Thursday, February 25, 2010

Himpapawid (2009)

Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009)
English Title: Manila Skies

More than three decades after Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), Filipino filmmakers are still busy depicting the treacherous allure of Manila. The styles and methods may have changed, with today's directors and story-writers eschewing melodrama for documentary-like realism, but the intent is just the same: to unmask the city of its glittering neon lights and expose the asphyxiating poverty that pervades it. Raymond Red, in Himpapawid (Manila Skies), goes further than trite exposition. He knows that we know that our dire situation, how the nation is always at the mercy of moneyed capitalists, how the masses are suffocated by an inept bureaucracy, how the poor are so impoverished that the only currency they acknowledge is hope. It is that hope that drives them to strive for a better future, relocate to the metropolis where opportunities are peddled left and right, and patiently persist despite the astute oppression and marginalization.

However, Himpapawid is hardly a film about hope. It is about the loss of all hope, about how this frustration rapidly morphs into desperation. The film is not simply about poverty, but about the absurdity of this nation's poverty; how despite two celebrated peaceful revolutions toppling corrupt presidents, and despite yearly reports of advances in the nation's economy, the poor remain poor, if not getting poorer. It is an angry picture. The anger, fluently communicated through the film's main character Raul (Raul Arellano), an ordinary laborer who we first see pleading, begging and finally, threatening for a day off to apply for an overseas job, is so palpable and pronounced, it frightens you immensely. Raul's story, enlarged by Red from a piece of news about a peculiar hijacking incident in 2000 where the hijacker, after collecting money and jewelry from the passengers and crew of the flight, jumps out of the plane and dies in the process, represents the ridiculous lengths the poor have to commit to in order to escape from an inescapable fate of what seems to be a cycle of tremendous hope leading on to tremendous disappointments.

A bag of cash and jewels falls from the sky. It just lands there in the middle of an undeveloped provincial farmland, almost magically. A farmer (Ronnie Lazaro) walks by, picks up the fortune, and runs home, promises his son he'll send him to Manila to study with a specific condition that he never returns to the province. The shot of the dreamy little boy carrying the baskets he and her mother sell for extra income fades (which cleverly gives an impression of a few decades passing by) to give way to Raul, crossing the street in crowded Manila, carrying a sack of goods on his back. From Raul's woeful experiences that we witness, from his unpalatable adventures in the middle of Philippine bureaucracy to his participation in his pals' botched attempt to steal from their shady recruiter the money that was stolen from them, the allure of the big city is exposed for the dangerous sham that it really is; that Manila, which is for the millions of Filipinos in the province, the place that holds for them the elusive promise of escape from the unbearable humdrum of their respective impoverished lives, is nothing more than a nightmare perfumed with neon-lighted billboards that display fantasies of prosperity. Yet, the sight of families of five, seven and ten crowding inside a makeshift shanty, a whiff of the pungent air from the hundreds of overly crowded squatter colonies that dot the city, and a survey of the plenty yet similar sob stories from these slums, all relating to their collective misfortune of leaving all their belongings in the province for the promised job in the city only to be left unemployed and without any money to go back, expose the sad and difficult reality in Red's outrageous fiction.

Red's play on the timelines, where he blurs the boundaries of past and present with the use of clever editing, cinematography, and production design, is more than just cinematic sleight-of-hand. In the 70's, audiences were horrified by the tragic fate of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag's Julio Madiaga, who was plucked from the provinces, exploited in the city, killed by his fellowmen in a mob. In the 80's, audiences were again confronted by Brocka with Macho Dancer (1988) the same story of a man who flees the province for Manila, then works as a stripper in one of the seedy gay bars in the city, and ends up with the same fate as Julio. The 90's saw several variations of the same story, the most memorable of which is Carlos Siguion-Reyna's fantastically melodramatic Abot Kamay ang Pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996), about a barrio lass turned maltreated maid. The new millennium saw Maryo J. De Los Reyes' Laman (Flesh, 2002), and Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004). Himpapawid, I believe, is not the last of its kind.

