Saturday, March 31, 2007

L' Enfer (2005)

L' Enfer (Danis Tanovic, 2005)
English Title: Hell

Krzysztof Kieslowski's premature death gave us a treasure trove of great films (Decalogue (1989), Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, 1993; White, 1994; Red, 1995), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), etc.), including three unfinished screenplays (co-written with his long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz) that forms a trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divine Trilogy. Heaven (2002), the first part of the trilogy, is directed by German helmer Tom Tykwer and is set in Italy, wherein a disgruntled woman accidentally kills innocent victims and later on escapes with a sympathizer and achieves a symbolic redemption in the end. The second part of the trilogy L' Enfer (Hell) is directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, whose No Man's Land (2001) won him plenty of accolades worldwide, and is set in France wherein three sisters struggle with their disparate lives after a traumatic event during their childhood.

Much like what Kieslowski and Piesiewicz did with Decalogue and Three Colors Trilogy (wherein they stripped the ten commandments of their religious connotation, and the three colors of the French flag and their respective ideals of their political meanings), the three levels of the afterlife are removed of any of their Catholic dimensions, and what remains are basic human concepts that encapsulate these states in a completely human and worldly experience. In Heaven, it is redemption; a complete escape from the troubles that plague earthly life (that final scene in the film is both fantastical and yet completely understandable). L' Enfer, on the other hand, dictates a scenario of inescapable strife --- wherein strings of coincidences (or much more poetically, because of their destiny to have unfortunate lives) keep the three sisters from achieving a semblance of happiness.

It's more infernal than the typical descriptions of hell; while the French communes seem normal, actually sunny and pleasant at times, there is an unbearable sense of claustrophobia that traps these characters. The eldest sister Celine (Karin Viard) takes care of their physically incapacitated mom, suffers through a routine of taking the train from her apartment to the convalescent home (not to mention her self-imposed duty to fetch the daily papers and bread for her elderly neighbor), that when a handsome stalker Sebastian (Guillaume Canet) suddenly starts to hound through that routine, she fantasizes a romantic escape. In her masochistic sense of duty, she literally sleeps through opportunities for coincidences that might lead to her metaphorical redemption --- that same train conductor who lovingly observes her sleeping through the train ride.

Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) gets obsessed with her husband's infidelity. She carefully follows her husband through his sexual escapades with a beautiful model; literally, consumes herself with the idea of punishing herself (and in a way, her two minor children) because of her husband's cheating. Their eventual separation connotes freedom from the inescapable repercussions of an unhappy married life; yet the reality of the matter is that, like her apartment that has been stripped off its beautiful decors and interiors, she has become empty and falsely complete.

The youngest sister Anne (Marie Gillain) is madly in love with her married professor (Jacques Perrin); she allows herself to be emotionally maltreated, be left unreciprocated with her immense romantic longings, with that fantastic idea that the professor would leave his family to be with her, taking in the idea that their getaway in Acropolis is as permanent a symbol of love as that of marriage and family. She symbolically releases herself through such longing, but in the end, that release is a mere facade, an unguaranteed repression, that will inevitably explode when the cruel tricks of fate seek to expose her true emotions.

It's a complex web of unhappy lives that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz paint; three separately told experiences that are devoid of any sense of redemption, thrown in a pit by fate and circumstance, enunciated by myth and literature as expressed through the Greek tragedy of Medea. While Heaven, the redemption may be conceived as cheaply constructed and maybe too easily realized, in L' Enfer, it's a doom that can be described as permanent and ravaging. The film dictates instances of possible escape (when the train conductor tries to announce her love by giving a gift to Celine, or the sisters' eventual reconnection), but again, fate and an unmistakable sense of human cruelty and emotional torture, get swayed in the equation that would make happiness elusive, or even impossible.

It's quite amazing how L' Enfer feels very much like a film directed by Kieslowski. The hues, the music motif, even little signature touches (the old lady trying to throw a bottle in a trach receptacle or that bee trying to escape from drowning), the overall atmosphere --- all these are Kieslowski-an in spirit. It felt like a departure for Tanovic (whose sense of satire made No Man's Land a rather involving political statement) who opens himself to be possessed by the great director's aesthetic and philosophical traits. And while the film is mostly melodramatic at times, there are quiet touches of black humor that surface throughout; the film is actually as interesting and as amusing as the bee struggling to get out of the liquid. But while the bee frees itself and flies to safety, the characters in this piece won't die and won't get freed --- they wriggle and strugglingly swim in a life-long emotional, mental, and philosophical emptiness as punishments inherited from a society rules over by an irrational god, or no god at all.

Lights in the Dusk (2006)

Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, 2006)
Finnish Title: Laitakaupungin valot

It's a tired plot; similar to the stories so often told in the film noirs of the past decades. The story of a man spiraling down to his dismal fate, often contributed by his irresistible attraction to blonde beauties. Aki Kaurismäki has dabbled a similar structure more successfully with his The Man Without a Past (2002); wherein the protagonist loses his entire memory during the first few minutes and traverses the path to self-discovery and self-identity. Lights in the Dusk is a lot drearier in atmosphere. While still brimming with Kaurismäki's brand of droll humor, the film seems to have been possessed by a spirit of pessimism. From its initial shots where the protagonist wanders in his lonesome while checking up on the mall he guards at night (Kaurismäki cruelly injects the background music of an opera singing a love song in Finnish; as if to insist on his protagonist his unwavering lack of luck in life and love), there's already a hint that the film will play on tragedy and cruel twists of inevitable destiny.

There's absolutely no point in self-discovery as the protagonist in this film, lonely night guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), knows his place in the world. He's the absolute loser. He dreams of grandeur (of starting up his own corporation), but has no backers and guarantors to secure his initial loan, as none trust him and all ridicule him, except for fellow loner Aila (Maria Heiskanen), proprietress of a hotdog kiosk Koistinen frequents. In one scene, after being rudely avoided by a bar girl and being mistaken as an inanimate object by the men's room, he looks straight to the camera --- the actor's eyes, his glum pout longs for attention, almost begging, always pathetic. When hot blond Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) suddenly asks to sit with him in a 24-hour cafe, he is infused with a sudden urge of being somebody. He tries it out by trying to save a dog that's been left by a group of muscled bullies, and quite predictably, fails and is beaten up. It's a string of bad luck of Koistinen, swelled by faux opportunities and false hopes.

The film is consistently pretty. Timo Salminen's cinematography captures an absurdist's version of Helsinki --- uncharacteristically empty, bare, and infertile for a modern capital city. The citizens who do populate the city have glass stares and dull personalities; they are as bland as the monochromatic backgrounds Kaurismäki puts his characters' faces and body unto. The city, like in The Man Without a Past, serves as an accurate barometer of the protagonist's mental and emotional status --- Sad, friendless, cold, and unusually content with such pitiful predicament.

