Sunday, February 25, 2007

Find Me Guilty (2006)

Find Me Guilty (Sidney Lumet, 2006)

After getting used to Vin Diesel sporting a beer belly and a thin crop of dirty brown hair, to the satirical groove of Sidney Lumet's filmmaking and the surprising liveliness of the actual minutes of the longest criminal trial in American history, Lumet's latest film Find Me Guilty is actually very very fun. The courtroom drama genre has been associated with boring legalese or morally ambiguous thematics, and while both descriptions of the genre are still very present in this film, there's a gratifying sense of sincerity and ignorance that somehow blinds us from getting what Lumet might be saying. In other words, despite the difference in mood with Lumet's first film 12 Angry Men (1957), there is actually a whole world of similarities between the two films; as if the two films can be viewed together --- the earlier film to show what happens inside the jury room, the later film to show the human drama that blurs the sight of justice and truth.

Diesel plays Jackie DiNorscio who in the beginning of the film, gets shot by his junkie cousin before being convicted of illegal drug trade charges. Jackie did not finish grade school but is forced to defend himself in probably the biggest legal battle (the state is trying to convict an Italian criminal "family" for conspiring in several illegal activities ranging from illegal gambling to murders) he'll ever face when he loses faith on his slimy attorney. Jackie exchanges legal logic with charm and humor, threatening both the prosecutors and his co-defendants. After several lengthy opening speeches by the group of battle-ready esquires, Jackie pumps up his speech with naughty jokes and private references --- "a laughing jury is not a hanging jury."

The moral ambiguity of the film does not burden Lumet's filmmaking. Lumet practically colors the family of mobsters and gangsters while drably turning the prosecutor into a drab and impersonal crusader. Two years pass with the courtroom being filled with different characters --- the rowdy Jackie, midget yet very fluent lawyer Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), the conniving and annoyingly treacherous mob lord Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco), and a bunch of highly emotional witnesses and even more emotional defendants --- and a consistent human thread forms between these people; something that would eventually land conveniently on the laps of the tired jury members, or the mediator and administrator of the proceedings, the judge. The question of justice being fogged by human faces escapes the grasp of Lumet. By the film's end, the lines of truth and reason is blurred when we get too comfortable with Jackie's life and his lack of personal restraint, or too drawn to Klandis' blossoming relationship with the self-defending ignoramus who turns out to be wiser than he speaks.

Lumet and T.J. Mancini almost accurately recreates what really happened inside the courtroom --- adapting the courtroom sequences from the actual minutes of the trial. I'm pretty much sure the theatrics of trial lawyering have been pumped to fit cinematic standards, the opposing roles of the judicial system have been Hollywood-ized with assignments of protagonist and antagonist, and the ongoings are much more friendlier than what really happened. It's a convenient manipulation that provides a clearer rationale behind the jury's acquittal of the defendants; probably much clearer than the onslaught of connected and disconnected pieces of evidence fed to them with precise professionalism by the prosecutor's team. Procedure and facts are forgotten in this kind of trial, especially when a clear human face surfaces; argumentum ad misericordiam reigned.

Find Me Guilty is courtroom Rocky (1976), which is not really bad if you really think about it. It shouldn't be something you'd take with you when faced with your own legal trials (it shouldn't be seen as an inspirational piece the same way Rocky became the mantra of many self-proclaimed underdogs worldwide), it's best digested as a piece of entertainment, or a diversion from the typical stoical action hero roles Diesel has been in.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Flushed Away (2006)

Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell, 2006)

Flushed Away is a depressing departure for Aardman. After making considerable money and critical respect for their Wallace & Gromit short films, Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) and Chicken Run (2000), the pioneering studio for claymation decided to join the bandwagon and completely digitize their third feature film. My problem with Flushed Away is not merely its being a CGI-animated flick, but that it's as generic as its other computerized cousins; this one completely indistinguishable from the rest. It's their most Hollywood effort yet. Its candy colored exteriors, its computerized thumb prints, its distinctly imperfect movements to copycat claymation cannot possibly take away the moneymaking rot that drives the film's spirit.

From its title, one can accurately guess that the film's humor will primarily be comprised of bathroom humor. True enough, potty-jokes abound; the amusingly dry British humor of Aardman's previous features is exchanged for the more commercial, more middlebrow, America-friendly giggle-givers. The Dreamworks complex of visual gags (it seems that pop culture references and real modern city life in fantasy worlds ala Shrek (2001) and Shark Tale (2004)) make its way into the feature; most of it justifiably amusing --- a mini-version of London comprised of rats, frogs, and roaches thriving underneath the sewers of the real city; sewer slugs convene to become combos that provide musical tickles (though after the initial joke, the repetition gets tiring).

My adverse reaction against the film is primarily due to disappointment. The film isn't completely a waste of time. Much of the voice acting is delightful. Ian McKellen's The Toad resembles an overshadowed has-been, a gigglish mix of British snob, malevolent overlord, and overacting schemer. His plan of drowning the rat-metropolis by the time those soccer-loving Brits above take a pee-breat during half-time is probably the funniest joke of the bunch. His ragtag team of French ninja frogs resemble the sort of zaniness and cultural insensitivity this Aardman product sorely needs.

But still I'm distracted by the film's poser attitude. The reason for opting to go the CGI way was because there's a difficulty in claymating water effects. It's probably a valid technical point, but to completely computerize everything, and then use computer effects to make it feel like claymation is downright pretentious. I do notice a lot of the claymation imperfections which made all the Wallace & Gromit delightfully natural in the film. Mixed with the seamless digital animation at work, the conscious downgrading feels ungainly and distracting. Moreover, the character designs (which is in line with Aardman's usual character designs), just look ugly digitized.

Dreamworks and Aardman divorced a while back, and I'm seriously hoping that the lack of Hollywood pressure would get Aardman back on its creative feet. In an industry that's being populated by studios who go the easy way by animating digitally, studios like Aardman, Studio Ghibli, and other backlot corporations who champion traditional animation should be given more attention than they are having now. It's quite unfortunately that at times, one of these championing studios would stumble and produce features like this flick that simply deserves to be flushed away.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Faces of Love (2007)

Faces of Love (Eddie Romero, 2007)

Eddie Romero, like his mentor Gerry de Leon, is more famous internationally for the low budget genre pictures he made for American producers rather than his homegrown films. Largely unseen outside the Philippines are his more serious works, which are regarded in his native land as classics, with his Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This was How We Were, What Happens to You Now, 1976) landing in many Filipino critics' lists of the most important Filipino films of all time. It has been a little less than two decades since his last feature (imdb lists an action B-movie Whiteforce released in 1988 as his last film), and even more for his last Filipino film (Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi (King and Emperor, 1987)).

