Monday, July 31, 2006

Alexandra's Project (2003)

Alexandra's Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003)

Rolf de Heer's Alexandra's Project begins like a dream. The camera glides through the concrete roads of a seemingly ordinary Australian suburb. The morning sun giving off a cool and somewhat eerie illumination as the camera shows the stillness and the unnerving normality of the neighborhood. The camera stops. We see a townhouse, and the camera allows us to peek inside: a man is sleeping while his wife, pale-looking and with a hint of conflict in her face, observes her husband. Cut to the next scene: the woman is alone in the bathroom, and says a sweet sorry to her husband. We instantly know there's some kind of trouble between the couple. Then, she spits and takes back her apology in an instant change of mood. Then, we know that it's not merely trouble. It is deep, deep trouble.

Alexandra's Project is the story of Steve (Gary Sweet), the stereotypical perfect husband. Well over his forties, he takes care of himself physically, is an able provider to his two children, and is well-loved in his office where he is assured of a raise and a promotion. He is also celebrating his birthday, and is expecting a pleasant surprise from his family. His wife Alexandra (Helen Buday) has devised a plan. She plans to give her husband the most memorable birthday present ever. After a very breezy day in the office, Steve goes home expecting a surprise party. What he gets, however, is a cold beer, a comfortable chair, a television set, a remote control, and Alexandra's titular project, a videotape of Alexandra's birthday greetings, including a birthday striptease, followed by tirades about their marital concerns, which complicates into something violent, something completely unexpected.

It's a very interesting proposition that De Heer presents: a concept that can pass off as suburban Ringu without any ghosts coming out of the television set, instead the nightmare of nightmares of marital discord suddenly revealing itself from the television. It's a gripping thriller that relies mostly on the ingenuity of the script, written by de Heer, and the proficiency of it two main actors. Sweet inhabits the role of the husband with confident pomp, that will quickly deflate. In the beginning of the film, he is shown entirely naked scoffing at the fat neighbor who is watering his plants far too early. Sweet gives off an air of annoying arrogance that somewhat justifies the ensuing events. De Heer makes sure he doesn't grant the man too much personality, just mere glimpses of what he is capable of; there are slight hints of the man cheating, but these are never entirely materialized.

Buday on the other hand is a complete revelation. Her somewhat anemic predisposition in the early scenes of the film, her somewhat housewife uselessness, and the fact that the house is a literal prison with all the safety gadgets put upon it, makes her complete turnabout a real satisfying surprise. She suddenly becomes sexy, dangerous, psychotic, and erotic. Most of her acting is done through the confines of the television tube, but she communicates her frustrations and aggressiveness very well. Her monologues give off a level of insanity that may or may not be justified, but is indeed watchable.

Alexandra's Project is delightfully well-made but the letdown is not in de Heer's technical mastery but his creative decisions. It all starts well, as a suburban nightmare. Then it drowns in everyday conceit which gives off a realistic hint to all of the proceedings. The board meetings, the taxi cab rides, all of those routine activities of normal living betray the ensuing events since Alexandra's plan might not actually work in a setting based on reality, where cops do roam about, and there is the magic of the internet where anything and everything can be found, and even without that, there are telephones and other modes of communication that can easily stop the wife from finally completing her plan. If it were a Lynchian nightmare ala Blue Velvet, this film could probably be a near-masterpiece, but de Heer opts for realism, and tense thrills rather than surreal dreaminess.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Irreversible (2002)

Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

Gaspar Noé, ever the provocateur, starts his film in what he thinks is witty and creative, but what I think is, sheer gimmickry. End credits roll in unreadable, unrecognizable fonts, with only a few notable names visible and of course, ending the supposed end credits one very distinguishable, very readable name: Noé. For those who are unready to face gore, violence, and cruelty, the name Noé in itself would have you fleeing the theater, or pressing the stop button of your dvd player. For those unfamiliar, the first sequences are enough warning that this film might not just be your cup of tea. Cameras revolving in mindless abandon, following an invisible force that only stops when something that is supposedly important to the story, which is told in reverse, is ensuing. It begins with two old men chatting and bantering about so-so philosophical talk, giving notice to the film's slogan: Time destroys everything.

The siren of the ambulance disrupts the chat, and the camera flies and brings us to a gay club aptly named "The Rectum" where everything and anything happens. After a longwinded introduction to the gay bar where the camera traverses the intestine-like hallways capturing men fucking and other private acts, we are introduced to the film's main male characters: Marcus (Vincent Cassel), angry and obsessed in searching for a man named Tapeworm for revenge, and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), the rational thinker who pleads Marcus to stop and just visit his hospitalized girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci). The entire prolonged search ends in an ultra-violent note involving a fire extinguisher and a man's massacred head, computer generated of course.

Noé brandishes his unique visuals, accompanied by a soundtrack composed of grating droning noises mixed with electronic music, and an introduction that will naturally attract our curious minds. Noé grabs us by our throats and forces us to strain our eyes, deafen our ears, and stretch our moral limitations with his film. After the violent sequence inside the Rectum, Noé stages an also-violent rape sequence complete with digitally manufacture genitalia and blood. It is quite obvious that Noé works in a purely visceral level, but the question remains, is there anything deep underneath all this violence, all this blood, and abnormality. Sad to say, Noé still remains to be just a provocateur, never a philosopher as Irreversible is all gimmickry and techniques masquerading as art.

Fans will defend the film as an accurate depiction of violence begetting violence, or that the film's tagline explains everything that ensues. I don't buy it. It's just a simple revenge plot told backwards with the intention to just shock us and in the end, shock us even more with puny regrets over a sideplot involving an unborn baby. The gimmick may have done its job, but without it, the story isn't really as novel as it thinks it is.

I also don't get it why Noé has to clothe the film a frankly obnoxious visual style. Defenders will say that it is to offer a difference from the chaos of the start of the film, and the bright, comforting summer hues at the film's end. Again, I don't buy it. Sure, the camera is less jerky but the visual style is still present. The camera still flies, sweeps and does complete acrobatic exercises from the start to the end. The colors may be different, but that is due to the fact that there is such a thing as day and night. Symbolisms may be abound, but these differences are merely skin-deep and not enough to warrant a visual style that promises something grandiose in content. The same can be said about the soundtrack: the film ends with a classical score as compared to the jarring noise of the beginning, any amateur filmmaker can come up with the same kind of cinematic metaphor. Noé still doesn't impress.

I suggest you see the film for what it is. Take away the fire extinguisher scene and the rape scene, and you're left with boring banter and some uninteresting improvision. Also, we get around thirty minutes of Cassel fuming mad with his mouth blurting out threat after threat to anyone and everyone who might stop him from his plan for revenge. Cassel, given better material, can add depth to the character. We also get a sizable amount of time seeing Monica Bellucci naked, or in various levels of undress, and I guess that amounts to something good. Other than that, I see Irreversible as a prime example of what I can describe as the new age of Euro-trash, films created to pass off violence, shock, and sex as art.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

One night in 1976, Randall Adams ran out of gas in the highway and would, by fate, meet David Harris, a teener driving a stolen blue car. A few hours after their fateful meeting, after several cans of beer, a few puffs of marijuana, and a double feature at a local drive-in theater, a police officer gets shot by a man who alights from the same stolen blue car suspiciously parked in the highway. The pistol used is found in the posession of Harris, conveniently hidden in a marshy part of his hometown which is considered as the Ku Klux Klan capital of Texas. Harris would be seen bragging that he has killed a colored cop, but would later on change statements and would be pointing at Adams, the drifter he met that fateful night of 1976, as the killer of the police officer. Adams would be found guilty by the jury for the murder, Harris being one of the witnesses for the prosecution. Later on, Harris will also be sentenced for a different crime. Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line, spent two and a half years gathering information, gaining the trust of the different personalities involved, and finally interviewing them.

The Thin Blue Line is much more than just a documentary film, or a mere retelling of the factual outcomes of an individual case in one of the great cities of America. The Thin Blue Line is a vivid examination of the inaccuracies of America's criminal justice system. In any criminal case, it would be the people of the jurisdiction that would be against the suspected criminal. A huge burden rests on the government in maintaining order, through the normal functioning of the judiciary. The burden is doubled when the circumstances involve a victim who is an officer of the law, a setting that is arguably intolerant, and pieces of evidence that seems to lead to nowhere. The most logical way out for the jurisdiction is to find a scapegoat: in this case, Randall Adams, a drifter who nobody would miss.

From Morris' gatherings, it would be quite easy to pinpoint Harris as the culprit. Adams is shown as timid, balding and uninteresting, yet defiantly sure that he has nothing to do with the murder. On the other hand, Harris talks very confidently, assuringly charming, and in the same way, breezefully stating his facts. If one would base his judgment on the first few minutes of the documentary, one would probably get confused and immediately point his finger at the aging suspect rather than the charming young fellow. Pieces of evidence start pouring in and the scales of the balance change, and by the middle of the film, we sense that something is going on, there might have been a mistake in the process.