Lights in the Dusk, while still thematically consistent with Kaurismäki's ouvre, is a tad disappointing. It's borrowed plot, only distinguished by Kaurismäki's brand visual and deadpan humor, is too convinced of itself to initiate much greater depths as explored in The Man Without a Past. The film is predictable, as well as Kaurismäki's stylistic ticks (the prolonged shots before the fade-outs, the perfectionist musical cues, the chromatic tones, the dull acting and dialogue deliveries); it feels more like a second-rate repeat of what Kaurismäki has done more successfully in the past.

Unfortunately, while filmmakers of Kaurismäki's cinematic nature like Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others are exploring worlds and universes, it seems that the Finnish director has remained content of his stagnant stature. I'm hoping Kaurismäki soon finds his light in the dusk, the same way Koistinen belatedly does in this film's nebulous conclusion.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TMNT (2007)

TMNT (Kevin Munroe, 2007)

When the fast food restaurants peddling Colonel Sander's finger lickin' good fried chicken changed their name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, rumors figuring out why arose. The most interesting rumor is that the food corporation has mastered the dark arts of genetic mutation and food processing; that what they serve aren't really chicken, but chicken parts grown without bodies. The name change is due to ethical considerations. There's actually no chicken in the fried chicken, just mutated parts.

Now, those beloved shelled green heroes, who from being mere illustrations in a semi-popular comic book became television celebrities and soon after movie celebrities, are back. Instead of utilizing their nominal catch phrase (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) as the title of their come-back film, it was decided that the film be called TMNT --- befitting the age of acronyms, web and SMS lingo, and instantaneous gratification. Like Colonel Sander's suspicious fried chicken-like parts, the name-change feels like a product of ethical purpose because there's really not much turtles, much less mutant ninja turtles, in this flick.

First, I miss the original villains. TMNT starts off from where the last film ended (Shredder is dead, etc., seriously, I can't remember.). The foot soldiers are back, lorded over by anime-ninja chick (voiced by Zhang Ziyi). They are recruited by this wealthy corporate warlord who seeks to reunite with his military family (turned into stone, this one's explained by the opening narration), in order to collect the thirteen monsters from another world. It's the standard plot of a role playing video game (think Legend of Zelda or pre-Playstation Final Fantasy) and its not surprising coming from Kevin Munroe, whose imdb credits include a videogame. The substandard plot is pumped up by the inclusion of the ninja turtles into the mess --- desperately trying to save the city (and the world) from those baddies while easing a bit of their internal dilemmas.

Where's the fun (which was really the reason why the ninja turtles became popular, in the first place) in all this? While most easy-to-please viewers would cite the action sequences and the unusual morphing of the ninja turtles into model-type physiques (I remember them to be much more bulkier; it just goes to show that our action heroes have evolved from Arnold-type muscle men into those leaner type actors), I thought the flick's an empty-headed diversion. Although I'm not a huge fan of the stupid catch phrases like "Cowabunga" or "Dude, where's the pizza," there's a sore lack of those personality-building ticks that made these turtles such celebrities. Actually, aside from the prolonged fraternal issues between leader Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) and hot-headed Raphael (Nolan North), the other two turtles, fun-loving Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) and especially brainiac Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) are barely given any celluloid personalities. The other characters like fatherly sensei Splinter (voiced by Mako, in his last performance, sigh) and lovers April (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans), are cannon fodder.

Am I being overly critical on a picture that is obviously not made for my demographic? Yes, I am. But, I used to be part of this film's demographic and like most viewers my age who would curiously sneak into the cinemas to see how our childhood heroes have evolved, I would feel a change (unfortunate or fortunate, depending on your taste). I, for one, think that the change is for the worse. The transition to CGI is a bad idea --- while the previous films were obviously bad, they had that camp factor that made them viewable through the years. I think this one would get lost in the graveyard of bad CGI-flicks; and when people get to notice that the polyester perfections are far too perfect to be cinematic (those reflective eyes and smooth epidermis have been bothering me), this one will be far too below in the dump to be remembered.

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Gabor Csupo's first venture to live action entertainment turns out to be quite a successful gamble. Csupo, who conceived and produced most of Nickelodeon's animated programs (including Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys, and As Told By Ginger), adapts a popular children's book, Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, and retains most of the source's adolescent depth and emotion; sacrificing very little of the source's literary quality to the calls of Hollywood, an admirable miracle during these times of 'roid-raged and pumped up fantasy literary adaptations.

Many will storm out of the theaters feeling shortchanged, complaining that the trailer led them to believe that the film is The Chronicles of Narnia-redux or The Lord of the Rings-for-kids. The swarms of bee-sized airborne troops, the gigantic tree-like troll, the wolf-like mutations and other monstrosities barely get any screentime. Moreover, they are hardly part of the plot --- more like beautifying artifacts to a coming-of-age flick; similar to the imaginary kingdoms in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1995) and Hayao Miyazaki's Whisper of the Heart (1995). These fantastic places facilitate the telling of the story and add depth and child-like appreciation to these characters' transition to adulthood.

The marketing ploy is understandable; these tales aren't very comercially-viable nowadays and these film types mostly belong to Hallmark Channel (Paterson's book was already adapted into television movie in 1985) or in exoticized versions from foreign-language territories. Nowadays, tales like these earn very little attention from families and children served with brainless boob tube entertainment and are unaware of the diverse worlds literature is capable of giving. Call the trailers, the posters, the come-on's as evil deception; I really don't care, Csupo's Bridge to Terabithia is a film that deserves to be seen --- more so than the hateful crop of so-called entertainment that drives hordes of viewers from everywhere into a fanatic mob.

It's a beautiful film. It is mostly plotted exquisitely. Complaints of Csupo's unremarkable and impersonal direction are thrown as vital criticism to the film but I disagree. Watch some of Csupo's Rugrats episodes, the ones wherein the plot is controlled by the innocent understanding and point-of-view of its baby characters, or As Told By Ginger episodes, wherein the entire series exposes the realities (humorously, of course) of living elementary school-life as a nobody. It is clear that Csupo has an understanding that makes him the perfect storyteller for a tale like this. His observant and oftentimes accurate portrayal of school-life, with the hierarchy of age, the constant bullying, the insult-hurling, the student-teacher crushes, the traumatic bus-rides, may have been sourced from Paterson's narrative, but it is clear that the heart of the film lies in those moments.

It's also a very well-acted film. I am completely enthralled by the compelling performances Csupo gets from his young actors. Josh Hutcherson (as impoverished farm-boy) and AnnaSophia Robb (as the literate newcomer) carry the film with a delightful mixture of youthful charm and a desirable understanding of their respective characters' personal battles and stories. The supporting cast led by Robert Patrick (as the ambiguously stern yet caring father) and Zooey Deschanel (as the pretty and likeable music teacher) lends vital creds to the main players.

