Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shake, Rattle and Roll X (2008)

Shake, Rattle and Roll X (Topel Lee & Mike Tuviera, 2008)

Shake, Rattle and Roll X, the tenth installment to Regal Films' horror trilogy franchise that started in 1984 and has become an annual Christmas tradition since 2005, is definitely better than its predecessor, which really isn't saying alot. Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 (2007) is simply one terrible film, where audiences are forced to care for a family terrorized by a carnivorous Christmas tree, a love-obsessed girl stuck in a perpetual nightmare she concocted, and a group of goth kids menaced by a murderous enchantress. The problem with Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 isn't so much the fact that the tales have become outrageously ridiculous, but that the directors and studio executives have concentrated more on filling the screens with talentless teen idols and pathetic special effects than actual storytelling. One only needs to revisit Fridyider, Ishmael Bernal's episode in the first Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984) about a murderous and sexually-charged refrigerator, to see an outlandish concept done right.

Shake, Rattle and Roll X opens with Emergency, directed by Mike Tuviera. The story involves a hospital that is suddenly attacked by a horde of aswangs (in Philippine folklore, monsteres who feed on babies and human entrails) when an injured pregnant aswang (Mylene Dizon) is mistakenly taken in as a patient and inevitably, suffers a miscarriage. Two ex-lovers, a doctor (Roxanne Guinoo) and a paralegal (JC De Vera), restore their romance as they try to ward off the aswangs from killing each and every one of them. Emergency is simply disposable entertainment. Whatever attempt at storytelling or characterization is drowned by the film's inability to really determine what it wants to be. The horror is truncated by the romance, and vice versa. The attempts at gore (or even a mild showing of blood) is prevented by shameless commercialism. On the other hand, Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), the third episode in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) which also tackles aswangs terrorizing a man and his pregnant wife in a small town, succeeds, despite the thinness of its plot, because of directorial integrity. The film showed that Somes knew what he was doing, meticulously injecting the film with throwbacks to horror classics and in turn, creating an effective horror picture that is distinct from its inspirations. Sadly, such is not the case with Tuviera's Emergency.

Class Picture, directed by Topel Lee, fares better. Yaya (Nanny), the second part of Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 (2006) about a little boy who takes it upon himself to protect his family from an aswang masquerading as his little sister's nanny, shows Lee as an effective conjurer of atmosphere, creating a remarkably ominous coming-of-age little tale out of what essentially is a run-of-the-mill scenario. The story of Class Picture is worse than run-of-the-mill, it's actually cliche. A group of students, who were required to sleep in their school during the weekend to finish an exhibit, are haunted by the ghost of a vengeful nun (Jean Garcia) from one of the antique photographs they discovered in the school storeroom. Before all of them die, Joy (Kim Chu) needs to figure out how to stop the demented nun from exacting revenge on them. Lee succeeds when he isn't required to forward the story, sprinkling the film with clever setups, most probably to salvage whatever brilliant idea (a crazed Catholic nun on a murderous spree) from the grips of commercial storytelling. Unfortunately, whatever is left of Lee's ingenuity (after coming up with such disappointing films like Ouija (2007), My Kuya's Wedding (2007), I have less confidence in his talents) cannot really defeat the idiocy of the ensuing events in Class Picture.

Tuviera returns with Nieves, about the titular character (played by Marian Rivera) who fights engkantos for the benefit of her small village. When Adonis (Pekto), her beloved husband, is kidnapped by one of the engkantos, she swears to stop fighting engkantos. However, when a needy little boy asks for her help, she is forced out of retirement and discovers that there is something more than impish engkantos that is happening in their small village. Surprisingly, Nieves is the most fun episode of the three (the first two being tiring to watch). Perhaps it is the air of ridicule and irreverence (and seeing Rivera play the Filipino equivalent of a blonde bimbo, without the oozing sensuality unfortunately) that made the little film charming. While Nieves can be delightful at times and admittedly watchable, it still suffers from the typical quips of current Filipino mainstream filmmaking, which is the inability to maintain a brilliant idea to the end. Thus, Nieves becomes redundant midway and just annoyingly silly in the end.

The Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise seems to have lost what for me, it stood for: the infusion of new talent into the flailing mainstream film industry. Since it was revived in 2005, it became the springboard for several filmmakers (Somes, Tuviera, Lee, to name a few) to penetrate the industry. Shake, Rattle and Roll X proves that the optimism I reserved for the franchise is totally unfounded. The franchise, I concede, is nothing more than a Yuletide cashcow for its devious investors. If a good segment comes along (and as I've mentioned, there are good segments like Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin, Yaya, LRT), it is more of an aberration than a trend.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dayo (2008)

Dayo (Robert Quilao, 2008)
English Title: Wanderer

Robert Quilao's Dayo (Wanderer), the second fully-animated feature length Filipino film to be released this year (after Reggie Entienza's sorely disappointing Urduja), opens with the camera gliding past clouds and a computer-generated airplane on flight before finally landing in a school where, if we are to observe the festive decors and the joyous attitude of the students, some kind of event is transpiring. The opening sequence is supposed to visually astound. However, after seeing better-funded animated features by more established studios this year like Pixar (Andrew Stanton's WALL·E) and Dreamworks (Mark Osbourne & John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda), it only succeeds to emphasize how far behind the Philippines is in terms of animation technology.

In fact, some of the better animated films released around this world this decade never relied on cutting edge animation to tell a genuinely good story. There's Lee Seong-kang's My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002), a film about two boys who are transported to a magical place. There's also Toe Yuen's My Life as McDull (2001) and its sequel McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004), about the famous cartoon pig's adventures growing up in Hong Kong. Sadly, the third installment, Samson Chiu's McDull, The Alumni (2006), which splits animation and live action, isn't as successful for a number of different reasons. Other animated films released during the same period, films like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara's extremely awful Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) or Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha's terribly unfunny Robots (2005), rely on sheer spectacle to cover up for the lack of coherent material. Obviously, there's something more to animation than vivid colors, and fart jokes.

The animation of Dayo is consistently low-tech: traditionally animated characters are pasted on computer generated backgrounds. To those whose barometer for quality in animation relies on manufactured realism and astonishing smoothness of movement, Dayo may be awful, a sorry attempt to introduce an animation industry in a country that produces talented animators but could never produce the audience for locally-produced animated films. Fortunately, Dayo is able to sustain interest through sheer charm, the excellent voicework by veteran actors (Johnny Delgado, Laurice Guillen, Nova Villa and Noel Trinidad) and current comedians (Michael V., Pokwang, and Gabe Mercado), the gorgeous musical score composed by Jesse Lasaten, and the very effective sound design. Dayo isn't bad. It's actually quite good.

The story, written by Artemio Abad and Eric Cabahug, is simple. Bubuy (Nash Aguas) gets bullied in school during the day. At night, he is pampered by his adorable grandparents (Noel Trinidad and Nova Villa). When his grandparents are whisked away by hostile tree roots, Bubuy is forced to travel to Elementalia, the home of mythical beings like mananangals (whose upper portion of their bodies fly off at night to hunt for prey), tikbalangs (half-man, half-horse), nunos (little men who live in termite mounds), and kapres (giants who live in trees and vehemently smoke huge cigars). With the help of some of the residents of Elementalia like Anna (Katrina Legaspi), a young mananangal who seeks his father's understanding, and Narsi (Michael V.), an entertainingly narcissistic tikbalang, Bubuy tries to rescue his grandparents from the clutches of the film's vengeful botanical villain.

Dayo has a certain feel, which isn't very different from the feeling of enchantment while watching Hayao Miyazaki's more accomplished films, that it attempts for. Unlike Urduja which banners (much to my dismay) Disney's tiring slogan of lovers living "happily ever after," Dayo is essentially a congenial coming-of-age tale, untainted by any need to depict fantasies of perfect romances. It is admittedly tainted with consumerism, what with the dozens of product placements spread throughout the film, some not as subtly placed as others. The narrative remains simplistic and the humor is undoubtedly populist, all due to the need to stay within commerciable bounds. The result however isn't idiotic or repulsive. Instead, the film comes off as noteworthy, especially with its sincere intention and innate ability to translate the noblest of childhood aspirations into inoffensive entertainment.

Baler (2008)

Baler (Mark Meily, 2008)

If films are judged based on scope and ambition, Mark Meily's Baler, which details a love story set during the final moments of the Philippine war of independence, would be an indubitable masterpiece. However, more often than not, scope and ambition do not necessarily translate into quality. Along the way, things go wrong. Budgetary constrains, studio pressure, inept artists and craftsmen, among a multitude of other reasons, would convert a promising premise into an inevitable mess. That is exactly the case with this film.

