Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

The Spiderwick Chronicles (Mark Waters, 2008)

Mark Waters' movie adaptation of the children's novel The Spiderwick Chronicles is actually decent entertainment once you get past the insurmountable amount of kitschy eye candy. It's an inevitable flaw. The film is after all being primarily targeted towards children who are sadly slowly being trained to accept anything computer-generated equate to reality. When the movie rights to these children's novels were purchased by different film studios in obvious reaction to the successes of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, the studio mindset is clearly to drown these stories with computer-generated visuals in anticipation of the plebeian clamor for spectacle. In exchange for the manufactured popularization or commercialization of children's literature, subtle themes are overridden as the emphasis moves from artistry to trite entertainment. We've seen it happen before, where arguably great literature has been converted into theater-filling commodities such as in Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) or Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass (2007), film adaptations which are clear populist bastardizations of their respective source materials.

Then there are those rare gems. The most apt example of which is Gabor Csupo's Bridge to Terabithia (2007). The source material, Katherine Paterson's lovely novella of the same title, is about a budding friendship between a boy and a girl who discovers an alternate world while they wrestle with their respective problems. Csupo trusts the material enough to let the narrative flow with the least amount of overt directorial flourishes, and the result is simply rewarding. The film uses computer generated animation so sparingly, a commendable surprise since Csupo started his career with animation, and in the end, becomes a genuinely mature yet undeniably heartfelt film.

There are traces of the same type of endearing maturity in Waters' film, primarily in the familial aches that burden angst-ridden Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore, who also plays Simon, the more timid of the twins). In the film's most sincere moment, Jared, cornered and without any clue of what to do in his family's sudden dire predicament, calls his father through his cellphone. That action by itself encapsulates everything that is happening inside the mind of the boy: the near-faltering trust he has unconditionally given to his absent father, the selfishness that he possesses considering that he opts to escape from his problems leaving his mother and two other siblings to fend for themselves, and that inevitable surrender to the events that have become bigger than his own pains. The father doesn't answer his call, which urges Jared's remaining family to tell him the truth, that his father has left all of them to live with another woman. In that simply staged scene, without any special effects (except of course the doubling of Highmore) or computer-assisted puppetry, we are immediately entreated to an emotional tone that feels right and honest.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not have that elegant simplicity. The subplot involving Arthur Spiderwick (played by a very bored-looking David Strathairn) and his geriatric daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright) emits a pungent odor of artificial sentimentality. Moreover, there's very little area to wiggle around evocations of real humanity for the characters. It seems that Waters is far too busy toying around toadstools, ogres, goblins, fairies and all those other magical critters contained in Spiderwick's field guide, making sure that each of these fantastical curiosities are brought to cinematic life with the most exquisite of computer rendering talent, plus a slew of wasted voice talents (such as Nick Nolte, who gives a raspy malevolence to the evil ogre Mulgarath; Martin Short, who is indiscernible as "guardian of the field guide" Thimbletack; and Seth Rogen, who provides gluttonous gusto to Hogsqueal). What made the film momentarily special, the persistent struggle of a young boy who is slowly coming to understand the reality of his hugely imperfect family, is simply breezed upon, making the transformation of rebellious and obnoxious Jared to the heroic boy slightly shallow.

As a result, The Spiderwick Chronicles finds itself in a bit of a dilemma. There's no doubt Waters acknowledges those interesting themes that pervade the narrative, as quietly emphasized in the film's early scenes where a much-disgruntled Jared is obviously ostracized by his sister (Sarah Bolger) and his twin brother for misunderstanding their mother's motivations for moving to the Spiderwick Manor. As such, the film has a slight feel of a closeted coming-of-age film. This is the same feel Bridge to Terabithia managed to exploit most successfully, but Waters conveniently neglected in exchange for blank spectacle. I am not sure if it's an overzealous adherence to the fantasy elements of the book that killed that most interesting feel, thus, limiting my interest to a very bare minimum. It's really a matter of taste. Waters chose to tread the path of razzle-dazzle (to the point of such overflowing down to the end credits, a most cringe-worthy sequence of beauteous digitized flowers and mushrooms). I simply prefer children's entertainment to be a simple, eloquent, elegant and most importantly, pertinent.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

In Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, legendary outlaw Jesse James is shown in the twilight of his illustrious career, just a few hours before his last great train robbery up to his death. Dominik strives to humanize the myth, by focusing on James in his weakest, in his most flawed, merely surviving in the least heroic of moments. Nowhere in the film do we witness James' so-called heroism or charisma, as delightfully , described in the song of the troubadour near the end of the film or displayed in the countless serials that are stashed inside the wooden chest of his greatest follower and shamed killer Robert Ford, portrayed with surprising skill and subtlety by Casey Affleck. It is only when an icon is stripped of the extraneous tales and titles, even to the point of countering the reputation that was created over the decades, do we really understand the human being. Here, we witness a legendary man that is at once monstrous yet pitiful, repulsive yet endearing, defensive yet vulnerable.