Sure, Bridge to Terabithia is no modern masterpiece, nor is it the type of film that will be remembered for a very long time. However, it is a rarity in a cinematic age obsessed with gore, violence, and erect nipples (female, or male). It is the type of adaptation I commend; it takes in the good from its source and enunciates it with filmic embellishments (CGI, directorial flourishes). It's greaseless, bloodless, and purely delightful --- which is precisely why it's very well-recommended in our sad sad world of hate and cynicism.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Forgotten Silver (1995)

Forgotten Silver (Costa Botes & Peter Jackson, 1995)

If we are to believe Costa Botes, Peter Jackson and their 1995 Forgotten Silver, many of the cinematic achievements of 1927 would've lost a bit of their luster. Colin McKenzie, the subject matter of the film, is an obscure Kiwi filmmaker whose padlocked chest (found in the shack beside his widow's house) opened a possible rewriting of film history. Cecile B. deMille's biblical epic film King of Kings would have to give way to McKenzie's own three-hour epic Salome, whose history and ambitious production would belittle probably everything made during that era.

McKenzie would also be credited for creating the first feature film, which also happens to be the film that first used synchronized sound, topping The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) by more than a decade. Aside from these innovations, McKenzie would've invented (voluntarily or involuntarily) the tracking shot (by attaching a camera to his bicycle thus eliminating the need for the hand crank), a steam-powered projector, color film (by utilizing a chemical obtained from Tahiti; wherein his test shot included half-naked Tahitians bathing; also giving him credit for producing the first pornographic film), the close-up shot, hidden camera (and irreverent reality entertainment), among other things.

However, there is really no Colin McKenzie. McKenzie is played by a Kiwi actor Thomas Robins, who among others (like producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Sam Neill, film critic Leonard Maltin) are part of Botes and Jackson's ultimate prank. Forgotten Silver infused native New Zealanders with beaming pride of their forgotten legend's achievements and their archipelago's place in cinematic history, only to be told that everything is a well-crafted lie. It is humor at it's cruellest yet most creative. It is also the reason why I consider this film as Jackson's best (yes, even against his own Salome, The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)).

I would've loved to see the film not knowing that it's a product of Botes and Jackson's wild imagination. I would've loved to feel the emotions of being had, of witnessing history being retold with earnest and excited interest by these intrepid crew of so-called film enthusiasts and historians. Yet that's clearly impossible and the next best thing is to set myself up with a mind clear from any pre-conceived notions of what I know about film history and the film itself. I must say that while the experience cannot top those who were fooled, it was something worthwhile --- my eyes were closely nitpicking aspects of Botes and Jackson's filmmaking, their characteristic humor (Stan the Man, an invented degenerate of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, the subtle touches of fantabulous revisioning of cinematic history --- that picture of the steam-powered film projector, the home video using the bicycle-powered camera, the 20-second sequence of Tahitians bathing as McKenzie was obviously aroused from testing tropical flowers) obviously surfacing above the National Geographic-type of documentary filmmaking (with talking heads, archived footages, a supposed documented quest to search for the extravagant ruins of the Salome set).

But Forgotten Silver isn't a mere prank, it's something more --- it has that unusual heart, an engrossing story of an artist, a melodramatic twist of belated accolade. It injects jealousy, romanticism, even heroism into the made-up character of the filmmaker, and everything flows along the infused plausibility of the exercise. The made-up footage of McKenzie trying to save a soldier during an attack, his ultimate sacrifice, bares a gargantuan humanistic soul from a character that was conceived to be a practical joke. The life-long affair with the actress playing the titular Salome, his tense tie-ups with Communist Russia and Italian mobs, and that tragic effect of the ongoing madness, is quite emotionally resonant.

And the ending, starting from the premiere of McKenzie's Salome (shown in bits of pieces while the narrator describes what is happening), to the last image of McKenzie operating a camera, is nothing short of genius. It's a summation that can be best described as a heartfelt, if not humorous, contrarian play on our fetish with history, of first's and titles. Forgotten Silver was such a success because it tried to rewrite history, and it will probably be most remembered as that "mock-umentary" that almost did. However, consume the film, its characters and its stories, its mocking nature will surely fade and what's left is something touching, something more rewarding.

This post is my contribution to goatdogblog: The 1927 Blog-A-Thon.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

1927 is the year wherein great filmmakers made landmark films: Fritz Lang released Metropolis, Buster Keaton made his masterpiece entitled The General, Cecille B. deMille finished his opulent Christ film King of Kings, Alfred Hitchcock made his third feature and the first that was clearly Hitchcockian The Lodger, Sergei Eisenstein released October, and the epic biopic Napoléon by Abel Gance was unleashed to excited audiences. 1927 also saw the release of F. W. Murnau's first American feature. Although Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans isn't Murnau's best film (Murnau is after all the director of such masterpieces like Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926)), it has a rightful place in history and deserves the reverence and level of importance that is afforded it.

The film can arguably be seen as one of the peaks of the silent film era (I decline to acknowledge it as the single peak as the other 1927 silent features were groundbreaking too); Murnau has mastered his craft and floods the film with perfected style and finesse. Just observe the film's first scene: an illustrated title fades into an accurate real version of a train (a model) about to leave in the foreground while in the background is a view of the busy city with another train rushing past in the far end. That scene is followed by other scenes using superimpositions, crane shots, and other visual techniques (all largely due to the unmeasurable talents of cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher).

Also observe this obvious example of the film's many outstanding sequences. The Man (George O'Brien) traverses into the marsh --- Murnau's camera, in probably the longest single take in a silent film, tracks down the steps of the man; changing roles from the audience's point of view to the man's point of view, the camera captures the Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) alone being lit by the solitary light source, a perfectly circular moon. The Man and his lover meet; Murnau cuts to the Man's wife (Janet Gaynor) nursing her son, then cuts back to the man and his lover exchanging torrid kisses in sinful abandon. The Woman From the City suggests the plan of drowning the wife to free the man for their escape to the city; she tempts him with the city's lights, flash, and sounds --- all superimposed with astounding accuracy; we also get to hear sound in sync with what's happening onscreen over the delirious original musical score composed for the film.

Above the technical mastery is the syrupy sensitivity that the film unabashedly inflicts on us. It tells of a tale that is claimed to be universal, of a man lured into a murderous affair by a vacationing woman of the world only to be redeemed into marital fidelity, that will be tested by the most cinematic of deus ex machina's. It pits rural simplicity against the evils of urban sophistication, and sacramental righteousness against lustful temptation. Characters are simplified and removed of their individualistic nature, as opposed to the novel written by Hermann Sudermann where the film was based from. Straightforward and overly simple, the plot has the semblance of a parable; merely expanded to show off the sophistications of Murnau's filmmaking.

