Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the world news

Can't do it. 

Don't have it in me to put up a Best of 2012. Haven't the heart to make up an arbitrary list of what's good out there, much less judge what I think are the best of the year. 

Partly it's the times--not just the recent violence but any number of deaths, some underreported, some that hit close to home, some that are just personal. Is this year worse than any other? I don't know--don't feel like doing a count, only know it's up there. 

If I focus on one thing and not another, if I focus on specific tragedies and not others, it's not that I'm focusing on what I think are worse or more significant losses (not an authority on current events); it's that I'm writing about what I know best. That's all I can do at the moment--write on what I know, what hit me personally, a report on a direct blow to the breastbone if you like. 

Mildly put, it hasn't been a good year for films. Oh, good work has been done--even wrote about some of them. But the losses to Philippine and world cinema (I only nod at a distinction people seem to insist on making; I try not to actually make one) I feel were greater: Ike Jarlego; Marilou Diaz-Abaya; Dolphy; Chris Marker; Celso Ad Castillo; and Mario O'Hara, among others. It's as if God or Death or whoever presides out there took a quick survey of the giants towering over the landscape and decided to lop off the tallest heads one by one--for a while there you wondered if the pruning would stop, or at least pause for breath.

If it's any consolation, new filmmakers have come forward (wrote about some of them, too), and O'Hara for one has left us a last surprise, a made-for-TV film previously forgotten or presumed lost. A (more or less) new O'Hara, and a gem of a film at that--surely that counts towards the ledger's positive column.

But still. 

Here's hoping next year will be better. 


Fr. James Bertram Reuter, SJ (1916 - 2012) -- a remembrance

(An old post, revised)

Remembering Fr. James Bertram Reuter, SJ

I first met Father during a production of The Bridge (a play Father had written and directed, about Matteo Ricci), and through rehearsals and tours of the Philippine countryside performing the play for various schools and colleges, learned the virtues of teamwork, friendship, loyalty, discipline, patience, hard work--everything I should have learned from the classroom or from my family but for one reason or another did not (either no one bothered to teach them--my school's main emphasis was math and science--or I just didn't listen).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained, Les Miserables, The Snowmen (Dr. Who Christmas Special), Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Angel Face, Christmas Holiday

(WARNING: Plot of the two recent films discussed in close detail)

Too cool for school

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is basically a cartoon; a well-acted, fairly well-produced and even for moments well-directed (Tarantino continues to improve on his action sequences, this time borrowing from the shootout finale in Johnnie To's Exiled) cartoon on slavery, the way Inglourious Basterds is a cartoon--something funny and sometimes clever and occasionally amusing--but to regard it as anything more than an insubstantial contribution to a mostly disreputable genre is, to my mind, insane. 

He's clever, I'll give him that; he surrounds himself with spells, charms, the basic accoutrements to make his movies critic-proof (opportunistically assumed liberal agenda--check; outlandish violence--check; genre-bending--check; sophomoric humor--check; excellent actors mysteriously buffaloed into participating in his 'vision'--check). He even adds historical details that give his movie the outer appearance of being serious about the subject (the 'hot box' torture, the vicious hunting dogs, the various esoteric neck gear meant to keep a slave docile). He stops short of actually saying something serious but the man probably, as another fictional vigilante might put it, "knows his limits." He does, but one wonders--does his fans?

God--or the Devil--is in the details, and Django gets off on a spectacularly wrong foot early in the picture: the man (Jamie Foxx) is rescued by an improbable walking plot function, a German dentist turned bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who totally gets Tarantino's 'let's bullshit the audience' spirit). They strike a deal--Django will help Schultz find his bounty, an endeavor that may take several months, and Schultz will eventually help Django find his wife. 

So what do they do, this pair on a mission to hunt down a band of dangerous criminals--do they look around quietly, gathering information, perhaps sending out feelers as to where said criminals may be? Nope--they ride into town and straight into a bar, shoot up the sheriff in front of the entire town, and demand two hundred dollars for the privilege (apparently they do get the money as opposed to getting killed, which is another crazy development). Later they shoot up a plantation, and blow up a posse of proto-Klansmen in the bargain.

Now I'm aware this is a cartoon but there's "pushing the limits of plausibility" to milk a gag and there's following a pair of boneheaded morons who don't know the meaning of the word 'discreet.' Bad enough that a white and black man have partnered together to go bounty hunting--that certainly won't attract any attention--but judging from the rather loud and extravagant way they progress across the countryside I doubt if anyone will be willing to sit tight and wait patiently for their arrival.

Of course the prey could be even dumber--there's always that. And I suppose this whole bit is really a minor plot loophole, but I submit to you that it's the kind of loophole that helps you buy into a scenario instead of sitting with your feet up, spitting watermelon seed shells at the screen.

Finally they find the wife; she's been busy baking in an iron box in Candyland, Calvin Candie's (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation of horrors. They concoct a scheme to rescue her so elaborate even the head slave Stephen (Samuel Jackson) could see through it; they get caught, are forced to settle the transaction on hugely disadvantageous terms, under gunpoint (fortunately Schulz has an ace literally up his sleeve, which he saves till the last moment). Before the deal is closed, DiCaprio's Candie offers a handshake to Schulz--who suddenly is up to here with slavery. What does he do? He doesn't shoot the guy holding the gun.