It is only natural for Dominik to accompany this newfound human vulnerability in Jesse James' persona with the vastest of wide open spaces, sumptuously photographed by Roger Deakins. Deakins' work here is sublime. While the cinematography is undoubtedly extravagant with almost every frame of the film both precise and arrestingly beautiful, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford never succumbs to being too alluring to the point of such aesthetics overpowering the film. Despite its untypical storytelling, the film is still subservient to the glorification of the West, with its dutiful over-dramatization of the events from the shadowed train robbery to the sunlit moment of James' actual assassination, and the persistent observation of the common virtues and vices of the Western genre, such as honor and treachery respectively.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also positions the death of the legendary outlaw as the end of the great West, similar in the way Sam Peckinpah lamented the passing of the Old West upon the death of Billy the Kid in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Observe the differences between the film pre and post-assassination. Previous to James' death, the West was obviously on the verge of a rebirth, probably reactionary to the ceasing of the James gang's crimes, but still adhering to the principles that marked the Old West like camaraderie and honor even under the guise of criminality. After James' death, the film suddenly zooms into the tortured state of the Ford brothers, more specifically to Robert whose role in the film emerges from cowardly villain to pitiful, possibly even admirable, victim of history. The audience in turn focus its sympathies from the very mortal James on the verge of his impending death to Ford who is unfairly turned into the tool for James' ascension to immortality, disregarding whatever virtue or vice each represented previous to James' death in respect to the overall humanity of the two historic figures. It is this muddling of these personalities' supposedly clearcut roles that spell out the end of the Old West and its distinctly defined heroes and villains.

In this regard, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is somewhat akin to Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) where nature, the artificial environs, and the overall atmosphere cohere with the narrative to elucidate the director's purpose. In The New World, Malick retells the story of Pocahontas, not through the eyes of a disconnected third person (as let's say the countless storybook versions like the animated Pocahontas (1995) from the Mickey Mouse factory) but from a perspective, carefully recreated through extensive research and a very personal aesthetic motif, that perfectly captures the exhilarating sense of discovery, pain, romance and enchantment that the Native American princess must have herself experienced. Malick was able to convert experiences that would have been impossible to relay ordinarily in either literature or film such as the discovery of a New World or the wonderment over the modernity of 17th century London, furthering the exploration of the fascinating gap of the natural world of the Native Americans and the similarly mystifying world of the West all through the eyes of Pocahontas.

In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the story is not told through the perspectives of any of the characters. Instead, an unseen narrator assists the storytelling, complete with the ornate verbosity of an important literary work since the narration was adapted verbatim from Ron Hansen's novel. While the perspective in the film is distant from the portrayed characters, there is no sense of estrangement or traditional cinematic disconnect from the narrative and the cinematic style. The narrator serves both as objective guide and referee to James' famous celebrity and Ford's infamous cowardice. The narrator dictates facts which are probably unknown to the characters like scientific or medical explanations, historic reputations, or future and past events that might or might not matter. With such perspective, the audience gains a godlike stance in the ongoings, completely knowledgeable of the facts and able to fathom the depth of the characters and their respective motivations. With such perspective, Dominik was able to convincingly tackle the fallibility of a legendary outlaw and the humanity of a degraded upstart even under the midst of an overly romanticized setting.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a quiet and masterfully crafted film that in a larger scale, explores the refined nuances of fame and infamy, as represented by opposing characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford. Individually, these characters have conflicts to wrestle with. James has his unacceptable mortality to deal with, leading to an even more crazed disposition with paranoia eating him up until he finally gives up, and allows an upstart to take his life in exchange for historic and literary immortality. Ford, on the other hand, we see grow up, become broken by the realization of his hero as the impertinent fraud, and in the end, commit a sin he would carry as burden for the rest of his life. They're humans all --- vulnerable, imperfect, and wretched. Against the ravishing vistas and the shadow-draped interiors of the admirable Old West that is coming to a close, these characters can't do anything but go along, unmask and step out of the stereotypes that are so conveniently crafted for them.

Monday, February 18, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

"You show me a capitalist and I'll show you a bloodsucker," Malcolm X once said. Danny Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is perhaps the most audacious representation of capitalism recent cinema has produced. He fancies himself an oilman, quite accurately, as he has built himself a vast fortune, not exactly a legacy, by building skeletal edifices in the Californian desert sucking the barren Earth of oil, and eliminating other prospectors or middlemen through his several inaccurate representations of himself, including being a family man by parading his ward H. W. (Dillon Freasier) to the numerous families he seeks to buy land from. He is both cunning and vicious apart from having a voracious appetite for wealth, aspects which are inherent to the traditional vampire, the bloodsucker Malcolm X compares the capitalist to. It's easy to refer to P. T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood as a bleak examination of greed, especially its damning effects on the human soul. Plainview, from the moment he opens his mouth to convince a pack of outspoken impoverished landowners to sell their lands to say he's both an oilman and a family man with the accent and attitude of a rehearsed thespian, we are affirmed of a man who is desperately clinging on a mere fragment of his soul. Anderson more than adequately convinces that Plainview is indeed the metaphoric bloodsucker of the Malcolm X quote.

