Monday, June 30, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014); The Raid 2 (Berendal, Gareth Evans, 2014)

How to stroke your critics

Easily the most interesting aspect of Transformers: Age of Extinction is how empthatically it sells itself to the small and relatively unimportant group that was still holding out against its loud and crunchy charms, namely, white middle-aged film critics (or film reviewers; I'd say for purposes of this piece they're considered as an aggregate). So: teenage male ingenue is ejected in favor of Mark Whalberg, who plays barely-working inventor-father with a handful of a nubile teenage daughter (you capture huge swathes of the male demographic right there); better still, Whalberg's character is an inventor (read: tech artisan), and not just an inventor but a soulful connoisseur of obsolete tech (movie projectors, 8-track tape players--seems to me there's nothing in his life that can't be solved by a guest appearance in Pawn Stars.) 

Of course there's the usual big explosions and heavy metal roaring about, only less interesting than usual (not that it was interesting in the first place): where a huge part of the movies' appeal was watching various forms of powered transportation turn themselves into overpriced Toys-R-Us merchandise, the updated Decepticons mostly dissolve into  undiffrentiated nano clouds, then assemble magically upright (What did I say about championing obsolete technology?). Hong Kong is revisited for the second time in as many years, this time in daylight; course under the bright sun the gigantic digital constructs are as realistic as Action Transfers hastily scribbled onto the big screen. 

I've been accused of anti-American bias; I disagree--one of my favorite big-budgeted films last year was directed by an American, born and bred. Silly argument anyway--one should keep one's eyes on talent, period, working outside or inside the Americas, and stay away from hacks no matter how expensively produced. 

The ending pretty much action-transfers the ending from the first movie: big dumb armor duke it out while the important job of keeping the McGuffin safe is given to the vulnerable and slow humans, scampering beneath their feet. Much prefer the darker, more cynical and yet somehow more Zen message of the other big-budgeted boxoffice (and American!) success--that nature has a way of correcting itself (with spectacular results), and we'd be smarter to just step out of the way.

Best sequel of the year

Early on the hero is attacked in a prison toilet. Rama (Iko Uwais) stands on one side of an increasingly rickety wood door being brutally battered, held in place by a single shuddering bolt. When the bolt gives the assault is an unstoppable wave Rama meets with a dance of gorgeous ferocity: spinning, whirling, whipping, whacking, limbs delivering a constant salvo of fist, elbow, knee, foot, not to mention the occasional forehead (at one point he tosses an assailant upwards to land astraddle of the stall door, testicles mashed painfully against the door's upper edge). It's a startling sequence director Evans ends with an even more startling punchline: a high-angled crane shot pulling back to reveal the endless stream of convicts waiting outside, ready to enter the tiny stall.

Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption (2011) was a bare-bones, no-nonsense movie with the simplest of setups: a police unit stages a raid on an apartment building turned drug den. Not much plot, even less characterization; the real star of the show was the ancient Indonesian martial arts called pencak silat, and Evans' wonderfully retro action choreography / filmmaking. His sequel The Raid 2 (2014) aims to top the original in all respects--you might call that opening toilet riot his jokey take on the first movie's claustrophobic venue, after which this movie breaks out and moves on to bigger, better things. 

It's not a total victory; Evans' not coming out of nowhere with a blindsiding roundhouse kick, and his sequel lacks the sinewy leanness of the original, but it is more expansive, and more varied. There's even a fairly interesting story: Rama goes undercover inside the criminal organization of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), where he's assigned to protect the gang lord's only begotten son Uco (Arifin Putra). The father-son relationship recalls that of everyone from Henry IV and Prince Hal to Hamlet and his spectral dad; knotty at best, murderous at worst, undeniably spiky entertainment (Bangun you might call the Indonesian equivalent of Vito Corleone, only more irritable; Uco is like a mix of Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Hamlet, his volatile temper constantly at odds with the complex demands being made on his honor and hubris both). 

But we're not here for story or acting are we? On those other terms Evans delivers: Rama sitting in a car, attacked by a swarm of corrupt plainclothes wielding blades; Rama in an outdoor prison riot, grappling in mud; Rama in a hurtling car chase that actually has one gripping one's seat tight--and not with hands, either. 

Best of all are the assassins, a motley menagerie--Baseball Bat Boy (Very Tri Yulisman) who has an innocuous way of asking his ball back (which you had better return, if you value your teeth); his sister Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) who wears a sharp pair of shades and even sharper pair of claw hammers (Apparently a homage to Park Chan Wook's famed hallway hammer fight scene in Oldboy; Evans may not have topped the sequence (shot in a single lengthy take) but does top Park's iconic figure--Hammer Girl is most gorgeous when spattered with gore). Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), the awesome arch combatant from the first Raid, makes a return appearance, and isn't the baddest ass of them all, even if he does waste a dance club full of thugs; that honor goes to The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), a rather quiet man whose diminutive stature belies his skill with kerambits (a pair of small particularly deadly serrated scythes).
Rama and The Assassin face off in a spotless white kitchen--marked contrast to the grim grey apartments in The Raid--and don't taunt, or bicker, or drop witty bon mots; fact is the whole movie feels humor deficient, and I'd probably feel overly oppressed by all the seriousness if Evan's gracefully brutal action choreography and complementary filmmaking (a blessed lack of shaky cam and ADHD editing) didn't constitute its own witty commentary on the violence onscreen. The sound effects are particularly effective, a virtual symphony of gasps, grunts and body blows, occasionally punctuated by the thunk! of a head repeatedly hitting ceramic, or steel tubing, or (better yet) sheet metal. Iron Man would have discharged long ago, Captain America knelt and surrendered his shield; for all their powers the X Men never demonstrated this much skill or imagination or sadism when meting out (or enduring) so much punishment. You want real action, watch this; far as I'm concerned it's the thriller of the year. 