Baler's story, written by Roy Iglesias (who wrote several scripts for directors Chito Rono, Joel Lamangan and Erik Matti in the past), is basic. The forbidden romance of Feliza (Anne Curtis, who is a tad too gorgeous for the role; it's quite curious why no diversion came her way while waiting for her amore), a native of the town of Baler, and Celso (Jericho Rosales, a very welcome presence), a soldier of Spanish and Filipino descent, is thwarted by circumstance. Feliza is the daughter of Nanding (Phillip Salvador), a Philippine revolutionary whose personal vendetta against the Spanish colonizers has colored his patriotism with a tinge of irrationality. The bulk of the film covers the siege of Baler Church, where around fifty Spanish soldiers (which includes Celso), believing that reinforcements from Spain would arrive to quell the rebels, use the church as their final fortress before finally realizing after 337 days of hunger, suffering and despair that Spain has lost the war.

As a film, Baler just fails to cohere. The individual technical elements fail to weave into a coherent whole as everything, from the music to the pretty visuals, feels out of place. Vince de Jesus' atrocious music score, a collection of treacly melodies and predictable rhythms, desperately attempts to capture the epic feel of the feature but inevitably falls flat on its face. Lee Meily's cinematography, while astounding at first with the way the pristine greens of the landscapes and the multitude of hues of the skies are painted and how faces are lit to enunciate primary emotions or to simply emphasize the subtle facial contours of the actors and actresses, simply fails to visually communicate the supposedly escalating morbidness of the situation of the Spanish soldiers. A bit of drabness, some shadows, a touch of necessary ugliness would have added depth to Meily's postcard-worthy visuals. The result is quite miserable: a historical epic with the musicality of a deodorant commercial and the visuals of a nineties Mexican soap opera.

Director Mark Meily's two previous features, Crying Ladies (2003), about three women who are employed as mourners for a wealthy Chinese man's funeral, and La Visa Loca (2005), about a man who after being denied an American visa, agrees to have himself nailed on a cross in order to fulfill his lifelong dream to travel to America, are all adorably comedic trifles. Baler, unfortunately, lacks the novel charm and the whimsical ease of Meily's two previous films. Baler is ponderous during its first hour. It certainly feels like Meily is struggling with the serious material as the editing is questionable and the storytelling is inept. Moreover, the battle scenes are ineptly staged and deliriously shot. The film seems devoid of any urgency or passion to sustain any sort of interest for its prolonged duration.

Baler's bittersweet romance borne out of the masses' love for predictability and convention and the pathetic need to mix education with escapist entertainment (it is pathetic mostly because the task of education belongs to schools and not cineplexes, and the fact that the siege of Baler remains a footnote in Philippine history is a failure on the part of our educational system). While Meily largely flunks at the task of putting up a production that merits any serious consideration, it isn't surprising (and I, for one, am not going to say anything against it) that it is getting accolades from several sectors, presumably and hopefully in an effort to showcase the need to divert the logistical and economic energies of mainstream studios into making films that matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Concerto (2008)

Concerto (Paul Alexander Morales, 2008)

Looking at the roster of Filipino period films released during the last five years that take place during the Pacific War (a very short list that includes Joel Lamangan's Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 (I Love You 1941, 2004), Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River, 2004), and Lamangan's Blue Moon (2006)) and comparing it to Hollywood-funded Pacific War flicks like John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005), it becomes apparent that budgetary constraints imposed by cash-strapped film studios prevent filmmakers from efficiently recreating the period. While Dahl had millions of dollars to recreate 1940's Manila in the vast wildernesses of Australia, local filmmakers make do with the diminishing remaining edifices from that era (these edifices are often inaccurate representations of their former selves, with fresh coats of paint and other paraphernalia that couldn't have come from the 40's). If no near-accurate implements from the period exists, producers make do with sloppy digital effects.

Paul Alexander Morales' Concerto is set in Davao, which prior to the Pacific War was home to thousands of Japanese civilians who were living peacefully with the locals. Thus, when the war broke out, allegiances are broken, enemies are made, and friendships are torn. The film centers on a family who, after being evicted from their house by the invading Japanese, were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. Concerto is remarkable because with its meager budget (a fraction of the budget of these mainstream Filipino films, working primarily on the P500,000 (roughly $10,000) grant of Cinemalaya, an annual digital film festival) and other funds it can raise elsewhere, it succeeded in capturing the feel and atmopshere period it manages to recreate.