Like I said--morons. 

Incidentally, about Jackson's Stephen--Tarantino was never one for making his characters sound like different people; every actor no matter how handsome or beautiful or how beautiful the diction or heavy the accent ends up sounding like Tarantino. But Stephen--yes, there were slaves who actively collaborated with their white masters, but one that talked and cussed like he was walking the streets of '70s Los Angeles ("motherfucker" incidentally became popular only about World War 2)? Really?

He's Tarantino's most entertaining conceit though, despite the howling anachronism--a kind of airing of black history's dirtier laundry (though why it has to be Tarantino and not Spike Lee--why, say, Tarantino gets the funding to do a spaghetti western version of slavery and not Spike Lee with a possibly more thoughtful approach...). It was suggested to me that the mention of Alexandre Dumas was a giveaway, that the reason Stephen was so dedicated to Calvin was because he was Calvin's real father. The theory goes something like this: Candie grand-pere had an only daughter, the girl had an affair with Stephen, got pregnant, and when grand-pere died (presumably from a heart attack), the daughter left the plantation in her son's care, with the biological father as overseer slave. Got to say that if this is true, it somewhat weakens Tarantino's picture--Stephen doesn't do what he does for the sheer perversity of it; there's a biological basis.

Interesting idea, thought I'd air it here, and beyond that--well, that's it for interesting ideas found in Tarantino's latest.

Along the way I'd like to file an unofficial protest on behalf of Kerry Washington (who plays Broomhilda, Django's girl) and the way her character is wasted in this picture. She's a pretty actress--maybe talented; I wouldn't know, because Tarantino doesn't give her a single thing to do except scream and flash a nipple or two. By picture's end she's on a horse smiling confidently and swinging a rifle like she's been doing that all her life--where did that come from? Far as I know she's been spending her time in Candyland either baking underground or spreading her legs for every guest to come visiting (the last because her beloved husband would rather spend a few months of quality time with his newly befriended bounty-hunting partner than focus on saving her). A chance for the girl to target practice with rifles, in short, seem a tad unlikely. 

Maybe Tarantino's a one-issue guy. He tackled sexism in his previous movie Kill Bill (well, feels he has tackled it; I beg to differ), and needs to focus his limited attention span on racism this time--maybe that's why his Broomhilda is such a thin creation, thinner than even the other cartoon sketches populating his picture. 

Perhaps the best argument against watching a Tarantino flick is to watch the far superior if less expensive originals he stole from. I mean--Corbucci's Django for all its lack of production values and haphazard construction (Corbucci talked his brother Bruno into dashing off a quick story outline in place of an actual script) has a deadpan demented sense of humor and outlandish cruelty, plus subtle taint of melancholic loneliness (women--and men even, come to think of it--are drawn to Django, who rarely let them in) that Tarantino just can't quite capture. The director also borrowed the Mandingo idea from Richard Fleischer's film--arguably the most accurate portrait of slavery committed on celluloid--but couldn't reproduce the lurid tone (Susan George beats Washington up and down the block for onscreen sensuality), or visual elan (Fleischer against Tarantino? Gheddafakouddahere), or thematic complexity (the suggestion that Mede is more animal than man, and eventually acquires the dignity of a man, at the cost of horrific sacrifice).

Far as I can see Tarantino doesn't borrow from the most famous title to deal with the subject, the mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots. Maybe he considers the show inferior product, irredeemably cheesy and uncool--a pity, because despite the low budget and occasionally clumsy TV mini-series style storytelling the treatment has its moments of grandeur and dramatic power, and is by far the most comprehensive fictional treatment to date. 

Arguably my favorite title from the genre is Charles Burnett's Nightjohn, a small film that possesses every virtue Django Unchained does not--subtlety, grace, a kind of unblinking yet unbowed humanity, a stubborn belief in the superiority of human intelligence over violence. Too cheesy, I suppose, too uncool. Of Burnett's influence I see not a trace. 

Do you hear the people sing?

Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, about relentless Inspector Javert's (Russell Crowe) hunt for ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is (for the first hour or so anyway) the absolute worse movie I've seen all year. Chop-suey editing; canted camera angles; relentless gigantic closeups (director Hooper had gone through great trouble and expense to record the cast's singing live, and wanted to make sure you knew it), a narrative that seems to jump, skip, leap across years without even a by-your-leave. The first hour or so is an encyclopedia of slovenly, speeded-up storytelling (apparently Hooper wanted to skip through Valjean's life to arrive at the Fantine storyline and barricades), like watching a movie on fast-forward while the disc skipped every other scene. 

Doesn't help that Crowe--playing Javert--makes it plain to everyone who can hear that he can't sing. Not a note. Oh, he has a nicely solemn speaking voice, but the moment it tries to follow a melody to the higher registers it falls flat on its face and just lies there, twitching.

...actually got a cat like that, a big tabby weighing twenty pounds who when stalking towards strangers with his massive size and big eyes can be a tad unsettling; then he opens his mouth, the tiniest 'mew' pops out, and all sense of intimidation flies out the window. Crowe's voice has exactly that effect--and unlike say Marlon Brando (who had to deal with a nasal whine and unfortunate lisp in A Streetcar Named Desire)--Crowe has yet learned to draw attention back to him with sneaky bits of stage business.

