Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984)

Shake, Rattle and Roll (Ishmael Bernal, Emmanuel Borlaza & Peque Gallaga, 1984)

Never mind Emmanuel Borlaza's episode entitled Baso (Glass), a tepid tale of a tragic love triangle ending in the spirits of the pre-Independence lovers crossing over to the modern world when three youngsters decide to perform a seance inside an abandoned estate using a glass vessel. Although interesting in some parts, Borlaza's forty minute contrubition is a downright embarrassment compared to the next two installments of this omnibus of horror shorts entitled Shake, Rattle and Roll.

Peque Gallaga's Manananggal (Monster) is the last portion of the omnibus. It opens with Douglas (Herbert Bautista) traveling the forest to court a barrio lass (Irma Alegre) who lives alone in the middle of the forest. Little does he know that the barrio lass is in fact a manananggal (a maiden who turns into a monster in the middle of the night --- the upper half of her body grows bat-like wings and separates from the lower half to hunt down probable victims) who takes the opportunity of Christ's death (the short film takes place during Holy Week) to wreak havoc to Douglas' family.

The story itself is quite bare. Uro dela Cruz's screenplay tries its best to create something compelling out of the folklore-inspired monstrosity. Yet the sparseness of the plot gives way for Gallaga to brandish his cinematic expertise. He overloads the film with atmospheric gravity which does not really help the plot, but merely expands the scenario --- creating a sense of Catholic impression to the old wives' tale. The afternoon of the manananggal's havoc-wreaking, Douglas goes to town and meets up with the actors of the passion play (Gallaga flavors the scene with the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar playing on the background, the music coming from the town's store). Later on, during a brief seduction scene between Douglas and the suspect barrio lass, a man is shown flogging himself in repentance for his sins. There is really no direct connection between these Filipino Catholic traditions and the manananggal but the inclusion of some sort of local color helps create a distinct atmosphere for the feature.

The barrio lass' transformation to the bat-winged monster is an example of Gallaga's prowess in technique. There's a sense of seduction, of exotic allure in the lass' vulnerability during the transformation --- she oils her naked body and winces in what seems to be both pain and pleasure. Prosthetics and substandard special effects come to play, but Gallaga manages to still keep the believability factor intact with masterful editing and appropriate framing. Alas, Gallaga had to abruptly conclude the transformation with a laughable animated stand-in for the flying manananggal. The rest of Gallaga's film is Douglas defending his family against the manananggal's intentions --- filmed with adequate impression by Gallaga but the predictable ending betrays whatever atmosphere or squeezed-in depth Gallaga tried to infuse early on.

Shake, Rattle and Roll's middle and undoubtedly best portion is Ishmael Bernal's Pridyider (Frigidaire). It's also the silliest and most far-fetched of the bunch: Borlaza's Baso has history to back it up; Gallaga's Manananggal has folklore. Pridyider bases its horror from an inanimate object, a refrigerator (the Filipino term is gathered from the most popular brand of the home appliance) which has murderous and lustful intentions. A family moves into a house mysteriously left vacant for a number of years. The family is composed of the stern matriarch (Charito Solis), the beautiful daughter and target of most sexual intentions (Janice de Belen), the household help, and the stuttering distant male relative (William Martinez) who was asked to accompany the family of mostly females by the father who is working in the Middle East.

Bernal has a competent hold of the wild concept. The refrigerator remains immobile for most of the film (except for the occasional door swings and shakes --- just to make sure that the inanimate has some sort of mobility) yet despite that, holds considerable power. First and foremost, the refrigerator has become an appliance of necessity and second, because of the unbearable heat, the appliance has garnered a sort of seductive and sensual quality. When one is made uncomfortable by a gush of heat wave, one can't help but stand near the opened doors of the refrigerator --- a metaphorical exposing of oneself to temptations.

Mysterious things start happening. The mother starts seeing chopped human parts inside the refrigerator. Things get more gruesome as one by one, people are getting killed. As the police enters the scene, Pridyider starts failing with the threat of a possible need for a logical explanation to the refrigerator's evil deeds. Indeed, Pridyider does give a rational story behind everything which somehow lessens the haunting impact of the film (I won't be as scared of my ice box since I bought mine brand new --- I'm assured that there won't be evil spirits of butchering rapists invading this appliance). Yet Bernal does come up with scenes that just makes you forgive that one glaring mistake of rationalizing the hauntingly mysterious: the atmosphere of freely-flowing pheromones within the house (the distant relative makes love to the loose household help, the refrigerator itself moans and breathes deeply whenever the daughter is nearby like it were masturbating hidingly, the slow sexual awakening of the daughter with her boyfriend's prodding to devirginize her), the immobile yet ultimately shocking final horror set piece (wherein the daughter is first seduced to the icy coolness of the appliance, and then violently devoured).

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Insect Woman (1963)

The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)
Japanese Title: Nippon konchuki

A beetle crawls through a patch of soil, climbing a minuscule hill with much effort. That is the central metaphor Shohei Imamura is going for with The Insect Woman for a woman who lives life through a Japanese society that is quickly changing into modernity. Imamura chronicles the life of Tome (Sachiko Hidari) starting from the moment of her birth. After the opening shots of the struggling beetle, Imamura opens the film proper with a woman similarly struggling through a snowy landscape to visit Tome's mother giving birth to her. Tome was born with questionable paternity (her mother is so loose that she has turned into a joke within the community), but despite that, Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura), her father in legal papers, has treated her with love and perhaps sexual affection. Imamura proficiently depicts the uncomfortable lines between sexual propriety and incest (curiously, it isn't clear if Chuji and Tome are indeed blood relatives, the same way Tome's daughter is not related by blood with Tome's lover in the future).

Tome starts working for a mill, but is called home to marry the third son of a poor landowner (still way above the class status of Tome's tenant family). Chuji disagrees but because of a previous loan of ten yen, Tome is forced to start working for the mill again, turning into a union leader romantically involved with one of the supervisors (who would break off the relationship when he ascends into a mangerial position). Her union activities lead to her retrenchment, forcing her to move to Tokyo and serve as a maid for Midori (Masumi Harukawa), a mistress of an American soldier. After an accident, Tome joins a religious sect wherein she meets inn-owner who seduces her to prostitution, and later on, to start pimping out women, herself.

Imamura tells the story in episodes. He ends an episode with a folksong being sung, tangentially related to the events that have ensued. If anything, The Insect Woman is a notable feature that depicts the struggles of a lowly woman to survive through the fastly changing times. The almost sudden change in setting amounts to confusion, which quickly fades as Imamura has a distinct understanding that his narrative comprises decades yet despite that, he doesn't rush into cramming everything in coarsely edited portions. Imamura immerses you into the situation. The raging sexual energies in pre-war feudal Japan where men quickly acknowledge sexual needs with the least of passions mostly populate the first few scenes. The women seem more like receptacles rather than human beings --- when Tome is giving birth and it is learned that her offspring is a female, a short debate of whether she has to be given up since she is another useless mouth to feed erupts. In other words, women are merely bargaining utilities to raise one's class level through marriage, and the chances for that are slim as the environment is filled with sex-crazed men who's never think twice in seduction.

Imamura delineates rural and urban, pre-war and post-war Japan. When Tome gets a taste of Tokyo, she never gets an opportunity to go back to her mountains (except when Chuji dies, but that visit led to her last downfall). In Tokyo, Tome's worth increases. Her line of business dictates that her womanhood has value, and the fact that she can send money to her family back home enunciates her distinction. Post-war Japan and the other historical events that ensue (Korean war, anti-government protests) has invited new ideas --- Midori turns from an American's witness to the wife of a Korean slacker, Tome is no longer restricted from using cunning and slyness in survival.

The ending of The Insect Woman is hauntingly similar to its opening sequence featuring the struggling beetle. Tome goes to visit her daughter in the farmland she is developing. Disgusted by the lack of development in rural Japan, Tome struggles through the soil, the rocks, and the pebbles that characterize the dirt road leading to the farm. She trips and her wooden slipper gets broken, and Imamura suddenly freezes the scene and ends his film. Interestingly, the idea that Imamura chronicles a life of a person from birth would somehow lead you to think that the chronicle would end with the person's death. Imamura seems to deny her character the benefit of death, the same way he gave that reward to Chuji's character, the sacrificing and doting patriarch who never truly adapts to society's changes. Like the insects and the roaches who an old saying says would inherit the world, Imamura seems to prophesy that the same goes for women like Tome, her daughter, and the countless others marginalized by culture and society

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Death of a President (2006)

Death of a President (Gabriel Range, 2006)

Gabriel Range's Death of a President has made quite a controversy ever since it opened during the Toronto Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI prize. It's not surprising. The film practically hypothesizes a scenario wherein United States President George W. Bush gets assassinated on October, 2007 after giving a speech in Chicago, Illinois. It doesn't merely hypothesize, as Range films the events in documentary fashion completely blurring the lines between truth and fiction. Real footages of Bush, his vice president Cheney are seamlessly edited along with fabricated interviews of actors and actresses portraying the roles of Bush's speech maker, a journalist for a major newspaper, FBI investigators, and forensics expert. Special effects and aural enhancements are introduced, if needed. If anything, Death of a President is a wonderful example of what could've been a compelling practical joke, the same way Peter Jackson nearly made the world believe that there exists forgotten films and city-sized sets in the jungles of New Zealand in Forgotten Silver (1995) .