The film can be seen as a turning point in silent cinema. Along with the technical advances of Gance, the opulence of deMille, and other contributions of several filmmakers around the world, silent cinema could've pushed the envelope and evolved the medium. Murnau's Last Laugh told a story entirely without using intertitles; I believe Sunrise can also do without the intertitles (although the experimentations as to how intertitles are use not only to forward the plot but also to enunciate emotions --- the opening title, the animated 'drowning' intertitle). The innovations were piling up. Those were exciting times.

1927 had one other film that changed everything, and metaphorically stopped the evolution of silent cinema. That film is Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer, the first sound film. Silent films became the thing of the past, as talk, sound, and prolonged dialogues were introduced into cinema. The dreamlike, smoky quality that made simplistic tales like Sunrise into cinematic masterpieces were replaced by the value of easy gratification and aural education. Imagination, exaggeration, and a certain feel of artistry were given up. In an alter-universe wherein The Jazz Singer never happened, I imagine cinema to be a lot less like ours today; more like experiences rather than events.

This post is my contribution to goatdogblog: The 1927 Blog-A-Thon.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)

Director Abel Ferrara doesn't afford Harvey Keitel's character a name. He is merely called the lieutenant, a denomination that discusses the character's limited humanity. We are clearly made aware of his position. He is a ranking cop in New York City. The film opens with the lieutenant bringing his two sons to school; we become aware that he is also a family man. Yet these positions in society are mere afterthoughts as Ferrara is more interested in what makes this character special --- his hourly trespasses, his obvious contradictions, his unlikely story of redemption.

Right after bringing his kids to school, he sniffs some cocaine while listening to the radio about the Mets-Dodgers game. He bets an ungodly amount for the Dodgers; his stab at luck betrays him as the Mets inch their way slowly from a winless season to championship. He regularly visits a whore (Zoë Lund) whom he engages in different kinds of illegal drug treatments. He drinks while driving; he smashes his radio out of mere wrath; he consorts with prostitutes in sado-masochistic positions; he sneaks away illegal drugs from crime scenes and sells them to a Latino drug dealer; he blasphemes; he uses his positions to force sexual favors from lady trespassers.

In one scene, the lieutenant stands naked, howls pathetically with his arms outstretched (with no one to return the embracing gesture). The entire film tracks the lieutenant in all his vulnerable inglory as every capital sin is committed, as he marathons his way out of human virtue and rational forgiveness. Ferrara polarizes us, gets us angry and disgusted, before convincing us that he hasn't fallen so far out from grace to be irredeemable.

Aside from the spree sinning, the film explores the case of a nun (Frankie Thorn) who was raped by two Latino gangbangers. The rape itself is a thing of complete depravity. The statue of Mother Mary is pushed down the ground while the nun is perversely invaded by both malefactors; the crucifix used as an object of rape; the holy altar as the exact spot of the crime. In the lieutenant's mind, the case represents a way out of his ballooning debts to the gambling shark as a fifty thousand dollar reward is attached to the solution of the case. The lieutenant is faced with two options of redemption; an earthly one that keeps him attached to mortal pleasures and threats, and one which he realizes from an abrupt chat with the rape victim, a spiritual redemption that requires a harsh sacrifice.

Ferrara examines the dilemma of redemption under the most difficult of scenarios. Keitel portrays the lieutenant unforgivingly. The two merely give slight glimpses of humanity to the character, furthering the difficulty of accepting the conclusive redemption in the film. The cries and whimpers are almost inhuman in aural tone. Ferrara's depictions of the lieutenant's family life are mere traces of how far he has fallen. It's a dizzying spiral downfall by a man who has already fallen so far from grace; it's amazing how much more depravity he can commit to the point that the fantastic turnaround (Jesus Christ makes an appearance in a city depicted as modern Babylon --- mostly out of the lieutenant's drug-afflicted mixture of guilt, Catholic upbringing, and wild imagination) becomes a relatively unpalatable reward.

Ferrara has made a film of astounding depth and observant quality. It is unflinching in portrayal of humanity in its lowest yet despite that fact, it's a film that is interestingly religious (or Catholic, depending on your religious denomination). It's a film, with all its sleaze, violence, and celluloid-printed grease, that is more soul-affectingly powerful than Mel Gibson's Christ film. Each of the lieutenant's plentiful trespasses against morality bears a greater ache to the collective Catholicism than the rapid bloody whippings the cinematic Christ Gibson has created. The lieutenant's poignant yet open-ended redemption more uplifting and affecting than that final shot in Gibson's flick.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000)

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000)
Korean Title: Oh! Soo-jung

I remember my first time, my metaphorical devirginization, into Hong Sang-soo's cinema. It was nowhere near the portrayed deflowering in this feature, wherein Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju) uncomfortably lies in bed and is assisted into the perfect position by her boyfriend Young-soo (Mun Seong-kun). She cries and pleads to her boyfriend that he be gentle; and when the first thrust is done, pain, pleasure and resolution coincides to make her face slightly smiling, slightly grimacing, and slightly tearful. It was nowhere near that dramatic when I saw my first Hong film, Woman is the Future of Man (2004). My deflowering was uneventful, droll, and quite fittingly numb; the second, third and fourth times were much more pleasurable, wherein the little details, the intelligent framings and editing, the cerebral form, the voluntary lack of music to incorporate the depth of the background noise heighten the experience to near climactic satisfaction.

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is Hong's third feature film. It is his only film in black and white --- he accuses color of giving "viewers more than they need." It is also very formal --- call cards of questionable intentions separate episodes; which are further separated by numbers. It's a cognitive illusion that Hong guides you in a step-by-step like manner; the film is structured like a masterplan, opening with a curious dilemma of the sexually persistent guy being stood up by his girlfriend inside a hotel room. Hong then methodically dissects the problem by narratively detailing the history of their relationship; he then traces the missteps and possible errors in mnemonic assessment or emotional understanding, before indulging us with the surprising yet inevitable outcome of devirginization. The process is dehumanizing yet quite understandable in this queer scenario.

The plot is concentrated on that single act: to have Soo-jung devirginized. It's been said that virginity is a state of mind; Soo-jung's elusive treasure is not innocence or purity (those virtues, we know, are not part of her mental picture), but physiological virginity. It's that knowledge that brought a twinkle in Young-soo's eyes and would lead him to endlessly torture himself to just witness and experience such breaking. It is also Hong's biggest joke, amidst the numerous subtle observational ticklers (Young-soo, in the beginning, examines every corner of his hotel room for hidden cameras; perpetually interrupted acts of lovemaking). Hong pushes us to take part in believing the seriousness of the act, which, if placed in a rational perspective, is a mere anatomical illusion of womanhood, and nothing more. The extent and gravity society and its participating characters, including the ever-cerebral Hong, attributes the first time provides for the hugest chuckle of them all.

