Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Rendition (2007)

Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007)

Let's face it. We live in a world of terror and multiple storylines, which is probably why films like Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005) or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (2006) were made, released, and rewarded (questionably). Gavin Hood's Rendition is the latest addition to these so-called politically aware films. The film is seemingly protesting extraordinary rendition, a governmental action, which according to the film began during Clinton's watch and was made useful in Bush's war against terrorism, that allows intelligence agents to whisk away anybody suspected of having connections with terrorism to a farflung country for interrogation and presumably, torture.

The victim of rendition in the film is Egyptian national and green card holder Anwar El-Abrihimi (Omar Metwally), believed to be connected (by a series of calls connected to his cellular phone) to an explosion in a North African nation which killed one American agent. On his way home from a conference in South Africa, he was kidnapped by the CIA, causing his loving, persistent and very pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon) to seek help from an old college flame (Peter Sarsgaard), personal aide of a senator (Alan Arkin). While the concerned wife is struggling to find the proper audience for her please, her husband is shipped to the North African country, stripped, tortured, and forced to answer the questions shouted at him by the police head (Abasi Awal) while Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), rookie agent who assumes the position of his deceased partner, observes the unsightly proceeding with a heavy conscience.

Hood, most famous for his Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005), tries his hardest to humanize the issue, even throwing a sappy romance between a jihadist (Moa Khouas) and the police head's daughter (Zineb Oukach) as the centerpiece to the film. It flaunts trappings of pertinence (CIA head (an unremarkable Meryl Streep, predictably cold and dehumanized) orates about the thousands of Londoners alive because of the information derived from extraordinary rendition; the senator's aide replies citing the Constitution and due process; the aide and his experienced senator then succumb to inaction to protect their careers). Underneath all the artificial humanity and the overbearing emotionality is a question: Why exactly is this film relevant? My answer is that it simply is not.

Roger Ebert praises Rendition for "putting a human face on the practice" of extraordinary rendition. My problem with it is that the human face Ebert so fondly talks about is so black and white that we can accurately pinpoint the bad guys (the CIA head, the opportunistic politician and his shakable aide, the brainwashing jihad leaders who teach their supporters to shout slogans in orc fashion) and the good guys (the caring wife, the innocent victim of the rendition, the rookie agent whose heart is still capable of compassion). We all know that the methodical torture of an innocent guy is utter evil, especially one played by an actor who only looks slightly Arabic, probably to make him more palatable to racial profilers. Ever wondered how the film would be more relevant, more courageous, if there is hesitation to the captive's innocence, or if the cause of the explosion remained questionable and not attributed to the Muslim extremist's romantic quarrels with his girlfriend? Will extraordinary rendition still be regarded as a despicable method of procuring information when justice, morality, and common compassion have been blurred?

That's a different film altogether. Hood's Rendition is nothing more than an overly elaborate melodrama hiding behind a robe of currentness, righteousness, and self-importance. It fails to challenge us, fails to divide us, fails to question what we value more: traditional norms of due process and justice or the very human quality of wanting retribution accompanied by the prevention of future terror attacks. Too many failures, need I say more?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pa-Siyam (2004)

Pa-Siyam (Erik Matti, 2004)

Ever since Chito Roño's Feng Shui (2004) made a killing at the local box office (an obvious aftershock of the successes of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) and Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On (2000) which were adored by Filipino filmgoers), big studios started riding the wave, coming up with their own crafty variations of long-haired creeps with gait problems haunting innocent victims wherever they go. Most of the J-horror rip-offs are uninspired, inexpensive excuses to launch the careers of love teams and teenage idols. Clearly, the wave has blurred what a horror film should be, that instead of damaging the implied safety the audience has with real life (like most of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films, leaving his audience with a prolonged dread by questioning the very fibers that make us human, something which we cannot easily shrug off), these so-called directors delegate the duty of scaring to cheap shocks, computer effects and jarring sounds.

Erik Matti's Pa-Siyam, one of the few recent Filipino horror films that actually surpassed my expectations, was released without much fanfare. This was expected. There were no popular celebrities attached to the feature. Roderick Paulate, an actor who at the prime of his career portrayed stereotypical loud gay characters (including one who transformed into a horse as a curse) in slapstick comedies, plays the eldest of five siblings who reunite in their parents' mansion for their mother's pa-siyam, a Catholic ritual wherein the loved ones of the deceased would pray daily novenas for the deceased's soul for nine days. The other siblings are played by Cherry Pie Picache (as the second eldest sister who brought with her her own daughter (played by Cristine Reyes)), Maricar de Mesa (as the beautiful and successful sister), Yul Servo (as the happy-go-lucky brother who has a torrid affair with the caretakers' daughter (played by Ana Capri)), and Aubrey Miles (as the mentally retarded youngest sister).

They are all terrific, especially Paulate who sheds the effeminate voice and the females' clothes, which made him popular, to portray a man who is overworked abroad but returns nonetheless to the former family dwelling to battle his personal demons and harbored ill feelings against his mother. Aside from the persistent hauntings (waking up to a roomful of feces, bugs and cockroaches, or being followed by the spectre of their dead mother occupying every nook and corner of the darkly lit house), each of the siblings relive an unfortunate memory within the house, all concerning a portion of their lives being permanently scarred by their mother's intervention. Their reunion isn't a happy one. After niceties and gifts have been exchanged, they drag themselves back to their duty to respect their mother for the final nine days her soul is supposedly still in Earth.