The film has very haunting predictions. Cheney succeeds Bush, Jr. and turns the assassination into a repeat of 9/11 turning the American government into a cabinet of paranoids and conspiracy theorists, even more than now. Basically, Range says that Cheney would start making connections to another probable war with a Middle Eastern nation, simply because a Muslim was found to be working in the same building where the killing bullet came from. Equally horrifying is the resulting veneration that is given to the assassinated president --- such veneration would've been impossible in our present times wherein America is in the middle of a war based on lies, and because of that, allowed North Korea to actually make its own nuclear bombs. Where else would you hear statements like "he has a strong heart for a man his age," if not after a conceived tragedy?

Then Range suddenly makes a mistake. Just when he establishes a clever conspiracy theory connecting 9/11 to the death of Bush, Jr. to a possible retaliation against another Muslim nation, to what could've been total apocalypse, he devolves the film into a CSI-type investigation/procedural. It might have still worked if Range still kept the worldwide repercussions of the assassination in mind, but instead, he focuses on the causes for the assassination which I thought was not really new. The reasons provided by Range was done by Joe Dante with much more humor and creativity in Homecoming (2006). True, Range successfully made his film more human, much more emotionally poignant instead of merely political, but what's the point of hypothesizing Bush, Jr.'s assassination if you really don't have anything political or groundbreaking to say?

But Range makes it clear that his film is fictional, lessening the impact of his film (one can only imagine if Range had the balls of Michael Winterbottom or Michael Moore). It is this cinematic pussyfooting that keeps Death of a President from truly being the "snuff film" it has been described as. Instead, Range doesn't really tell what we already don't know. His clever hypothesizing structured in quasi-reality does disturb and compel you to think, but it never really rouses you to heightened emotions --- unlike let's say Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (2006) which features an uncompromising message within its reenactments and its many interviews of the Tipton Three.

It's still a good film. I was jolted to see George W. Bush actually being shot since I couldn't believe how realistically it was done (the scene was digitally enhanced of course, Bush is still living and breathing in the White House). The film is made with a believable intensity that could've fooled an unwary viewer who was not able to see that the supposed assassination is in the future. Despite its rather predictable ending which turned the film into a mere rehash of what we already know (of course, not the future part, that's entirely fictional), the film still contains enough drama, enough hard hitting controversy to make this a worthwhile cinematic experience.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Kisapmata (1982)

Kisapmata (Mike de Leon, 1982)
English Title: Blink of an Eye

The middle class house of the overbearing father (Vic Silayan) pretty much summarizes the intricacies of the character. The exterior is characterized by a steel gate and cement walls adorned by chicken wires. Instead of a lush flower garden, the vast unused space is turned into a pigpen where the retired police officer keeps his pet hogs. Elsewhere, the father also keeps an earthworm farm. He claims that a retired police officer should try to keep himself busy by tending to hogs and earthworms. I thought it was merely a clever excuse --- the earthworms, the hogs, even the poor household help are just receptacles of the excess amount of macho energy (in the form of the father's gripping overcontrolling nature) which simply can't be contained by the immediate members of his family, his common-law wife (Charito Solis) and his psychologically tortured daughter Mila (Charo Santos).

The interior of the house evidences the father's almost psychotic nature even more. Despite its normal-looking arrangement, the architecture is actually intricately plotted to serve the father's controlling reach over his family members. The daughter's room is directly across her parents' room on the second floor of the house. In the middle of the two rooms is the bathroom. Below the hall is the living room, which can clearly be seen from the kitchen. The telephone is directly below the parents' room. It's almost impossible for anybody to walk from one section of the house to another, or to even use the telephone, without the father knowing or at least hearing.

Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye) begins with Mila announcing to his father that she is getting married to her boyfriend Noel (Jay Ilagan). The daughter is clearly talking to the father, with barely a notice to the mother, always a background ornament to the overpowering patriarch. When the mother tries to speak out, it's always with a careful acknowledgment that what might come out of her mouth may have drastic repercussions. The mother's resignation of her role in the household (a mere proof that the father has sole control of everything that happens within the house and the family) creates an even more effective level of intensity to the events that ensue. Noel and Mila get married. Through devious means, the father is able to force them to stay at his house for a week, until Noel breaks and insists that he and Mila move out and live on their own. Noel's introduction to the household is a stirring circumstance that drives the father's familiar lordship over his household into a deliberately paced downfall into madness.

It's not merely Noel's invasion of the family's carefully structured status quo. The father is not one who bows down to societal institutions. He and his wife aren't married, which probably rationalizes why he doesn't regard Mila's marriage to Noel as an event that would free the daughter from the clutches of the father. The father is clearly a slave of alcohol --- he acknowledges his youthful looks to the fact that he exercises and can down a couple of beers every night. He tries to extend his control over Noel --- convincing him to down a couple of beers over one of his macho exploits as a cop, but when Noel declines and decides to tend to his wife instead, the father ridicules Noel as weak and wonders how he could've swayed his daughter into marriage. It is quite convincing that there is something more that boils beneath the father's controlling character --- it is not merely his patriarchal duty, or an abnormal excess of macho behavior. Mike de Leon seems to subtly reason a sexual perversity between the father and the daughter, and the fact that the daughter has fallen for a man who he thinks is inferior to him, is an attack to his machismo. When Noel successfully escapes with Mila to the provincial town of Los Banos, we first witness the father crying --- a devastating acknowledgment that an indelible damage to his masculinity has been caused by the daughter's disobedience and Noel's winning over his calculated designs.

Kisapmata is de Leon's masterpiece. Hitchcock is an obvious influence. The film's score mirrors Psycho's famous shower murder scene. It seems that de Leon fashions the house as a Filipino Bates motel. The normal-looking house is shot like the infamous hotel, from outside; the unassuming building towering even so with the knowledge that a monster is jealously guarding its occupants. The father looks from the front window with a keen eye of a vulture; the same way Norman Bates would observe the occupants of his inn.

Yet the creepy thing about Kisapmata is that the events are all too real, unlike Hitchcock's Psycho wherein the murderer is merely haunted by a domineering yet dead mother. In Kisapmata, the machinations of the father is not extended from the grave, but from real and lethal threats. It is clear that the characters in de Leon's film are real human beings --- they work, they interact with other people, they have needs and ambitions. It is that factor that turns this nightmare even far more chilling than Hitchcock's masterpiece. The subject house looks ordinary, and the father is actually quite charming and doting, but you instantly know that there is something deeper than mere insanity or psychotic behavior or point blank notions of evil that is at work here. The corruption that is detailed in Kisapmata extends from the uncomfortably intimate quarrels in the subject household, but to the fact that this form of patriarchal family is not totally alien to Filipino culture, and probably elsewhere.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Itim (1976)

Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976)
English Title: The Rites of May

Mike de Leon's debut feature film Itim (The Rites of May) opens with a seance. Catholic prayers are being recited by the spiritualist, as de Leon's camera circles the meeting. The prayers are silenced when the spiritualist announces that Rosa is dead. The mother (Mona Lisa) of Rosa asks if she can talk to her daughter. The spiritualist announces that they have to wait until Good Friday to talk to the departed. Rosa's sister, Teresa (Charo Santos) starts to mutter incoherent words and ends the seance scene with a supernatural seizure.

De Leon drapes his first feature film with Catholic imagery. The events transpire during the Holy Week in a provincial town that still strictly adheres to tradition. The main character, Jun (Tommy Abuel) returns to the town of San Idelfonso from Manila to visit his paralytic father Dr. Torres (Mario Montenegro). Working as a photographer, Jun also takes the chance to take pictures of the traditional rituals that take place during Holy Week. While taking pictures of the pabasa (a ritual that concerns the townsfolk singing out the entire Gospel), Jun chances upon Teresa and instantly takes a picture of the girl. When Teresa returns that night to her mother, she claims that she doesn't know how she landed in San Idelfonso and just woke up in that town and in that procession.

The supernatural and Catholic traditions intertwine in this haunting tale. Jun would often dream of himself walking through the halls of the town Church with candles burning and statues of Jesus Christ in motion. Jun and Teresa would have their first conversation outside the town church, in the middle of the Holy Week. Seances, traditionally a pagan ritual, is incorporated within the strict Catholic tapestry by invoking prayers, saints, and primary religious figures into the spirit-calling. Houses are adorned with saints and religious icons. Dr. Torres' rustic manor is given character by the odd yet familiar mixture of deterioration and Catholic imagery.