And it's all the same for Hong. He accomplishes the feat with tender precision. Each frame, each sequence, each scene is composed lovingly that it's easy to get lost in the black and white timeless feel of modern Korea where street lamps and headlights glare with muted and romantic intensity. The exchanges of dialogue, the misplaced and dubious scenes that somewhat came out of nowhere (the sideplot involving Soo-jung's brother leaves a dry taste in one's cinephiliac palette), the confusing or complicated temporal or imaginary stretches in narrative structure --- all these merely point out the vaporous style of Hong's cinema, wherein characters move, talk, and feel like real men and women do, although they are carefully observed through an obtrusive filmic magnifying glass.

Beautiful, complex, arrestingly humorous, and numbing in its anti-romanticism, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors also criticizes the Korean male as servants of a mutated mixture of their heart and gonads. They easily swoon under the temptations of the pheromones of an easy, unvirtuous yet virginal female; the swooning lets them forget about friendships, professionalism, family, and respect. In the end, like that abruptly stopped cable car Soo-jung rides to finally let go of that fool's gold she jealously guards with her hands and panties, they are left hanging with the normalcy of a relationship that is not colored by that fetishistic attraction with hymen. The somewhat sweet ending where the two lovers embrace inside a well-lit hotel room will inevitably betrayed when both are left hanging, not with tight loving hugs and kisses, but with the cries and whimpers of family life.

This post is my contribution to Hell on Frisco Bay's Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors The Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Compound (2006)

Compound (Will Fredo, 2006)

Loosely connecting the sequences are seveal chemical compounds. By the end of the film, we learn that these compounds are the ingredients of an addictive drug called shabu or crystal meth. While the chemical compounds (lye, red phosphorus, acetone, etc.) have nothing to do with the scenes where they appear in, crystal meth is one of the destructive agents that would lead to the climactic sequence. With the crystal meth are other agents that amplify the conflicts that provide for the meat of the feature: an intricate web of sexual trysts, familial intrigue, secrets and the impending threat of terrorism.

Will Fredo's debut feature film Compound tackles the people living inside a residential compound. The patriarch Virgilio (John Arcilla) is about to land a lucrative contract with visiting Koreans to the delight of his vain wife Divina (Janet Russ), whose daily routine includes morning exercises, massages, and visits to her favorite plastic surgeon. Her daily routine leaves no time to her mentally retarded daughter Luisa (Joan Palisoc) who would spend the day playing with her imaginary friends.

The other people inside the residential compound are Romina (Liza Diño) and Big Boy (Perry Escaño), the family's servants. When newcomer Jay (Jake Macapagal), a bisexual yuppie who is spending some time away from his ex-wife and ex-boyfriend), decides to rent one of the empty houses within the compound, jealousy, suspicions, and uncontrollable lust are aroused.

Political themes are oversimplified to fit the narrative milieu of the film. Terrorism is depicted in its simplest, without any matching depth as to why these terrorist agents are there in the first place. Their objective is clear and simple: to obliterate the wealthy. Fredo, however, gives an astute observation as to how terrorism might work. Through media and personal paranoia, the threats of terrorism oozes into the safety of the residential compound. Television and news programs, overly fantastic soap operas are all contributors to the expanding sense of psychological dysfunction these characters are harboring. Virgilio's monomania and inability to let go of his family's former wealth and glory, Divina's fetishistic need to beautify herself, Jay's overly complicated battle with sexual identity and his two meddling ex-lovers, Luisa's self-inflicted mental and emotional repression, and Romina and Big Boy's ambitious dream of living a perfect life far away from the compound where they slaved their lives and romances for: these are all subtle effects of a self-contained world whose only connection with the outside world are expanded and exaggerated impositions.

Compound isn't always seamless in its narrative. Like most features that drown themselves with themes, it is bound to implode with self-importance or just fail miserably with its mishmash of confusing priorities. However, Fredo possesses discipline that counters his feature's ambitions. While the film is still afflicted with the typical faults of a first-time director: excitement, overabundance of themes, among others, Fredo balances everything with an admirable fervor that keeps the film afloat amidst questionable sequences (I still do not understand certain narrative tracks like Virgilio's sudden disappearance or Jay and his ex-boyfriend's prolonged sexual acts). With Compound and its controlled complexities and psychological aptitude, Fredo stands tall as an exciting new voice in Philippine cinema with this successful and mature first feature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Feathers in the Wind (2004)

Feathers in the Wind (Song Il-gon, 2004)
Korean Title: Git

It all started with a promise similar to the one made in the end of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995). Two young lovers agree to meet again in that same motel in a remote rural island after ten years. Filmmaker Hyeong-seong (Jang Hyeong-seong) return to the island a decade after; seeking a closure from that first relationship that kept him rooting against Germany during soccer matches and perpetually reminiscent of that former romance. He is unsure if his ex-girlfriend, who left for Europe to study piano-playing and later on marries her German professor, would stay true to that promise.

The pangs of waiting for that said event invade his persona. Right after completing a film he describes as a box office failure and a mediocrity, he tries to write his second screenplay but is unable to do so because of the more impending matters that affect him. In the island, he is taken care of by the motel's caretaker, a jovial yet undeniably sweet girl named So-yeon (Lee So-yeon). Underneath the violent stormy weather are other extrinsic events that would add a touch of mysticism to Hyeong-seong's island getaway; a mysterious peacock lands in the island's rocky beaches, a piano being delivered by an unknown sender to the remote island, So-yeon's bleached-haired uncle awaits for his wife who left him and afflicted him with the lack of desire to talk, and finally, the image of So-yeon lonesomely dancing the tango with her hair distinguished by a single feather.

As with his first feature Flower Island (2001), Song Il-gon utilizes digital stock to capture the beauty of Udo Island. Originally commissioned as part of an omnibus film that would tackle issues on environmentalism, Feathers in the Wind expanded into a seventy minute feature that simply oozes with a subtle romantic fever brought about by a mixture of common love tropes (as with the premise that seems to originate from Linklater's more famous film) and Song's use of injecting mythical and mystical fuel to his narrative. It results in an endeavor that evolves with an unrushed passionate push; that when the climax starts to slide comfortably from the relaxed narrative, a more enhanced swooning emotion is felt --- the Hollywood trope fascinatingly meshes with the more individualistic moods of Song with remarkable grace.

Hyeong-seong and So-yeon's affair is something that doesn't blossom; it just happens --- probably because of their respective reasons; So-yeon's freshness offers a curative antidote to Hyeong-seong's relational hurts while Hyeong-seong's air of mystery pushes So-yeon to opt to discover and experience. Actually, their initial conversations never go deeper the same way Jesse and Celine initially sparked conversations on life, death, philosophy and culture in Linklater's films. The conversations never fathom the inevitabilities of attraction, probably at its most subtle, it only tangentially scrapes the possibilities of the two longing for each other. Through games, requests, and little favors, something erupts and the effect, although largely predictable, has a gravity that is quite surprising; that when Hyeong-seong finally leaves the island, and So-yeon rushes with her uncle to say their belated farewells and an acceptance of another challenge to meet up in a certain place after a year, it comes off as totally impromptu and more emotionally resonating.

