Sunday, May 29, 2011

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer)

Lola is running. Uh, well, that's given.

Judging from its title alone, "Run Lola Run" can easily be surmised as being fueled with non-stop kinetics, both in its characters' and camera's movements. This is particularly given for a film so much known for its music video-type, stylish editing techniques, an unorthodox time frame and a colorful assortment of characters. But thematically speaking, "Run Lola Run" is also surprisingly rich and capable with its inclusion of some pop theoretical approaches to the almost impenetrable concept of 'destiny' and its 'every-minute-of-the-day' fragility.

"The ball is round, a game lasts 90 minutes, everything else is pure theory," said the security guard in the film's opening scene, holding a soccer ball and subsequently kicking it up in the air. I think it is quite accurate to consider and analogize that the 'ball' is us, the 'game' is our existence and the pure theory is the film itself. This is what makes the film considerably special in its own right aside from its distinct visuals and 'back and forth' story structure.

Unlike other films who seems to overly wallow in their own constructed philosophies, "Run Lola Run", backed by a masterful direction by Tom Tykwer, tends to be more speculative than indulgent. As our protagonist Lola (perfectly played by Franka Potente) runs through streets and sidewalks and as she meets different fates after another, the film raises itself up the ground and above the rest and lays down its two cents. But that does not necessarily mean that it is not entirely confident with its intellectual concepts because it was quite sure with what it wants to talk about even in the opening scenes alone (with introductory quotes by T.S. Eliot and Sepp Herberger), but the film never stresses them. It never forces them to its audience. It is carefully lively with its exposition, but never too lively to spoon feed them to us.

"Run Lola Run" never fully strives to be too intellectual; plainly speaking, it is just a purely inventive film made for the MTV generation of the time. But with its unique humility regarding its underlying notions about space, time and the endgame of life hidden by the exuberant editing and the immediacy of real time, the film looked more intelligent as a result with its orderly outward flow. Although that is quite ironic considering that the film is about the constant disorder that is 'life'.

Its scenario is simple enough. Simple enough that it may only just warrant a short film's running time. A small-time hood named Manni (played by Moritz Bleibtreu) is set to deliver to his superiors 100000 Deutsche Marks. But the problem is Lola, his girlfriend, never came at the right time to pick him up. As a result, Manni took a cab on the way to the subway to ride a train to the agreed upon delivery place. But again, there's a problem: Manni's inept attention to details and his tension towards the police.

He unwittingly left the bag of money in the train seats, only to be possessed by a dirty vagabond (played by Joachim Krol, whose character's beard in the film reminds me of Sam Rockwell's in "Moon"). Manni then calls Lola for her to do something about it or else, his superior will kill him. Lola begs Manni to stay at the phone booth and that she will do something about it, but her boyfriend is one impatient fellow. If she doesn't arrive to where he's at after twenty minutes, he will go and rob the grocery store across the said phone booth he's in.

So here begins Lola's (and at some extent, also Manni's) animated (quite literally), frantic and desperate adventure for the 100000 Deutsche Marks and for love's sake. As she runs her way into whatever she can come up with, I can see her extreme love to Manni, but is it already bordering martyrdom? Or is she subliminally guilt-ridden by her initial lateness?

Of course, her moped (a motor vehicle) was stolen that's why she hasn't arrived on time at Manni's picking point, but she ignores that detail. She runs and runs and runs, thinking of the simplest means out of a situation that is brought forth by the most complex and mysterious of forces: Chance. On the surface, the film plays like a Tarantino-esque ode to the confusing deconstruction of time, but as its characters transitionally act in the most urgent of means, the film's stupefying idea about the relative changes of destinies resulted by even the slightest of bumps and the shortest of time delays runs in the background.

"Run Lola Run" is a relentless, race against time thriller/adventure with a great soundtrack. But at the same time, it is also a highly creative take on the abstract yet compelling nature of time and minute decisions, the considerably large role of people in altering the linear trajectory of what we call 'time' and finally, the truthful fact that as these said changes may really do happen, we might not know it. And that if ever we do, we just might as well not know what to do with it.

Lola, for her uncommon nature to stop wrong decisions and miscalculations of time (and also to scream real loud like that boy in "The Tin Drum"), is our inner 'fantasy for omniscience's' envy. Our lives are 'unrelenting adventures', her life is a 'choose your own adventure'. Both are entirely different, but the recurring comedy of errors proves to be the enjoining force. "Run Lola Run" is indeed very fun, but some of its repetitively cyclic patterns prove to be its slight drawback. Oh, but so is life.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan)

A gun and a femme fatale.

