Monday, December 30, 2013

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, Gerardo de Leon, 1961)

Can't touch this

Even with a perfect print, I can't imagine anyone saying De Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961) is a perfect film. While the casting of the men is impeccable (Eddie Del Mar as Crisostomo Ibarra, Oscar Keesee, Jr. as Padre Damaso, the great Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias), the women (Edita Vital as Ibarra's beloved Maria Clara, Lina Carino as the hapless Sisa) seem to have been hired more for their pretty faces than their acting abilities.

Actually the film's true star is De Leon' style, virtually an encyclopedia of low-angled shots, striking deep focus compositions, dramatic lighting, on-camera effects, and precision cutting--the variety in turn complementing the collection of anecdotes, plot twists, and melodramatic confrontations that made up much of Rizal's novel. If the results are not perfectly satisfying, perhaps that's in part due to the fact that De Leon is a master of Gothic drama, and Noli a dark but essentially comic satire of Philippine society; only later, when the forces of oppression rise up triumphant does the film truly come into its own. Perfect marriage of material and filmmaking sensibility had to wait until El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, 1962), when the ambivalently evil Simoun (Pancho Magallona, in what may be the greatest performance in Philippine cinema) plotted revenge against the all-powerful Spaniards.

Nevertheless--two boys, Crispin and Basilio, shiver like mice high up in a bell tower, where De Leon uses the claustrophobic space and enveloping darkness to suggest the shape and nature of the children's fears; when the tyrannical sacristan finally appears, De Leon momentarily wipes away the eyes' pupils, giving him the blank stare of a doll, a shark, a child's terror. When Basilio finally comes home, he learns that his long-missing, much feared father had come home before him, eaten his dinner, left; Basilio ignores his mother's news and immediately checks her for bruises (a lovely gesture that endears Basilio to us--not only is he caring, he's smart, too).

De Leon's realization of the famous scene where Sisa is arrested (famous partly because it's based on what happened to Rizal's own mother) is equally vivid. Sisa runs up the street to the camera in panic; cut to Basilio in the house, backing away; soldiers are approaching. He drops out a window, sprains his ankle, but manages to crawl away. His mother isn't as lucky; as the soldiers approach the camera, De Leon cuts to her stepping in from the side to stand in their way. She's force-marched across beautiful landscapes, past the church that was source of much of her troubles (she asks not to be humiliated before the townspeople; the soldiers order her to march two steps ahead--no more). At the station of the guardia civil she's marched past prostitutes and a hanging saddle (De Leon's not one to shy away from a sexually suggestive visual metaphor); the capitan angrily dismisses her. Sisa, running home, cries out for her two boys, both of which are now missing. She finds a torn shard of Basilio's shirt, and in one of the most beautiful shots in the film De Leon's camera gazes at her from below as she raises the fluttering piece of cloth up to the sun.

There's Ibarra and Maria Clara's party at the fisheries, where a crocodile is discovered inside the netting; a man dives in and Tarzan-fashion, wrestles with the creature. De Leon's cutting is fast and furious; there's so much splash and struggle you find yourself panicking along with the witnesses. Ibarra jumps in to help, and the sequence ends spectacularly, with men heaving on a rope and pulling out a live, roaring creature (the shot sells the sequence; seeing the monster in all its glory, you can't help but believe the two men were in mortal danger).

There's the attempt on Ibarra's life: Elias' profile as he catches wind of the plot; Ibarra's frightened glance at the cornerstone hanging fatefully above him; De Leon's thrilling yet coherent cutting of the chaos that ensues. There's Sisa--driven mad at last--urged to dance then whipped by the capitan's sexually deprived and sadistic wife, the whip like a tongue flicking about Sisa's body.