The affair is bleak and dreadful. Matti capitalizes on that atmosphere, at most embellishing the scenes with ambient sounds (of crickets or lizards at night, of the nagging humming of the foreboding lullaby of their mother) or the very low-key yet ominous score of Von de Guzman (who transforms from low-key to orchestral, particularly in the scene wherein the spirit expert reveals to the siblings the torment suffered by their mother, to choral in the film's subdued conclusion). It's very effective. J. A. Tadena's cinematography, using high definition digital video to create a rustic and chilling overview of the barely lit interiors of the house, Richard Somes' detailed production design and De Guzman's music fathom the vision Matti and screenwriter Dwight Gaston had in mind --- to build up the horror not to extreme lengths, but just enough to keep one at a guessing and uncomfortable edge.

What is Pa-siyam all about? What makes it a particularly good Filipino horror film? True, it is well-made and it is very evident that Matti had variable control over the filmmaking, as can be observed by the very consistent tone and vision in the film. Yet, there seems to be no underlying value in the story of siblings reuniting for their mother's death and the concept of a ghost begging for vengeance for her sons and daughters who abandoned her is not exactly unique (almost all ghost stories, not necessarily filmed ones, forward the issue of a wronged soul clamoring for some sore of justice).

What shook me is the way Matti and Gaston shifted the attention from vengeance to guilt, which is the point of every castigation --- to instill into a person an acknowledgment of guilt for a collective sin. The siblings arrive at the house, brandishing their stories of their respective responsibilities (how they work hard to send money for the education of their youngest sibling, or how one tries to keep her finances apt for that sibling's needs; one of the siblings even manages to appear righteous when his girlfriend mysteriously dies), unfettered by the possible and probable sufferings their mother experienced during her last days. They re-enter the mansion guilt-free and heroes and throughout the nine days of prayers, their mother force upon them (like most mothers do) a bit of a reality check, that despite their hard experiences growing up and their respective successes and virtues, they have committed a wrongdoing. The hauntings continue to intensify up to the ninth day, and the siblings still have no clue as to the reasons for their mother's wrath.

They end up permanently scarred as their mother's retribution is more painful than individually hurting them (like how she used to when she was younger and alive); she removes from them the duty of bringing up their retarded sister they might mess up the way they did with her (especially upon the knowledge they gathered linking her to their trusted parish priest (played by Jaime Fabregas)). It is the siblings' capacity for callousness (when the mother was both living and dead) that is punished, that inherent trait of balancing responsibilities and rewards (since they suffered an unhappy childhood, they are free from their mother's clutches), forgetful of the permanent familial bonds that tie us (delegating these duties to servants whose bonds with their ward is as flimsy as the amount of money being sent to them). Matti and his creative team has successfully made me mindful of that (without much blood, pyrotechnics or shocks) making Pa-Siyam one truly satisfying horror film.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lust, Caution (2007)

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)
Mandarin Title: Se, Jie

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is such a handsome, handsome film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) turning the cold wilderness of cowboy country into the perfect getaway for the homosexual lovers, likewise turned Shanghai under Japanese occupation, complete with the visually depicted sufferings and with its streets littered with corpses who were either shot in the head by trigger-happy Japanese soldiers or just passed on to the next world from sheer starvation, into the perfect locale for political and romantic intrigue between a spy Wang (Wei Tang) and her target Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a high ranking officer of the government established by the collaborators.

The film is so handsomely shot that even the explicit sex scenes, which begin only halfway through the film, have a particular quality of politeness or courtesy. True, the choreographed bed scenes are at times violent even bordering on morbid (especially the first time Yee succeeds in having his way on Wang; he rips her dress off and forces himself into her without a trace of compassion) but you can sense that Lee insists on grace, form and passable pressure when there should be boundless tension and callous power struggles between his two sexual beings. In other words, Lee is merely an inch away from being truly uncompromising, but decided to stay within the boundaries of good taste and propriety.

The many sexual positions, at times shocking, where both Lee's actors are drenched in lustful sweat, their limbs entangled with each other, and every bit of their bodily hairs and private parts are exposed to the watchful gazes of the audience are all too artful and passionate to be completely effective, at least in depicting the inevitable descent of the two individuals into the uncharted territory of emotional complexity.

Lee is a director who is always available for compromise (quite frustratingly so), and is always very polite in his films (even the gay cowboy movie, which was so overwhelmingly praised by almost everyone, is too cordial and civil to create an authentic altering stir). There seems to be no room for indecency in Lee's cinematic vocabulary, making Lust, Caution, despite its steamy bed scenes that somehow feel afraid to border chaotic or brazen, a step forward for the director.

Lee's gaze is unfortunately asexual. He operates as a passive observer, unflinching when a man is murdered by several stabbings, unsatisfyingly disinterested when Wang is deflowered for an unpracticed cause. Unlike Catherine Breillat, who in her several films (Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004)) has mastered a female approach to sex, or Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)), Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty (1976)), or even Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves (1996)), filmmakers (not necessarily effective ones) whose kinky and sometimes longing approaches to sex offer uniquely masculine perspectives, Lee's use of sex is merely perfunctory (but still seductively beautiful). He is exact and direct in his measurements, disappointingly afraid to be gratuitous or pornographic. Judge me now, but I wanted more.