One hot night in a coastal town, a lawyer subtly forced himself quite capably into a married woman. He bought her a cherry snowball, they fell in love. The consumption of the pleasures of the flesh is their primary goal. They groped, gyrated and talked. The married woman quietly despises his husband, but wait, she wants his money and so do the lawyer. 'What about murder? The two agreed. But will it be a perfect crime? Can they pull it off?

These are the questions that echo all throughout "Body Heat", a more-than-impressive directorial debut for Lawrence Kasdan, writer of such blockbuster movies as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back". It really was quite ironic for a mainstream writer such as Kasdan, who established himself by creating proses for enjoyably superficial adventure and science fiction films, to explore so patiently, with two insidious and overtly sexual characters that made the film noir genre so darkly fascinating and strangely involving, the extent of a murder for a gain, from its conspiratorial planning to the burdening aftermath.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, the error-prone lawyer whose womanizing ways easily makes him very vulnerable for manipulation and deceit. Hurt painted a character that may immediately look smart, witty and quietly reserved on the surface, but internally rambling with his own shortcomings and an unquenchable thirst for love. But he found that latter desire in the form of the initially distant but very sexual Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner with powerful complexity that seemingly re-envisions the legendary Barbara Stanwyck performance in "Double Indemnity" (although that may be intentional, as "Body Heat" was an indirect re-imagining of the said Billy Wilder classic). And along with that, the idea of the money he may get for offing Matty's husband (played by Richard Crenna. Yes, John Rambo's superior Col. Trautman) may serve as an easement to his first. Without readiness and barely an inch of a gut, the sluggish Ned finally agrees to conspire with Matty. But at what expense?

From those simple motives and without any cinematic contrivances in the murder itself, no additional disguises nor fleeting establishments all the way to the very deed, the film has able to carve an identity of its own in a haze of noirs that may easily look and feel the same: It opted for simplicity that is fueled with escalating intensity. Nothing complicated, nothing confusing, exactly just like how any potential criminals may prefer it to be.

Yes, there were some narrative nuggets that mainly serve as the plot's progressing points to weave the story well, but the consequentially enclosing sequences for Ned and Matty that follow their committed crime were purely founded by the two characters' deteriorating, though still emptily carnal, artificially romantic relationship, at least in the eyes of one of them (I wouldn't say who).

There were no outer forces, though Ned's friends and colleagues Lowenstein and Oscar (strong supporting performances by Ted Danson and J.A. Preston) are on a steady probe. No lawful deus ex machinas, no conscious editors or Lawrence Kasdan to pull the plug. Kasdan has already laid down a well-written material, so if it implies it's 'well-made', it is up to the molded characters to emphasize and internalize the film's core, and up to the actors to make it even more convincingly so.

Gladly, both shattered the limits of expectations. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner breath life into the film through their uneasy, sexually-charged interaction, while the atmospheric musical score by John Barry that highlights the film's moral sleaze, the watchful guidance of Kasdan himself and the artistic hands of cinematographer Richard H. Kline that harmonizes otherworldly fogs and warm color tones to render the clashing seediness and scorching liveliness of a heat-wave-stricken town added further effect.

Through that photography, not only did the two main characters breath life into the whole picture, but they also sweat dread. They have no choice but to absorb the natural heat, but to welcome the exceedingly tempting allure of money albeit a casualty, they surely have. Call it blood-drenched hedonism, but they preferred not to have any. For Ned, he had a choice to escape and give up, but he pushed on. Is it love or is it the money? Is it both or none?

As we question his motives, as we question hers (Matty), just like the great "Double Indemnity" and other great film noirs that dared to show the follies of crime and how the most perfectly executed one may also unexpectedly be the most flawed and stupid, our inquiries about a 'perfect crime' ceases to persist; there's already an answer, and the entirety of "Body Heat", it is.

The film is a haunting tale of where extreme desires may put people into just to make these a reality: in the edge of desperation, on the foolish side of manipulation and in the wake of dishevelment. And just when we thought that the moral tangles in the film would slightly loosen up a bit and the responsible ones are about to be completely punished, there's suddenly a victor, and what he/she has left behind, he/she could not care less.

Find out the character's gender for yourself, and whether you're a film noir/neo-noir viewing completist or just a simple lad whose spine tingles in the presence of a riveting narrative filled with carefully-placed twists and revelations, "Body Heat" is a must-see. Or watch "Double Indemnity" first then this, or the other way around. It will be very, very rewarding. Oh, and there's Mickey Rourke too.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

The long goodbye.

A second viewing.

