Monday, April 30, 2007

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

Perhaps the most curious thing about A Hard Day's Night is how the film, supposedly a low-budget quickie production that sought to cash in a few bucks from the blossoming Beatle-mania, turned into quite an enjoyably surprising little masterpiece. While it's immensely possible that the makers, or the very young members of the popular Brit band, intended to create a piece of art, there's no denying that the end product, while undeniably slight, is a wonderful wonderful piece of entertainment.

It's a result of wit, of divinely inspired timing, and an adequate understanding of what's hip and funny. The title itself resulted from a mere afterthought of the band's young-ish drummer Ringo Starr; the studio bigwigs liked it and used it as the title; and the rest of the Beatles composed a song with Ringo's little phrase as an inspiration. The song is then used to start the film with a proper and addictive beat --- a boisterous wild chase by the band's fans (mostly composed of ravenous females) to the train. We're introduced to the four (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Starr) who with Paul's imp-ish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) occupy one of the train's rooms. The band's tour managers (Norman Rossington & John Junkin), a duo problemizing over John's eccentricities and their height differences, join the group in their misadventures preceding a television broadcast of one of their live concerts.

Each of the four Beatles are given enough screentime to develop unique cinematic personalities. Overall, they're all portrayed as youthful, innocently rebellious, and irresistibly magnetic. Individually, they also shine --- Ringo, in his soul-searching and trouble-rousing walk through town, John with his irritating yet also lovely witty antics, Paul with his incessant warnings about his granddad's mischievous ways, and George's affable personality. The film's success mostly belong to the foursome's charm and their incredible rapport with each other, and the film's other more professional actors.

The screenplay, written by fellow Liverpool-er Alun Owen, is loaded with jokes that are both timeless and dated (the recurring line about the grandfather being a clean man --- referring, of course, to actor Brambell's role as a dirty old man in a television series). The story's very slight; almost non-existent actually. It's just a series of scenes of rascally escapades, stringed together by samples from the Beatles' early ditties. A semblance of a real conflict appears belatedly when neglected Ringo suddenly gets enlightened by the wicked old man of his unappreciated membership in the group; yet quite refreshingly, instead of dwelling in these tired conflicts, the film just wafts through them. They're more like excuses to showcase the group's songs and to market their phenomenal popularity; those commercial goals I really don't have any problems with.

The biggest miracle however, is the direction by Richard Lester, a TV-director plucked out of nowhere (his later creds will include the sequels to Superman). It's fashionably fresh; you know it's disposable entertainment, yet it feels and looks more important than it really is. Filmed documentary-style, it provides a gushing immediacy to the roadside chases, and an emotional realism to the performances (especially in the end, wherein shots of fainting screaming fans add delightful personality and effect to the concert). The scenes (that are not chases or performances) are executed with that same documentary-style that keeps the comedic dialogues natural and un-rehearsed.

Normally, films like A Hard Day's Night would hardly get noticed, especially by much more serious critics. However, upon its release in the United States, it gained critical and well, box-office respect. It's a trifle against the much more pertinent cinematic fare that was released during that time. And that's exactly it, with it's modest goals and investments, it did a lot more. With its protagonists with invented cinematic personalities (or not, since they portray these personalities with admirable ease to the point of non-acting), its director with that miraculous sudden outburst of talent and inspiration, its divinely patterned stroke of luck, the film just managed to do what it was made for, and much more.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sex and Lucia (2001)

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem, 2001)
Spanish Title: Lucía y el sexo

Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia is such a confounding film, quite frustratingly so. Characters appear, disappear and reappear. Settings evoke an air of unearthiness and mysticism. Sex is almost too erotic, just a few steps above being too sinful. It lures, and teases. The moment you get a feeling that you already have a good grasp of its overflowing narrative, it forces you to let go by throwing a few more tricks to your inconvenience. Despite that, it's still a good film --- incredibly sexy, unbearably magnetic, and quite surprisingly, very coherent.

Lucia (Paz Vega) sojourns in a remote Mediterranean island after learning that her long-time boyfriend Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) has killed himself. The island is also the setting of Lorenzo's wildest one-night stand with Elena (Najwa Nimri) in the middle of the ocean, underneath a moon-lit sky. During Lucia's stay in the island, she meets several characters from Lorenzo's past, including Elena (who is taking care of the island's hotel) and scuba-diving Carlos (Daniel Freire), and encounters several metaphors from Lorenzo's own novels, including a mysterious hole in the middle of the island, a lighthouse, and other curious phenomenon.

The other half of the film, told through flashbacks that mix what is offered to be real and what is imagined, details Lucia's relationship with Lorenzo --- from the point wherein Lucia proposes her love to him inside a side-street cafe, to the time when their relationship crumbles with Lorenzo's breakdown over personal problems and the accompanying rigors of writing. The reality of Lorenzo's life gets mixed up with his art. Characters from his novel seem to be derived from the eventualities of real life; then these characters start to breathe a life of their own, their personalities and sensibilities intermixing with reality, until you wouldn't be able to discern which is taking over and which is subordinate.

Medem makes you believe that there are two aspects to his films --- of the real world and the world within Lorenzo's novel; of the periods before and after Lorenzo's suicide; of sex and Lucia. However, the entire film actually belongs within Lorenzo's novel-in-the-making. The contrivances, and the unrealistic plot mechanics (the dog accident and the entire scenario that revolved around it is surely something that doesn't belong in our conventional concept of a real world) are all too literary to evolve within the framework of real-life experiences; and I believe Medem is that talented a writer-director to know what fits in a film that details reality.

The entire film is nourished (as much as it also nourished by an abundance of naked flesh and sexy scenarios) by an explicit attraction to the mystical, whether it be during the moments that are implied as within-novel, or real. Medem drapes his day scenes with an abundance of sunlight (Lucia is also heard singing a song about the sun); while the night scenes are made distinct by the appearance of a very attractive moon (its presence lingers because of the name of Lorenzo's daughter, and other devices). The island itself is described as a natural anomaly; a lid in the middle of the sea with labyrinthine underground passages and its tides affecting the human mind. The entire film feels generally like a modern Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, or at least externally reads like one, with its adherence to magic realism. Even the sex scenes have that literary imaginative character.

The biggest mistake in watching Sex and Lucia is to try making something logical about it or to perceive it as a film with a fractured narrative, because it shouldn't be logical nor is it a puzzle to be solved. The film is something to get engaged in (and its sexiness does help a lot in that bit) and to enjoy in all its unabashedly pulpy naked glory.

This post is my contribution to Culture Snob: The Misunderstood Blog-A-Thon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Spanish Title: El Laberinto del Fauno

In the much-lauded Pan's Labyrinth, writer-director Guillermo del Toro plunges us head-first into the fragile worldview of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The film opens with a beautiful lullaby being overpowered by the sound of heavy painful breathing. We learn of the setting --- Spain in 1944 wherein the last remnants of the revolution are in the remote mountains. The first recognizable image we see is the protagonist Ofelia, her face and hands bloodied; it is quite apparent that the initial heavy breathing we heard came from her and that she is dying. It's a cruel portrait; the little girl is lovely in her youthful innocence (her eyes desperately clinging for a dimming sparkle of hope) yet in that precious age, has met an untimely violent death. It's enough a warning that this film is definitely not a fairy tale for it aches with such resounding and poignant realism, it's almost unbearable to watch further.

But of course I do, quite thankfully at that for the rest of the film is just wonderful. We learn of the fairy tale of a princess that escaped from her mythical kingdom, and upon reaching the surface, died as a mortal. Ofelia and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are on their way to a remote mill wherein the fascists under Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) are fighting off the last few remaining rebels. The mill estate, surrounded by hectares of forests, contain several secrets including a labyrinth wherein Ofelia will meet an ancient faun who identifies her as the lost princess in the fairy tale.