There's a shot midway through the film--Ibarra and Maria Clara walking down the street when they encounter a leper; Sisa standing beside the leper and pointing to the church tower above them; soldiers of the Guardia Civil riding up to drive the leper away--that's clearly a throwaway moment, one the viewer can easily miss, but the shot is colonial society crystallized in a single image, arguably the greatest in all of Philippine cinema. Standing at ground level, the bourgeoisie; low near the ground are derelict and outcast; towering above all--aloof and unperturbed--is the almighty Catholic Church's bell tower.

Finally there's the great phantasmagorial sequence of heroic Elias, confronted with one revelation too many, running across the novel's many landscapes with figures from his dead past (a woman prostate on the ground; a man's decayed and bloodied head in a cage; a girl floating on surf, knife buried in her bosom) bitterly accusing him of cowardice. Flawed in print and execution De Leon's Noli may be, still it stands as the definitive, most visually striking realization of Rizal's celebrated novel ever made.

(Portions of this post taken from my entry on the film found in Chris Fujiwara's Little Book of Movies)


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cinemanila 2013: The Act of Killing (Anonymous, Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer); Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz)

Killing with Lav

 Cinemanila 2013 has come around again, from Dec. 18 to 22 in the SM Aura Premier Cinema, Taguig, and its range and depth and variety of titles is--for a Filipino festival--as breathtaking as ever. I mean, where else can you find one brilliant if morally problematic film, another arguably the best of the year (and yes I've seen a few of the suspects--To the Wonder, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Philips, 12 Years a Slave)?

Sight and Sound dubbed Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous collaborator's The Act of Killing its film of the year, and one can understand the admiration: it's a collection of interviews of gangsters commissioned to torture and execute hundreds, perhaps thousands of Communists in 1960s Northern Indonesia; not only have they not been brought to justice since but today are hailed as heroes (some anyway), even hold powerful positions in Indonesian government and society. The filmmakers, not content to simply hear what these men have to say about the killings, gave them free rein to stage and shoot said killings in any manner or style they choose: straight documentary, noir, and (most bizarre of all) a musical number with overtones of an expensively produced prayer meeting. Not a few re-enact their exploits with energy and enthusiasm, even unmistakeable glee.

On watching this my unthinking reaction was: why listen to these people? Thought about the question, thought some more; finally realized--why, that was the right question to ask all along. Or rather: yes we should listen, yes their input on the events of 1965 to 1966 has relevance even importance, but why limit the film to merely presenting their story unfiltered and unmediated--no historical context, no opposing viewpoint to complicate, if not counteract, theirs? It's like giving these people a hundred-and-sixty-minute platform to reach not just Indonesian but international audiences, accompanied by the weight of dozens of awards, the praise of hundreds of critics. Validation perhaps not of the rightness of the killings (though most make many onscreen declarations), but of the killers' humanity, charisma, charm.

"Ah,” but you ask; “what of Anwar? Doesn't he come to regret what he did?” Yes he does apparently (though many of the others are loudly unrepentant), and that's the most insidious service of all performed on behalf of these people. Every time Anwar expresses doubt about what he did I wondered: how sincere was he? When he becomes violently sick and the camera moved in to capture his distress, I wondered: how sincere are the filmmakers? Is Anwar genuinely experiencing remorse (in which case why doesn't he turn himself in?)? Was he, as he later claimed, deceived when making this picture? Or was his onscreen breakdown a brilliantly acted tale of self-redemption handed to him free and clear, his backstage pass into morally acceptable society (“I regret what I did, may I join you folks?”)?

One further question: is Cinemanila right to screen this in Manila theaters? I think so: The Act of Killing is perhaps not an ethically irreproachable work, but it's an important work, in that it has dragged (promoted?) a heinous crime involving thousands of lives into the international spotlight, complete with accolades and awards. It needs to be seen, digested, discussed; if the filmmakers fail to provide us with a mediating intelligence to suss out the meaning of what they have shown (and--trust me--much of it is appalling to watch) I'd say it's up to us to ask the questions and suss out the meanings ourselves. If Oppenheimer isn't able or willing to finish the job, maybe we should do it for him--transcribe the discussion and hand the record over, as a gift. He may or may not like what we have to say, but he might finally get his work of art.