First published in Businessworld, 6.19.14

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mario O'Hara 1946 - 2012

It's been two years to the day 

Mario O'Hara RIP

 Here is an old interview (reproduced from my book Critic After Dark) I did, the very first time I met him:

Three Men Drunk In A Dimsum Shop

WE MET OUTSIDE of Shakey's, which was Mario O'Hara's suggestion. "Then I thought 'Wait a minute,'" he told me, "'Shakey's, on a Friday night--a basketball night. We won't get a table.'" Indeed we didn't: there was a line of customers waiting to be seated. We ended up in a dim sum shop outside of Glorietta's Streetlife, ordering pitchers of beer from a nearby bar.

I was with my friend--call him Mang Philip--and we had collared the elusive Mario O'Hara backstage of the last performance of his latest play, Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero's Ulilang Tahanan (Orphan Home). Mang Philip took one arm, I took the other, and we twisted until O'Hara agreed to meet us: which is, it turns out, the only way you can convince him to give an interview.

Backtrack one year: when I had first met Mang Philip, we had spent the whole night talking about, well, everything you can imagine; one of the things we talked about was films. "Everyone is a thief and a fake," he informed me. "Celso (Ad. Castillo), Mike (de Leon), Ishmael (Bernal), Lino (Brocka), Gerry (de Leon)--all thieves and fakes."

"I don't know," I told him, "They're not that bad."

Mang Philip shook his head. "The only one who's any good is Mario O'Hara. I can't remember the title of the movie I saw of his--what's the matter?"

The matter was, I had just seen Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, (Three Years Without God) and I was more or less thinking the same thing--not that O'Hara's the only one who's any good, but that he's the best filmmaker we have. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, Roman Polanski, 2013)

Crack that whip

A critic if he's smart looks at a new Roman Polanski film the way an airport security officer looks at a suspiciously hefty, heavily taped carton box full of loose rattling metal: with sharp anticipation, plus a healthy dose of nervousness, perhaps fear. 

I mean--look at the lines in his latest, Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013): Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is reading Thomas' (Mathieu Amalric) play, an adaptation of the classic novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Along the way Vanda suggests the play is about child abuse. Thomas freaks: "what the fuck does the maltreatment of children have to do with this story?" He's absolutely right, of course--we have this unlovely habit of shoehorning politically correct ideas into texts that were composed long before the notion of correctness was ever conceived, we expect long-dead minds to conform to our notions of good and bad, right and wrong. You catch yourself nodding in agreement, then realize--this is a character in a Roman Polanski film talking. You wonder if Polanski's slipped in a bit of special pleading on his behalf, and feel repelled by the manipulation (for what it's worth, the lines are in the play). Then you wonder if that's what he intended all along, choosing to adapt this particular play for the big screen. 

"Stereotypes!" Thomas continues to rant. "What are you going to throw at me next? Racism, sexism, class struggle?" to which Vanda replies not with a counter-argument, but a line from Thomas' play "well you're certainly unique, Herr Kushemski," mollifying the man by stroking his vanity (a classic tactic).  

That's the whole play, basically: Vanda the wannabe actress mesmerizing Thomas the playwright and first-time director, in a theatrical retelling by David Ives of a classic erotic tale, in turn taken from an actual episode in the author's life (his name incidentally--or not, as little is incidental in a Polanski film--is basis for the term 'masochism'). To muddy matters between fiction and fact further, Polanski uses an actor coiffed and costumed to resemble himself (if he were fifty or even forty years younger he might have played the role himself), opposite his real-life wife as Vanda; the themes--the power struggle between man and woman, actress and director, dominatrix and dominated--echo moments in Polanski's own life, themes dealt with in his previous films.

The trouble with Polanski isn't that he's a convicted sex offender; or that he can be a maddening tyrant (to the point that actress Faye Dunaway would fling a cup of urine into his face); or that he is manipulative, charming, ingenious and ruthless by turns (sometimes all four at once and then some). No, I'd say the real trouble with Polanski is that he's immensely talented, and I find myself time and time again not apologizing for the man--he's living comfortably in France (whether he deserves to or not), in permanent exile--but for his films, which are seductive, unsettling, gorgeous, almost always worth watching (even his unhappier efforts (I'm thinking a good portion of The Ninth Gate) have moments that startle you out of your seat (the wheelchair crashing through doors for one, revealing the conflagration beyond)). 

Take his trademark camera move, the tracking shot: gliding smoothly down one hallway or another, usually opening a film, likely inspired by similar shots from Alfred Hitchcock. Only Hitchcock directs your attention to this or that detail, points out the relationship between two entirely disparate objects, distends time and magnifies tension to an unbearable degree; his camerawork, more manipulative than anything, is born out of a need for precision and relentless visual storytelling logic. Polanski is capable of this when needed (I'm thinking of the camera following from a point slightly above Rosemary Wodehouse's shoulder as she enters her neighbors' apartment, in the climactic scene of Rosemary's Baby) but the overall impression is of a silky seductive style, meant to relax you and allow you to luxuriate in the velvet gorgeousness of it all--until he delivers the horrors, in which case you do anything except relax.