There's a gorgeous intertwining of imagination and reality here. Those two aspects of the film symbiotically thriving alongside each other; each giving the other depth, meaning and context. The easiest interpretation is to delegate Ofelia's fantastical adventures as exclusively within the realm of her imagination. Such adventures are merely defense mechanisms against an oppressive situation she has landed in. However, the child in me opts to probe further; suggesting that the fantasy and the reality do co-exist, at least, for the sake of the protagonist whose demise has been announced so very early on. True, the fantastic elements are defense mechanisms or instruments for survival against that particular situation for the young girl, but more than that, those elements have real linkages with the historic scenario --- that the faun, the fairies, and those other magical beings' slight existence in the world are reminders of this world's coming-of-age, of it's difficult path into achieving a complete worldliness and mundanity; and the pay-off is the loss of innocence, and of the ability to conjure the magical.

Del Toro consistently draws battles between the mundane and innocence. Notice that Ofelia's three tasks are always conflicted by earthly needs and virtues --- of keeping a dress clean for dinner, of her worries for her mother, of hunger, of blood relations. In Ofelia's mission to regain her status as a princess, there is a need for her to withdraw from the world, to sacrifice inch by inch a portion of what keeps her human. Rationality should have made the mission easy for Ofelia, being trapped in that mortal world ruled over by the Capitan, who personifies everything that is wrong in her world, and complicated further by her mother's difficult pregnancy and a forced knowledge on the eventualities of the rebellion. However, it is that undeniable humanity of Ofelia that makes those tasks difficult. Along with the rest of the world, Ofelia is also on that verge of growing up and of experiencing the pains and aches of the world unshielded. She's in her most volatile; which is the reason why her world-view is always undecided (escapist or resolute; fantastical or realist; aloof or connected).

By crafting a Capitan who's almost un-humanly vicious, he commits a comparable paternal affection to the shrewd faun, with its jerky gestures that suggest decades of immobility. Additionally, the monsters, from the eternally hungry giant toad to the severely savage pale monster, become reasonably tame to the arbitrariness of the Capitan, considering that in his appearance, he elicits an inherited posture of pride and debonairness. Quite interestingly, the Capitan shares a trait with one of children's literature's most popular villains, Captain Hook --- that affinity with the tick-tocking of a pocket watch which in both cases appear in close encounters with death. In a sense, the affinity between the two characters connote a similarity in their roles in both tales. Capitan Vidal is the personification of the world's strict mundaneness as against Ofelia's fanciful escapism; the same way as Captain Hook is an adult in Peter Pan's Never Never Land.

Of course, there are other allusions to other fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland, being one of the most obvious). It's actually quite a nice touch as del Toro eagerly tells his dark depressing tale set in a dark depressing time, yet subconsciously, grants us comfort by inviting our collective imaginations (as charged by those familiar tales) to delve deeper into the connections of those tales with our respective lives.

These same fairy tales have allowed Ofelia to gain a prolonged innocence that salvaged her from the violent affairs of her adult wards. Much like the melodies that lulled us to peaceful sleep, these remainders of that far-away childhood gives us comfort from the rigors of the day-to-day world we've grown up to live in. The stories, the lullabies, that earnest sparkle of hope, and that final withdrawal from a world descending into mundaneness, were the keys Ofelia needed to open the gate to that mythical kingdom.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Hamlet Goes Business (1987)

Hamlet Goes Business (Aki Kaurismäki, 1987)
Finnish Title: Hamlet liikemaailmassa

Aki Kaurismäki's Hamlet Goes Business is a pretty much accurate re-telling of William Shakespeare's famous tragedy Hamlet. The characters are the same, most of the plot points are retained, yet quite interestingly, it's an entirely different creature. First and foremost, i is more of a comedy, the type of comedy that Kaurismäki famously makes --- droll, deadpan, at times comical, and always funny.

It is set in Finland, or more specifically corporate Finland (inside cement buildings and boardrooms), wherein the poisoning of the father of Hamlet (Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) has caused a stir in a corporation that owns sawmills and other plants within the area. Immature Hamlet inherits more than half of the corporation's stocks, while Klaus (Esko Salminen), who we first see switching a poisoned drink with another while torridly kissing Gertrud (Elina Salo) who is on her way to serve her husband his nightly drink, becomes board chairman and opts to sell the company's assets to buy a substantial share in the world's production of rubber ducks. Unenchanting Ofelia (Kati Outinen) spends most of her time deflecting Hamlet's sexual advances --- her Polonius (Esko Nikkari) and brother Lauri (Kari Väänänen) have their own separate plans for their respective futures.

Hamlet Goes Business has been described as a satire on corporate greed. The film, by converting one of Shakespeare's most notable plays that portrays humanity in its most complex into this flatly noir-ish if not overly simplistic tale, succeeds in using Shakespeare's narrative while disposing of any of its resounding themes and replacing them with Kaurismäki's irreverent observations of the blatant inhumanity in corporate affairs. Relationships are as black and white as the film's gorgeous cinematography. Relationships aren't invested with emotions or virtues like trust, confidence, or friendship. Instead, treachery and ill motives flow smoothly from these characters, very much like rubber ducks getting manufactures in clockwork fashion by huge machines.

Hamlet is, I believe, Shakespeare's most complicatedly human character. His existence in literature is through his tale of vengeance; yet that is complexed with his human traits --- his needs to assure himself of his father's murderer (despite that being revealed by his father's ghost), his uncertain romantic affections with Ophelia, his even more uncertain musings about his own existence and humanity's place in this world. Shakespeare has given him beautiful soliloquys to express his encompassing mistrust with humanity and himself. Yet, in the end, as fate and his own doings would've led him to a quickened turn of events (that famous climax that ends with a foreign prince's recognition of his life's honor), it is his character's fallible nature that makes him distinctly human, and deserving of the respect afforded to him.

Kaurismäki's Hamlet is anything but respectable. His uncertainty for his actions are hinged on the character's selfishness rather than a genuine recognition of human error. His affections for Ofelia is more predatory and sexual. He begs that Ofelia give up her virginity, and in an instance where he tries to comingle love with his lust, he is unable to confront Ofelia. He doesn't have comrades, only employees --- yet he has this illusion of being the center of everything. Shakespeare acknowledges Hamlet as a character deserving of his attention; yet Kaurismäki's Hamlet forces the attention to himself (him being the controlling shareholder of the corporation, him being the employer and the wealthy man, him being the only son of his widowed mother).

And that is also where Kaurismäki treads away from Shakespeare's narrative. Shakespeare ends his play with recognition for his beloved character. Kaurismäki turns Hamlet into quite the bastard, and concludes his borrowed story justly without overriding the new themes of his carefully crafted modification of Shakespeare's beloved classic.

This post is my contribution to Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee: The William Shakespeare Blog-A-Thon.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Decasia (2002)

Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)

Decay, in its most technical sense, connotes deterioration. It is a chemical process that transforms a substance (molecularly) into something less brilliant, something practically different and substantially lesser than its former self. In Bill Morrison's mind, however, decay is something else. It is the connective force that weaves borrowed footages together. It is the narrative force that supplies both characters and logic to disconnected scenes. It is the unique aesthetic; it is the theme; it is the entire film.

Decasia is composed of snippets of footages from various films that have suffered from different levels of decay. It's quite fascinating how nebulous clouds of what seems to be a mix of vinegar, film, and other chemicals reveal decipherable images --- a geisha beside a window, two romantic lovers amidst a serene lake. At first glance, the feeling gathered is remorse. These identifiable beautiful images have been transformed, over time and human neglect, into monstrous formations.

The formations however become so familiar in the film, so mobile and life-like that the feeling of remorse transforms to absolute hypnotism. The revealed identifiable images have turned into the background, the formations are now the protagonists. Morrison identifies the film decay with life itself --- footages of bacteria, of insects, leaves, and other plants are comparable in motion and appearance with the formations. Moreover, Morrison suddenly conflicts us by telling us an equally nebulous story of life. A decaying footage of childbirth, of developmental progression, of human pain, joy and other emotions join the mix. Hollywood has also become a victim of decay; and equally lends its stories, its melodramatic anthems, its slapstick comedy into the bunch --- further completing the cycle of humanity.