Then there's Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte the End of History) which I submit is the corrective to Oppenheimer's documentary--here is Diaz's equivalent of Anwar Congo, in the guise of Fabian (Sid Lucero), a brilliant former law student turned existential murderer (this is Diaz's unabashed re-enactment of Crime and Punishment in a Philippine setting). Fabian has killed only two souls compared to Anwar and his friends' thousands (I for one am a believer in the absolute value of a single human being), but otherwise the key details are there: the eloquence, the authority, the charisma; the intelligence and self-serving arrogance.

But his isn't the only story Diaz tells; there's also Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the unintended consequence of Fabian's crime--when Fabian escapes, Joaquin is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in his stead. Victimizer, meet victim; unlike in Oppenheimer's film, the criminal does not get a free pass--Fabian follows Joaquin's family and his conscience torments him accordingly (this being a fiction film, one accepts without much trouble the storyteller's omniscient viewpoint...where in Oppenheimer's, a documentary (a film where the ostensible intention is to arrive at the truth), you're strangely far more reluctant to accept the veracity of the onscreen redemption).

Diaz doesn't operate according to the oversimplified calculus of good vs. evil, innocent vs. guilty; watching Joaquin we wonder just how much in his innocent goodness he's culpable for the situations he somehow magically (even comically) falls into; likewise while watching Fabian we wonder at what point do his anguished attempts at retribution become valid, maybe even acceptable. Diaz clearly has sympathy for Joaquin, but you can't help but notice that Fabian's sensibility--his critical view of the ordinary Filipino, his philosophy of fighting ignorance and evil without mercy--feels uncomfortably similar to Diaz's own.

Diaz doesn't mean to present an ethics lesson; you realize this sitting through the film's entire two-hundred-and-forty-minute length, and in fact I'd even insist it's necessary to sit through the film's comparatively long running time (comparatively; he's been known to make films that run for eight, nine, eleven hours) to realize the full extent of its complexities and ambiguities, a realization which gradually seeps in, as opposed to being baldly presented on a silver platter--or not present at all.

What distinguishes Diaz from Oppenheimer, and his collaborators? The latter gave the game away early in his film, when a gangster bullied a Chinese merchant into giving not just his daily blackmail amount but a considerable extra--the unspoken implication being that he's demanding more because there are cameras watching. At which point I realized Oppenheimer hadn't fully thought out the consequences of this scene--how the gangster would react to his presence, how it would affect the merchant--and that he probably doesn't know what he's doing at all. Diaz does--least I feel he does--and he presents, questions, provokes with the probity and passion of a real artist.

First published in Businessworld, 12.18.13

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)

Back in The Hobbit

Putting it out and aside, my official position on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug--overblown, overlong, overproduced, even thinner on characterization than the first (we have no equivalent to the unsettlingly suspenseful battle of riddles between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and creepy reptilian Gollum (Andy Serkis); we do get a scene between Bilbo and the outsized Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) which sadly involves little wit and even less riddles). The eccentric charm of Tolkien's Middle Earth has largely been supplanted by elaborate action sequences, some of which are shaped suspiciously like amusement park-style theme rides (Middle-Earth Barrel Flume--With Pursuing Orcs! Erebor Mountain Forge Slide! Molten Gold Body-Surfing!), all at a Higher Frame Rate and in smashing 3D. On the other hand you do get Freeman, whose deer-in-headlights expression backed up by a steely core of decency makes for a more intriguing protagonist than his wet-noodle nephew Frodo (the incurably spaniel-eyed Elijah Wood).

A weaker chapter in the proposed trilogy, though stepping back for the longer view I find it better provisioned with humanity and humor than its longer, more epic (though Jackson tries very hard to catch up), far more solemn (more soporific?) predecessor

So: got that out of the way for what I really wanted to discuss--


Where is it? Where's the copulating in this cornucopia of incident and narrative? Where's the real fun? Are wicks really so dry, weapons all uncocked--is the gunpowder all wet, p'raps? How do people reproduce in Middle Earth?