It is this jarring characteristic that paves way to de Leon's storytelling. Doy del Mundo and Gil Quito's screenplay merely outlines the plot, but it is with de Leon's cinematic mastery that the quiet unfolding of the mysteries behind Rosa's death truly work. It can be observed that there is precision in de Leon's filmmaking. The editing (by Ike Jarlego, Jr.) is not fast tracked but instead de Leon knows exactly the amount of time one can sink his senses on the beautifully haunting imagery her presents. The cinematography (by Ely Cruz and Rody Lacap) is intelligently done --- de Leon frames his scenes with surprising expertise (especially for a first-time director; although he is also a cinematographer) and also lights his scenes to dictate an eerie and sprawling canvass of subtle yet effective horror. Mel Chionglo's production design lends an air of authenticity to the feature. Also, Max Jocson's beautifully orchestrated musical score is so convincing that it mostly echoes through the dimly-lit halls of Dr. Torres' manor.

In circular fashion, de Leon ends his film also with a seance --- this time, to reveal the highly anticipated cause of Rosa's death. I thought there wasn't any conclusive character to de Leon's ending, and I mostly fault the screenplay for that. While the seance is played out expertly and the folds and conflicts of the characters are neatly placed in proper order, the ending feels flat and distant. It is when the film ended that I discovered that the film's main fault is that it never invested in any true emotions. De Leon's technical mastery is diluted by a screenplay that presents relationships ushered from the vast supernatural canvass of the film that are basically shallow. Jun suddenly returns home from an unexplained absence, yet despite the many scenes showing him taking care of his father, the paternal relationship lacks a depth that could've made the ending more poignant. Jun's encounters with Teresa seemed to played out as acts of supernatural (or divine) interventions to mete out justice, but what was initially could've been conceived as romantic, is suddenly dropped and left out to much dismay. Teresa's relationship with her mother is shown as shaky and accompanied by a guarded jealousy against the more pious older sister, but such conflict was never truly explored.

Itim's understanding of cultural and religious beliefs interweaves with in a plot that aches with class injustice, social norms, and Catholic traditions. Without such understanding, the supernatural features of the plot wouldn't have worked, and wouldn't have had the same impact as it has now. Despite the lack of humanism in de Leon's initial feature, I can't deny the greatness of this film.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

Christopher Nolan's movies are like magicians' tricks. It all sounds enchanting on paper, and put into action by the able hands of Nolan, looks undeniably spectacular. Like magic tricks, once the secrets have been revealed, the films lose its novelty and hence, are almost weaker upon a second serving, if not totally unwatchable. Nolan's films also detail anti-heroes with near maniacal obsessions. Memento (2000) has the man afflicted with short term memory loss who is obsessed in finding out what happened to him. Nolan's remake of Insomnia (2002) has the police officer who is also obsessed in solving a crime to the point of losing his sleep. Batman Begins (2005) portrays the iconic superhero as an individual driven by angst and an encompassing obsession to rid Gotham of criminal elements.

The Prestige also details characters driven by obsession. Two competing magicians: Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) are bent on outdoing each other's magic performances. It is clear that Borden is the better magician especially when he performs a magic trick that involves him teleporting from one cabinet to the other. Angier is bent on discovering the secret to the teleportation, sending his beautiful assistant (Scarlett Johansson) to try and woo Borden in trusting her the vital secrets of the magic trick.

The duo's stiff competition does provide for momentary entertainment. When Borden accidentally drowns Borden's wife in one magic trick, Angier repays Borden by sabotaging his magic trick involving a gun, bullets, and the magician's two fingers. Borden then repays the act by completely ruining Angier's opening night, and so on, and so forth. The competition transforms into an unhealthy obsession of ruination, which leads Borden to travel to America to seek out scientist Tesla (David Bowie) to provide for him the ultimate machine that will enable him to perform the world's best magic trick.

The magic performances themselves are not very expertly shot. You take the performances as it is: cinematic works made possible by the crafty hands of editors and cinematographers. The fact that cinema has enabled far greater fantasies into celluloid makes the magic tricks of The Prestige pale in comparison, and Nolan seems to acknowledge the fact that these tricks aren't sources of spectacle but mere stuffings for his grand master plan. Nolan could've dazzled us a bit more --- infused the Victorian-age setting with richer and more imaginative visual addendum instead of draping the film like an empty theater set for a uni-directional narrative that is strictly bent on wowing premised on what is hoped to be a rewarding ending. Well, the ending isn't particularly satisfying, especially when pound after pound of set-up has been placed upon its weak little shoulders.

The Prestige ventures uncomfortably into sci-fi territory with the introduction of Tesla's erstwhile competition against an off-screen Edison. I thought that would've been a better film instead of detailing the trivial tribulations of two competing magicians who survive in performing pieces grounded on cheap tricks and idiotic revelations. Nolan's film seems to be devoid of any real human emotions. Cutter (Michael Caine), the magician's crafty engineer and confidante, seems to be the moralistic middle ground in the petty battle. Olivia, and Borden's wife and daughter, are mere pawns in the two magicians' chess game. None of these characters, not even the two main characters, carry much emotional weight --- they're just there to serve Nolan's purpose, which basically does not differ from anything he's done ever since.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005)

Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (Uro dela Cruz, Rico Maria Ilarde & Richard Somes, 2005)

Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 is the seventh of the film series featuring three short films that supposedly shake, rattle and roll its audiences (I'm really not sure if those are positive possible reactions to movie viewing). The series started in 1984 with an omnibus featuring three great Filipino directors (Ishmael Bernal, Emmanuel Borlaza, and Peque Gallaga) entrapped in showing their mastery in the horror genre. The rest of the film series primarily belonged to Gallaga and his frequent partner Lore Reyes, with the last two (before this one), being shared by studio directors, including prolific Jose Javier Reyes. Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5, instead of being called the seventh of the series, carries the burden of proving that the series has indeed crossed over to the new millennium, infusing the short films with a dose of new tricks learned from the Philippines' Asian neighbors, and some CGI enhancements.

It starts with dela Cruz's portion entitled Poso (Water Pump). The plot is conventional: about a retiring con artist (Ai Ai delas Alas) who performs her last fake seance with a rich old woman (Gloria Romero) who wants to talk to her dead son. The portion is basically meant for laughs and for children. Delas Alas chews up the screen with her boisterous comedic performance --- which fortunately predominantly works. The attempts at horror are nil (the blob-like CGI creation looks like regurgitated chewing gum --- not really a horrific sight at all), which makes Romero's serious performance and the teenybopper romantic angle out of place.

Rico Maria Ilarde's Aquarium fares better. It features television comedians Ogie Alcasid and Ara Mina as a married couple who just recently moved into a condominium unit with their son (Paul Salas). They discover a mysterious aquarium which the father fixes up for his son. The mother, wary of her husband's frequent late-night calls and vacation leaves, starts seeing visions of a wraithly old woman warning them against the cursed aquarium.

Ilarde has been in the industry for a while, and has crafted horror films that generally do not follow the conventional trend the rest of Asia is going for. Instead of female ghosts, he opts for rubber-suited monsters and mondo prosthetics. Instead of conventional narratives that go for cheap shocks and plot twists, he opts for bending the genre. He's in his top form when strapped for cash --- Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005), a messy yet compelling dive to the wacky (and sometimes corny) unknown, is shot in cheap digital video but is highly regarded in horror film circuits. In Aquarium, Ilarde tries to mix his cheapie gonzo sensibilities to match the conventions of Filipino studio filmmaking. Ilarde borrows a lot from Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2005), but instead of delegating a long-haired ghost as the primary object of horror, opts to go for a rubbery and monstrous envious ghost-kid who, according to the wraithly old woman, was hated by its mother for looking like a goldfish. Ilarde's mixture of his creative sensibilities and the film series' cross-over to the 21st century (Ilarde makes use of digitized sea weeds, which again, is more funny than horrific), and the need to put a domestic issue on infidelity keeps Aquarium from being truly memorable.

The last portion, Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin) throws logic and narrative conventions out the window, and puts the audience in a disquieting unease right from the start. A couple (Mark Anthony Fernandez and Tanya Garcia) escapes from the wife's parents' clutches to start a new life in the faraway town of San Joaquin. Why San Joaquin (a town populated by freaks and weirdos and is just too unsanitary and creepy for a pregnant woman)? Director Richard Somes doesn't really reveal clues to answer any of the questions that might creep into your mind. Instead, he impresses you with a visual energy and a knowhow in film technique and history to mend whatever disastrous plot holes his short film has to offer.

Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin primarily deals with aswangs. Aswangs are the Filipino version of vampires (but instead of being dashingly debonair in its blood-drinking ways, aswangs tend to use their elongated tongues and their sharp fangs to devour flesh). It is obvious that Somes has watched a great deal of vampire movies before venturing into filming this. With the help of cinematographer Nap Jamir (who also lensed the lush ghettos of Manila in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Auraeus Solito, 2005)), Somes recreates Tod Browning's lighting effect over Bela Lugosi's eyes in Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) when the wife lights a candle beside the bust of Christ revealing subtly the identity of one of the townsmen as a creature of the night.