The decay has become the embellishment in Morrison's tale. It becomes the enemy of humanity (there's a sequence wherein a boxer continually punches the formation of film decay; amazing visual wit, I thought). It is also the obliterator of human error, of our imperfections --- in one sequence, a man seduces a girl while the decaying formation partially censors the actions. It accompanies human tragedy (a sequence wherein a mother is revealed her dead son; looks like a scene from a well-produced Hollywood flick), and desperation (there is also a sequence wherein what seems to be men are rescued from a mine). It modifies; in a sequence that ordinarily is charming and pious (a group of kids marching in a nun-operated school), the decay and contrast discoloration affects the atmosphere to the point of reversing child-like innocence into horror and bad faith.

The film's aesthetic and thematic suggestions are only enunciated by Michael Gordon's haunting score. In one interesting sequence wherein decaying footages of children playing in a theme park, Gordon's score emulates the glaring noise of locomotion. The effect is undeniable; with the invading visuals of decay and Gordon's suggestive music, the innocence of children playing is transformed into the stress, the clarity of danger of everyday commute, of man's day-to-day world.

Morrison's avant-garde techniques aren't as offputting as to claim Decasia as a difficult film to pursue. Morrison is actually very generous; he amplifies cohesion, he makes his work impersonal as to attract universal appeal. He has a story to tell, yet that story is not as strict as a declared narrative. It is open to various interpretations; even his themes are as open-ended as his narrative. There's a wild play of visual, aural, and thematic metaphors that invite you to take part in his cinematic game of redefining decay. Morrison's film is junk art, in its most innovative sense. It's quite brilliant.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

The thing that strikes me the most about Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men is how familiar everything feels. It's clearly a dystopian future yet this one isn't one that is outside our lifetimes. 2027, and everything looks the same --- no flying cars, laser guns, or robots. Far more disturbing is how the problems of that dystopian near-future isn't nearly different from ours, only amplified; it feels like the problems of our present age were forced into a pressure cooker and everything else went awry.

England, according to propaganda, is the only nation that "soldiers on." Great cities have fallen to riots and plagues and London has become that last bastion of what life used to be. Swarms of immigrants from around the world would reside in England, hiding from the watchful eyes of England's immigration police. Those who get caught are placed in cages; there seems to be no tinge of embarrassment as to how these immigrants are treated. Their misfortune in life has deprived them of humanity thus no semblance of human rights are afforded to them --- violence and deprivation of freedom are exposed to the public without a care. The rest of the world feels more affected by the death of the youngest human being (accordingly described by Jasper (Michael Caine) as the world's youngest wanker) rather than the injustice that is right in front of their eyes. By a mere two decades and the accepted fact that humanity will cease to exist, the world has adopted a skewed ideology.

Unknown to the world is that there is one woman who is pregnant, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). She jokingly describes herself as a virgin, and her child, as a bastard. Theo (Clive Owen), once an activist along with ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) but has lost all hope when their son died from a disease, becomes the unwilling "Joseph" to Kee's "Virgin Mary." Whisked away from his day-a-day life (only colored by frequent visits to friend Jasper, political cartoonist-turned-marijuana merchant; there seems to be no more room for cartoons or humor in Cuarón's dystopian future), Theo gets drawn into a mission to bring Kee to a ship called "Tomorrow," where the mythical group of scientists who are trying to remedy humanity's infertility reside.

Much has been said about how technically wondrous the film is, and it really is. There's so much details, so much information in every frame of the film. The streets of London are not merely littered with trash, garbage, and other junk, it's also filled with telling details --- of oriental tricycles (due to the sudden influx of immigrants), of graffiti, and other eye-catching eccentricities. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is fittingly drab and color-less. There's no pretense of realism here; what we see is what Lubezki's camera captures --- including blood splattering into the camera's lens. There's also no pretense for beauty yet the result is hauntingly gorgeous. Cuarón and Lubezki's methodology during the entire feature, editing as little as they can with mostly long-takes which are perfectly executed, keeps you glued, keeps you flowing with the feature's own enunciations and depresses. They actually bring you from Theo's unsatisfying safety to a personal mission that will bring him close to danger with generous and compelling ease.

The film itself is something to behold. It grabs your attention by putting you in a scenario of hopelessness; and not only that, it is hopelessness that will soon erupt into violence and rebellion. It further grabs you by giving you this little spark of hope (of pregnant Kee, we see her in her glorious pregnancy among cows, who are commodified for their byproducts of their fertility, their milk); that hope we are forced to entrust to Theo. Is it a story of faith, or does it imply the futility of faith? That Kee, with that revelation, has turned into a commodity, and Theo's mission is a futile one, to entrust that unique commodity to a mere plan, a mere myth which is in itself a commodity of hope.

With Cuarón's visual metaphors (and there are a lot of them), the film feels utterly religious more than it is political. But of course, in our world wherein political has been equated with religion, a film like Children of Men feels quite justified with its mixing of those two facets of human society. Fantastically, the film's most moving moments are when the soldiers, the immigrants, bow down to Theo and Kee (with the sound of the crying baby in the background) with utter reverence; it tells something of humanity --- that its existence, its survival, still implies religion --- of bowing down to a power superior to them (Kee who has something the rest of humanity doesn't have, fertility). It's quite a multi-faceted film and requires further viewings for fuller appreciation. My writings, unorganized and highly unedited, cannot give justice to Cuarón's complex masterpiece; and I'd love to take in some more from the film.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Shortbus (2006)

Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)

There's no doubt about it, John Cameron Mitchell's sophomore feature, Shortbus is made with good intentions. Although the first ten minutes of the film consists of the most explicit, inventive and shockingly direct sex scenes ever committed in serious celluloid, there's not a tinge of exploitation or pornographic intention that can be felt. We get a sweeping view of New York City (made out of what seems to be a mixture of clay, cardboard and acrylic paint) as the camera flies from the Statue of Liberty to apartment after apartment. In one apartment, Sofia (Lee Sook-yin) and husband Rob (Raphael Barker) are enjoying every form of copulation invented. In another, James (Paul Dawson) a lonely gay man tries to perform self-fellatio while a voyeur (Peter Stickles) watches from an apartment window across the alley. In another apartment (not far from Ground Zero), dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) whips and sexually satisfies her client.

The aftermath of this celebration of sexual freedom betrays, in an ironically humorous manner, the pulsating energy of the montage. Severin's client ejaculates into a Pollock painting (a bit of visual wit as the drop of semen doesn't seem to make a noticeable dent on the artwork); the absurdity of the situation gives Severin an epiphany. After what seems to be great sex, Sofia kills the mood by discussing her patient's inability to reach female orgasm (which alludes to her life-long quest to experience an orgasm). James' boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) suddenly comes home, catching James post-ejaculation and embarrassed.

Their lives converge in an underground bar called "Shortbus." Like some sort of sexual Wonderland, Sofia, desperate for that first orgasm, explores the premises with Alice-like curiosity. There are different places for different kinks: a room that never seems to run out of orgies, a concert venue, rooms and hallways for socializing. More interesting are the different men, women, and everybody in between who fill the rooms and hall of the club. A former NYC-mayor, a model in search of his perfect husband, the drag queen host, a horde of lesbians, homosexuals, and plain amorous individuals --- the club is practically the sexual core of the city where lovemaking sees no boundaries and limitations.