No issues about humans--at one point Bilbo and the dwarfs arrive at Laketown, and we see women, children, families--the necessary building blocks for a thriving society. But the band had also visited the wood elves of Mirkwood, and you wonder: where's the fairer sex? We have one girl--Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)--who basically has the attention of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role); who has the attention of the rest of the elves? Is the situation similar to The Smurfs, where Smurfette looks mighty lonely, if not totally out-of-place? Is this a we-didn't-think-of-it-so-we're-clueless deal, or a we-know-but-are-not-talking deal? Or is Tolkien kinkier than even I suspected?
Alas, I doubt if the latter could ever be the case; something rotten in the state of Mirkwood--but at least it's confined to the wood elves. In the other pictures we glimpse she-elves in Rivendell, and one even plays a major role--Cate Blanchett's Galadriel, a sort of cross between Queen Elizabeth and Smurfette. 

And the dwarfs? In all the movies I have not spotted a single she-dwarf. Have the dwarfs hidden them that well? Why hide them? Is Jackson so afraid he couldn't make them look pretty, hence the apparent absence?

Sex is one of the great sources of drama, the giving and withholding and pursuing of it some of the strongest motivation any character can have, in any genre of literature. Granted Tolkien wrote The Hobbit originally for kids--when his sequel expanded into a three-volume epic and he revised Bilbo's original adventure to conform more to the tone and narrative of Frodo's latter, couldn't he have tossed a she-hobbit into the Fellowship? Nothing sells better than romance, maybe even rom-com, and boy, this endlessly expanding franchise (fifteen hours (I'm estimating from the running times of original releases) and counting) could use a lot more com, maybe even more explicit rom. Lilly's Tauriel is a good start, she has twice the presence and charisma of Liv Tyler's Arwen; couldn't she have flashed a shoulder, maybe chased Orcs in bikini leather?

It's gotten so bad I've started giving Smaug a second look, and as voiced by the inimitably throaty Benedict Cumberbatch, he (she?) sounds like a salacious, seductive little devil. Isn't there a Mrs. Smaug, just to spice things up a little more? I wouldn't mind a little worm-on-worm action--no waitaminute wasn't there a movie where a dragon hooked up with a donkey--?

Yes there was, and come to think of it, the dragon-vs-hero action in the earlier pic was better, for being shorter, faster, far less pretentious. Funnier too--it parodied similar fantasy moments, and action scenes in general. Some good musical numbers, and the ending was actually affecting--the barely disguised disdain for all things Disney being the cherry atop this delectable treat.

An irascible Dreamworks adaptation of a children's book, better than Jackson's multimillion dollar fantasy? But that's what you get when you skimp on skin: dissatisfied viewers, booing at the screen and tossing their rubbers--not all empty--and yelling: "Show us the honey!"


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948 and 2004)--tribute to Joan Fontaine (1917 - 2013); Shrek Forever After (2010)

(In tribute to an actress who, if I don't exactly consider great, did appear in one of the greatest melodramas I'd ever seen. As famous as her face and roles was her lifelong feud with sister Olivia de Havilland; with this one film in my book she both settles the sibling rivalry and cements her reputation amongst the cinema immortals)

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013)

(Warning: storyline and surprise twists of the following movies discussed in detail)

Smoke and mirrors

Francis Lawrence's Hunger Games: Catching Fire, second of the Suzanne Collins' franchise, is a marked improvement over the first. Which isn't saying much. 

The action's better--not a lot of shaky cam, not a lot of ADHD editing, Lawrence's camera actually follows the action--without elevating the movie overall from its Young Adult roots: it's still weak-tea dystopian science fiction*, with a little Young Adult soap thrown in (who does Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) or Gale (Liam Hemsworth)?).