It's not just Tod Browning that Somes borrows from. The aswangs are fashioned as a Filipinized version of Max Schreck's Orlok in F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). The lighting and the editing acknowledge German Expressionism as put into work in a Southeast Asian landscape ala Canadian Guy Maddin's modernization of the silent film. The aswangs surrounding the house of the couple is a throwback to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Mark Anthony Fernandez's unflinching machismo is an acknowledgment to all the irrational heroes of Predator (John McTiernan, 1987), and other cult horror flicks.

It's a dizzying ride that dazzled my senses within the span of the short film, that welcomes Somes (who worked for Erik Matti as production assistant) as a bright new director who understands and comprehends film history relating to film production. If you have to sit through Uro dela Cruz's trite Poso and Rico Maria Ilarde's interesting yet surprisingly conventional Aquarium to see Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin, then I suggest you do because it is really worth it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Haze (2005)

Haze (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005)

A man (Shinya Tsukamoto) wakes up in a dark and cramped space. Unable to recall any of the events that preceded his being trapped mysteriously, he starts to make up scenarios to explain his predicament: a war broke out and he has been taken prisoner, a rich man has trapped him as a disgusting fetish. Moments later, he gets dragged (or in my sense, falls) into a spike causing him to bleed profusely; for sure he is not dreaming. After forcing and squeezing himself through the narrow passageways of the torturous maze, he meets another survivor (Kaori Fujii) lying almost lifelessly amidst the visible remains of other human beings. After a desperate chat in which both try to determine what has just happened to them, they try to find their way out of the cruel maze.

Tsukamoto's 50-minute film (I am hesitant to label the film a short film since Tsukamoto's feature films are only ten to twenty minutes longer than this) is definitely an exercise for the director to test his mettle in visceral horror. He begins in absolute claustrophobia. His camera is focused on the sweaty and nervous face of the trapped man. The only sounds audible are those caused by him (tapping; heavy breathing; moans) or mysterious clanging noises from the unknown beyond. Voice overs dictate his psychological standing; a mixture of confusion, desperation, and hopelessness. Truly, the first twenty minutes of Haze is absolutely grating and is an absolute test of your limitations in film viewing. There's not much to see as the film (shot in digital video) is draped in darkness, but what's there to see is an absolute threat to your visual senses. The visual claustrophobia is enunciated by sound effects that further the cinematic torture (most probably enjoyed by those who savored films like Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005)).

It seems senseless at first and believe it or not, Haze does work best when it loses you in absolute confusion and induced paranoia. Tsukamoto's cinema is mostly visceral. Despite his being labeled as Japan's Cronenberg, his films doesn't quite reach an extent that surpasses his wild imagery. His later films (A Snake of June (2002), and Vital (2004)) try to encompass his visual energy with depth and narrative sensibility to a certain degree. Haze doesn't quite work when it tries to overcome its visceral side by trying to provide an explanation to the maddening insanity that is depicted. It seems that Tsukamoto is aiming for a metaphor but merely succeeds in compounding the film with conventionality it doesn't need.

Haze, at least after the first twenty minutes that was purely horror, with none of the fatty excesses of gratuitous narrative, goes downhill to art film pretentiousness. It's too bad because I thought Haze could've shown a thing or two how visceral horror films should be done, but instead of treading the road less traveled, makes a U-turn to needless explanation and narrative revelations. It's still worth watching, I suppose. It is after all merely fifty minutes long, and while it lasted, is a heart-pounding, eye-straining, and mind boggling labyrinthine "masturbatory" feat by Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pamahiin (2006)

Pamahiin (Rahyan Carlos, 2006)
English Title: Superstition

In horror, sometimes less is more. In his first feature Pamahiin (Superstition), director Rahyan Carlos throws that advice right out the window and in return comes up with a horror film that wallows in its own blubber. He opens the film with a CGI-crafted black butterfly exploring the exteriors of a provincial manor; the insect's fluttering backdropped by an ominous musical score that hides no intentions. Carlos follows up the opening sequences with what he supposes is a technically efficient long take. The camera follows (with no cuts) a young kid inside a funeral parlor while playing hide and seek. After his count-off, he explores the funeral parlor to look for his friends, while witnessing an onslaught of death-related superstitions related by the deceased ones' relatives to those who unintentionally breaks them. The long take ends when the kid gets trapped in one of the rooms, wherein a ghost appears begging him to join him.

It's a silly set-up. Technically, the long take wasn't even astounding. If Carlos' intention for the long take was to establish himself as someone who could actually pull it off (I understand long takes do require non-stop rehearsals to create pitch-perfect timing), it wasn't worth it. His camera wafts through the well-lighted interiors of the funeral parlor with a noticeable unease. The sequence stinks of overkill. I am already quite aware that the horror film's basis are Filipino superstitions (hence, the title) and to put me through artificially-staged lessons on Filipino superstitions is quite a punishment.

The kid grows up to be Noah (Dennis Trillo), who comes home to the provincial town with his girlfriend Eileen (Iya Villania), to pay his respects to departed friend Damian (Paolo Contis), who supposedly killed himself. The two broke one of the death-related superstitions and went straight home after visiting the dead, inviting the spirits of the dead to their house. In no time, apparitions of a little girl, their departed friend, and other pitiful souls start appearing in their midst. Noah wonders about his other friend Becca (Marian Rivera), Damian's sweetheart, who was sent out by the townspeople because of the witchly ways of her mother (Jacklyn Jose). One by one, more deaths followed Damian's, leading to Noah and Eileen trying to find out the reason behind everything.

If the opening sequences of the film already turned you off, the rest of the film would be a pain to go through. Carlos has no subtle bone in his body. He flaunts around his ghosts (made up with bright blood reds, and powdery whites) so many times that the scare factor loses its effectivity. Carlos particularly accompanies the unsparingly appearing wraithly visions with thunderous sound effects and eerie musical scoring that belittles the viewers' capability to feel fear on their own. The production design is atrocious. Carlos aims for grandeur in almost everything and forgets the tenet of realism; it seems that Carlos dreams of a Filipino town that sadly does not exist, so instead he makes up one to disastrous effects --- a town wherein almost every citizen is aware of superstitions, and wherein witchcraft exists alongside avenging ghosts.

Carlos' story is also bombarded with plot holes and illogical scenes. The characters aren't very well-developed. For example, I am really not sure why Noah has so much concern over a friend who in their childhood, only teases and bullies him. There's not a scintilla of credibility over the characters' intentions and actions which are totally dumb and irrational. Carlos claims that the film is about Filipino superstitions pervading the social consciousness that in turn, drives our fears and suspicions. However, the film falls flat by betraying the initial idea (which was overkilled by over-emphasis) and replacing it with a plot point that somehow puts the blame to a maddened Satan-worshipping witch. So what's this, Carlos insists that superstitions are false, and instead, all our misfortune is merely a product of a disgruntled hag? Ha, ha, ha, very funny.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Txt (2006)

Txt (Mike Tuviera, 2006)

It's quite unfortunate that the only Filipino films that will ever make money from the local box-office are teenybopper romantic fluffs, and horror films stylized after the J-horror boom. Mike Tuviera's Txt manages to combine the two factors together by casting real-time lovers Angel Locsin and Oyo Sotto in the same movie --- attracting both fans of the horror genre and the indefatigable hordes of love team adorers. The main come-on established by big studio Regal Entertainment, at least to those who do not get excited over celebrity romances and eat up every piece of horror film that gets released, is the fact that the director is the only Filipino graduate of a prestigious film school located in California. Fine, fine, I'm convinced so I slugged it out along with the tens and hundreds of other moviegoers; sat there alone in the dark moviehouse awaiting something revolutionary out of the so-called film school graduate. The movie ended, and I left the cineplex disappointed.

The plot is similar to Takashi Miike's One Missed Call (2003), only this time the haunting is not caused by familial abandonment but by a psychotic lover who insists on his romantic endeavors beyond the grave. Roman (Sotto) died during a car accident which was supposedly caused by his girlfriend Joyce (Locsin) since she was the one driving the vehicle. Joyce gets picture and SMS messages from Roman even though Roman's phone was destroyed during the accident. Along with Alex (Dennis Trillo), Joyce tries to find out the cause for the haunting of Roman, who now kills those who try to separate him and Joyce by calling the cellular phones of his victims at the same time of his death.

Txt is not bad at all. It's actually better than most of the othe Filipino horror films that got released this year. It's not as good as Erik Matti's Pa-Siyam (2004) or Yam Laranas' Sigaw (The Echo, 2004). It edges out Chito Rono's Sukob (The Wedding Curse, 2006), mainly because it doesn't have Kris Aquino to distract you from the chills and the scares. Yet, with all the hoopla surrounding the first-time director, there's really nothing new he offered with this film. I did like the fact that there is restraint in using CGI effects. Tuviera manages to do away with the cartoonish sub par computer graphics to enhance his scare tactics. Instead, he manages to control the lighting, the camera movements, the editing to churn out whatever he had in mind. The only downside to Tuviera's technical ability is his inability to restrain scorer Jessie Lucas who comes up with background music (or noise) that pulls away whatever intrinsic horror factor from the scenes by blowing your eardrums out with industrial music (the score would've been effective if Txt was a shocking gore-fest, but it's not).