Shortbus is like Mitchell's loving ode to New York City. It's a very hopeful film and despite its preoccupation with the needy calls of the flesh, there's something strangely philosophical, and political with each of its characters' quests. But whenever Mitchell's far-reaching attempt to draw out something deep and resonating surfaces, a thick and overt fake-ness permeates. Mitchell's neo-philosophisms and far-out yet sadly inert political awareness (one of the film's most visually witty scenes is when a trio of men suddenly start singing the American national anthem to each men's erogenous body parts --- truly, it should be seen to be believed) are either visually depicted or spoken in embarrassing strides of overwritten dialogue. There's such a weightiness in Mitchell's ambition to be carried over by a film that is about practically nothing. I don't see irreverence or a high-powered rebellious notion in Mitchell's filmmaking, at least none if compared to Pedro Almodovar's early works (which possess a greater deal of eroticism, with a lot less of the shock value).

Mitchell strives for a celebration of love, gay, straight, lesbian, or whatever, yet his viewpoint is clearly queer that the main thread of Sofia's search for her orgasm has none of the realism or the emotional investment that is placed in the other storyline about James and Jamie's failing relationship. It's lopsided and often (especially in the end) sinks in a quagmire of unintended self-importance and gravity. It's also my problem with Mitchell's first feature, the highly enjoyable Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). That film drowned with an ending that felt the need to put the entire narrative in a perspective of importance, which just doesn't work. Similarly, Shortbus has something to say and desperately urges to say it (with all its courage and inventiveness) yet unfortunately, most of it gets lost in translation.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Miss Potter (2006)

Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006)

Appreciation for Miss Potter would depend largely on one's tolerance for Renée Zellweger's acting skills. Ms. Zellweger divides audiences --- a portion adores her (guiltily, I assume), a more vocal portion hates her (and her consistently droopy-pouty facial expressions), while a small portion remain unaffected. I honestly don't care for her. I don't think she's an exceptional actress nor is she unbearably bad; I'm rather ambivalent as she had performances wherein she's authentically cute and lovely (Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996)), while there are times (a lot of times actually) where she borders on annoying (Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003), Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005) and Bridget Jones' Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), and its horrendous sequel). In Miss Potter, wherein she's almost in every frame of the film, one can't simply be ambivalent (or worse, hate her --- the film will be utter torture if you do); one actually has to like her for the film to work.

Surely, you might ask, it's just a performance, there are other facets to the film that might actually alleviate whatever bad taste Zellweger lends the film. I initially thought that. The film is after all directed by Chris Noonan, whose previous film Babe (1995) was such a lovely lovely confection. However, Noonan can only do so much. He does try to inject a amenable charm to the feature. He makes Beatrix Potter's drawings move and actually don slight personalities (Jemima Paddle-Duck flirtilly observes the facial features of Beatrix Potter's publisher). Yet, when Zellweger's Beatrix suddenly declares, in all her nonchalant mannerisms, that these drawings are her friends and actually talks to them, the gimmick simply doesn't bloom into eccentric sweetness. Instead, Beatrix looks like a genuine nut-case, a well-dressed schizophrenic.

Screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr.'s imagining of Beatrix Potter's life is slight and disposable. Moreover, Maltby seems unable to converge Beatrix's life-points into one coherent narrative. It starts out like a feminist manifesto about how this pre-20th century woman can remain single and find success by herself (that suddenly sounds like Bridget Jones in costume), then swoons into an uninteresting romance with the shy yet charming publisher (played with satisfactory conviction by Ewan McGregor) before ending as again, a feminist manifesto on how women can make a change in society. There's no consistent thread of thought; Maltby seems to think that his screenplay can float with mere socially relevant ideals without the help of masterful narrative.

It's quite unfortunate, really. Beatrix Potter's life can indeed be a feminist manifesto. She's that one woman who tried her hardest to substantiate her existence within a male-dominated and class-divided society (she had groundbreaking research on fungi which weren't seriously considered simply because of her being a woman --- conveniently forgotten in this biopic). However, the film seems to derive more pleasure in extending Zellweger's persona into Potter's biography. This film felt more like a star vehicle than an honest look into this intriguing historic woman and children's book author.

Miss Potter has all the charm of a beautifully designed greeting card. It's just that, a beautiful picture with a generic inspirational quote as it's main substance. The film is quite beautifully photographed; you'd actually want to visit England's Lake District after witnessing the perfectly sculptured mountain peaks and the serene lakes. Also, everybody looks beautiful (Zellweger, McGregor, the underused Emily Watson (who'd actually make a better Beatrix, in my opinion)) and there is no hint of ugliness and serious societal trouble within its setting and context. Miss Potter is as fanciful as the children's tales Beatrix created yet unlike the latter, I predict the film will, and cannot, stand the test of time.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
German Title: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

It's quite funny actually how today's animators and their crew of thousands of techno-wizards spend months and millions of dollars just to perfect the movement of each individual hair strand of an animated character. The animated films being made today have forgotten the reason why they are animated and not live action; the animation facilitates the burst of the imagination. By giving so much away, you take away room for participation, interpretation, or even creation from the viewers. Nowadays, watching those CGI-flicks (wherein everything looks so perfect and beautiful, you suddenly get the urge of doubting whether your movie date is real) have become mere perfunctory tasks, with you just sitting in that darkened room with your skull pre-emptied for a dose of glossy visuals, bombastic sound effects and a lot of fart jokes.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving feature length animated film. Made by Lotte Reiniger (with the help of husband Carl Koch, who did the photography in most of her films) in 1926, the film made use of shadow puppets (very complex, multi-jointed puppets) to create an intoxicating and always engrossing tale based from the Arabian Nights. The puppets themselves are very lovely. Made from cardboard cut-outs, there's a painstaking detailry that impressed me. The elaborate dress worn by the princess Dinarsade, or the delicate strands of hairs or tiny fingers are all intricately crafted. The workmanship here is tremendously beautiful, from the individual puppets, to the simple yet evocative backdrops.

There's always that sense of magic that pervades while watching the film. Beginning from the curious conjurations of the African wizard wherein hideous shapes form from blurry smokes, there's already an attention-grabbing awe that is at once established. Reiniger continues to astound with her next set-up: the birthday of the caliph, with dozens of entertainers, trumpet-players and where we first get to see the exquisite beauty of the princess, and the heroic posture of Prince Achmed.

Set-up after set-up, Reiniger never seems to run out of creative juices. She mixes adventurism with a tinge of eroticism when Achmed first lands in the fairy land of Wak-Wak. Dashing Achmed finds a harem full of lustful female attendants, all of them wanting a taste from probably the first male human being they've seen in their entire lives. It's something I thought was ahead of its time --- it's a naughty, undeniably funny scene only topped by the next set-up. Achmed lands in a nearby island where he witnesses the fairy princess Pari Banu bathing with her other female companions. There's a thrilling sense of voyeurism (despite the fact that all we see are shadows of what I imagine is a perfectly beautiful female form), of repressed testosterone and other hormones boiling to unbearable levels. Once Pari Banu sees Achmed viewing her from underneath tropical plants, the voyeurist mood turns into something more playful; a lively chase between a hapless lover and his enchanter, evolving into a lovely romantic interlude amidst the graceful slopes of Chinese mountains.

And quite predictably, it gets better. Pari Banu gets spirited away by the African magician, who masters the art of transfiguration. A good (yet surprisingly un-beautified) witch introduces herself as the magician's arch-enemy, aiding the good guys along the way. Action scenes as tense and as marvelous as any done by Rudolph Valentino are staged with precision. Otherworldly monsters make appearances and are defeated with eye-popping gusto. Seriously, unbelievable as it may seem, these puppets do make quite brilliant heroes; Achmed jumps, swings his cutlass, and shoots arrows with intense fervor. Moreover, there's a magic duel between the wizard and the witch that is just so good, my meager description fails to do justice: it's a battle of transforming magic experts --- every moment they transfigure into an animal or an abomination of nature, each transformation more tremendous than before.