Differing versions of the same story are retold just like in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), only this time utilizing a visual mold that evokes film noir, erupting from the repetitive boom of the suspect's pistol barrel. Differing accounts of several witnesses are offered, with these characters' credibilities strengthened or weakened by other personalities who might have more accurate knowledge on these witnesses' motivations. Musings on the current legal system, judicial decisions, and personal visions are blurted out with conviction by Adams' lawyers, up against a legal bigwig who has never lost a case. Dr. Death is introduced, the resident psychiatrist who is unafraid to label convicted criminals as uncurably psychotic and deserving of the death penalty. Philip Glass accentuates Morris' bold vision with his haunting minimalistic musical score.

By the end of the film, Morris presents us with a piece of evidence that showcases his greatest strength as a documentary filmmaker. The visuals are aptly sparse: just a camera revolving in close-up around a tape recorder. What comes out of the tape recorder is what's important, Harris expressly stating that it was just fate that got Adams to where he is now, and impliedly telling the whole world that it was him who killed the police officer. The film ends with a statement that Harris is in deathrow for another crime, and Adams is still serving his life sentence for the murder, which we learned a few moments ago, he didn't commit. Justice is indeed blind, for all the wrong reasons. Disturbing but, as Morris' points out, true. A year after The Thin Blue Line was released, Adams' case was reopened and he was exonerated from the charge of murder, and Harris was subsequently convicted for the shooting of that police officer that fateful night in 1976.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

After the success of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), Universal Studios began production for an adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel about a scientist who recreates life. The production was originally to be directed by Robert Florey, and the monster was to be played by Dracula star Bela Lugosi. However, Florey was later replaced by rising director James Whale, and Lugosi backed out of the role since there wasn't a single line spoken in the monster role, hurting his ego. Boris Karloff was given the role of the monster and the rest, as cliche as it may sound, is history. James Whale's Frankenstein, despite its substantial difference to Shelley's novel, is the most enduring version of the tale. Ahead of its time, the film remarkably put a sympathetic human trait to the monster, blurring the edges of the notion that monsters are purely evil. Here, the monster is portrayed as misunderstood child, not a terrorizing fiend.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), kicked out of medical school for his insane obsession of creating life, has holed himself in an abandoned watchtower with Fritz (Dwight Frye), his hunchbacked assistant. Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), Henry's fiancee, and Victor (John Bowles), his best friend, have become worried over Henry's long absence and decided to see what he's up to. They bring along Henry's professor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to the watchtower where they witness the birth of Frankenstein's monster (Karloff).

The film offers us two variations of the monster. The most obvious one is of course, Frankenstein's creation and the other is Henry Frankenstein himself. In one of the film's early scenes, Frankenstein and his assistant are shown waiting on a burial and right after the mourners have left, the two start exhuming the remains in frenzied abandon. Thereafter, they steal a corpse tied to a post, and finally, the assistant robs from the medical university a freshly harvested brain (of a criminal, though). Whale shows Frankenstein as utterly insane, equal to being blasphemous. Frankenstein's obsession is not entirely for mere discovery, but for being equal to God, as shown when his experiment was accomplished and with disquieting glee, he announces that he knows how he feels to be God. Whale's Henry Frankenstein is not merely a mad scientist, but an insatiable beast. He represents man in its most insatiable, whose inability to be satisfied has caused him to puncture the threshold of what is moral, all in the name of science.

Once Henry Frankenstein recovers from this insanity, he becomes less interesting. Thus, Whale focuses his attention to the other monster and depicts him with touches of humanity despite its terrifying exterior. We first see the monster in a scene where Henry Frankenstein tries to show Dr. Waldman that there is nothing evil with his creation. Truly, the monster's first sequences show him as a child with very little motor skills and cognitive understanding. Like a toddler learning how to walk, he carefully steps toward his father, Frankenstein. This culminates in one of the film's most beautiful scenes where Henry Frankenstein opens a window, and the monster, attracted towards the light, stretches his arms to gather the illumination. It is a scene that summarizes the conflict within the monster: it is inherently a product of twisted morality, but is in itself, searching for light. That scene also foreshadows a more important sequence that will follow, where the monster commits murder, not out of spite or out of his brain's criminal tendencies, but out of childlike innocence.

Whale's tragic depiction of the monster may probably be understood as a reflection of his homosexuality within the conservative social framework of the thirties. It's a valid point as Shelley's novel depicts the monster as what it really is, a murderous monster. However, the more interesting reading of the monster's humanity is the fact that the monster is indeed just a child, and because of its imposing features, is misunderstood by everyone except, initially by its creator, and another creature of innocence, a little girl who welcomes the monster undaunted, but attracted to it as if it were a peer. The monster's attraction towards beautiful things, and its violent reaction towards pain and fear are mere attachments of its supposed youth.

Frankenstein became Whale's ticket to success. Despite having directed a few features before it, it was Frankenstein that put him in the map, and deservedly so. Whale's direction here is sublime. His imagery ranges from beautiful to simply poetic. Another masterfully directed sequence is when a father walks by the town, carrying the lifeless body of his daughter. He starts alone, and Whale shows the shocked faces of the townpeople who were only a few minutes ago, joyfully celebrating. Slowly, the the single man multiplies and turns into a whole mob of angry townsfolk out to destroy Frankenstein's monster. The monster's demise is much more poignant: a little misunderstood child, wailing and crying, trapped inside a burning windmill surrounded by the same townspeople who have judged it as evil way before understanding what it truly is.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Baazi (1951)

Baazi (Guru Dutt, 1951)
English Title: The Wager

Guru Dutt's Bollywood career can be said to have been a direct result of his friendship with actor Dev Anand. It is said that the two artists who were then struggling to make it big in Bollywood, made a pact to help each other when one gets a break. Anand promised that if he ever produces a film, Dutt would direct it; and Dutt promised that if he ever directed a film, he would have Anand to star in it. Anand hit it big first, and subsequently produced a film. As promised, he asked Dutt to direct it. The result is Baazi (The Wager). Baazi is the start of Gutt's illustrious career. After Baazi's success, Dutt would produce and direct a least two undeniable masterpieces, Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959). Anand would continue to star in big Bollywood productions, among which are several greats from different directors.

Baazi is about Madan (Dev Anand), an unemployed young man who is taking care of his ailing sister. Madan is a likable guy and he seems to attract many friends despite his very playful attitude. Madan also has the gift of luck. He is often seen in gambling places in the underbellies of the city trying his luck in the different games to earn a few bucks to buy medicine for his sister. A representative of a huge gambling circuit which masquerading as a legitimate night club, invites him to work for them, luring rich businessmen and royalty to their den and cheating them off their cash. Rajani (Kalpana Kartik), a public doctor and the daughter of a millionaire, meets Madan while tending to his sister. The two slowly fall in love, but because the difference in class, neither of the two can make a move. Because of dire circumstances involving his sick sister, Madan accepts the shady job offered him, and would have to wager his life, his love, and his honor to gain the little things his poverty has prevented him from getting, including much-need treatment for his sister.

Baazi, being the directorial debut of Dutt doesn't show much of what the director would be capable of in his later films. However, it is distinct from the film that Dutt is gifted in setting up an atmosphere that is appropriate to the film's mood. Much of the film is shot in sound stages, and one can instantly observe poorly painted sets. However, Dutt takes control of the budgetary constraints and still manages to come up with tight visuals: mainly focusing on close-ups of his actors and actresses' faces, or clever blocking that takes the eye away from the lack of scenery.

Baazi is an urban crime tale and its structure is very similar to the film noirs that are very popular in America. Naturally, Dutt doesn't sway by giving second-rate visuals to his Bollywood noir. The opening sequence in itself shows a director who knows what he wants: the camera following a mysterious character down the dark alleyways of the city leading to damp, and dangerous gambling nests. He sets his audience up for a tale of mystery, of danger, where each and every character is capable of treachery. He creates an urban world that looks and feels much like a gambling den, where every move requires a wager, and oftentimes there is a need to bluff and a need to just fold and give up, and rely on the impression that lady luck is with you.