bears the purely cinematic sheen (the luscious cinematography, its genre aspirations, its traditional screenplay) of its predecessors. There is a marked difference between Red's feature and the several low-to-no budget features being produced by many intrepid Filipino filmmakers; as Red's film has an elegant pace and a clear and consistent mise-en-scene, recalling the disciplined artistry of studio filmmaking, before it was cheapened by the need to break-even in a cutthroat market. More than self-indulgence, the purpose of making Himpapawid such a consciously polished film, reminiscent of Brocka, Mike De Leon, and Ishmael Bernal, is, in my opinion, to enunciate the absurdity of the fact that things, whether in reality or in what defines this nation's cinema, are still criminally unchanged. There is no difference between today and forty years ago. Manila remains to be hell; perhaps glittered and gilded to the unassuming provincial dreamer, but definitely still hell. Cinema, reacting to such unchanging reality, can only either exploit it or be angry about it. Red thankfully does the latter.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

We were kings of the world once, tireless and virtually unstoppable forces, selfish little creatures who were incessantly expecting that the rest of the world have the same enthusiasm for exactly the same things as us. When that expectation is not met, we burst with the same energy until we are fully consumed by the fiery wrath that we have created out of nothingness. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, with its less than 400 words and memorable illustrations about Max, a mischievous boy who was sent to his room without his supper and eventually sailed his way to a land where wild things dwell, is, although deceptively simple, an accurate mirror of that inherent wild thing that we all had when we were younger. The book's popularity among the youngsters stems from how fluently and delightfully Sendak was able to communicate what children will never be able to successfully communicate to their parents. The book's popularity among the grown-ups stems from how the book is more mature than it looks and reads, that beneath the wondrous sudden flight to the world of the wild things of short-tempered Max is an apt document on childhood angst.

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers understandably expand Sendak's story, giving Max (a Max Records) an ample-enough back-story (youngest child of a hard-working single mother (played beautifully by Catherine Keener)), creating specific personalities to the wild things (Carol (voiced endearingly by James Gandolfini), who is probably the most affectionate yet also the most dangerous of the wild things; KW (Lauren Ambrose), a mother figure whose two new friends have disrupted whatever harmony the wild things have with themselves; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), self-confident and often obnoxious know-it-all; Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith's too-eager-to-please admirer; Douglas (Chris Cooper), Carol's loyal wing-man; Alexander (Paul Dano), the group's token non-entity; and a mysteriously imposing Bull-like wild thing), and crafting a not-so-elaborate plot about Max keeping out all the sadness from the group of wild things. Sadness, more than anger and fury, is the most pronounced emotion in this adaptation. The emotion is effortlessly conveyed by Jonze, whose choice in hues (autumnal golds and yellows during the daytime and wintertime black and grays at night; all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lance Acord), humor (far more dry than slapstick), and design (the computer generated faces of the wild things are the saddest things I've ever seen) are directed to enunciate childhood melancholy, more than anything else.

Jonze's film obviously lacks the playfulness and energy of Sendak's book (unbothered by the need to characterize Max as anything more than an impossibly vigorous and volatile kid, the book forgoes being stalled by needless melodrama, allowing the narrative to satisfyingly breeze within a matter of minutes). Even the wild rumpus, an isolated moment of unadulterated joy in a film full of childhood dolor where all the characters, even the usually discordant wild things, are finally in agreement to just enjoy in their unified chaos, lacks the charming succinctness of Sendak's wordless panels, where the illustrations (Max and the wild things dancing under the full moon; Max riding on top of one of the wild things while the rest follow in merriment; Max and the wild things swaying from tree branch to tree branch), are by themselves apt expressions of the joy of freedom from parents, chores, and all those other things that restrict children from happiness. It does not need the upbeat melodies of Karen O., or the kinetic cinematography, or the polished editing (although I must admit, the technical details of the film are all superb) to relay something as simple and pure as bliss.