Txt is well-acted enough. Sotto and Locsin manage to make their incredulous relationship believable (I couldn't come up with an excuse to rationalize why good-girl Joyce managed to fall in love with occultist Roman, despite his wealth). Julia Clarete, who plays Joyce's best pal and co-worker, is a joy to watch. She's one of those few horror film victims who is actually believably strong-willed and independent, even in the face of death. I thought the film would've fared well if Clarete's character was the lead instead of Joyce, who is far too ill-conceived and fickle-minded to provide an interesting center to this horror film.

Tuviera borrows a lot from other horror films. He practically stole a scene from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (2001). As mentioned above, the plot is closely similar to Miike's One Missed Call. My main gripe about the film is that there's not much variance in Tuviera's scaring technique. It's all well-directed and shot but if each and every single death scene is the same, with only bits of modification, the result is a tiring and virtually repetitive horror feature.

The biggest turn-off however is the rather stupidly contrived ending. I'm not the type of person who needs happy endings to convince me that a film is good. I am all for depressing endings, shockers, plot twists, and whatnot. What I don't like are endings that signify a white flag of surrender, especially if it's the fault of the writers why the ending is such, since they piled contrivances upon contrivances that the only way out, the only logical path to end the film, is to risk a surprising turn-of-events. Txt's ending is not really surprising, although it is indeed a risk. The risk didn't pay off well, as I was more bewildered and amused than shocked and scared.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Banquet (2006)

The Banquet (Feng Xiaogang, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Ye yan

The Banquet, Feng Xiaogang's Shakespearean pageant has been harshly criticized by critics and audiences of its homeland China which favored Zhang Yimou's similar costume drama to represent it in the Oscars foreign film race. Instead, Hong Kong, which co-produced the feature of the mainland director, submitted it to represent the former colony to the Oscars. The biggest critical target was Zhang Ziyi, the central character of the film, the Lady Macbeth-like woman of ambition who was quick to marry the usurping brother (Ge You) of his then husband, the emperor, who also happens to be the father of her childhood sweetheart, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). Zhang was criticized of being miscasted as a conniving empress; the role which was claimed to be more suited for a more mature actress. Aside from the miscast, The Banquet is further criticized for being dragging, too opulent and operatic, with fight scenes being sacrificed for endless dialogues which were written with a poetic literary quality that is bound to alienate viewers.

I thought the criticisms were mostly unfair. I found The Banquet as more than satisfying --- a gorgeous loose cinematic adaptation of the Bard's "Hamlet" which is in equal parts an intriguing tale of blue-blooded treachery and a gushing and moving portrait of the corruptive quality of power. Aside from the family of usurpers and usurpers-to-be, the Emperor's minister (Ma Jingwu) and his son (Huang Xiaoming) join the mix by plotting to steal the throne. In true Shakespearean tradition, the minister's daughter (Zhou Xun) represents the tragic moral center; the innocent moving spirit who is victimized by the clashing sides in the battle for the throne.

Feng used to make comedy films. He has established himself as a bankable commercial director. His last film A World Without Thieves (2004) was a box-office hit in both mainland China, Hong Kong, and other Chinese-speaking territories. It seems that Feng is trying to use The Banquet to reach Western audiences, using a familiar tale of passionate intrigue within the grandiosely adorned courts of ancient China. The production is astounding. Feng borrows the production team behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000). Tim Yip builds an extravagant palace that is detailed to the last little statue that adorns its cavernous hallways. The costume designs are similarly brilliant and creates a dream-like beauty to this quasi-historical fantasy (which reminds me of Akira Kurosawa's colorful Ran (1985), also an adaptation of one of William Shakespeare's works). Tan Dun scores the film with something more melodic than his scores for both Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which were more rhythmic. Tan Dun's score enunciates the film's visual opulence with his equally operatic musical compositions.

Perhaps The Banquet merely suffered from the backlash of abysmal wuxia products from directors whose previous films were of artistic merit (Chen Kaige's The Promise (2005) and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords (2005) come to mind). The genre has always been an excuse for these directors to show off their indulgent sides, and at times, the indulgence overtakes the depth and worthiness of the features. I believe Feng's decision to update Shakespeare into a Chinese quasi-historical epic, instead of cooking up a brand-new tale of mythic proportions, did well for him. The stylized acting, the huge sets, the slow motion movements, and the melodramatic turns, fit the material quite well. No complaints here.

World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)

There's a remarkable restraint in Oliver Stone's rightfully sentimental take on the 9/11 tragedy which practically changed the whole world. I'm sure it's a difficult film to make. Almost every film made after the tragedy had to take into account the brand new politics (American and world) that was quickly ushered by the tragedy (Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001), which was released after the tragedy had to digitally remove all images of the two towers). Stone's World Trade Center breezily walked us through the considerable laxness of pre-9/11 America to welcome in (or cower from) an America that is completely reformed. When Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) first sees the destruction of the plane crashes after being pulled out from the rubble, the first thing he asks is "where are the towers?" Minutes later in the film, brooding ex-marine and volunteer Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) declares to the person he is calling to in his cellphone that this (referring to the once-proud twin towers) has to be avenged.

There's a relative unease in reconstructing a true story, especially if the tragedy happened in recent memory. Stone had to juggle that fact (the personalities and families involved) and his philosophies and politics. I understand why Stone had to level down his shock tactics to film World Trade Center. The event in itself is all about shock and the tragedy has had a tremendous aftershock that rippled throughout the world, and what else would Stone add to the genre that criticizes post-9/11 America (although that genre never ceases to amaze and entertain me with all its conspiracy theories, true or untrue). Instead, he choose to realize a sugary survival drama, distills it from whatever politics that might cloud his vision or might turn the survivors' tale into exploitation material. Of course, that is a near-impossible feat and Stone still crafts the film with a belittled political depth which even minuscule, could create such a stir that can shift your views of liking or disliking the film, depending on your political leanings.

Much of the film is spent underground. Jimeno and cop-for-twenty-years John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), among other brave career men, are Port Authority policemen who were one of the first to respond to the planes crashing on the twin towers. They get trapped within the rubble and the mess of what was once the World Trade Center, and while trying to stay alive, reminisce about their wives and families. Stone spends a great deal of time detailing the internal angst of the wives of the trapped survivors. Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), wife of Will, is pregnant and is unable to keep still while awaiting the fate of her husband. Donna (Maria Bello), wife of John, juggles the task of keeping her children stable while contemplating on the fate of her missing husband (wherein it is suggested that their marriage has turned into an unemotional valley).

The performances are all good. Cage is surprisingly restrained despite being pinned down by tons of concrete. Peña is one of the better performances from Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), and here, he repeats the same kind of charismatic charm to make the underground scenes a lot more watchable, with his natural delivery of banal and mundane anecdotes about his wife and his childhood. The wives didn't have much to do except look anxious and reminiscent, and since their scenes took a good chunk of the film, it's a tough feat to keep eyes glued on the screen while doing exactly nothing.

The most questionable character in the film would have to be the passionately dubious Dave Karnes, who sees the dissimilar impassioned speech of President Bush on television and sees himself as the savior of mankind during those moments. Stone gives his character much emphasis. Others might think of the emphasis as Stone compromising his politics to please Republican America, giving the hero's role to a defiantly sure ex-marine who shares the same sentiment as Dubya to rid the world of all those who presumably caused the tragedy. I thought not. His scenes are over-the-top schmaltzy. He's given lines that would cause the most thick skinned to cringe with disgust. The character is a self-important bozo that would characterize the stance of the government during the whole tragedy. Rather than a compromise to please, I thought the character was more of a caricature to poke fun at the self-importance, the self-righteousness that has enveloped most of America post-9/11.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

White Lady (2006)

White Lady (Jeff Tan, 2006)

Tales of female ghosts garbed in white flowing dresses haunting the darkened streets of Manila aren't exactly new. I thought such tales are mere results of poor public works programs of the Philippine government, neglecting the necessities of installing street lamps to dissuade these female ghosts (and also the rapists and killers who, in those ghost stories, were always the cause for those violent hauntings). Regal Entertainment, one of the few big-sized commercial film outfits in the Philippines which is currently milking the horror film craze of all its worth, decided to come up with a film to first, tackle the decades-old urban legend; second, give the products of local reality-based talent competitions a chance to slug it out on the big screen; and third, provide commercial (or brainless) entertainment while preparing for its large scale epics for the upcoming Metro Manila Filmfest (a two-week bonus period for local producers where foreign films are banned from screening in Metro Manila).