However, Baazi is not entirely noir. While the film has noir elements, most of that downward spiraling noir heroes experience only happens during the last thirty minutes of the film. There are no clear femme fatales, female characters whose role in the narrative is to accompany the hero to his eventual descent. It can be argued that Leena (Geeta Bali), the nightclub dancer is this noir's femme fatale. However, Dutt has always had a soft spot for women, and paints Leena with much respect despite her lowly profession. The mood is much more cheerful than its American counterparts, mostly due to the fact that scenes are separated by song and dance number, composed by the great S. D. Burman. The film does not center on the noir elements, but the theme of Madan's metaphorical wager of everything that matters to him he has in exchange for monetary comforts and his sister's welfare. The film's heart does not belong in the film's attraction and utilization of crime, but to the well-told romance-against-all-odds between Madan and Rajani.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

The Devil-Doll (Tod Browning, 1936)

Ah, Tod Browning, king of the cinematic macabre. He after all brought to us the cinematic representation of Count Dracula that will forever haunt our collective consciousness. The year later, he released a film that featured the most grusome, grotesque and visually unappealing freaks. The release of his 1932 Freaks resulted in a turnaround in Browning's illustrious career. That film was shelved, banned, booed, truncated. It toured the United States like the freaks it depicted, merely a sideshow feature disowned by the studio that gave birth to it. Browning directed a few more films before retiring completely. One of his last features is The Devil-Doll, which is more of a sci-fi revenge tale rather than a horror story of the grotesque and the weird.

The Devil-Doll actually features three characters who are all transformed into grotesque creatures by their personal goals and convictions. Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) has escaped from prison with his prison buddy Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore). They inch their way to Marcel's house in a remote island where Marcel seeks to continue his life's passion, which is science. In the house, Marcel's wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has nearly perfected their experimentations on a process that will shrink creatures into a sixth of their original size. However, the drawback is that the brains will shrink too, causing these creatures to lose their memories and other mental functions, allowing them to be mere miniature puppets of their masters who can telepathically order them around. After experimenting with the couple's imbecile servant Lachna (Grace Ford), Marcel dies leaving Malita and Paul to continue his work.

Paul has no intention in pursuing Marcel's scientific experimentations, as he thinks shrinking people is morally wrong. However, he uses Malita to take revenge on the three former bank associates who framed him and caused him to rot in jail for seventeen years. Paul and Malita fly to Paris and devise a plan to suit Paul's goals. Paul dresses up as an elderly toymaker who stalks the three bankers with her "dolls" and tries to win back the affection of his estranged daughter Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan).

The three freaks of the film are Marcel, Malita and Paul. All three have been grotesquely mutated by their respective passions: Marcel, with his benevolent yet twisted need to shrink all humanity to solve world hunger, Malita, with her undaunted devotion to her husband's passion, and Paul, with his desperate need to clear his name or just merely clear the world of the three men who robbed him of his fortunes, freedom and his family. All three have different levels of moral perception yet all three are undeniably swallowed by their personal motivations. The effect is a less visual representation, although the white highlights in Malita's hair and the twisting of Paul's facial features spell out evil in bold letters, of evil.

I have some problems with the film. The sideplot involving Paul's relationship with his daughter is touching at first, but when the film culminates with a need to wrap-up the emotional estrangement of the daughter to her criminal father, Browning suddenly falters in visualizing the resolution.

The Devil-Doll is very well-made considering that it was not provided a generous budget. Browning tends to drown in his inability to control dialogue but given a tight script (written by Guy Endore, Garrett Fort and the more famous Erich von Stronheim from a novel "Burn Witch Burn" by Abraham Merritt), and a better cast, you almost feel that Browning has grown up from his dialogue-centered deficiency. The biggest surprise here is that Browning's camera finally moves in a more fluid manner. Browning's usual visual technique is to wonder at his gothic sets or his freaky cast by using static and steady camera positions. Here, his camera follows movement which is probably due to the fact that The Devil-Doll is special effects extensive. The camera follows the miniaturized characters who flawlessly mix with the normal sized men and women to do what they're told: a cinematic wonder decades before Peter Jackson used computers, midgets, and camera tricks to do the same in The Lord of the Rings.

In one of the film's most memorable sequences, one of Paul's dolls drop from a Christmas ornament and with the use of his miniature size, dodges and escapes the vision of the Parisian policemen who are guarding the last remaining banker that Paul wants vengeance from. Browning cuts the sequence from the beautifully rendered special effects of the miniature actor running around giant legs and tables, the facial expressions of a frightened banker who is unaware what he is up against, and a beautiful monstrance that tells both the banker and the audience the time and the reckoning of Paul's death threat. The mixture of special effects, of Browning's ability to handle moments of disbelief and terror, of the excellent cast, and the more stable visuals create an atmosphere that takes away the hokum of the science fiction ploy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)

Woody Allen is first and foremost a writer who can direct films. He takes his cinematic cues from his favorite directors, most notably Ingmar Bergman. He sometimes experiments with the medium, modifying the mood, the style, and the form. However, the writing is still distinctly Allen. Allen's screenplays would always have that neurotic New Yorker, usually played by him. This neurotic New Yorker has a variety of professions: usually a novelist, a writer, or anything that has to do with the imagination. He is often well-off, with enough money to support his vices which include alcohol, anti-depressants, and the occasional whore. Finally, the neurotic New Yorker is more often than not, a fast-talker, his mouth spewing line after line of witty retorts that need no impetus to get released. This character feels like a window to Allen's brain.

While there is that comfort of knowing exactly what to expect from an Allen-written and directed picture, that predictability, I believe, is one of Allen's pitfalls. Allen has a narcissistic tendency that can be observed in all his films: his characters would always be molded from him. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen's recreation of Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), Allen recreates his standard protagonist, a famous novelist who is invited by the university that kicked him out to be honored for his life's work. Harry Block (Allen), the character's name obviously alluding to his writer's block is a deplorable character. He married twice, has one child from an irate ex-wife, several mistresses, and few real friends. He is a potential alcoholic who subsists in popping pills for emotional comfort, has a major problem with Judaism despite being a Jew, which eventually causes him to have a rift with his sister. With too many personality quirks for an aging man, Harry has a hard time finding anyone who is willing to accompany him to his former alma mater, to the point that he had to pay off a prostitute five hundred dollars just to be with him for that day.

As I've said, Harry is not a very lovable character. Allen however, supplies him with natural wit, and a gift for writing which in turn, becomes the window for the audience to discover what exactly is happening inside the mind of Harry. Allen shifts from the real world of Harry to Harry's literary creations which are obviously based from Harry's real life events, with the characters' names just changed to little effect or comfort. This effect, the switching from real life to fictional, is where the film got its name. Deconstructing Harry is in fact a deconstruction of the main character, what makes him click, what psychoanalytical explanation can be garnered to give justice to such an imbalanced character, what aspects of his real life determines his literary decisions. Actually, the little stories are pretty interesting and could have made feature films if they weren't part of the whole process of deconstructing Allen's stereotypical neurotic.

Deconstructing Harry is one interesting mess of a film. Incongruently edited, blandly shot, and with a story that can be described as a collection of half-baked although brilliantly written comic sketches, the film may be a struggle to watch. The conclusion feels a bit too self-congratulatory for comfort. While I may have complaints, the mess actually becomes rather enjoyable after a while. The little bits and pieces mesh pleasantly, revealing a likable side to a character whose ability to throw witty lines and to write stories cannot save him from being deplored. Also, I have always enjoyed Allen's brand of cynical humor, which comes in huge doses here.

Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (2005)

Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (Raya Martin, 2005)
English Title: A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos)

Southeast Asian is an oft neglected region in cinema. Outside the confines of your typical J-horror rip-offs or the usual stunt extravaganzas, Southeast Asia probably has the most progressive and most interesting films that are produced. Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses cinema to mystify social and cultural issues and institutions without alienating audiences. Pen-ek Ratanaruang borrows Western conventions to mirror Thailand in its present state of disconnect. The most maverick of all Southeast Asian filmmakers is Lav Diaz, an auteur who foregos conventions of commercially imposed running times in favor of real time immersion leading to a fully comprehensible reckoning of his themes. Probably the most promising of these young filmmakers is Raya Martin, who at 22, has already made one masterpiece, Maicling pelicula nañg ysañg indio nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan).

Raya Martin's film can be divided into two parts. The first part, or the prologue, is in color and is accompanied by the ambient sound of crickets and dogs barking. The prologue focuses on a woman who is having a hard time sleeping. The woman's inability to sleep is difficult to watch. Her sleeping troubles connote an impossible burden that her conscience is battling with, causing her to conclude that resting is a luxury, or even a sin. She wakes her husband and begs for a story. The husband tells his wife a story about a young boy who meets an old man who is carrying a coffin. The old man asks the boy if he can help him bury the coffin, which supposedly contains the remains of all the fake leaders who poisoned the land. The boy scoffs which makes the old man reveal himself as the Philippines. The monologue of the husband is prolonged and very emotional. The storytelling session is as painful to watch and listen to as the wife squirming in her mat, troubled and unable to sleep. The lamp dies and the second part of the film begins.