The film starts becoming fairly good when Hooper settles down long enough to allow us to listen to Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing her one dramatic solo. Problem is, this is Hathaway intent on remaking her Princess Diaries image into something edgier, playing a character shredding her soul to pieces in private, and it would help (maybe even nudge her performance into actual poignancy) if Hooper's camera and microphone weren't six inches away from her mouth. It's like listening to someone pour their heart out straight into your ear canal, at full volume--at some point you're bound to go deaf. 

I'd like to go on comparing this to the Broadway and London East End hit (in summation: not a fan of the musical and still the movie doesn't come out well), but I'd rather compare it to Victor Hugo's original novel. Les Miserables the book has plenty the matter with it--endless passages of obscure French politics, a seemingly bottomless cistern of bathos (not to mention the courage to wield said bathos frequently and shamelessly). It does enjoy two advantages: Hugo's prose, which is tremendously detailed and eloquent (at least as translated to English), and his canvas--a thousand five hundred pages' worth, at least in my single-volume paperback, able to spread any sentimental detail or unlikely plot twist across days and months and years even, to the point that it looks like a relatively realistic facsimile of life. 

The musical can't indulge in that kind of luxury; it has to compress over a thousand pages of passion, violence, hatred, sadism, comedy and sacrifice into roughly two hours and forty-five minutes of singing, and the net effect is that what looked impressive and grand on the printed page smacks of rank melodrama on the theater stage. Add a movie camera that refuses to back away more than ten inches for most of its hundred and fifty minute running time and you have a serious problem. Do I hear the people sing? I sure do. Now back off.

Let it snow let it snow let it snow 

Arguably the finest Christmas present one can get is a Steven Moffat-penned Dr. Who Christmas special, and Saul Metzstein's The Snowmen is no exception. Victorian England, this time; sinister psychic snow; ladders dropping down in the middle of parks at night, leading to winding iron staircases topped by bright blue police boxes.

Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh) the lesbian Silurian detective is back and so is the Sontaran Strax (Dan Starkey), two allies the Doctor recruited in A Good Man Goes to War; new companion Clara Oswin Oswald is back after first appearing in Asylum of the Daleks. The stocking is stuffed full to overflowing so it's probably churlish of me to suggest that the episode as a whole is too overstuffed, that after the surprise twist to Clara happens about midway through the episode the whole thing begins to unravel, that her ultimate fate loses its impact because we aren't adequately prepared for it, or we irrationally think (after all the twists Moffat throws our way, here and elsewhere) that what's about to happen won't happen  (it's Christmas, after all). 

I don't know--somewhat unsatisfying Moffat is in my book still head and shoulders better than most anything out there on TV (I include The Walking Dead and exclude Neil Gaiman), and I just might like the episode better on second viewing (was looking at The Wedding of River Song again and the realization that it's really both a variation and elaboration of the Peter Pan parable of never growing up or getting married--with anachronistic  (anarchically anachronistic) England being Moffat's version of Wonderland--sharpens the poignancy considerably). Time will tell, I suppose. 
The cold thin air of perfection

David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi isn't food porn, I think; it isn't that vulgar, and there's art involved in the depiction (unlike video porn nowadays, which consists of anatomical closeups plus repetition ad nauseam). Call it food erotica: Jiro Ono seems to suggest with his simple craft an entire panoply of arts, from the precise shaping of sushi rice and topping (sculpture) to the final application of a lacquerlike layer of gleaming, viscous soy sauce on the finished morsel (painting) to the maintenance of a minimalist blonde-wood chapel dedicated to undenatured seafood in the basement of a Ginza office building (performance and Surrealist set design).

Can't help but think of a New York Times review that complained the film insisted more than proved with the use of "explanations, demonstrations, context" the excellence of Jiro's skill. Don't know what with the film's slim 81-minute running time if you have much room for an introductory course on the basics of quality sushi-making. I'm thinking the time is better spent nibbling on the edges of the more interesting issue of what kind of person Jiro is: a lonely, craft-obsessed man (as suggested by the title, seafood haunts him even in his sleep) who despite his lofty Olympian position exhibits remarkable humility spiked with a deftly applied dollop of directness--a wasabi-like arrogance, if you like. The tension between him and his sons is perhaps the most intriguing element (well there's the mouthwatering fish, but it's to be expected that erotica trade on our Pavlovian responses)--the younger is shunted to one side and allowed to do a more accessible if less well-regarded form of sushi, the elder is in the unenviable, not unterrifying position of picking up the knife and taking over when the father eventually passes. 

Talk about Lear's dilemma. Ultimately, there's a poignant tang to this ostensibly irrelevant--it's all about food, for chrissake (on the other hand it's all about food, for chrissake)--subject; it speaks to the transitory nature of art (Jiro must eventually have a successor, and the fish itself cannot remain on its plate forever) same time it pleads for the permanency of more intangible virtues (the pursuit of excellence, the need for ruthless and consistent quality assessment). Jiro seems totally aware of his status the same time he seems aware of the frivolousness of his endeavor same time he seems determined to carry on, nevertheless. As good a recent example of heroism as anything I can think of. 