Plainview's nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is supposedly a man of the cross whose cherubic facial features and gift for convincing oration and theatrics has led him into a lucrative path earning fortunes from the faith of the plenty impoverished hopefuls. He too is undoubtedly a capitalist, a worthy competitor of Plainview despite the differences in business ventures. Their respective industries meet at the towns and communities they thrive on, where the citizenry hold both in both high esteem and perhaps fear: Plainview for economic reasons and Eli for spiritual ones. The final chapter of the film which takes place within the sullen interiors of Plainview's grandiose mansion reintroduces the two characters. Eli tries to find relevance in an age, the Great American Depression, wherein money is the only thing relevant as it is the predominant tool for survival, trying to lease a piece of land a devotee entrusted to his church. He tries to redesign himself as an oilman, a collaborator of Plainview even to the point of reneging his faith. The final chapter doesn't expose Plainview as a monster since we already knew that but instead juxtaposes, rather eerily, the business of religion with the business of oil, as both purport benevolence despite being businesses that thrive because of abject exploitation. Of course, the greedier one triumphs. Like a true capitalist, Plainview ends the bloody meeting with "I am finished," a quote that both notifies his butler that he is done with the steak he was gorging minutes ago and symbolically signifies that he has eaten up another competitor.

Greed is a sin he and Eli share. Such, however, is not the only capital sin Plainview exemplifies. He intimates to his long-lost brother (Kevin O'Connor) an unmitigated hatred for mankind, yet the mystifying aspect of this hatred is that he doesn't disclose the source of it. My theory is that Plainview's most paralyzing sin is not greed but envy, envy of the people around him, of their capacity for humanity, to relate, and to express real feelings. Plainview is in truth a man of well-kept insecurities, and this is what prompts him to wallow in greed and wealth, and sparks his inevitable descent to obscurity. While Eli succumbs to a human fallibility that is close to disgusting depravity, he generates a response that isn't as ominous as the one Plainview inflicts on the audience. Eli is merely sneaky worm, while Plainview is a monster, who will inevitably be victorious and eat the worm.

Plainview is afflicted with impotence, moral and physical. There is no doubt about Plainview's moral impotence manifested by his unscrupulous business methods, his untempered cynicism for all humanity that leads to a resolution that welcomes glorified nihilism, as shown in that final scene in his private bowling alley. It is probably Plainview's physical impotence that is arguable. Plainview, I believe, is a rather limp character. He masquerades himself with an air of patriarchal command but is himself unable to foster a family, or even attempt to make his own. This is the reason for his abusive need to be in control, why he scorns Eli since the latter, through religion, seeks to share in equal portions with him a dominating command of the community.

His control is of course artificial, like a commodity he bought along with the barren oil-yielding land. This is because he is unable to naturally produce such trait, a probable result of his accident in the mines leaving him not only with a distinctive gait but also an incurable sterility. This leads a compulsive need to drape such impotence with and jealousies, such as the one he tells about his ward H. W. and how his fictional mother died during childbirth, or how he finds murderous annoyance when his brother incomparably enjoys the company of women, or how he becomes indignantly offended when people pry into his private affairs especially those dealing with family, or how he erupts angrily when his ward decides to prospect for oil in Mexico not only because he gains another competitor but also because his ward, supposedly inferior and disabled, has advanced much further than he is capable of. He is an envious man, jealous of the rest of the world's capability to put into fruition their basic humanity or masculinity while he can only bask underneath artificial copulation, of his structures penetrating the Earth to produce black oil.

There Will Be Blood is a fascinating film, where all the technical elements seem to conspire to paint a portrait of Plainview, although harsh and unflattering. Jonny Greenwood's atypical score, ranging from primal rhythmic melodies to near-atonal ambient strains, enunciates Anderson's primary theme of humanity on the verge of monstrosity, and adds a tinge of absurdity and ridicule to the grave exercise, further punctuating the film with a valuable sense of humor along with Day-Lewis' over-the-top performance and the drastic maneuvering of the well-written screenplay, which is a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!. The cinematography, by Robert Elswit who also photographed Anderson's previous feature films, showcases both landscapes and interiors that are as dry, bleak and empty as the man the film so exquisitely details. From the first ten minutes which stretches a wordless yet visually enthralling sequence of Plainview in the initial stages of his conquest for oil to the final chapter that puts an absurd twist to this historically-placed epic, P. T. Anderson maintains a firm grasp of his ambitiousness without succumbing to the tendency of overreaching, as he did in most of his previous films. There Will Be Blood, I'm convinced to say, is a triumph.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Juno (2007)

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

Juno MacGuff (charmingly played by Ellen Page) is a sixteen year old high school junior who finds herself pregnant weeks after a make-out with her best bud Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) turned into teenage irresponsible late-night lovemaking. She's a peculiar teen, vocal about what she thinks and what she likes, which includes Dario Argento and a few rock bands from years before she was born. Her mouth spews sarcasm with eloquent flair, usually backed up with pop culture references. She operates with graceless theatricality as when she delivers the news of her pregnancy to Bleeker, she musters props which include a sofa chair to sit on and a wooden pipe to chew on down the boy's front lawn to either enunciate the gravity of her situation to the seemingly uncaring soon-to-be father or to mask her own incapability to face her present reality. She is representative of the youth that prides itself of a maturity it barely has a grip of, confusing wisdom with verbal wit and independence with adventurism.