There are very few action sequences in this war film (the battle scenes are filmed as montages: of shot of the skies edited with silhouettes of Japanese soldiers shooting at the sky, all complemented by apt sound effects). Concerto mainly rests in its attempt to look beyond the visceral effects of the war and concentrate on its repercussions on a family that tries to weather through. What Concerto lacks in bodycount, bullets and explosions, it makes up with human complications arising out of the circumstance of war. Morales paints these wartime complications with impressive subtlety, without neglecting the need for a strong emotional pull to resonate with his audience. The film deals primarily with the fragile threads that are tested and strained by the cruel mechanics of war. Thus, Morales' characters, from the family forced into exile from their beloved home to the Japanese invaders, are distinctly all victims of history's relentless movement.

Concerto does not use music for ornamental purposes or to further heighten its melodrama. Nor does it exactly tread the same path as Roman Polanski's masterful World War II film The Pianist (2002), where the main character's reencounter with the piano serves as a reinforcement of his dignity after surviving the atrocities of war. Music, like the concept of motherhood, romantic love, and friendship, is utilized in Morales' film as persistent reminders of our threatened humanity. When the family stages a mini-concert amidst a crowd composed of family, friends, and enemies, and as familiar music is made and the people start communing and talking of things that connect them with each other despite race, religion, language and affinity, the film's thrust of uncovering that constant indication of humanity made fragile by war becomes apparent and effective.

Music, unfortunately, is temporary like the short periods of peace within the four years that Japan invaded the Philippines. While music is a reminder of our humanity, it cannot overpower the demands of war. Concerto showcases a sequence where the family is forced out of their house by the same Japanese soldiers they welcomed into their home, in obvious reaction to their impending loss to the arriving Americans. After flaunting their affinity with the human race, the Japanese soldiers, in pursuit of their duties, commit atrocities as repercussions of dire circumstances. Acknowledging their inherent capacity as human beings, which Morales paints with affecting sincerity, one can't help but discern that they too are victims of the viciousness of warfare.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Yanggaw (2008)

Yanggaw (Richard Somes, 2008)
English Title: Affliction

Among the three horror shorts that comprise Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5, the seventh installment in the horror franchise that started way back in the early 80's, is Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), about a man (Mark Anthony Fernandez) and his pregnant wife (Tanya Garcia) relocating to a rural town that is populated by aswangs (which are according to Filipino folklore, are monsters that partake the form of ordinary human beings during the daytime but transform into hungry monstrosities at night that feed on the blood and internal organs of humans, preferably the very young). Somes transforms what essentially is a straightforward story of survival (in fact, the short is ridden with logical loopholes and unanswered questions, the biggest of which is why any sane couple who are expecting their firstborn would relocate to an impoverished barrio with dubious residents) into a thrilling portfolio of his directorial mettle, although influences (F. W. Murnau, Tod Browning, George Romero, and Peque Gallaga: not really a bad lot to borrow from) are evident. Given the scarcity of good genre directors in the country (there's Rico Maria Ilarde (Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) and Altar (2007)), I was excited as to what Somes would offer next.

Three years later after Lihim ng San Joaquin, Somes releases Yanggaw (Affliction), whose screenplay has been gestating for a number of years before it was given the green light by CinemaOne, a local cable network that gives grants to several screenplays in their annual film festival (successful CinemaOne-funded films include Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005), Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) and Adolfo Alix's Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007). The term yanggaw is an Ilonggo term that refers to infection, more specifically, of an affliction that turns normal human beings into aswangs. Somes' film centers Junior (Ronnie Lazaro), a former barrio official who retires from service because of disillusionment and eventually manages to feed his family through meager means, who suddenly confronts the situation of having Amor (Aleera Montalla), his beloved daughter who suddenly returns from another barrio with a curious illness, degenerate into a rabid and murderous aswang at night.

Yanggaw is in concept, a horror film. However, Amor's horrific predicament is treated with the least sensationalism possible (especially if compared to other aswang films like Topel Lee's Yaya (Nanny, 2006), where much of the short centers on the nanny who turns out to be an aswang out to kill her wards, or Somes' Lihim ng San Joaquin, where the meticulously conceived aswangs (complete with computer-generated tongues) dominate the picture). She stays in the background (in fact, there is not much fuss as to her appearance; she is mostly hidden in the night with only the stark crimson of her victims' blood on her face to serve as her definitive feature.