The result isn't exactly topnotch entertainment, but it's a pretty much decent way to spend an hour and a half of your life, especially, if there's nothing else to do. Writers Don Michael Perez and Joel Nuñez situate the typically Manila-based urban legend within the confines of a university. Instead of innocent cab drivers, sexually-deprived rapists or cruel murderers, the white lady terrorizes the university's students, more specifically a group of obnoxious students who'd do anything to get what they want. The leader of the group is Mimi (Iwa Moto), a snotty rich girl, who takes an interest on the new girl in town, Pearl (Pauleen Luna). Pearl just arrived from the province of Iloilo with her best friend Jonathan (Gian Carlos). Gifted with a pleasant singing voice, she outdoes the jealous Mimi of almost everything, including campus hunk Robbie (J. C. de Vera).

One by one, the members of the group meet a violent fate, usually caused by a phobia (which they unabashedly share during one of the university's group discussions). They start to blame Christina (Angelica Panganiban), who suddenly disappeared after being bullied and terrorized by Mimi's group. Christina lives with her grandmother Tasya (Boots Anson-Roa), a reclusive yet kindly old woman who lives in the outskirts of the university and is rumored to be a lunatic witch.

Newbie director Jeff Tan directs the feature with an attitude that fits a young toddler who's excited to show off everything he's got. The film is a visual mess. While the cinematography is sometimes appealing, Tan doesn't maintain a coherent visual look for the entire film. I get the fact that he wants different looks if scenes call for flashbacks, or present time scenarios. However, it doesn't really work and the differences (Tan uses washed out colors for flashbacks) suggest a lack of trust of the director for the audience to understand what seems to be a straightforward (and near idiotic) flow of the story. It also doesn't help that Tan makes a gratuitous use of CGI effects to supposedly enhance his film. While the CGI effects look cleaner than most other Filipino movies, the results are quite abysmal. Tan drapes the ghost with a CGI enhancement that devalues whatever artistic contribution was put into the conceptualization of the white lady; and the white lady isn't exactly a scary thing (it pales in comparison to the now-classic Sadako of Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1999) or even the cat-kid in Ju-On (Takashi Shimizu, 2000); all of which did not use CGI in enhancing the delirious yet simple make-up designs).

Yet despite the atrocious direction and the displacement of the urban legend from the more horrifying lamp-less streets of Manila to the rather safe and boring university campus, White Lady doesn't offend me as much as I thought it should. I thought Iwa Moto (who looks curiously like a young Maggie Cheung, without a fragment of the acting talent) is a lovely find since the camera loves her facial features so much. The rest of the cast performed relatively well (which isn't much of a compliment since all they had to do was scream, look mean or scared, or run for their lives). Boots Anson-Roa gives the film an emotional core that despite its shallowness is shown with an effortless ease that makes everything else forgivable. There's so much to dislike about White Lady; the silly vendetta plot, the degeneration of the commentaries that could attach to the urban legend into a teenage romp of shallow jealousies and cutesy romanticism, the horrible effects work and Tan's visual spoon feeding. Yet almost mysteriously, I just can't hate it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Monster House (2006)

Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006)

Gil Kenan's Monster House opens ala Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994). The camera follows an autumn leaf being blown by the wind, which is then sucked by the breeze which results from a little girl's tricycle. But unlike the feather of Zemeckis' syrupy epic, the leaf ends up being sucked inside a creaky and ominous house. The similarities between the two films end there, when a cranky old man starts scaring the wits out of the little girl, who leaves her tricycle behind in what may seem an escape to save her young life.

I thought Kenan's Monster House is a surprisingly fresh stab at the CGI-animated kiddie features market. When the market is oversaturated with almost everything and anything forced to talk and tell nasty (most of the time corny) jokes to please the young ones, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis come up with an animated feature that is also an effective horror film --- with notable borrowings from the recent ushering of Asian horror films (a telephone call from the supposed dead brings to mind several J-Horror films), the dozen haunted house films created over the years, and the other dozen low budget monster flicks released. Yet despite the effective scare tactics, the film still remains to be child-friendly with healthy doses of typical genre humor, coming-of-age angles, and enough eye candy to make the most hyperactive toddler drool with fascination.

The story's the meat of the film. It is what practically sets the film apart from its counterparts. It's a no-nonsense suburban horror that takes the traditional moralistic goal of every kiddie pic to a minimum. It starts out a day before Halloween. Kids are preparing for their annual trick-or-treat event, but DJ (Mitchel Musso), who's on the verge of puberty, feels he's far too old to go trick-or-treating. Instead, he spies on the cranky neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who practically scares every kid with his nasty attitude and even nastier antiquated wooden house. DJ, his overweight friend Chowder (Sam Lerner), and prim-and-proper good girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) try to investigate the mysterious activities inside the house, when upon Mr. Nebbercracker's "death," the residence suddenly takes a life of its own and attacks and subsequently eats everything that comes near its reach.

Sure, Monster House is no comparison to the works of Miyazaki (I thought the mutated house on the rampage near the end of the film looked very similar to the bizarre monsters of Miyazaki's films), or Takahata, or any of the Japanese anime directors. Monster House still falls into that category of disposable films whose value is merely for entertainment, and nothing more. It doesn't really speak of anything new, and although its technique and attack on the subject may be fresh (the film doesn't really have a moral center which mostly covers almost all American animated films; even the rationalization behind the house's murderous activities fall under bizarre rather than distinctly understandable by a child's black-or-white level of cognition), there's nothing deep or fascinating about the overall outcome.

Show Me Love (1998)

Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998)
Swedish Title: Fucking Åmål

The original title of the film is "Fucking Åmål," referring to the overall attitude one of the characters have for her small hometown. Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) is Åmål's prettiest sixteen year old girl. She's shallow and rumors conceive her as a loose girl, which isn't exactly false. While she's still a virgin, she flirts and makes out with almost everyone while complaining how boring it is to live in her small burg (she whines about how everything is late in her town, that the "in" things are already "out" when they arrive in her town, referring to rave parties). Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) has lived in the town for two years but hasn't exactly made enough friends On her birthday, her mom decides to put up a party for which she disagrees to, embarrassed by the fact that no one will be coming. Agnes is lesbian, and is in love with pretty Elin.

Bored and without nothing new to do, Elin and her sister decides to just go to Agnes' party. Elin's sister dares Elin to give Agnes a kiss for twenty crowns. She agrees, but then, she subsequently retreats and instead, leaves the melancholic party to hang out with the popular kids in town. After a while, she returns to Agnes and the two dare each other to hitch a ride to Stockholm. Inside the car, as the radio plays the song "I Wanna Know What Love Is," the two continue the kiss Elin suddenly terminated during the party. The two have fallen in love, but is now faced by the stigma that attaches to lesbian relationships.

Show Me Love is Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's first feature film. It's quite remarkably well-made. Moodysson, despite the frequent amateurish techniques (sloppy close-ups, incongruent camera movements), possesses an immaculate detailing of the small-town teenage issues and a loving understanding on the dilemma that falls upon the two characters. Moodysson might be a little more affectionate towards the pathetic Agnes, who spends her time writing secret notes in her personal computer and hanging out with an also-friendless girl who is reduced to her wheelchair and disabled basketball matches. Elin is portrayed as the sexual gravitational center of the small town --- attracting the timid nice guy Johan (Mathias Rust) to admire her and subsequently court her. Elin's reaction is less than admirable, using Johan as a cover for her secret homosexual longings. Moodysson's portrayal of Elin is problematic turning her turn-around a bit surprising and unrealistic, despite its beautifully emotional heftiness.

Show Me Love remains to be Moodysson's most sincere film (although I haven't seen Together (2000)). Here, he isn't faced with pressing issues such as white slavery in his highly acclaimed Lilya 4-Ever (2002). He isn't belittled by the shocking imagery of A Hole in My Heart (2004; although there are painful sequences here such as Agnes's suicidal attempts), or experimentations as in his latest, Container (2006). Moodysson concentrates primarily on the compelling development of teenage romances, which probably resulted from the rebellious trait that springs forth from the absolute boredom and predictability of their sleepy little town. Also, Moodysson is at his most emotionally convincing self here. His use of songs, his on-the-point visuals, his relative ease in bringing out excellent performances from the young cast, culminates in those gorgeous moments wherein the characters are faced with seemingly petty dilemmas, but to them, would mean the world. With Show Me Love, Moodysson seems to have achieved the difficult --- he has expanded small-town teenage conflicts and angst into a pressing and emotionally rich tale of romance against all odds.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Matador (1986)

Matador (Pedro Almodovar, 1986)

Pedro Almodovar's Matador opens with a montage of scenes from movies where women die violent and bloody deaths. The audience of the gruesome montage is Diego (Nacho Martinez), a prominent bullfighter who is reduced to teaching young hopefuls his former craft after he got gored at one match. At first glance, we are aware that Diego is a deranged man --- we welcome the character masturbating to a montage of women suffering and dying. Then, we see him at work; he explains to his students the art of making a kill. As he teaches, Almodovar inserts a thematically related sequence of Maria (Assumpta Serna) inviting a man to her room, undressing him, and finally, stabbing him at the back of his neck with a hairpin, killing the erstwhile lover almost instantly.