Sunshine noir 

Angel Face is Jean Simmons as the wealthy stepdaughter Diane Tremayne, all deadpan mystique and soft-spoken voice hiding a steely blade of a will; Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup, the don't-give-a-damn ambulance driver slowly dragged into the uncomfortable awareness that yes he does, very much; and Preminger as the ruthless filmmaker who brings the two together in a seductive dance to destruction in this noirest of noir, paradoxically shot in some of the most brightly-lit, luxurious sets Hollywood money could buy (even the chauffeur's more modest apartment is pointedly comfortable). 

Key to Diane's character I think is her reaction to the infamous slap Frank gives her early in the film. Preminger reportedly ordered take after take of the slap (he was possibly encouraged by studio boss Howard Hughes, who resented Simmons' rejection of his sexual advances), to the point that Simmons' eyes watered from the pain--Mitchum to his credit finally delivered one at the director instead, asking afterwards if the man would like another. Preminger however might have been right, despite his cruel impulses and sadist methods--the slap was important enough to require multiple takes (he totally deserved Mitchum's retribution, though, and more). 

The preparation leading up to the moment is elaborate enough: after opening titles Jessup drives the ambulance out of its garage, up the hills, into the Tremayne mansion's courtyard. All the while Jessup is curt, no-nonsense; Mitchum's disdainfully heavy-lidded eyes make it clear that all the high-class trappings surrounding him don't impress him one bit. When he finally meets Diane she's hysterical, and he doesn't have the patience--it had been a wasted run, the supposed patient didn't need his care at all--so he applies the simplest method of dealing with hysteria: he slaps her.

The effect is startling: Diane's eyes go wide, she flashes a look of naked hurt; then the eyes narrow and she strikes him back. The few minutes of action summarizes the dynamic between the two: Jessup's having none of it, but neither is Diane--and that finally and fatally catches Jessup's interest. 

Diane is a sociopath, of course, not to mention liar and manipulator with an unhealthy fixation on her father (played with memorably understated pathos by Herbert Marshall). She's also not too smart; she isn't the calculating, cold-hearted bitch Phyllis Dietrichson was in Double Indemnity--she's too firmly ruled by her passions. One of the great ambiguous moments occur when a car crashes in the middle of the film, and she's playing the piano--does she know who died exactly, does she even care? And if she does care, what does it cost her to sit so calm? What makes Diane vivid is that she's not just sexy, she's sympathetic. We feel for her as a person, miscalculations and all, and we stay on her side even when she does ghastly things, especially when Mitchum turns on her with his belatedly developed sense of moral self-disgust--a femme fatale who remains fatally, enchantingly femme.

This is Sunshine Noir at its sunniest, the darkness tucked neatly away behind the glamorous facades of Beverly Hills, of which easily the most gorgeous and most deceptive is Simmon's. Preminger's approach mirrors Diane's: bright studio lights that apparently hide nothing yet the camera sidles here, there with a seductive grace, picking out this or that detail, harboring an always ulterior motive in its indirection, providing a visually silken, seductive contrast to the literally brutal finale. 

I'll be home for Christmas
One of my favorite Christmas films has to be Robert Siodmak's Christmas Holiday, from a Herman Mankiewicz script based on a Somerset Maugham novel, with Deanna Durbin as lounge singer/prostitute/failed housewife Jackie Lamont/Abigail Manette, and Gene Kelly as crazed killer Robert Manette (I know--Kelly as a killer? Really?). The film seems disturbing in a not-altogether good way, being at first glance too leisurely, too waywardly structured (it begins with a jilted young officer in an army camp) to be effective noir, favoring a gliding camera more appropriate to Max Ophuls than Fritz Lang, lingering over architectural details like New Orleans' ornate grillwork and water fountains rather than noir's standard barred windows and towering urban edifices. More, Gene Kelly is pretty much Gene Kelly--we're told over and over again that Robert is not quite right in the head, that his relationship to his mother (the icily magnificent Gale Sondergaard) is "pathological," but we don't get much onscreen evidence from the actor himself. Could Siodmak be protecting his film, trying to keep the actor out of the way because the man for all his talent couldn't do menacing?

Then Kelly escapes from jail, and we're suddenly confronting a full-blown psychopath with switchblade fast moves. This is the famed Kelly from dance musicals, the athleticism and speed coiled up inside like a snake poised to strike, the usually exuberant manner pushed up a notch to the kind of abrasive paranoia one always sensed lurked underneath his cheerful veneer (reportedly Debbie Reynolds suffered a dose during the filming of Singin' in the Rain). Then for the last three minutes Siodmak drops all pretense and dialogue, and reveals the film for what it really is: a tremendous operatic melodrama about one woman's suffering, the heights and depths to which her all-consuming love will rise or sink. Lars Von should sit down and take notes, or simply hang his head in shame; for all his not inconsiderable skill and arthouse pretension, he couldn't even begin to touch the intensity of this film. 



Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Small Beer

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) has received at best mixed reviews, so imagine my surprise (well, not really) at enjoying it--at rating this the best of the series so far, and the first I have actually liked.