The second part is a series of silent film vignettes, accompanied by a live piano recital of works by Schumann, Chopin, Ligeti, Beethoven and Mozart. The vignettes hint of a plot regarding a church bel lringer who is joked by his peers as to which side is he on. The vignettes also follow the story of a teenager who signs up to become a member of the Philippine Revolution. He becomes disappointed upon dreaming of a sunrise for his beloved nation which urges him to go into battle not knowing that such attack was in fact, postponed. The second part ends with the story of a young barrio actor who spends most of his time rehearsing for a Spanish play while the barrio is in the midst of war. Interspersed within these negligible stories are scenes of the everyday actualities of rural life during the time of the Philippine Revolution. Interestingly, these scenes are mostly about religion, revolution, and death. The film ends in a sudden, and suggestively pessimistic note.

The film is an imperfect yet tremendous piece of work by a promising artist. While the second part hints of whimsical, almost humorous tales and adventures of the young pre-revolution Filipino, it is also suggestive of the Filipinos' lack of identity, of its fickle-mindedness, which brings about a fate of prolonged sorrow. The film is elliptical. It begins with prolonged woe, with the wife's troubles and the husband's suggested sorrowful past, continues with a recounting of history, and ends with a conclusion of a nation's destiny of sadness. Martin is of an age group of Filipinos who have been deprived of history. History is merely learned through schooling, through books whose own sources are questionable results of centuries of colonial rule. Simply put, Martin is of an age where the history learned is the history of the privileged. The heroes of the Philippine Revolution are the illustrados, the wealthy, the learned and the titled. The indios (commoners) are merely pawns, foot soldiers of a revolution that led to the nation's supposed freedom from the clutches of colonialism. But has the nation outgrown its colonial masters when its own history is clouded by foreign historians who have neglected the stories of the common folk? Martin, through the film, has visualized his belief that ours is a nation that is bereft of a national identity. He fashions a film that could have been made by any native Filipino, if handed a video camera while in the midst of the Philippine Revolution. He will not capture the drafting of treaties or the promulgation of constitutions or other grandiose moments in written history. Instead, he will capture are the ordinary, the droll and mundane, non-effects of the War. There will be an abundance of religious articles, simply because that is what he was force-fed with. There will be numerous deaths, because that is the logical repercussion of poverty and slavery. There will be humorous sketches that display the Filipinos' ignorance and deprivation of knowledge.

That is the magic of Martin's work. It is a recreation of a past that was never recorded. In a depressing note though, the deprivation of such and the reliance on written history based on the actions of the privileged is what made this nation what it is now: sorrowful, impoverished and in the verge of being hopeless, hence, the title: the prolonged sorrow of the Filipinos

Sukob (2006)

Sukob (Chito Roño, 2006)
English Title: The Wedding Curse

Philippine cinema belatedly joined the Asian horror bandwagon with the successful release of Chito Roño's supernatural horror Feng Shui (2004), about a young mother who by chance, discovers a magical ba gua that brings good fortune to her family in exchange for death of those unfortunate enough to peek into the mirror in the middle of the mysterious home decor. With the boxoffice returns of the film, which is a surprise for a Philippine film industry that is reportedly dying due to the invasion of popcorn entertainment from Hollywood, other film studios followed suit with films with trite storylines, scary ghosts, and a handful of shock moments. Of course, there are exceptional films that came out of the bandwagon. There is Erik Matti's Pa-Siyam (2004), a tale of a vengeful mother who is haunting her children before the traditional nine days of mourning ends, and Yam Laranas' Sigaw (The Echo, 2004), about a man who unfortunately shares his apartment floor with a mysterious couple who spends restless nights fighting. Asian counterparts are slowly getting tired of the horror craze, but the Philippines seems to enjoy the genre so much that big film outfits aren't thinking twice in shelling out money to fund these films.

Chito Roño's Sukob (The Wedding Curse) is about Sandy (Kris Aquino) who is preparing to get married to Dale (Wendell Ramos), her boyfriend for two years. During their wedding, Sandy starts seeing a young girl, blackened and rotten, wearing a wedding gown. Every time Sandy sees the horrible wraith, her friends get killed and their corpses replaced by one of the traditional symbols and instruments of the wedding ceremony. Sandy and Dale begin an investigation to find out why their wedding is cursed, when they've followed each and every precaution that will prevent misfortune in the couple's married life. While Sandy's wedding is happening, visions of another married couple are shown. This time it is Diana (Claudine Baretto), recently married, who is suffering from the same visions and misfortunes. Roño is playing a trick here, deceiving the audience as to how Diana's storyline is connected to Sandy's. Roño makes it seem that Diana's storyline is a flashback: a memory that is triggered so that the curse can be explained and a solution, discovered. Later on, we learn that the whole thing is merely a clever deception so that Roño can develop a rather ingenious theme in the film.

It is never explained why the ghost, the visual representation of the curse is a little girl. The image is frankly, quite haunting. Roño's scaring style becomes repetitive and predictable; he seems to be using each and every trick that has been done before. In fact, somewhere in the middle of the film, Roño reiterates Ringu gag where the ghost somewhat transports itself from the window of a neighboring haunted house to a resort cottage far away, done in a similar, if not exactly the same, technique that was utilized by Nakata. It will inevitably come to a point wherein every attempt to shock becomes utterly fruitless.

To be fair, Sukob is technically sound. The cinematography enunciates the film's atmosphere and the musical score is unobtrusive. Kris Aquino reprises her scared, worried, terrified, mortified facial expressions that gave her undeserved positive critical assessments for her performance in Feng Shui. Unfortunately, her act gets tiring. Thus, it is quite fortunate that the other half of the story focuses on Claudine Baretto, a much more formidable actress than Aquino. The supporting castmembers are much more impressive. Ronaldo Valdez plays Aquino's father and provides the picture with a slight touch of humor that is flawlessly drawn by Valdez without being too out-of-place.

Roño bases his tale, co-written with Chris Martinez, a wonderful writer who penned Bridal Shower (2004) and Bikini Open (2005), two exquisite comedies directed by Jeffrey Jeturian, on old wives' tales of misfortunes dawning upon couples who wed within a year after the death of a loved one, or the wedding of a sibling. It's an ingenious concept, one that allows Roño to examine the hypocrisies of the wedding ceremony, using Martinez's script that warns against infidelity. It is this irony that makes the film worthwhile despite its unoriginal trappings. Having said that, is is still hoped that Roño doesn't stay rooted into making horror films.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa, 1947)
Japanese Title: Subarashiki nichiyobi

Sunday morning, a crowded train takes a stop and passengers alight. A petite and chubby faced woman rushes down the train station. Standing alone in a crowded street, deciding whether he'd pick up a stick of used cigarette and smoke a puff, is a man impatiently waiting for someone. The woman and the man meet up. The man suddenly complains that they can't go out on a date as he only has fifteen yens. The woman brightly replies that she has money, twenty yens. The man declines. We see the woman help a little kid buy something out of a vending machine, the man sees the woman's act of charity despite his depressing attitude, and finally agrees to take the woman on a date with their pool of money of thirty five yens.

Akira Kurosawa's One Wonderful Sunday is a detailed telling of the couple's Sunday date. The man, we later find out, is a war veteran who has been reduced to poverty, working as a laborer, and living with another man in an unkempt and leaky room. The woman, always seen beaming with optimism and charm despite the man's grumpy and grim disposition, is obviously in love with the man. The Sunday is spent visiting houses for sale, which they cannot afford. Knowing the impossible expense of buying a new house, they inquire about a room for rent, described by the concierge as a six meter by six meter space that isn't reached by sunlight and whose only view is the bathroom facility of a neighboring factory, is impossible to reach given their present combined income. The chances of getting a place where they can live together thins as they go along. Kurosawa ups the value of their Sunday date, that as of that moment, it is probably the most valuable thing that they can both afford.

Kurosawa visualizes oppression with masterful ease. In Seven Samurai (1954), about a band of seven samurai who are paid with rice to defend a poor village from bandits, one of its most enduring images is when the village's representative hires the samurai leader with a bag of rice, the town's only treasure. When the rice spills from the bag, the representative picks each and every bit of rice that landed on and between the wooden panels. Even in the films made years before Seven Samurai, Kurosawa has expressed his clear affinity for the oppressed, painting them emphatically. A memorable scene in One Wonderful Sunday involves the couple waiting in line. The two men in front of them suddenly purchases all the B-level tickets for the orchestra recital of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," leaving none for the couple. The woman expresses a clear disappointment, making the man pick a fight with the mass purchasers, which he eventually loses. The man becomes distraught and just decides to just go home. His girlfriend follows. An interplay follows suit, between a man whose only knowledge of cheap leisure is sex, and a woman whose only treasure is her virginity.