Feathers in the Wind is Song Il-gon in his most basic, most unembellished, and simplest. Yet from the simplicity of the picture, from the numerous grains and pixelations of his digitally captured visuals, from the intimacy of his subject, and the earnest existence of his very few characters and their individual needs, he arrives at his most resounding and emotionally truthful work.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Flower Island (2001)

Flower Island (Song Il-gon, 2001)
Korean Title: Ggot seom

Other than Yu-jin (Lim Yu-jin), who we first meet narrating how she got punished by the gods for abandoning her promise of using her gift of song for good, we get introduced to the trio of females in very compromising scenarios. Seventeen year-old Hye-na (Kim Hye-na) undergoes a self-inflicted abortion inside a filthy restroom; while motherly Oak-nam (Seo Ju-hie) bares herself for a paying elderly man who after several sexual thrusts, dies of a cardiac arrest. Oak-nam is temporarily discharged by her husband who learns of her prostituting to buy her daughter a piano. She meets Hye-na inside during a busride to the Southern Seas --- Hye-na is on a trip to find her lost mother while Oak-nam seeks the legendary Flower Island, said to be the place to ease pains and burdens.

We finally witness Yu-jin compromising scenario when an impersonal doctor announces her medical predicament --- her tongue has to be removed to prevent the spreading of a cancerous growth in her throat. An opera singer, she loses the will to live, until she is rescued by Oak-nam and Hye-na who brings her along their trip to Flower Island. The three females undergo what seems like a roadtrip to an Oz-like place of magic and promises; along the way, they meet colorful characters who in their respective manners and ways, allow a tender and subtle release of each female's personal ache. A truck driver who carries his friend's corpse to town, a traveling music band led by jealous singer and his life partner, a mysterious man who lived with Hye-na's mother, and the proprietress of the island --- these personalities and their anecdotes and methods represent the promises of the island.

Lodz-trained Song Il-gon's directorial debut, Flower Island, is fashioned like several pieces of individual memories forcedly pasted together, like the coincidental meet-ups of these three troubled women. The point-of-view is always past-oriented, with the narrative being interrupted by flashbacks; as if there's a likely prevention of moving forward, of an outward acceptance as the world has been swallowed by the lasting scars of a troubled past.

Song's method of using digital film to capture the happenings creates an unfathomable viewing experience. The lack of detail (caused by digital filmmaking) causes a frustrating feeling of being trapped within the meager extents of the medium. Bodies and faces fade and disappear from focus; objects do not have their concrete appeal; experiences and events therefore are appropriated a fleeting feel, like they're happening not in this real world but in a mythical other-universe wherein pains and aches are as temporary as the captured movements and conversations. It's oddly mesmerizing; wherein the visual technique inhabits the poetic form Song drapes his feature with.

The film's ending is both mysterious but unsurprising. It adequately gives the feature an earthy and mortal conclusion without necessarily pulling away from the fairy-tale feel of this grim yet hopeful parable. Song possesses an admirable control on his vision and his themes; something quite surprising as this is his first feature film. The film aches when it needs to ache, and its joyous when there's a reason to celebrate --- yet despite the numerous facets of emotions on display, the film is headed in a single direction; no tricky shortcuts or long-winded stop-overs. Flower Island is one satisfactory road trip where emotions swell in every step, that when the destination is reached and leaves you still cold and curious, there still seems to be no trace of regret and remorse in traversing such path.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Good Shepherd (2006)

The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro, 2006)

Robert de Niro's The Good Shepherd is indulgently long. Clocking at over two hours and a half, it tries to trace the history of the C. I. A. through a fictional version of James Jesus Angelton, the founder of the agency's counterintelligence operations. Angelton, an intriguing character, was said to have resigned from his post as his spying business has caused him to become overly paranoid even with his personal affairs. The film uses each minute of its lengthy running time to explore the tiniest details of the worldly, political and personal intrigues of espionage work. It's quite fascinating how the story unfolds, how screenwriter Eric Roth intricately meshes the jarring interests of the person and his duties, and how de Niro articulately crafts the film so handsomely.

The film plunges immediately into the depths of facades and double meanings; bespectacled Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) looks like your ordinary suburban American --- he goes to work by riding a bus, a Cuban kid asks if he can break her dollar bill. His normal polish changes when he steps into his office, he exchanges mysteriously phrased words with his co-workers; examines the dollar and matches it among the dubious other dollar bills that are linked to America's Cold War rival. The film is grounded by two events, one historical, and the other personal. The American defeat in Cuba sends a question of loyalty among the ranks of spies of the agency; while Edward receives a mysterious videotape of two blurred lovers and whispered notes of affection. Through several flashbacks, clues and hints are carefully placed, and further blossoms into an intricate web that fittingly lands in near-perfect fashion right before the film's conclusion.

What I found most interesting is how these institutions seem to have been started by the secret society of Skull and Bones in Yale University --- its members proud to have produced an American president, and other ranking officials. Its ungainly effect on American society --- that fact that the cornerstones of these institutions are men who are initiated through secretive rituals, mud wrestling and disrespect. It's a psychology that is ingrained in the American psyche; deals and futures established through parties and fraternity meetings. It's not something that's impossible; it's actually very true.

It's the best acting work of their careers for both Damon and Angelina Jolie. Jolie plays Edward's wife. She literally grows from flirt-ish waif to resolute mother and unsatisfied wife. Although the aging seems unnaturally graceful, the years of worries and domestic burdens are seen through the quiet movements done by Jolie. Damon's performance, however, controls the film. His curved back, uncharismatic facial features, uncharacteristic inconfidence yet boiling genius are adequately shown --- it's something that you didn't think would work, but quite fittingly does, miraculously and thus, delightfully.

De Niro directs with a subdued but obvious finesse; he invokes Coppola in the way he lays down his plot in epic and historical proportions. It's a beautifully shot film --- perhaps too beautifully shot (by very talented cinematographer Robert Richardson). It's polished exteriors, perfected production design (each car feels brand new, each object in perfect condition), its delicate lighting and framing, all these aspects add a literary sense that I thought distracted me from the film's more telling themes. Everytime a perfectly lighted hair falls from a book, or an object is framed conveniently to obey commercial standards, it lends an air of artificiality to the effort.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

300 (2007)

300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)

My first exposure to violent art is a painting done by Juan Luna called Spoliarium. It's a painting that is shown to each and every young Filipino student, even in his tenderest years. It depicts a scene in a Roman gladiator coliseum, where dead gladiators are being dragged by other men. It's not necessarily a realistic portrait; the bodies are not proportionate nor are their formations in possible arrange. It's an exaggeration that only meats out the hideous twists and grotesqueness of the situation. Above what's literally seen in the portrait is a nationalistic ache, a courageous exposé of the collective experience in the Philippines. That is art --- violent yet beneath such violence, is a passion, a history, a resonating and clear message.