Jonze never meant his version of Where The Wild Things Are to be simple or pure. The emotions that Jonze manages to explore are much more complicated and also much more infuriating than it first seems. The film feels more like a very personal reflection on the pains of growing up than a mere adaptation of a very popular children's book. Jonze handles the story with an understandable restraint, more careful in accurately capturing the memory of the joys and disappointments of childhood than sufficiently pleasing a viable market group. There is a tenderness, a beautiful fragility to the film that is difficult to ignore. It is as if everything that is happening in the film, from the igloo that he built to the peace among the wild things, are on the verge of breaking. And things do break, along with people and fantasies; and when they break, the effects are tremendous: earth-shattering realizations that we are not kings of the world, that we are not tireless and unstoppable forces, that we are weak. There is nothing sadder for a child than that.

There were some buildings... There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. And one of the vampires bit the tallest building, and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, 'Why are you crying? Weren't those just your baby teeth?' And he said, 'No. Those were my grown up teeth.' And the vampires knew he couldn't be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end. --- Max

Holed up under his mother's desk while playing with her toes in an attempt to steal her attention from work, Max makes up the story upon his mother's prodding. It's a gorgeously written and directed scene, one that immediately grants you a sizable look into Max's loneliness: how he is needy for his mother's attention; how creativity and imagination has become an outlet for his frustrations; and how his mother, knowing fully well of her limitations, can make use of that for her own sanity. The story Max crafted foreshadows his impending maturity. Told with the same deceptive simplicity of Sendak's book, the story is at first, childish and illogical, but as it settles, it offers an unassuming wisdom about leaving childhood, about how growing up is much more melancholic than it really is, as it dictates separation from the guiltless pleasures of childhood. Flash-forward to the film's end (which I believe is an improvement over Sendak's last panel wherein we see Max return to his room finding out that there is supper prepared for him), where Max eats his supper. He stares at his mother, sleeping out of exhaustion and worry on the other side of the dinner table. Jonze cuts back to Max's face: contented, happy, wiser, and surrendering to the fact that he is not the world and his mother can only do so much. His teeth have fallen off. He is a vampire no more.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

Produced in present-recession American and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is strangely one of the funniest films I have seen in recent memory. Under Herzog's crazed vision, New Orleans is given an exciting personality. It is a city that is at once coming to grips with a prolonged melancholy and suffering, struggling with an ever-growing frustration of being alienated socially and economically from the rest of the United States, and parading an unlikely carefree enthusiasm. It is a city that is externally atrophied, with its structures crumbling and its citizenry seemingly paralyzed by the floods. However, beneath the uninspiring facade is a dormant energy that reveals itself in infrequent moments of ecstatic madness. Herzog's New Orleans is simply a city that is delightfully two-faced: corrupted and moral, where the desperation is conveniently masked by an unwavering religious faith; and impoverished and promising, where the money generated by an underground economy betrays the obvious penury.

Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), the film's titular bad lieutenant, didn't start out bad. An asshole maybe, but bad, no. The film opens inside a flooded prison. A sea snake swims its way inside a locked cell, occupied by a forgotten prisoner. Terence and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) enter, talking about some stuff that their superior forgot while evacuating the building during Katrina's onslaught. A nonchalant conversation about their various indiscretions lead to the discovery of the hapless prisoner who desperately plead, to the two cops' twisted delight, to be let out before he drowns. After jokingly equating the prisoner's life with the expensive underwear his girlfriend bought for him, he suddenly jumps into the murky flood waters, and saves the prisoner, to the ample surprise of his partner (and probably Herzog's audience), who thought he had Terence all figured out as corrupt to the core. The heroic act becomes the impetus to a string of events. Terence gets diagnosed with a perpetual back ailment, causing him to walk with his shoulders automatically hunched to his head, to be completely dependent on illegal drugs, and to live his life with a devil-may-care attitude.

