Thursday, May 31, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

This is quite possibly Fincher's most mature film ever. I always thought of Fincher as a concept director; his films are always cool because he exploits the possibilities of unique scenarios --- Se7en (1995), with serial killings attached to the seven capital sins; Fight Club (1999), with that underground organization and its revolutionary ideas; the underwhelming Panic Room (2002) that happens within the confines of a residence made unique by the existence of a security room. All these films are carried by their concepts rather than by involving or thought-provoking narratives and characters.

In Zodiac, Fincher has finally gotten past the juvenilia of concept films. Moreover, trademark Fincher visual touches were outgrown or perhaps have evolved into something more substantial, more pertinent. Those flowing mobile shots (mostly from the perspective of inanimate objects) have been sprinkled in Fincher's entire filmography, yet only in Zodiac do they acquire a meaning that goes beyond the statement of "cool." For example, when Fincher's camera follows the mail-cart through the San Francisco Chronicle's offices, it doesn't evoke that annoying feeling of mere gimmickry but instead, carries with it the implication of the mobility and perpetuation of communication, and its after-effects on society.

There are four characters to take note of in David Fincher's excellent Zodiac. The first is the serial killer who calls himself Zodiac, whose ominous frame we barely see at the film's first violent murder; shooting with absolute gusto and delight, absent any remorse or conscious or intelligent effort to finish off the murder he started. The second is cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who works for the San Francisco Chronicle and considers reading and books (which are practically the same thing) as his diversions in life. The third is Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who is tasked, along with his long-time partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) to solve the Zodiac killings. The fourth character is columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), news writer for the Chronicle.

Through these four characters, Fincher delineates humanity's capability to obsess, which is practically what Zodiac is all about. The serial killer is compelled to traverse the lengths of California to murder innocent victims; particularly obsessed with the idea stolen from the film The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel & Ernest Schoedsack, 1932). That perception that humanity is both the hunter and the hunted compels him to play both roles; first, by seeking out easy victims and second, by planting clues and inviting participants (through the media) in his own hunt where he is the clever prey.

The participants in the serial killer's game are of course, the police and the amateur detective who gets so pre-occupied with the puzzle that it becomes an unhealthy obsession --- quite possibly equal to that of the Zodiac killer. The opportunist in the entire endeavor is Paul Avery, who claims the entire Zodiac fiasco as his journalistic masterpiece --- there's no intention to solve the mystery, just enough fuel to get his monopoly on the enterprise going. Through the interplay of these great obsessions, a phenomenon is created; one in which the media, the police, the perpetrators, and the general public are intertwined in genuine confusion and paranoia.

It's all brilliant stuff and Fincher tries his best not to overdo the brilliance. Everything's kept in an air of vagueness; It keeps you uneasy and in constant wonder if the Zodiac mystery has been solved, or if there really is a Zodiac killer, or are the presumptions that there is a single killer and the clues connect with each other a mere result of red tape, creativity, and self-assured conclusions.

There's no actual resolution in the mysteries of the Zodiac killer (not in a legal or factual way), although it seems that the four characters' obsessions have been resolved in various denominations. The paranoia has faded but the legacy of the killer floats in the infinite world of media and communication, to the satisfaction of the hunt-crazed killer. Graysmith has led himself to believe that his life's grandiose puzzle has been solved. The inspector, through Graysmith has closed that chapter in his life, and the self-serving, booze-guzzling reporter has squeezed the opportunity for all its worth to him and has ran out of steam.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Baliw (2007)

Baliw (Redd Ochoa, 2007)
English Title: Crazy

My biggest gripe with Redd Ochoa's Baliw (Crazy) is not that it's poorly made, but simply because it doesn't have a story worth telling; or more accurately, the film that it ambitioned itself to be is different from the one that was shown onscreen. In a way, it feels like the film is suffering from its own schizophrenia --- when it advertises itself as a story about second chances and redemption, what it really is is a confused little film about the cruelties of life, period; certainly nothing about redemption except disattached conversations that seemingly have nothing to do with where the story is going.

As mentioned, the film isn't poorly made. With a budget that is merely a fraction of the amount of money used to feed the cast and crew of a big budgeted pirates film, producer-writer-director Redd Ochoa was forced to rely on his own raw talent, and the talent that was provided to him. The film is actually quite well-edited. The cinematography is apt and aware of the visual disadvantages of the digital medium thus preventing the usual errors that accompany low-budget Filipino filmmaking.

There were some instances wherein Ochoa was able to maximize his resources and deliver sequences that show remarkable mastery of the film language, like the opening sequence which begins with a vivid portrayal of the usual hustle and bustle of ghetto Manila before turning into a high-octane foot chase between masked criminal elements and police officers. It ends quite violently, with the two cops violently murdered by the robbers inside an abandoned warehouse. At that instance, the film showed great promise --- there's an irreprehensible viciousness that is shown; can there be redemption for someone that animalistic, that cruel?

Then the film suddenly halted; busying itself by telling the story of a perfect family who crosses path with the titular psychopath (Ryan Eigenmann, who reprises the role he played in Peque Gallaga's Gangland (1998)). It talks about foundlings and how the church gives them second chances by taking them in and providing for them shelter and love. It also talks about moral choices in life; subjects, by themselves, are signals for a story of redemption.

And indeed, the film is a story of redemption, but not a very powerful one. Instead of focusing on the interesting character, the murderous psychopath, it concentrates on the lone survivor (Joshua Deocareza) of a massacre, who by a twist of fate, crosses path again with the psychopath. Instead of treating the psychopath as a human character, it is treated as a mere case study --- a cinematic example how the theory of 'nature and nurture' can bring about the worst in people.

Ochoa spends so much time in detailing things that aren't necessarily connected with the film's outcome --- did I really need to know why the psychopath turned up that way when it's not really his redemption story but another's; did I really have to be morally bothered by second chances and life choices when the film will end with nothing of absolute pertinence resolved. In the end, I was unaffected, annoyed, and severely shortchanged.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

101 Reykjavik (2000)

101 Reykjavik (Baltasar Kormákur, 2000)

Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) is in his late-twenties yet he hasn't worked a day in his life. He lives with his mother (Hanna María Karlsdóttir), who still purchases his underwear for him. He rationalizes his voluntary unemployment by saying that at 16, he loses child support but gains unemployment benefits which will accrue until he is old enough to collect welfare. He is not only physically near-sighted, but also adopts that with his philosophy in living life. He has no plans exceeding the weekend, which is mostly spent with friends inside a crowded bar wherein patrons exchange kisses, hugs, and bodily fluids in careless abandon.