Time and time again, it has been proven that a mark of a great film is the fact that no matter which place and what timeline you bring the core of the main story and its themes, the impact will always be the same. That claim is valid, of course, not strictly limited merely for films, but in every medium of artistic narratives as a whole, so to speak. Shakespeare's works, for example, right? Set "Hamlet" in Ancient Greece, "Macbeth" in Imperial China and "Romeo and Juliet" in Monarchical India, but the essence of their tales won't even be affected. 'Timeless', as they say.

But then there comes Sofia Coppola, armed with a little film called "Lost in Translation", a very picturesque 'Japan' to render fresh and some emotions to transcend. The aforementioned claim to greatness of films, as what was stated above, appeared to be not the case for "Lost in Translation" that made it rightfully so. Its theme of alienation and a subsequent connection in a haze of culture shock and language barrier (although were treated by Coppola's script with witty naivety that does not poke fun in the wrong places) was tackled perfectly by specifically setting the film in 'Japan'.

Putting it in China will get the same effect of misunderstanding and cultural difference, but the ideal Japanese bluish grayness wouldn't be there. Setting it somewhere in Europe may look too elegant, while locating the film somewhere exotic and infinitely tropical will be too adventurous and lively. The film needed stagnation, but at the same time, it asks for some unpredictable quirks and eccentricities. Japan is, after all, the definitive country there is. Tokyo's technologically advanced, contemporary metropolis, to be exact.

So, now that the alienating location was established, where would the film extract its romance? With the help of Scarlett Johansson's knowing yet discreet performance as newlywed twenty-something Charlotte and Bill Murray's naturally comic performance (that is one of the best performances of his career) as midlife crisis-inflicted actor Bob Harris, the film (along with its emotionally observant screenplay that won Sofia an Oscar) has further elevated the film from being a potentially lackluster travelogue-cum-romantic comedy film into a whole new height.

Granted, there were scenes that may look like cinematographic clichés for films set in foreign countries (the much used editing where a character is looking out from a car or a train's window, while images of landmarks are juxtaposing along with their wondrous stares and awestruck faces), but it was part of their characters. Beyond their situations, one tagging along with her husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi) for a job (Charlotte), and the other in there to shoot a whiskey commercial (Bob), although debilitated by cultures and places immensely different from their own, they still strive to appreciate Japan as it is, and to understand.

In some scenes, it was quite obvious that Bill Murray were ad-libbing lines mostly for comic effect, but it makes his character's bond with Charlotte much more genuine with all its tender spontaneity. To be precise, it is in a scene where they are eating in a typical Japanese restaurant of some sorts. Scripted or not, Bill Murray delivered his lines so irrevocably funny in a certain conversationally mundane way that Scarlett Johansson's laughs looked more authentic and very 'by-the-moment'. These sequences have helped to uphold their already very involving chemistry, and through that, they have achieved to inhabit the sensibilities of real people that for once, although how admittedly beautiful Scarlett Johansson is, by way of her portrayal of Charlotte, I wouldn't even be surprised if I bump into her character in a crowd of tourists all dazed and confused. Yes, she was that convincing.

There were many unforgettable scenes in the film mostly enhanced by Bill Murray's everyman-type slapstick and Scarlett Johansson's combination of ennui and starry-eyed cultural wonder. But it has got to be the final, evocative scene that easily takes the cake as the film's defining moment that exposes the silent power of love.

We see them say goodbye in the hotel lobby, but we all know that it was merely for formality's sake. After the brief farewell, Bob rides a car. Then in a busy corner, Bob Harris asked for his driver to stop. She saw a blond-haired woman that seems like Charlotte. It was her indeed. He went into her and they embraced. He then whispered to her something inaudible to us, but what Bob has said were just meager in importance. We have followed their connection, their relationship and their love close enough for the film's entirety that in that final whisper, we accepted their privacy and we gave it to them.

And as Bob returns to the backseat of his car that will bring him into the airport and then back into America, he alternately looks out the window and around him. The buildings and the highway. The cars and the skyline. At first, when he arrived in Tokyo, he looked upon them with questions in his mind, but after he has professed his love to an acquaintance in a foreign land that has unconsciously taught him to understand, he looked upon the metropolis with cathartic eyes. This time, it's with clarity, and with a hint of a smile.


Monday, May 23, 2011

The Truman Show (Peter Weir)

A touch.

