Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gran Torino (2008)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

In Sergio Leone's invaluable masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), a very young Clint Eastwood plays an unnamed cowboy (popularly known as the Man with No Name), who in his pursuit for hidden treasure, involuntarily gets involved in the ongoing Civil War. In one scene, he witnesses firsthand the effects of war as he rides by fallen soldiers struggling to stay alive amidst mortal wounds and severe despair. Through death and suffering, Eastwood's unnamed cowboy sheds his familiar indifference to partially reveal his affiliation with humanity. A firsthand experience with the human condition pushes him out of the comfort of his chosen neutrality; and all at once, witnesses the repercussions of humanity in its most depraved. Whether or not the encounter causes a dent on a soul that has already been rendered callous by violence is out of the film's range. The Man with No Name rides into the sunset wealthier from the spoils of his adventure, and we can only guess whether he took with him the weight of his wary world.

More than four decades later, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran whose wartime experiences has turned him into a cynical fossil of a man. The inescapable internal and external hell that Walt struggles with seems to be the apt representative of the grim twilight of all of his famous onscreen personas' lives: The Man With No Name of Leone's popular spaghetti westerns, Inspector Harry Callahan of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) and its many sequels and offshoots, Bill Munny of Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992), and to a certain degree, Franky Dunn of Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004), who share with Walt the edgy perspective in life would normally lead to a lifetime of repressed remorse, lest callousness has crept into the core of their souls to the point that redemption is no longer an option. Walt is observably, an embattled soul who in his old age, is still painfully struggling with the baggage created from a lifetime of accumulated and accumulating sins. It seems that there can be no redemption for Walt; yet the miracle of Eastwood's filmmaking in Gran Torino (which to my mind is one of Eastwood's better films in his career as a director and undoubtedly his best film in the past decade) is to seamlessly convince his audience of Walt's slow yet deliberate turnaround.

The film opens during the wake of Walt's recently deceased wife. His children, their wives, their sons and daughters, attend the ceremony in deference to mere blood relationship. The strain that defines the relationship between Walt and his family is more than apparent: Walt is constantly irritated by the antics of his grandchildren (he silently growls when he catches his grandsons play with his medal of honor; a more prominent though silent growl is expressed when his granddaughter is leading him to give his beloved memorabilia); and the latter repay his irritation with discomfort when in his presence; Walt is disappointed at his son for driving a Japanese-made car, and dismisses him and his wife from his house when they suggested on his birthday that he relocate to a retirement home. Walt is obviously living in a pit. He has no real relationship with anyone, especially after the death of his wife. His health is deteriorating. He is slowly being cornered in a neighborhood where he is obsolete and immaterial.

Walt is a caricature of classic American arrogance: mouthing racist mantras as he sees his formerly White neighborhood fill up with immigrants; embarrassing the novice parish priest as the latter convinces him to go into confession, lecturing the young priest on life and death based on his experiences; exchanging insults with the local barber, supposedly in good and friendly humor. The face of the America he has lived in, loved, and killed for is rapidly changing. His insistence on the America he knew has stunted his life, which primarily consists of him sulking in his front porch while drowning himself in beer or admiring his one treasure, his vintage Gran Torino. In a twist of fate, the Gran Torino, the one thing that represents his ideal America, becomes the spark that pushes him to befriend Thao (Bee Vang), his Hmong neighbor who he catches one night attempting to steal his car as part of the initiation rites for a gang he was coerced to join, and his family.

Absent from Gran Torino is the typical heavy-handedness and seriousness that often plagues Eastwood's directorial efforts. Eastwood treats the material with an irreverence that is refreshing and most surprisingly, quite fun. The story evolves from light and often comedic sketches that depict Walt's persistent intolerance (with Eastwood's over-the-top yet undeniably apt portrayal limited to growls, grimaces, and guttural utterances of profanities and indecent remarks) to a highly emotional morality play, where Walt, with all his ethical inadequacies, is forced to referee a delicate situation that he finds himself in the center of. The sudden gravity that develops midway through the film is unforced; instead, it lures the audience into an emotional involvement with the affairs of Walt, not totally different from the one achieved through the machinations of daytime soap, that escalates in a climactic scene that is resolved by Walt's mental prestidigitation that completes his redemption, something often wished for but hardly achieved by most of cinema's morally weathered figures.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Milk (2008)