That is Reykjavik, the capital to Europe's disattached offspring. Hlynur claims that no one wants to live in Reykjavik and its only residents are those who were born and unfortunately stuck there. The streets are empty and covered daily with inches of piled-up snow. The only thing worse than the city is the country wherein the upper middle crust fancifully brag about their sofa sets, Toyotas, and china imported from Glasgow. It's a city frozen by its fated geographic location, and the residents of the address of 101 Reykjavik are its prime specimens of victims of the city's inflicted ennui.

Hlynur's on-and-off girlfriend Hófí (Þrúður Vilhjálmsdóttir) desperately longs for him to return her consistent advances; yet as Hlynur adamantly narrates, he is sexually dysfunctional. That doesn't stop him from doing the rounds of a bumming bachelor in snowy Iceland. The film's start which, with admirable persistence, gives us a drastic overview of routinary Reykjavik living, may be a little bit too tedious --- with Hlynur's witty and sometimes politically incorrect voice-over quips to do the lone job of keeping me strangled with the city residents' curse of perpetual boredom.

When flamenco dancer Lola (Victoria Abril) suddenly enters Hlynur's life through his mother who decides to come out and express her affections for the lesbian Spaniard, things start to change. There's a metaphoric thawing of everything that has been frozen --- life, sex, plans, and maturity. The boredom of Icelandic day-to-day living has reached its end, and Hlynur is forced to re-think and re-assess the way he has been living.

101 Reykjavik is supposedly based on factual events, yet the contrivances in the film are far too fantastically convenient for cinematic exploitation, that I certainly think there's a bit of tweaking done to maximize the story. However, through the film's open-minded utilization of expanded sketches of Icelandic living, director Baltasar Kormákur was able to adequately address the concerns of the direction-less, with the added bonus of making the entire exercise farcical, funny and very entertaining.

Think about it, the plot of 101 Reykjavik could've served its purpose as a downer drama. However, in the hands of Kormákur, depression is prevented and what's left is a comical (probably a bit sitcom-ish) and light-hearted confection, which is much-suited for the tastes of its audiences in these trying times.

Friday, May 25, 2007

They Live (1988)

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

The world in John Carpenter's They Live is very similar to ours --- multi-racial with class structures divided by earning and spending capacity. The only difference is that in Carpenter's warped world, a huge conspiracy has successfully hidden the awful truth from humanity. Aliens whose heads are shaped like skinless skulls sporting insect-like eyeballs has transformed humanity into greedy, money-starved creatures by means of propaganda. Through television, these aliens have hypnotized humanity into thinking that the aliens look like one of us, and their un-creative and almost fascist statements are gorgeous ads and literature.

A wanderer (pro-wrestler Roddy Piper) walks into Detroit looking for a job. After searching in vain, he ends up working in a construction site and living in a tent city beside a mysterious church. He ends up discovering sunglasses that allow him to see the world for what it really is --- a society that mindlessly follows the uni-directional orders of those aliens walking, dining, and socializing among us.

Carpenter's motives are crystal clear: that consumerism is bad; avarice is evil; and that the true divide of humanity is between the controlling elite (the film's ugly extra-terrestials) and the suppressed working class. From the film's first few frames, you can tell Carpenter's disgust with society --- that the city of high rise buildings and expensive consumer products can live side by side with unemployment and poverty. The elite is overprotective of its powerful place in society, utilizing schemes and even the government to secure its place. The working class, however, is boiling to its limits, just waiting for that right time and that right opportunity to unravel to the world the elite's grand conspiracy.

At the center of the working class' battle is the newcomer, who with his determination and curiosity lands a more worthwhile job in ridding the world of its unwelcomed guests. Piper is most certainly not an actor --- he's all muscle, all steroids, all androgen without a granule of wit or cunning, which makes him perfect for that central role of the angry representative of the abused humanity. He is stoic in a way that rocks and stones are stoic; his emotionality doesn't pass through the thickness of his manly hide; which is why he can't have his way with Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) nor seduce her to his cause.

In the middle of Carpenter's modern-day fable on humanity's addiction with greed and consumerism is a prolonged fight between Piper and Keith David (who plays the wanderer's doubting sidekick Frank). There's an almost deadpan humorous quality to the dubious and indulgent exercise; there's that clinging feeling that the sequence simply doesn't belong to the pic but strangely, it fits right in and even deepens Carpenter's social commentary. Instead of merely being a critique on the elite's stronghold on society through its devious machinations, the film also tackles the working class' innate inability to unite. There's absolutely no question as to why the world has become such a feasible place for the aliens' enterprise --- it's because we are too willing or too involved with our individual concerns to pay true attention to what is happening elsewhere.

In the end, the aliens have become so ingrained in human society that it probably won't matter whether they look like walking skeletons. We've come to drink with them, have sex with them, eat dinners with them, transact businesses with them --- it's quite possible that we've become them. What good will that little revelation do but shock us momentarily. Will it shock us to leave the pleasures of avarice behind? I think not.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Gore Verbinski, 2007)

Jerry Bruckheimer's biggest moneymaking franchise has spawned its third offspring entitled At World's End. It is certainly the largest, the loudest, the longest, the most long-winded, and most confusing, and the most star-studded of the three. It can be said that everything Bruckheimer learned in decades producing such brainless summer blockbusters was put into use in making At World's End. It has to have lots of explosions, a plot that isn't required to be understood, a harem of Hollywood's biggest stars, and a director who has exactly the same sensibilities when it comes to filmmaking --- that films are consumer products, that success isn't achieved through undeniable artistry but through box office supremacy.

The first film in the franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), was essentially Jack Sparrow's (Johnny Depp) film with everyone else (probably with the exception of Geoffrey Rush who plays Captain Barbossa) serving as mere wallpaper to Depp's amusing mannerisms. Dead Man's Chest (2006) made the mistake of fleshing out the characters to the disadvantage of Jack Sparrow (and the audience), who turns into a mere plot device for the yawn-inducing romance and moral awakening of the film's lovebirds, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley).