Our protagonist's name is Truman. Of course it's a play on the words 'true' and 'man', implying that he is the only person in his make-believe reality that is, well, living a genuine existence. But from that simple wordplay materializes a fascinating exploration of an individual's awakening consciousness in the midst of a soap opera-like artificiality. If ever you find out that the perceived life around you is nothing but a novel-length script and the people that surround you nothing but a mass collection of actors and bit players, would you lash out? If yes, won't you consider the utopia of a perfect life that it has got to offer? An existence where everyone is your friend and vice versa? A life without any blemishes save for the occasional ones of your own? This is what "The Truman Show" has raised with emotional wonder and revelatory humor, while adding up an unforgettably absurdist, over-the-top view of the advantageous inner core of media's wholeness. From that combination, the film, directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, which could have also been directed by Frank Capra and penned by Paddy Chayefsky (of "Network") in their heydays, is an optimistic, sometimes dramatic, at times laughably satiric contemporary classic whose spirit-soaring vibes only Hollywood can pull off. With enough visionary intent, that is.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" proved that Jim Carrey is infinitely better in non-comedic roles and "The Truman Show" only furthered the fact. He plays Truman Burbank, the unknowing reality TV show personality, with perfect humor and pathos that combine to inspire empathy. And through his portrayal, he also ignites in the process the hidden paranoiac within us all. What if my whole family is unreal? What if they bring home groceries merely because of advertising commitments? You may say it's far-fetched, but it's a valid psychological condition, and it has a name ("The Truman Show Delusion", or simply, "The Truman Syndrome"). Now back to Jim Carrey's acting, his antics, exaggerated and all, is littered everywhere but were never the focus of the film. The laughs, although not as loud and boisterous as how a common comedy film would have evoked it, are much more rewarding.

It's never Jim Carrey all the time. No, it was not just him that produces the focal comedy, but the idea of his character's place and situation. Consider the scene where he's (as Truman) driving his car when suddenly the car radio goes out of frequency and unexpectedly feeds off a stoic, trained narration/instruction of his present place and the street he is currently driving through. He then reacts with sublime surprise far from his usual face-distorting persona that made him a household name. But nevertheless, we laughed. I laughed. The crew's technical glitches, Truman's ever-smiling, by-the-book wife Meryl (impressively played by Laura Linney), even the countless advertisements in between Truman's life. Sure, there is Jim Carrey and his embodiment of a modern cinematic funnyman in the center, but "The Truman Show", with its knock-out visual splendor, energy and existentialist views, extracts its comedy from endless sources other than its central actor. That is one of the instances where the richness of a material really shows. It's got a scene-stealing actor headlining, but the film never delved to fully capitalize on him. Its foundations are indeed strong enough and the film preferred it for Carrey to purely act and embrace Truman Burbank and not the other way around. The latter would have been too distracting.

But I have to admit, I have raised an eyebrow on some of the technologies used in the film, notably the water and wind-controlling system that simulates a storm and the artificial moon that serves as the night light of Truman's town and also harbors the ubiquitous Christof (the ever-reliable Ed Harris), the puppet master of it all, and his crew. The concept of that particular control room is too visually excessive that they look more like megalomaniacal Bond villains than TV show staffs. But looking at both sides, that brief complain of mine can also be counterpointed by the fact that "The Truman Show" IS a satire, and also, maybe because the film is consciously set in a not so distant future with an ambiguous time frame so creation of things bordering implausibility are completely acceptable.

"The Truman Show" is and always will be a perennial feel-good movie, with Jim Carrey showing his competence on playing a transcendent character that reminds a lot of Jimmy Stewart's unique everyman appeal. But beyond the laughter and tears, the film is also a fascinatingly original depiction of what mainstream media has ultimately become, from its initial innocence to its present condition almost completely akin to gratuitous voyeurism. It shows the bastardization of entertainment and its toll on its unaware and unwilling participants. And with that, "The Truman Show", made in 1998 some years before the true boom of reality shows, is indeed quite prophetic. Ed Harris' Christof a mirror of TV's "Big Brother"? Who would have known?


Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall)

Friends, foes, friends, foes. Repeat two times.

Although one pirate less from looking more like a spin-off than an adequate sequel (I think "The Further Adventures of the Eccentric Captain Sparrow" is a more apt title for the film), I think this fourth entry into the 'Pirates' franchise is obviously striving for a fuller and more exotic vision of an adventure movie. It even puts into cinematic life a couple of enigmatic figures of the seas that are things of legends: Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard (played by the wonderful Ian McShane) and the creepy presence of mermaids. But hindered by an unequal pacing, an overexposed Johnny Depp, and a lackluster, claustrophobic climax, it failed to be a memorable one. But do not get me wrong, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" got all the right elements to be (lead actors' chemistry, fine supporting cast and a well-thought idea for the quest). Only God and Rob Marshall know what has really gone wrong.