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Milk, to put it simply, is a terrific film. Gus Van Sant's take on the life of Harvey Milk (immaculately played by Sean Penn), America's first openly gay elected public official, is depicted within a perspective of acceptance rather than mere tolerance. As a result, the film, despite its largely political content, does away with the polemics of the gay rights movement and instead looks into the logic of the movement: that it is not sexual preference that divides us but our common humanity that binds us. Van Sant adeptly recreates the era through Harris Savides' stunning cinematography that is only amplified by Van Sant's use of several archived footage. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is understandably sentimental, since Harvey Milk, with his accomplishments in giving the gay community a voice in American politics and his tragic demise, has turned into an icon. Van Sant acknowledges the screenplay's need to beatify its subject, but instead of simply subscribing to what's written, he maneuvers the film to demystify Milk, and bring him back to Earth from the pantheon of icons whose accomplished histories have dehumanized them completely. Thus, Milk is most delicious during the moments it showcases Milk in his most human, where we sense, without Van Sant announcing it, the troubles and conflicts that burden the man.

opens with Harvey hooking up with a young man in one of New York City's subway stations. Scott Smith (James Franco, who makes most his timeless good looks to portray Harvey's handsome target), dodges Harvey's propositions with playful candor. Van Sant shoots the sequence with an unwavering interest to the game; his camera switching from Harvey's persistent face (his facial gestures and vocal intonation protests the lie that he is living as he is reeling in a potential catch to cap the forty years of living inside the closet) to Scott's sly smiling mug. Harvey succeeds and the two leave the subway as a couple. They make love in a hotel room; the screen purposely covered by the couple's copulating bodies, bronzed by the room's yellow lights. After their lovemaking session, the two playfully celebrate Harvey's birthday. It is this endearingly intimate portrait that jumpstarts the film, purposely reminding us that Milk, despite his contributions to the gay rights movement, is as human as any of us, that he is persistently needful of human connection yet fumbling in front of the object of his desires.

This is the balancing act Van Sant maintains throughout the film: to show the story of Harvey Milk both as an important portion of American history and as a struggle by a man forced into the limelight while battling his own personal demons. It is this balancing act that turns Milk into something more than a biopic. Milk is a fascinating portrait that transports the viewer in a situation where the gay psyche is no longer marginalized but is the mainstream. Absent the heavy-handed pedagogy that usually infests films that are burdened with big issues, Van Sant is able to tell his story with as much levity for the viewer to partially forget the issues and just get swept by the immense range of emotions (of anger, love, hate, lust, etc.) that are fluently evoked by Milk's struggle.

Dan White (Josh Brolin), who shot Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) one morning out of mixed emotions of anger and insecurity, is shown not as the representative of America's intolerant majority, but as an ostracized soul, trembling in the midst of an overwhelming change because he is fearful of being outnumbered; probably because he himself has been closeted by his culture and family. He stands in the middle of two warring factions (Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs' conservative Christian front and Milk and Mayor Moscone's gay rights defense), where he and what he represents are rendered insignificant as a result of the social and cultural movement brought about by Milk's agenda.

Van Sant, who has depicted the outcasts and the outcasted in Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) with an intriguing mixture of sophistication and simplicity, paints Dan White's character with the same inexplicable psychology that consumes the outwardly normal characters he explored in his previous films. In fact, most of the characters in Milk are similarly explored as damaged souls, inadvertently alienated by the rapidly moving times and the rest of humanity's violent stampede to keep up. Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) has evolved from being an apathetic good-timer to Milk's campaign manager through sheer circumstance; a salvaged soul who has managed to keep up and be in the mainstream. Jack Lira (Diego Luna), Milk's beloved lover, passionately raw and perpetually jealous, is unable to keep track, in one beautifully shot sequence (Harris Savides' tracking shot of Milk's confused steps up his apartment's bathroom to find Lira dead is one of the film's strongest moments), just gives up.