*Give it this much credit, at least it is science fiction--a sincere attempt to engage the conventions of the dystopian genre--as opposed to mere sci-fi (i.e. the usual Star Wars crap).

That said, the science here isn't exactly topnotch: a fog that induces instant boils (a dermatological tear gas?) then washes away with water, like bad makeup? Force fields that look as if they'd been borrowed from Cabin in the Woods? An island that spins like an out-of-control carousel? The mind doesn't so much boggle as wobble, unsteadily.

Lawrence the director manages to make the movie look a tad more interesting by taking a page out of Lang's Metropolis for pointed contrasts between rich and poor, and Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will for Capitol's fascistic architecture--but production design aside, the satire in the movie (haven't read the book) is largely toothless. Where's the ferocious wit skewering media, social corruption, and public competition found in films like Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, or Elio Petri's The Tenth Victim? Where's the equivalent moment when Frankenstein (David Carradine) in a fit of childish pique runs over his own pit crew, or Catherine (Ursula Andress) dispatches her pursuer with a deadly .38 caliber metal bra? Hell, where's Lawrence the actress' deadly .38 caliber metal bra? I'd pay money to see that

Lawrence the actress is nicely physical here--handles the bow like an extension of her arm, and somehow Lawrence the director fudges the action in such a way that we forget her character Katniss still hasn't developed much of a short game--once the enemy gets past her bow she's helpless, and needs a little damsel-in-distress rescuing. She's given a little PTSD moment that lingers in memory a minute (we're meant to think she's far from being a stone-cold killer) and her tour of the various districts promoting the repressive regime is a mildly amusing procession of embarrassments (if Bartel were available to direct the procession might have been elevated into an orgy of humiliation) but beyond that Lawrence the director (and presumably Ms. Collins before him) has carefully set things up so that her moral fiber isn't truly tested in the games: she's not called upon to cold-bloodedly murder anything more advanced than a bad-tempered mandrill.

And what's with her obsession with Peeta? The kid--he doesn't look old enough to grow facial hair, much less a beard--doesn't have the charisma or warmth to inspire our interest, and Katniss' determination to keep him alive at her expense is well nigh inexplicable. Did he save her life in the first movie (don't rightly remember and don't really care to go back and find out)? Does she feel so much despair, so much contempt for herself that she would rather he survive (slightly more persuasive--remember that PTSD episode--though wouldn't she have to worry about her family back home if she were eliminated?)? Was the sex that good? Vulgar question to ask, but (while we're asking) I might as well confess how annoying these movies can be whenever the subject of sex looms, or even threatens to loom, especially as Lawrence the actress has already moved on to grown-up, sexually active roles (would they be this chaste if the movie were, say, a French production?).

As for the rest of the cast--Philip Seymour Hoffman radiates more threat with an impassive face than many an actor can with a villainous sneer. Donald Sutherland is nicely menacing as President Snow, though I can't help thinking his equivalent character in Battle Royale (played by Takashi Kitano) was far more unsettling: an authority figure who literally didn't give a fuck, who regarded the whole thing as not just a game but a joke (which it is), and who despite everything is still the baddest ass around.

By movie's end Katniss shoots an arrow literally into the air and brings the whole fragile, rather silly premise down; enough with the game play, now we're moving on to the serious business of revolution, leaving as many questions unanswered as has been answered (Wouldn't it have been simpler--and safer--to abduct Katniss before the games began? Wouldn't it be smarter not to do that silly Mockingjay gesture and avoid having the head cracked so you can do some real revolutionary work (see Hoffman)?).

But that's the subject of the next book adaptation, which, alas, has been divided into two separate pictures, to increase box-office takings. While we're talking about greed and corruption has anyone mentioned the people back in Hollywood? Because they make the nasty folk back in Capitol look like choirboys in a chapel, singing. 