Her first plan of action is to have the baby terminated by calling a clinic to procure a "hasty abortion," but as she's about to enter the clinic, a pro-life classmate of hers details how the baby inside of her has fingernails, which oddly represents for her the totality of humanity. Her change of heart erupts when an orchestra of fingernails tugging on what's left of her conscience envelopes her completely. She foregos abortion and instead finds picture-perfect yet barren couple Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) Loring in the ads section of the Pennysaver to adopt her baby.

The film then whimsically struggles to find relevance in the scenario that our beloved wisecracking soon-to-be mom finds herself in. Yet that scenario is just a bit too genial, a tad too friendly, to the point wherein you wonder where Juno gets all the pent-up teenage angst from, undoubtedly not from her father (J. K. Simmons), who showers her with love despite her shortcomings, or her stepmother (Allison Janney), who likewise treats her with equal parts restraint and dignity, or the stereotyped schoolmates which include the hot dumb cheerleader (Olivia Thirlby) who happens to like her enough to be her best friend despite the extrinsic weirdness and the bullyish jock who she fancies has a secret crush on her. Sure, she gets disgusted stares from the woman behind the desk or the kids from school the moment she balloons into full maternity, but the pregnancy is so underwritten, so slightly developed, that you feel like writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are dodging important issues. At least in Judd Apatow's uneven Knocked Up (2007), we get a glimpse, although punctuated, of the risks of a decision to go pro-life or in Cristian Mungiu's masterful 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), we are allowed a full glance of the corrupting effects of abortion, as seen through the eyes not of the mother-to-be but through the assisting best friend. Juno, on the other hand, is either brazenly politically ignorant or dangerously romanticizing teenage pregnancy.

However, for all the film's optimism and amiability, there are only a few moments that feel real in this fantasized take on teenage pregnancy. There's that scene in the mall where Juno suddenly bumps into Vanessa. Juno allows Vanessa to talk to the baby, and the latter does so, quite emotionally and without the restraints that usually inhabit her prim and proper posture, until she feels the baby react to her declarations of maternal readiness. There's also Mark's sudden escape from the confines of his marital prison brought about by Juno's supposed free-spiritedness. That discovery of a kindred soul outside their posh suburban neighborhood urges him to soul search, which would lead to a very skewed resolution, probably unfairly designating to him the title of confused villain in a generally kindhearted comedy.

These subplots, moments, and rare instances wherein the heavyhandedly crafted dialogue rings true are sprinkled so sparingly throughout the film that fancies itself hip and cool through the idiosyncratic visual cues (the rotoscoped opening credits, the running joke of a team of marathoners jogging through the neighborhood with their golden short shorts, and the bohemian-inspired fashion of the beloved teen preggie), the bubbly folk songs that open the season-inspired chapters, and the one-dimensional tone of world-wary sophistication that the screenplay generously gives all its characters, from the totem pole of witty retorts Juno to the very annoyed clerk at the local convenience store. It is hardly innovative, blatantly uneven with overwritten dialogues and underwritten themes.

That said, Juno is nothing more than a sweet little movie. Sweet of course is not the greatest of compliments especially to a movie that has been accoladed with several nominations and awards from Hollywood's countless self-congratulating guilds, the biggest of which is the Academy. Sweet in my vocabulary usually means something ultimately harmless, an undaunting confection that makes you feel elated a few minutes after consumption but would eventually fade into obscurity.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Intramuros (1964)

Intramuros (Gerardo De Leon & Eddie Romero, 1964)
American Title: The Walls of Hell

The walls of Intramuros are presently protecting a few centuries-old churches, a Mcdonald’s chain, a couple of Starbucks coffee shops, golf courses, and several other government offices that populate the enclosed Manila district. Those walls of course had a former and vaster majesty, a grander place in a nation’s history. These were the walls that used to cover the wealthy Spanish colonizers from the impoverished Filipino natives, the same walls that served shelter to thousands of Filipinos during times of war, the same walls that withstood the incessant bombardments from different invaders wanting entry to the lone Spanish colony in Asia. These mental images were manufactured from years of being taught the local history through deadened lectures and ancient photographs that adorned textbooks.

It is probably the same wonderment I had of those steadfast walls which led Eddie Romero to seek finances to help produce his film about the siege of Intramuros. He received much-needed dollars from American producers who were quick to fund something cheap but exciting and patriotic, the current lucrative staple in most American B-movie theaters during that time. To adequately capture that awing feeling of wonderment in cinematic terms, Romero sought help from his mentor, Gerardo de Leon, then currently unemployed. De Leon was the filmmaking talent whose undervalued visual flair remains unsurpassed by any Filipino director. The obvious star of the movie however is Intramuros’ imposing walls, shot in various angles and positions, all detailing its impenetrable stance against would-be invaders while delivering a subtle encompassing grandeur despite its ruined state.

In Romero and De Leon’s film however, Intramuros plays the villain to the team of American and Filipino soldiers who are bent on rescuing the few thousands of civilians mostly women, children, and old men, who are all taken hostage by desperate Japanese soldiers who would rather die with several more victims than surrender to the returning Americans. It is possibly for this reason why the film was released in the United States with the very unflattering title of The Walls of Hell, emphasizing on the historic structure’s infernal role as gargantuan hindrance to the patriotic Americans’ efforts to restore freedom to its former colony. The film is obviously lopsided in portrayals as the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as atrocious men, unsatisfied of their despairing stance in the conclusion of the Pacific War thus inflicting final fatal blows to those they have kept captive. Within the guarded walls, they would call the citizens by name, amassing them, before taking them to the prison for an undisclosed purpose. Those who do not follow will be killed outright and the women who are beautiful enough are chased around the ruined fortress and raped. It’s an unforgiving and unglamorous portrayal of the Japanese invaders but given the decade and purpose for which the film was made, is understandable. With such hellish representations of both the losing combatants and the walls that protect them, the title of the film’s American release, although overly dramatic, bears a semblance of accuracy.