Milk seems to be a departure for Van Sant, especially from the sequence of films he directed previously (from Gerry to Paranoid Park (2007), all of which can hardly be defined as commercial ventures). In fact, for a time, it seems like Van Sant has sold out again, the same way he did when he made Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), which, in my opinion, are merely finely directed Hallmark features, not films that should be taken seriously. However, in Milk, Van Sant is able to reach a wider audience without sacrificing artistic integrity. True, the film indeed flirts with melodrama (a gay kid calls Harvey to tell him that he would commit suicide instead of being sent to a correction facility by his parents; the side story finds fruition when the same kid calls Harvey to tell him he won in Los Angeles, and that he has escaped from the clutches of his parents and into independence), yet beyond these rare missteps, Milk is an absolute triumph.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

While film and theater bear similarities to the point that theater directors often cross-over to film and vice versa, there is a distinction that separates the two art forms apart. Film is a recorded medium, where a single performance is eternalized. Theater, on the other hand, is organic, where each individual performance has certain nuances that differentiate itself from previous or future ones. That said, adapting a stage play into a film involves something more than recording a performance. For the film to truly stand on its own, the director must infuse the material a personality that will make it distinct and memorable, enough for it to be immortalized not only in form but in spirit. Take for example Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), the prolific director's take on Stephen Sondheim's musical of the same title, about the legendary vengeful barber who murders his clients and stuffs them in into his meat pies. Burton remains faithful to the material but infuses it with a visual style, a sense of comedic darkness that is distinctly his own. In turn, he creates one of the most memorable stage-to-film adaptations in recent years.

John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable is an electrifying examination on how we live in a gray world that morality and the institutions that espouse it insist on classifying as either black or white. The play centers on Sister Aloysius, the strict and stern principal of a Bronx school, who headstrongly launches an investigation against Father Flynn, the amiable parish priest, when Sister James, an impressionable young nun, finds Donald Miller, the school's first Black student, distraught after a private session with the priest. The play does away with revelations, keeping the narrative within a certain level of very uncomfortable uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that fuels the play's questions, and these questions are just left unanswered, ultimately giving birth to further queries on the repercussions of the fallibility of supposedly ironclad principles such as religion and justice.

Shanley's film adaptation of his own play, I suspect, barely differs from the stage version. Doubt is embellished by Roger Deakins' reliable cinematography and Howard Shore's cleverly spare musical score. However, underneath the cinematic trappings that Shanley has diligently put together, Doubt runs like a theater piece, stubbornly mechanical as to how the story unfolds, with conversations that have a tendency to overflow with literary self-importance. Symbolisms, some obvious and some archaic, abound. However, Doubt feels to be as potent in its insistence on denting humanity's reliance on the questionable certainty of morality with a tool that seems as natural as the world itself: doubt. The only problem with Doubt is that it is overly reliant on its source material, down to the overly theatrical elements (which is undoubtedly the result of having the same person adapt and direct his own play; we never really get to see a valid re-imagining of the material), to the point that it feels absolutely inert: an overbearing and at times, rambling piece whose only real value as a film is that it made the source material widely available, and nothing more.

Thus, the burden of making Doubt an effective theater-to-film adaptation belongs largely to the ensemble. Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, personifies naiveté very well (as we've also seen in her roles in Phil Morrison's Junebug (2005) and Kevin Lima's Enchanted (2007)). It is the way that she commands this facile innocence into the realm of distrust and suspicion that is quietly riveting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn, adeptly crafts a character that is the center of the film's persisting ambiguity, most of the time, convincingly sociable and intelligent, delivering rousing sermons in the pulpit that navigates the Catholic Church's eventual liberation from its dogmatism, and sometimes, palpably predatory. Viola Davis, who powerfully plays Donald's working-class mother in an extended scene with Sister Aloysius, has the duty of further deepening the dilemma, infusing Shanley's discussions on the blurry spectrum between good and evil with the expansive reach of real world poverty. Her surprising reaction to Sister Aloysius' affronts introduces the malady of social inequity to the picture: if Father Flynn is indeed guilty as Sister Aloysius claims, is his actions, considering that it is Donald's only hope in a world that has decidedly existed against his race and gender, evil?