Staying alive

Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club is for all the foul language, raunchy sex and drug use on display a surprisingly sweet-souled enterprise. Imagine a Schindler's List only with Schindler himself Jewish (or infected, if you like) and not enjoying the being kosher one bit--here we have Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-drinking, hard-living homophobe, forced to admit he's got a "Gay Disease."

I suppose if one must adopt a true-life story (which from the evidence of recent efforts is the equivalent of biking into a minefield blindfolded) Woodroof's is better than most: his life isn't all that well-recorded, and it's easy for the writers (Chris Borten, Melisa Wallack) to appoint themselves experts on the subject. They have the material, they're open about what they've changed or deleted or combined, and they are pretty much free to do whatever they need to do to make the material more palatable.

Which apparently doesn't really mean cleaning up Woodruff. As McConaughey plays him he's not just rough to deal with (he'll hustle you for what he wants and if he doesn't get it starts pushing hard) but rough to look at as well; McConaughey lost a reported forty pounds for the role, and looking at him you're not sure where the intestines go, much less larger internal organs.

Sharing an emaciated body image is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgendered AIDS victim who becomes Woodroof's reluctant ally and business partner. Rayon unlike Woodroof isn't from real life, rather a composite of several characters Woodroof had to deal with; that said, Leto manages to make a whole from the many and not just play a mere "tragically-dying-gay-victim" cliche. He's so convincingly transgendered when at one point he shows up in a suit to beg money from his estranged father, you have to laugh--he looks as if he'd dressed to go trick-or-treating (which when you think about it isn't far from the truth). When in a grocery store Woodroof manhandles a former friend into apologizing for some choice homophobic remarks, Leto manages to show us--sans words, sans histrionics--Rayon's dawning realization that Woodroof is more than just a companion or partner, but a real (albeit spiky, gruff, hard-to-get-along-with) friend. You realize the full extent of both their character arcs, and you're startled at just how far this film has come, in what direction it has gone.

I'm not saying--it's not exactly a great example of the genre like, say, Akira Kurosawa's masterful Ikiru, where we're totally immersed in a man's last few days, then the action shifts midway into a kind of static courtroomlike inquest into the significance of those last days (Kurosawa first measures the man, then measures the wake in the man's passing). They say God is in the details and in my book He granted Kurosawa the kind of divine insight a filmmaker would kill to possess, even for a few days (Kurosawa had it most of his life). Vallee isn't blessed with such intense grace; what he does have is an amazing cast, some profanely funny dialogue that once in a while trods upon the truth, and the raw material of a man who for all his flaws and failures stumbled into genuine heroism. One of the best of the year, I'd say. 


Friday, December 06, 2013

Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945)

(Warning: plot twists discussed in close detail)

Little wooden head

The Ealing Studio horror film Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945) is like most portmanteau films an uneven affair, ranging from visually daring (man looking into mirror sees dark Gothic bedroom, Hamer) to awkward if charming (golfer haunts fellow golfer, Crichton), to psychologically harrowing (ventriloquist convinced his dummy is alive, Cavalcanti)--the whole bound up by a linking story (man at dinner party announces he's been through all this before, Dearden). 

Hamer's "The Haunted Mirror" is shackled by a leaden script (you want to yell at the threatened couple "smash the mirror, morons!") which obviousness it manages to transcend--eventually--with the literal (and totally CGI-free) use of mirrors. Looking at them, into them, through them, watching people pause in dread before opening their eyes before them, Hamer's camera manages to convince us that the mirrors are less mirrors than windows into another world, where the possibilities are less marvelous than they are menacing.

The casually curious will want to check out the infamous Cavalcanti. Where "Hearse Driver" and "Christmas Party" and "Mirror" and the linking story depend on atmosphere and the occasional shock cut to scare us, what scares us in "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" is the spectacle of Michael Redgrave's Maxwell Frere slowly cracking up on the big screen. Well not really, and here's the difference: Redgrave doesn't play Frere as an insane man struggling to deal with the sane world; he plays Frere as a man in full (if precarious) possession of his sanity, doing his level best to deal with a world gone suddenly insane. 