Ever since Johnny Depp's turn as Jack Sparrow in the very first 'Pirates' film, I think he has always been a cinematic crowd-pleaser. Every gestures and antics, every eccentricities and one-liners, Depp delivers with surefire laughter response from the audience. But I think here in "On Stranger Tides", sure he's the life of the film (with Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa in a close second), but at certain moments, his humor is quite fleeting and a bit repetitive. This is not Depp's fault though because he has donned those sweaty wigs and that silly half-drunk persona with all the best he could. But being overexposed as Jack Sparrow in this film is the true culprit for making this latest reprisal of his a lukewarm one.

Personally, I think Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow, who currently resides in filmsite's "100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time" and is arguably the most recognizable character he has ever played, never belongs into a film where he is the sole, title-carrying protagonist nor was the character created and fleshed out for a very long screen time. Do you Recall how he has been Will Turner's (played by Orlando Bloom) polar opposite in terms of heroism all throughout the first three films? Reckon how he has been that humorously sacrificial, ever so defiant Kraken dinner in "Dead Man's Chest" who (spoilers) died for being so. Remember how he has been completely absent almost one third done into "At World's End"?

Sparrow is a weird, adventurous and otherworldly character, but also is encapsulated with a hint of enigma. Sure, we've seen his father Captain Teague (played by Keith Richards), but what else? He is a bumbling, sideshow-type of a hero and I think he should have stayed like that. His presence in "On Stranger Tides" is like commissioning an award-winning experimental short film director to direct a 500 million dollar epic, competent but not quite fit. Of course, Sparrow IS the heart and soul of the "Pirates of the Caribbean's" wholeness, but his presence in the franchise's totality is fueled with great ubiquity that immediate visualization of Jack Sparrow as a full-fledged romantic hero is, based on his slightly amoral personality, a bit out of character.

But on one side, as what I've mentioned above, Depp's chemistry with Penelope Cruz is truly great and screen-bound to please. It's sexy yet wholesome. Straightforwardly funny yet full of suggestive innuendos. Now back to the negative (oh, how fast the transition is), another one of my complaints in the film is the unnecessary romantic arc between the very unnecessary character Philip (played by Sam Claflin) and the mermaid named what else but "Syrena". It's too forced and too meet cute. This is a ragged and slimy high adventure after all, isn't it?

And finally, some of those actions. They are often unexciting and the camera is a bit torn on whether to be positionally stagnant to capture all the stunt works and sword fights step by step or to go 'Bourne' (shaky cam) into all of it. With that, I think Rob Marshall is a tad bit indecisive on what to do with those particular scenes, which then leads me to a conclusion that Gore Verbinski (who directed the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) is a better handler of action sequences, and much more exciting at that.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is good enough for the typical, adventuring movie escapists, but considering the less pressure that the film has on its big-budgeted shoulders (the reason being that the previous "Pirates" installment was not much positively received by critics), the film should have gone on to tread better heights. Its narrative spark that is the search for the fountain of youth is quite fascinating and those little doses of close-minded Spanish Catholicism (that also tells of their killjoy tendencies) inserted near the end furthered the film's departure from summer movie shallowness. But ultimately, its comparative inferiority to Jack Sparrow's earlier exploits and a lacking script proved to be its separation points that easily distinguish it between a good film and a really bad film. Somewhere in the middle but leaning on the 'bad' more, maybe? Yeah, something like that.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Burden of Dreams (Les Blank)

A man with a 'mountainous' task. Literally.

Somewhere near the end of "Burden of Dreams", Herzog stated that he 'shouldn't make movies anymore' after the emotional, physical and intellectual drain that is "Fitzcarraldo". Of course, Herzog never stayed true to his words as he still kept on generating great films after great films since. But this documentary, capturing the legendary filmmaker's seemingly inexhaustible grasp to his ambitions in the middle of an Andean disillusionment, provocatively shows Herzog in near surrender (his film career) and without regard to the future.

But ironically, throughout the film, Werner Herzog shows an unusually calm demeanor. Looking at the things he is trying to fend off at the time, the likes of turbulent rapids, malicious rumors and political power struggles (not to mention the almost biblical task of moving a steamboat up a hill), a feeling of despair creeping within is not asking much. But he never snapped, at least not on the verge of suicide. Perhaps that's a consolation.

Herzog, known for his deeply tranquil voice (especially in his numerous films where he incorporates poetic narrations), is quite unsurprising in his display of passiveness in an environment that demands otherwise. Hell, he even got shot in the middle of an interview and could not care less. But what Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" has captured brilliantly is his internal descent into a void of questions and uncertainties. In many sequences, Herzog navigates through the natives' camps, treacherous terrains and dangerous waters seemingly animated by a mission and even carries a smile once in a while. But along those moments, in the middle of each and every scene and triggered by Blank's questions, we hear him speak out.