At World's End starts in Singapore with Barbossa and Elizabeth bargaining with the pirate lord of Singapore Sao Feng (Chow Yun-fat) to lend them a crew and a ship to rescue Jack from Davy Jones' (Bill Nighy) locker, a sort of desolate limbo between this life and the after-life. The characters, already used to the norms of buccaneering, deal, double-deal, and triple-deal to achieve their penultimate goals. Characters appear and re-appear, objects are suddenly infused with narrative importance, and everything by film's end, start to make a semblance of sense; notwithstanding the fact that to get to that conclusive logic, the film made long-winded short-cuts and long-cuts that would either make you fuming with rage or bored to death, depending on your tolerance for narrative non-existence in blockbuster films.

Jack does return, now with a sense of purpose and a definite moral fiber which makes the character a tad less interesting. Whenever Depp stops the impersonation and starts unraveling those newly-found inner purpose, he becomes tedious and repetitive. It's good to know that there's a suppression of that here, and Jack Sparrow still delivers (although now somewhat a tired presence) a bevy of well-earned chuckles (largely due to Depp who looks like he's having fun with the pirate). Sadly, the business of preaching and moralizing would now belong to the film's bore-some two-some, Elizabeth and Will, and to a certain degree Captain Barbossa (who made a complete u-turn from vicious villain to upright and unkempt pirate).

Clocking at around fifteen minutes less than three hours, At World's End is unjustifiably long. There's a sense that the writers and director Gore Verbinski are trying to achieve epic status --- a lofty goal especially coming from a film that got lucky primarily because of its casting decisions. The epic sense does bog down the film and complicates it thus lessening possible entertainment value. Part and parcel of the film's de facto epic status are the rousing speeches mostly delivered with polyester gusto. Do we really need all this? I don't think so. But the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean now have loftier ambitions than cashing in on the proved franchise --- a place in the annals of history. Why else would Verbinski lovingly shoot that kissing scene amidst all the ruckus of sea battle, complete with emotional scoring by Hanz Zimmer and in slow motion; to make something more out of that lifeless romance, I guess.

At World's End may not have been successful in lifting the franchise from moneymaking cow for Disney to instant classic. It is however an adequate finish for a trilogy that made money beyond expectations. It's bloated and self-indulgent, but more than that, it is sufficiently entertaining. I think I'm satisfied and can't take no more of pirates. Next dish, please.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Paprika (2006)

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

From the realist-humanist comedy of Tokyo Godfathers (2003), anime director Satoshi Kon returns to the subject of weird, of the thin penetratable line that divides reality and dreams, which he explored previously. This time, Kon invades the world's collective nightmare with images that are found in the ordinary, the exotic, and the downright disturbing. Refrigerators containing boomboxes, japanese dolls and musical bands composed of frogs, freaks and creepy monsters --- these are the denizens of Kon's nightmarish dreamworld. Of course, at the center of everything is sprite-ish heroine Paprika who hops from one dream to another to cure the psychologically bothered.

Such is made possible by an invention called the DC-Mini (eerily sounds like the mp3 players being produced by Macintosh, which fascinatingly has similar attributes to the film's dream-sharing implement). Some DC-Mini's, which are still in its initial stages, have been stolen by so-called terrorists. The effects of the theft are tremendous; men are being trapped in a dream-state while still awake. This is caused by the inter-mixing of the dreams in the DC-Mini's master program, which collects all the dreams, supposedly for psychiatric uses.

Middle in the film, an interesting point is made --- that the internet is similar in aspects with the effects of the fictional DC-Mini. The allegations are actually disturbingly true. Through the internet's expansive reaches, ideas (which are basically as limitless as human dreams) are exchanged and molded into one massive and global phenomenon.

It's such a delicious concept --- sci-fi that only the Japanese can tell so perfectly without being drowned by insubstantial logic. To dig into the plot to uncover the glaring lapses in logic and the noticeable leaps in narrative consistency is obviously a disservice to the gargantuan "cool" that Kon serves us. Kon is a director that mixes the absurdism of Lynch with the freak-fetishism of Fellini, spiced up by traditional hentai kinkiness and gonzo science fiction (the same way he took a plot in Tokyo Godfathers that is essentially John Ford, and mixed it with the optimism and sentimentality of Capra, by way of something akin to the comic weirdness of neurotic Allen). Everything should be taken as they are; dream logic reigns supreme; and every scene engrosses and fascinates.

Is Paprika merely that, a delectable confection for the color-starved eyes and the realism-confined mind? Not exactly. There's sound philosophy underneath the gorgeous pandemonium. Pop-culture icon Paprika, described as everybody's dreamgirl, is in reality, a black haired scientist who dons black hair and clinically white lab gowns as opposed to Paprika's striking orange hair and mini-outfits. It is that glaring duality of humanity that becomes the root of the film's conflict --- of the insufficiency of the real world as compared to the boundless possibilities of human dreams; multiply those individual dreams by a thousand and the result are powers of god-like magnitude.

It is such corrupting effects of the limitless possibilities of human dreams that is juxtaposed with the same dreams' curative powers. Dreaming, in Kon's work, is a tool that perverses and mutates humanity the same way as it allows humanity to identify itself. It is that downplay of dualities that resonates as the film's thematic core. Can such dual natures co-exist in the realist frame; can reality allow the penetration of dream logic; can the limitless nature of dream invade the grim, dim, and gloomy inconveniences of real life? By film's end, it seems like Kon is suggesting that it may --- a romantic revelation ends with what feels like a dreamy fairy tale ending; and the film's troubled cop reunites with his cinematic passion.

It is for that reason why I prefer Kon to most of his anime peers (like Katsuhiro Otomo or Mamoru Oshii). Kon is more interested in the human aspect of science fiction (or everyday tales) rather than the obviously visceral or the subconsciously mind-boggling. His films are always rewarding despite the possibility that they might not always make perfect sense. Paprika offers that same kind of comfort --- that underneath the gratuitous excesses of Kon's wild imagination is a distinctly human heart, not mechanical or cartoonic.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (Jasmila Zbanik, 2006)

Grbavica is a suburban district in Sarajevo which was attacked by the Serbs during the Bosnian war. Years after the end of that savage war, Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a single mother, is trying to find enough money to send her daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) to her school's annual trip. Although already over, the war has a lingering consequence in the psyche of the residents of the suburb, including Esma and her daughter.