Angel (Antonio Banderas) is one of Diego's student. Angel, who badly wants to become a bullfighter but faints at the sight of blood, has lived under the wing of his ultra-religious mother. Virgin at the age of twenty two, Diego asks him if he's homosexual, and Angel denies such and is determined to prove to his maestro his masculinity. That night, Angel attempts to rape Eva (Eva Cobo), his neighbor and Diego's girlfriend, but only succeeds in prematurely ejaculating; and suddenly faints when Eva accidentally slips to reveal a bloody head wound. Probably sick and tired of his mother's ultra-conservative prodding, Angel admits to the rape and the other murders that has recently happened.

Almodovar, with Matador, concocts a black comedy wrapped in trappings of absurd romanticism and fantabulous machinations. Despite the numerous jumps from logic and grandiose U-turns from reality, Matador works very well. Almodovar paints the film with a stylistic hue that makes each and every fantastic plot twist and revelation, both surprising and expected. For example, there will be scenes wherein Almodovar will whisk away your attention from the absurd sexual fetishes of the astrologically-crossed lovers by focusing his attention to the ex-matador's student's crotches while they practice their dangerous craft. It's as if Almodovar makes you aware that bullfighting is not merely an entertainingly dangerous sport, but is also a bastion of Spanish masculinity verging on the homoerotic. Almodovar cuts the montage with the image of the police inspector glancing at those young student's crotches; and with that Almodovar surprises by not only poking fun at the macho sport, but poking fun at the uniformed detective, who after that scene rejects an offer by the psychiatrist (Carmen Maura) to sleep with him that night.

Almodovar maintains that volatility throughout the film. There is no telling what might happen next, and that creates a wildly-imaginative goose chase of something that might or might not happen. Almodovar's visuals is delightfully inventive, especially for the final fifteen minutes, wherein everything breaks loose turning the film into an implosion of almost everything that should not have happened if the film was a conventional one. Almodovar betrays his murder mystery, his romanticism, his satire, his commentaries on Spanish machismo, to conclude Matador in a fashion that is so outrageously absurd, yet in a strangely compelling way, lovely. There's nothing more romantic than a highly romantic urge being completed when the sun and the moon meet in the sky --- and with that, you can't help agree with the police officer saying that he's never seen anybody happier.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rouge (1987)

Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987)
Cantonese Title: Yin ji kau

Master 12 (Leslie Cheung), so-named because he is the 12th son in the Chan family, falls in love with Fleur (Anita Mui), a charmingly demure courtesan who fetches hundreds of dollars for the mere touching of her neck or ear. The master showers the courtesan with numerous gifts, which in turn, is rewarded by the courtesan with her love. Undaunted by the master's family's refusal to their relationship, the two live together forcing the master to work as an extra for a Chinese opera staging. Their relationship tragically ends when both decide to die by suicide, promising each other to meet up in the afterlife. Fifty three years later, Fleur reappears in her traditional cheongsam in the office of newspaper editor Yuen (Alex Man) asking for the editor to print an ad for a missing person. Fleur follows Yuen until he discovers that Fleur is a ghost. Yuen, with his girlfriend (Emily Chu), helps the melancholic Fleur to find her lover who failed to meet her in the afterlife.

Produced by Jackie Chan, Rouge is an odd ghost story as the film does not seek to draw out horror from the supernatural scenario. Instead, the film is quite disarmingly romantic. You are instantly drawn to what may seem like a timeless romance the moment Master 12 hears the low-toned yet seductive singing voice of Fleur echo through the hallways of the brothel. When the two meet for the first time, a gorgeous exchange of carefully placed flirtation, pervades the party. This is followed by a courting sequence which is equal if not greater in romantic atmosphere as the initial meeting of the two. The Master await Fleur patiently as the latter go out and about seemingly testing the love and intentions of the man courting her. Just from the introductory scenes, the hallucinatory scent of romantic passions can be felt floating the beautifully designed walls and windows of the brothel.

The film is beautifully shot by Bill Wong, and is the third feature of Stanley Kwan, who directs the film with quiet yet assured pacing. The interchanging of time periods is significantly done in a logical manner, assuring the feeling of sad nostalgia as the classically dressed ghost sees movie theaters and ancient shops turned into commercial spaces and highways. Above the external changes of the Hong Kong landscape, a theme of the huge differences of romanticism between Fleur's age and the present age surfaces. Unwittingly, the editor and his girlfriend's relationship is tested and is put upon a microscope when they are swept by the courtesan's sad story. In one scene, the girlfriend asks the editor if he'd commit suicide for her, both of them said no. As the story progresses, Kwan seems to persist with the idea that it is not the quality of the sacrifices one would commit for the survival of romantic relationships that has changed, but the fact that such ability to commit such sacrifices is inherent to the person, depending on his or her experiences in life or his or her capacity to love unflinchingly. The ending of the film suggests the idea that it is the courtesan's experiences (Kwan always had a soft spot in portraying women who are stepped upon) that gave her the determination to commit the suicide, and not the fact that the quality of relationships of old is much stronger than in the present.

The performances of both Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung are magnificent. Mui isn't exactly the prettiest of actresses, but her face possesses a unique sultry and seductively sorrowful quality that keeps her rather flat character interesting, despite that all she does is wait and stare and talk. My main problem with the film is that I don't quite buy the efforts given by the editor and his girlfriend in finding where Master 12 is. The editor and his girlfriend come up with the silliest of scenarios to explain the mysterious numbers, and to help Fleur in finding her lover. The supernatural doens't always jive with the grounded realities of the film. It is also unfortunate that there is a certain lack of humor that could've helped Kwan's droll pacing to move forward. On the other hand, the film is beautiful to look at, and the tragic relationship between Fleur and her lover is enough to keep you watching until the rather emotionally unfulfilling end.

Container (2006)

Container (Lukas Moodysson, 2006)

After Lukas Moodysson's rather pretentious and critically panned last feature A Hole in the Heart (2004) which focuses mainly on four characters, centering on the introverted teenage central character who observes his father making home-grown pornographic videos, one would expect for Moodysson to follow it up with something more akin to his first three features which offer narratively conventional yet rewarding cinematic experiences. Instead, Moodysson comes up with Container, which seems to be even more dense and pretentious than A Hole in the Heart. Shot in low-grade black and white video, haphazardly edited into a nebulous string of unconnected images ranging from the utterly banal to surprisingly striking, Container looks and feels like the work of a film student rather than an internationally known director. It's more similar to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (2003), a cinematic autobiography which features personal home videos and pictures of the director edited together to form a coherent and very introspective look at his homosexual life. Yet Container is not personal at all, unlike Caouette's Tarnation. Container distances its viewer by separating the visual and aural values creating an air of discordant and jarring experience that is devoid of any emotional impact, aside from stereotypical depression.

The visual component of the film features one central character --- an overweight man (Peter Lorentzon) who is seen prancing around, donning women's clothes and performing some other acts that suggest some emotional or mental disturbance. Another character features --- a petite Asian girl (Mariha Åberg) who is shown as the overweight man's inner self. The two are infrequently shown together except on a couple of situations --- when the man is carrying the girl, or when the girl is tending to the man. Aside from those situations, the two are filmed separately, sometimes in similar situations, suggesting the identity of the two characters. The scenes where they are shown together suggest the relationship of the outward and the inward personalities --- that the outward character is forced to carry the inward character as a burden, but in return the inward character tends and takes care of the troubled outward character. The visual component is an accurate conveyance of what a transgender individual might feel, and despite the amateurish production, the visual component is quite effective in its portrayal.

More important and resonating than the visual component is the aural component. The voice is supplied by American actress Jena Malone (who is also one of the actresses the character pretends himself to be). She speaks in hushed whispers, as if speaking from a covered closet. Malone speaks of many things --- of her experiences as a trans gender, how she hates homosexuals and differentiates herself from that, how she collects things and buys junk from Ebay, her idols ranging from Savannah, a classic suicidal porno actress to Britney Spears. The voice is quite updated on celebrity news. There's a frequent appearance of anecdotes regarding Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's break-up, Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, which transform into social and pseudo-philosophical commentaries and introspective intimate discussions about her own experiences.

The visual and aural components do not match up, but almost magically, Moodysson is able to give resonance to both components when experienced together. I don't think the visual component will work without the voice, but the voice, in particular, is added a certain value when coupled with the black and white images that are shown. Sure, it's undeniably pretentious and the only reason it might have a wider audience than its similar student-made counterparts, is because Moodysson attaches his name to it. However, Container has a certain compelling quality that just simply can't be dismissed. It's nothing like Tarnation, which is both accurate, intricate, and intimate. Container is more interested in detailing the sickness and the depravities of our modern society by showing the incongruent personal and fictionalized experiences of a trans gender individual. Moodysson attaches footages of a desolated building in Chernobyl and its surrounding areas, including several point-outs to the tragedies that have struck the world (the Iraqi War, the Chernobyl fallout, a kid dying while playing soccer, Kylie Minogue's breast cancer), to connect and juxtapose the desolated interiors of the troubled trans gender individual with the confusion that surround present and modern living.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)

At eighty one, Robert Altman has established himself as one of the world's most important artists. His films have defined what several decades of American filmmaking should look and feel, and with that, have spawned many admirers and copycats. His latest feature, A Prairie Home Companion is probably his most delightfully personal film. It might very well have been made by Altman as his swan song, that final masterpiece to cap a wonderful and illustrious career. A Prairie Home Companion is so preoccupied with death that it might be mistaken as morbid or depressing. It is not. The death A Prairie Home Companion envisions is a death that is inevitable but sweet. It is a death that symbolizes an end to a lifetime of wonderful moments and familial relationships.