It's not one of those pedestrian interviews where answers can be immediate, quick and solid. In these particular scenes, with his thick German accent, his words flow out, eloquent, vibrant, even frightening at times. It's a combination of a poet's uncommon inner articulacy, an everyday glib of a wisdom man and the dark, declarative enunciation of a doomsday prophet. And through that, he exposes his mind and soul. A mind that is pessimistic and unsure. A soul that is anxious and insecure. But a wholeness that is awfully determined and focused.

Yes, he can quite see the finish line, but he can't go into a full run. Budget, time constraints, the force of nature, you name it. He is a man of ambition and larger-than-life aspirations and will stop at nothing to put those into fruition. But he can see, in the distance, the looming presence of the inevitability of failure. And it's quite clear.

"Burden of Dreams", although about the agony of filmmaking, can also be seen as a documentary about the generalized significance of personal dreams. "Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project." Herzog said. From that point on, the idea of finishing the film ceased to be merely just associated with the succeeding post-production. It is his ultimate self-affirming test as a filmmaker and as a dreamer. But on one side, it's also his sense of closure. A sigh of relief, if you can still just call it that.

Now, who would think that Herzog's harsh exploits in the wilderness and a psychological flirt between lunacy and megalomania would root out from his consummate, against all odds passion for his craft? Coppola maybe, with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" on one hand and a gun on the other.

"...I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment." Herzog said regarding on what he thinks of the Andean jungle. Maybe if you ask him regarding his devotion to finish "Fitzcarraldo", it will be the same answer. He just wanted it done, with his visions still intact, and more importantly, his sanity.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Mike De Leon)

The fumbles of the Yakuza. The desperate awkwardness of Chinese determination. The insidious depiction of Catholic nuns and priests. I think it's a great decision for Mike De Leon, one of the Philippines' greatest filmmakers, to put a film prioritizing such themes in a not-so-serious environment where anyone at anytime (although especially in the climax) can break into production numbers. In spirit, "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" is, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", an unexpectedly bizarre adventure into the illegal and the unknown for two uninitiated couples, or at least, love birds. But in its entirety as a film, it is a sharp satire about how these underworld dwellers seem to have all the fun in the world, forming sinister plans, dancing their way into drug production and superficially praising God's daily bread.

And with a sense of bumbling lack of control, the film has expressed these mindless chases for grotesque pleasures and taboo in a happy, energetic and strangely harmonious light that we question its unusual tone. But I believe De Leon and screenwriters Doy Del Mundo and Racquel Villavicencio knew more. That 'question' makes the film. It evaluates our response to its display of romanticized moral disregard. With quirkiness, music and a slip-in psychedelia on the side.

The film's MacGuffin is unique enough: a cassette tape cum opium container. It was unwittingly put into one of our protagonists' (played by Christopher De Leon) jacket by the Yakuza errand man Omota, one-dimensionally played by APO's Boboy Garovillo (although may be the exact intent). Through that performance, it transforms foreign smuggling into a Wile Coyote-like affair, with occasional busts and foils treated as nothing but episodic humor and successes immediately countered by funny miscalculations. In an early scene, the film even pokes fun to the fatal culture of the said Japanese crime syndicate when failure hits the fan through cutting of fingers, shown in a flat screen television sticking out from a Shoji screen. The film's tongue was really that immersed on the cheek.

The lovebirds mentioned earlier were played by Christopher De Leon, Jay Ilagan, Charo Santos and Sandy Andolong. Their performances were quite enjoyable, but that's where the script shows its contrivance. At certain points, they ride into dialogues not by means of natural flow but through conversational timings that were obviously rehearsed and coordinated. At least they could have applied some of Bunuel's passively comic treatments to satiric characters that were always proven to be very effective. But still, I have to praise Mike De Leon and company for creating such a different film in our local industry that seems to live and die on melodrama.

By the standards of our movies, "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" is utterly subversive, with radical attacks ranging from gangsterism to the Catholic church's hypocrisy, while it also brought forth a notion that musical can quite fit as a narrative crescendo to such a wide-tackling satire. But maybe it's also an easy way to visually portray what they really wanted to: The crazy, megalomania-inspired higher ones' intent to control people through the, symbolically, 'opiate of the masses' that is mainstream religion, as coined by Karl Marx (furthered by how Pinoy Master (Johnny Delgado) wants to produce mass wafers mixed with opium to be given to church-goers). So, after all, there's some ounces of critical inputs in the film, too.