Sara's school, in fact, are full of kids orphaned by the war --- their fathers being martyrs, and as a gratuity by the school, these kids do not have to pay just as long as they present a certificate that their dads are indeed martyrs. Esma's case is much more complex as she can be seen struggling through both financial and personal crises; her psychological stability, years after the war, has been affected drastically. Little gestures and things that would remind her of an incident during the war she has decided to keep a secret from Sara would instantly modify her mood --- forcing her to take in some pills to stabilize herself.

Jasmila Zbanik's Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams is a film that cries out for hope amidst the obvious after-effects of a violent war. The Bosnian war has left the city of Sarajevo in a complete stand-still as its citizens are trying to rebuild their own identities since most of their relatives have been massacred and burned, their whereabouts are still being continuously dug up through the numerous mass graves that are being discovered. Like these mass graves that force the citizens of Sarajevo to heal up and step forward, secrets of the past have to be made known to lessen the obvious divide that separates mother and child.

Zbanik's film moves with subtle grace, just giving enough nuances to force the plot to a direction that is, by the pic's end, truly rewarding. Despite the seemingly permanent scars of the war, new romances are allowed to blossom and friendships remain intact. Esma re-encounters romance through her club's resident thug and bodyguard Pelda (Leon Lucev), while Sara befriends and then falls for another offspring of a martyr, Samir (Kenan Catic). The film insists on the normalcy of post-war Sarajevo, and truly, peace has brought with it its boon. However, there's still that lingering stench of hidden and covered hurts that slowly seep out of gestation. We are made aware that the dilemma is not only within the household of Elma but also exists elsewhere; one of the film's most poignant moments happens inside a forum wherein a victim shares her pains from the war. Amidst the heart-wrenching tale is laughter from an obviously bothered woman --- her senses ultimately modified by the war-time experience.

That is exactly what makes Zbanik's film different from other post-war pics. Its point-of-view is distinctly feminist. It edifies womanhood and its corresponding resolute and strength. Against the male characters in the film, the women characters radiate with much more humanity and a suffering insistence in staying in their homeland. It feels like Zbanik wants to refocus the attention to the modern heroes of the Bosnian war --- the mothers, the daughters, and the friends who continue to shoulder the consequences of the war.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Goshu the Cellist (1982)

Goshu the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982)
Japanese Title: Sero hiki no Gôshu

The first few scenes that director Isao Takahata allows us to see in Goshu the Cellist are beautiful portraits of nature and pastoral Japan. Takahata's patient eye can be appreciated as Ozu-like, allowing his audience to partake of the beauty of his animated compositions. Against the music of Ludwig van Beethoven's symphony, the scenes suddenly take a more familiar form, similar to those vignettes in Disney's Fantasia (1940) and the much more recent reincarnation Fantasia 2000 (1999).

The visuals follow the rhythm and the escalations of Beethoven's music. Then we see Takahata's orchestra fervently playing Beethoven's symphony. They are merged, flowed, and flown with the rest of the imagery; the orchestra members take part in the "visual storm" their music has produced. Then, the imagery dies down. The conductor tells Goshu, one of the two cello players, that he is not with the orchestra's rhythm. They try again. The conductor again stops the music, but instead of scolding Goshu, scolds another member. Finally, the conductor gives up and again points at Goshu, telling him that he knows the music, but plays it without any emotions. The conductor comedically leaves the room, the rest of the orchestra follows, leaving poor Goshu alone, and obviously bothered by his conductor's comments.

This gem of a film, made by Takahata long before the creation of the now-famous Ghibli Studio, is refreshing in its simplicity and sincerity. The plot, adapted from a novelette by Kenji Miyazawa, flows with admirable grace. Takahata doesn't merely tell the story of Goshu's dreamy involuntary training by several animal neighbors (a cat, a cuckoo, a racoon, and a mouse) but instead savors each unnatural and surprising encounter for all its worth. Goshu's encounter with the cat and the cuckoo are ripe with both overt physical humor and witticism. Goshu's encounter with the naive racoon and the mouse mother and child is gorgeously painted with subtle emotionality and cuteness (a common trait of all encounters).

Seeing Goshu the Cellist gives you a clue as to Takahata's growing talent in portraying humanity through animation. True, the characters aren't lifelike and the scenarios are mixtures of real events and fantasies. However, Takahata never detaches from the truthfulness of every scenario. For example, when Goshu is forced to play a solo piece as an encore in the concert. He doesn't decide to show-off by playing a gorgeous Beethoven tune. Instead, he is swelled by anger and decides to play a melody he used to torture the cat. That by itself betrays the supposed climax of the film but instead it shows that Takahata's characters aren't merely following the guidelines of artificial narratives. Instead, they breath and react like real human beings --- their needs, aspirations and failures in life are therefore given a greater cinematic weight than those produced by the machinations of a plot device.

Takahata of course improves on this much later on. In Grave of the Fireflies (1988), he livens the tale of two youngsters driven by the war to starvation. These youngsters are directed by their stubborn youthfulness and pride to the tragic result. In Pom Poko (1994), he turns mythical racoon creatures into a myriad of human personalities co-existing in a time of change and dire need. The two later films are gratifying exercises of Takahata's understanding of human psychology; all wrapped up in beautifully created imagery.

This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shrek the Third (2007)

Shrek the Third (Chris Miller & Raman Hui, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has finally dawned upon us and made its presence really felt. The days can't get any hotter and the people can't get any grumpier. It's also the time wherein Hollywood will unleash upon the world (voluntarily or involuntarily) its army of glossy, greasy and gargantuan cinematic productions. These films are mostly bereft of any intellectual or artistic value. Their reason for existence is mostly to milk people of their hard-earned cash. Any other merit can be considered as supplementary to the film's entertainment value.

Shrek the Third is a prime example of the 'summer film.' It is an extension of the profitability of the first film, which during its time, was original in its irreverence. Nowadays, irreverence is the norm. Almost every kid's movie made since the success of Shrek (Andrew Adamson, 2001; mostly the CGI-animated ones) bank on stabs at pop culture and fads. Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, 2004) is a spiraling mess whose main source of humor is ridiculing modern culture through visual gags and tired witticisms without saying anything else of pertinence; and to think that Shrek 2 is considered good at that, isn't saying much about the rest of these type of films.