Sex, which comprises around ten minutes of the lengthy running time, is central to the film. The true conversation piece of Lust, Caution, far more important than the loud gossipy discussions about husbands' politics and contraband over several games of mahjong and the whispered yet inutile plans of assassinating important Japanese collaborators, is spoken amidst the choked moans and the staggered breathing. Both victim and victimizer become vulnerable to the hazards of their repressed and tortured hearts, finding solace from their respective real life roles in the heat of their combined bodies. In a city corroded by war and intrigue, solace is indeed attractive if not tempting, that even the most hardened of individuals welcome the safety of such comfort, forever blurring the lines that separate right and wrong, loyalty and disgrace, love and lust.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Kolya (1996)

Kolya (Jan Sverák, 1996)

Early in the film, crusty fifty-something year old musician Louka (screenwriter and the director's own father Zdenek Sverák) finds a lovely trinket in the gutter of her mother's house. Somehow, the exquisitely crafted costume piece fortuitously lands inside the rundown gutter. Louka goes to a jewelry appraiser and discovers that the trinket has limited monetary value. Nevertheless, he keeps the trinket and holds it for the important person he deems worthy of it.

It's a funny thing that there is a beautiful but mostly worthless trinket in Jan Sverák's highly conventional Kolya, a film the Academy deemed worthy for one of their gold-plated statues. If there's one thing to describe this sentimental feature, it is that, a finely manufactured bauble. Kolya, like that ornament brought by good fortune, is a beautiful thing but once appraised, is really nothing more than that, a shiny little thing that is easy on the eyes, light for the heart, and worthy of a well-earned smile. I have no doubts of the filmmakers' sincerity in crafting the film. In fact, the father-son team completed the script during a nine-month period which drew from them life-stirring or everyday experiences to be translated to film. Predictably, the product is adorable, exactly the kind of film I've trained myself to resist.

Louka, expelled from the Philharmonic Orchestra, plays for funerals and to earn more money, gets jobs restoring tombstones. Deep in debt and in need of a car, he accepts a lucrative offer by his friend to fake a marriage of a Russian woman, who after the wedding, immediately left for Germany leaving her son Kolya (Andrei Chalimon) under his dissenting wing. Louka is affiliated with those wanting to overthrow Russian political influence over the Czech, making the burden of taking care for the foreign child tougher to bear.

Louka isn't exactly the most endearing of old men. In fact, he is depicted as obnoxious, steadfast and sure of how he will live his life, mindful of the fact that to lead a musician's life, one cannot get married and maintain a family. It would take something drastic and effective to modify his stance about life and that's where Kolya comes in. Kolya is carefully written with an earnest admiration, probably keeping in mind the perfect son, unbearably lovable and made even riper for adoration by his vulnerability, being alone in a foreign land, unable to speak or understand the local dialect, and naively proud of his currently useless heritage. He is also played by a young actor perfectly plucked from the hundreds of photogenic children in Europe, physically capable of turning the hardest hearts into warm jelly. Kolya is the perfect kid to change Louka.

That's exactly my problem with this film, it is just too perfect. Everything fits wonderfully into their respective slots, that it is almost impossible to care for the film's characters in any other way that is not within the expectations of the plot. Louka is nothing more than an old guy desperately trying to make something out of his miserable existence of playing for funerals, calling ex-girlfriends during lonely nights, and frequent visits to his mother's house. Kolya, on the other hand, is a mere impetus and gives the audience no opportunity to actually care for him or know him above his role as a goodlooking pet or the cinematic wallflower.

No wonder the Academy loved this film, it's too easy. All you have to do is sit and pray that you're able to stay concerned after the string of maudlin affairs is served with extraordinary finesse. It has absolutely nothing for you to invest some part of yourself for, exactly like the cheap jewelry Louka fortuitously found while cleaning the gutter. It's entirely a one-sided affair, the art film you should seek out for if you vastly enjoyed the syrupy feel of films like Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) or Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988). In my case, I like my films partly sour, bitter, or salty. Sugar can certainly get tiring after a while.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Knocked Up (2007)

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)

Ben Stone (a very likable Seth Rogen) is a marijuana-smoking, dreamless yet hopelessly romantic loser. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is extremely beautiful (meaning good enough to be seen interviewing Hollywood celebrities in a tabloid television show), unbelievably nice and patient. During a night that can only exist in wet dreams or modern-day fairy tales (at least for the men not gifted with irresistible suave), beauty meets the beast. They sleep together in drunken abandon resulting in a huge mistake. Alison gets pregnant and poor shocked Ben, who is living off the remainder of the meager money he won in a suit while waiting for the launch of his gang's informative website, is the father.

Never mind that major contrivance. It is the fuel that keeps the film together. It is supposedly writer-director Judd Apatow's gift to the most of us, to the men who can't seem to earn those desirable six-pack abs or that elusive successful career --- the livable fantasy that we can attract members of the highest echelon of the opposite sex and through sheer determination and focus, get them to kiss us, bed us, and eventually make us happy, deservedly or not. Apatow's works are popular and acclaimed exactly for that generosity to the most common of men, the twenty, thirty, and forty year old virgins and the fat slobs whose entire lives consist of porn, compadres, and whatever manna that drops from heaven. It seems that Apatow is building a career serving the public what they predictably want. It's not exactly daring, not ground-breaking.