Said tracking shot sends us down a rainy tree-lined boulevard, turns gracefully right, pushes past theater doors like so many parting curtains to the stage--the venue of battle. The combatants are Vanda, a seemingly crude, inept actress late for auditions, and Thomas, whose new play is the reason she's braving the rain (everyone else is gone, leaving Thomas on his cellphone, complaining about the unsuitability of applicants).

Somehow Vanda manages to turn Thomas' mind (a few teardrops help; so does a deftly exposed thigh, and flattery ("You should play'd be terrific," and we remember that Polanski often acted in his films). Vanda pulls out of her voluminous carpetbag some cheap knitting (the play's opening requires Venus standing in furs, and Vanda could only afford a shawl) and a costume; later she pulls out a dressing gown for Thomas--made in Vienna, 1869 (he looks at her in disbelief).  From out of her head she produces a passable accent, a bright and agile mind, an increasingly impressive series of opinions and insights on the play Thomas has written, a copy of which she has somehow obtained (you wonder what else Vanda might have in that bag--Aristotle's book on comedy? Sophocles hundred other plays? The last forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons? Gerardo de Leon's Daigdig ng Mga Api?). You wonder if she isn't Venus herself, come down to earth to serve judgment on this presumptuous male.

Critics have complained that the sexual politics are dated--and much of it is, especially what comes from Sacher-Masoch, who ventures into the extremes of masochism only to collapse into a submissive conservatism; Ives flips the story around to wreak feminist vengeance on the author's misogyny (funny, I don't recall anyone calling Ives on the datedness of his play when it was on Broadway). 

To respond one must paraphrase Ives: what the fuck does any of that have to do with the film's true appeal? The play, the actor/director, the beautiful wife/actress, the rant against child abuse, the dressing gown, even the moment Thomas applies lipstick and pulls on women's clothing--all are distractions, all are (as Thomas puts it) trivia. 

The wit, sharpened by Polanski's slowly gliding camera (like a knife blade across a whetstone); eccentric bits like imaginary coffee gurgling into a nonexistent cup, or actors miming a tap or slap or kiss (which only emphasizes the play's tactility); the fact that the film's single most sensual moment doesn't involve Seigner but Amalric, giving himself completely over to a moment of erotic self-confession--it's all maddening, mesmerizing trivia--but still trivia.  

The film's real subject after all isn't men vs. women, or director vs. actress, but world vs. Polanski. Like Rosemary Wodehose, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Jake Gittes, or even Dean Corso, Polanski's a survivor who knows his true role in the universe: a leaf, a plaything, the punchline to the sorry overextended joke we call evolution, backgrounded by the even more elaborate joke we call the universe. Why does Polanski put so much art and cunning into seducing us in his films? Perhaps because he knows what he has to say doesn't hold much appeal--but needs to be said, anyway. 

First published in Businessworld 6.9.14

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman); How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean Deblois)

(Warning: story and plot twists to be discussed in detail)

Rinse, repeat

Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of  Hiroshi Sakurazaka's novel All You Need is Kill (far cooler title, in my opinion) has been described as Starship Troopers (1997) meets Groundhog Day (1993). I'd agree and go back a little further, to Algis Budrys' 1960 novel Rogue Moon, where a man is handpicked to negotiate an enigmatic alien artifact on the moon that kills humans in horribly excruciating ways; every time the protagonist dies, he is resurrected and can start again.

If you must ask: Budrys' novel is superior, of course--death here isn't an excuse to reset but a jarring, traumatic event that drives explorers insane. Daredevil adventurer Barker doesn't fear death (it's why he was picked), but does fear this artifact ("it didn't care! I was nothing to it!"); the novel itself (a slim 176 pages) is written in a dense prose, with internally twisted characters and a profound sense of mystery. Haven't read Hiroshi's novel but from what I've heard it's not as psychologically complex; Liman's adaptation goes further by simplifying and taking the dramatic sting out of Sakurazaka's novel--the hero has to make a choice but the usual kind, between his own life and mission success.

It's still entertaining, somewhat. Liman turns the looping effect into a running gag, and actor Tom Cruise (who plays an I presume Americanized version of the novel's Keiji/Cage) has the snap comic timing to negotiate the plot's fairly straightforward (as compared to Sakurazaka's or Budrys') twists. Sakurazaka reportedly based his aliens' design on the starfish (though why call them Mimics?); Liman's creatures are more like a cross between octopussies and cat o' nine tails, their tentacles whipping sand and water with unsettling speed. They're really best seen indirectly, when Liman plants them underground or underwater and you see the wake of their passing; in the open they mostly look like--what else?--CGI constructs of the Transformers variety, with consequent insubstantiality (in short: not very impressive). 

I mentioned Liman's lite version of Sakurazaka's ending; I'd also describe the movie as a lite-r version of the late Harold Ramis' masterpiece. Groundhog Day in my opinion isn't just brilliant comedy but a surprisingly supple metaphor for the intractability of life, and of one's own self when confronted with change. I've shown it to my students, a class of at-risk youths, and pointed out: "that's you--trapped in your own situation till you realize what you're doing to yourself and move on." It's what Neil Gaiman must think Hell is like, when he has Lucifer say: "They talk of me going around and buying souls, like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why.

"I need no souls.

"And how can anyone own a soul?

"No. They belong to themselves.

"They just hate to have to face up to it."

That's Groundhog Day--and, you might say, my workplace--in a nutshell. Any such metaphysical musing is lost here, in the hail of automatic gunfire. 