In 2006, Romero finally finished Faces of Love, his first digital feature. The film finally gets a commercial release, with most critics and cinephiles excitedly gushing over the come-back. However, absent the irrational effects of nostalgia and reverence for the 82 year old National Artist for film, the film is rather lightweight and quite disappointing. Romero's cross-over to digital filmmaking opens the feature to a number of technical quirks: Romero's filmmaking style makes use of static shots, the only movement is the frequent zooms in to his character's faces --- the digital zooms make the movements both distracting and discomforting.

Romero explores the ails and joys of rediscovering romance with Faces of Love. Widower Arcadio (Christopher de Leon) hires Toby (Alfred Vargas) to investigate a series of romantic letters that he received during the years. With the help of Skip (Juliana Palermo), Toby traces the letters down to Arcadio's former nurse and lover Ligaya (Angel Aquino), who is in trouble with the police chief (Bembol Roco) for rebellion-related crimes. The characters are entangled in a not-so-intricate web of romantic love, with the only seeming solution for entanglement is for these characters to just let go and confront the emotions.

The dialogue is driven by refreshing wit and charm. Co-written by Romero with Rica Arevalo, the screenplay evokes the romantic cynicism in most of Woody Allen's earlier scripts, with a troubling absence of Allen's neurotic humor and an irreverent spark. Moreover, there's an obvious disconnect between Romero's actors and the smartly-written script, driving away much of the emotional impact of the lines --- it is quite an unlively misunderstanding as it seems Romero goes for subtlety and freshness while the telenovela-fed thespians are overacting as if they were in a melodramatic event flick. Mon Confiado, who plays Skip's homosexual pal, seems to appreciate the script for what it is --- fancifully delivering his lines with an unmindful flow. On the opposite end is Vargas who seems to relish his lines and scenes too much as if the screenplay and the film were gospel truth.

It's a problematic film. Romero strives for lightness but with his artistic stature in the country, the film is burdened with ambition and expectations. One can only hope that Romero get used and finally adapt his methods to digital filmmaking, as this little film feels more like a transition, an excerise, an experimentation rather than an inspired work.

Imahe Nasyon (2006)

Imahe Nasyon (Poklong Anading, Yeye Calderon, Mes de Guzman, Emman Dela Cruz, Neil Daza, Lav Diaz, Tad Ermitaño, Rox Lee, Topel Lee, Milo Paz, Robert Quebral, Ellen Ramos, Raymond Red, R.A. Rivera, Lyle Sacris, EJ Salcedo, Sig Sanchez, Dennis Empalmado, Ogi Sugatan & Paolo Villaluna, 2006)
English Title: Image Nation

Twenty years after Ferdinand Marcos' regime was toppled by the EDSA Revolution, producers Jon Red and Carol Banuan Red pose a question to twenty of the country's digital filmmakers: What has happened since? Given five minutes each and absolutely limitless control to play around with the theme (and make use of actor Ping Medina), the result is Imahe Nasyon (Image Nation), an omnibus work which I thought was more interesting than it was groundbreaking.

Most of the short films are draped with cynicism; probably an indication of the rebellious character of the independent film community of anything authoritarian. Emmanuel dela Cruz's Imagining EDSA questions the validity of the EDSA exercises with Medina posing atop a fly-over imagining a metaphorical woman giving birth. Most cynical is Paolo Villaluna's One Take, a tale of a family spanning several presidential administrations ending in an upsetting tragedy (the entire five hour film is shot with one take, thus the title).

Experimental are the works of Lyle Sacris, Poklong Anading, and Roxlee. Sacris' Dibuho makes use of several digital photographs of Medina edited together to make a hypnotizing film that culminates in a rapid succession of the different faces of the Filipino people. Between Intersections, Anading's effort is a collection of several vignettes of normal Manila life; played in reverse; and multiplying successively until the entire screen is filled with the luminous chaos of the sights and sounds of post-EDSA Manila. Roxlee's La Pula mixed stop-motion animation, clever framing, and nebulous narrative to come up with a film that fancifully plays around with colonial ache and its repercussions to the Philippine psyche.

A disappointing pattern appears throughout the omnibus. There's a tendency for the filmmakers to downplay narrative and go for symbolisms --- Yeye Calderon's Silid (Room) and Emmanuel dela Cruz's Imagining EDSA are the biggest perpetrators of this annoying habit of belittling the power of five minutes. R.A. Rivera (Public Service Announcement) and Sigfreid Barros-Sanchez (Aksyon Star)'s MTVs are merely entertaining.

Tad Ermitaño and Topel Lee astound with their genre confections. Ermitaño's Local Unit brings us to a bleak futuristic Manila wherein computers make use of actual human brains to function (which totally makes sense since a human brain's memory surpasses any supercomputer's); enterprising Filipinos, as always, find a backdoor to earn an extra buck out of the new technology, paying real poor Filipinos for their brains to activate the computers of the Manila middle class. Lee's Ang Manunulat (The Writer) is a statement against the government's efforts to silence media draped in what seems to be a Lynchian horror piece.

Noteworthy is Raymond Red's Mistulang Kamera Obskura (Like an Obscure Camera) and Mes de Guzman's Tsinelas (Slippers). The former stars Medina and his father, Pen Medina looking at each other through a hole in their respective jail cells. It seems that Red is trying to compare how we view contemporary society from the point of view of the optical illusions created by photography; that for us to see life as it truly should be seen, everything should be topsy-turvy. De Guzman's cinema verite short shows a day in the life of a street sweeper who walks to Mendiola with his broken slipper. It turns out that that day is the day of the Mendiola massacre where rallyists are brutally mauled by the police; de Guzman continues his tale playing with the now-famous journalistic video of the rally, it seems like there's a belittlement of the value of the sacrifices of the past when the immediate need is the fixing of the street sweeper's slipper.

Most impressive is Lav Diaz's segment entitled Pagkatapos ng Ulan (After the Rain). His camera is motionless in a low angle position during the entire five minutes. An infrequent voice-over tells us that after the rain, the disconnected voice's mother left. Thereafter, the father left; and finally he saw himself: a jovial kid. My enchantment with this short film is the fact that the credits state that the actors are unknown, giving me an idea that Diaz merely placed a camera and filmed an everyday sequence, and building upon what he gathered during the entire five minutes of shooting, created a piece that evokes an uncontrollable emotion of separation and the difficulty for self-identification.

The omnibus is ultimately a mixed bag. A number of short films are quite forgettable, or perhaps too inappropriately dense to elicit real awe or an allure for further intellectual deliberation. In a way, the absolute freedom made the exercise slightly scattershot for the entire piece to actually speak something novel and moving about our present state.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Great Silence (1968)

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
Italian Title: Il Grande Silenzio

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, as a favor for the film's producer who turns out to be a good friend, agrees to star in a Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western, with the request that he doesn't memorize any lines for the film. In keeping with the promise, Trintignant plays the film's tragic hero, Silenzio, a mute gunslinger whose vocal cords were removed as a child when he witnesses his parents' deaths by a group of bounty hunters. It becomes his life's mission to rid the Old West of these greedy bounty hunters.