He also gets promoted to lieutenant and later on, gets assigned to solve a case of the massacre of a family of Senegalese immigrants. The police procedural aspect of the film is more of a frame for Terence's descent to corruption. Instead of meticulously mapping out the details of the police investigation, Herzog concentrates on depicting more interesting Terence's side-trips: to his girlfriend (Eva Mendes), for an easy lay; to the clubs, to stalk on youngsters who may be bullied for free drugs; to his dad and his stepmother, just for the reminder of the possibilities and probabilities of his fate; to his bookie, to haggle a failed bet in the hopes of reversing that fate by sheer luck. The case, by force of narrative, takes its own shape, intertwines itself with Terence's personal life, leaving the hapless lieutenant to have no choice but be bad, selling his soul and his badge to the very people he is tasked to eliminate, allowing himself to be a hostage of his own desperation. By film's end, after the unstopping and unbelievably entertaining descent of Terence to the lowest depths of human amorality, we get a sense of a world where corruption is not a decision but a phase, where the environment humanity struggles in, more than its own un-seldom decisions to transgress its self-made codes of propriety, is the primary mover for us to forget ourselves in order to simply survive.

Survival is what drives humanity. It is also what drives the rest of the world. This shared thirst to perpetuate ourselves in our environment becomes that inherent link we have with nature. Herzog's film is so conscious of this link that he often deviates from his narrative to simply observe animals: the swimming snake that opens the film; the colorful pet fish in the room of the murdered child; the crocodile by the highway; the imagined iguanas. These creatures' sudden spotlighted presence, while at first befuddling, creates an awareness that humanity, with its ongoing businesses in fixing its own affairs, does not exist within a vacuum. The similarities, like the cold-bloodedness or the predatory predispositions, are pushed forward, allowing us a sizable glimpse and a more-than-believable rationale as to why Terence is required to lose moral perceptions in order to persist. The proposition that I am making, that it is not us but circumstance that dictates our capacity for evil or even the theory that the concept evil is only a human invention, is admittedly cynical, one that has been conveniently drowned with Herzog's confidently unconventional directorial approach or Cage's effectively over-the-top portrayal of Terence.

Herzog's intent is clearly not to take corruption seriously, and this is where Herzog deviates from Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), where corruption is unflinchingly depicted as dirty and scary. When Terence suddenly appears from behind the door, with an automatic shaver on hand and chin and eyes twitching from exhaustion and lack of sleep, and proceeds to remove the oxygen tubes from an old woman, while extorting from the old woman's attendant the location of the lone witness to his case, the disgust over the reprehensible act is buried by the ludicrousness and ridiculousness of the attempt. The joke continues as Terence rationalizes his dastardly deed with an accusation that America is in such bad state because of rich old women like her victim. The wisdom of his retort is both humorous and enlightening. Humor is essential in driving the point. Again, after a sudden shoot-out where a drugged Terence is salvaged from death and debt by his shady new friends, the discomforting pact is punctuated by insanity when he insists that his friends shoot the dead man because "his soul is still dancing," and indeed, we see the man's soul break-dancing. Herzog's filmmaking is as over-the-top, as self-consciously hilarious, as his actor's portrayal and it works, it works wondrously.

Herzog simply leaves no room for remorse or introspection, because there is nothing to be remorseful for. Contrary to popular belief, corruption is an fact the act of fate, while nobility is the choice. Animals, programmed only to survive the longest, are all victims and agents of fate, such as a crocodile that wanders too far into the highway and is ran over. We, however, have the choice to forgo survival and sacrifice. We are reminded of our perceived nobility and when that reminder comes, all one can do is reminisce, laugh and move on. Terence, in the end of the film, is reminded of that noble act that preluded his deterioration when the prisoner he rescues from the flood, now a hotel bellboy, recognizes him despite the effects of cocaine that he has been consuming, as the cop that gave him another chance at life. The two end up in an aquarium, with a giant glass separating them from the fish. What ultimately separates humanity from the rest of the world is that we are, although we may often choose to forgo of it, have the capacity for nobility. That Terence McDonagh, the baddest of bad lieutenants, has exercised such capacity for nobility, no matter how long ago that was or how spontaneous the decision was, expresses that important distinction men have from the the rest of this wild fog-eat-dog world.