Flying circus

Dean Deblois' How to Train Your Dragon 2 is, yes, a sequel, and yes, an improvement over the original--bigger scope, more ambitious animation, an overall darker tone, with death definitely in the cards. Not a big fan of at least half the story (Why do animated movies Disney and otherwise always feature misunderstood kids or absent parents? Why do animated features assume their main characters should always have the family circumstance and emotional makeup of an upper middle-class suburban American teenager? Can't they think of something more interesting than recycling the same tired cliches?) but it does make an attempt at something halfway epic, the introduction of an alpha dragon, a supersized creature that can compel obedience from all other dragons.*

* wifi mind control? Idea's almost as silly as controlling a human being by tugging the follicles from his head.

Jay Baruchel's Hiccup still makes for an appealingly unlikely hero--a kind of sword-and-sorcery Woody Allen channeling Rube Goldberg (Hiccup's little Bondian gimmicks are I'd say the best running gag in the movie). The big dragons and their eventual faceoff feels a bit Godzilla--down to the blue light streaking up and down the spine (are today's summer movies  stealing images from each other?)--but the humor helps things slide down easier. The flying zips along, but doesn't have the sense of massive weight hurtling at speed that, paradoxically, I feel is necessary to believe in the thrill--and of course danger--of animated flight (think the climactic dogfight in Miyazaki's Porco Rosso). The movie expands and improves on so many fronts, but you're aware that this is still digital animation, the production still a summer entertainment aimed at kids.

Not repelled, not even insulted, just vaguely unsatisfied. Entertaining, but you feel it could have been so much more.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Many Faces of Jose Rizal

Belatedly, for our Independence Day, an old post:
When I wrote this I'd already seen most of the Rizal films that had come out (all except for Mike de Leon's Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000)), and put everything in the following perspective:

The Many Faces of Jose Rizal

The Philippines has long been obsessed with Jose Rizal--writer, poet, artist, intellectual, doctor, educator, martyr. Two of the earliest silent feature films made in the Philippines dealt with Rizal--La vida de Jose Rizal (The Life of Jose Rizal) and El fusiliamento de Dr. Jose Rizal (The Execution of Dr. Jose Rizal)--and Ramon Estella made a three-hour version in 1956: Buhay at Pag-ibig ni Dr. Jose Rizal (Life and Loves of Dr. Jose Rizal). Rizal's two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were adapted twice: the first time in 1915 and 1916 respectively by Edward Gross, the second time in 1961 and 1962 respectively by Gerardo De Leon, arguably Philippine cinema's greatest filmmaker. De Leon also directed Sisa (1951) a variation on Noli Me Tangere, which takes the story of one minor character in the novel and expands it to feature-film length (at the time it must have seemed like a dress rehearsal for De Leon's full-on adaptations; nowadays it seems to anticipate Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by seven years). Lino Brocka did his modern-day version of Noli with Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting) in 1974.

Rizal seems to inspire both audiences (the two silents and Tinimbang were boxoffice hits), and filmmakers (El Fili has been described as De Leon's gothic masterpiece, while I consider Tinimbang to be one of Brocka's best-ever films). Now, with 1996 being the centennial of Rizal's death, and 1998 being the centennial of the country's independence from Spanish rule--an independence to which Rizal contributed no small part--the local film industry has made not one, not two, but three Rizal films, with one more in post-production at the time of this writing.

The first--Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal Sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan)-- has already been discussed in this magazine. The second-- Marilou Diaz Abaya's Jose Rizal--opened December last year, to widespread acclaim and huge commercial success. Why not? It's about Rizal, and at P120 million (US$3,000,000), it's the most expensive Filipino film ever made.

Jose Rizal is a vast exercise in logistics--hundreds of extras, dozens of locations, Steadicam rental for over six months. Diaz-Abaya's most impressive achievement is in marshaling all the elements together into a comprehensive view of Rizal's life--his university days; his exile in Europe; his writing the two novels; his arrest, trial, and ultimate execution by firing squad.

If there's a flaw in Rizal, it's not in the technicals--photography, costume, and production design are as perfect as three million dollars can make them--but in its utter conventionality. There are speculations that events in Rizal's life inspired his novels (not exactly fresh insight), and one scene has a character from his novels urging him to support the revolt against the Spaniards--Hollywood epic filmmaking at its most tasteful, in the grandly thudding tradition of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, or David Lean's Doctor Zhivago.

Doesn't help matters that Cesar Montano is miscast as Jose Rizal. Diaz-Abaya must have had Montano's action-star persona in mind when she chose him, as a way of emphasizing Rizal's vanity; but after a few witty and regrettably short scenes, nothing much is made of Rizal's egotism--all we're left with is an action star trying to act the intellectual. Better is Jaime Fabregas as defense lawyer Luis Taviel; in his soft-spoken way Fabregas gives a subtler performance than Montano. His defense summation--understated yet intense, spoken in fluent, effortless Spanish--upstages Montano's own climactic trial speech.

Mario O'Hara's remake of Gerry De Leon's Sisa couldn't be a more different film: where Diaz-Abaya took six months and three million dollars to shoot, O'Hara did his in ten days, for about sixty thousand dollars.

There's much to dislike about Sisa: the sets are basically of the plywood-and-Styrofoam school of production design; the acting--sex star Gardo Verzosa plays Rizal, sex starlet Aya Medel the title role--is crude, if not a bit embarrassing. The story is difficult to follow, shifting from past to present to fantasy to supernatural reality, with little preamble and no apologies whatsoever.