At first glance he's disturbed, wild-eyed, unpredictable; you flinch because his responses to people seem overwrought, inappropriate. It's when you realize (and it's a credit to Cavalcanti and Redgrave that they delay this realization as long as possible) that he's like this because he's reacting to everyone in the room plus one extra person (the dummy) that everything he does and says suddenly makes sense. That realization--that he's really not crazy after all--is the segment's true source of horror. 

People have noted how much Hitchcock has borrowed from this for his masterpiece Psycho (the lone figure in a chair; the police officer walking into a cell with a bundle of cloth in his arms; the talk of a split personality being half of one and half of another, with one sometimes consistently dominant; the final image, of an unnatural voice coming from perfectly natural human lips); I can't think of anyone who's noted how much Anthony Perkins owes Redgrave. Norman Bates is an unsettling character not because he's insane but because he's sane, a perfectly rational character thrown into a (for him) totally irrational situation (his mother's still talking to him, even after death), and he's dealing with the matter the best he can. That's our entry point into Norman--and, fifteen years earlier, Maxwell's--mind: if we think that at some level of perception no matter how distorted or grotesque their actions might somehow make sense, then the distance between us and them is almost no distance at all.

How effective is Cavalcanti and Redgrave's gambit? At one point Maxwell starts strangling his mannequin and the observing doctor (Frederick Valk) rushes in to save the dummy. Maxwell's belief in his delusion is so intense he's managed to convince not just himself or those immediately around him but also a trained psychotherapist, and--be honest--in all that panic and confusion didn't you, however momentarily, feel the need to rescue the poor thing? Cavalcanti allows the camera to linger on the mannequin's crushed face, and one's revulsion can only come to fore: this? You wanted to run in and save this crumpled and pitiful block of wood?

After Cavalcanti's tour de force you'd think the rest of the film irrelevant and you'd be wrong: Dearden's been working in the sidelines on his eerily funny linking narrative, dropping clues here and there that despite the psychiatrist's reassurances things are getting worse, not better. He concludes everything with a delirious passage mixing all the segments together (that's what you need to finish an anthology film--a climactic sequence mixing all the stories up!) and most terrifying of all, a finale that echoes Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, where the realization dawns on you that what looks like the film's ending is actually its beginning--this daisy chain of horror has no real end. 

Not a great film but with great segments, and of course Redgrave is unforgettable. 


Thursday, December 05, 2013

Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009)--in tribute to Nelson Mandela 1918 - 2013

I'd seen Mandela, with my own eyes. No, really.

In 1990 if I remember correctly, I'd forgotten enough of my anger and bitterness to visit the Los Angeles City Hall; heard Mandela was giving a speech there and wanted to catch a glimpse of him as he stepped out.

I was in a crowd. I saw a wizened old man escorted out of the hall's main entrance to a waiting limo. The crowd keened; Mandela paused and gave us a wave, then disappeared into the car. 

That was about as close as I ever got, but it's like a Mr. Bernstein moment; I've remembered it ever since.

As a kind if sideways tribute to a great man, an article on one cinematic interpretation:

Winner takes all

Always felt Clint Eastwood, possibly one of the oldest, longest-working, most respected American directors still around, was too problematical. Always thought he never got out of the shadow of his true masters, Don Seigel and Sergio Leone (yep, Eastwood's star shines brighter than Leone's now--who knew then, when he directed his first feature, Play Misty for Me (1971)?). Always thought he was afflicted with that most fatal of diseases, good taste. Always thought his most awarded work was flawed, in one way or another (felt Mystic River (2003) didn't have a hard enough edge; Million Dollar Baby (2004) was too sentimental; Letter From Iwo Jima  (2006) presented a too-soft picture of the Japanese warrior).

