Sunday, March 31, 2013

Christ almighty

Questioning The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson and his publicists have repeatedly claimed that his The Passion of the Christ is the most historically accurate of all pictures made on Jesus.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful, Valhalla Rising, Volver, Story of GI Joe

By Popular Demand

Never had much use for boxoffice figures; never thought the approval of the moviegoing public was all that important, or an indicator of a film's quality, or relative lack of.

Once in a while, though I find myself in the embarrassing position of agreeing with everyone else. In which case I plead pure coincidence, and point to that old adage--how does it go again? A stopped clock is right twice a day? 

Well, maybe not that one. But I do suspect that public opinion is smarter than the critical establishment is willing to admit. 

Case in point: Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful. Critics describe it as not "knowing its own mind," or "visually overcrammed, empty mega-spectacle"--which is funny, because Raimi has never been known for sticking to one genre, even in his own movies, and was never a believer in visual restraint. The man likes over-the-top comic-book action, and unlike some filmmakers I can think of who can't even do that properly, he is superb at it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death; Peque Gallaga, 1982)

War story

I remember seeing Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death) on the big screen back in 1982--an impressive picture, back when our idea of a Filipino film was Lino Brocka's social-realist melodrama Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), or Ishmael Bernal's multinarrative tapestry Manila By Night. Gallaga's epic was something else entirely: a period piece set in World War 2 full of endless tracking shots, slow motion, and (outside of the independent films of Kidlat Tahimik, or the occasional surreal experiment by Bernal) visual poetry for the sake of visual poetry, never mind that it was rarely justified by the narrative.

The movie followed the lives of two upper-class families in the island province of Negros, the Ojedas and the Lorenzos. The Oro of the title described the conditions of life at the start of the war (extravagant parties, mansions full of servants, banquet tables groaning heavily with food); Plata describes the Ojedas' visit to the Lorenzo's countryside hacienda to escape the oncoming Japanese (fields of grain, hordes of water buffalo, a rooftop observatory under the vast constellated night sky); Mata goes deep into the war and deep into the rain forest, where the Lorenzos maintain an airy but relatively modest vacation lodge, and where both families take refuge for the remainder of the war (chicken coops, hunting trips, regular swims in crystal-clear streams). More successfully than any other Filipino filmmaker Gallaga is able to evoke the luxury of the upper-class Negros lifestyle, possibly because he came from that society (but is not, apparently, a card-carrying member), and paints a broad canvas full of nostalgia and great affection, and not a little good-natured ribbing (the Lorenzo scion Miguel (Joel Torre), when faced with the prospect of free sex, responds with astronomical gibberish; his mother Inday (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), when faced with the prospect of Japanese occupation, prays desperately to her menagerie of plaster saints).

It's beautifully structured, with the trajectory of the families' fate described in the title (gold, silver, death); the characters are fascinatingly conceived, their leisurely ways meant to be seen as too chivalrous and impractical to survive the ordeal of wartime. In a way the script takes a page from David O. Selznick's superproduction--this too is an age gone with the wind. Gallaga matches Jose Javier Reyes' ambitious script with a style appropriate to the material: a tracking camera that glides easily, casually from one room to another, following one guest after another, eavesdropping on one conversation after another. The shot evokes everything from Orson Welles' great The Magnificent Ambersons to Bernardo Bertolucci's gigantic if flawed 1900 to Luchino Visconti's tremendous Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)--and in fact at one point the guests start a conga line, evoking the wedding sequence in the latter film.

If Gallaga's picture doesn't quite touch the heights of Il Gattopardo that's perhaps because he hasn't developed the layers of metaphor and symbolism found in Visconti's masterpiece. Visconti's Prince is the last of his line, painfully conscious of the changing winds of history and the crumbling of his own exalted class; Miguel in Oro, Plata is barely conscious of his own budding sexuality, much less the winds of change. There's a poignancy to Miguel's own story, a kind of bildungsroman, but the problem is that Miguel's character dwindles instead of expanding, growing more complex--when confronting sexuality he panics and turns timid (he has to be coaxed into making love, not once but twice); faced with opposition and violence he counters with even more violence, an emotional excess that seems to come out of nowhere (does sexual repression cause that much neurosis?). Miguel doesn't consider that perhaps the opposition--embodied mainly by his mother's former majordomo Melchor (the late Abbo dela Cruz)--may have another point of view, may have their own justifications for doing what they do.