Yet there's something about Sisa that's difficult to dismiss. As all Filipinos know, she's is the madwoman who haunts the margins of Rizal's Noli; dressed in filthy rags, calling out the names of her two lost children, she's easily the single most memorable character in the novel. O'Hara believes that memorable characters aren't created so much as they are based on people the writer knew in real life (Rizal once spoke of a "Miss L., who has the most enchanting eyes"). It's O'Hara conceit (and the crucial difference between his film and Gerry De Leon's) that this "Miss L." was the basis for Rizal's Sisa, and that she was the great love of his life.

In a sense O'Hara has been telling Sisa's story all his life. He not only wrote the screenplay for Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Brocka's version of Noli) he also played Berto the Leper, lover of the Sisa figure in the film. O'Hara may have revealed more of his feelings than he intended in Tinimbang, both in the screenplay and in his acting; his Berto (like his screenplay) is compassionate, infinitely loving and infinitely tender towards the helpless, insane Kuala. From writing a great screenplay for Brocka (and giving, incidentally, a great performance) to writing a great screenplay for his own film must have been an inevitable, all-too-tempting step.

I've never really liked Rizal as a dramatic character; he's always been too passive, too intellectual a hero for me to believe in. Except for his execution he lived a meandering, uneventful life--hardly ideal stuff for film biographies. I've never really understood what drove him to write his novels, or believe what he believed. His family was maltreated, yes, and he saw Spanish injustice firsthand...but that was years ago, when he was a child. Could there have been someone closer to him--some woman, perhaps--whose tragedy drove him to what he did?

This is Sisa's greatest audacity--to explain Rizal in such a way that he comes to vivid life before us; everything O'Hara does complements and reinforces this ambition. He knew he couldn't create the world of 1896 on a two-and-a-half million budget, so he deliberately creates an unrealistic one, out of plywood and Styrofoam. He knew he couldn't get topnotch actors to play his Rizal and Sisa, so he reconceived them as a pair of crudely intense, emotionally passionate lovers (Verzosa and Medel for all their 'crudity' are ultimately affecting). O'Hara has reimagined Rizal's life the way Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard reimagined Shakespeare's in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love--as a grand, once-in-a-lifetime love affair. If you don't buy it, you find yourself hooting helplessly in laughter; if you do buy it, you find yourself believing in Rizal for the first time, as a fully human being.

Rizal sa Dapitan was the first, Jose Rizal the biggest; coming soon is Mike De Leon's Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero), invited to this year's Cannes (a few thoughts on that particular Rizal film). Sisa will probably fall between the cracks opened up by these three works. It's a film too ambitious for its own good, a project that fails (though fails magnificently) to live up to the promise of its wildly innovative screenplay. It may end up forgotten in the flood of Rizal films, relegated to the more obscure dustbins of film history...except by those who can respond to its magic, or thrill to its unfettered imagination.

Cinemaya magazine, Issue #44, Summer 1999

Friday, June 13, 2014

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

This little piggy

Nine years after debuting on the independent filmmaking landscape with the fast-paced yet near-incomprehensible time-travel thriller Primer, Shane Carruth presents his sophomore effort Upstream Color. The two films couldn't be more alike, couldn't be more different: where Primer is all dialogue, heavily laced with scientific and technological jargon, Upstream (ostensibly about Kris (Amy Seimetz) being infected with a mind-controlling worm, though what it's really about is anybody's guess) sports the bare minimum, mainly extended silences backgrounded by a mysterious thumping; where Primer unfolded in an overexposed fluorescent world of padlocked storage spaces and decrepit apartment units, Upstream is rooted in the wide outdoors--a wilderness of stream and sky, brush and branch, leaf and creeping, crawling life. 

And yet both films show Carruth's iconoclastic sensibility, the first stubbornly made in 16 mm when digital video could have made his life so much easier; the second still produced, funded--and now distributed--outside the Hollywood system. Both make narrative leaps, Primer because its time-traveling protagonists, antagonists, what-have-you are constantly going back to tinker with an progressively more complicated past so they could alter an increasingly undesirable future, Upstream--well, Kris falling in love with Jeff (Carruth) aside, we're still not 100% sure what connects the different threads (Kris and Jeff; The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) and his pig farm; The Thief (Thiago Martins) and his victims; the Husband (Frank Mosley) and Wife (Carolyn King) who quarrel, then are never seen again) and why. Carruth, an engineer turned filmmaker, pays us the ultimate compliment of assuming we can and are willing to follow his deliberately obscure plots even without fully comprehending them; in effect it's not the (almost always disappointing) explanation found at the end that matters, but the constantly dumbfounding ride.

Critics have noted the similarities between this and Terence Malick's Tree of Life (2011). One can see similarities--the wide-eyed regard for nature, the meandering not completely integrated narratives--the same time one notes major differences: Malick's has a broader (you might say cosmic) scope, emphasizing vast landscapes with a wide-angle lens and gliding camera;  Carruth has a nervy editing rhythm (not a fan myself, incidentally) coupled to a keen, occasionally microscopic, focus (some amazing magnified imagery involving microbiological activity, involving corporeal decay), and a sound design that (to my ear anyway) seems superior to Malick's, almost Lynchian in its subterranean reverberations. Carruth on interview denies the connection (though he does profess admiration for the man); I think for once we can believe the interviewee--he not so much channels Malick as he does a writer-philosopher indispensable to the makeup of both filmmakers' artistic DNA.