In One Wonderful Sunday, Kurosawa backdrops his simple yet heartfelt tale with the ruins of Tokyo, fresh from being bombed incessantly by the Americans during the Pacific War. We see broken pillars, dilapidated buildings, and orphans and impoverished citizens crowding in the sidewalks. However, Kurosawa also shows the other side of Tokyo, dictated by affluence and Westernization. The residents wear thick furs and flashy suits, expressing overt disgust upon sight of poverty. One Wonderful Sunday tangentially attacks a society that seems to have forgotten simple joys in exchange for the excesses of a materialistic world.

This post is my contribution to Filmsquish: Akira Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978)

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1978)
Cantonese Title: Hao xia

John Woo reached his directorial peaks during the late eighties and the early nineties when he focused his talents in telling the stories of the misunderstood guns-for-hire set deep within the underbellies of troubled Hong Kong. It is Woo's consistent tackling of themes of bond, honor, brotherhood and loyalty that gave him an instant access to the international circuit. Coupled with that, Woo understands cinema, the way colors and movements are utilized to enunciate emotions. Last Hurrah for Chivalry, directed by John Woo in 1978, did not use guns or urban settings. Its characters do not don leather jackets and do not smoke cigarettes. Instead, swords, poles and fists are the weapons of choice, and the carriers of such weapons are long-haired heroes sipping Chinese wine as they struggle to outlive a violent rumble.

Essentially, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is a tale of revenge. Inherent in the tale are the themes of friendship and loyalty. Kao (Lau Kong), out of vengeance, wants to kill his family's murderer, Pai (Lee Hoi San), an evil kung fu master who frequently maims and dismembers his students during his daily kung fu exercises. Kao, however, is a weakling, and therefore, devises a plan to attract famous swordsman Chang (Wei Pai), who gave up sword-fighting to take care of his sick mother, to his cause. Kao befriends Chang, and Chang, being the gullible brute, falls for it and promises to avenge Kao's family. Chang develops a mysterious friendship with fellow swordsman Green (Damian Lau), and the two storm Pai's mansion to do Kao's bidding, not knowing that Kao has grander and more evil plans brewing inside his mind.

The plot is simple and takes its cue from the different Shaw Brothers and Cathay kung fu films that went before it. However, the story, written by Woo, is curiously lacking female characters. Aside from the supposed love interest of Green, a kindhearted courtesan who pleads Green to withdraw from his swordsman-for-hire profession, the film is devoid of any feminine representations. Such weakness for developing female characters is evident in Woo who foregos portraying realistic and complete romantic relationships to flesh out the complexities of male bonding. It is noteworthy that Woo doesn't build his characters' relationships through small talk or conversations but through the numerous staged fights. Truly, Woo's philosophy that true friendship is ushered in times of need, where the threat of death is eminent, is a focal point of Last Hurrah for Chivalry.

The two heroes of the film, Chang and Green, are prototypes of the many violent yet morally upright heroes of Woo's later films. Simplistic in characterization and drawing their personalities from oft-used stereotypes, the two heroes aren't very intriguing. The mastermind of the evil plans, Kao the weakly academician, is the one true interesting character of the film. His immoral maneuverings, his snakely charms, his undying insistence on vengeance, marks him as a villain of complexity. During the final battle, after the many murders that is caused by his brutal treachery, he is portrayed as no longer human but is masked in deathly pale make-up, donning his former master's garb but seems to unfitting that he looks more like a vampire rather than a kung fu master, and has a mysterious ability to become invisible and to take flight. It is such corruption that transforms a man of former credibility (during the earlier scenes, you'd still be convinced that Kao has legit rationale) into a monster that is devoid of any humanity.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry does not disappoint in the action department. Woo has a competent understanding on how action scenes are filmed. He acknowledges the fact that these action scenes should be exquisitely choreographed and more importantly, these exquisite action choreography should be captured without any impediments. Woo being a trainee under legendary director Cheng Cheh, Last Hurrah for Chivalry feels like his thesis work. If that is so, it is indubitable that Woo passed with flying colors.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002)
Mandarin Title: Xiao cheng zhi chun

Mu Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948) has the distinction of being the greatest Chinese film ever made, at least according to a list created by a group of Chinese film critics. It's an odd choice. Spring in a Small Town is minimalistic. Its plot is sparse, and its characters are very few and quite disconnected from each other, as can be assessed from their disconcerted conversations with each other. However, Spring in a Small Town conveys an emotionality that is visibly astounding. It is free from any histrionics or melodramatics and possesses an inert intensity that gives inward meaning to the unfeeling conversations depicted on screen.

In 2002, after ten years of absence from filmmaking by oft-praised director Tian Zhuanzhuang, he releases his version of Mu's film entitled Springtime in a Small Town. Rather than completely reworking the storyline or the characters to fit into today's social climate, Tian faithfully follows Mu's film. His modifications only visible in slight plot details and visual style. Springtime in a Small Town is for Tian a handsome ode to the understated craftsmanship of these old Chinese film masters; where style and substance majestically weave in a product that is purely magical.

The plot is essentially the same. In a town ravaged by war, Liyan (Wu Jun), chronically ill and morose husband, and Yuwen (Hu Jingfan), dutiful yet emotionally distant wife, live in their estate along with their longtime servant Huang (Ye Xiao Keng) and Liyan's younger sister (Lu Si Si). Arriving alongside spring is Liyan's former schoolmate Zhang (Xin Bai Qing), who also turns out to be Yuwen's childhood sweetheart. Love triangles emerge as their lives suddenly intertwine during that short duration of time and within the small space enclosed by crumbling walls of that war-ravaged estate within a war-ravaged little town.

The biggest difference between Tian and Mu's films is that the latter is being told from Yuwen's perspective, as explicated by the narration. Tian goes for objectivity, removing the narration and implying that the story be told from a perspective of a disconnected outsider. Moreover, Mu's placing of the entire emotional dilemma as a burden of a single character focuses on feminine longing and regret which Tian's version lacks. Tian's film, while still peering Yuwen, is scattered in its presentation and the emotional impact. It is more focused on Zhang, the stranger, who is torn apart by his loyalty to his best friend, his lifelong longing for his best friend's wife, and that emerging reminder of his youth and the mistakes that go along with it in the personage of Liyan's younger sister. On the other hand, the narration in Mu's film culminates in an ending that fleshes out the theme of life's morose character, and that its stillness might be ruined by a visitor that brings with it memories of the past. It also reveals that there is life after the film's end, and Yuwen's feelings haven't faded along with the departure of Zhang. Thus, Mu's film brings with it the idea that the temporary stay of the visitor has caused ripples in that family's very still pond.

There are other differences: certain scenes are prolonged and actions are enunciated, an additional scene that fleshes out Zhang and Liyan's little sister's relationship, the characters are given more time to sit around, relax, and reflect on emotions and thoughts. Tian sees the need to envelop his audience with the complex happenings in the house. He wafts his camera like an observant spy through the courtyard, catching the characters during intimate confessionals, or in moments of solitary inactions, or in their dramatic or subtly romantic interludes.

The cinematography by Mark Li Ping-bing is exquisite. Li evokes a similar visual tone with the one he used in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000) to create an air of unaccomplished love affairs and strong emotions hiding in a wall of traditional propriety. His camera is constantly moving in careful yet deliberate fashion, making use of the house and the town's ruinous quality as instruments for his quiet observation. The hues are rich; the acting is subtle yet tremendous; the directing is sublime. The film is very very beautifully made. That said, while Mu's original film is arguably superior to Tian's remake, Tian's film undoubtedly holds considerable power.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Scandal (1950)

Scandal (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
Japanese Title: Shubun

In 1950, Akira Kurosawa, disgruntled and disappointed at the irresponsibility of the press which is slowly being Westernized, released Scandal. Several years after Japan was occupied by the Americans, Japanese society has been changing rapidly, including an infusion of a American-influenced commercialization of exposed private lives, notwithstanding whether such tales are true or not. Tabloids champion sensationalizing personalities, exchanging privcy for rabid and lucrative interest on gossip. Kurosawa's Scandal is the auteur's reaction to such burgeoning Japanese phenomenon. Sadly, five and a half decades after the film was released to the public, humanity still takes pleasure in revealing private lives and escapades, whether the stories are fictional or true. A billion dollar industry thrives in releasing such news to the public. Simple gossiping has evolved into a desperate weapon for the weak: personalities going on the air, or using respectable newspapers to air their petty quarrels by unleashing to the scandal-hungry public hurtful lies. It has turned into a blackmailing tool and one is urged to do everything to protect one's reputation.