Understandably, the film’s primary purpose is to showcase and parade American bravery and patriotism thus the several American characters in the film, all of whom are noble personifications of war virtues like sacrifice, selflessness and heroism. There is Papa, a novitiate in the priesthood who got spirited away into the Pacific, replacing his vows of religiosity and piety for a loaded gun and a rank as army medic. There is Murray, journalist who for better coverage of the siege of Intramuros, moves from the safety of the American regiment in Manila to the shadows of the walls of Intramuros where a mixture of Filipino guerrillas and American army men are fighting off the remaining Japanese. Finally, there is Lt. Sorenson who is played by an underwhelming Jock Mahoney, most famous for his half-naked macho turn as Tarzan in its many cinematic incarnations. Sorenson is a stoic regiment commander who is tasked with the moral duty of rescuing the civilians from the clutches of the Japanese. He is the one given with the vastest characterization, a complete back story involving his wife Tina who was snatched by the Japanese during one of their ambushes, but is later discovered to be one of the trapped survivors within Intramuros. The character’s unwieldy stoicism or the persistent woodenness that Mahoney brings into the character can’t exude the emotional distress the character is supposedly carrying. Sadly, war films, beyond the well-executed battles and the eye-popping stunts, are grounded and judged by that singular element which is the object humanity. A war film whose main character can’t convincingly elevate the film beyond the gunshots and explosions can be considered a downright failure, a delirious exercise in supposedly recreating history within a motivated perspective yet without the point of view the audience can really hold on to. The Walls of Hell, with a disappointing portrayal of Mahoney as the internally embattled commander, might very well be considered as precisely that kind of failure.

Fortunately, the film is not as American as its investors thought it was. Of equal screen time as the intimidating walls and the token American heroes is Nardo Maglaya, the Filipino guerilla who informs the American and Filipino troops stationed outside the walls of the dire predicament inside it. Played by Fernando Poe, Jr., Nardo appears from the underground passageways of Intramuros with more than enough brash swagger and action hero charisma to keep the picture afloat. He pops out of the manhole with his hair pomaded into a perfect do, and his shirt drenched in masculine sweat. Surrounded by Filipino and American soldiers who are bearing firearms and ready to shoot and suspect him a Japanese spy. He surprisingly withholds his desperation by asking questions to the men who surrounded him instead of pleading for mercy which is the logical thing to do when one escapes from an enemy-infested fortress. He keeps his ground with an able stance that foretells readiness for any kind of physical rumble, which indeed happens but with him winning and proving that he’s not the type who would fold when cornered. During his first few minutes onscreen, Poe immediately grabs your attention and gives this war film the proper reason for existence among the innumerable films that exploit the Pacific War. Out of that manhole is a Filipino who is neither servile nor obedient but instead is equal to the Americans. Such is a surprising subversion considering that these low-budgeted war pictures often sell themselves as patriotic stories where the American soldiers generously give their lives for the liberation of another nation.

In one key scene, Nardo violently berates Sorenson for the latter’s stubbornness. The scene erupts into a sudden exchange of blows between the two men ending with Sorenson being escorted out of the camp and Nardo in what seems like a defeated position. The scene is important not because of how it was directed but of the implications that materialize after the incident. It is at that scene wherein the war has been dissected not between two common factions, the American liberators and the Japanese invaders, but between three important parties, now including the Filipinos as represented by Nardo’s brash indignation of Sorenson’s blind sense of duty. The film naturally progresses to that point wherein Nardo is made to understand Sorenson’s personal predicament but notwithstanding such, his unfaltering determination astounds to the point that during the final shot of the film wherein both Sorenson and Nardo walk side by side away from the newly liberated Intramuros, you can’t help but appreciate the apparent tensions (racial, or otherwise) that ensued apart from the visceral obstacles that had to be overcome, to reach that point of conclusive satisfaction to both the film’s American and Filipino audiences.

The Walls of Hell is not a subversive or journalistic piece of art. It is primarily an action film, one that certainly does not disappoint. The soundtrack of the film mostly consists of distant explosions and incessant gunfire, enunciated by cinematic orchestrations of folk songs mixed with military melodies. This keeps the atmosphere very hectic and hurried. Such precisely crafted atmosphere and the backdrop of the historic walls of Intramuros keep the film in a state of perpetual kineticism. There’s an apparent physicality in the action sequences that I am particularly pleased with. The co-directors make use of the perfect location shooting and utilize each and every crevice, cave, and wall to stage suspenseful clashes between the rescuing forces and the vile Japanese soldiers. Moreover, there is a specific visual splendor, one that is characterized by the gorgeous panoramic shots of the ruined fortress made even more ravishing by the abundance of smoke and fire all captured in crisp black and white, that embellishes the visceral and mostly violent encounters. There is no doubt that De Leon’s unique brand of aesthetics is at work here, harmoniously complementing Romero’s narrative integrity. The film is often magnificent to look at, where the actors are given a three dimensional setting to perform their respective stunts, the most fascinating of which is Poe’s swinging outside the walls to combat a Japanese soldier by the window, before landing with graceful flourish.