Actually, Somes does wonders with his limited budget (CinemaOne gives its grantees one million pesos, or around $20,000 to complete the film). Utilizing simple make-up (there are no hideous prosthetic make-up, a staple in aswang movies), lighting (Somes shows remarkable adeptness, probably borrowed from Murnau, in utilizing shadows as implement for creating atmosphere; there's an impressive sequence wherein Amor appears from her room, complaining of her illness, with her body is partially illuminated while her face is completely unseen. It's a simply set sequence, but Somes effectively creates an awkward and eerie feeling throughout), sound (the ambient noise and the long stretched of deadening silence) and editing effects, Somes creates an effective set-up for the ensuing events.

The horror element (the aswang aspect of the feature) of the film is not there for cheap chills and thrills, but is there as basis for the lingering familial dilemma, very much like drug addiction or infidelity in normal family dramas. In fact, Much of the picture observes the simplicities and the intricacies of the relationships (like Junior's observable disappointment with his son, who returns the favor to his father with striking indifference) among the family members. However, it is the family's struggle with Amor's affliction that becomes the heart of the film, converting Yanggaw from mere genre picture into an engrossing examination into the Filipino family's psyche, especially if confronted with such a divisive situation.

As Amor's illness worsens and her hunger for human meat escalates, Somes' audiences become witnesses to the family's encounters with moral quandaries (also escalation in gravity, from simple ones as having to choose between spending the money they don't have to bring Amor to a doctor in a faraway barrio to more delicate decisions as allowing Amor to hunt at night for her survival in exchange for the lives of the residents of their community), and eventually, to the family unit's complete deterioration. Thus, by film's end, it doesn't become surprising that the intensity of the drama heightens into near-operatic levels (the ending seems to belong more to a melodrama, with its swelling music and unneeded montage of crying faces), a slight aberration in the film's near-perfect control of mood and atmosphere. Having said that, Somes' Yanggaw, while riddled with pacing problems (there is reportedly a longer cut, which could fix the film's rushed feel) and an ending that could have been more subtly executed, is an achievement, mixing traditional elements of horror and family melodrama, creating a picture that is so bizarre, it will be stuck to your mind months after seeing it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's pseudo-Bollywood crowd-pleaser, is unabashedly treacly, with Boyle complementing the story of a boy from the slums who eventually wins both the grand prize in India's version of a famous game show franchise and the love of his life with his energetic aesthetics that indulge in quick cuts, bright colors, and depictions of chaotic beauty. Mumbai, the heart of India and one of the world's busiest urban centers, turns into an apt setting for this genuinely amiable fairy tale of boy and girl live happily ever after amidst a backdrop of poverty, religious persecution, corruption, and everything else that is wrong in this world of ours.

Boyle, who, like his fellow Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (who I feel is a more consistent filmmaker), has jumped from one genre to another with relative ease, crafts a film that is plebeian in its sensibilities (I suspect this will be a hit in cinemas in India, drawing cheers and jeers from rowdy moviegoers, before finally getting slightly uncomfortable with the finale kiss (which is still taboo in Bollywood cinema)), but maintaining his trademark visual kinetics, with his camera gliding through narrow alleys, capturing colors and textures that enunciate the film's exotic value. In one sequence where a group of street urchins are chased by the police through the labyrinthine passageways of the slums, Boyle exemplifies his talent for hyper-kinetic editing, sufficiently complementing Mumbai's attractive chaos with his trademark artistry (of course, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza has accomplished a similar feat in the opening sequence of Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), done with only a fraction of Boyle's budget, but achieving greater results).

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is just a question away from claiming twenty million rupees from the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, when he is taken into custody by the police. Suspected for cheating his way through trivia questions professionals and intellectuals have a difficult time answering, Jamal, a Muslim boy who was born and raised in the slums of Mumbai and is now is working as a tea boy in a call center, is tortured and interrogated by the police because it is seemingly impossible for a man of his history and background to accomplish that much. His interrogator (Irfan Khan, who infuses what essentially is a token role with unusual intensity), whose initially tough exterior (and insistence on unconventional methods for forcing the truth out of his captives) melts to reveal a sensible and fair man, becomes the audience's barometer for the plausibility of Jamal's tales.