Nevertheless, Knocked Up is not only an effective romantic comedy, it is also veritably compassionate, something very rare in today's crop of comedies. Sure, Apatow plays his stereotypes to the extreme --- Ben and his troop are seen either engulfed in medicinal smoke or in intense discussion of their life plans, while Alison lives in the tidied family haven of her sister (Leslie Mann) and her husband (Paul Rudd), both of which are also pumped up stereotypes (neurotic wife and cynical and secretive husband, respectively).

Apatow squeezes out a good amount of laughs and chuckles from the artificial situations and his crew of characters (played with agreeable credence by his band of comedians, which is probably why it's very difficult to see right through the contrivances), and that provides most of the distraction while Apatow readies his picture for the lovingly crafted emotional wallop, which I think is worth all the hype this film is getting. Admittedly, the comedy is lowbrow and vulgar but it eases near-perfectly with Apatow's message of utter sentimentality and conservatism.

And even the film's so-called heart, Apatow gathers from both gut instinct and genre conventions. The flailing relationship between Ben and Alison and their struggle to look past the outrageous differences between them, is a mere conjunct and abbreviation of several comedies, sitcoms and of course, real life. It's all well-taken, probably not perfectly developed, but quite amusing in its familiarity.

Birth, at least for that portion of humanity that still considers it as a miracle, is an absolution of all past mistakes. It has that tremendous power that allows us to take the violent, shrieking, shocking and even physically revolting proceeding (Apatow allows us a peek at the very graphic moments of childbirth from a view traditionally left unseen) and still consider it uplifting and memorable (enough for most families to take pictures and videos of the event). Apatow understands that and decides to cap his often conventional, sometimes brash comedy with childbirth, leaving his audience with a feeling of extreme elation, forgetful or forgiving that the film was oftentimes visually uninteresting, humorously off-tangent, or repetitive.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
Swedish Title: Fanny Och Alexander

I just sat there trembling. Fanny and Alexander, the 188-minute edit Ingmar Bergman reluctantly made for theatrical screening, just ended. The credits were rolling but that final shot of young Alexander (wide-eyed Bertil Guve) finding refuge on the lap of his grandmother Helena (a magnificent Gunn Wållgren), along with other mesmerizing images that miraculously fleeted with their uncanny burdensome implications stuck with me, paralyzing my limbs temporarily.

Most cinephiles would call Fanny and Alexander as Bergman's most accessible work, the advisable first Bergman film to watch if you're planning to succumb to the Swedish director's mostly desolate filmography. My first Bergman film is Cries and Whispers (1972), a tantalizing and palpably painful work which shattered all trace of happiness in my body during the hour and a half I spent watching it. That film moved me, but not as much as how Fanny and Alexander did, which not only rattled my existential core but also delighted, frightened, and amused me in a way that was not shallow and ephemeral.

A flock of older women was not so quietly discussing the overt cruelty in the film. It was obvious that they related closely to the trials Alexander and her younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) had to go through, especially after the death of their father Oscar (Allan Edwall), seemingly the only sensible man in the Ekdahl household. Indeed, I find Bergman discomfortingly cruel to his younger protagonists (Alexander serves as Bergman's alter ego in this film and both him and the character share similar experiences) but not because of the extraneous experiences they have to undergo, but because of their (more specifically Alexander) sudden realization of the bleakness of life and the probable futility of the afterlife.

Alexander is often haunted by his father's ghost, who often just stands with forlorn gazes, inutile and useless in the afterlife. In his conversation with his dead father in the puppet room of Isak (Erland Josephson), a Jew and very close companion of the Ekdahl matriarch, Alexander questions his father's inactivity and the reason why he is not with God, before starting to angrily challenge God's existence and nobility. God replies by instilling fear, rattling a cabinet and threatening to show all his terrifying majesty and glory to the young boy. Of course, there is no God; it was just a well-crafted puppet made by Isak's playful nephew Aron (Mats Bergman). The bigger picture is laid down for us, that in life, we are governed by a religion that promotes self-denial, pain, punishment, sacrifice, and fear as a way of life only to be utterly dismayed and disappointed in death, where one's ghost is left roaming unnoticed and hopeless within the halls of his former life. It is that uncertainty that really scares us. There is covetable solemnity in the mummy's restful stance, eternally breathing and blissfully ignorant of the presumable emptiness of death.

Bergman weaves a colorful tapestry of life through the Ekdahl clan, a family entrenched in the local theater. Their mansion, we first see through abandoned in a hallucinatory daydream of imaginative Alexander (a memorable opening, tremendously horrifying in its opulent sparseness), becomes alive for Christmas Eve dinner. Underneath the routine yearly celebration are apprehensions, voiced out only in the privacy of their chambers --- a sexual affair between Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and a pretty maid (Pernilla Wallgren) matures into a suffocating relationship that confuses financial freedom with actual freedom; Gustav's brother Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) is on the edge of frustration over his financial reverses and the servile predisposition of his foreigner wife; Helena recounts the exploits of her youth to Isak, while the latter doesn't regret the depletion of their youth as the world is getting worse, there's no better time to die.