I must admit, I did not like "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" that much compared to Mike De Leon's masterpiece "Kisapmata", arguably the best Filipino film ever made, and "Batch '81". But I love the way the film has ended. Dancing nuns. A singing drug kingpin. A samurai duel. With a unique approach to the final wedding scene, the film embraced some sort of a Jodorowskian afterthought.

After a two hour run of exhilarating imagery and peculiar performances, a crew, holding a clapper, suddenly shouts "Cut!" and the camera zooms out from above, exposing the band playing the musical score to only be a few feet away from the actual scene. It fully echoes Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain" and its most memorable character, the Alchemist's immortal line: "Real life awaits us". Well, let's break the illusion then, shall we?


Monday, May 16, 2011

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)

Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti.

Great films like "Sunset Blvd." and "Psycho". They have both shown 'madness' in a way both disturbing and doomed, uncontrollably fatal and in brutal askew. Both pictures solidified the fact, with utter exclamatory conviction, that being in such a mental state is synonymous with being 'done for' and you can't really do anything but inhabit its very delirious core. And although the latter statement was still further raised by "A Woman Under the Influence", this film, directed with raw attention to the essence of the story and characters rather than the overall aesthetics by John Cassavetes, is a revolutionary break-out party (a bit hyperbolic, I must admit) to the hidden side of this seemingly over-used cinematic theme of psychosis: That madness can also serve as a familial balance.

Peter Falk, which I have first seen playing himself in "Wings of Desire", delivered an unforgettable, emotionally powerful and quite underrated performance as the husband Nick. The character is a blue-collar worker striving to keep his family together, and by the sight of his sublimely pleading eyes, he means good for everyone. He immensely loves Mabel (Gena Rowlands), his wife, and his children even more so. But he is quite weary of Mabel and her slow drift into a self-losing basket case.

His weariness is quite valid, after all, and with the help of the shaky camera utilized by Cassevetes that sometimes even goes out of focus, he has established Mabel's initial sequence as she, panting, exaggerated, and worried, assists her children as they go with their grandmother into her car to go to her house. "I shouldn't have let 'em go", uttered by Mabel. This sequence, although it shows her unusual redundancy, does not really highlight her insanity but shows her neurotic tendencies. As we see her repeat instructions, mostly about her children's well-being and safety, and fast talk her way to her mother's attention, Gena Rowlands depicts Mabel's personality with a slight slant of ambiguity: Does she really mean every word?

"A Woman Under the Influence" is infused with such incredible sequences after another, mostly dominated by Ms. Rowlands' weird, pathetically disorienting glib of tongue. She wants to entertain Nick's friends. She immerses into childhood persona just to make children laugh. But ultimately, she is marked by sadness. Yes, she is mentally unstable, but did she ever wanted to be in such a condition?

Then, in a tolling decision lifted by frustration and exhaustion on Nick's part, he sent her to a mental institution. He then tries to care for his children himself. But as shown by the significant sequence in the beach, shot within a considerable distance and with a point of view not leveled to an adequate position, the film showed Nick's incompetence as an affecting parent. Of course, he loves his children more than anything else, but with things that needs tenderness and detailed caring, he is gravely lacking.

Through this sequence, not only was it suggested that Nick really misses his wife with her free-willing interaction with their kids, John Cassavetes, with his great characterization of Mabel, also made us audience miss her. Despite the deterioration of her mental health, as she left their house and was committed to an institution, she also left a hole in her family. For once we see, after her erratic mental episodes, her encompassing influence to Nick and their children. Her utility. Her vitality.

After watching "A Woman Under the Influence", I thought that the film is really much more about the essential presence of a mother in a family rather than it is about the complexity of madness. Yes, beneath its sheer depiction of deafening attempts to control an insanity-inflicted individual and its uneasy portrayal of mental instability, it's centered in the significance of a caring matriarch. Mabel may be raving mad, she may shout senseless phrases and dance in the tune of the "Swan Lake" atop a couch, but her importance echoes throughout the four corners of their house all the same.

And as suggestively shown in the final scene approached with a sense of suburban calm, Nick and Mabel will always stride to strive. And as they make their bed and close the curtains, they, after all that have transpired, are still in one piece. That is until something else do them part.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Graduate (Mike Nichols)

Alright, before anything else, let me say that "The Graduate" is definitely one of the best films of all time. And I rarely brand any films with such commendations quite easily (as if I'm a somebody. Ha.). It features a more-than-worthy star-making performance by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft's memorable and definitive portrayal of a promiscuous cougar in the guise of Mrs. Robinson. Add up the beautiful songs of Simon & Garfunkel and a deeply resonant ending, we got here a masterpiece.