The interrogation serves as the narrative device for Jamal to relay, in several prolonged flashbacks, the several pertinent chapters of his life that consequently led him to the answers to the questions in the game show. As we see Jamal grow up, escape the slums, separate from his streetsmart brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the attention slowly drifts from the more facile rewards and consequences of his game show exposure to expose the true heart of the film: Jamal's heartfelt reunion with the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto), eventually turning Slumdog Millionaire from a witty rags-to-riches tale into a delectable, if not purely escapist, treat where, if we are to believe the Beatles, all you need is love.

Yet there is something more to Slumdog Millionaire than its infatuation with destined encounters with cash and love. The climax, where the entire city stops to see if Jamal can answer the final question and eventually win the loot, summarizes the film's inherent charm. Mumbai turns into one parking lot, with its citizens, mostly the poor (the rich are busy watching sports, perhaps because the hope that the game show delivers is no longer a necessity for them), tuning in and supporting their hero. During that sequence, Boyle enlarges the situation, from being a mere personal quest for Jamal to find Latika (and vice versa) into a national (if not encompassing the rest of humanity) quest to prove that there is something more to life than poverty and suffering, that lots improve, and there are real fairy tale endings.

One begins to understand what these game shows mean to the third world, that these shows are not purely consumerist visages but harbingers of hope to those who should be hopeless. In the year of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace, nth sequels of popular film franchises that have made the conscious decision to be darker and more in line with the supposed grim state of our world, getting popular and critical approval, Slumdog Millionaire, is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

JCVD (2008)

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)

Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD opens with a high-powered action sequence. We see Jean Claude Van Damme dodging endless barrages of bullets, knocking out hordes of nameless villains, and getting past impossible explosions before ending up being ignored by his disinterested director (imported from Hong Kong, in obvious reference to John Woo, who Van Damme introduced to the American market but never paid back the favor by giving Van Damme a role in any of his Hollywood projects after Hard Target (1993)). As the opening sequence, where we witness in one spectacular shot the action star quickly metamorphosing from indestructible hero to just another man in the film set, depicts, El Mechri's goal is to remove Van Damme out of the myths of superhuman mettle (Van Damme has often been referred to "The Muscle from Brussels") his roles in films like Blood Sport (Newt Arnold, 1988), Universal Soldier (Roland Emmerich, 1992) and Double Team (Tsui Hark, 1997) have supplied him, and turn him into something more convincingly human: a victim of circumstance, aggravated by his fame and notoriety.

The portrait of Van Damme we see in JCVD is vastly different from the characters, all of whom are exquisite representations of brash masculinity (indestructible cage fighters, no-nonsense hitmen, and virile ladies' men), he played in several of his B-movies and actioners. Here, he is aging (his face is riddled with lines and wrinkles), with a physique that could not have belonged to the same person who fought to the death in Blood Sport. Here, he struggles at diplomacy, turning his Brussels cab driver from adoring fan to nagging annoyance in a matter of minutes. Here, in the midst of a crisis that should logically be easy for the man named the Muscle from Brussels, he can only imagine, but cannot actually do, the spectacular stunt moves that would get him out of trouble.

The Van Damme we see in JCVD here is closer to the Van Damme that magazines and tabloids cover and more often than not, make fun of. Here, Van Damme is struggling with the impending loss of his daughter because of his uphill battle for her custody, while playing mind games with his agent whose incompetence lost Van Damme a direct-to-video B-movie project to Steven Segal (who agreed to cut his mullet for the starring role). JCVD partly succeeds as entertainment because of its tabloid sensibilities, dwelling on the mostly negative predisposition of a pathetic has-been. However, JCVD does more than expose the incapacities and failures of a fading superstar for sheer entertainment's sake. El Mechri succeeds in turning Van Damme from infamous icon to encumbered human being, worthy of our sympathies. Van Damme succeeds in exposing himself, not as a devious fraud and agent of moronic cinema, but as a victim of circumstance and his own ambitions.

JCVD may not turn prepubescent boys into Van Damme idolizers. It does, however, add a deeper dimension to a nearly forgotten pop icon, allowing him the opportunity to address the several issues that have been thrown to him (his womanizing, drug addiction, his worsening notoriety and declining fame) and in turn, transforming himself into a figure that is not dissimilar to the rest of us. His previous films may have given him the legacy of brute ability. JCVD cracks that legacy, and allows us an intimate peek to Van Damme's persona.