You can't help but note how often Henry David Thoreau's Walden keeps popping up--as a series of text pages, folded into daisy-chain links (they make you think of the missing links between narratives); as words directly quoted by a semi-delirious Kris; in the guise of worms, a repeated symbol of varied meanings in the book. Some critics have deemed the book a red herring; Caleb Crain in his excellent New Yorker article (The Thoreau Poison) explains how, on the contrary, Thoreau might be key to understanding not just the film, but Carruth himself--his distrust of or need to distance himself from Hollywood, his desire to tell a story on his own terms, his obsession with sounds both natural and manmade.
Thoreau like Malick longed for transcendence; Carruth seems to have similar yearnings, said transcendence in this picture apparently involving greater self-awareness (Jeff and Kris eventually piecing together what happened to them), the passing of the old to make way for the new (the riverside orchids losing their blue coloring--sounds innocuous enough till you realize the implications). Along the way Carruth creates indelible images: Jeff and Kris in a fit of panic, hiding in a bathtub together; a drowned animal gradually rotting away, releasing a blue substance--a blue poison?--into the water (think David Cronenberg on a nature trip with Jan Svankmajer); Jeff and Kris upset that they share a common memory/delighted that they share a common memory; Kris cradling a suckling pig with almost unbearable tenderness. 

You wonder if Thoreau ever achieved transcendence; Malick is still working on his, with increasingly acclaimed (though to my eyes increasingly mixed) results. Carruth has finally come out with his own attempt--on a much smaller budget, hewing more closely (more Thoreau-ly?) to basic principles in his own strictly independent, non-hive-mind-inspired manner. Then again, maybe it's not the ultimate destination that matters but the ride--in which case Carruth's makes for an unforgettably heady trip. 

First published in Businessworld 5.29.14

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ida Lupino: hard, fast, beautiful

On TCM for today Thursday June 12 only: Ida Lupino all day--Outrage (2.15 pm); On Dangerous Ground (5.15 pm) and The Hitch-Hiker (6.45 pm)

Ida Lupino: hard, fast, and beautiful

Ida Lupino was a Hollywood anomaly, a woman who wasn't just a lovely and talented actress but a filmmaker with a distinct sensibility--an auteur, if you like. Saw her first in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941) where she was Humphrey Bogart's poignantly loyal girl and fell for her then, but when I saw how her Lana Carlsen reacted to Joe Fabrini's (George Raft) rejection of her advances in Walsh's They Drive by Night made a year earlier (she kills her husband then pins the blame on Joe), the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. She was a sexual force of nature, someone you played with or rejected at your immediate peril; I was hooked, but good.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014)

Not my fault

Have to admit, not the perfect demographic to appreciate Josh Boone's adaptation of the ultrapopular Young Adult book by John Green. Caught myself looking longingly at the poster for Edge of Tomorrow on my way to my multiplex seat, the way a bull looks longingly at the exit on its way to the veterinarian's scalpel. 

What sold me on the idea of sitting through this ordeal? Someone saying to me: "I want to watch the movie, so I could tear it a new orifice."

Ah, seducer!

Not that I think Edge is the better picture. Not the biggest fan in the world of Tom Cruise save when he's doing comedy or being an asshole (usually both), and loathe the prospect of watching yet another sci-fi (hate the term, but when the movie involves big explosions and Bigger Fucking Guns, it's appropriate) extravaganza. If I have to watch yet another shard of shrapnel spin at the screen I'm going to start implanting eggs in people's bellies. I'm serious, practically. 

So what's the sitrep? Two cancer patients, one prettier than the other and both unbearably cheerful and cool; they meet cute, they fall in love--so far so so-so. The youths are conspicuously well-off--both drive cars, for one, live in really nice houses, in nice all-white neighborhoods. The boy in particular has a basement man-cave complete with gigantic hi-def television, vast expanse of wood flooring, the very latest in sound equipment and video games (I had such a bad impulsive thought--"Oh, that'd be so worth it"--that I spanked myself soundly on the wrist for thinking such things). 

Maybe more impressive (or alienating) than the little perks and accessories enjoyed by the wealthy and glamorously sick are their parents. Who are perfect. Who are 100% supportive and permissive. Who come off as androids with unlimited credit lines, who live only to serve their kids' every whim, and as quickly step back and vanish when they're not needed ("Can we be alone together? Hazel and I have to talk."). The book does reportedly allow for a bit of frustration and disagreement between family members (And why only parents? Don't cancer kids have brothers and sisters?), but what really goes on, the kind of shit that hits the fan when a child is sick or dying and you as a parent don't know what to do--I didn't see that. Their facade of unfading support is heroically unbroken (well, only once--and the girl actually reprimands her mother for that one slip). 

They go to Amsterdam--no, there are a few minor obstacles along the way (including a relapse on the girl's part) and then they go to Amsterdam (partly on a last-wish organization's funding, partly on their parents' too-good-to-be-true credit cards),--to fulfill the heroine's dearest wish, to meet her most favorite author, Peter Van Houten, writer of the fictional (and presumably awesome) An Imperial Affliction

And that as it turns out is the movie's best scene, because Van Houten is played by none other than Willem Dafoe--yep, Mr. Eric Masters, Bobby Peru, Jesus Christ Himself, on the big screen and larger than life, literally (Lars Von Trier in an interview claimed that the prosthetic penis used for Dafoe's explicit sex in Antichrist was smaller mainly because everyone 'got confused' when they saw the real thing). Yep, that guy gets to confront the dewy young lovers and wipe the floor with them. And be totally, authentically funny and bitter and angry while doing so. Almost worth the price of the ticket--almost.