Coming to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film--Melchor is clearly meant to represent the lower classes, and his assault on the Lorenzos and Ojedas are meant to show us an old war irony: it's not always the foreign invader that commits the worse abuses, but one's own countrymen (a point Gallaga may have learned while giving a wonderful performance in an earlier Filipino war film, Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). Except Melchor is not just a fellow countryman: he's also a member of the lower classes, and expresses the resentment and anger of the lower classes. At one point Melchor asks his son to join him, an offer his son rejects (like Scarlett O'Hara's servants in Gone With the Wind, the son has the mentality of a good slave) to which Melchor replies bitterly: “all right, be a prisoner, then.”

Melchor comes practically out of nowhere to shake the roots of the Lorenzo's and Ojeda's deeply rooted, long-established balete tree with a force even the Japanese could not muster; the script's failure is to capitalize on that tremor, to show us the darker side of upper-class Negro society as it exploited peonistic servitude to fund its high-maintenance lifestyle. Abbo dela Cruz is an excellent actor handicapped by an underwritten role: there are no differing sides to his villainy, no point or justice to his rebellion other than as an excuse to depict wartime atrocities inflicted by fellow countrymen on each other (actually the revenge of the poor inflicted on the rich--which makes it, of course, a fantasy). This is every upper-class Filipino's nightmare, and is presented unambiguously as such.

If the characters fail to grow and the narrative fails to develop layers, the imagery does increase in beauty and complexity--Miguel, who has finally (after an unconscionable delay) grown a pair finds nothing will satisfy his newly found manhood save a full-blown massacre, Wild Bunch style; Gallaga with the help of production designer Don Escudero and cinematographer Rody Lacap fashions a ruined-hospital nightmare of dark hallways and twisted rubble on which to stage the final shootout; the violence recalls Peckinpah (though without matching his exuberant poetry) and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (the deep shadows, the oranged light), albeit at a fraction of either filmmakers' budget.

If I've come down hard on the picture's flaws, I feel it's a needed corrective to its burnished (and in my book somewhat inflated) reputation, adding that there is, after all, a happy conclusion to all this--Gallaga, I suspect, learned from the experience and addressed his issues not just well but brilliantly in his true masterpiece, Scorpio Nights (1984). Flimsy characters? Have them shut up and fuck. Simplistic narrative? Do away with story entirely! Excessive violence and sexuality? Have them fuck more, then end the film with a multiple homicide!

And it works--the premise (a student and a housewife conduct an affair under the very nose of her security guard husband) and the tone of thick sensuality (inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, though I believe Gallaga trumps Oshima here in terms of tension and psychological realism) are strong political metaphors for life under the fascistic Marcos administration. The lack of story points to the lovers' need to erase her oppressive husband, erase the outside world, erase the very narrative of their lives with sex, constantly aware of the consequences should the husband ever find out (they are literally fucking in the face of death). Oh, Gallaga has learned, all right--instead of turning away from his appetites he faces them head-on, and the result is one of the greatest Filipino erotic films ever made.

In the meantime there's this: a masterpiece not of narrative or social analysis perhaps, but of epic imagery, cinematography, and production design. I have not viewed the restoration; having seen the original in all its big-screen glory, I can't imagine the digital version being superior, no matter how high the definition. But I'm sure it'll look great.

First published in Businessworld, 3.7.13

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amour (Michael Haneke), Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

Love Never Dies

Amour feels like a film Michael Haneke has been aspiring to do, a Bethlehem he has been slouching towards for years. From the pressure-cooker tactics he applied in Funny Games he has refined his technique to what we see here--two people trapped in a large apartment, struggling to survive.

The style in Funny Games was severe, the story confined mostly inside a spacious vacation house with few exterior scenes, a largely unflinching (if often coyly oblique) camera peering into the different rooms with (except for one brief and startling exception of a gimmick) little comment or fuss. The style in Amour is if anything even more spare, the camera locked down for most of a scene, unwilling (unlike the one in Funny Games) to look away, the staging calling for very little camera movement  or cutting and (again save for a brief sequence) even less fuss.