Why? Because--because Jackson's Ring trilogy was such a reverent  slog through Tolkien's novels I found myself nodding off on the first hour of the first movie; because the trilogy was so much bigger, grander, and louder all notions of character nuance and eccentric humor was lost in the vast scale involved

An Unexpected Journey (calling it that because Jackson and company in their inexplicable--well not all that inexplicable--need to draw things out have divided the book into three movies) gives us back some of that intimacy, reacquaints us with the story that started it all: respectable hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm as the solemn elder, Martin Freeman as his younger though no less thoughtful self), visited by the mysterious Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and his thirteen raucous dwarfs, who tempt him with adventure and the promise of treasure. Jackson shoots and stages the visit as a sneaky slapstick sketch, each dwarf making his own distinct entrance; Jackson, confined to Baggins' comfy little home with its perfectly circular wooden door, seems to have gone back to his indie filmmaker roots, resorting to good ole-fashioned filmmaking as opposed to computer prestidigitation (setting aside the software--damn if I can spot any at least in this scene--that makes most of the actors so short). Suddenly the charm of unforced Tolkien, free of the bother of creating a history of the Third Age, of The Passing of Elves and Coming of Men and all that crap, shines through--it's a lovely moment, something I missed in the three subsequent books, and those endless movies.

I don't think I'm nitpicking. The small stuff is important in fantasy, that ability to create a convincing 'normal' world (normal with four-foot creatures of oversized bare feet), a foundation upon which the fantasy is able to gain traction and take off into whatever fantastic adventure is in store--the more real that normal everyday world is, the more startling and memorable the contrast. For every Wonderland there's a riverbank with a rabbit hole; for every Neverland a London apartment with open window, for every Narnia a wardrobe with door left ajar. Tolkien had Bag End located in The Shire, and for the first time Bag End is brought to life as a lived-in home, one which we become familiar with and, if not exactly love, develop affection for on the big screen.  

Tolkien had a similar problem with his massive sequel, which must be why he set the beginning of the first novel--The Fellowship of the Ring--again in The Shire, with the preparations leading up to Bilbo's 111th birthday; by the third book's end the story comes full circle when our trek weary heroes return to The Shire and take in all the changes wrought there--a revelation much blunted in the movie, when both beginning and finale are shortened to the point of  sketches, mere concessions made because they were in the book, not much else.

A serious mistake, I submit; a classic and to my mind emotionally potent trope of the fantasy novel is the home beloved by the hero, constantly yearned for, finally returned to after long adventure changed or unchanged. You don't got much of that in Lord of the Rings; with Unexpected Journey Jackson has the chance to do the trope properly, with hopefully more force. 

It helps to have cast Martin Freeman, who's familiar to us mostly from his role as John Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat's brilliant Sherlock, where he functions as steadying tether to the mercurial detective. Here he is confronted with a more daunting challenge--to be the lonely voice of reason who regards his motley companion of dwarves and wizard with skepticism, if not alarm. Unlike Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins, whose relentless nobility and suffering weighed him (and the trilogy) down, Freeman's is essentially a comic performance, his hobbit a johnny-come-lately trying to live up to the dwarfs' expectations; their spiky, part-adversarial dynamic recalls the boy and dwarfs in Terry Gilliams' 1981 Time Bandits (sadly Tolkien's adventures aren't half as inventive).

And it's moving; don't get me wrong, Freeman doesn't just play the clown. He provides the wide-eyed perspective that lends all the digital wonders their luster, gives this film a viably dramatic heart. Frodo, having been raised on his uncle's stories, is more jaded; the function of being awed is relegated to his companions Sam, Merry, and Pippin; unfortunately, unlike Frodo they don't dominate the movies' nine hour running time. 

This Everyman quality stands Freeman in good stead later when he meets Gollum, the film's standout villain. As played by Andy Serkis (who seems to have made the digitally composed creature all his own) Gollum seems as vivid as ever, by turns paranoid and obsequious, his erratic self filled with an all-encompassing need to possess his 'precious.' He's both disturbing and pathetic the way a drug addict with a knife might be disturbing and pathetic--you know he can barely help himself the same time you know you better watch that blade. When Bilbo meets this monster is the first time Bilbo is thrown on his own resources, and you can see Freeman as the presence behind Bilbo steeling himself for the effort. It's easily more character development than in the three Ring movies put together and a far more interesting progression than that damned ring's snail-like journey from forest to volcano. 

The two sequences, Serkis, Freeman (with able help from McKellen and the rest of the cast, though mention must be made of Sylvester McCoy as the eccentric Radagast the Brown, whom Saruman (Christopher Lee) dismisses as having an unhealthy interest in mushrooms) represent the best part of An Unexpected Journey--accidentally so, I suspect. Jackson, not knowing what he has, does his best in the film's latter half to pull down much of what he has wrought. The rest of the picture, alas, is filled with bloated action sequences, with hurtling wolf chases and epic mountain treks, and entire cliff faces coming to life to bash each other (More mushrooms?). 

Admittedly the escape out of the trolls' lair has some entertainment value, a non-stop, fairly inventive if rather unlikely chase through wood bridges and runways that recalls the subterranean passages of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only afoot. Jackson has improved his direction of action sequences; he's even improved the clarity of his hand-to-hand combat sequences, going easy on the incoherent handheld footage.