Then the denouement--someone dies (What do they say? Oh yeah--SPOILERS!) and the beauty of life in all its transience is affirmed. Dafoe shows up one more time, but not to keep it real (alas), only deliver a crucial piece of paper. A couple of eulogies are spoken, the end.

It's not badly done; if anything Boone has served the book up faithfully (far as I've been told) and well, all romantic cinematography and swooning music, with gorgeous Amsterdam thrown in as added bonus. Actress Shailene Woodley for her part serves the book better than it deserves, with few false moves or forced emotions (Ansel Elgort as her companion isn't as authentic, but his character had better lines). It's sincere, I'm sure the filmmakers were sincere, I just don't believe a minute of it. 

Amsterdam's an unfortunate choice for lovers' romantic romp, not just because the kiss in Anne Frank's house is in questionable taste (and the onlookers approving, applauding--only in Hollywood!) but because the cobblestone streets remind me of a rougher, cruder and in my book far more honest story about doomed love, Paul Verhoeven's Turkish Delight. The lovers there weren't as cuddly (if anything they were spoiled, self-centered, and not a little threatening), the details far more real (you lose your hair in chemotherapy, in horrifyingly ugly tufts, your makeup is nowhere near as glamorous (in Stars the vomit presented in one scene was unoffendingly watery)). Oh and the most prominent parent there, the girl's mother, was supportive--somewhat. And a hell of a lot more believable.

I'm aware it's a hit, and if you love it--go to, god bless, more power and all. Not everyone's going to respond favorably to this kind of emotional blackmail though (How dare you hate a kids-with-cancer movie!), not every real-life Van Houten's going to crash and burn in ignominious defeat (I'm not even alcoholic, sorry). I suppose it was a mistake to go watch this, but the mistake's done, and this the end result. 

In parting--a final image to leave in y'all's heads:

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)

(Warning--story and plot twists in the movie discussed in detail)

Once upon a cream

Saw Maleficent over the weekend, and what King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) does to the eponymous fairy (Angelina Jolie) is nothing compared to what Disney does to its original film--from behind; over and over again; in the grossest most graphic manner possible. 

It's part of the New Disney Strategy: retool its classic titles, make them more palatable and socially progressive for the clueless little girls out there--starting with Frozen, the princess is spirited, independent, less likely to look to the handsome prince on a horse to save her and the day. 

That's the up side; on the down side you're pretty much looking at the new Disney template, with which the studio plans to stamp out 3D animated blockbusters every year (down from every few years, as computers have vastly sped up the process). Far from being innovations in character they're going to be the latest cliches, to be splashed across all the digitally projected screens again and again and again in the coming summers (think bukkake, Disney-style).   

The script is lazy beyond description. In the requisite backstory Maleficent (what kind of sadistic parent would base their child's name on the Latin adjective for 'evil'?) is an innocent faerie (Isabelle Molloy) flitting around and doing good deeds, who makes the mistake of falling for a mere mortal (Michael Higgins as the younger Stefan). She's not bad, just misunderstood (Is this Disney's official line towards villains, now? Don't you miss a time when they were plain and simply evil?).

(Edit - someone pointed out to me that the trend (in animated features, anyway) really started with Shrek, rival studio Dreamwork's own digital 3D-animated early effort at competing with Disney (not to mention a still-funny slam at Disney's former megalomaniac--sorry, CEO--Michael Eisner). Yet another small innovation turned monstrous cliche through overuse). 

Maleficent grows up; she hasn't seen Stefan but still remembers her love for him, despite the fact that his folk have become more belligerent over the years (sort of like the Lannisters and Starks versus the folk beyond The Wall, or the United States versus the rest of the world--one side all provincial attitude and oh so very Caucasian, the other all magical and mysterious and tinted shades of blue and gray skin, in every manner of shape and size).  Now the turning point: Stefan wants the throne, and ever since King Henry made the announcement that he'd grant his crown to whoever kills the faerie, Stefan has decided to renew relations with his former--because, like, screwing with your bitch is so sick, y'know?

Stefan dopes her and is about to stab her when he has a pang of conscience, decides to use his iron blade to burn off her wings instead (she wakes with the mother of all hangovers). I can just imagine the interior monologue going on in Stefan's head: "Um--yeah. Can't kill you, can't leave you alone, so I'll just take these, mmkay? And will you please not show your face anywhere, or Henry'll have my head--I mean, literally. In fact, why don't you just limp away to some abandoned ruin and hide there for a couple of years, till he dies or something? You cool with that?"

So she wakes and as if under posthypnotic suggestion does exactly what Stefan says (she doesn't even go to whatever passes for faerie police to file a complaint). Stefan marries his anonymous princess, becomes king; Aurora is born, and--you know the drill: Maleficent invites herself to the christening, insults everyone including three visiting fairies (she calls them 'the rabble'--but they were friends before this; where's the scene that explains what happened?), puts a curse on the babe's head; Aurora is handed over to the three, each as it turns out more irritating than the next ("We're here in the spirit of reconciliation," one proclaims; if Stefan is so frightened of fairies why were they invited?)

Ugly music. Ugly, unimaginative sets. Epically ugly digital effects--for a moment you wonder if someone had spliced footage from the Fairy Oddparents' live-action movie (think about it: that TV show's subtext--of child abuse and the resulting flight into fantasy--is more interesting than anything going on here). 