Akira Kurosawa's Scandal outwardly concerns itself with the legal battle between Amour, a Japanese tabloid company, and painter Ichiro Aoye (Toshiro Mifune) and singer Miyaki Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi). The latter couple having innocently met in a mountain resort town has been caught together in a room by two enterprising photographers. The photograph is later submitted to the tabloid company, and a story is written alleging that the two are lovers. Naturally, the story was a blast and it made tons of money for the company, and gave Ichiro and Miyaki bad publicity. Ichiro threatened to sue, while Miyaki, who is afraid of further ruining her reputation, is reluctant.

The bigger concern of the film however revolves around Ichiro's hired lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura). Hiruta is introduced in the film at first, as comic relief. His poverty is humorous; his fumbling ways hilarious. From comic relief, the lawyer shapes as the film's central character: a tragic figure who is in the middle of a battle between good and evil. The lawyer is shown as inherently suffering from the temptations of rising above his impoverished state, but at what cost? He has a daughter who is suffering from tuberculosis, and an unkempt office that is a clear result of his incapacities. His poverty and his weakness leads him to become a double agent, accepting a huge bribe from Amour to deflect Ichiro's claims against the tabloid company. It is obvious that Kurosawa's heart goes out to this morally embattled character, and quite admirably, his tale worked wonders for this socially relevant film, doubly layering the film with further issues that are grounded on the frailties of humanity rather than mere social awareness.

Scandal is pretty much a film that is rich in emotions while raising a statement on the ills of society. Kurosawa details his activism against the degeneration of Japanese society by providing a tale that tickles the heartstrings rather than focusing on the technicalities of courtroom practice. Actually, the courtroom scenes are filmed in a way that it pushes away from procedure, making use of such as breaks for humor or plot movement. Hiruta eventually wins his case, not through skills and know-how, but by a relevant turn-around. With a heartfelt speech that releases tension from his much-troubled soul, Hiruta reclaims his humanity. While Scandal is point-blank a hardhitting examination of society's petty fetish with what is scandalous and what is discovered with other people's private lives, the film is much more a humanistic tale of redemption rather than a socially conscious melodrama.

This post is my contribution to Filmsquish: Akira Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Despite the many reincarnations of Count Dracula in film, from Francis Ford Coppola's more baroque and literal Dracula to Wes Craven's more liberal approach, it is the official first, not taking the fact that Murnau's Noseferatu (1922) was the first unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, that still haunts the collective consciousness of the public. Tod Browning's Dracula was the start of a craze. It was a box office hit and resulted in Universal Studios to commission James Whale into filming Frankenstein (1931), hoping to get the exact, if not better, box office results of their first monster movie. It is a success because it sort of played with the audience's xenophobic tendencies, pushing them away from their comfort zones and replacing these zones with characters with heavily accentuated Eastern European butchering of the English language and locales that imply a sense of mystery coupled with the grave understanding that danger is near.

Browning's film starts in absolute majesty and mystery. A carriage is shown travelling down a mountain pass. Browning then shows a conversation inside the carriage. A man warns his fellow passengers to be wary of the night as it is the night that Nosferatu and her brides are stalking for victims. The resulting scenes create a heavier atmosphere of impending terror. The village where the carriage stops are inhabited by men and women whose faces clearly outline an unspeakable fear. When English real estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) insists that he be driven to the mountain pass as another carriage is waiting for him there at midnight, the villagers pleads that he stay the night. Upon speaking that it is Count Dracula's carriage that is awaiting him, the villagers withdraw in obvious fear and just offer him a crucifix to protect him.

The film reaches its peak when Renfield finally arrives in Count Dracula's castle. The castle is magnificent. Despite its appearance of decay, it still shows impressions of a former opulence. Huge pillars adorn the vast hallway and its centerpiece is a wide stairway, although sadly adorned by cobwebs gives off a stature of awe. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) welcomes Renfield. His distinct accent breaks the long minutes of silence. Dracula, using Renfield as his pawn, finally makes his way to London and lures a doctor's beautiful daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), only to be stopped by Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Mina's sweetheart John (David Manners).

I mentioned that the film reaches its peak in Count Dracula's castle, which is a scene that is scarcely fifteen minutes from the beginning. When the film reaches the part where Dracula reaches London, the gothic magnificence of the early scenes is transformed into a rather bland affair. Bogged down by a sudden change in atmosphere, the film struggles to imitate the dormant horror depicted in the early scenes. Most of the scenes are executed theatrically. Moreover, the romantic interludes between Mina and John are simply meandering. John comes off as a whiny, bratty, and insignificant sidekick to the curious, more reasonable, and rational Professor Van Helsing. The explanation scenes right in the middle of the film stunts the film's capacity for horror, despite the fact that Dracula does make quick appearances to pump up these scenes of revelation. It is only when another gigantic setpiece is introduced, the abbey where Dracula takes his day breaks, that the film again touches the level of horror it introduced us with. The huge staircase where a murder would take place, the underground graveyard, the wooden doors, are not as memorable as Count Dracula's castle but are enough to give an end to this classic horror feature.

Tod Browning's direction here feels impeded especially when compared to his work in Freaks (1932). The film shines when the scenes are blanketed with silence which allows the audience to marvel at Browning's visual treats. This is after all Browning's first sound film, and it shows him struggling with the new medium. However, there's a certain mastery in the visuals: Count Dracula's castle, the vampires waking up with only their fingers appearing from the open lids of their coffins, the foggy mountain pass, the three brides of the count slowly walking towards an unconscious Renfield, the hypnotizing eyes of the famous count. They are all wonderfully staged and marvelously photographed by cinematographer Karl Freund. The film derives its horror from these nightmarish images rather than from the sloppy storytelling. The dialogues are insignificant save for a few insightful conversations such as the count's brief conversation with Mina's friend Lucy (Frances Dade) about the notion that there are some things much worse than death.

The film then truly belongs to Bela Lugosi, who donned the vampire's affluent clothes and gave this version of Dracula near-immortal status. Lugosi's stylish depictions of the famous vampire are clear and effective, delivering a sense of dread to his openly foreign character. Even Lugosi's faults, his linguistic deficiency, has added to the charm that will forever inhabit the character. Lugosi's acting style is a mixture of both the overemphasized body movements of the silent era and the more audible, more repressed facial expressions of the sound era. Despite the several attempts to poke humor into Lugosi's portrayal in several future films, upon viewing of Browning's film, Lugosi still terrifies, signifying that despite the film having aged, it is still pertinent.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)

We live in an age where queer cinema, or at least the more conventional branch of a genre that is vast, is gaining a wider audience. Films like Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Bennett Miller's Capote (2005) have made dents on the public consciousness and were recognized by the Academy, achievements few queer films have accomplished. Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin is a gay-themed film that has achieved considerable merit. It is probably not as renowned are as laureled as the film previously mentioned, but it bears an authentic feel, a relentless spirit that is quite exhilarating. It is no mere love story, nor shallowly conceived propagandist feature. Instead, the film takes a growing American concern and builds upon such concern, turning it into a richly visualized tapestry of themes that swells with dormant energy waiting to erupt when relationships are made clear and revelations are unleashed.

Mysterious Skin is adapted by Araki from a the novel of the same title by Scott Heim. It focuses on two teenagers who played at the same little league baseball team during when they were still little kids. The two teens have separated ways, but a distinct memory from the past continue to haunt them: the memory of their baseball coach who molested both of them. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)'s memory of that event is clear cut and very detailed. While he works as a baseball game commentator, his income comes mostly from prostituting himself to different men. Brash, careless, somewhat insensitive, Neil moves to New York, still sporting that same attitude and same dependency on his ill-reputed source of income. Brian (Brady Corbet) remembers the events quite differently. He remembers it as a myserious blackhole in his childhood memory. When triggered with that lack of memory, his nose suddenly bleed. He becomes infatuated with alien abductions when he watches a television show on the topic, leading on to a belief that he might have been abducted by aliens, connecting that belief to his mysterious dreams and psychosomatic manifestations.

One thing that struck me as odd in Mysterious Skin is that it is hued with bright or striking colors. It has an appearance of a manufactured television sitcom. Araki understandably differentiates his two main characters. Neil's episode is far more drawn towards reality. His concerns are more familiar as it is what television talk show dramas are made of. his tale feels more cautionary but doesn't pin down on that childhood event as the impetus for the character's brash attitude. Araki is careful to steer the film from being didactic. Instead, Araki focuses on the inference that the childhood event has changed Neil, not in the creation of his sexual preference, but towards his life choices: that candy, videogames, and later on five dollar bills, hundred dollar bills that have control of his decisions.