The Walls of Hell, like the historically important Intramuros it so captivatingly breathes cinematic life to, is but a fraction of what it was. It is undoubtedly outdated and therefore thought of as a forgettable remnant of the cinematic past especially if compared to other films that tackled the Pacific War that were released after like Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976), Aishite Imasu 1941 (I Love You 1941, Joel Lamangan, 2004), or Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006) which portrayed the Japanese with as much humanity as the protagonists. In a long line of low-budgeted war films released during that era where most of America was hungering for exhilarating tales of wartime heroism, The Walls of Hell branched out from the conceived norm and allowed a native Filipino to share with his so-called American brothers a space in that exalted pedestal of patriots. I may be over-reading a movie that was funded and made exactly to be enjoyed and then possibly disposed of. At present however, it cannot be denied that The Walls of Hell is a moving and exhilarating reminder of a past and former grandeur that has long been diminished to the pressures of commercialism and modernity, a persisting proof that sometime in a nation’s past or even in the deepest of the nation’s greatest artists, is a moment where both former colonial and colonizer stood and fought as equals against one enemy to achieve an admirable greater good.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est? (2001)

Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est? (Jose Javier Reyes, 2001)
English Title: Have You Heard of the Latest?

A day spent watching a cable channel specializing on Filipino movies, an unintended trait developed by hectic work schedules and impending deadlines, would arouse the most curious of observations about Filipino mainstream movies that tackle the middle class: that majority of the middle class characters who are gainfully employed work for the advertising industry. It's really unsurprising. Both mainstream cinema and the advertising industry share most of its talents, from director, writer, cinematographer, down to the actors and actresses. The reason for churning out characters who work under the same high-stress, presumably also high-creativity environment could be out of the fear or lack of confidence to tackle something distinctly foreign from what they already know (let's say the banking or legal industry), or the lack of funding or care for research to make sure the little details are accurate, or quite possibly just sheer laziness, that leads most directors and writers to turn their characters into ad people, at least in only a nominal sense.

Writer-director Jose Javier Reyes' Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est? (Have You Heard of the Latest?), like majority of all mainstream movies about middle class people that were made before it, have characters who are ad people. To Reyes' credit, the jobs of his characters aren't only nominal as they are given a fully functioning premise and setting, well-researched although caricatured to the point of being comparable to a serialized television sitcom. The milieu is complete with the distasteful office politics, the unintentional overproduction of pheromones leading to harmless crushes and indecent proposals, and last but not the least, the incessant rumormongering, which seems to be Reyes' unique thrust in this rather predictable romantic comedy. The office gossiping is made even more vicious by the proliferation of cellular phones, which makes those juicy half-truths so easy to report by the utilization of the practical SMS lingo and that conclusive click of the send button.

The would-be victims of the office rumor mill are Popoy (Aga Muhlach) and Gina (Joyce Jimenez). Popoy is the ad agency's writer, rumored to be gay for being so clean, orderly, miserly and handsome yet without any girlfriend or any reported recent date, at least. Gina is the new hire, a production artist who is reported to be an easy lay as she's sporting what possibly are the hugest breasts in the office (which becomes the topic of one of the film's funniest dialogues, when she insists that her brain is bigger than her boobs and Popoy replies with a surprised look and a retort stating how humongous her brain would be) and is interestingly frank about her sexual exploits with her boyfriend. The two are forced to work together for a project, predictably developing a friendship, then a romantic relationship based on the similarities of each other's predicaments and of course, respect. The love story, to be kind, is a bit forced and without the clever pieces of dialogue that Reyes whips up for his onscreen lovers, would have been utterly bland, unpersuading, and disgracefully pointless. Given the milieu that Reyes pits his romance against, the high levels of stress and intrigue an office ordinarily includes, you would've expected that the film end in a more mature tone but instead Reyes follows the textbook instructions of how romantic comedies should conclude: with an irrational change of heart and a kiss.

It really is a pity since Reyes convincingly builds his milieu with colorful characters who are sadly more interesting than the two leads, and recreated funny anecdotes of horrifying ad experiences, including a shoot of a shampoo commercial wherein the director just surrenders to the demands of his insatiable client, a shoot involving an uncooperative brat, and a review of commercial model applicants with the ad people muttering with ungraceful disdain the physical defects of the applicants. Among these colorful ad people are Miren (a delightfully histrionic Tessie Tomas), the over-caffeinated boss, Alvin (Mandy Ochoa), the sexual predator slash second-in-command, Dennis (an amusing Gabe Mercado), Popoy's sidekick who thinks there's a sexual creature hidden underneath his short and plump frame, and Nestor (Ogie Diaz), the perpetually annoyed proprietor of the outdoor canteen where the office people eat their lunch, among other weirdos. Reyes was able to manufacture a highly entertaining, highly watchable ecosystem within the confines of the drab interiors of the ad office, where the interest on the lives of other people seems believable since almost all of the personalities thriving therein seem to be hiding shady back stories worth digging for.