When one of the longtime beloved performers (LQ Jones) suddenly dies awaiting his lover, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), the daughter of the one of the show's singing sisters Yolanda (Meryl Streep), insists that Garrison Keillor (who reprises his real life personage in the film) that people should know about the passing and that a moment of silence should be given to honor the man. Keillor declines noting that radio does not know silence, and more importantly, he doesn't want people to be forced to honor life. Lola cries and doesn't quite understand the wisdom to Keillor's words. She's in her teens and busies herself writing poetry about death and suicide, designating herself as an expert on mortality but when faced with death as close as that day, she succumbs to emotionality and dissolves the mask her teenage sensibilities have forced her to wear.

Death is such a pervading presence in the live radio show that although quite absurd, death actually shows up in the form of a seductive femme fatale (Virginia Madsen), all dressed in a white trench coat and dizzyingly glides through the many passageways of the theater, finally attracting the dim-witted and self-important security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). Noir fashions himself a private eye, but instead has landed a job as security officer to the dying radio show. He talks and moves about like a forgotten leading man, without the dashing macho sexuality, causing him to rely on flirtation to establish his masculinity. Noir's character gives form to the nebulous array of live musical performances and notable talk about life and nostalgia by summing everything into a storyline which involves the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) closing down the show that played at the Fitzgerald Theater, a building that will be demolished to make way for a parking lot. There's a funny joke there on how vicious corporations take down little human businesses in favor of spaces for automobiles. Noir seeks the identity of the luscious femme fatale while finding ways to stop the Axeman from closing down the show which he himself (he tries so hard to be part of the musical cast and crew that in one scene, he insists on playing the piano as a signal, but I'm sure he just wants to let the crew know that he knows a bit about music and is not entirely an outsider to the radio show family) has become an integral part of his life.

Altman directs the film with a mixture of understated flair and grace. The antiquated theater contains narrow passageways leading to dusty wooden dressing rooms, where ghosts float in and out the rooms and to and fro the corridors. Altman's camera wafts through the theater like a a voyeur, catching the denizens of the radio show in their several conversations and banter, most of which are memorable throwbacks to past secret relationships, and discussions on dismissed opportunties. Altman's visual assuredness keeps the characters glued into one beautiful relationship, that when the Axeman finally arrives to tell the rumored closing down of the show, the film exudes a poignant note that simply breaks your heart. You've heard their stories, you've seen them sing and dance, you've participated in listening to their heartaches, their joys and their little discussions about nothing, that to see everything end with a cruel Texan destroying everything that he has no actual knowledge of is utterly painful.

The most heartbreaking of all is that that's probably what everybody is expecting from the aging Altman; that one day, the newspapers, radio programs, and entertainment shows will mourn his passing. Altman here is detailing the inevitability of death while showing that it's not all bad. He after all ends his film with a dubious note involving the angel of death staring through the celluloid and Noir trying to find out who's to die next by little hand signals. He follows up the ending by a joyous song that accompanies the end credits. Altman seems to see death as an expected result of the greatness of life, and that there's no point in mourning a passing, and instead, one should celebrate life, the same way the best way to celebrate the end of the radio program (which I believe, is still around) is to replay the memorable songs that have touched and affected the millions of patrons it has served the past thirty years.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Man Without a Past (2002)

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002)
Finnish Title: Mies vailla menneisyyttä

Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past is so disarmingly simple that it's such a treat in our present cinematic world that fetishizes in complex convoluted plot lines and stories that are grounded upon unexpected twists and turns. If it weren't for the stylish use of colors and the droll yet motivated blankness of Kaurismaki's visuals, The Man Without a Past would be convincing as a 50's Hollywood film. Also, Kaurismaki's humor can be traced to Jim Jarmusch rather than the comedic geniuses of the golden age of Hollywood cinema.

A man (Markku Peltola) is mugged and left as dead by a band of thugs. He awakes, wrapped in white bandage, and the first thing he does is to fix his broken nose (a rather funny note as Kaurismaki would be using Peltola's prominent nose through the numerous profile shots that pervade the film). The man turns out to be like the invisible man who unwraps his bandages and learns that he is as transparent as air. Instead of the curse of invisibility, the man is cursed (or gifted) with the sudden disappearance of his memory. He moves in an empty container van near the ship docks of Helsinki, and starts to work as a crew for the Salvation Army, where he meets and falls in love with Irma (Kati Outinen).

It's a funny predicament the man lands himself into. He is consistently bullied by the head honcho of the homeless community, with a female dog named 'Hannibal.' The local chapter of the Salvation Army plays routine music that is much too old and safe for the tastes of the miserable denizens of the container vans. Even his girlfriend Irma is a perpetual virgin, morose and manly when wearing her outfit, and still morose but rises a few notches in terms of femininity whenever she's in casual wear with the titular amnesiac. Kaurismaki doesn't go for hilarity. Instead, he persists in deadpan humor, letting the absurdity of the scenario seep into his audience's cognition which in turn, brings about well-earned chuckles. The dialogue is slight, but that adds to the mysterious charm of the film which somehow survives with the cleverness and ingenuity of Kaurismaki's directorial designs.

Kaurismaki intends to end the film with a subtle twist --- a throwback to the cleverer sci-fi features of classic Hollywood --- and ultimately happily concludes the unfortunate tale of the man. It's a worthwhile film, despite the fact that the plot plays out like a straightforward feature which is absolutely devoid of contemporary notions of climaxes. Instead, Kaurismaki draws out interest by staging even more absurd scenarios out of the already absurd groundwork that he has mustered. A bank robber steals his money from the bank, and then asks the man, to deliver the money to the unpaid laborers which he has neglected to pay --- that is just one of the paradoxical statements that glue this film of virile paradoxes. Each of these little scenarios, little scenes, bring about a conclusion that makes you want to watch the film again to see the subtle nuances Kaurismaki placed in the film.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

Goodbye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)

After being left by her husband in favor of a more lucrative life in West Germany, Christiane (Katrin Sass) has decided to spend her life raising her two children properly and loyally serving socialist East Germany as a teacher. When her children grew up to become adults, nothing much has changed except that the unification of the two Germanys are coming close. Of course, the characters in the film do not know that, and when Christiane suffers a heart attack followed by an 8-month coma which is conveniently timed during the breaking of the Berlin Wall, the two children decide to keep the unification a secret from their mother who awakens without knowledge of the quick events that happened during the time she was unconscious.

It's an ingenious concept, I thought. A concept that is not entirely free from ridiculous inconsistencies, but in the end, is truly compelling. The democratic world saw the unification of Germany as the triumph of capitalism, but the inconvenient truth of a forcedly forgotten idealism towards socialism remains in the heart of former East Germans. Goodbye Lenin! seeks to visualize the hidden emotional impact of the unification by cooking up a comedic farce that is both emotionally deep and touching.

Wolfgang Becker directs the concept with able hands. Although there is a needless reliance to tired comedy, Becker still succeeds in creating a humorous attack to the historical event that this democratic world has considered a triumph. One scene that is charmingly funny yet also heartaching is when Christiane finally goes out from her room to discover a neighborhood that has changed since the time she suffered from coma. Katrin Sass walks weakly down her apartment, her face stoic from the lies that her children has supplied her ego, but is also unable to understand the presence of West Germans in her neighborhood, capitalist signs, and in one brilliant stroke of visual humor, a helicopter flying carrying the enormous bust of Lenin. But Becker doesn't direct the scene with humor in mind. He supplies the scene with a heartracing soundtrack that accompanies the resulting internal disagreement of the lies of the children and the mother's own reconciling of what she sees, and the effect is quite astounding.

Then Becker makes a huge cinematic mistake. He decides that the lie should go on, covering the amazing scene with another lie the son cooks up. I thought the brilliantly directed scene went down as an annoying emotional tease. I was expecting a difficult reckoning for the mother --- an uncovering of the life and the hard hitting fact that everything she lived for has turned into nothing when capitalism has ruled over socialism. Instead, Becker introduces more melodramatic elements into his film including a touching but not too original reunification of children and father, and so on. Sure, Becker, by following more commercial instincts, has made a more friendly film --- one that doesn't disagree with conventional wisdom of what is pleasant and acceptable. But upon deciding that, he forego what could've been truly impressive and devastating --- a mother breaking down from the treachery (although probably reasonable and rational) of the two most important parts of her life.