One wants to ask, though--do we really need all this, however improved? The opening in Bag End, the initial trek where we get to know Bilbo, Gandalf and the different dwarves, the wonderful Radagast and even more wonderful Gollum are enchantment a-plenty; adding Orcs and some 'Necromancer' and Galadriel reduces the adventure to a Lord of the Rings lite, with ambitions of approaching if not exceeding that monstrous so-called epic; not happening, wrongheaded to even try. An Unexpected Journey is basically small beer, at its best when it stays that way; why Jackson would want to top his previous three-picture epic, possibly screwing this one up in the process--it's well nigh inexplicable. Well, not really.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Philippine Cinema in the 1980's (David Aggabao, 2012)

A five part, just-a-hair-over-an-hour-long documentary on '80s Filipino cinema, done by students as final requirement for a University of the Philippines (UP) film class.

Don't agree with everything in it--the assertion that nothing really new came out of the '80s mainstream films, for example. I submit that there was plenty of surrealism and experimentation on visual narrative in films like Bed Sins, Himala, Kakabakaba Ka Ba? and Temptation Island (funny Joey Gosiengfiao and Elwood Perez don't even get a mention here), and that the dark, decadent look of films like Scorpio Nights, Batch '81 and Bagong Hari exceeded anything you saw in the '70s. And the emphasis on Orapronobis--it's a good film, one of the best of the decade, but there were more pointed attacks on authority (Bagong Hari, Kisapmata and Scorpio Nights come to mind) and braver films (Sister Stella L) even from Brocka himself (Bayan Ko, which was released during the far more dangerous times of the Marcos administration).

To be fair I made a mistake too--when I declare Salome to be the greatest Filipino erotic film ever made, I meant Init sa Magdamag. And yes, I considered Scorpio Nights for the title--in my opine Init did more, and with zero nudity. 

Overall it's well done, I thought; there are two authorities interviewed (Professor Joni Guiterrez of the UP Film Center, and Doctor Arminda Santiago, of the UP College of Mass Communications) to balance out my eccentric if not demented opinions, and titles to fill in cracks in the information provided. Not a comprehensive work, I guess, but a good start at one, and for all my lack of objective distance, I'd recommend a look. 


Pusang Gala (Stray Cat, Mario O'Hara, 2001)

Below the belt

Pusang Gala (Stray Cats) was a Mario O'Hara film featuring Yul Servo, Janice de Belen and Gina Alajar, financed by Tony Veloria for television in 2001--Veloria being a maverick producer who bankrolled unusual projects including Lav Diaz's five-hour Batang West Side (West Side Avenue), which also starred Servo (he was pretty much Veloria's protege). Like that film this had an unhappy history, having been turned down by the networks (presumably for its unconventional storytelling and for Veloria's status as a media outsider--he was originally a Makati accountant before he dove into the business of films). It was ultimately shelved and forgotten for some eleven years.

This year O'Hara died in June of leukemia; Veloria died in November from a bus accident; the 2012 Cinemanila International Film Festival will be holding the first-ever public screening of the film as a tribute to the two.

It's a modest little thing, shot on video (low definition, decade-old technology) and for a while you wonder if this might be one of O'Hara's rush jobs, a strictly made-for-TV effort on an impossibly small budget and impossibly short deadline. Even the sound--usually a distinguishing hallmark of an O'Hara film--is crude, with inconsistent volume level and harsh transitions.

But the film like its ostensibly plain-looking protagonist grows on you. Dora (de Belen) when she's not taking in stray cats runs a catering company for film and television shoots; not an extravagantly profitable enterprise but it's steady money and it keeps Dora--who is single and childless--comfortable. 

If she has a problem in her life it's men: the men around her, the men working under her, the men--and this is an industry with plenty of good-looking specimens--that parade past her with plastic trays held at waist level, waiting to be fed. O'Hara presents her predicament baldly: she's counting out the day's profits to her workers when the director cuts to a closeup of a denimed crotch. An electric guitar blares out a chord; Dora pauses a second before looking away--doesn't help matters that the unwitting subject slips a hand into his pants to scratch a persistent itch. Her problem is men, and their desire to have little or nothing to do with her.

This is where de Belen's courage shines clearest, her complete lack of self-consciousness or vanity in presenting herself as an aging, unattractive woman--not so much physical unattractiveness as a kind of projection of unattractiveness, as if she knows how she comes across and flinches at the idea of people (read: men) thinking of her or worse pitying her that way (she's past caring about other women, except when they are involved with her men). This plus a clinging, forlorn neediness functions as a kind of shark repellent, warning those of the opposite sex “steer clear: this girl is trouble.” Even when she does use makeup or fixes her hair the act is integrated into the film's portrait of her desperation: you get the impression of an unintended parody, a little girl playing at being mommy--you don't believe her pose for a minute, and you feel embarrassed for her for even making the attempt.

Dora meets her match in Anton (Servo), a provincial youth who comes to Manila looking for work. Anton may look guileless but that's all show; he's really a smart operator, a sneakier Joe Gillis to Dora's more passive-aggressive Norma Desmond, and she unwarily adopts him like any stray cat. Together they develop a relationship of mutual exploitation and dependence that eventually, inevitably, spirals out of control.