So Shrek (Mike Myers) is back, and is being touted as the next king of Far Far Away (after being married to ogress Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz)). Unready for the responsibility of keeping a kingdom in order, he goes on a trip with trustworthy sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to find the other heir to the throne, Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), in an effort to reclaim his former glory, lures the villains of the fairy book world to take advantage of Shrek's absence, and invade the kingdom.

The premise is supposed to be funny, but it's really not. Shrek is entertaining because its premise was attached to a goal of ridiculing Disney and its tradition of fairy tale flicks. Shrek 2 and now Shrek the Third are merely extensions and thus the luster of that premise is lost. Moreover, Shrek the Third threw away a chunk of the fun irreverence of the first two films, and instead, opted to churn out something so generic, so safe, and so undeniably family-friendly, that adult viewers may completely lose interest midway. So let's see --- Shrek has turned into a mild-mannered father-to-be; Donkey, while still fast-talking and humorously annoying, is taken out of the limelight by the kindly ogre and the uninteresting "other" sidekick Puss in Boots, whose Latino charms are just lost in translation. Arthur is an uninteresting addition --- a Harry Potter-ish creation whose role in the film is mostly for moralistic value. If there's an Arthur, there must be a Merlin (voiced by Eric Idle), but the Merlin here is a tired reincarnation of bumbling fool --- clearly unhumorous and a mere padding to the rest of the hit-or-miss exercise of comedy.

For an animated film that has a star-studded voice cast, Shrek the Third sounds relatively uninteresting. Myers' Irish-ogrish accent is wasted by the melodramatic set-ups. Timberlake is boringly goody-goody and his efforts in translating his showbiz cool to his animated character is deflated by flat characterization. Banderas sounds bored as Diaz sounds boring. Murphy shines, but not as much as in the first two films. The only person who seemed to be having fun was John Cleese, who in his shortened role, turned a frog-king into a bad of riotous laughter. Unfortunately, Julie Andrews, is merely wallpaper in the film as the not-so-famous voice actors (who voiced for the other fairy tale creatures) were much more fun. Everett is as sly and enjoyable as ever.

The screenplay is also clearly at fault. There are gems of ideas that were wasted (the Broadway finale, I thought was a nice stab at Disney's efforts in turning their fairy tale movies into musicales) because the film didn't want to push forward the first film's promise. Andrew Adamson (who withdrew from directing the film to concentrate his efforts on the Narnia sequel) is replaced by Chris Miller (his credits include Madagascar (2005)) and Raman Hui --- their efforts, I thought, were satisfactory since the film does look beautiful. However, an explainable air of drabness looms throughout the film. Inconsistent pacing, inconsistent voice acting, and inconsistent effectivity of the inflicted humor betrays the technical efforts.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rang De Basanti (2006)

Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006)
English Title: Paint It Yellow

Sue (Alice Patten) is a British filmmaker who wants to make a film about the young revolutionaries that inspired India's independence movement. After being rejected by her producers (they said that Bhagat Singh will not make any money, as compared to films about Mohandas Gandhi), she packs her bags and flies off to India to start a film from scratch. With the help of Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), she completes her cast consisting of happy-go-lucky college students whose lives start to mirror the lives of the idealistic martyrs of Sue's film.

Rang de Basanti, translated into English as "Paint It Yellow," is an edgy Bollywood film. It is overtly political and has a message that can easily be mistaken by its viewers as consenting to vigilante justice. Its brand of patriotic martyrism would raise the eyebrows of those who acknowledge modernist grievance procedure, through the supposedly available and free windows that democracy provides. It seems that writer-director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, in an attempt to convert anti-colonialist aspirations to the ires of India's disgruntled youth, has come up with a film whose raison d'etre can easily be misunderstood. In his attempt to put upon a pedestal neglected patriots like Bhagat Singh and his band of revolutionaries, he also gives a brash go-signal for unflinching and unlawful activism.

It's a message film, which is all wrapped-up with the refreshing and generally jovial film methodology of Bollywood. There's an attempt to lessen the unreality of the song-and-dance numbers as most of the numbers are filmed in MTV-fashion instead of the traditional Bollywood way wherein characters would suddenly start singing and dancing. There's a genuine effort to reach out to the film's targeted audience, the youth. The film's heroes are all representative of the carefree generation whose main preoccupation in life is to find means to get away from the growing economic troubles of India, while still enjoying the obvious elements of their youth --- their bachelor-hood, nights of endless alcohol-drinking, road trips, and so forth.

It's beautifully made. The historical portions of the film (supposedly made by Sue; although I'm quite surprised she was able to make what seems to be a well-made film with only one camera and a non-existent crew) are done with sepia tones while the contemporary portions are filmed with lush glossy colors.

The cast's rapport, I must admit, is quite magnetic. Aamir Khan, who plays someone who is half of his real age, carries off the role with enjoyable game-ness; his wisecracks and witticisms never feel forced and his abrupt change from the group's joker to its unofficial leader is made comfortably palatable by the actor's range and undeniable charm. It is that effective camaraderie that embraces the film's emotional core; their individual interactions pulsate up to the point wherein what Mehra seeks to establish is tested (early in the second half of the film wherein the bonds of friendship are tested by governmental intrusion) --- the effect is wonderful; through what seems to be contrived and corny, a heartfelt depth becomes apparent.

Rang De Basanti is a problematic film. It is undoubtedly made with sincere rousing spirit, but the result can be construed to mean anything from espousing terrorism to comforting the Indian youth. It is best when treated as merely a piece of entertainment, with a rousing message that is intertwined with its emotional core. As for me, I'll take it for what it is --- a mainstream Bollywood film that seeks to push the envelopes of the healthy yet rather conservative national cinema, and quite successfully at that.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Paraguayan Hammock (2006)

Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina, 2006)
Guarani Title: Hamaca paraguaya

The first thing we see in Paz Encina's Paraguayan Hammock is a forest clearing. We hear incessant barking, insects making sounds, and a rooster crowing. An elderly married couple enters the clearing; the woman, fanning herself feverishly, sets up a hammock, as the man stands nearby. The man begins the conversation which would last up to the end of the feature. There's no emotional escalation in their conversation --- just tedious nagging by the woman, mundane dialogues by the man, and a whole lot of complaining about the dog that would never stop barking, the rain that would never start falling, and the son that wouldn't come back from the war.