In summary, Narinig Mo Na Ba Ang L8est is passable entertainment, exactly what you'd expect from Reyes who is best known for writing stories about the mundane concerns of the middle class. The film is technically polished considering that it had full studio backing but on the downside, it's quite visually flat. It's meandering and safe, if not deprived of the possibilities of being something more, something that could have transcended beyond the whims of this Filipino bourgeoisie.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Once (2006)

Once (John Carney, 2006)

In that scene where the guy (Glen Hansard) and the girl (Market Irglova) starts playing the piano and their voices and melodies merge, magic happens. It happens in the most uninteresting of places, a near-empty music store where unsold guitars adorn the walls and other musical instruments are lying about. It is at that exact moment that John Carney's Once becomes something endearingly recognizable, a film about the inevitable connection of two like souls that is told through music. It is also at that moment that Carney prepares us for the film's eventual heartache as he punctuates a budding relationship that is ripe for that perfect cinematic romance with cautionary baggage that burden the two would-be lovers. Both of them are nursing hearts that are wounded from past relationships that have not completely past.

Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time. Raise your hopeful voice. You had a choice. You’ve made it now. Falling slowly sing your melody, I’ll sing along,” they sing in duet. The song’s lyrics itself foretell the hopeful and dreamy tone the film will partake from then on. The film drifts along on as the two continue to make music from that point in time, from the rugged interiors of the music shop to the high-end 3,000 pounds-a-weekend recording studio with a bunch of other musicians they also plucked from the street, curving frequently to blissful escapades where both of them explore the possibility of romantic future together without ever daring to commit to it.

Once has been advertised as a modern-day musical. I'm quite uncertain what makes a musical modern-day, old-fashioned or antiquated. Once definitely does not have the deliciously lush visuals of the musicals of Hollywood's golden years where both leading man and lady upstage the already luscious backgrounds with their incandescent beauty, pitch perfect voices and bravura dancing skills. Its characters do not sing upon cue of the background melodies performed by an unseen orchestra, but instead sing when they have to mostly out of a natural tendency to express themselves through song. If by being a modern-day musical, it is meant that the film manages to maneuver itself out of the traditional constructs of a musical film without sacrificing the abundance of sung melodies and the general celebration of music as integral part of filmmaking, then Once fits the description.

Once partakes of an aesthetic style that most hip new directors utilize, where the camera is as free as the subjects it is capturing, often jittering and shaking while hurriedly breezing through the locales or patiently waiting on prolonged moments of attractive mundaneness. In fact, Carney consciously turns Dublin into a drab and cold city, where the dictates of commerce make it inherently difficult for individuals to connect in a human level. The guy covers familiar tunes during the day time since, as he explains, these are the songs that people would pay to listen to, thus delegating his own music to the emptiness of the night scene, presumably hoping that a soul similarly wandering the tamer and more accepting Dublin night would get attracted to the authentic emotions his heartfelt composition carries. It is this mixture of the intended visual plainness, the subtly hostile intimidations of a commerce-minded city, and the enunciated emotional undertones of the original compositions that make this musical so intimate, especially if compared to the more traditionally conceived musicals that equate its musicality with spectacle.

Slowly but surely, Dublin becomes a more hospitable place as the guy finds that perfect partner out of the numerous personalities that roam the city. It is as if from the moment the guy and the girl discovered their unique connection, their ability to meld their musical inclinations into a melody that overflows with irresistible sincerity, a candle was lit to bring warmth to the film, warmth that is both reassuring and safe to the audience. We get glimpses of Dublin that is far from the inhumanity of the cold sidewalks: like the humble abode of the girl with her very hospitable mother, adorable daughter, and neighbors; or the guy’s house where he shares a sizable portion of his day accompanying his father who is nursing the heartache of his wife’s recent death; or the grassy field that overlooks a calming body of water where the guy brought the girl using his father’s motorcycle and the girl throws a hint of requited love but mystifies it by draping it with her foreign language. Once has nothing else to do but indulge in these sweet little nothings, engage us further by carefully unraveling both the guy and the girl’s masqueraded previous failings at love, making us invest a little bit more on the duo’s hopefully eventual life together based on how perfect they are as a couple.

Once is precisely that simple film about these rare connections with people we fortuitously discover in our lives. It is for that reason why despite the film’s obviously independent and meagerly-budgeted roots, its lack of recognizable faces and names, its whimsically driven narrative that partakes of the formulaic plot of boy-meets-girl made immeasurably special by the sincere songs that are littered most generously throughout the running time, the film still won numerous audience awards in different film festivals around the globe and gained considerable respect from critics. In a cinematic age that has been sensationalizing humanity’s tragic disconnect with each other with films whose themes range from something as deplorable as war to something as ordinary as normal alienation, it is very rare for a film to just simply celebrate the beauty two individuals finding common ground and truly connecting. While in the end, the guy and the girl again fail at that stab at a lifelong romance as they part ways to pursue repairing their previous relationships, the guy leaves the girl a token, a piano, symbol of the instrument that drove the two together amid their own hardened perspectives, the uncaring crowd and the pessimistic atmosphere of this modern age: music.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)
Thai Title: Dokfa nai meuman

In Syndromes and a Century (2006), Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul inserts a scene of a tube sucking the mist that has covered the hospital which is so abrupt and compelling that it instantly reorients your senses and prepares you for what's to come, an epilogue that transports the film entirely from the hospital and its hushed affairs to an outdoor park of a possible future time where the populace are doing aerobics and a group of Buddhist monks are playing with a toy UFO in what feels like an atmosphere of tranquil celebration. It is abrupt in a way that the film's normally measured and sedative pace and its calming and earthy aesthetics composed of captivating greens and sunlit exteriors and interiors are suddenly replaced with something distinctly mechanical and perspectively jarring with its cold, blue and alien-looking visuals and the exhausting although gripping sound that accompanies it.