Despite the normal intrigues of the household, there's much vitality within the mansion as compared to the abstinent life forcefully fed to Alexander and Fanny in the household of their stepfather (Jan Malmsjö), a bishop who woos their mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) into marriage. The walls are drab, the servants are colorless and treacherous, the residents are cruel. The ascetic and self-flagellating lifestyle led has tortured these people to utter disfigurement (an obese aunt in her deathbed, a tormented sister, a stern and domineering mother); there is blatant abomination in this example of misconstrued piety and purity. Alexander turns into his imagination for comfort and defense (he and his sister have been abandoned and helpless, their father is a mere watcher and a lonesome presence, their mother is trapped in her own passions, and God seems to be on the side of the righteous bishop), inconsequentially sinning to an indifferent deity who may or may not exist.

Fanny and Alexander is supposed to be Ingmar Bergman's final film (his final film turned out to be Saraband (2003), released four years prior to his death). It certainly feels like a grandiose summation of his life's work --- perfectly beautiful (lensed by legendary cinematographer and frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist), mysterious and magical, awing and hypnotizing, cruel, tragic, and fatal, but still a biblical celebration of life and of the living, their many facets and denominations.

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Closely Watched Trains (Jirí Menzel, 1966)
Czech Title: Ostre sledované vlaky

Jirí Menzel's Closely Watched Trains opens with a narrated history of the Hrma family (it's a very amusing montage detailing the several unlucky circumstances that have surrounded the clan --- how his great-grandfather spent his riches on alcohol and tobacco, or how his grandfather met a brutal death trying to hypnotize Nazi tanks). The youngest Hrma, goofy-looking Milos (Václav Neckár), is off to apprentice as a train dispatcher in a remote station, following the footsteps of his father who has retired very early and earns pension money without doing anything. He dons his uniform like a royal robe and wears the dispatcher's cap like a crown. In full attire, he looks older than he really is. You can barely tell that underneath the overcoat and the boots, is a young man anxious to get laid for the very first time.

Menzel tells his story with a lighthearted daze. Jaromír Sofr's black and white cinematography, curiously soft and lovely in its simplistic elegance, lends an air of ease to the darkening narrative of our virginal hero suddenly awakening to the fact that there's a more conflicted world beyond his pitiful premature ejaculation. Menzel populates his film with comedic instances and charming visual cues (that famous shot of a little kiss with Milos' conductor-girlfriend stolen by her train's abrupt departure); it's really very easy on the eyes and undeniably adorable, even when events start getting drearier.

That remote station, depicted by Menzel with fanciful commitment to the absurd (the denizens of the station from the pigeon-loving station manager to Milos' oversexed superior and all the females in between), is more than Milos' place of employment, it is his personal train station to his coming-of-age. He enters that stage in his life by disappearing in a mass of dark engine smoke. There's more to watching trains regularly than pulling levers and reading telegraphs, it also involves being stuck in an office simmering with pheromones and sweaty memories of playful nights where rubber stamps serve a steamier purpose bigger than officiating documents.

The film seems ridiculously naive, as if Menzel is invoking the Milos in his world-view of a nation invaded. But this placid depiction of war, far from being childish and immature, is more childlike than anything. The reason Closely Watched Trains is so refreshing, so genuinely watchable, is that there's a fathomable transition from lighthearted to fatal, from coming-of-age to daring heroics, from quotidian comedy to utter pathos.

Milos grows up way before he realizes it. We see the world, currently being overwhelmed by violent battles, through the eyes of Milos who is bent on ridding his blossoming masculinity of a minor inconvenience, allowing him to finally consummate that mildly amorous feeling he has for his girlfriend. The film's biggest conceit and in my opinion, its claim to greatness, is its elegiac ending which not only satisfies Milos' interrupted coming-of-age but also his place in his war-torn country. Much like the way he disappears in the thick engine smoke to the duties of apprentice train dispatcher and the accompanying pressures of adulthood, he again disappears from a former life, this time through a powerful gust of darker smoke coming from an explosion he caused out of both extreme happiness from his recently consummated manhood and that fleeting, brash and almost unnoticeable sense of patriotism.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

There is absolutely nothing sexual about Barbara Covett (played marvelously by Judi Dench), the ancient history teacher whose acerbic and cynical diary entries become the narrative force of Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal. In one scene, we see her lying submerged in her bathtub; not a tinge of passion revolves around her naked aging body. She manifests a tainting or destructive acidity to this world's boring normalcy. Her driving force is not a need for passion or sex (although she convinces herself that it is companionship that she longs for) but a disdain for the fertile, an outward manifestation of her frustration on her sterility.

She describes Sheba Hart (a wonderful Cate Blanchett), the new art instructor, as fay, accurately so. Marching along with the numerous students Barbara scoffs at, Sheba, at first, doesn't seem very interesting although Blanchett carefully constructs her character as explicitly plain yet mysterious. Her unraveling to Barbara's eyes draws an uncharacteristic excitement for the spinster, as she writes in her diary with the same heavy-handed contempt for the youthful world but with a certain fanciful ease and curiosity towards her newfound friend.

The disappointment she discovers upon knowing that her fay new friend is married to a middle-aged man (played by Bill Nighy) and is mother to two children, a daughter who represents the troubling sensibilities that Barbara hates so much in her age's youth and a son afflicted with Down's Syndrome. The disappointment however does not surpass her animalistic clamor for an emotional prey, and the circumstances (Sheba's surprising sexual affair with one of her art students) significantly raises her success rate. Her weapon is that superiority, that semblance of moral ascendancy she has over Sheba.