Then there's that final battle, which makes the huge, larger-than-life battles of George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott pale in creativity. The jealous demons of Wak-Wak versus the good guys, with the help of nebulous white good spirits. Those thinking that since Reiniger's animation method is mere shadow puppetry, thus limited and flat, would be overwhelmed because the presumption is simply untrue. In that final showdown between the forces of good and evil, while the heroes are fighting it out to save the fairy princess from a monstrosity, the background is kept busy by hordes of demons and good spirits in tumultuous battle.

Of course, the experience of viewing The Adventures of Prince Achmed can only be as rich and fulfilling as one's ability and openness to imagine. In my case, each lovely movement by a puppet is enunciated by me imagining the more specific gestures (the facial expressions, that sorrowful tear of despair by Aladdin when his magic palace and his love is snatched in the course of one night). Reiniger merely transports me to that fantastic land of caliphs, demons, witches and fairies with her marvelous artistry and craftsmanship. Especially with the moving and rousing score specifically composed by Wolfgang Zeller for the film, my experience in viewing this stunning work is what I can vividly describe as the complete cinematic experience --- wherein just enough is contributed by the filmmaker to rouse each viewer's ability to visualize fantastic worlds and tense and daring moments. Hopefully, humanity hasn't lost that ability.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

The first thing that a viewer who stumbles upon John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 would experience is its electronica score. A repetitive melody-scarce score plays over the film's lengthy opening credits. The droning gets quite grating; and the culprit for the synthesizer score (as we'll get to see) is director John Carpenter himself. Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay, also edits the film (under pseudonym John T. Chance --- as a tribute to the protagonist in Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo (1959), the clear inspiration for this film). Shot over the span of twenty days, Assault on Precinct 13 is nothing short of an achievement in low budget filmmaking. As bad as the pun may seem, Carpenter isn't just the carpenter, he's also the architect, the engineer, the painter, and the interior designer.

The score isn't actually bad. Once Carpenter sinks you in slowly but surely into the film, the score mixes perfectly with everything else. The once-grating repetitive melody becomes akin to a heart beating profusely. You actually quite follow it --- you dread the score that dictates tension, and you treasure when it levitates to something easing. It's quite an effective score --- nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just purely supportive of whatever else Carpenter is cooking up onscreen.

It's the score that made the film's singlemost horrific sequence so memorable. A little girl asks his father for spare change to purchase ice cream from an ice cream truck. In the background, a black car carrying four gangmembers out for a random kill is roving. In a sequence that is made more tense by the pulsating electronica in the background, the ice cream vendor is mauled then murdered, and the little girl is unflinchingly shot point blank. This sets the father into a vengeful rampage, killing one of the gangmembers with a pistol. The father is then chased by the gang to the soon-to-be-vacated precinct in the middle of town.

The precinct is headed by Bishop (Austin Stoker) for the night. Alone with a couple of cops, a few precint employees (including sexy Leigh, played by Laurie Zimmer), and some prisoners (Wells, played by Tony Burton and ambiguous Wilson, played by Darwin Joston) in transit to a neighboring jail, Bishop would have to defend the precinct from the murderous gangmembers who are out to kill. It's a genius concept (although borrowed from Hawks), which despite its incredible turn of events, foreshadows a social ill --- of that time bomb of the youth of an impoverished community, mixed with years and decades of racial respite, of exposure to media, and of numbing indications of their role in society, that will soon explode in a bloodbath of exact confrontation between the "us" and the "them." It's a classic film conflict, only emphasized by Carpenter with his precise film language.

The film begins with a few gangmembers sneaking in a darkened alley. Moments later, they are shot violently by police officers using high powered firearms. We hear from the radio news that what happened the night before was a shoot-out (which is a fallacy since a shoot-out consists of both parties shooting at each other); we also learn that the gang is a strange mixture of different races when their leaders perform a bloodletting ritual. Carpenter opts to snatch human faces from the gangmembers --- they have no personalities (although a hint of savagery, of amoral depravity is painted to the child-murderer), they move as hordes, and they die like soulless beings (for which they do the same, as each body count for them is nothing more than a path for their vendetta's completion.

Despite Carpenter's portrayal of the gang as nobodies, as mere foot soldiers whose death we delight upon, there's still a sense that they could be victims turned victimizers --- especially with that opening sequence of defenseless rub-out, of Carpenter's decision to leave these gangmembers' past a secret and their humanity concealed. They live by a complex code of action, something more ancient than the rules of American civility, and that accounts for their overt rebellion to social standards and against the protector of such standards, the police. In a sense, we cannot really regard the gang as downright savage and uncivilized but merely as the "other," marginalized for years by America and have logically opted to form their own cultural norms and moral codes --- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, no matter how many eyes and teeth are obliterated along the way.

This post is my contribution to Lazy Eye Theater: John Carpenter Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

"The sun is dying," narrates an offscreen voice. In order to save mankind, a crew of eight scientists were launched into space in a spaceship carrying a bomb (referred to in the film as "payload") to seed the sun with renewed energy. The first expedition was a failure when all of a sudden, its ship (called "Icarus," blatantly snatched from the Greek myth) just disappeared upon nearing the completion of its mission. The second expedition, inside a similar ship (called "Icarus II,"), is floating in space, just a few hundred kilometers from the "dead zone" wherein communication to and from Earth will be impossible. The members of the crew start sending their messages to their loved ones; aptly so as their mission becomes more complicated, more complex as they journey closer to the sun.

The ship's psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis) is alone in the observation deck, lovingly eying an impressive view of the dying sun. He asks the ship's mainframe computer to decrease the filter so that he can witness the sun in all its glory. The ship's voice hesitates but recommends a filter decrease that will not be destructive to the eyes for at least thirty seconds; he agrees. A flash of light so powerful yet tremendous in its beauty invades the face of Searle. The first scene dictates that relationship that would pervade the film's core: the sun as a jealous lover to humankind; dominating, powerful, alluring, and superior.

When a distress signal from the missing first Icarus is heard from by the ship's communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity), the crew starts a very informal meeting (headed by the Captain Kaneda, played by Hiroyuki Sanada) is held. The screenplay (written by novelist Alex Garland, who has collaborated with Danny Boyle in many of his past films) has a good grasp of the internal politics of the crew. Kaneda is the stern yet understanding leader, Searle seems to be the moral compass, the rest, biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), and navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) all share their respective opinions in what seems to be an informal governance (that will soon implode upon the introduction of unexpected conflict). As decided, the ship's physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), the only one knowledgeable to operate the payload, decides to change course to salvage the first Icarus, and its valuable payload. The decision results in a string of events that would put a hindrance to their original mission.

The film has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; confession time: I haven't seen it yet) or Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) wherein science fiction has been steered to meet intellectual, metaphysical, or even theological discourse. The comparisons are understandable as Boyle and Garland do raise questions that touch theological and philosophical complexities. It seems that the clinically clean white interiors of a space vessel, floating patiently among heavenly bodies, would arouse the human mind to question himself, and his own human limitations. Who are we, with our propensity for error, to hinder the course of cosmos, most especially when we are in the midst of everything perfect and harmoniously move and die in clockwork fashion?

However, Sunshine is only two thirds of a good sci-fi film (or even possibly a great one). It is crippled with a weak final act. Boyle suddenly gets awry with his direction: zealously overediting to incomprehensible levels, playing with visual styles that demean the controlled flair of the film's first two thirds. In an unfathomable twist of questionable narrative taste, Garland throws away all the reserved philosophical and theological exploration to drift into the familiar (and boring) area of unwanted murderous stowaways (which doesn't share a fraction of the complex implications of Solaris' memorable stowaways).