Weerasethakul's debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon has a similar sequence, although not as visually and aurally apparent. An elegant string of dolly shots of empty spaces accompanies the story of a school kid about a Witch Tiger before completely concluding the longer half of the film. "At noon," the subtitle declares as it opens once again to scenes of school children playing soccer or swimming at a nearby waterhole or playing with chickens and dogs. The sequence of dolly shots has the same reorienting effect as the metal pipe scene in Syndromes and a Century. The tendency of Mysterious Object at Noon is to completely humanize the storytelling process by putting human faces and experiences behind the evolution of a tale but suddenly at that instance, Weerasethakul withdraws as if to enjoy a restful breath from his gargantuan experiment, and allows his camera to just mechanically capture images of blank and normally insignificant space, through the predictably horizontal movement of the dolly before stopping at a view from the window, sunlit and rejuvinating. That is perhaps the most amazing part of Weerasethakul's mesmerizing debut, the part wherein he branches off from his cinematic experiment to just watch and become passive observer to the lives he has documented. It reinforces the punctuated malleability of his cinema as it transforms, transports and disappears without abandoning the themes and feelings it has consciously invested in.

The film starts with the camera resting inside a vendor truck, capturing the highways, the alleyways and the buildings being passed by as a radio melodrama plays in the background. The experiment officially begins when a teary-eyed interviewee, a fish sauce vendor, tells her heartbreaking story about how she was sold by her parents to her uncle. The interviewer interrupts her and asks her to tell another story whether real or not, and the story she initiates concerns a crippled boy and his teacher named Dogfahr. At once, Weerasethakul blurs fact from fiction as he favors imagined stories to those that are based from real life experiences. Moreover, he cuts to a dramatized version of the fictional tale, often incorporating real footages to forward the more traditionally directed narrative, as a helpful accessory to his narrative experiment, supposedly to accommodate his viewers with a visual and surreptitiously mystical representation of his subjects' manufactured tales. In another of Weerasethakul's curious yet mysteriously compelling decisions, he abandons this dramatization by including in the film a portion wherein these characters convert back into their real selves, paid actors who are having their lunch break. It's a hilarious turn, one that infinitely keeps the film tiptoeing from fiction to documentary, documentary to fiction, and so on.

The central story of the crippled kid and Dogfahr mutates every time it is continued by another interviewee and by film's end, the tale of the boy and his teacher becomes so outrageously ridiculous that it becomes irrelevant. Instead, what stays with you is an intriguing glimpse at a national state of mind, a communal psychology, from what has been minutely gleaned from their connected contributions to the fiction-making. Weerasethakul selects his subjects from a wide demographic from repentant sauce vendors, drunken grandmothers, traveling performers, mute and deaf children and rowdy school kids, all of which contribute little yet gleaming aspects of their lives and ways of living as they steer the narrative to surprising directions ranging from a ball turning into a lonely alien child (from a group of young men), a romantic conquest filled with pangs of jealousy and envy (as performed by the traveling performers), a hard tale of social and economic trials (from the mute and deaf ladies), to a juvenile conclusion that involves revenge, swords, and killer tigers (from the rowdy school kids).

Aside from the vast demographic of his subjects, Weerasethakul keeps the film in a continuous state of transit. The invented story itself takes place in both rural and urban Thailand and Weerasethakul seems obliged to insert footages of transit, from the introductory travelogue in urban Thailand to the scenes that happen within a passenger train. This is a subconscious concern that is dictated by the communal mind scape of a nation that is infatuated with the concept of progress, most commonly represented by migration from the rural areas to the urbanized city of Bangkok. It is both unsurprising yet very much revealing how this conceptual need to move makes itself apparent in the fiction created by the film's subjects since it has been a consistent preoccupation, at least by the masses of the countryside, to equate progress with urbanity. Such is a preoccupation shared by Thailand with most of its Southeast Asian neighbors which is perhaps a by-product of its indelible attraction with Western ideals and so-called virtues.

Weerasethakul has crafted what arguably is the most daring first film of any recent director. In a national cinema that has long survived churning out populist melodramas, horror pictures, trite comedic and action films, and its many derivatives, Weerasethakul defiantly branches out with a film that is drastically confident and unique in form, style, and substance. Draped as a low budget documentary, shot on 16mm in black and white, before morphing into a completely different creature, a fascinating shapeshifter of a film that peeks into a population's historically-induced psychological and possible spiritual landscape through one of humanity's most inherent qualities, the ability to make and tell a story.