Monday, April 22, 2013

Beware: Bed Sins (Mario O'Hara, 1985) now online - a continuation of the weeklong O'Hara retrospective


O'Hara's entry into the '80s softcore porn sweepstakes isn't quite the bare-bones classic that, say, Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights is; possibly one might make the case that less story and not more improves an erotic film's chances at actually working, the heaving breasts and pumping behinds speak speaking louder and more eloquently than any mere screenplay (written in O'Hara's case by the usually excellent Frank Rivera). Gallaga far as I can see had at most a scenario (housewife and student have an affair, behind the bodyguard husband's back) with the barest whiff of dialogue, and the minimalism turned his work into a sexual allegory about defiance in the face of of fascism (in this case, the Marcos administration).

Possibly there are other reasons: the producers at Seiko Films interfered with the production, to the extent of inserting explicit genital shots into the lovemaking--a practice O'Hara vehemently condemned; the budget was so small (especially for zombie makeup), O'Hara's actors look more afflicted with a debilitating case of eczema than any mere voodoo curse.

That said, the film does have the sensuality, the dark sensibility of true noir. Carla (Sarsi Emmanuelle, arguably loveliest of the era's 'softdrink beauties,' and one of the most talented), a high-class prostitute, has many clients--some mere jerks, some out-and-out psychopaths; one is out to kill her. Simple enough premise (though not as simple as some, as we've noted), O'Hara complicates matters with a series of flashbacks, flash forwards, fantasy sequences and outright hallucinations that cause the narrative to be every bit as unreliable as the handful of suspects stalking Carla (Is it really happening? Has it already happened? Will it happen soon?). Sergio Lobo continues the noir camerawork he did for O'Hara previously (in Uhaw sa Pag-ibig) and gives us angled shadows, deep colors, a variety of skin tones; Jaime Fabregas manages, within limits of the synthesizer so often used for Filipino soundtrack music at this time, to give us a moody score with (thanks to a button that switches to 'pipe organ' mode) distinct Gothic flavors.

Sarsi almost isn't acting here--she hardly ever does. Her huge, lustrous eyes are as naked in their emotions as her body often is, and unclothed she has a frankness and unselfconsciousness about her that's breathtaking. She's ably matched by her co-stars--Joel Torre as a hotheaded lover, Rafael Roces as her detective protector, Liza Lorena as her fanatically religious friend, and even Fabregas himself as one of Carla's more eccentric clients. 

Not one of O'Hara's best, but give the film a chance and it's a fascinating head (and groin) trip. 


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mario O'Hara tribute screening of Pangarap ng Puso (Demons) at the 2013 Udine Far East Film Festival

The 2013 Udine Far East Film Festival will feature a tiny tribute to Mario O'Hara, a rare screening (Monday, April 22, 2.15 pm) of his pito-pito film Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000). 

O'Hara, who died June 26 last year, was actor, writer, director for Filipino radio, television, stage, screen. He was best known for writing and directing the wartime drama Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), for acting in and writing the screenplay of close friend Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) and for co-directing the recent political miniseries Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011).

Pangarap ng Puso was made at an odd juncture in O'Hara's career. He had just enjoyed a small success with his previous pito-pito melodrama Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998), a multi-storied, multi-charactered behind-the-scenes look at Filipino filmmaking, described by one of its actors as "a eulogy for the Filipino film industry." Bubungang Lata functioned as both expose of abuses and exercise in nostalgia, freely mingling the grinding realism of the filmmakers' hardscrabble lives with the supernatural presence of their predecessors (younger incarnations of aged actresses, dead husbands come back to life). 

Pangarap was a different creature altogether--a brief, deftly sketched precis of Philippine history from just before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino Jr., through the toppling of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and rise of Aquino's widow to the office of President, and beyond. Along the way it depicts both military atrocities and the at times even more extreme violence inspired by those atrocities.

The film (set in Negros Oriental) touches on Negrense mythology, particularly the kapre: a huge, hairy manlike creature with sharp stink, who liked to play pranks on people.

It tells the shared story of Nena, daughter of a wealthy haciendero, and Jose, son of one of the haciendero's employees.

It's also a celebration of Filipino poetry.

If the film doesn't end up as an incoherent mess--and I'm not saying it doesn't, not entirely--that's because O'Hara manages to tie almost everything together into a bewildering, genre-defying Gordian knot, where Negrense mythology and Philippine political history are just differing aspects of the same sociopolitical-cultural landscape, and a young girl's love can assume the features of both angel and demon simultaneously. 