That exception I feel is unfortunate--Haneke seems to have perfected his grindingly claustrophobic style; to indulge in fantasy no matter how inventive or restrained or even relevant (it's a metaphor for escape, or its impossibility) seems superfluous, even disruptive. The interruption lets us off the hook for a moment, relieves the oppressive atmosphere.

This is a horror story, of course; think of a man torturing his captive wife to death and there's really little difference save this: the torture in my example would have gone on far longer. Haneke has finally come around to telling a story about recognizably ordinary (if affluent--that apartment is huge) people, in this case an elderly married couple; aside from the aforementioned brief flight of fantasy the whole film could be happening to your neighbors in the apartment next door. And instead of anger or sadism the driving emotion here is the eponymous one, expressed in the somehow more appropriate French. 

Much has been written about Emmanuel Riva's performance as Anne, the eloquent depiction of her character's gradually decaying body. I say this is not so much a solo as it is a duet--crucial is Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges, with his intelligent, all-too-aware eyes. He knows what's happening, he knows what is to come, and the knowledge threatens to overwhelm him. 

Might as well note that Haneke doles out plenty of suffering for both actors--Riva sits in a bathtub naked,  scrubbed vigorously by an unpleasant nurse; Trintignant huffs desperately (not to mention suspensefully and  hilariously) after an intrusive pigeon. You don't know if he is only acting his arthritic limp, or his excruciating attempt to get up off the floor; you only know that it's almost too much to watch. Is the scene necessary? I think so--it shows Georges still able to care for a living creature, though you wonder if perhaps what he really wants is to twist the bird's neck (with Haneke both are possible, perhaps even inevitable)

There is no escape here; no puncturing the plausibility of Haneke's scenario (unlike fellow shockmeister Lars Von Trier, whose scenarios (save in The Idiots) have almost always been implausible, and hence easy to dismiss). This is easily Haneke's most horrifying film because it says that love that is selfless and passionate and enduring is also monstrous. The film shows you (step by step, moment by moment) the how and why of its monstrosity and you can't contradict the case being made, you can only agree with it--perhaps pray it doesn't happen to you.

It's Haneke's best work to date, I think; possibly Haneke's terminal work...after a film like this, what else does he have to say, really? 

Big Wheel

Unlike Amour which lends a kind of stripped-down finality to Haneke's career, Leos Carax's Holy Motors seems more like a thrown-together, extravagantly appointed photo album of all the films he's seen and all the films he's made and all the films he's likely to make--the picture hurls allusions and ideas at you like sparks off a Catherine wheel. It's brilliantly unhinged, liable to go any direction like a runaway horsecart, yet still you sense the presence of the director at the reins, maintaining the illusion of complete abandonment (or is it an illusion of complete control?).

The film can be a metaphor for any number of things: the Shakespearean notion that life is a performance we're always trying to rehearse for (but end up improvising); the conceit that higher powers (Oscar's chauffer Celine (Edith Scob, the mad doctor's disfigured daughter in Franju's Eyes Without a Face) calls a fellow driver "Ectoplasm on wheels!"--are the drivers ghosts or spirits?) manipulate our destiny; the sense that life is a neverending job from which we long to punch out

Bits seem contradictory, if not confusing--Celine mentions that Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) has nine appointments, nine encounters (if you like) in which he participates, responds to or initiates, either alone or with others. I counted thirteen 'episodes,' not nine: man in 'forest;' banker; beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde and model; father and daughter; entr'acte with accordion; assassin and double; street shooting; dying old man; Jean; home; limo garage. 

 Celine tells him about the appointments when he's playing a banker so the first two are out; the entr'acte I take to be an entr'acte--outside the narrative; the street shooting is (or so Celine claims) an accident, and so (it's implied) is the encounter with Jean; Oscar confirms that the next appointment after the dying old man is his last, so the garage should not included, which leaves us with--what, seven episodes? Do we consider Monsieur Merde and model two episodes (first half in the cemetery, second in the sewers)? Do we include the entr'acte? Adding to the confusion, the credits have Lavant playing eleven roles (we can take out Mr. Oscar as his meta-persona and the accordion player, but do we count killer and killed?).