In the middle of the agonizing hostage drama which El Mechri composed as the narrative device to put his fictional version of Van Damme in, everything suddenly stops except for Van Damme. His chair ascends, and we see the film set's klieglights and other movie-making mechanisms behind him. The internal movie logic of JCVD takes a pause to allow its hero respite from the conventional untruths of cinema and media he has been accustomed to. Van Damme delivers his confessional, unscripted and intimate (the still camera centering on his face, no cues, no direction except for his own). He talks about his problems, his past as a scrawny teenager who dreams of making it big in Hollywood, his frustrations and disappointments. Finally, Van Damme, the Muscle of Brussels, the sonic-booming soldier in Street Fighter (Steven E. de Souza, 1994), and time-traveling sci-fi hero of Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994), cries. This undoubtedly is Van Damme's greatest onscreen performance ever, and the fact that he isn't acting makes the sequence more astounding.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Changeling (2008)

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Changeling is Clint Eastwood's middling account of the struggles of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mom who loses her son (Gattlin Griffith) and when the L. A. police reunited her with a different boy, protests and because of that, becomes hapless victim of the embattled police force's determination to salvage whatever integrity and reputation it has left under the inept and corrupt leadership of Chief Davis (Colm Feore). The film has the same somber and sober tone of Eastwood's post-Unforgiven (1999) Oscar baits (Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)), where the pessimistic core dressed in multi-million dollar gloss of the films is often mistaken as aesthetic sophistication and thematic depth, thus garnering much popular and critical acclaim for what basically is heavy-handed humdrum.

Undoubtedly, like most of Eastwood's more recent features, Changeling is visually wonderful. Cinematographer Tom Stern paints this unideal Los Angeles with muted hues that seemingly allude to the moral and political condition of that era: hazy, fading, paling. 1920's-Los Angeles is impressively recreated, from the rows of suburban homes that house the newly affluent middle class to the decrepit abandoned farm in the outskirts of the city that becomes the setting of the horrendous massacre which is the core of the narrative. Populating these structures and edifices are citizens and transients who are occupied by their respective little businesses involving family and employment. The atmosphere of moral and political disarray is conveniently hidden by the bright Californian sun, until an impetus for its timely revelation occurs.

The film primarily concerns itself with Christine's own little entanglements which quickly transformed into the gargantuan task, the aforementioned impetus, of defeating the seemingly indestructible authority, something which she was volunteered for not by her own choosing but by fate and the repercussions of living in a corrupted city. J. Michael Straczynski, in his screenplay, is adamantly straightforward in forwarding the virtues of his headstrong heroine, but in so doing, branches into a myriad of unwieldy subplots and introduces a bevy of mono-dimensional side characters, including Rev. Gustav Briegleb (played with predictably boring enthusiasm by John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister whose consistently forceful verbal attacks against the police and mental manipulation of Christine feels obnoxiously monomaniacal, Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the bad cop whose quintessential grimaces leave nothing to the imagination, and Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), the serial killer whose attempts at moral and psychological vagueness is more unconvincing than unsettling.

Eastwood's usually guileless and elegant storytelling seems inappropriate for Straczynski's pulpy material. There is a suspect air of reverence, facilitated by Straczynski's over-respectful tribute to his obscure protagonist, Eastwood's consistently competent although unremarkable direction, and Jolie's uncharacteristically quiet but effective turn as the perpetually suffering Christine Collins, that permeates throughout the film. It is an air of reverence that is particularly suffocating and this film, from its introduction of depicting Christine as timid yet industrious single mother (we see Christine at her workplace, well-loved, responsible, and diligently skating around her workplace before returning home to tend to her son) to the emotional trials she patiently goes through, delivers in unrelenting doses.

Changeling is a masterpiece to stubborn Eastwood-followers, gullible feminists, and connoisseurs of high melodrama and manipulative weepers. I also suspect fans of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay (2005), all of which depict women suffering through very cruel twists of fate, would be comfortable seeing Jolie bullied by the police into accepting a stranger as his son, dragged into the loony bin, and stripped and washed like filthy cattle, among others. To present-day cynics, or even those of us who have admired the simplicity of Eastwood's storytelling, Changeling is a disappointment that borders on being torture.