We don't see much happening. First-time feature length filmmaker Encina belongs to that school of filmmaking wherein less is more; wherein the moments of non-action opens up to contemplation. Minutes pass by with the couple barely doing anything. When Encina decides to change locales (from the forest clearing to the middle of a sugar plantation), there's still nothing narratively substantial being inflicted. Encina's stationary camera is just there, silently capturing the substance of waiting. It's actually quite effective. Despite the few moments wherein the imagination would wildly rebel against the inadequacy of Encina's visual sparsity, there's a genuine grace in the day-to-day inactivity she captures.

If there's one thing that Encina does well, it is the act of capturing the passing of time. Her extremely long takes of the forest clearing allows us to observe the slight change in natural lighting; through the shades provided by the trees, we see the sun peeking or hiding as Encina cuts to the darkened sky, which presumably details an upcoming rainfall. She captures very well the time element in labor as when the man clears the sugarcanes, or the woman does the laundry in a nearby stream. Time passes in Paraguayan Hammock in staggered fluidity; there's no cinematic pulse or rhythm, just a spare yet very natural temporal movement.

Accompanying the spare visuals are the voice-overs. The voice-overs are not synchronized with what's happening visually, although there's an indirect or overlapping connection. The scenes outside the forest clearing with the solitary hammock, we overhear the individual conversations the man and woman have with first, their son who is on his way to fight in the war, and second, the village doctor and an army messenger respectively. The dialogue accompanying the forest clearing scene are classic conversation pieces of those who are waiting. The question Encina poses is what exactly are the elderly couple waiting for.

Through the early conversations, the reliable guess is that the elderly couple is eagerly awaiting their son's return. However, through the flashbacks and the succeeding eventualities, it can be inferred that the return of the soldier son is now merely an excuse to wait. The hammock, that paraphernalia that signifies the prolonged wait, has turned into the couple's object of their daily routine of waiting. For what? Under the guise of awaiting the spoils of an unnecessary war, they're just waiting for the rain to end years of drought or perhaps death, as alluded to in their final conversation wherein the man's voice weakens and the woman starts confessing about her fear of the darkness, as it is the same darkness that happens when she closes her eyes.

The rain is of course an end to the misery through a renewed hope. Death, on the other hand, is an end to the waiting; an end to everything. Encina's film can be representative of her nation's cinema, one that is ultimately hopeful. After all, Paraguayan Hammock was commissioned, along with works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming Liang, for Mozart's Visionary Cinema: New Crowned Hope, in celebration of the famous composer. The film ends with a black out; but with a very recognizable sound continuing, that of the rain, symbol of hope for a nation that according to this Encina's tremendous work is in a constant state of waiting.

This is my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

28 Weeks Later (2007)

28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)

Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), I thought, had all the positive and negative traits of a typical Boyle film. Boyle, who has been switching genres with a lot less quality consistency as let's say fellow Brit Michael Winterbottom, has genuine lyricism in all his efforts. Whenever he strives for the metaphorical, he assumes an aesthetic control that is quite surprising. However, he tends to lose steam and when he totally loses his initial steam, his films burst into an inexplicable mess. That's what exactly happened with 28 Days Later. The film had its moments of valuable lyricism or effective filmmaking (that gorgeous roadtrip against a backdrop of what seems to be a peaceful British countryside; that suspenseful entry to an infested church; respectively) yet as a whole, it is betrayed by an anti-climactic thematic downfall to unredeemable tedium.

The concept of 28 Days Later, however, is golden. Like George Romero's zombie flicks, the storyline of an incurable virus turning those infected into ravenous zombie-like murderers that is quarantined within the main British isle, is so ripe for possible sequels and spin-offs. As expected, a sequel is made --- grossly entitled 28 Weeks Later (a sequel would probably be entitled 28 months or years later). It's not directed by Boyle but by Spanish horror director Juan Carlos Fresnadilla (none of his previous films I've seen).

You spot the differences immediately. Starting from the opening scene wherein we get to see a couple foraging an abandoned kitchen for food; they're obviously related, probably married; we learn that they are not alone but are merely a part of a group of survivors. It's not as eyecatching as Boyle's opening where he had then-newcomer Cillian Murphy alone inside a hospital room, and the moment he steps out of the hospital, an eerily empty London embraces his newly-recovered senses. Fresnadillo clearly doesn't want to dillydally and doesn't see the value of establishment. He throws us the facts right away, clearly banking on his audience's familiarity with Boyle's original work, and takes us straight to the action. A few minutes later, the survivors are chased, and killed.

If Fresnadillo's concern is to create a film that is more visceral, more gruesome, more violent than its predecessor, he certainly achieved it. He doesn't waste any time trying to scare you, shock you, or gross you out. However, I think Fresnadillo belongs to that school of filmmaking wherein cameras are supposed to be in a state of perpetual motion, and a shot should not last more than 2 seconds. The film is edited erratically, and the camera movements are unbearably jerky, that it's almost impossible to tell who's biting who, who's escaping from who, and so on. There are certain points in the film where that shooting style could've suited the state of pandemonium, but to turn the entire film into a full-length MTV, without the catchy music, is just plain torture.

It's quite unfortunate that the film suffers from a tired aesthetic style (I would've preferred Boyle who despite his MTV-tendencies still knows when to stop and just enjoy that moment of serenity). The story (co-written by Fresnadillo with Rowan Joffe, Jesús Olmo and E. L. Lavigne) actually has brilliant moments. Sure, there are certain instances wherein the characters start losing a hold on common sense or logic, but as a sequel to a film that draws its powers from a ridiculous idea to begin with, the writers didn't do that bad. London 28 weeks later looks like a more affluent Baghdad --- surrounded by Americans (who unsurprisingly are busy encroaching on the privacy of the re-patriated refugees, or giving themselves pats in the back for saving the world in their own pace and means), who are armed and have their own protocols, heartless and goal-oriented, which is, unsurprisingly, unknown to the repatriates.

28 Weeks Later exploits that idea. There are harrowing moments that seem to allude to our contemporary wars (at one point, soldiers would start shooting at anything that moves; then later on, raze an entire city based on mere protocol). The themes do not have the philosophical underpinnings or the sophistication of Romero's zombie parables. The allusions are quite plainly mere metaphors that manage to distract me from the film's want of aesthetic or lyrical quality. That's when I start to miss Boyle who, with all his faults as a filmmaker, still manage to churn out new things and ideas from concepts predominantly borrowed from masters of the genre.