The ending is even weaker. It's an ending that totally betrays the initial promise of the film. It is unnecessarily cheesy and warm, especially compared to the overall atmosphere Boyle teases us to adapt to. After what seems to be an open-ended (or aesthetically stirring) conclusion in the core of the sun, Boyle cuts to the comforts of our world. We witness what our protagonists have been suffering for --- something essentially very similar to our world (actually quite safer wherein a woman with two minors can freely play and frolic outdoors, despite the obvious climate change). It just makes you wonder why Boyle had to tie every loose end, and finally wrap his film in a neat gift wrapper with matching red ribbon when it feels more right to just let it aimlessly drift while maintaining its ability to make us think. In summary, Sunshine feels like the monster child of Tarkovsky and Michael Bay.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
Japanese Title: Shurayukihime

To claim that Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood is artful cinema, while not totally impossible, is verging on the absurd. The film cannot hide its true ambitions with Fujita's over-the-top visuals and methods. Exploitative as it may seem with its plentiful geysers of blood, Lady Snowblood provides a deep and understanding portrait of a woman whose existence on Earth has been predestined by oppression and violence. Forgo of the usual trappings of samurai cinema of its usually disrespected sort, and you'll discover that the film is quite good --- and deserves better attention than just a mere footnote in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films (2003-2004).

Adapted from manga books written by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf and Cub fame), the film starts off with a scene inside a women's prison. A prisoner is suffering through a difficult labor; the irony of the scene is that when the baby is finally released to the world, there is not a notion of happiness or festivity in the air (for sure, even in a women's prison, the miracle of childbirth will cause a stir in the melancholy of the setting and situation). We later learn why the childbirth is no cause for celebration: the baby, named Yuki, has been tasked to continue her mother's mission of vengeance against those who have oppressed her. She was designed, planned, and created for that singular mission, hence, her being called a child of the netherworlds.

Fujita cuts to Yuki, now grown up to be a fine-looking lady (played by Meiko Kaji), donning an immaculate white kimono and holding a purple parasol while walking in an alley. A carriage carrying an important-looking fellow, and guarded by several men, try to get past her. Yuki reveals a samurai blade from her parasol and cuts her way through the bodyguards, then finally, assassinating the boss with a blood-bursting and far-too-easy thrust of her sword. The action is quick (perhaps too quick to be deliciously enjoyed), but very graphic. Fountains of blood spring every time a limb is severed or a body part is punctured. Yuki remains silent and stern; her blade does her talking.

Divided into chapters, with occasional narration by an off-screen presence (who turns out to be a journalist; who somewhat becomes a love interest for the vengeful lady), Lady Snowblood has a literary feel that provides a level of predictability to the exercise: each chapter concerns an inevitable victim of Yuki's vengeance; all culminating in eye-popping bloodbath. Each chapter however contributes an internal strife, an emotional weight to Yuki's inherent burden.

Time has changed her mother's oppressors --- her first victim is now a mere petty gambler; harmless, pitiful, and with a kindly suffering daughter; her final victim is an integral part of her journalist-friend's life. Each vengeful act, each final killing separates her more from humanity --- yet, it is through those dastardly acts that she may achieve atonement and redemption. Yuki's complicated existence on earth, and her predestination as her mother's continued existence for vengeance can only be removed by completing that task, no matter what the consequences may be. Her suffering is quite great, I think --- she has been hypnotized and educated into believing that she belongs to the netherworlds yet in each step through her mission, she realizes her humanity; which makes that final showdown a difficult mental struggle (witness Yuki's unusual lack of lightning fast killing skills in the scene above the party --- there's that moment of remorse, of the possibility of choosing to not go through her task).

The film's end sequence is a telling and very potent scene of cinematic redemption: wounded Yuki (after being stabbed helplessly by the daughter of her first victim) falls into the snowy ground. She cups a handful of snow and puts it in her face which causes her to weep; the sun rises in the background. She finally can feel; she feels that snow (that same snow that was falling when she was born into a life for vengeance) is actually cold, and harsh. Vengeance too, has left her cold, alone, and dying.

This post is my contribution to The Bleeding Tree: The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Silip (1985)

Silip (Elwood Perez, 1985)
aka Daughters of Eve

Elwood Perez's Silip has that ball-grabbing opening. It is that sort of opening that immediately catches your attention to either go on with the film with much more curiosity and gusto, or to just leave it be and consider yourself salvaged from further moral damage. The film begins with Simon (Mark Joseph), the village butcher, hitting a live carabao on the head. The carabao collapses as the man keeps on hitting it on the head. It's a savage sequence. Perez makes use of a real live carabao, probably a lot cheaper than an animatronic one (Perez didn't really had to worry about animal rights activists back then) which is later on killed, disemboweled, beheaded and butchered right in front of our eyes. The carabao, supposedly the pet of one of the village boys, is pleaded by the village kids to be spared. Headstrong Simon disagrees and preaches about the practicalities in life: what makes their carabao different from the rest, that the beast will die anyway, and that the village requires that he do the brutal act so that everyone can eat.

Silip (its literal English translation is Peeping) was released outside the Philippines as Daughters of Eve. The film was peddled as bizarre curiosity from an exotic land, a softcore (or described as near-hardcore) pornographic feature; and quite rightly so. The film features an onslaught of sex scenes, both titillating and disturbing, and long stretches of time wherein all we see are naked bodies prancing around the village. Yet there seems to be something else brewing beneath the film's flesh-colored celluloid other than mere titillation. Silip is very rebellious in its themes and even in its production.

Made in 1985 during the decline of Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship in the Philippines, Silip was one among the many soft-core to hard-core (locally referred to as pene films because it featured actual penetration) that sneaked through the uncharacteristic laxity of the local censors. Unusually though, Silip, unlike other sex-themed features like Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights(1985) , did not try to dent governmental institutions or just to make a quick buck out of the nation-wide depression and dissent, but instead sought to arouse questioning of that other important and prominent institution in the Philippines, the Catholic Church.

The film features two sisters, Tonya (Maria Isabel Lopez) and Selda (Sarsi Emmanuelle, one third of the trio of sexy actresses named by their managers after soft drinks). Tonya teaches catechism to the children of the village while the parish priest is recuperating from an illness in another town. However, Tonya has a secret sexual attraction for Simon, who is currently bedding Maria (Myra Manibog, whose surname an obvious pun on the Tagalog word for "horny"), elder sister of the young lad from the opening (now holding a grudge against Simon for killing his carabao, and having sex with his sister).

Selda just came home from the city with an American lover. She's the exact opposite of Tonya as her views on sex is more liberal and less guilt-filled. Amidst the apparent disagreement between the two, a similarity surfaces: that both of them are in a state of heat. Tonya tries to ease the lust by rubbing herself with salt or sand while Selda, on the other hand, beds any man she sees while desperately eying Simon.

Scripted by Ricky Lee, who has achieved revered status as the Philippines' best film scribe, the film features several sequences of remarkable bravura. Perez, who alongside the late Joey Gosiengfiao has ushered in Philippine films with cult exploitative flavor, knows the value of shock. Silip may in fact be regarded as numerous eye-opening and sweat-producing scenes stringed together by drab and lengthy connectors; which is probably why the film feels far too long. The opening scene can only be topped by the film's astounding conclusion: a gang rape that appears to be a sweaty, greasy and undoubtedly un-arousing orgy inside a bamboo shanty. Each big scene is an attack on valued principles and norms of propriety; it's actually quite easier to digest the film as mere exploitation than actual art. Art dictates a semblance of truth while exploitation is for mere sensual pleasuring.

The inclusion of religiosity within the context of the characters' flesh-starved existence complicates matters. It seems to beg the question of that difficult balancing act of rigid faith and the natural call of the flesh. It definitely is not a masterpiece as Perez's filmmaking is quite too elementary to raise the film's level to heaven heights. However, it cannot be considered as mere curiosity, or even definitive of Philippine cinema during that era of governmental turmoil and public discontent. The film is Pasolini-esque in its irreverence and Bunuel-esque in its social absurdity.

This post is my contribution to The Bleeding Tree: The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon.