The Great Silence starts with Silenzio riding through a backdrop of white snow while hidden bounty hunters are aiming to assassinate him. With his automatic pistol, he outspeeds his predators, killing each hunter except for one who opts to renege bounty hunting in exchange for his life. Silenzio instead shoots both his hands to assure the promise; in a fit of desperation, the sole survivor tries to shoot the hero with his bloody hands, but is shot by a group of bandits who are holing themselves in the snowy wildnerness of Utah. These bandits are eagerly awaiting the promised amnesty by the new governor, before returning to the town of Snow Hill to lead normal lives. Forced to steal by the involuntary exile, each bandit's head costs a few hundred of dollars; the entire horde is a treasure trove for these greedy bounty hunters traveling the wilderness like ravenous wolves. Most ravenous of them is Tigrero (Klaus Kinski) --- treacherous, morbid, and extremely greedy. He puts to death four bandits including the husband of Pauline (Vonetta McGee), a big-eyed dark beauty who recruits Silenzio to avenge the death of her husband.

The souls of the characters of this western is fueled by greed, vengeance and lust, which makes the romantic heart of the film irresistable and touching. The hearts of Silenzio and Pauline frozen by hate and revenge suddenly melt in a surprising moment, gradually lensed with ponderous close-ups and alluring hues of flesh and yellow by cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti, and backgrounded with a seductive melody composed by Ennio Morricone. During that moment, it felt that the characters transformed from filmic legends, into real characters who, through a sudden gush of emotions, develop humanity and imperfection, getting them closer to mortality. If I may add, I also want to believe that it is probably Silenzio's first real sexual and romantic encounter (his lack of communicative prowess lessens his relational marketability, and his vengeance-consumed soul keeps his mind centered into completing his life's mission), thus suddenly making him very vulnerable.

The film ends in a brutal and cynical note. Its an ending that unshrouds Hollywood-started mythos of the invincibility of the gunslinging hero and the unconquerability of good against patent evil. The way Corbucci depicts the villains (especially Kinski whose mere colden blue-eyed gaze sends shivers down my spine) and the overly-oppressed victims (with the impending idea that a dawn of forgiveness through the governmental amnesty is arriving soon) makes the conclusion even more painful and heartbreaking.

In a way, the cynicism is grounded in visual, thematic and emotional consistency: the neverending snow that hides rifles and corpses, the perpetual cycle of vengeance and violence, the ineptitude and inutile of the law and law enforcers. Everybody is at fault even the film's hero and his love interest, even the dozens of part-time bandits awaiting freedom from their past crimes. When the whole world has been corrupted by by-the-book readings of state-legislated penal laws, and peddling of human lives, it is nature's law that is followed. Silenzio became weak when he fell in love with Paulin, and according to nature, only the strong shall inherit the world.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

For Your Consideration (2006)

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)

In one scene in Christopher Guest's latest satire For Your Consideration, industry neglected thespians Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) and Victor Miller (Harry Shearer) and make-up artist Sandy Lane (Ed Bagley Jr.) are discussing an Oscar-buzz blurb over the former's performance in the still in-production indie film "Home for Purim." Victor thinks that Oscar stuff is silly. Sandy is quick to reply that it's the backbone of the industry, for which Victor answers back sarcastically saying that the industry is noted for not having a backbone. While the observations about both the Oscars (being silly) and Hollywood (being backboneless) are true, I thought that both descriptions also fit this dismal failure of a movie.

My main problem with For Your Consideration is not that it's not funny, but that the film is satire in its safest and least interesting form. It is silly in a way that the depictions are cartoonish to the point of being ineffective and toothless; and it is backboneless because by the time the film ends, it still didn't have any novel point on how Hollywood has become sick and rotten with its fetish with red carpets, buzzes and blurbs, and that golden statuette.

Guest shifts from his usual mockumentary style and instead delivers this satire as haphazardly stringed together setpieces of overt screenwritten acrobatics of wit and visual gags. TV-programs like Entertainment Tonight gets parodied into an extremely mean-spirited and insensitive tabloid show hosted by stand-offish weirdly hairdo-ed Chuck Porter (Fred Willard) and be-wrinkled Cindy Martin (Jane Lynch). Sadly, Guest's parodying comes off as empty-headed attempts to bring out the worst in Hollywood, and at its worst aren't even interesting or humorous enough to pass as gags for Saturday Night Live (which, if I may add, isn't even funny).

The film feels quite dry. Guest, who has thrived directing satirical mockumentaries seem to be trapped in a limbo of now knowing which way to go. Co-written with Eugene Levy, the script drowns the satire with fantastical and wildly simplistic depiction of the entire awards race. A more careful understanding on the labyrinthine world of Oscar whoring would've done the film miracles. Instead, Guest conveniently oversimplifies matters --- acknowledging the silliness of pre-release reviews and pre-ordained determination of award worthiness while erases the role of pre-Oscar awards, non-Hollywood print criticism, and celebrity pedigree from the awards scenario. The brushing aside of these essential requisites for Oscar-glory cheapens Guest's efforts and lessens the impact of what Guest may be trying to insist, and fails to do so.

The Oscar-hungry characters in For Your Consideration are comparable to the delusional auditioners of popular talent show American Idol, praying for recognition despite the ridiculousness of their talents and efforts. The buzzed-about fictional film "Home for Purim" looks like a quickly made bad Hallmark-channel movie. The conscious decision to make the films within the film bad does accrue a number of chuckles, yet it also provides an immense undesirable logical hole. One may defend Guest's cinematic decision to turn hammy films into probably best pictures as a depiction as to how art and taste has never been a factor for the Oscars; while I'm tempted to agree, I know it's not true as there is still a modicum of good taste remaining within Hollywood.

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch, (especially if the eggs are patently bad)" --- that seems to be the moral of Guest's tale. I always try to not label films with moralistic lessons but I felt that to do so here is quite justified. If you don't want to end up as an acting teacher or a failed stand-up comedian, then follow the moral of the story; but since we're living in a world more complex than the one in Guest and Levy's feature, then there's really no reason to get worried.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

It seems like Darren Aronofsky wants you to believe that the three parallel story lines of three different time lines co-exist in the same universe. It's Orpheus and Eurydice-type lovers, their pan-historical names are variations of Thomas (Hugh Jackman) and Isabel (Rachel Weisz), recur as 15th century Spanish conquistador and queen, 21st century cancer researcher and his cancer-stricken wife, and 26th century space explorer and life-giving tree. Yet viewing it like that, I felt, pushed forward the flimsiness of the connections of the story lines.