Bryan's tale is more difficult to pull off. It mixes a slight scraping of sci-fi with the uncomfortable discovery that the erasure of memory is due to the fact that the mind has conveniently blocked off any triggers to that traumatic event. It is subtly comedic in its approach, as with the scenes depicting Bryan's unconvincing friendship with his fellow alien afficionado from another town. But Araki does not go for laughs but for that incessant need to recover a missing piece of one's childhood. In a weird way, you'd want to feel for Bryan; that it is best for him to believe in aliens rather than being revealed a miserable fact in his childhood. The little paces of Bryan's self-discovery culminates in Neil's revelation where Bryan folds and degenerates into a little child again. That end scene, both painful and freeing, is wonderfully filmed. The visuals become much more muted, probably in recognition that the stories have evolved from sitcom fantasy to something more serious. The blocking, the direction, the handling of the actors' mannerisms and actions, are all masterfully realized giving off an expected yet totally poignant coda to the tale.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Freaks (1932)

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

It's an inevitable psychological response, humans tend to repel, disassociate, or react violently when shown something that is foreign like an unnatural misrepresentation of the human form. These unnatural misrepresentations however are not mere fantasies found in story books, they are real and more often than not, are hidden from the public eye, creating an unconscious stigma. It's an inevitable reaction, as let's say in the opening sequence of Tod Browning's infamous film Freaks where a man barters off his wares, a spectacle of sideshow freaks, that the men would get wide-eyed in suspicion and disgust, and women would shriek in horror. The man then explains to his customers how the freak came to be, and Browning invites us to partake of a story of carnival freaks intermingling with the rest of the human world.

The story of Freaks concerns itself with Cleo (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze whose grace and beauty have wooed Hans (Harry Earles), a wealthy midget, into showering her with praises and expensive gifts. Cleo, along with her lover, a strongman named Hercules (Henry Victor), comes up with a plan to steal Han's vast inheritance, by Cleo marrying the lovestruck midget and eventually poisoning him and thus inheriting the midget's vast fortune. Cleo and Hercules' plan does not end as intended, as the other sideshow freaks guard their brood with fraternal zeal. The duo get what they deserve, as plan for vengeance is brainstormed by the malformed and their sympathizers.

Freaks has been misunderstood over time. It is only now that the film is getting the recognition it deserves. Quickly disowned by MGM after being hugely criticized by the public for its seemingly exploitative use of real freaks, the film was later on exhibited in freak shows, and was added an introductory statement that whitewashes its supposed exploitative intent. The film was also shortened by thirty minutes, and a happy ending was eventually introduced in exchange for a much more bothersome one: which reportedly involves Hercules would be singing soprano, after being castrated by the vengeful band of freaks. The original ending would be lost forever. The present form of Browning's film is far from his vision. Entire sideplots have been erased, and characterization has been sidetracked in favor of quick and easy spectacle.

Interestingly though, the present form of Freaks still showcases Browning as a talented filmmaker. Browning was able to envision and realize visuals and scenes that elicit nightmarish horror while maintaining a natural and bothersome ease. Browning shocks, but is not intent on merely shocking for he eases his film with the utilizition of the freaks' unnatural bodily form as centerpoints for his intentions of both horror and sympathy. In one scene, Browning shows a group of pinheads, limbless individuals, and dwarves playing in a forest clearing. What is evoked is not only a discomforting spectacle of horror but a sense of innocence and childlike naivety these freaks also exude. They are in fact the ones fearing those who would oppress them. That fear enables them to band together, creating a code that would guide and protect them from the whims of the non-freaks. The code is highest in their hierarchy of beliefs, making them overcome both inherent fear and innocence with the motivation of protecting their own. That becomes the centerpiece of Browning's horror, that psychological transformation of these seemingly safe and friendly beings from playful children to murderous and vindictive monsters.

The pinnacle of such horror is depicted in the final sequences which were depicted with frightening sensibility. The carnival caravans being driven in a row underneath a dark rainy sky where the slight light from the scarce lamps and the occasional thunderous lightning are the only sources of illumination. Within these caravans, the freaks are brainstorming a plan for vengeance. One brilliant scene involves Hans revealing that he knows of Cleo and Hercules' plan, forcing Cleo to recant when she becomes surrounded by three other freaks carrying a knife, a gun, and one playing an uncomfortable tune with his flute. The sequence climaxes in the culmination of the freaks' plan for revenge. The filmmaking is absolutely impressive. Browning mixes shock and creeping horror when the freaks slowly crawl, walk, squirm towards the villains. It is thus unfortunate that Freaks became a victim of studio politics and misconceptions since what we have now is a mere abridged film. One wonders if we'll ever be granted the brilliance of Browning's original vision.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lady in the Water (2006)

Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan, 2006)

1996, American-born Indian director M. Night Shyamalan finally got his big break. The Sixth Sense (1996), a modern day ghost story popularized by a twist ending that came unexpected, was both a critical and a huge box office success. It went on to being nominated for an Oscar Best Picture trophy. Shyamalan would continue working on scripts of supernatural mood that would more often than not end in an unexpected way. Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004) came out like huge movie events, keeping audiences guessing what Shyamalan had under his sleeve. The masses were entertained, but most critics were becoming less impressed by Shyamalan's seemingly repetitive gimmick. Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's latest, his first without the Mickey Mouse company funding him, is supposed to be a break-away from that mold Shyamalan has trapped himself in. Still supernatural, still laced with horror, but doing away with the twist ending, the film was supposed to be a modern day fairy tale that would enchant, scare, and entertain at the same time.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is an apartment building caretaker who discovers a water nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming at his apartment building's pool at night. With the help of Heep and the different dwellers of the building, Story would finish her mission and be taken away by a mythical eagle while escaping the clutches of another mythical creature, a wolf-like beast with red shiny eyes, and glass-like fur that would render it invisible to the untrained eye.

The story of Story is intrinsically silly. True enough, Shyamalan does not rely on a quick twist ending cheat, but instead, turns his entire film into a guessing game of who is who, and which is which. It's quite similar to a whodunit film, only this time, the audience is not tracking down who the murderer is but who among the dwellers of the apartment would fill up their mythical roles. However, unlike a whodunit film, the clues aren't what would rationally arise from the natural consequences of a logical plot, but from the consequences of Shyamalan's whim. It is as if Shyamalan has lost all wit and mistook egotism for intellect, thinking he is one master storyteller that can weave truthful tales out of nowhere.

It is not just the fact that the story is messy, unbelievable, and too weird to be of merit. It is also the fact that Shyamalan's themes are too hazy or are too egotistically shallow, that eventually weaken the film. Notions of themes of good vs evil, of faith, of age-old customs, and the importance of innocence are all spewed in random fashion, but none of such themes are exactly fleshed out to drive a point that would ground this cinematic nonsense. It is quite insulting, actually, that Shyamalan decided to play the role of the supposed intellectual revolutionary whose book would inspire a boy to change the world we live in. It is that egotistic drivel, based out of what is naturally insignificant, that disarms this irate critic. It is the notion that Shyamalan thinks he's a filmmaker to be reckoned that lead to his removal from Disney (after a disagreement over the film's script with Disney's bigwigs), and made his faithful reliance on his lone talents, that would turn this film into an utter failure. However, I did enjoy that bit with the film critic character in the film. Just goes to prove the point that Shyamalan listens to no one, he interposes dialogue accusing the film critic of being overly arrogant as to think he knows everything that will happen in storylines.

Not everything in the film is bad though. Ever-reliable Paul Giamatti gives life to the meatiest character in the film. His Cleveland Heep is all at once an everyday man: comedic, expressionistic, with a body form that would make any normal human being identify himself to. Also, there is Christopher Doyle's fluid cinematography, a welcome break from Shyamalan's stunted storytelling. Once you've resigned yourself to the fact that the story leads nowhere, you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy Doyle's wonderful visual compositions.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

See No Evil (2006)

See No Evil (Gregory Dark, 2006)

WWE, that entertainment company that produces melodramas starred by massive, steroid-dependent men and silicone-breasted women on television, have now invaded the silver screen. See No Evil is their first foray in film producing and much like their television shows, it's a whole lot of crap. Its intentions are clear: way before all their muscled wrestlers die from heart failure or exploded blood vessels, they better take in whatever value they can from their stable of established names, which in this instance is Kane.

Kane plays the slasher in this sorry slasher film. He collects eyeballs as a living and has taken an abandoned hotel as his abode and stage for his ruthless murders. His prospective victims are eight criminal teens who are serving a portion of their sentence by cleaning and restoring the abandoned hotel so that the homeless may have somewhere to live in. Like any other slasher film, the teens, including their two adult guardians, are killed one by one until of course, we unravel the true mystery behind the murderous villain, signaling that it is the time for the villain's demise.