Mondo Macabro has done an excellent job in restoring this unique film. Previously, one can only view this film, dubbed in English and subtitled in Greek, through the many bootlegs that roam the black market and the internet but with the loving dedication of the guys behind Mondo Macabro, we have with us a 2-DVD set, with the original Tagalog track and a bevy of extra features.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Tuli (2005)

Tuli (Auraeus Solito, 2005)
English Title: Circumcision

After the introduction of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) to appreciative crowds during the 1st Cinamalaya Film Festival, director Auraeus Solito would release Tuli (Circumcision), his first time working under a studio (Viva Films, under its digital filmmaking branch), a mere few months after in competition in the Cinemanila Film Festival. The film would win the top prize, but would be banned from public consumption by the mercurial local censors board. While Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros is wowing critics and audiences worldwide, Tuli is left unseen, underappreciated, and almost forgotten. Released locally on DVD (which brandishes the infamous censoring and its lesbian love angle as advertising come-on's), Tuli would later on follow the footsteps of its fabulous elder brother. The film has since been screened in Sundance, Berlin (where it won the NETPAC prize), and other festival cities.

It's completely different from Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. It is situated in an unnamed forest village wherein a mixture of Catholicism and native mysticism is still strong. It withdraws from the urban realism of Manila slums, and instead develops a folkloric touch to the narrative. It's also less colorful, due to the fact that first, Solito chose to shoot the film in an old sepia look which further enunciates the timelessness or the removal from modernist reality, and second, there's a lot less humor --- no Maxie and friends sashaying in beauty pageant costumes.
Tuli has a marvelous opening: the village circumciser (Bembol Roco) prepares a group of kids to their circumcision rituals. He asks these kids to jump into the stream, supposedly to soften their foreskins. Solito captures these innocent kids like botticelli angels floating underwater; with special loving attention to their manhoods --- presumably the last they'll see them in that particular state. The circumciser, with the help of his daughter, one by one, circumcises each kid. The ritual is interesting: he asks for their names, makes them chew on guava leaves before hitting the foreskin with a handmade instrument, then forces them to spit the mixture of saliva and guava leaves on the fresh wounds.

The film proceeds years after, Daisy (Desiree del Valle), the circumciser's daugher, has grown up to be a beautiful lady. The same group of kids who got circumcized during the film's opening have become men; one (Luis Alandy) dutifully serenades Daisy nightly (giving the circumciser the idea of marrying the two) while another (Ping Medina) impregnates local lass Botchok (Vanna Garcia) before leaving her permanently. Nanding (Carlo Aquino), the grandson of the local shaman, is the only man in town who is uncircumcized --- causing him to be the point of jokes of his peers. In that village of traditional customs and patriarchal norms, Daisy seeks to rebel, first from her father's daily fits of drunken anger, and lastly from that village's own state of hypocritical contentedness.

The screenplay, written by Jimmy Flores (Solito' batchmate during his Mowelfund days), won first prize in a local screenwriting contest. It is considerably complex with its detailed implications of relationships within the village (the circumciser being forcedly married thus have very little or no love for his daughter; the close-knitedness links of each family). Yet, I cannot grasp any psychological maturity among the characters. Some of the characters inhabit a deluded state (for instance Nanding, whose goals in achieving his grandfather's agimat seems to be a mere afterthought rather than an actual plotpoint), with reasonings of questionable integrity (Botchok suddenly comes up with the idea of having a baby to ease Daisy's mother's sufferings). The screenplay's complexity is its downfall; it addresses too many issues that much needed humor, or even essential sprinkles of possibly humanity, are foregone.

While Flores struggles to balance his tale, Solito lends a helping hand in adding credibility to such. Solito's style inflicts a hint of mysticism to the familiar melodramatic ordeals. Instead of mere nipa huts and traditional passion plays, he adds interestingly placed mosquito nettings (to make the light pass through with a lot more sensual flair) or zealously crafted materials (observe the backgrounds, or even the costumes) that would presumably be unavailable to any typical villae. In Solito's eyes, Flores' village is no ordinary village --- it is that imaginary village of sexual aches that try to rebel in a very traditional Filipino context of what should and what should not be.

The film's plot flutters like a forgettable excuse to tell Solito's story --- of confrontation to tradition, and of the many possibilities of love within any cultural context. It is with that mindset that I see Tuli as a worthy successor to Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros' accolades. Although largely different in style, in mood, and in setting, there's that undeniable link that connects the two films together.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr, 2006)

The title is derived from a black and white photograph by Dr. Donald Thompson, an anthropologist who studied the aborigines of the Arafura Swamp in the mid 30's. The photograph which was shown to director Rolf de Heer by iconic aboriginal actor David Gulpilil showcases aboriginal men aboard canoes made out of the bark of trees, presumably on an expedition to hunt geese and their eggs.

The film, through the expert eyes of cinematographer Ian Jones, would mimic the serene beauty of those photographs. De Heer would make sure that there would be a still moment; a moment of understated simplistic beauty that can attest to the undervalued magnificence of this culture --- men atop makeshift platforms, a tense posture before the releasing of a hunting spear, men aboard their canoes patiently observing the swamp for geese or crocodiles.

The goosehunt would take a number of days and several men from different camps, presenting an opportunity to tell an ancient story. The story, about a warrior, his three wives, and his wife-less and jealous younger brother, is told from an older brother to his wife-less younger brother, who he suspects is jealous of his three wives. The story is patiently narrated; composed of sprinkles of native mythology yet more importantly, an invaluable lesson to the younger brother. Paced within their mundane hunt, de Heer visualizes the ancient tale in full color and from that tale, even mini-tales (stemming from the highly imaginative minds of the aborigines) burst into life.

Ten Canoes is undeniably gorgeous. The shifting from black and white to color, the convincing details of the Arafura Swamp, the rare portrait to this underappreciated culture --- all these are painted by de Heer with loving and respecting artistry. However, beyond the undeniably good filmmaking, is the even better storytelling. There would be times in the film wherein I would close my eyes, and satisfiedly digest David Gulpilil's jovial narration. The lack of visuals didn't hurt the experience as mixed with the atmospheric sound details (the insects, water, plants aural contributions) and the screenplay's method of appropriating the importance of oral tradition in storytelling would nonetheless complete everything. Ten Canoes is a film wherein the visuals are secondary or merely complementary to the narrative; it's quite very unique.

It is not exoticized; instead, the tale is appreciative of cultural differences. The narrator makes a joke right in the beginning, convincing us that the tale is from a faraway land and from long ago, and then recants by telling us that the story is not like that, but a story about his culture. There's a sense that in a world of cultures where everyone is given an opportunity to tell their respective stories, that representative from Aboriginal Australia chose to tell this one, not as a tale that would arouse mere curiosity or interest, but as a tale that would fit other worldy tales.

There's no arbitrary sense of invasion (as compared to other films that detail marginalized cultures --- like Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) or even harmless tributes like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) or much more recently Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)). Ten Canoes is a film that feels so natural in its setting, its methods, and its choices in storytelling that there's a sense of belonging, of a welcoming invitation to immerse oneself to the culture, and not being merely extraneous viewers.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Django (1966)

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

The film's opening has achieved a certain legendary status. Greeted with a sense of prophetic foreboding by an over-the-top song set in the tune of the film's musical score (composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov), the titular hero (played by Franco Nero) drags a wooden coffin through a muddy valley. Atop a cliff, he witnesses a band of Mexican bandits whipping a prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak), before being killed by a separate band of cultic racist soldiers who opt to burn the prostitute in a red-tagged cross instead. Showcasing his nimble fingers and his ability for gunslinging, Django kills each and every one of the girl's tormentor, rescues the girl, and brings her to safety in a ghost town inhabited by prostitutes and their kind-hearted brothel-owner.

Django finds himself in the middle of an ongoing feud between the Mexican vigilantes under General Hugo (José Bódalo), and the cultic gringo army led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). We learn from his trousers and certain hints that Django is a former Yankee soldier who would later turn into a soldier of fortune, using his talents and techniques to gain the amount of gold to leave (or metaphorically bury) the gunslinging Django of old. Furthermore, Django has a history with the respective leaders of the opposing camps. He once saved General Hugo from impending death while Major Jackson killed his wife, while he was away fighting for the Union. Their fates again intertwine in that ghost town. Is there redemption for the morally questionable Django?