Instead, I viewed the three story lines of The Fountain as existing in different dimensions --- the 15th century storyline exists within the psychological framework of a dying Izzi, the 21st century object of maddened obsession by Dr. Tom Creo, who is rushing experimentations to cure his wife of her brain tumor. The 26th century storyline, where bald-headed Tommy lovingly feels a tree existing inside an intergalactic traveling bubble floating towards a dying star, looks unrealistically dreamy that I thought it's apt to appropriate it as more of Dr. Tom's fantasy sequence (post Izzi-death) than a look into the future.

My interpretation may be seen as a disservice to Aronofsky's scope and ambition. What I'm trying to imply is that there is only one storyline --- the two period pieces are introspective peeks at the minds of these troubled lovers. The conquistador plot introduces the film, before being transported into the surreal space bubble, that segues to the present tense plot.

Formally, we are introduced to the conquistador plot line through the unfinished manuscript written by Izzi. Strictly, that plot happens within the near-death mindset of Izzi and curiously, she sees herself as the queen of Spain, threatened to be put to death by the Grand Inquisitor for seeking eternal life. The queen assigns his trusted conquistador to accompany a Franciscan friar to New Mexico to search for the tree of life (evidenced by both Mayan and Judeo-Christian mythologies). The historical inaccuracies may be forgiven as literary devices to appropriate the general emotion of Izzi while writing her manuscript, conveniently unfinished as she still hopes her husband discover a cure for her cancer, the same way the queen hopes her conquistador discovers the tree of life before she is uncovered by the heretical inquisitor.

Interesting to note is that the 15th century plot line is grounded with Judeo-Christian religion as opposed to the 26th century plot line which graphically apes Eastern Asian religion and philosophy (Tommy practicing tai chi backdropped by passing stars; nirvana-stylized sense of accomplishment). It's a difference that becomes more apparent if the two timelines are viewed as the two characters' respective outlooks on life and death. Judeo-christian tradition sees death as an essential part of life, and to beat it is something of a natural abomination. Eastern tradition sees death as part of a cycle, through reincarnation or nirvana, as in Buddhist tenets. Izzi's manuscript is a creation of an experience from hopeful determination that death may be defeated, to a resolute acceptance that death is inevitable. Dr. Tom (whose dream sequence is the 26th century space travel to the nebula; the 26th century sequence does segue to Dr. Tom daydreaming in his laboratory) dreams of death as a disease, essentially curable, and despite several lifetimes, may eventually be defeated to earn the prize of reconciliation with a loved one. Thus, his dream sequence features Eastern Asian philosophical precepts that dictate hope for reconciliation with a dead lover.

The Fountain is as nebulous as it is visually astounding. Aronofsky, working with a $35 million budget (a lot less than what he was initially assigned with when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were still his leads), surprisingly creates wonderful setpieces and visual tricks that lend a helping hand to the surreality of the exercise. The space travel (the backgrounds were created by filming chemical reactions in a petridish) does elicit a response akin to viewing organisms trapped in a petridish. Actually, the entire film feels more like a bio-psychological experiment on the extent of love despite the threat of being truncated by death --- Aronofsky posits that his subjects (Dr. Tom and Izzi) would spurt out cultural-metaphysical-philosophical-religious psychobabble to resist the inevitabilities of life and love. Interestingly, despite the problematic shifts in tone, time, and emotions, the film feels more intimately justified as it is ambitiously underrealized.

This post is my contribution to the Jim Emerson's Scanners: Contrarianism Blog-A-Thon.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Deliverance (1972)

Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)

It's probably a mixture of spite and irreverence that persuaded me to spend a little less than two hours of this year's Valentine's Day to watch John Boorman's Deliverance, an unsympathetic account of four suburbanites tragic canoing trip in hillbilly country. It's the proper film to suck any notion of what Valentines invokes --- the proper panacea for those feeling antagonistically unromantic while the rest of the world is sizzling with love.

The four men arrive in a make-shift gas station and while waiting for their station wagons to refill with fuel, Drew (Ronny Cox) starts playing his guitar, attracting a deformed youngster to challenge his strumming with his very own banjo renditions. It's an arresting scene; both absurd and lovely --- a defining image of an uncomfortable marriage between the city slickers and the country bumpkins (the 'Dueling Banjoes' song naturally urged the natives to break into a dancing fit, as the tourists get amused out of the weirdness of it all). The scene, and the succeeding sequences of peaceful canoing are illusionary portrayals of an uneasy calm before the traumatic turn-around: two horny mountain men successfully sodomize insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty) and attempt to similarly encroach on the masculinity of Ed (Jon Voight) before being foiled by the group's bow and arrow-wielding alpha-male Lewis (Burt Reynolds).

Deliverance is a film that is totally devoid of any depiction of romantic love. In fact, love isn't merely absent but the exact opposite of it pervades the air. Deliverance's central imagery concerns the act of rape; not only in its more obvious (when one of the mountainmen asks Bobby to squeal like a pig, while raping him) but also in its symbolic form. It's interesting how it's not only the city folks that were invaded, but also the serenity of a river and its denizens. From the start, an unamicable relationship between the Atlanta-based group and the backwoods is felt. Lewis lording it over as the leader of the pack; the rest of the gang try to regain or push forward their machismo. It is when an act of violation of that struggle for natural dominance occurs (the rape scene and the river's angry act of revenge with the terrible rapids that kills one of them) that the cycle of violence surfaces. Nature gets back at the agents of human expansion and shows them who's boss.

Rape is the most incongruent of acts --- it uses a method reserved for love-making but is fuelled by the basest of human emotions (hate, lust, vengeance, selfishness). The four urbanites' weekend in the river can be perceived as a rape in itself; an unwelcome entrance, and their respective reactions from the excitement of being victorious in conquering the initial rapids of the river, orgasmic in the sense that they achieve the goal of rape, which is dominating over the victim. It is also interesting that the method of the hunt is through a bow and arrow --- the image of an arrow piercing a mountain man, an appropriate vengeful response to the similarly graphic invasion that was done to them.

Even the reactions by the urbanites to the depraved act is comparable to those victimized by rape, a mixture of the need for retribution and a total whitewash of the act. The convenience of the river being drowned by the construction of a dam almost settles the score, forever burying the remnants of the hellish weekend. Yet the psychological effects persist; the knowledge, the guilt, the shock remain indelible portions of their lives (as shown by the concluding dream image of a corpse hand surfacing out of the lake). It seems that the struggle for dominance between urban development and the depicted backward country life and nature should end with the cycle by that final act of invasion (and rape) of flooding the entire river, yet it doesn't.

I thought Deliverance is probably one of the most truthful, painful and scathing cinematic depictions of rape, within a setting void of any tired notions of classical romanticism. Both its symbolic and its more visceral portrayal of the act are appropriated with real destructive repercussions against masculine dignity and that fairy tale-notion of urban dominance.