Of course, the picture really belongs to Meryl Streep, who graduates Sister Aloysius as a caricature of authoritarian pompousness into a more understandable monster of a woman: a wasted figure that retreats to religion in the midst of tragedy (which also explains why it is so easy for her to give it up). Her motivations for destroying Father Flynn are unclear: is it really in the interest of justice? to protect Donald Miller from the abusive priest? to quietly assert the strength that the Catholic Church, through its dogmatic insistence that only males can be priests and nuns are answerable to priests, has deprived her? Despite this ambiguity in her character, Streep plays Sister Aloysius with methodical coldness, but with an allowance to show cracks so that little bits of her shrouded humanity can be observed. Doubt, as what I think is only a recorded version of the play, a mere product of modern convenience, belongs largely to the ensemble, which, through the individual cast members' inspired performances, has elevated the film from a mere a typical adaptation to something more.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Australia (2008)

(Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

In Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), the oft-repeated and replicated Shakespearean romance, including the famous playwright's hefty Victorian grammar and vocabulary, is lifted from the streets of medieval Verona into the contemporary Verona, an anonymous suburb in the middle of the United States. The gimmick effectively creates an illusion of heightened romanticism within the confines of present-day America, where undying pledges of love and prolonged vendettas are uncommon, thus, making movie-going romantics swoon despite the improbability of Luhrmann's experimentation. In Moulin Rouge! (2001), Luhrmann infuses another love-against-all-odds tale set in 1899 Paris between an impoverished poet and an in-demand courtesan with contemporary pop and rock songs. It feels like a hyperactive and sometimes incoherent mess: an overproduced MTV where women dance in tight corsets and men sing in bright trenchcoats. For me, it's a guilty pleasure.

Baz Luhrmann's directing style involves a lot of pomp, a lot of spectacle, a lot of unabashed lavishness. His films are enjoyable precisely because it skirts realism for grandiosity, converting what typically would be commonplace tales in commonplace settings into invites to an alternate universe where humanity is driven by passion (more often than not, in insanely large doses), enough for dancers to equate ballroom dancing with love and life (in Strictly Ballroom (1992)); or for young lovers to utter declarations of love in old English; or for turn-of-the-century Parisians to belt out hits by Madonna, Bono, the Beatles, among others.

Australia, Luhrmann's latest, is tame compared to his previous excesses. There are no musical interludes, no outdated verbose dialogues, no fierce dance-offs to salvage what essentially are two-dimensional characters interacting in borrowed storylines. Instead, Luhrmann mines from what seems to be an immense national pride, casting two of the continent's most internationally familiar faces in another love story that defies all odds set during a pertinent portion of Australia's history. As a result, Australia suffers from an unwieldy heft: a need to be epic in scope because of its desire to be relevant.

Hence, the film's central romance is fitted right in the middle of the impending Pacific War and the plight of the stolen generations, sons and daughters of aboriginal mothers and White fathers who are forced out of their families by the church in order to cleanse them of their so-called savage lineage (Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) offers a sincerer and more accurate depiction of these stolen generations). To convince her husband to sell their cattle ranch, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from her leisurely estate in England to Faraway Downs in the middle of the Australian wildernesses, only to find out that her husband has been murdered, and their ranch is nearly bankrupt under the management of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who double agents for King Carney, owner of the largest cattle ranch in the continent. In order to reverse the misfortunes of Faraway Downs, Sarah Ashley is forced to drive her ranch's best cattle into the port town of Darwin to win the contract with the government to supply beef to the war-ready army. Along the way, she becomes surrogate mother to Nullah (Brandon Walters), half-breed son of Fletcher and an aboriginal woman, and falls deeply in love with Drover (Hugh Jackman), who agrees to help her drive her cattle to Darwin.

The problem is Luhrmann does not have the requisite discipline or integrity to mount such an exercise. The immensely overt emotionality is in fact, shallow. Its historical deft feels highly artificial, more like a backdrop rather than a genuine interest. The sensuality is almost non-existent, with Luhrmann floundering on attempts to pump the romance with amorous verve. With Australia, Luhrmann's excesses feel more like padding than style and quirk. It's still sometimes entertaining, but to be sure, Australia is just hardly the film it was imagined to be.