In any film where a relatively affluent older woman has a relationship with a less prosperous younger man one is always tempted to recall the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Call this a Sunset done on a Filipino indie budget--where Wilder's film has scale and grandeur this one has a sordid realism; where Sunset's Norma is a gorgon in icon makeup Pusang's Dora is a recognizably human figure that inspires both sympathy (“Poor lonely thing!”) and contempt (“Why does she keep doing this to herself?”). She might be the spinster you know at work, an old maiden aunt from an obscure branch of your family--in short a character, as opposed to mere caricature.

Another significant difference: Norma had resources at her disposal, money that she held with an iron claw (if she was as shrewd a lover as she was a businesswoman, she might have also held Gillis' interest); more she has the pride and fury to fight back when confronted with her mortality, and an equally obsessed butler to back her up when reality impinged too closely. Dora plays a different game--she chooses her targets, plies them with food and offers of employment, is supportive of what they want when they want it. She cunningly plays the stereotype loving Filipina girlfriend/mother, and when defied or rejected presents a face of absolute hurt (the joke is that de Belen was famous early in her career for playing melodramatic martyr--her soap opera Flordeluna ran for years from 1981 onwards, on the strength of her character's popularity). Anton as it happens is almost as effective an actor--when he turns on the waterworks tragic sincerity just gushes out of every pore, and it's Dora's turn to be bamboozled. The sight of the two as they struggle to take control of the dynamic seesawing between them is funny and sad and not a little repulsive.

The medium is video and the production budget barely appropriate for a TV movie (worse, an independently produced TV movie) yet O'Hara tells his story with quiet confidence and understated visual flair, occasionally borrowing bits and gestures from previous work. The camera that ranges through narrow alleys and crowded film sets, for example (from Pangarap ng Puso); the occasional insert of a man rutting or being stabbed, dropped in place like an unexpected flashback (from Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Manananggal in Manila); the repeated motif of men's crotches wrapped in denim or cotton or khaki (a joky reversal on the old adage about what all men really want); the occasionally theatrical staging, so memorably used in Babae sa Bubungang Lata; the textured shadows and ominously angled imagery, found in nearly all of O'Hara's noir films. 

Then there are the cats, born survivors of feline grace and independence and mystery. It's possibly because of this independence and mystery that they inspire such hatred from people (I'm tempted to say 'men'), are often subject to neglect and abuse, even torture. Like Anton when found homeless, like Dora when she's circling round a man she desires, you often can't help but find cats--strays in particular--pathetic and repulsive both.

The story's sting comes not from the comedy or grotesquerie but from love, because Dora does love--she's patient and tender when caring for her cats, her paralyzed father (again the difference from Norma Desmond, whose only true beloved--a pet chimpanzee--dies before we can see how she's like with something or someone she truly cares about). Dora feels so much affection coming out of her that when the outpour is choked up or blocked for any reason you actually fear for her; the frustration is a visible pain on her face that she can barely manage to suppress. 

You can't help but think that there's an autobiographical element to the story, that O'Hara identified closely with his heroine. Actually he identifies with all his characters, but this was during a difficult period in O'Hara's life--He'd enjoyed some measure of success, a rejuvenation of his career that began with Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998) which led pretty much nowhere: a failed historical film on Jose Rizal (Sisa, 1998); an unfinished action noir (Sindak (Terror, 1999)); an experimental love story (Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000). Never mind that these were some of the most daring and imaginative Filipino films ever made; they were too daring--few wanted to see them, even less comprehend them. To their forlorn but heroic ranks one must add this film, somehow made, somehow forgotten. 

One might guess at O'Hara's emotional state at the time. He would make one more 35 mm feature some two years later (Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003), would take another seven years to create his last major works (Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010), a digital drama about the trial and execution of a Filipino hero, and Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011)), a political mini-series about the rise of a Cory Aquino-like leader. He won accolades but not real commercial success; his career was essentially over, but he must have suspected as much back in 2001, when he struggled to find financial backing.

Like Dora he must have felt he had been spurned--or worse, misunderstood--by Filipino audiences; like Dora he can only offer his potful of beloved offerings--grotesque yet beautiful (a stubborn streak in him refuses to completely pander to popular taste, to offer what they want as opposed to what they need)--in the vain hope of reconciliation. Yes, I believe O'Hara felt what Dora felt; I also believe he felt horror at the terrible thing that Dora could become, if she were less tough, if she possessed less strength. A gem of a film, a sad reminder of what we have lost.

First published in Businessworld, 12.7.12

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Celso Ad Castillo, 1943 - 2012

One of the greatest has passed.

Celso Ad Castillo was born on the 12th of September, 1943 in Sinaloan, Laguna, son of lawyer and writer Dominador Ad Castillo, and Martha Adolfo. He graduated with a BA in English Literature, married and had children, at least one of which-- Christopher Ad Castillo-- followed in his footsteps as filmmaker. 
Ad Castillo didn't start out to be a director himself; he really began writing for komiks, publishing-- with his father's help-- a magazine where he wrote every story under different aliases. He was commissioned to do the script to a James Bond knockoff (James Ban-dong, 1964) so successful it spawned a sequel (Dr. Yes, 1965). He eventually directed his first film-- Misyong Mapanganib (Mission Dangerous, 1965)-- at the relatively young age of twenty-one. 
Asedillo (1971), possibly Ad Castillo's finest early film, set the template for Filipino movie legend Fernando Poe, Jr.'s persona, as deadly gunslinger and champion of the poor. His best work was yet to come, but even this early on you see his grasp of film language. Poe's action movies are almost always well-produced, but this is the rare picture of his that shows touches of genuine poetry-- deep orange sunsets; village elders expressively lit and photographed; iconic shots of Poe on his horse climbing an impossibly steep slope (the camera tilted so to make the climb even more impossible), his body bent forward as if to keep from falling off.