This post is my contribution to 100 films: The Lovesick Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, 1962)
French Title: Procès de Jeanne d'Arc

Robert Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc opens with robed steps scurrying towards a ranking church official. We never get a sense as to who exactly are these people until the central figure speaks; declaring that her daughter has lived a religious past and has been convicted and burned for false crimes. She reads her declaration from a scroll of parchment, and we can guess that the speaker is the mother of Joan of Arc. Drums interrupt the declaration, and as the opening credits are shown on screen, the image of the kneeling robed figure presumably still reading from the parchment persists. We learn from Bresson's introductory statement that the opening sequence is from the rehabilitation which took place 25 years after Joan's burning. More importantly, we also learn that no portrait or image remains of Joan, and that the film is completely reconstructed from the minutes of Joan's trial.

We first see the menacled hands of Joan (Florence Delay), atop the bible. The film is predominantly just a series of exchanges between Joan and her inquisitors, the Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau) --- with Joan recitingly dictating her answers to her judges' interrogations. Whenever she's not in the trial, we see her in her cell; her hands are free but her foot bounded with metal chains. Moreover, there's a peeping hole in the cell where Joan's English guards consistently make remarks on their prisoner's disposition.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic --- when in trial, Joan is always surrouded by the heads of clergymen while being led by the Anglophile bishop to reveal relationships with witchcraft. Even more so while she's in the cell wherein walls of heavy stone (the film was shot in the exact prison where Joan was detained) surround her, and privacy and even remnants of her feminine dignity are being encroached. She claims that her martyrdom is her imprisonment, definitely unaware that her burning has been pre-destined by her English captors.

France is captured by England. The bishops are being controlled by their English-speaking masters. Joan is physically, mentally and psychologically restrained by both her captors and the voices that dwell inside her head. Bresson explicitly explores the struggle for release, for that philosophical freedom, by tackling the enigma of Joan of Arc. Imperatively, he doesn't allow much creative freedom from his actors, restricting their dialogues as to what has been transcribed from the historical trials. There's a feeling that the actors are merely reading their lines (the same way that the mother is reading from the parchment what she thought of was her daughter's life), restricted from enunciation or emotions. Like the characters they are portraying and Bresson is depicting, the methodology is quite restrictive to what is historically preserved from the life of Joan. It's uncomfortably straightforward, spartan in method, and rarely punctuated with humanity (we do see Joan cry, but it is probably due to Bresson's understanding that the lass is merely nineteen and is burdened with a spiritual duty).

From the narrative sparseness and the thematic intensity, Bresson develops a journey from corporeal imprisonment to freedom. There's a curious preoccupation with steps and footwork. Bresson's camera focuses a number of times on the feet of his characters; as if proclaiming our body's gravitational attraction with the Earth. That theme predominantly surfaces in Joan's trial --- the unsurprising uncomplementary nature of spiritual redemption and human politics (bureaucracy, justice, punishment). Bresson again captures Joan's bare feet finally lightfootedly walking towards the stake --- it's quite an unusual walk; it seems that she's scurrying or floating against the cement road; even an onlookers attempt to make her trip is met with failure as she continues her hurried steps.

We first see the free sky (a refreshing scene) when Joan is tied to the stake. While she burns, she says her last words --- that her voices did not deceive her (she begins to understand that she was meant to escape all corporeal imprisonment, not imprisonment dictated by the terms of human relations). When she breathes her last sigh, Bresson cuts to doves atop the canvas that separates the bishops from the sky, then again cuts to the stake with only ashes as remnants of Joan's body-bound self. It's quite a touching depiction of spiritual release.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Woman is the Future of Man (2004)

Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004)
Korean Title: Yeojaneun namjaui miraeda

I saw Hong Sang-soo's Woman is the Future of Man a couple of years back. I was not very impressed; it was probably because it's my first time to get into Hong's cinema (my encounters with Hong's films thereafter turned out to be more fulfilling experiences). I thought it was the right time for a re-evaluation of the film, and with that, prepared myself with a clear mind so that I can get past the cryptic grooves of Hong's filmmaking.

The film starts with a reunion of two acquaintances, Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), a Western art professor struggling for university tenure, and Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo), struggling filmmaker who just came back from America. It's an awkward meeting; Mun-ho meets Hyeon-gon outside his gated house, excusing the fact that he can't invite his friend inside and as a consolation, gives Hyeon-go the opportunity to first step on the newly formed inches of snow in his garden. Hyeon-gon does so; walks backwards to a certain point and re-steps back so that it looks like he only walked in one direction. The duo proceed to drink in a local restaurant; again, uncomfortably re-aquainting themselves with their respective pasts.

Awkwardness defines the duo. Both of their tries at flirting with the waitress fail (Hyeon-gon pretends to cast the waitress in her film; Mun-ho pretends to hire the waitress as a nude art model), leading to their respective flashbacks of their relationship with Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a). The flashbacks lend a hazy rationale as to why the duo would later on visit Seon-hwa in her bar in Puchon. I believe the greater rationale as to why the two would ride a taxi and spend the night, and the next day with Seon-hwa is to find a sense of resolution to a love affair and to a sexually dependent college life they used to have.

I realized why I easily dismissed the film at first glance. Hong's methods were deceptively slight; his narrative is punctuated with atypical temporal shifts before straightforwardly going places without a sober sense of sticking with a character. A couple of years after my initial viewing, the filmmaking felt justified --- after all, Hong's characters are always in a drunken confessional while baring their unguarded personalities for all the world to scrutinize. The way Hong handled his themes which easily overpowers narrative flow and characterization complements the impermanent needs, sexual and otherwise, of his characters. Mun-ho decides immediately after meeting a group of his former students to forego going to the spring with Seon-hwa and Hyeon-go; in a fit of jealousy, Hyeon-go leaves Seon-hwa behind; Mun-ho finally shifts sexual gaze to his ex-student and brings her to a filthy motel --- Hong's characters are in a constant search for satisfaction that once the confrontation of an open-ended past felt inutile, the search begins anew.

It is that jarring face-off of the psycho-sexual neediness of the Korean adult and that facade of contentment (a gated hill-top house, a beautiful wife, tenure in the university) that makes this Hong feature more compelling than it looks to be. Hong captures everything with humorous detail; even supposedly shocking events like Seon-hwa's rape is abruptly "cured" by Hyeon-go's lovemaking, Mun-ho's cluelessness in thinking that girls' legs are naturally smooth, Seon-hwa's noting that the chip in her tooth makes her blowjobs more delightful. It certainly feels like Hong denotes these seemingly adult confrontations and meet-ups as akin to the fancifulness and predictability of child's play.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia

Hourly announcements by uniformed men of astrological indications and accompanying significant virtues drown the whispered plots and familial scandals being discussed behind closed doors. The emperor (Chow Yun-fat) prides himself of his ideal family; the model family for the rest of Tang dynasty China. Three sons (the crown prince Wan (Ye Liu), middle child Jai (Jay Chou), and youngest eager beaver (Qin Junjie), a lovely wife (Gong Li), and the memories of a previous wife (and mother of the crown prince) --- it's a lovely family portrait. However, this seemingly perfect ancient Chinese family may in fact be related to the dysfunctional suburban families of this cinematic generation. The emperor is secretly poisoning his wife's hourly medicines with Persian black fungus; the eldest son is having an illicit affair with his stepmom while also shagging the court doctor's lovely daughter (Li Man); the second child is plotting a coup d'etat; and the third son feels too giddy and satisfied to be really satisfied with his place in the world.