It's a very entertaining film. It delights in its own inhumanity; the way these characters are molded, destroyed, and revived by something other than the common virtues of humankind. Notes on a Scandal is watchable in the same way a National Geographic documentary about the vicious hunting instincts of an African lion (complete with their jealous mating rituals and the bloody and messy eating habits) is so weirdly enjoyable. Barbara's suffocating grasp on Sheba, Sheba's inexplicable attraction to her minor ward, Barbara's mostly utilitarian value for the face-saving Sheba as opposed by Barbara's need in Sheba as replacement for that other prey who got away --- the film showcases a series of relationships founded on Machiavellian principles, or worse, instinctual urges that oil the predator-prey machinery in the wild.

Notes on a Scandal has really nothing to say on the state of homosexual relationships, destructive or whatnot, and to devote that sub-theme further analysis would be utterly futile. Barbara's attraction for Sheba is baser than sexual, and very far from amorous. Those momentary touches she steals from her captive are showcases of her longstanding sterility (that is all she really can do --- a pat on the back, a gentle rub of comfort); her real love affair is with herself and her private diaries where she is ultimately the protagonist, the savior of those trapped in the dullness of the contemporary world, where everything is amplified to appear bigger, greater and more important than what it really is.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Blow Job (1963)

Blow Job (Andy Warhol, 1963)

Traditionally, the value of the close-up is for emphasis. As opposed to the long shot or the medium shot wherein the visual frame allows a greater area for both space and movement, the close-up is constricted and limited but the degree of detail is vaster. The most famous close-ups in our cinematic history take advantage of this unique value of the close-up. The subject matter of the close-up is most often the human face or a selected portion of it since the subtlest of emotions can be most accurately displayed by the minute movements of the mobile contours of the face. Done correctly, the close-up is an invaluable tool for filmmakers most especially to connect at a more intimate level to their proposed audiences.

This traditional use of the close-up is mutated and experimented with by Andy Warhol in his short film Blow Job. The film consists of several reels, all totaling to around 35 minutes of footage filmed from Warhol's 16-millimeter Bolex camera. The footage is a close-up of a young man supposedly receiving the titular sexual activity. Warhol's black and white visual frame is cramped: we see the man's head, a portion of his clothes, the background of The Factory's brick wall. His camera is immobile; the only invocation of human wit in this short film is Warhol's inspired brainstorming. Everything else is mechanical --- from the offscreen oral sex, its natural consequences to the subject receiver, the act of capturing the receiver's facial reactions through the wonders of the recording machine.

The close-up, from being a tool for emphasis, intimation and relation, turns into Warhol's method for oppression, as artist to his audience. The audience is subjected to the repetitive footage, witnessing the reaction but unable to actually partake of the act, or at least witness everything in long-shot entirety. The close-up strictly limits the edges of the cinematic canvass. The camera's immobility is almost suffocating. The only clue to what is happening, the short film's title, only increases our painful curiosity.

The close-up of the face, far from revealing the subtleties of human emotion, is used to manifest the blunt and the already obvious --- that of extreme pleasure and sexual satisfaction derivedfrom the sexual act. Instead of emphasis, Warhol utilizes the limitations of the close-up for sensual deprivation. The deprivation results in what some viewers consider is irresistably and near torturously sexy to downright frustrating. In my opinion, that sensory deprivation is actually very funny, an ingenious way of subversion by Warhol of the restrictive norms during that time by sacrificing the exact thing that makes supposed indecent cinema indecent, but retaining the heart and soul of the act.

The anecdote behind the film proves to be more telling than the film itself (you can cheat yourself of the frustrating yet rewarding experience by treating the story as the long shot that precedes the close-up, betraying Warhol's experimentation to the comforts of conventional cinema). DeVeron Bookwalter, the recipient of the blow job, wasn't the original choice to be the subject of the short film (neither was Willard Maas, Warhol's co-filmmaker who gave the blow job). The original choice was Charles Rydell, significant other of filmmaker Jerome Hill, who was lured into lending his face with five handsome young men giving fellatio. Rydell didn't take the offer seriously and never showed up in time for the shoot forcing Warhol to get Bookwalter, who was in The Factory at that time, to complete the picture.

Oppressive, playful but distinctly artful, Blow Job with its persistent close-up of Bookwalter's face is both mysterious and alarming. The depicted human quality is base and unspecial, yet it only mirrors something modern humanity has sought to hide for many decades --- our common and inherent ability for pleasure.

This post is my contribution to The House Next Door: Close-Up Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Retribution (2006)

Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2006)
Japanese Title: Sakebi

The murders in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution (Sakebi) have distinct commonalities leading detective Yoshioka (played by Kôji Yakusho) to think that they are linked together, either by a single killer or some bigger and ominous mysterious force. The victims are all drowned in saltwater in a nearly barren urban district in Tokyo which is slowly being reclaimed by the sea by a series of earthquakes. Yoshioka's dilemma deepens when clues start pouring in making it apparent that he might have been involved in the first murder of a woman in a bright red dress who has started appearing to him as a shrieking specter clamoring for attention.