Nero's Django is stonecold. He does not afford any hint of emotionality in his exterior, even his striking blue eyes declare a shallowness that prevents character study. Nero's Django is more calculating than anything --- from the start (wherein he drags a prostitute and a coffin to that ghost town) to near the end, everything seems to be a product of his devious plans. Yet upon the unintended passing of fate and destiny, of awkward romanticism, Django's plans fall flat and he has to struggle to again take control of his world.

It is that unintended glance at the anti-hero's humanity that keeps the film riveting. He starts out indestructible; he even becomes more superhuman when he reveals his secret weapon --- yet in a cruel twist of coincidence and accident, he is suddenly left with a choice to die with his conceived plans or to save himself and go with the spirit of the frontier; be swept away by that wind of possible new romance. It's nice in it's simplicity; that spark of hope for the ambiguous Django shines bright in the heap of dead bodies and bullets.

Django is considered as the seminal spaghetti western. It ushered in a horde of sequels (all, except for one, are unrecognized by Sergio Corbucci), and likeminded films. Corbucci, himself, would remain in the genre and would later on craft even better films (like The Great Silence (1968)). Along with Sergio Leone (Corbucci served as assistant director in A Fistful of Dollars (1964)), Corbucci stands as a figurehead for European-made westerns, often considered lesser (described as B-type) equivalents of the American-made ones. Spaghetti westerns are pulpier, more visceral, with characters whose interests are not necessarily indicative of human nature (quite animalistic in fact --- sex, greed, vengeance). In that way, spaghetti westerns forego of those wistful ideologies and virtues of the frontierland and has exchanged it with frank fatalism with blood, violence, and multiplying body counts. Django, even more than Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (although I prefer Leone's film), establishes the staple of the genre.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Wonderland (1999)

Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, 1999)

Wonderland is a lovely film, probably director Michael Winterbottom's best film to date. It's like looking at a well-kept salt water aquarium, where the individual fishes are all very interesting to look at; their interactions among themselves, with other species, and their environment, transport you into a hypnotic state of static observation. The aquarium is modern London; the different kinds of fishes are the citizens of different races and denominations; the rocks, corals and plastic structures are the tenements, the bars, the restaurants.

When viewing the artifacts swimming inside an aquarium, you tend to quietly observe a favorite subject --- probably a family of fishes doing something uniquely engrossing. Yet at times your eyes would follow another fish, but then quickly get back to your original subjects. Winterbottom treats his characters the same way; his subjects, a London family and their closely connected acquaintances, are painted with pathos, yet most of the time, his camera (under the direction of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) would stop to peer at the faces of other citizens (the expectant date, the immigrant beggars, the ravenous football fans, the onlookers of the fireworks display). It's a worthwhile endeavor. Winterbottom seems to be saying that his characters aren't living inside a bubble; that they are connected in that intricate emotional and social web of other middle and lower class Londoners; that all these other faces Winterbottom lovingly gives time to have their own stories to tell, probably even graver than his subjects.

Winterbottom tells their stories with poignant accuracy. The film is set on a specific long weekend (Thursday to Monday morning) wherein a host of events coincidentally happens. He starts everything off with a botched blind date. Nadia (Gina McKee) cleverly eases her way from an uninteresting date. She eventually ends her Thursday night with a dozen replies from her message to a dating service; fervently hoping to hook up with that perfect date. Nadia's two sisters are Debbie (Shirley Henderson) and Molly (Molly Parker). Debbie is a beautician who singlehandedly takes care of his pre-teen son as the father (Ian Hart) is completely immature. Molly is very pregnant with her first child with husband (John Simm), who suddenly feels an unbearable anxiety with the coming of another mouth to feed.

By the morning of Friday, we get a sense of these characters' problems; Winterbottom further deepens their histories, their pains, and their longings. It's an investment that we're willing to make. We learn of these sisters' parents (Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham), an aging couple whose married life is being snatched away by daily bingo games, sleepless dogbark-filled nights, and flirtatious drunken dances with a next-door neighbor. There are sideplots (involving the lonesome son of the next-door neighbor and a couple on a romantic getaway) that will only eventually find meaning and satisfactory connections by the film's end.

Winterbottom keeps you drawn. He infrequently injects certain scenes with the music of Michael Nyman, usually during the night wherein Bobbitt's grainy cinematography are most intense, and stylized with fast-forwards, slow-motions that enunciate internal happiness or sorrow. While the film has an overall feel of depressing realism, it is balanced with the normal and natural joys of life --- childbirth, infatuation, motherhood, a long-awaited reunion. It's a balancing act that respects the depth and possibilities of reality; there are no ill-conceived literary connectors as mostly used by Iñárritu or fellow wannabes. The film offers a satisfying look at London life; and in that aquarium Winterbottom builds for us, there are no plastic-made beautiful mermaids, lavish windmills and castles. Just reality, hard-hitting, difficult to digest, but ultimately redemptive and worth it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Scoop (2006)

(Woody Allen, 2006)

In a scene in Scoop, Woody Allen's character, neurotic magician Sid Waterman, tells Scarlett Johansson's character, journalism student Sondra Pransky, that his wife left him because he never grew up, never matured. Physically, Allen shows signs of maturity --- the white and grey hairs, the numerous wrinkles and his even more diminutive frame. Artistically, he seems to have stagnated; he never grew up and aside from the few surprising good works he's done in recent years, there's nothing really exciting, or defining as his past works like Annie Hall (1977) or The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Scoop is no different; it's drab, barely entertaining, and just a tad interesting.

It's a murder mystery set in London. It actually starts quite well: a famous Brit journalist (Ian McShane) has just died and while traversing the river to hell (heaven? hell no, with these journalist's vicious means of getting a scoop?), gets a reliable information from a fellow deceased that the son of a lord might be the dreaded Tarot Card Murderer. Death is no hindrance to the journalist to unravel a possible scoop, so he escapes death; contacts Sondra, the amateur journalist, while inside one of Sid's magic boxes and tells her everything he knows. Sondra, with the help of Sid, comes up with a plan to uncover the dark secrets of the suspected murderer Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).

Allen again inhabits his usual neurotic character; yet in London wherein restraint and decorum are characteristic qualities, his quirks and usual monologues are ungainly and unimpressive. He clowns around the beautiful locales and among the demure upper class without much comedic effect, only a slightly absurdist touch, mostly unintended. Johansson fares much worse. She dons a pair of spectacles and brandishes her retainers; confidently showing off her transformation from naive bombshell of former roles to this nutty, outgoing, and manipulative Allen-esque femme. The only problem is that there seems to be no smooth transformation; Johansson mumbles her dialogue, she has no talent for physical comedy, and strives too hard to inhabit the same neurosis Allen's character has, unsuccessfully.

While it's a patent lack for comedy that betrays Johansson, it is also Allen's writing that's at fault. Allen conceives Sondra as a female version of his offscreen and onscreen self. Allen's obsession for Johansson is quite apparent --- the conversations between them tend to prolong endlessly. These exchanges aren't necessarily helpful to the plot, nor are they always funny (mostly amusing, to be honest), but there's a certain sense that they have to be there to satisfy Allen's ego; that there might exist a chemistry between him and Johansson, which sadly isn't true.

While the murder mystery stretches the imagination to a great extent, I would've preferred that believability remain intact. However, in Allen's mind, logic is thrown out the window to satisfy his cinematic and narrative quirks. A Brooklyn magician with absolutely no sense of stage finesse successfully lands a gig in London; a wealthy up-and-coming political figure of semi-royal background befriends and romantizes a girl she hardly knows, at a whim; among others. The film is really quite a mess; it's imaginative at times but fails in a way that is already very predictable with Allen.