See No Evil is formulaic trash, filmed in such a way that only those fortunate enough to have puffed a roll of marijuana can enjoy it for what its worth. The camera swooshes, swishes, flies, falls, zooms in, zooms out, and is jiggled for no particular reason. The sets, the props, the costumes look like they were borrowed from a porn production, which could be the case heresince the director is more fluent in porno-filmmaking rather than horror. The acting is grating. The borrowed soundtrack and the accompanying music doesn't add much to the film's already unfortunate standing. The editing is haphazardly done, incorporating shocks for absolutely no effect. It's understandable that director Gregory Dark is burdened with the expectation of making something that can be considered brainless entertainment while still delivering the requirements and stereotypes of modern Hollywood horror filmmaking (a plot twist, at least five shocks, a bit of blood, etc.). However, what I can't understand is why Dark has to wrap his film with hideous gimmickry, stupid storytelling and half-a-film's worth of footages of bugs, cockroaches, and rats crawling. I sure wouldn't have paid good money to view what I can view hidden in any dark, damp space.

But of course, WWE fans wouldn't watch this film for the story, or the horror. It's all about Kane. Sadly, Kane makes for such an unmemorable villain. He blandly puffs and dumbly grunts when mad, which is the only emotion the script delegated to the character. He breaks into walls and elevator doors with the brute force of a rabid rhinoceros. He even wears creepy colored contact lens to give him that unnatural look. Despite all that manufactured meanness, Kane remains visibly tame. There's not much of a scare here, just a day's worth of headaches caused by all that bad filmmaking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pyaasa (1957)

Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957)
English Title: Thirst

The first Guru Dutt film I saw is Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959), a film about a filmmaker trapped in the middle of a love triangle between a former wife and his muse, and choked by the public's overwhelming expectations of him. It has been said that the film (a box office failure in India) mirrors too much the life of Dutt, whose string of successes ended with his suicide. I was beholden by the film, which was an almost perfect marriage of beautiful black and white photography, understated musicality, lovely lyricism, as orchestrated by Dutt's perfectionist direction. I thought Kaagaz Ke Phool is Dutt's lone masterpiece, until now. Pyaasa (Thirst), made a few years before Kaagaz Ke Phool is even lovelier, more lyrical, and more fine tuned.

While Kaagaz Ke Phool's hero was a filmmaker, Pyaasa focuses on a different kind of artist --- the poet. Vijay (Guru Dutt), is a poet whose works are quickly dismissed by publishers. Driven out by his brothers, Vijay lives in the streets where he meets Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who accidentally buys Vijay's poems from a junk shop. Vijay's thirst for recognition, both from the public and his former sweetheart Meena (Mala Sinha), leads him to work for rich publisher and Meena's husband Mr. Ghosh (Rehman), who jealously dismisses Vijay after knowing of his wife's former relations with the young poet.

From the start of the film, Dutt introduces us immediately to his character's poetry. He also subtly opens our knowledge to the film's theme. Vijay is lying beside a pond, poetry is sung in the background: about a bee being intoxicated by nectar, and how we it is inevitable that we cannot contribute to this world. The visuals move from Vijay to a bee gathering nectar from a flower, only to be crushed by a man walking past. We see Vijay startled by the mindless destruction. He then travels to his publisher's office, and we realize that like the bee, he is also mindlessly destroyed.

Dutt populates his film with this kind of rich mixture of imagery, poetry, and music. It's as if Dutt has so much to say that his intentions cannot merely be covered by plain cinematics. Another moving scene is where Vijay, intoxicated after learning that his mother has died, goes out with his friends to Calcutta's red light district. Dutt's camera wildly motions as a street dancer feverishly dances as her baby is suffering from sickness. Dutt segues to a song number about prostitution and how a so-called noble land can exist with such treatment of its women. The lyrics is powerful enough to move, but mixed with the gorgeous music, Dutt's wonderful acting and directing, the fluid camera movement and gorgeous lighting, you have one of the most telling, most emotional cinematic sequences about prostitution ever put on screen.

Pyaasa is the film wherein Dutt found collaborators who would fit his film style perfectly. Before that, it was only Dutt and screenwriter Abrar Alvi who crafter their magic together. Of course, V.K. Murthy's cinematography has given Dutt's previous films topnotch visuals. In Pyaasa, Dutt discovered S.D. Burnam, whose music does not require itself to be the centerpiece of each scene but is ravishing in its subtlety. Dutt also discovered his lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, whose poetic verses can be regarded as first class literature by themselves. Burnam and Ludhianvi's songs mix very well with Dutt's style of putting his musical numbers as backdrops to his cinematic style. An example here is when street performers sing a song about the thirst for love, whcih is perfectly counterpointed by Gulabo finally realizing that she is in love with Vijay. There are no loud instruments, or intricate choreography, just a melody that can distinctly mold into the film's scenery, and lyrics that pertain directly to Dutt's intentions. It is that marriage of all these elements that make Pyaasa a perfect film.

Finally, Mala Sinha, who beautifully balances a materialistic exterior and an interior longing to love the poor poet, is also a newcomer. Waheeda Rehman, that beautiful woman with perfectly sorrowful chestnut eyes, was handpicked personally by Dutt to portray the prostitute with the heart of gold. Years later, in Kaagaz Ke Phool, Rehman would portray the director's love interest, who is curiously, a newly discovered actress. In Pyaasa, Rehman provides the film with the focal point for Dutt's rich emotions and perfectly drawn melodrama. She gives Dutt's themes a visual form.

It is quite interesting to note that Pyaasa is not really original in its storyline. It resembles timeless tales of poets and sages falling for women of lower classes. The love triangle here is similar to that of Devdas, which was filmed two times by two different directors, before Pyaasa was released. In fact, Dutt's themes aren't all very new. They've been the topic of stories, novels, epics, poems written ages before Dutt's time. However, the magic here is that Dutt borrows plots, themes, and characters, and breathes into them his personal touch and perfectionist eye, and the result is simply, the most beautiful, probably the greatest unsung musicale ever made.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Untold Story (1992)

The Untold Story (Herman Yau, 1992)
Cantonese Title: Baat sin faan dim ji yan yuk cha siu baau

The plot of Herman Yau's cult classic The Untold Story is not unfamiliar. It has been told repeatedly in the form of tall tales, tabloid stories, and urban legends. However, unlike the the bizarre tales reserved in hush-hush settings or sleepovers, Yau actually presents evidence that his film is based on a true story. An actual case happened in the port-city of Macau. Part police procedural, part sadistic gross-out spectacle, and part soft-porn romp, The Untold Story is quite an achievement in exploitation filmmaking.

Wong Chi-hang (Anthony Wong) is the new owner of the Eight Immortals Restaurant. With his unkempt hairdo and eyeglasses whose frames are as big as coasters, Wong does not have the common look, not even the slightest indication, of a mass murderer. As it turns out, looks can be deceiving because Wong is in fact a serial killer who has killed the previous restaurant owner's family, and each and every employee that crosses his path. To add sickness to his propensity for murder, the meat buns that he serves the customers of his restaurant are actually are filled with a sizable serving of ground human meat, freshly harvested from his victims.

Anthony Wong, whose size and good looks can be an unnecessary burden in giving life to the role of a murderous lunatic, pulls off a performance that is unsettling yet believable. His huge eyes give off an uncomfortable sense of evil brewing beneath his normal guy-exterior. Actually, the entire film is carried by Wong whose character beat off Hannibal Lecter in the insanity department. While Lecter is a man of intellect, Wong is your everyday man, a man who you'd probably encounter in one of your trips in Chinatown. Lecter's profession makes him harmless to the general public but Wong's is a bane to all health inspectors and especially those, who are more interested in quick, tasty and more importantly cheap lunches. Finally, Lecter is far too intelligent as his plans are perfectly planned and timed. Wong is dumb and crude, and his motivations are primarily human without the need for much philosophical or cultural musings.

The film's biggest downfall is the unsatisfying portrayal of the police. Lecter is provided with brilliant captors and chasers, There is Will Graham in Manhunter (Michael Mann 1986), and and Clarise Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001). Wong is given the Macau police, or as how Yau, producer Danny Lee, and the screenwriters depict them. Wong's captors are a bunch of chauvinistic stereotypical cops and a man-crazed lady cop whose side story is far too distracting to be of any material import to the film. The cops are basically there as plot devices, utilized just to push the film forward, to represent the fact that crime does not pay and even if you have the most inhumane, dumbest, and ridiculous police team in the world, the crook will end either in jail or dead. This inadequate and insulting representation of civility and order is ultimately a huge disservice to the maniacal villainy of Wong.

That is how The Untold Story is told. It moves forward when we are given glimpses of Wong's insanity, but slows down or completely halts when we are offered the perspectives of the law enforcers. While Yau's vision is enjoyably brutal, with scenes that are unflinching and unforgiving to the unwary viewer, as blood gush out of opened up arteries like glorious fountains, limbs are thrown like, and men, women, and children are slain like ordinary cattle, it evidently struggles and ultimately suffers when the exploitation stops.