This was when O'Hara was introduced to digital nonlinear video editing, which seems to have liberated him--his editing here at times resembled the shuttering of a single-lens reflex camera, at times the streaming consciousness of a young girl's febrile mind, free-associating ideas and emotions into a single narrative. 

Occasionally O'Hara throws an image of the text being read onscreen, and one is reminded of Robert Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), where we hear the priest mouthing the words, we see the words being written in his diary. The idea seems to be less about reinforcing some point or concept through synesthetic means, more about reveling in the physicality of poetry--the scratchy texture of wood-pulp paper, the visual pop! of seeing ink applied to paper, the feel of words read from the paper rolling off one's tongue. Then the shock of realizing that the words one is enjoying holds significance for the drama onscreen, their meanings detonating in your head like timed explosive devices--

At roughly one hundred minutes' running time and made for three million pesos (roughly US$75,000), the film seems outsized in its ambition, startling in its imagination. Despite barely having the money to evoke a hacienda lifestyle, much less produce the effects needed for a war or horror movie, the film encapsulates the pain and passion and perversity of one small corner of the Philippines, towards the end of the previous millennium. 

Coming this April 20th: a weeklong retrospective (here's a trailer/preview) of O'Hara's work as an actor, screenwriter, and director, with thanks to Jojo de Vera of the Sari-Saring Sineng Pinoy Blog. Will post links to the films soon (possibly no English subtitles except when noted; some of the films digitally enhanced and cleaned for improved visual clarity (again, when noted)); links to article whenever applicable.

Tentative titles to be shown:

As actor: Tubog sa Ginto

As writer: Rubia Servios and Kasal? 

As director: Bulaklak sa City Jail, Uhaw Sa Pag-Ibig, Prinsesang Gusgusin, Bed Sins.  


Saturday, April 06, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine), Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez)

Sprang brake!

Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is some kind of masterpiece--compared to all the Girls Gone Wild videos, and lord knows I've seen more of them than I want to admit, his movie is the Citizen Kane of teenage vacation pics. 

Easily the best moments come at the beginning, when the picture for maybe ten minutes doesn't really feel the need to explain anything--just splice together footage of girls and boys flashing nipples and ass cracks, gyrating and spraying beer everywhere like surf breaking on rockface, sprinkling cocaine on nubile skin like confectioner's sugar on a finely turned bun. For some ten minutes Korine achieves a verite ambiance, a brief vision that captures the langorous ennui of the American adolescent--the sense that life is mean and short and doesn't have much of a point, so one must grab what pleasure is available now, as much as one can. You almost believe he would pull out of all this a bloodily profound truth, something about these spring breakers from within their culture, on their own rap-booming, beer-spraying, bouncing-booty terms.

Yeah, yeah. Right off we're asked to believe that three girls wearing face masks and tiny shorts (they don't even bother pulling on decent denim) would rush into a diner, badger cook and waitstaff badly enough to receive money (and what was the cook with his pots of hot fat and kitchen knife doing all this time, hm?), and use the proceeds of that heist to fund a booze-and-drug fueled crawl through St. Petersburg, Florida (from the cash register of a fried chicken diner? Who eats there, Bill Gates?). We're asked to believe in a meth and arms dealer named Alien (James Franco) dumbass enough to scatter dollar bills all over his king-sized bed and loaded weaponry all over his room like M & Ms, yet smart enough to earn the money to buy a grand piano beside a drop-dead gorgeous swimming pool. Only in Florida, I suppose.

I'm not demanding realism, mind you; I know a demented fantasy when I see one, and the four coeds are an important part of Korine's fantasy.  Gomez plays the good girl--not only does she attend regular church, she hangs out in a bikini without flashing a nipple, sucks on an oversized bong once that I actually noticed, and bails early before she gets into real trouble. Rachel Korine is second-best girl, having only functioned as getaway driver for the diner heist, and using a bullet wound on the arm as pretext  for her exit scene. Only Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson go all the way, incarnating the director's concept of spring break's darker side, in day-glo bikinis. The girls' behavior is so precisely calibrated to their respective statuses (Gomez the Disney princess, Korine the director's wife, Hudgens and Benson as the bad bad girls), their rewards and punishments so schematically meted out that you can't help but think the story, with a bit of judicious sanitizing, could make for a nice discussion topic in next week's Sunday school. 

Korine joins his one-time Dogme 95 co-conspirator Lars Von Trier in staging handsome-looking pictures that are occasionally provocative (a scene with a gun barrel inserted in the mouth is sure to provoke some kind of reaction) but when you really think about them have little real application to the actual world--and are hence weightless. What's left, really, are Korine's stylings, illuminating the surrounding darkness like a day-glo g-string in the dank Miami night.