That said, he's a prolific, consistent filmmaker, and out of his large output, there's bound to be something that pleases. Felt Unforgiven (1992) was lean and modestly moving. Felt Gran Torino (2008) to be an amusing, largely unassuming, poignant final statement (not his final as it turns out, but poignant nevertheless). Think  A Perfect World (1993) was his best work--about half of a great film, with maybe one indisputably great scene (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about).

With Invictus (2009), his thirty-fourth film, one wonders--will Eastwood glide gracefully under the radar or will he (like I feel happens when he makes his biggest 'statements') sink under the weight of his own earnestness? Thankfully the film takes its cue from Morgan Freeman's sly performance as Nelson Mandela--fresh out of prison, and freshly elected into office, he takes his morning jog and confronts the morning edition headline on a newspaper: “He can win elections, but can he govern?” “It's a fair question,” Mandela tells an angry reader.

It's not a complicated story to tell; what makes it challenging is keeping a sense of proportion around Mandela (active in politics since 1948; sent to prison for about twenty-seven years; freed, won the Nobel Prize, and became the first black president of South Africa), one of the most outsized heroes in recent world history, and keeping a sense of clarity about what he was trying to do. Eastwood has Freeman depict Mandela not as a starry-eyed idealist but as a weary pragmatist who understands how people think and feel and is willing to take risky, even unpopular measures for the long-term goal.

Hence his treatment of the problem: what to do with the white Afrikaaners? They have lost the election, but they still hold considerable power (much of the country's economy and military). A policy of retribution would alienate them, perhaps even spark a civil war; a policy of appeasement would alienate his own political base. Mandela opts for a sideways move, looking to the somewhat apolitical arena of sports for an answer: the Springboks, the South African rugby team, as a sign of unity and of South Africa's new identity in the world arena.

Not that easy to do; for one thing, politics has a tendency to contaminate all areas of life, even sports--the Springboks were thought of as a symbol of white supremacy, and the game of rugby a sport only white South Africans played. Mandela steered against popular sentiment to embrace the sport and team, and Eastwood records this painstaking process as only a careful carpenter, a builder of straightforward narratives, can do--little by little, detail by detail, with a deliberately determined pace.

Perhaps one way Eastwood has managed to maintain consistency throughout his career is by carefully picking his material. He does take risks--not all his films work (I'm thinking of his recent Changeling (2008) with its ham-handed treatment of female oppression); but even the failures teach him something and strengthen his skills as a director, so when one comes along that seems tailor-made (like I believe this one is), he has enough game to swat it out of the ball park.

That's half the story told, the to my mind more interesting part (I love how Eastwood peppers Mandela's storyline with suggestions that he's had a complicated private life); Eastwood also tells the other half, the sports half, led by Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks. Much publicity has been spent on marveling how Damon mastered the Afrikaaner accent, considered one of the most difficult in the world (sounds okay to these inexpert ears, but then so did Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond (2006); I did like the accents in John Boorman's In My Country (2004), and while Brendan Gleeson's accent slipped in and out, it didn't stop him from giving a powerful performance), but when all is said and done, Pienaar's is the supporting role, in a story of secondary interest. Eastwood seems to recognize it too--he sketches Pienaar's character, and uses rugby sequences sparingly, saving the most coherently shot and most detailed depiction of the game for last, the climactic battle between the underdog Springboks and the mighty New Zealanders in 1995. The victor is a matter of public record of course, and of course in sports movies you know who's going to win (the only picture to actually surprise me with its conclusion was Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears (1976)).

Eastwood doesn't entirely wipe away this handicap with the razzle-dazzle of his filmmaking (he pretty much shoots everything with a handheld camera, cuts to build tension, so on and so forth) but hopefully by this time you've been so caught up in the film's larger narrative--that of Mandela trying to bridge the gap between two political powers, two races, a divided nation (of course this is Eastwood's open letter to Obama)--that you find yourself cheering anyway.

First published in Businessworld, 2.18.10