At one point Poe reads a crucial letter from his arch-nemesis, offering parley: Ad Castillo cuts to the people outside waiting for the results of the fateful letter, and as they chat Castillo drops all sound except the wind blowing-- an effect full of portent.

Ad Castillo's Tag-Ulan sa Tag-Araw (Monsoon Rain in Summer, 1975) is about a young man (Christopher de Leon) who dorms with his uncle and aunt and falls in love with his cousin (a waiflike Vilma Santos). Ad Castillo tackles the sensational subject of incest by framing the two lovers' relationship as a kind of innocent affair, set in a countryside Eden.

It's the kind of hackneyed concept that really shouldn't work, less like D.H. Lawrence and more like Emmanuelle. But Ad Castillo happens to have one of the most prodigiously talented eyes in all of Philippine cinema, and the heedlessly melodious manner in which he shot Tag-Ulan transforms softcore porn into something like art. Every rainfall, every shaft of light, every leafy shadow caught by his handheld camera makes you catch your breath; there's lovemaking without nudity, yet Ad Castillo shoots with such throbbing intensity you can't help but be aroused.

Ad Castillo was also versatile, working in everything from action to psychodrama to of course horror. His Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara (Let's Frighten Barbara to Death, 1974), about a dead woman's determination to wreak unholy vengeance on her poor sister, is not a perfect film or even a particularly good one, certainly not the finest of Ad Castillo's work, but after a first half of playing with devil dolls and cheesy sound effects the film lays aside its childish toys and tries silence, shadows, the stretching of a moment of tension to sadistic length, revealing in its second half arguably the most viscerally frightening film in all of Philippine cinema. At one point Ad Castillo evokes the scene where Arbogast (Martin Balsam) climbs the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)-- only unlike many a Hitchcock imitator, he manages to pull it off.

Ad Castillo's Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Creature on the Face of the Earth, 1974) is an unabashed remake of David Lean's epic boxoffice failure Ryan's Daughter (1970); it nevertheless has a coastal sensuality that need not apologize to the underrated original.  Return of the Dragon (same year) took a comedian famous for parodying Bruce Lee (the physical resemblance is uncanny) and forged a remarkably straightforward exercise in Filipino chop-socky, complete with fight scenes staged as if under an azure crystal bowl. Lihim ni Madonna (Secrets of Madonna, 1997) has one of the most beautiful actresses in Philippine cinema (his taste in women was exemplary) running about in an abandoned mansion in a state of perpetual distress, wearing a semitransparent nightie-- a laughable premise, only he uses the gothic scare tactics of Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara to keep the audience off-balance, and ends the film with a magic-realist finale worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

With Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (The Legend of Julian Makabayan, 1979) Ad Castillo and his cinematographer Romy Vitug were accused of imitating the honeyed sunlight Nestor Almendros created for Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). If the films share a superficial similarity (both involve extensive outdoor shooting) the resemblance ends there-- I doubt if Malick possesses the showmanship to tell his story as a series of interviews, faux-documentary style, or the effrontery to pull a corpse out from inside the split-open corpse of an actual water buffalo. With Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak (When the Crow Turns White, the Heron Black, 1978) Ad Castillo proves he can combine the aesthetic of period epics with the energy of political firebranding-- a volatile mix-- the unstable whole held together by beautiful folk music.

As for his masterpiece Burlesk Queen (1977)-- here's an excerpt of what I wrote on a moment in the film (Chato's deflowering) for Chris Fujiwara's The Little Black Book of Movies
Celso uses Jessie's smooth back as both veil and metaphor for Chato's nudity, the clothes dropping from overhead hangers as metaphor for her failing inhibitions; what makes the scene erotic and nakedly emotional is Chato's face, glimpsed over Jessie's left shoulder as terror (the widened eyes), greed (the remote expression, as if she were a starving man wolfing down a steak), pain (the startled look of one who has been kicked in the crotch), guilt (the tears) and finally pleasure (the bit lower lip) flit across and mingle in her eyes.”

Ad Castillo was not a genius, he was more interesting than that. His films were often incoherent and inconsistent because he didn't have the money or didn't have the discipline, or just plain didn't care-- apparently narrative was secondary to him, a mere excuse to flex his prodigious filmmaking muscles. 
Of his greatest works-- which include but are not limited to Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan; Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak; and Burlesk Queen-- his imagery burned like an incandescent bulb on the big screen, and his filmmaking technique was second to none. 
If Mike De Leon is Philippine Cinema's mad intellectual, Lino Brocka its fiery social realist, Ishmael Bernal its skeptic-satirist, Mario O'Hara its nightmare scenarist, Celso was its poet laureate-- his images were Filipino lyricism incarnate. His passing is an unimaginable loss.

First published in Businessworld, 12.3.12