It's set in the typical Kurosawa-esque Japan of generational decay and heightening social alienation. Like in Charisma (1999), where the forest bears the initial scars of the noxious tree, or in Pulse (2001), where an interconnected Japan fails to bridge the separated souls, or in the grandly offbeat Bright Future (2003), where its direction-less teens parade their youthful ennui in a manufactured landscape, where the setting carries the burden of society's ills.

The physical decay we see in Retribution of the remaining apartment buildings and the ones demolished (where the traces of their structures are the skeleton-like concrete pillars and puddles of rising saltwater eagerly grabbing the land stolen from them by the enterprising Japanese) mirrors the creeping decay that is slowly but surely enveloping Yoshioka. His preoccupation with the current series of murders, the daily visits from his crimson dressed wraith, and his girlfriend's less-than-constant visits force Yoshioka to combust internally; and you sense a tremendous fatigue both in his body and in his soul as if every ill memory of the past and the pressures of the present are conspiring to force him to decompose along with his surroundings.

Kurosawa weighs in escape and confrontation as solutions to Yoshioka's psychological torment. Yoshioka should either step out of his conflicted environment or face the so-called voice of truth which is society's primary sin, that of quiet indifference. The sin produces a moldering contempt that a person harbors for a loved one who firmly disassociates because of an unassessed air of self importance or just an innate collective callousness. It leads to the film's fatal dissatisfaction. Kurosawa dissects this dissatisfaction, the so-called contemporary woe (which is most probably not endemic to modern Japanese society). He treats it like an unstoppable tumor, a reason enough for a surprising doomsday scenario, much like the way he treats the collective depression in the riveting conclusion of Pulse. The intriguing irony in this Kurosawa ghost story is that the punishment for the living's ineptitude for the basic requirements of humanity is dealt with by the dead; and quite sarcastically, it is the dead which is most capable of boundless amounts of compassion and care, as shown near the end of the film.

A complaint most critics have with Retribution is that it is a Kurosawa pic that treads too closely to conventional horror narrative, something I really do not mind especially for a sub-genre that is supposedly on its extended death bed. I do not watch a Kurosawa film for the fineries of his storytelling (although his grand minimalism which often turns in awkward directions to ultimately satisfactory results is a Kurosawa trait that is undoubtedly unique only to his ouvre --- the way the intimate (or lacking in intimacy) finite chatters of workmates in Pulse would culminate in apocalypse; or the serial killings in Cure (1997) invite metaphysic musings; or the inward botanical engrossment of the characters in Charisma would end up in a road path to a cityscape on fire) but because of his inherent skill in maximizing mood and atmosphere without trespassing the boundaries of subtle taste (something Takashi Shimizu, sometimes Hideo Nakata, and most Asian horror practitioners tend to forget).

He completes his visual canvass, usually his camera is still as a corpse, and makes most of what he has by painting an entire picture of dread --- a morgue is visually bare yet the incessant swinging of the formalin apparatus forces an also incessant squeak that functions to broaden our already heightened senses; and an interrogation scene uncomfortably thickens when an invisible haunting attaches to the deranged prisoner. Whenever Kurosawa needs to utilize horror tropes (like the creepy long haired lady creeping for her kill), he outrages by going over-the-top: the bright red dress, the Superman flight tactics, the banshee-like shrieking.

If Retribution is an example of Kurosawa going conventional and commercial (the film is produced by the makers of The Grudge and its numerous remakes, both in the Japanese and English languages), then I am all for it. If the sub-genre needs a wake-up call from its brainless repetitiveness, Kurosawa, who is not even in his top form in this film, is the right man to do it.

This review is my contribution to the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon at The Evening Class.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Still Life (2007)

Still Life (Katski Flores, 2007)

I remember the first time I saw a Van Gogh painting. Unlike the usual printed versions in the plenty postcards, posters and photographs I've seen, the actual painting is contoured by the heavy brush strokes and from afar, its much more than a flat masterpiece, it has tremendous depth, boundless relevance and history. Digesting a work of art requires something more than a quick glance or a shallow statement of colors, it requires time to simmer, to be ingrained totally in that part of the brain that allows subjective analysis of such aesthetics.

It's an exhilarating experience: those fifteen minutes of you taking in the product of Van Gogh's undefinable artistry while the rest of the museum is on a rush. Every second is made invaluable by the unstoppable streaming of partial images, ideas, memories and emotions that are evoked by the thick paints that were immortalized by the painter's hands into his canvass. The experience is similar to the dormant moments spent watching Lav Diaz's almost static cinematic images. You spend time and energy with the Diaz's manufactured sceneries, complete with a traversing cloud or a row of ox-carts and their fractured drivers. You don't mind these lengthy sequences. They are after all, shards of the film's soul and like Van Gogh's paintings offer something more than mere eye candy.

Katski Flores' Still Life is full of lovely images: an inlet that serves as the port for small boats to the vacation house, a majestic sand bar that is detailed by two gorgeous trees, a lovely vista that showcases the calm of the sea with its several spectacles, among others. The problem with these images is that Flores flips them like a tourist browsing through a stack of post cards, spending a few seconds per image before moving on to the next one, hardly giving time for the beautiful images to simmer and become something more than mere pretty pictures.