It's a labyrinthine ploy. Endless dialogues and revelations inch their way to our cinematic consciousness. Once the pattern is established with daring strides of make-believe narrative, we witness something I can accurately compare to a Jackson Pollock painting --- the film feels like paints were conveniently thrown to a canvass and luckily, the questionable experimentation worked.

Zhang's film does not only feel like a Pollock painting, it also looks like one. The marvelous sets, the intricately created costumes, and the astounding amount of extras commissioned to play a body in a crowd are testaments to Zhang's flourish and filmmaking capabilities. Yet unlike the color-coordinated stories of Hero (2002), or the emotionally apt visual palette of House of Flying Daggers (2004), it felt like Zhang foregone all notion of restraint. Curse of the Golden Flower is afflicted with psychedelia; watching it sober from the effects of drugs (although I haven't tried doing so) might take away the substance from Zhang's rationale in making the interiors of a majestic Forbidden Palace-esque monument look like the inside of a pack of melted M&M's chocolates.

Why exactly Zhang would lash out aesthetically with Curse of the Golden Flower remains to be a mystery to me. Probably, because he can. Despite the film's overly extravagant, too-beautiful-it's-a-bit-ugly, insanely colorful depiction of Shakespearean melodrama, there's a sense of artful pageantry to the excesses of Zhang's cinema. Overflowing bosoms, ritualistic formalities of court life, golden courtyards --- all these just relate to Zhang's visual pastiche and believe it or not, the aesthetic madness is quite addicting.

And the summation of Zhang's excesses is the climactic coup d'etat, where crimson colored soldiers fight it off against a horde of black-clad guardsmen against the backdrop of golden chrysanthemum carpets which are occasionally being sprayed with dark red splashes of blood. It's appartently a mixture of CGI and a cast of thousands of extras; but onscreen, it looks ridiculously stunning (even slightly political; the sequence did remind me of Tiananmen riots). Excessive it may be, but Curse of the Golden Flower is nothing short of an achievement.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jalsaghar (1958)

Jalsaghar (Satyajit Ray, 1958)
English Title: The Music Room

Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (The Music Room) is bookended by an image of an ornate chandelier swinging against a black background. The same chandelier is the centerpiece of the jalsaghar (or concert room) of landlord Huzur Bizwambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas). It's a beautiful room --- large portraits of Huzur's ancestors adorn the wall; a large mirror backdrops each musical performance; majestic pillars serve as both pointers to the palatial status of Huzul's mansion and as sturdy backbones of the manor. It's truly a magnificent room, but there's an air of decay, of a fading glory to it. It's the same look that pervades the entire Roy mansion --- the lone imposing figure in a vast field of grass and crops but its walls are deteriorating; its master quickly fading along with the extravagance of the past.

Huzur is first shown as a weak, almost invalid man. He hears distant music and asks his loyal servant as to where such music comes from; Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu) is celebrating his son's initiation. He wonders if he was invited; he was, but not personally. It's a brilliant opening scene. Ray instantly captures the lost splendor as Huzur is depicted as someone who seems to have just awoken from a long slumber; surprised as to how the world has changed and how he has completely lost touch with life. Ray's cinematographer Subrata Mitra showcases how little Huzur is against his mansion (he is seen in the rooftop) and the lands he presumably owns (there's a sense of vastness of empty and fallow land from the viewpoint of Huzur's rooftop). More importantly, Ray focuses on Huzur's facial features; Chhabi Biswas' eyes are rightfully deep and hurt and his face's lines evoke a forced aging.

And aged he has, at least after three years from the moment he rides his favorite horse home; and being greeted by his servants announcing a visitor --- Mahim, who was then an enterprising businessman asking a favor from the landowner. The Huzur we first see atop his mansion and the Huzur from the flashback are almost two entirely different personas; the former is weak and detached from the world while the latter celebrates life. He throws a concert to celebrate his own son's coming-of-age. Ray wades his camera from the musicians to the audience; Huzur in absolute satisfaction; nouveau rich Mahim uncomfortably getting used to classical Hindustani music. Huzur's pragmatic wife is clearly disappointed as her jewels were mortgaged to fund the party. The Roy family's coffers are thinning; the rivers are diminishing their estate; yet they remain to be their community's remaining aristocrat with a lifestyle that became their opium or addiction.

The second concert of Huzur, funded wastefully from the few remaining jewelry of his wife and a mere afterthought by Huzur to top Mahim's house blessing, showcases a traditional Hindustani singer whose vocal prowess seems to match the atmospheric dread that will meet Huzur's wife and son's untimely demise. It's a powerful sequence; Ray lands his camera to the little indications of trouble (the uncomfortable swinging of the grand chandelier, the insect swimming in the expensive wine) before lashing out in an explicitly dramatic turn-of-events (Ray's powerful tableau of Huzur grasping desperately for his son's dead body).

The third concert, funded from the last few coins of a deadened estate, features a performer dancing to the beat of drums. The milieu has changed; Mahim has crossed-over to modernity (he arrives by automobile and has more than enough reasons to treat the faded aristocrat with much less reverence) and perhaps thinks that the modern age brings with it a complete erasure of the fact that he is merely a usurer's son; Huzur's jalsaghar is less grand with less servants and furnishings (Mahim scoffs at Huzur's last hurrah, complaining at the lack of fanners to ease the heat and humidity). The performance upstages all the deterioration, the faded glories, and the lingering poverty that surrounds Huzur, and in his final determination of class, reprimands Mahim in tipping the excellent dancer before the host. He throws his family's final fortune signalling the belated end of the landowning Roy clan.