Monday, May 07, 2007

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
Korean Title: Saenghwalui balgyeon

The titles of Hong Sang-soo films are by themselves exquisite works of art. Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) is a bastardization of the title of Marcel Duchamp's artwork; Duchamp's art itself turning into a sort of formal instruction for Hong's narrative experimentations. It is actually quite unfortunate that Hong's fourth film, its international title is On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, is abridged merely for commercial and practical convenience without recognizing the implications of the abridgment.

More popularly referred to as merely Turning Gate (the title of the film in its American DVD release), the film is conveniently straightforward but like Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, it can be logically divided into two distinct parts. The first part involves the typical Hong man-child Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), an actor whose last film was a commercial flop, who sojourns to a remote tourist town to visit his childhood friend. While vacationing, he is introduced to dancer Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won) who becomes romantically attached to him. The second part of the film concerns Gyung-soo's unexpected detour on his way back to Seoul. He meets Seon-young (Sang Mi Chu) on the train, follows her to her home, and becomes romantically and inconveniently linked to her, despite the knowledge that she is already married.

While touring an ancient Buddhist temple, Gyung-soo is told of the tale of the turning gate --- about a peasant who falls in love with a princess but is killed by the princess' father; upon reincarnation, the peasant turns into a snake who traps the princess. The princess thus enters the buddhist temple's turning gate asking the snake to wait for her. After several hours, the snake becomes impatient and tries to enter the gate but is prevented by rain, and thunder; thus, convincing him to just turn back and walk away.

The convenient interpretation to the film is that it is a modern retelling of the ancient Korean fable; that Hong merely reconstructs the fable turning the peasant man into Gyung-soo, the princess as the married Seon-young and the supervening events as direct allegories to the ancient tale. However, I do not see it as simply as that and Hong is an artist more enamored by the psychological implications of the past and memories than by simplistic re-introductions of Korean culture into modern life.

On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate concerns itself with the past and with that human ability to transport the past into the present --- through memories. Examine the first scene. Gyung-soo gets a call from a childhood friend, and a minute or two is spent in order for him to recall and place the voice with his reconstruction of the past. When his present state no longer suits his life (as when he wasn't cast as a player in a director's subsequent film), his escape mechanism is to go back to the past --- by visiting that childhood friend and as a side-effect, see the ancient places and hear the old tales. His relationship with Myung-sook turned sour and again, he seeks an escape; much further into the past.

Seon-young is at first a mere afterthought, a deviation from a relationship that within a few days rose and failed. Then, she gets re-introduced as an object of his past --- and Gyung-soo again undergoes the procedure of remembering her. Seon-young then becomes that object of Gyung-soo's past that he can never achieve and gain, but he perseveres. Alas, the knowledge of the tale of the turning gate consumes him. In the intertitle where we are led to believe that Gyung-soo remembers the tale of the turning gate, we become witnesses of the unwanted effects of a mis-remembered and mis-appropriated past. In Gyung-soo's case, he becomes impotent in bed, and is man-handled by the impression that he is the snake in the ancient fable. The conclusion of the film is more of a signifier that Hong has completed his uncomfortable exploration of a man who is unable to reconcile the past and the present (with his uncommon inability to remember, or remember correctly), and not merely as a closing to a modern and straightforward re-telling of an ancient Korean tale.

The utter simplification of the film's title gives you the impression that the film is merely about the tale, which for me is only one of the nuggets of the past that Gyung-soo would have to wrestle with. The film is much more than that --- it concerns the act of remembrance and of inviting oneself to an unexplored past. Hong gives us clues --- prolonged moments that connote both the serenity and chaos of remembering, that book written by the centennial author who killed himself (I'd like to believe that a hundred years on Earth would invite further misapprehensions with the past), the dual-format observed, and the almost coincidental re-acquaintances with objects of Gyung-soo's past.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Pigs and Battleships (1961)

Pigs and Battleships (Shohei Imamura, 1961)
Japanese Title: Buta to Gunkan

Irreverent and unabashedly human, Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships begins with drumrolls that would introduce a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. However, the rendition is never completed and instead mutates into something entirely different; like a tune rendered as an insult rather than as an anthem. The beautiful day-time vista of a coastal town occupied by American forces with the American flag calmly moving against the sea breeze is transformed into the night-time red-light district of that town --- pimps scrambling for horny Yankee servicemen; whores lined up advertising their bare wares; neon-lights adorning these building that house all sorts of men and women.

Clever Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) steals one of the servicemen's caps, luring him to a place where whores are selling their bodies without a sideglance on privacy, decency and honor. Sex is haggled, and performed side by side, in double-decker beds, within thin walls that separate a fully-manned kitchen with the dirty bedroom. Kinta escapes the arresting officers, meets up with his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), and talks about a plan to make money by feeding hogs. It seems that the hog industry has become very lucrative, inviting the remnants of an underground gang and Chinese businessmen to fight over the business. In the midst of the shady dealings and several backstabbings, Kinta and Haruko try to rise above the meager future that the American occupation may provide them.

Imamura's film is a biting satire; not a very funny one, but still genuinely affecting. Although the American occupation is barely seen but distinctly felt; it mostly appears as drunken servicemen roaming the red light districts, or visions of lined-up battleships dotting the ports, or the seedy hands of capitalism inching towards the disappearance of culture and norms. Imamura does not hold back in his savage portrayal of the occupation --- its effects are overtly humiliating with Japanese men becoming subservient to the whims, caprices and lusts of these Yankee soldiers, and women being sold as wives for what seems to be a desperate need to rise above the porttown poverty the war has afflicted the citizenry.

However, Imamura doesn't stop there. He also casts Japanese society in a bad light. He puts the spotlight to the honor-less desperation the defeat has brought upon Japan. It is a town wherein mothers and sisters wouldn't be bothered in prostituting their relatives to men they barely know or understand. It is a town wherein the narrow paths to a wealthy future force the men to cheat, swindle, and parasitically rely on other people's weaknesses and poverty. It is a society that can be likened to a pig pen; the citizens forcedly filling the spaces and whatever path opens is rushed upon with lethal abandon, not caring whether a living creature is mangled and stepped upon along the way.