That is basically my problem with Flores' first feature film. Still Life opts for conventional aesthetics, which is problematic with the medium she was forced to use, as the film is an entry to the Cinemalaya Film Festival which champions the digital format as the new film although the digital as projected by several cinemas in the metropolis can hardly compare with the glossy aesthetics of traditional film. This is the type of aesthetics its main character (Ron Capinding), a painter on the verge of paralysis, abhors.

Capinding's suicidal painter meets with another troubled soul, a young lady (Glaiza de Castro) who leaves her baby to her guardian (Irma Adlawan) for mysterious reasons. Their serendipitous rendezvous in the vacation house opens up for several musings on life, death, and choice as well as generous helpings of their individual histories. Flores meticulously sets up the details, the scenes, and the conversations to gear her audience for the film's vital twist, which I think is ultimately rewarding mostly for its humanity, although Flores bludgeons the conclusion to absolute redundancy.

Still Life is hardly a masterpiece in Philippine cinema's digital age. Flores' film seems to want to expand digital cinema as a visual medium . Her shots take advantage of the beauty of the surroundings, lighting the already sunbathed environs to extreme lengths probably to replicate the surreal brightness of the paintings. The looping musical score tries to deepen the visuals but ultimately fails to do so. The score repetitively annoys by forcibly cuing emotions, especially when Flores fails to completely characterize for purposes of empathy, other than storytelling. As I see it, the forlorn painter and her newfound lady friend are nothing more than well-developed stereotypes. It's a good thing Flores is crafty enough to tell a roughly engaging story around them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Snake Sisters (1984)

Snake Sisters (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1984)

Like Elwood Perez's Silip (Daughters of Eve, 1985), Celso Ad. Castillo's Snake Sisters has gained some sort of international notoriety. The film lasted only nine days in its local run before being censored and left unseen, except for a few enterprising film enthusiasts worldwide, for several years. The reputation the film has gathered over the years is not very surprising.

Snake Sisters, is at first glance, quite a shocking picture. Throughout its running time, we see its three female cast members (actresses whose names were creatively crafted after famous carbonated beverages, Pepsi Paloma, Coca Nicolas, and Sarsi Emmanuelle) prancing around the pristine beaches or the virgin jungles in the near-nude, with only a g-string to cover their pertinent body parts. They play primitive siblings thriving in the wild. Their provisions include wild bullfrogs, lizards, and birds (all shown by Castillo's uncompromising camera being caught, skinned, and eaten with ravenous gusto by his pretty actresses).

Its premise is actually more intriguing than its curiously sensual visuals. The three siblings are actually unique hatchlings of a group of snake eggs, who instead of being the typical slithering creatures turn out to be in human form. One morning, they discover blood in their vaginas; their father (a snake with a human head) eases their shock by informing them of the normalcy of the situation, that the blood represents a phase in their lives. He warns them, however, that accompanying their adulthood are carnal temptations which would lead to sin which would cause them to turn into snakes, as punishment for their transgressions.

The film is accurate as a portrait of sexual awakening. Castillo was able (quite a miracle at that, since he is working with very sexy starlets) to invoke an endearing innocence or naivety early in the film. At play in the beaches with their pet monkeys, you can hardly grasp any sexual indication despite the abundant nudity. The three sisters, more than what their adult anatomies suggest, bring about a simplistic folly, a wonderment that lacks the worries and temptations of adulthood. This makes their discovery of menstruation all the more alarming, the palpable surprise and fear in their faces all the more understandable, and their search for answers to the opening curiosities and mysteries of humanity all the more compelling.

Their awakening is fastforwarded when they rescue a tattooed man (played by Ernie Garcia), who they see floating along with a piece of wood. The man represents the typical macho who upon landing, climbs the beach's highest peak, and quick to impress, brandishes his blade to forage for food (first, by breaking open a few sea urchins then unsatisfied beheads the sisters' monkeys and roasts them). He is the film's phallic symbol, the source of temptation and of sin. He is unwavering in his manifestation of his superiority, shown in the way he delights in showing off his control of fire, or the way he repels any idea of control over him. Observe how in every moment of defeat, he purposely claims back superiority by an act of violence and invasion. It is, he believes, his natural right to dominate, which is reflected by his incapability to accept defeat or succumb to the wills or strengths of the people he thinks are subservient to him (the sisters, and the tribal woman). At the moment of embarrassment, he retaliates or in absolute defeat, he asserts his dominance with loud and angry threats, until he meets his metaphorical doom, his castration.

Castillo's mythological world is primitive and the behavioral motivations of his characters are primal, sex and violence. The law of the land, of the sisters' doting father, is very simple --- for every transgression, there is a punishment. It is the law that requires no concept of civilization, just a working philosophy of right and wrong. It is a law that the tattooed man misunderstands. He after all, represents civilization or that creeping acknowledgment of control over the land; natural law does not bind him as it does his three victims. What binds him is human law, flawed and ridden with prejudices. The punishment dealt on him by his human comrades is the one he explicitly understands, one that quickly establishes fear in his soul.

Castillo differentiates these concepts of sin and retribution, the one imposed by nature and the one imposed by humanity. In a way, he implicitly distinguishes the two, a difference which marks the film's motivations as something more than mere exploitation and thrills. It is, as dissected, a film about awakening, not only sexually but also to the crude intricacies of human life, its varied rituals of affection and sex, its harsh, crude yet real concepts of sin and punishment.