In Ray's closing sequence, Huzur sees and fears the lights of his jalsaghar being doused (among other signals of his demise; a spider roaming in his portrait, his drunken ode to the blood (which is the lone reminder of his majesty) that flows in his veins and his lineage) before being reminded by his servant that it is dawn. He rides his horse before being thrown to his death. It's an entirely tragic affair and despite all of Huzur's flaws and his impracticality, there's a lingering grace in Ray's convicted depiction of the landowning class (Ray is himself a descendant of a long line of landowners). Huzur's passing is treated with a reverent mourning, mostly by his loyal servants as well as the film's viewers who are drawn to the aristocrat's addicted reliance on a faded and forgotten glory, not out of characteristic imperfection but of a misguided placing by a class-ed society entering the age of equal opportunities. Like the chandelier swinging in the opening and ending of Jalsaghar (as well as that stormy night of Huzur's family members' deaths), a breeze of change is more than felt, set in a background of indiscernible darkness.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Exiled (2006)

Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)
Cantonese Title: Fong juk

If Sergio Leone had lived to this day, witnessing the economics of filming in Asia rather than in the now-expensive tourist havens of Italy and Spain, his output might've looked like Johnnie To's Exiled. Exiled is touted as an unofficial sequel to To' The Mission (1999), a triad film that mixed male-bonding camaraderie with the most eye-popping of bullet ballets. While the film is indeed a reunion-of-sorts for The Mission's actors, the characters are entirely different. Despite that, a tinge of nostalgia accompanies the viewing experience.

A knock on the door opens the film. Tai (Francis Ng) is looking for Wo (Nick Cheung) from a homely woman (Josie Ho) struggling to pretend that she does not know of any Wo. Tai and his pal Cat (Roy Cheung) await as another knock on the door by Blaze (Anthony Wong) and pal Fat (Lam Set) forces the woman to say the same lie. The four men meet uncomfortably in the cobblestone plaza across the woman's apartment; the Sergio-esque tense silence eased only by waves of familiarity and former friendship by the two opposing duos. Wo arrives, and Blaze and Tai follow him to his apartment. Again, To prepares us for a gun fight while evoking Leone; Blaze and Tai prepare their cartridges as Wo reloads his gun. It's Johnnie To-cool; only improved by the fact that the scene was not only perfunctory cool but showcases To's gun fight economics. Each bullet has a target; one lands in Blaze's bullet-proof vest; some in the door floatingly dancing in the rhythm of gunshots. The five thereafter reconcile and relive their younger years, to the wrath of Blaze's boss Fay (Simon Yam).

Macau's distinct mix of Portuguese and Oriental architecture makes the Leone-esqueness of To's filmmaking easier to digest. The score, clearly inspired by the moving melodics of Ennio Morricone, set the action at flawless pace while enunciate the raw sentimentality and emotionality of the film's affairs. While To's actors may not have the soul-stabbing blue eyes and the sun-baked faces of Leone's cowboys, they surely possess the same sense of internal and moral conflict --- just look at Anthony Wong's troubled eyes or Francis Ng's intensity in keeping their crew together and intact. Their struggle inhabit the plentiful gun fights; pumping up the visuals of bodies bursting red with sprays of blood, of sparks from exploding guns, of bullets surely hitting targets, with indelible romanticism.

To enters Peckinpah territory with its visceral depiction of bodily harm and violence. Not only that, Exiled is set in pre-turnover Macau; when gangster lords are modifying their plans to suit the change of the times, when fraternity and loyalty between gang members are forgotten idealisms, when triad members such as Blaze, Tai and Wo are a dying breed. It's the same as the Old West Peckinpah is mourning over in his ultra-violent features. The uncertainty of the times enunciated by these men's reliance on a coin whenever faced by a difficult question of where to go and what to do. It certainly felt like To is lyrically ushering the passing of these men; in a way he only knows possible.

A seemingly extraneous character features in Exiled. A prostitute played by Ellen Chan conveniently appears throughout the feature; first, at the hotel where the crew gather possible jobs; second, at the mercenary surgeon's apartment, and lastly, again, at the hotel during the final showdown. I thought that the character wasn't merely placed there to be a recurring joke, or an embellishment, or as an add-on to the female-deprived film. The film ends with the prostitute being the only one living in the hotel; the gangsters did not survive the turn-over and have, one by one, waved their final gestures of farewell. She carries the bags of gold out the hotel. Is To implying something here? that when all these men of honor have died out, the capitalist whores inherit the earth? Possible.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006)

My biggest gripe with Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006) was that the film feels so mechanical, so content in pursuing that end-of-the-film twist, that it lost all notion of what magic is. Neil Burger's The Illusionist, last year's other film about magic, also has a twist in the end. But because the film looks so tastefully sumptuous and feels so effortlessly hypnotic, there's no sense at all that the film exists merely for that plot twist. In fact, the twist in the end felt more like a bonus (at least to some, I felt that it was a bit of a letdown) to Neil Burger's spectacle.

Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, The Illusionist pits master magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) against crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim has been gaining fame after his astounding illusion shows, threatening Leopold's grasp at power. In the center of their quasi-political rivalry is duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), bethroted to Leopold but secretly in love with her childhood sweetheart Eisenheim. Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), chief of police of Vienna, while entranced by Eisenheim's tricks is also trapped in serving the crown prince.

The film is actually shot in Prague (where most period pieces set in Europe are shot). However, under the masterful visual command of Dick Pope (who shot most of Mike Leigh's films, probably also responsible for his film's achingly somber mood), Prague is tranformed into an atmospheric Vienna, soft in texture and golden in hue. Vienna feels almost unnatural; which helps a lot especially since some of Eisenheim's tricks require CGI. Instead of looking absolutely fake, the computer generated illusions add to the fanciful atmosphere. As Burger plods through his adapted expansion of Steven Millhauser's short story, it's almost impossible to look away. Composer Philip Glass collaborates with Burger and Pope to sum up a complete mesmerizing package.

The Illusionist is also very well acted. Norton contains an illusion of mystery throughout the feature. Instead of being simply brooding (as in the case of Christian Bale in Nolan's film), Norton inhabits stoic and unexpectedly romantic. The biggest surprise in the film is Giamatti, who is usually typecasted as the neurotic friend or the average man. Here, he is convincingly commanding and manages to shift likeability whenever possible. His difficult moral dilemma of serving a rebellious prince and catching the culprit is evoked by Giamatti's large eyes and his impressively controlled mannerisms. It is also Giamatti who I thought made the conclusive reveal more palatable; he juggles the enchantment of being fooled, the amusement of witnessing probably the greatest illusion, and the guilt of being in the center of a non-intrigue. I'm quite amazed by Giamatti's performance's depth.

I still believe that more people will opt for The Prestige than this. In this cinematic age wherein cinematographic artistry is replaced by narrative ingenuity, films like The Illusionist is a true letdown. It's the type of film that dares to wade through the plot while keeping the illusionist magic of cinema healthy in its presentation. It is relaxed, expressive and fashionable while The Prestige was always in a constant hurry.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mababangong Bangungot (1977)

Mababangong Bangungot (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977)
English Title: Perfumed Nightmare

It was in 1977 when Eric de Guia (who would rename himself as Kidlat Tahimik (Silent Thunder), thus removing every bit of colonial roots from his personality) made his first film. It was made with around $10,000 seed money, by a director who had no previous film training whatsoever, in an age wherein Hollywood was beginning its fetish with faraway worlds and epic-size stories and budgets (ala George Lucas' Star Wars). Yet Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) is a success like no other --- it garnered awards from international film festivals and gained the respect of various critics and filmmakers, and spawned a generation of independent Filipino filmmakers who'd go the way of Kidlat Tahimik and make films with an adundance of heart and spirit, despite the lack of funding.