I'll swallow your sequel

Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead plays surprisingly better than it appeared, at least from the loud and splashy trailers: the requisite five pretty youths headed for an isolated cabin, the mandatory evil presence (redneck cannibal, or generic Abomination). Only Alvarez probably realized that this was his best chance for going big-time--despite being (or especially because it's) only a sequel--and he wasn't about to waste the opportunity. 

Alvarez's intent is announced with the very first shot, a breathtaking view of a vast wooded landscape (presumably Auckland, New Zealand) on the upper half of the screen--the shot is upside-down. Right off he's telling us to expect the usual, only it won't entirely be the usual. 

The script presents a more thought-out than is standard scenario: instead of five horny adolescents intent on an orgiastic bacchanal in the woods, it's three friends and a brother trying to force a troubled young girl to quit her heroin habit. The storyline involves us for maybe twenty minutes, then is completely dropped when more supernatural antics take place, but for those twenty--and especially the last ten of those twenty--the premise works well (skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to see the picture): her friends and brother aren't sure if it's the addiction speaking, and they do all the wrong things for the right reasons. For those brief minutes the movie makes explicit the idea The Exorcist refuses to confront: that demonic possession is a metaphor for addiction (drugs, sex, whatever), a supernatural excuse for us to be the very worse assholes we can be, to satisfy our appetites. 

Love it that Alvarez doesn't use shaky-cam--at least not to the point of incoherence; love it that he doesn't slice the footage into a slurried mess (though he presents plenty onscreen, sometimes flung at the camera lens); love it that he largely avoids CGI--most of the special effects are either deft misdirection or classic magic tricks or plain, old-fashioned filmmaking. 

There's a scene I'd like to point out, of Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) perched at the top of the cellar stairs while Mia (Jane Levy) crouches below, tears streaming down her cheeks. We know Mia will turn evil and we dread the moment; Alvarez's camera is pressed close to Mia's all-too-human and teary face, and we're  aware that it looms over us while Natalie is poised upstairs, fidgeting with uncertainty--will she or won't she come closer, give Mia some comfort? Suspense and dread, and not a pixel in sight.

It's pretty good for what it is, an exercise in genre filmmaking; maybe its biggest problem is just that: it's a mere exercise in genre filmmaking. I've maintained that Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods, working from Joss Whedon's script, pretty much killed the genre--rendered all other permutations, no matter how well made, redundant by showing how silly it all is (Five kids isolated in a cabin in the woods--wouldn't they at least have cellphones? Paramedics on helicopters?). Watching this I can admire the filmmaking, the same time say the picture hasn't changed my mind any.

That is, till I saw Raimi's own Evil Dead 2 again on cable. Raimi had a big success with his first Evil Dead, and an offer was immediately put to him to remake the picture on a bigger budget. Raimi turned this down; he was hoping his upcoming Crimewave would be a hit, that he would win some financial independence. It wasn't, so he was doing the Evil Dead remake--only it wasn't just a remake; Raimi, presented with basically the same material, decided to change his interpretation and along the way throw in everything he knew about filmmaking which, as it turns out, is a lot.

 Watching this, all memories of Cabin (and by extension this remake) were blown away like so much brain matter. This is the cabin-in-the-woods flick to end all cabin-in-the-woods flicks, by turns horrifying, hilarious, and droll. There are images here that recall Ray Harryhausen (the Necronomicon gnashing its teeth), and images (the laughing furniture scene) that recall--well, I'm not sure what: Buster Keaton crossed with Jan Svankmajer maybe? There are moments disgusting beyond belief (the popping eyeball scene) and moments disgusting beyond that, if you know where to look (the discharge pouring from grandma's ear is actually brother Ted Raimi's sweat, pouring out of his rubber old lady suit). There's a phantasmagoric beauty to some of the frames (the undead Andrea twirling on her toes; Ash's Oldsmobile turning in the air; the massive trees groaning, pulling their rootlike knees up from the ground in arthritic pain), a requisite for truly memorable horror. This is the genre's epically surreal, no-budget masterpiece; the Platonic ideal all other lesser pictures aspire to, at the same time shattering the mold of that ideal with modern power tools, forever. 

Towards the end of this entertaining if ultimately disposable movie the iconic chainsaw finally makes its long-awaited appearance, and the audience members heave a sigh of recognition: "Yeah--" Dispiriting, till one realizes: who put that expectation in their heads? Accepteth no substitutes.