Zack Snyder's 300 is very similar with Luna's masterwork. 300 is teaming with exaggerations --- mountains of disfigured corpses; limbs flying out in the air like dandelion seeds in search for fertile grounds, fresh wounds exposed like badges of honor. Comparing a Hollywood film to a painting might raise eyebrows but the reason why I saw the comparison fit was because despite the plenty similarities, 300 fails to be anything more than pretty pictures of violence. Underneath the initial shock or delight of seeing men fight to their deaths, there's really nothing. It's that --- frames of a graphic novel put into motion with no real depth but plain "cool."

300's racial stereotyping, its ineptitude in fashioning the Battle of Thermopylae as a modern narrative, its questionable artistic themes (freaks are evil, muscular pecs and perfect abs are good) are attributable to Frank Miller. It's something I really can't comprehend --- there's a near-pious reverence to Miller's art that almost all directors who try to adapt his work (including Robert Rodriguez in Sin City (2005)) has a fervent duty to replicate his art. Snyder, whose first feature is a remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (2004; probably his only contribution to the genre is to turn zombies into hyperactive sprinters), makes every scene look like it belongs in the pages of a glorified graphic novel rather than in a darkened movie theater.

The rest of the film's failures I attribute to Snyder. He's out to prove something, yet in so doing overkills the concept. The film is mostly eye-straining. He edits like a madman; and the fight sequences are butchered to the point of ridicule. True, when Snyder tries to ape Peter Jackson with vistas teaming with goons and monsters, there's still a momentary sense of awe. However, when the fights actually happen, he focuses on thrusting limbs and swords, then just before you relish the lethal blow, cuts to the next muscular limb slashing, then again cuts, resulting in complete incomprehension. It's quite inutile which is only further emphasized with Snyder's indulgent use of slow motion; quite funny I thought as Snyder puts into slow motion the movement of a Spartan from one victim to another, then puts into real time the actual slash and blow (the abundance of the gimmick, the misappropriation of such only weakens, annoys, and cheapens).

300 can be seen as overtly political (against American imperialism, or for Bush's wishes to bring in more troops to Iraq). However, its political message is drowned by the film's boorish trappings. It's an inevitable trade-off; especially when the message is skewed by cultural ignorance (in exchange for aesthetic coolness), racial sanctification (the Spartans are all perfect Caucasian specimens, as opposed to the evil Persian army --- a mixture of Black, Arabic, Asian, Indian and the freakishly indeterminable), political incorrectness (Xerxes as bald drag queen diva; his voice lowered to further the fearsomeness of this macho gay), and bad filmmaking (I need not explain this more).

Again, there is nothing more to be gathered, not even the typical lessons of the actual Battle of Thermopylae (a rousing point, a morale-booster for the brave yet hugely outnumbered), nor the evident emotions or humanity of a desperate situation. It's all gloss, unjustified spurting of blood and floating of glowing embers, and loud yet empty battle cries. I'd rather stare at Luna's painting for the entire duration of the film, than be maligned by this mess pretending to be art.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Painted Skin (1993)

Painted Skin (King Hu, 1993)
Mandarin Title: Hua pi zhi yinyang fawang

King Hu has made great films in his lifetime; these films defined the wuxia genre; films like Come Drink With Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1966), and his masterpiece A Touch of Zen (1969). Aside from forwarding the thematics and stylistics of the genre, his films and stature influenced many directors. Ang Lee's bamboo fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was borrowed from a similar scene in A Touch of Zen. Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004) evokes a similar intrepid adventurism as many of Hu's wuxia features. Tsui Hark, one of the defining directors of 80's and 90's Hong Kong cinema acknowledges Hu as a direct influence to his artistry. He even tapped Hu to co-direct Swordsman (1990), but after discovering a difference in working habits (Hu was too slow), removed him from the directing team while keeping his name, out of respect, in the credits.

Hu's final film, Painted Skin, surfaced in the early 90's. It wasn't greeted with critical laurels. It seems that Hu, unlike Tsui who was reactive to the burgeoning influence of the globalization of American cinmea, wasn't evolving as a director. Painted Skin, although quite similar in the sub-genre revitalized by Tsui's A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), is bothered with a bumpy pace and a narrative slightness. However, to completely dismiss Painted Skin as a failure in Hu's filmography is completely out of place. True, the film is probably the weakest in Hu's works, but it's something of a last hurrah to the classy, the lyrical, the intrepid filmmaking that defined 60's and 70's Hong Kong cinema. Moreover, Hu's visuals is as tight as before --- there's a grandiose and graceful quality to his filmmaking that seemingly transcends the genre's limitations; his editing is as quick and crisp as ever --- the film actually utilizes very little extraneous effects (wire-fu, pre-CGI visual effects) as Hu's editing adequately fills in the illusion of action and flash.

Painted Skin concerns the plight of You Feng (Joey Wong), a ghost who is prevented from descending to hell to be reincarnated into the mortal world by the Yin-Yang king. She escapes to earth, where she blindly meets a scholar-philanderer Wang (Adam Cheng). Wang adopts You Feng, unaware that she is a ghost. When he sees her repainting her face, he seeks the help of two Taoist monks to try to remove the spirit from his home. You Feng then travels with the two Taoist monks to seek the help of the High Priest (Sammo Hung) to defeat the Yin-Yank king and restore the natural flow of spirits and the process of reincarnation.

The problem with Painted Skin is that there is an inherent absence of rapport in between its characters. The motivations behind their decisions are skewed; their rationale for being seems to be a result of predestination rather than human appropriation. You Feng's plight seems to be too unexplainedly great, especially for the Yin-Yang king to get worried over for. Even the High Priest's reasons for helping You Feng is individualistic instead of heroic; the same can be said for the lecherous scholar who claims You Feng as his concubine rather than an object for good deeds. Hu's world seems to have transformed from being a battleground of virtues and camaraderie into a stage of blurred lines between good and evil.