Much talk of how Angelina Jolie has magnificently essayed the role--magnificent, nothing; I look at her and I'm reminded of Katherine Helmond's horrific plastic surgery in Terry Gilliam's Brazil

No, for me the most interesting performance is given not by Jolie but by Copley, whose Stefan at least shows some awareness of right as opposed to wrong, some notion of the role perversity plays in the process (Kissing a winged faerie must have given him a xenophilic frisson, the spicy possibility of interspecies sex). 

Plus Stefan for all his faults knows a little strategy. Battling a creature with magic powers? Faced with supernatural odds? Be sneaky, be innovative, use a lot of iron. I love it when characters are being clever, and not just sitting on their useless asses awaiting their fate (pity the director Robert Stromberg--mainly known for doing special effects work (this is his directorial debut)--does a wretched job of filming Stefan's efforts, all shaky-cam and little editing coherence). 

And so it goes. When the dragon is chained by half a dozen knights, it can barely muster the strength to beat its wings; when Maleficent is in peril suddenly the dragon's dragging the knights along like so many tin pinatas. "What gives?" I asked a neighboring viewer. "It's like 'plot armor,' only involving strength," he replied. "Oh. A 'plot power upgrade?'" "Pfft--something like that."

Then the movie steals the ending of Frozen, where the notion of 'true love's first kiss' was first redefined (redefined, that is, if you haven't watched Bound, Mulholland Drive, Personal Best, Heavenly Creatures,  even Morocco, to name a few). It ends with a reprise of the original's 'Sleeping Beauty' song, to the tune of Tchaikovsky, croaked by Lana del Rey as if she were high on Walter White's blue crystal meth.

I suppose I would be less angry if I weren't familiar with the original production. Sleeping Beauty was to be Disney's biggest, most expensive, most extravagant production; in this particular case the publicity wasn't too far off. The studio sank six million dollars into the effort, an unheard of sum for an animated feature; it took almost the entire decade of the '50s to create--the animation required five years alone--while on the side the studio cranked out far less ambitious movies (Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955)--all costing half as much as Beauty; even the studio's prestigious live-action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was cheaper by at least a million).

Sleeping Beauty was the Avatar of its day, incorporating the latest technological advances from six-channel stereo (for the Tchaikovsky music) to Super Technirama, the '50s equivalent of high-definition (similar screen ratio as Cinemascope (2.35:1) only because the film negative was twice larger the image was clearer, less grainy). And for all the advances, the film did incorporate one holdover from the old days: it was the last Disney animated feature to be hand-inked onto animation cells, rather than photocopied from the animators' sketches--the uneven colors, the occasional blotched line betraying the presence of a human hand.
Even more impressive than the time, money or technology was the talent employed. Eyvind Earle was given unprecedented control over background art, which ranged from impossibly beautiful (think illuminated panel)--

--to bleakly dramatic--

--to grimly foreboding.

Eight of the Nine Old Men of Disney animation (for some reason Ward Kimball didn't do much) worked on the project; even Chuck Jones chipped in a little (he was mostly with Kimball). 

Key man was Wolfgang Reitherman. He animated the prince's escape from Maleficent's castle, and the climactic battle against Maleficent as titanic firebreathing dragon.

As you see, Reitherman's work was not a little remarkable.

In retrospect Disney must have felt that using Earle was a mistake (at least Kimball thought that was Disney's thinking). They wanted to do something different, opted for a Renaissance Art look, picked Earle; Earle came up with a depthless ethereal style, done in a bright (as Dave Kehr puts it) 'midcentury America' color palette. Audiences must have disliked the diaphanous imagery and chill emotional tone, and stayed away in droves. The film earned barely more than its budget, the corporation reported its first loss ever, animators were laid off; Disney did not attempt another classic fairy-tale adaptation until The Little Mermaid, thirty years later.  

As for what I think, let me put it this way: this is the only Disney feature I actually love--the sad-sack prince, the simpering princess, the slapstick fairies all put in their proper place as ants crawling on the base of Earle's majestic designs. Super Technirama unleashed his imagination--the landscapes unroll left and right and leap skywards; the colors mount a no-prisoners assault on your eyeballs, vulgar but undoubtedly alive. Goody two-shoes sentimentality is held firmly in check--is rendered altogether irrelevant--by the art's terrible grandeur. 

As Maleficent (the magnificent Eleanor Audley) faces Beauty's puny champion (“Now you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!”), Reitherman lets loose all the powers of Disney: bruise-purple smoke rise in thick lazy curls; green flames caper with unholy glee. 

The dragon--the film's true star--is a smoky-metal nightmare, all spiked armor and delicate batwings; it does full justice to Ursula K. Le Guin's description of the dragon Kalessin, in her novel The Farthest Shore:

There was a noise as of metal rubbing against metal, the grating whisper of crossed swords. The ironcolored dragon had risen on its crooked legs. It moved and crossed the rivulet, with a soft hissing sound as it dragged its long body through the sand. 

Surely Le Guin saw Disney's film a decade before, and took away with her some of that creature's clashing and hissing and fuming majesty.

LeGuin does a tremendous job, but doesn't quite capture the unnerving speed of Reitherman's dragon; nor does she capture the vivid horror of its breath--a great flood of what looks like radioactive vomit, a prophetic dream of how napalm would dance and burn in the American imagination, a mere six years into the future. Easily Disney's masterpiece, and one of the greatest animated features ever made.