It's uncomfortable as it is enduringly lighthearted. Imamura, through his immature male protagonist and endlessly optimistic female protagonist, bathes the scenes with a comical and oftentimes inconveniently detached atmosphere. He successfully levels the audience's attraction to the characters to a bare minimum; just enough to get us angry when a girl is gang-raped and thenafter punished for stealing some dollars, but not enough for such character inconveniences to overshadow the irreverence and satirical thematics Imamura is forwarding.

The film's climax involving thousands of hogs occupying the redlight district summarizes the entire feature. In one scene wherein a couple of gangsters involuntarily land down the sea of pigs, Imamura comically captures their faces being squeezed against moving hog flesh and is later on joined by another pig's head. It's supposed to be a tragic disaster; one that would cause the abrupt disappearance of the dreams of the female protagonist. However, the climax bursts as a cruel metaphor. The pigs have occupied the town the same way America has occupied Japan. Japanese men die and get mixed up in the stampede of hogs, the same way that the Japanese have strangled each other to gain an upper hand. Lastly, these pigs roam the red light district the same way as Japanese women have roamed the district to seduce an American man into marrying her and thus, salvaging her family. In Imamura's eyes, the world has been reduced into a world of pigs and battleships.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)

I believe comic book-movies have an immense inferiority complex. To compensate for that perceived slightness in their source materials, they usually hire the most savvy of visual effects artists, the most expensive of celebrities, and the most cutthroat of marketing specialists. Observe the horde of A-listers donning leather jackets, capes, and tights, brandishing those cleverly ridiculous one-liners like they were written by Shakespeare. Notice the bevy of explosions, or larger-than-life creations that merge real footage and computer-created images with unbelievable ease. And after debating whether you've just lost a huge amount of neurons over that two hour visual and pop culture extravaganza, enjoy your favorite oil-glazed fries and chemical-pumped drinks that are kept clean by containers that are embellished by those super heroes and super villains. We know it; it's a money-making scheme where an investment of 250 million dollars (a sizable chunk of the yearly budget of the Philippine government) is entirely risk-free for it will surely yield immense returns, yet despite that, we enjoy it well enough to dedicate a holiday just to watch it.

Most of these comic-book flicks are completely junk. They're either too full of themselves, convinced that there's actual artistic merit to all the larger-than-life escapades (like Zack Snyder's self-important and picturesque ponder-ama 300 (2007)); or too evasive of their source materials to mistakenly think out of the box and re-invent everything (Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), anyone?). A few got it right. Bryan Singer's adaptation of the X-Men franchise did a George Romero to the superhero genre by turning the entire mutant storyline into a metaphor to xenophobia, homophobia, and intolerance (that was until Brett Ratner ended the franchise with a disappointing dud). Sam Raimi took a different route --- there are no metaphors here, no overt re-inventions (probably just a bit of tweaking and modernization of the superhero), also no principled reverence to what's already written. Raimi's two previous Spider-Man flicks were outstanding entertainment; not because it pushed the genre to new literary or cinematic heights, but because it exactly knows what it is. The Spider-Man pictures were comic-book flicks that had no inferiority complex, whatsoever --- just a happy-go-lucky attitude that stuck with you.

Spider-Man 3 is probably the most happy-go-lucky of the three. Unlike the first two films which were held by a neatly constructed narrative, Spider-Man 3 is as porous as an undersea sponge. Raimi is generous enough to make us remember the events before by including snippets of the first two films in the opening creds; you reminisce those moments which now resurface as the much-organized plotlines of the previous films are restructured in your brain, supposedly preparing you for the succeeding events. Everything starts out happily (the intro actually feels like an intro for Preston Sturges screwball comedy, with all the inflicted glamor of the Big Apple and the breezy jollity of "everything going so well"), with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) spending their happy and mostly successful lives together. Harry Osborn (James Franco) gets re-introduced with fleeting complacency; Raimi dedicates more time to flesh out his new villains, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and their respective back-stories and raison d'etre's.

The narrative bogs down, surely. With all the characters and the internal dilemmas, there's an impossible task of keeping everything afloat. Raimi manages to do just that by unleashing his trademark trick --- to treat everything lightly. The film lacks the doomsday scenario of Spider-Man 2 (2004) or the passionate theatrics of Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man (2002), what it does have is genuine gusto; a convinced determination that it is a comic-book film, and should first and foremost be larger-than-life, entertaining, and escapist (the same way those comic books would make us imagine of superheroes saving the world while evading schoolwork during our childhood days). Spider-Man 3 is exactly just that; it delivers the melodramatic rigors of juvenile romanticisms, the frank yet harmless scenes of destruction of public and private property and violence upon the innocent, and the teacherly lessons of morality play (which more often than not are reflective of early comic-books, the successors of the parables of old).

Spider-Man 3 is probably the most expensive low-budget film ever. The production is clearly exquisite and expensive; but the aesthetics is distinctly Raimi. There are scenes that recall sci-fi B-movies (not merely in delivery, but also in its over-the-top mise en scene); a romantic interlude under a lovely starry night is followed by a meteorite landing that reminds you of The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958). The fight scenes, while not as eye-popping as the ones in its predecessors, are jampacked with subtle physical comedy that races alongside the hyperactive yet coherent camerawork. There are other little references to other films that surface (there's that famous scene from Boorman's Deliverance (1972) near the end, among others). And against the riproaring action, the life-and-love-threatening dramatics, the unembarrassed portrayal of basic humanity in its heroes and villains, is it's very punctual comedy, which seems to sprout out very unexpectedly, out of nowhere, yet quite justly.

Is Spider-Man 3 a good film? Yes, it is. Is it better than the first two? Probably. Is it perfect? Definitely not. Its imperfections are glaring. It is too long, sometimes a bit too self-indulgent in its ridiculosity, and spends the character and narrative investments of the first two installments with wild abandon. The first two films gave the franchise a powerful push that could keep the engine moving permanently, with its loose ends and always dissatisfied characters. The third feature is recognizably the last in the franchise (or it feels like Raimi intended that the film be the last one he'll be doing; and the rest of its future reincarnations will just feed off his legacy in the franchise); it is cleanly ended in a way Disney animated films ended (with a bright sunny day, implying a future bereft of any more problems; or at least none as apocalyptic as the previous ones) and that closing shot (which I feel belongs to a Sturges or Capra film) justifies its uncharacteristically too-happy opening, --- that the film is indeed one complete pic, and while you may wish it so, the pleas for a sequel might be unfruitful both practically and creatively.