Thirty years after its debut, Tahimik's first film re-screened during the 1st Bagong Agos Film Festival, alongside its many descendants in cause. I can only imagine the reactions of its viewers when it was released --- the film looks brazenly cheap, Tahimik's editing felt more mundane than artful. It looked like a stitched-together home video; which is probably the reason why most foreign critics consider it as semi-autobiographical (Tahimik was quick to respond that he was never a jeepney driver). In Tahimik's amateurish methods, we sense a delightful familiarity, or a very welcoming attitude that seemingly invites us to explore his world --- a world which I thought mixed real conventions of history and geography with Tahimik's unique imaginative sense.

Midway through the feature, the sound started deteriorating and Tahimik, whose improvisation is probably his greatest cinematic talent, danced his way to the front of the theater wearing only a bahag (native g-string). He finally gave up on modern technology (the same way his alter ego in Mababangong Bangungot did) and told his story the only possible way he could think of, without the help of modern technology. I was too enchanted with the imagery of jeepneys being constructed, of little boys getting circumsized, of his tattooed pal saying farewell, to make out any of what Tahimik was doing --- it looked like he was improvising the Filipino's first trip to the moon. I thought that moment was quite an intimate surprise --- the present Tahimik is as lively, youthful, and imaginative as the Tahimik thirty years ago in his debut feature; and he is still insanely in love with his culture; telling everyone that the yoyo is a Filipino invention, that the moon buggy is a Filipino invention, that the high-tech digital projectors imported from abroad can't equal the power of basic storytelling.

After a few minutes of Tahimik's act, the sound was finally restored. In the film, Tahimik was brought by an American capitalist to Paris to work as his assistant in refilling bubble gum machines all over Paris. That is when, I thought, Tahimik's coming of age happens. During his lifetime in his barrio, he has been in love with the ideology of Western progress; he is the president of his town's Werner von Braun fan club, and is an avid listener of Voice of America, and seems to be perpetually enchanted with the idea of space travel and industrialization. His trip to Paris changes everything; he befriends the market vendors of the Four Seasons, soon to be uprooted by the appearance of a monstrous supermarket. He visits Germany wherein he sympathetically notes the construction of the last man-made onion dome, while helping out in a German woman's labor. The extremely slow de-Westernization of Tahimik is charmingly told (through his letters to his mother, through a roughly shot yet lovely dream sequence in the end), yet you are drawn incessantly to his growth; something I find invaluably rare in cinema nowadays.

It is Tahimik's generosity, his humble simplification of the world's complex worries, that carries Mababangong Bangungot from its low budget imaginings. Tahimik exoticizes his culture without necessarily exploiting it. He also exoticizes European cultures; and in a way, he dons the skin of a curious documentarian, only with more humor and a drawing charm. Tahimik states that he initially wanted this film to be the typical tale of a probinsyano (provincial man) who is transplanted to city life. Somehow, the canvass blossomed into what it is now; a flavorful ode to Filipino ingenuity and culture; a classy coming-of-age tale of a fullgrown man (although childlike in his ways) coming to see the world in his little nation's meager curious eyes.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Apocalypto (2006)

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)

Repulsive. Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is just repulsive. You always sense perversity in every frame. Mel Gibson, who just came out of the racist closet, with his recent drunken tirade against Jews, can't seem to keep his perversions in the closet with this film. It's quite obvious. His camera wafts like a curious little boy in moments of violence. In one chase scene, he carefully makes sure you see the accurately depicted weapons of torture before cutting to a Mayan man on the run. It's as if he forces you to delight in imagining how the spiky stone, the javelins, the stone arrowheads would look if grimly punctured in that man's body. And that's just Gibson being cruelly suggestive --- most of Gibson's violent depictions here are unabashedly shown onscreen --- faces being ripped apart by a panther, decapitations, embowelments, and just plain human (and also animal) cruelty. It's as if Gibson has lost all sense of humanity. There's a strange lingering delight in portraying humanity in its most depraved.

It's not the lack of beauty that distresses me; the film is actually expertly shot by Dean Semler. The accuracy of the weapons, the tattoos, and other implements is quite impressive. Gibson, after all, did his homework by recruiting a Mayan expert to make sure his film is as realistic as possible. He even recruited a cast of mostly Mexican Indian non-actors speaking a Mayan dialect.

It's that level of realism that troubles me --- that kind of realism mixed with Gibson's ignorant perceptions of the non-Catholic White world can actually be quite destructive. The Mayan civilization, may it rest in peace, and those remaining descendants of that glorious culture, are put in a bad light, and it can't simply do anything about it; not against a hundred million dollar box office return, not against those who'll watch the film and believe it as sacred scripture (as most Filipino audiences did with The Passion of the Christ (2004)), and definitely not against Gibson, who sadly has acquired some sort of an auteur status (probably true, with his consistency in his cinematic inhumanity). I can just imagine how an uninformed world history teacher would show his students this diatribe, believing its academic potential unaware of its malignant tactics. Sigh.

The plot's paper-thin. A village is ravished by Mayan slave-traders who force the men and women to trek to a Mayan city to meet their fates as offerings to their god. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) escapes and is chased through the jungle, while trying to rescue his pregnant wife and first born from death. It's so simple it seems like it can rightfully fit in a thirty minute running time. However, Gibson stretches the plot to something like two hours and twenty minutes; just enough extra time to show the excesses, the disgusting diseases, the evils of a dying civilization, and just enough time to portray salvation from hellish humanity by aping the first encounter sequence from Terence Malick's The New World (2005), without the latter's majesty and romanticism, just Eurocentric snobbery and a pompous "good riddance" attitude.

It's quite easy to dismiss the wickedness of the film; especially since Gibson garbed it in a genre that doesn't require you to make use of your thinking facilities. It's actually quite pornographic. There's a masturbatory quality in the violence depicted, in the exoticized faraway world sense that human depravity is set in. You'd instantly think in the safety of a dark room, "those goddawful injuns, killing themselves to oblivion." Gibson makes you delight, in the most Hollywood sense, in seeing bodies disposed of like trash (which actually reminded me of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955), but without the short documentary's remorse and forewarning), heads bounce down a Mayan pyramid, hearts removed from their proper places, peasants wail and suffer with some kind of disease. The greatest danger of this film is that it makes you feel good about yourself, about how civilized you have become, how Catholic or Christian you are, and how good this world has become since the death of that unfortunately maligned Mesoamerican culture Gibson has set his nasty paws on.