There is not one character that represents virtue, not even human imperfection. Instead, Hu forwards a scenario wherein confusion abound in terms of the characters' station in the moral ladder. Facades are put into a thematic spotlight. You Feng wears a painted human face to lure help; The High Priest pretends to be a lowly peasant to hide his godly powers; The yin-yang king has invisibility powers, represents an orderly rebellious bureaucratic government against the natural flow, and possesses human bodies to pave the way for his plans. In a way, the slightly told battle against a single evil is revoked of its benevolent ideals by the fact that there is nothing to grab, nothing to take in, with no character to represent the human plight, as opposed to Hu's more successful films --- probably the reason why Painted Skin is seen as a failure rather than a mild addition to Hu's filmography.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Dreamgirls (2006)

Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

I've heard the complaints, that there's barely anything cinematic or worthwhile with the film adaptation of the beloved musicale Dreamgirls. The music and the lyrics pale in comparison to Bill Condon's previous adaptation of a musicale Chicago (2002), which was turned into an entertaining but shallow string of mediocre song-and-dance numbers of Hollywood A-listers by director Rob Marshall. It was touted as an Oscar frontrunner (it has the directorial pedigree, the triumphant backstories, the musicale glitz and glamor), but failed during the final stretch. Is it really a failure? I think not, it's actually an alluring film --- a musical movie that had its song numbers as essential narrative devices rather than mere showstoppers or gimmicks. True, it looks more like a montage put into music rather than a film, but that complaint only enhances the film's extraordinary flow. It's not Condon's best, but it's also not an embarrassment to the competent director's filmography.

I think Condon understands that he doesn't have a great material like Bob Fosse's Chicago to back him up. The tunes in Dreamgirls, except for a few, are barely memorable and hummable. The lyrics don't have the catchy wit and humor or even intelligence that give Fosse or Stephen Sondheim's works an edge. Dreamgirls, is pop musical set in 20th century America. This disposable quality to the musical's ditties make Condon's adaptation work a lot easier. He conveniently tells the story through the songs, and there are barely any wrinkles and folds to his storytelling, as when Effie (Jennifer Hudson) abruptly ends a dialogue straightly spoken with a sung line, there's no distracting effect since the setting dictates musicality from its characters. The songs now serve as an enhancement to the filmmaking rather than plain gimmickry, as what I have noticed with recent musicales (Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera (Joel Schumacher, 2002), and to the largest degree Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)).

When Condon adapts the musicale's only showstopping number, it literally stops the show. The free flowing merging of pop musicality and Condon's filmmaking give way, and the effect is tremendous. It makes you understand why American Idol-reject Hudson received the praises she gathered for her performance. She trembles the same way her voice, her character, her ego are in the verge of crumbling, and Condon understands that this is the film's moment. It's quite sublime.

This brings me to the film's biggest problem: the human drama that operates in the film overshadows the film's importance. Dreamgirls is supposed to be a commentary, not a mere show that razzle-dazzles yet the film overplays the melodramatics, the back stories, the underdog struggle of Effie that it fails to say something about the music industry in general, or how its blossoming was a betrayal to what the music really represented. The character of James Early (Eddie Murphy, in probably his most electrifying performance ever) becomes a mere dramatic sidestory than a poster for how the musical 'soul' has been transformed into a commercialized hack. Moreover, the lead Dream singer Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) transforms into a non-entity, a mere boring moral yardstick to the demonized Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx).

Condon is a very aware director. His biopic Kinsey (2004) is probably the most resounding of recent biopics, simply because Condon accurately and explicitly depicted the society's sexual urges as blanketed by its immaturity, which emphasizes the title character's psychological and narrative struggles. The same can be said with the wonderful Gods and Monsters (1998). With Dreamgirls, there seems to be a faint acknowledgment to the times. Curtis releases a record of Martin Luther King's famous speech as he struggles to put African-American musicians in America's consciousness; Effie's jealousy bursts alongside the civil rights riots; but these are so subtle and slight that it felt like they were done to merely keep the film into a historical perspective, instead of commenting something deep or resonating about that time in history, or the music industry as a whole.

Given a choice of concentrating on the human drama or pumping up the film's importance, it felt like Condon chose the former which is really unfortunate because I think Condon could have juggled the two; he is that capable a writer. I really can't complain about the final result, it certainly did move me as I was setting myself up for a disappointment. It's a good film, probably the best musical film Hollywood released recently (which would exclude Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001), which is definitely the braver musical).

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

I was quite surprised to have immensely liked Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. I've heard all the praises the film has received, and I thought it would be Mystic River (2003) all over again --- overly praised film but heavy handed to the point of tedium. My dislike for Letters From Iwo Jima's companion piece Flags of Our Fathers (2006) also led me to expect utter disappointment. Flags of Our Fathers was all over the place --- it was narratively unstructured, sentimentally grating, and extremely melodramatic. However, after seeing Letters From Iwo Jima, I was completely dumbfounded. I never thought Eastwood has the capability, or even the knowledgeable restraint to create such a film. Letters From Iwo Jima is both poignant and celebratory. It dismantles the importance of warfare by celebrating the value of humanity; and all this is seen from the point of view of the conceived enemy of the Pacific War, the Japanese.

Iris Yamashita's screenplay disposes of the time jumping narrative structure of Flags of Our Fathers. Instead, she begins her tale with the arrival of American-schooled general Kuribiyashi (Ken Watanabe) to Iwo Jima to see through the military affairs of the island until the expected attack of American troops. Flashbacks are utilized to give a human face to the Japanese troops; Eastwood segues voice-overs of these troops reading their letters to the flashbacks --- we see these soldiers years before they were commissioned to sacrifice their lives for their country. It's not an uncommon device, but in Eastwood's hands, these flashbacks urge you to immediately identify with these soldiers, who through the years have been described as war-hungry conquerors, or mindless suicidal drones of an inutile empire.

What surprises me the most with Letters From Iwo Jima is how Eastwood successfully fleshed out the theme of identity through the feature. It's a war pic --- two great nations forced into war with Iwo Jima as the touted final battleground. Ordinarily, a war pic would force you to distinguish hero from villain, winner from loser, Japanese from American, yet what Eastwood does is to give each player in the war their individual stories and with that, transform his war pic into a struggle for these individuals to seek out an identifying factor with the rest of humanity. These soldiers, forced from their homes and families, have suddenly found themselves in a situation wherein they juggle their multiple roles in life --- husband, soldier, citizen, baker --- in the end, the only thing remaining from what feels like a melting pot of jarring roles, is the fact that they are human beings, similar to the captured American soldier who through his letter is revealed to be a loving son to a worried mother, similar to the lowly soldier who becomes entrapped in a mutiny within the Japanese army, similar to the Kuribiyashi who finds himself in a situation wherein he'll be fighting against his friends.

It's a classy film. I didn't understand why Eastwood bleached out the colors from Flags of Our Fathers --- the result was a drab and dreary film. Here, Eastwood similarly uses the same technique, but with vastly different results. There's a elegiac quality to the visuals. Some of the scenes look like something John Ford would make --- close up of faces backgrounded by an empty sky, shadows of men in desolate vistas. It's extremely beautiful --- and the bleaching out makes an illusion of a black and white feature, enunciating the little gestures, the folds and wrinkles of troubled faces, the contemplative moments wherein almost nothing or something utterly mundane happens.

This is the only Eastwood film I can honestly say that I loved. It's the only Eastwood film that I can call cinematic. It is quiet, observant, focused, and graciously plotted. The film aches with a thoughtful power that urges you to just dwell in these very human experiences that unfold onscreen. I must admit, I am deeply impressed.