by the filmmakers, toiling away in the background. Easily Singh's most enjoyable picture to date.

And if that isn't convincing, check out Snow White and the Huntsman, Rupert Sander's LOTR-ized version of the legend. Serious themes, dark magics, and Charlize Theron in full Monster mode--for all her talent and beauty, Theron has never struck me as an actress with much of a sense of humor. She's so driven to make us see the acting behind the beauty that we're put off by the pushiness: "you want to be taken seriously, we get that; now back off!"

If Theron is too in-your-face, Stewart is too, well, comatose. She sleepwalks through the film with the same vaguely distressed expression she used during all four (five? I forget) Twilight movies, and frankly the ploy has become a bit wearying, if not soporific. Between the two actresses, one pathetically passive, the other psychotically aggressive, there's no point of dramatic contact whatsoever; it's as if they were acting in two completely different movies, neither of which I particularly liked. 

Sanders directs big, but it's an empty, unevocative kind of big; big sets, big action setpieces, no sense of drama, inspiration, artistry, no acknowledgement of the essential absurdity of the story (A beautiful virgin living with seven dwarfs, unmolested? Really?). There's a suggestion of feminist sympathy for the evil queen, but poor Theron lost me some time back, when she wouldn't even crack wise on the idea of eating a young girl's heart--c'mon, Charlize, not even an Andrew Zimmern reference?

Possibly the picture's low point is when Snow White comes to the heart of the forest, and a mysterious stag with monstrous antlers rises up to greet her (sounds familiar?). Rule number one when making bad movies: don't ever remind the audience of a better film; they might not come back in heart and mind to finish this one.

Steven Soderbergh is the hardest-working serious filmmaker in the business, arguably; his Magic Mike is his low-budget take on favorite star Channing Tatum's life story. The star has a charming, low-key presence, but cedes center stage to Matthew McConaughey's slimy strip club owner, a combination of six-pack abs, long unwashed hair, and fine wrinkles.

Film is nicely understated, the dance sequences nicely shot and choreographed (I can see Soderbergh being capable of doing a musical, though I don't see him wanting to--he's such an odd combination of the canny and straitlaced); several points of contention in a largely competent production: I'm not sure club customers look that consistently good, and the level of homoerotic denial ("Got all these hot women, so I ain't gay") in the air is so intense you can't help but sniff suspiciously for smoke.

Perhaps my biggest beef with the picture is that it ain't Lino Brocka; the club is too clean, the acts too wholesome, the melodrama too tidy. As I wrote in Cineaste, Brocka's Macho Dancer is unashamed exploitation (where Mike--again, too strenuously--keeps its head largely above the muck), and that's part of the film's political point. When it comes to male strip melodramas, make mine Macho.


Chris Marker, 7/29/21 - 7/30/12

His La Jetee in its brief forty minutes encompasses the span of a man's life, in its static images the mystery of the man's soul and in its oblique and tersely told story the tragedy of the man's destiny. If this isn't one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made (it is, but say it isn't) it's definitely one of the most daring, most lyrical, most eloquent. 

Your work was loved, sir, and we will miss you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

French film critic Max Tessier's tribute to Mario O'Hara

Tessier's been a longtime follower and ardent champion of Philippine cinema, not to mention being a frequent visitor to the Philippines. He managed to visit O'Hara's wake, something I wasn't able to do (and met O'Hara a few times). His support is much appreciated.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ted; Spider-man; Brave; Savages; To Rome with Love; and an announcement of sorts

Don't see why Seth McFarlane should bother bringing his unfunny Family Guy series to the big screen when he's already done the live-action version. 

I mean--Mark Whalberg as the Peter Griffin character; Mila Kunis as the hot love interest; McFarlane himself, stuffed in fur stained the exact shade of bilirubin, as a combination Stewie Griffin/Brian. So tell me what's the difference?

Oh yeah--about a hundred million dollars. I suppose for that much money you can find someone willing to defecate in public too.

It's not that I object to tasteless comedy; it's that I object to tasteless comedy that's so lazy. McFarlane has basically recycled an episode of Family Guy--where Peter keeps screwing around and having to scramble to make up for it with Lois (and oh, doesn't that basic plotline sound a tad familiar?)--puffed it up to feature-film length, added name actors and a digitally animated stuffed animal for the "wow!" factor. 

Can he direct? Like Paris Hilton can sing. He likes to swing his camera around in an establishing shot as if to say "Look guys! I've got a style!" but when the characters (usually in a two-shot) start talking, all pretensions to being a film are forgotten and the screen snaps shut like a discarded pop-up book. You're left staring at nothing but crude sketches.

As for tasteless--don't talk to me about tasteless. When McFarlane goes for a gross-out joke the best he can muster is a turd on the carpet (we don't even get to see how it got there); when the Farrellys go for one the shower wall is spectacularly spray-painted the exact shade of Ted's fur. Give me the Farrellys anytime.

It's more than just boobs-and-poop jokes. The Farrellys are outrageous comedians but (like Ben Stiller, another comic talent I appreciate) they're satirists; they shock and disturb because they're trying to make a point. I don't know what kind of point McFarlane is trying to make--that the '80s was a great decade? I grew up in the '80s; I would rather undergo a colonoscopy. And if someone asks "Then how do you account for--?" and quotes Ted's boxoffice receipts to me, I'll simply respond with P.T. Barnum's one-time remark about suckers. Serves him right, too.

Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man is a little less than. Andrew Garfield plays the angrier, edgier Peter Parker--and that's part of the problem. There's no real surprise here of a loser nerd type (like Tobey Maguire) suddenly standing up and spurting sticky substances from his wrists, only a James Dean troubled teen already spoiling for a fight.  Garfield is a good actor being typecast where Maguire was a funny running gag good for three movies (almost).

Webb (cute last name, but he's better off doing rom-com) puts the focus on Parker's melodrama, and shoots most of his action at night, the better to hide the digital fudging. Smart move; Raimi was ballsy enough to stage his digital webslinging in daylight (I love the largely orange-tinted view of New York) but then Raimi didn't give a damn (as can be seen in the Evil Dead films and Drag Me to Hell, he wore his cheesy effects proudly on his sleeve). After a while you realize that Webb prefers melodrama; his fight sequences are an incoherent mess of the non-shaky-cam type (What were those cars doing there hanging from the bridge? If Spidey saved them why didn't we see him saving them?). Arguably Webb is heir to the Rob Reiner and Mel Brooks School of Directing, comic filmmakers who can tell a story (and sometimes even coax a good performance from an actor) but haven't a clue how to construct a proper action sequence. When I said it's time to get someone else to direct the fourth Spidey picture I meant a filmmaker.

Talk about needing to get a filmmaker: Brave is reportedly Pixar's first animated feature with a strong female lead. Redheaded princess who kicks serious butt--now where have we seen that before?

Unfortunately Pixar may talk the talk but hasn't learned lesson one about what makes Studio Ghibli films so great. The subtlety of detail; the gorgeous handpainted background art; the use of silence and understatement to add depth and poignancy. The adult level of the storytelling--not adult as in rated R violence (though Ghibli has been there before) but adult as in indirect and unhurried and sophisticated, designed for audiences unafflicted by ADHD (a joke a minute, a chase every other). 

The triplet brothers are wonderful--they deserve an animated short all their own.

Might as well add that amongst Pixar's recent efforts, Brave isn't half as fun as half of Cars 2, the Michael Caine half (maybe not even half); that it tries for too much heart, which, as I mention in the above piece, isn't Pixar's strong suite in my view; that this latest movie is far more ambitious, but there's something to be said about doing something unpretentious; that a middling entertainment like the aforementioned sequel, with nothing more in mind than to amuse and make more money, is more Pixar's speed.

Oliver Stone's Savages is possibly his best work in years--not exactly high praise, but it's really not bad. Violent, funny, sexy, with a careful balancing act that keeps it just this side of being racist (a trio of Californian weed dealers struggling to stay ahead of a Baja drug cartel--what keeps it from stepping over is that everyone is sympathetic and everyone dirty; if they're not, they soon will be).

It has the density and nuance one only gets from a novel--Stone needs that to anchor his coked-up storytelling drive. What with the fashionable style nowadays being to shoot shaky-cam and cut the footage ADHD fast, Stone slows down his editing to just nervously jagged and hurls the camera along with the confidence and grace of a real veteran. And he's not too flashy; he's not trying to overload our circuitry the way he did in Natural Born Killers. He gives the plot its due, enhancing instead of engulfing the narrative. He gives the finale an odd twist, a variation of the novel, but strangely enough his addition sounds like the more reasonable, more true-to-life one. Man has grown.

Call me perverse, but I enjoyed Woody Allen's To Rome with Love far more than I did his previous endeavor set in Paris. Seems to me with Midnight in Paris he felt that all he had to do was namedrop Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Bunuel and the like, and he has the interest of his audience; here he's using all-fictional characters and he actually has to work a little to entertain us. 

The effort works; perhaps his best idea is Roberto Benigni (Benigni, of all people!) suddenly becoming famous for the sake of being famous. The conceit speaks volumes about our celebrity-obsessed culture (Kim Kardashian and Snooki anyone?), and puts Benigni's sad-sack face to full and even sympathetic use. Allen himself appears onscreen after a long hiatus as an avant-garde opera director, and acquits himself well (the stammer is still funny); Jesse Eisenberg makes for an amusing young Woody surrogate (his stammer impersonation is funny).

And finally, a kind of announcement. Am going to stop writing for Businessworld and stop writing here in this blog at least for a while, to focus on finishing that damn book I promised to finish for the past seven years. 

Doesn't mean I won't put up something once in a while--but it won't be as in-depth, and it won't be regular. Priority is the book right now, and if what I hear from some people is correct, it's about time.

Hopefully I do get to finish it--owe him that much. 

So long for now. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (tribute to Rodolfo Quizon (Dolphy) 1928 - 2012)

Lino Brocka's Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother, roughly, 1978) is the master filmmaker's one collaboration with the near-universally acknowledged King of Philippine Comedy, Dolphy (Rodolfo Vera Quizon). Screen legends working with famed filmmakers rarely if ever create sure bets; it's something of a surprise, then that the resulting picture from these two is so straightforwardly poignant, laced with just enough humor to wriggle past one's defenses.