Kylie Minogue sings heartrendingly in a vast space that recalls Orson Welles' The Trial and the climax of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, both shot in the Gare d'Orsay, both filled with a dark opulence that seems to have inspired this film (her scene was actually shot in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store near the Pont-Neuf bridge, Carax having used store and bridge in his previous Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). Minogue calls herself Eva but her real name (as much as we can ascertain anything in this picture is real) is Jean. When the man she is to meet runs up the stairs he calls out "Jean!"--does this signify that what happens to Jean and her partner is real and not staged, hence Oscar's anguish? 

All very mysterious; doesn't help that one has the nagging feeling Carax is chortling at all the effort being expended on unraveling his tangled web (for the record I believe Oscar's appointment list went something like this: beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde; father; entr'acte; assassin; assassinated; dying man; home). More profitable, I suspect, to simply sit back and have fun free-associating the metaphors as they flash across the screen--to sit back, in effect, and enjoy the ride. 

Perhaps the closest we come to an explanation for everything (an explanation for anything?) is when Michel Piccoli--in a role Carax wanted to (ah-ha!) play himself--asks an obviously exhausted Oscar: "What makes you carry on?" Oscar's answer: "What made me start. The beauty of the act." 

"Beauty?" Piccoli's Carax-like figure can't resist musing. "They say it's in the eye of the beholder." Pause. Then in a worried tone: "And if there is no beholder?"


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey (Ramona Diaz)

Cinderella man

Ramona Diaz's Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey is possibly everything you're afraid it's going to be: an unabashed promotional documentary about the American arena-rock band Journey; a wall-to-wall concert of '80s pop-rock ballads; a retelling of the rags-to-riches story of Arnel Pineda, arguably the most popular of recent Filipino vocalists working in America.  

Mind you, Diaz doesn't hide the fact that Arnel is actually the second replacement of the band's most famous vocalist, Steve Perry; nor does she hide the fact that many of the most popular songs Arnel sings were written and composed over twenty years ago. To his credit, Arnel doesn't gloss over this either; when during an autograph session he's asked point-blank about Steve Perry, he says "Without him I wouldn't be here."

That awareness saves the film from falling into a vat of its own cheesiness. Arnel knows he's not doing entirely original music; he talks about it at length at one point. But he's not bitter--he is and always will be grateful for being chosen to be the band's vocalist, and he sings the songs in Perry's voice and style without a trace of irony, or self-parody. If anything, that's the film's single most unsettling image: Perry's power-belting tenor pouring out of a frail little dark-skinned Asian with flowing long hair (it's like listening to the voice of Pavarotti pour out of Pocahontas).

I'd say the film wisely takes its cue from Arnel's attitude: it knows it's an instrument for the glorification of its patrons, but does its work well and refuses to act like an ingrate towards the hand that nourishes it. Along the way it manages to tell Arnel's story in some detail, from his humble beginnings as member of a fractured family eking out a living in the streets of Manila to his career as vocalist in a small-scale rock band.

Diaz doesn't gloss over and Arnel doesn't hide the fact that he used drugs, and was at one point alcoholic; unlike some reformed rockers, he doesn't wear the fact on his chest like a hair shirt--perhaps Arnel's most appealing quality is his groundedness, the way he modestly admits to his failings, and casually refers to his achievements without making too much fuss either way (it's a Filipino trait that on one hand keeps slowing down his ascent up the ladder of success, on the other keeps him balanced enough to avoid prematurely falling off that ladder).

The film of course ends with its eponymous song, and Diaz manages to play with some of the high-definition digital cameras and swooping crane equipment filmmakers enjoy using when creating documentaries of big-time rock bands (either playing with them or cutting in footage that uses them). Hard to begrudge her, though--like Arnel, she's only too aware of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with big toys; the temptation is naturally too much to resist.
Is this cause for celebration? Yes, I think so; a kind of gentle applause, that someone with talent has for once landed some kind of happy ending, that Filipinos are somehow inching forward in the vast American media landscape, conquering territory any way they can. 

(The film will open on March 8 Friday in fifteen cities across the United States)