But when I say 'masterpiece', it's not by the standards of what the word may immediately connote (pageantry, scope, larger-than-life actors) mind you, but what this influential little film has left behind. Back in the late 60's when it was released, with much cultural changes happening in the forefronts of America, maybe its popularity has sparked mainly because its main theme hasn't been explored before. Sure it's a romantic-comedy. Sure it's a love story. But at the time prior to this, mainstream speaking, any films of the genre won't mean anything if it isn't anchored by A-list stars.

Then "The Graduate" came. It's a story of a newly graduated man. It should be happy, right? Even I thought so. The film opens with our protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sitting in an airplane. He should be glad, right? the camera then follows him as he steps onto a moving walkway with his face filled with uncertainty, fearfulness and a hint of dread. Yes, he graduated, but he doesn't know what to do next. Then he encounters one of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson. She asks him to drive her home, offers him a drink and requested for him to unzip her dress. This should have been a meet cute film, right? After some time, he delves into a semi-guilt-ridden affair with her. Hesitant at first, he likes the idea of it, and he likes her too. But then he meets Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). He loves her at first sight but Mrs. Robinson won't allow love to bud between the two. It should have been very easy, right?

From those complications rooted out from the idea of romantic relationships, "The Graduate", based on a novel by Charles Webb, unfolded what it was all about. Of course it's mainly focused on Benjamin's elusive quest for love, but I think the film is more about his existential search for meaning and its consequences. Only from that that his two-sided encounter with love, transgressive, determined and all, was inspired. And with the help of the uncommon cinematography by Robert Surtees which occasionally focuses shots into Hoffman's face with an intent to document his subtle pain and emotional crisis through his facial expressions, "The Graduate", aside from being an unorthodox tale of romance, succeeded to show the sweltering pressure of a newly grad whose own mind dictates he's got nowhere to go.

The film is filled with many memorable sequences, but there's one great scene in it where Benjamin, wearing a scuba outfit, enters the swimming pool and in the presence of his parents and some other guests, remained standing, motionless, below the water. It's a moment that can easily be gazed upon as a random slip-in about suburban life's view of young people's successes. But through its initial first person point of view to his plunge into the pool, it finely highlights his isolation, with the water pressure translating into his own and from that bluish loneliness he seeks to find warmth. But he is cornered. By his parents. By his parents' friends. By himself.

"The Graduate", directed masterfully by Mike Nichols, is an unforgettable film. Not just because of some of its laughs or its central romantic arc, but because of its exposition of the difference between flirting with the idea of love and simply embracing it. We saw both sides, Benjamin experienced both; he preferred the euphoria of true romance. But after all, uncertainty is still in his eyes and a sole question still in his mind: "What should I do next?"

As the film ends, I can't help but give "The Graduate" a small applause and slightly scold myself as to why I haven't seen it sooner. A true classic, and what "Fargo" is to Roger Ebert (as a definitive reason as to why he loves movies), "The Graduate" is to me. It really is.


Friday, May 13, 2011

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman)

Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his minions.

"Didn't we pass a castle back down the road a few miles? Maybe they have a telephone I could use." Said Brad Majors, a hero. A very cliched line from hundreds of horror films to fundamentally begin a complication. And from that so begins the crazy night in Frank-N-Furter's gothic castle and the fun of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a whole, filled with hilarity, horror and sexual innuendos that is also an out-of-this world ode to the cheesy greatness of B-movies.

'Frankly' (He. He. He he.) speaking, 'cult' films, like this one, are really very hard to scrutinize based on pros and cons as they aren't merely just films alone. Like "Star Wars", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is an unsurpassed phenomenon that blurs the borders between 'cinema' and pop culture. Through the years, it ceased to be just a film but also an embodiment of the numerous taboos of the 70's and at the same time, the era's uncontrolled, raging energy. To look at the film's (based on a stage play) ideas, characters, and set designs, it's hard to imagine all of it being created by sane minds. A distant galaxy called Transylvania and a planet named Transsexual? A cross-dressing scientist? Lots of eccentric grotesques? Coming from a perverted disposal, more like.

But from these seemingly outrageous thematic excesses and far-fetched conceptual liberties arises a balanced treatment of the musically ordered and the characteristically absurd. With Tim Curry's amazing, awe-inspiring depiction of a free-willing transsexual scientist who creates his ultimate hedonistic object that is 'Rocky Horror' (played by Peter Hinwood) and Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick's portrayal of a gullible, naive and repressed young couple, the film, directed by Jim Sharman, has achieved to pit two opposites.

We may be abhorred, disgusted and repelled by Frank-N-Furter's unorthodox sexuality and all, but it is perfectly contrasted by the straight-laced couple. We may see weird dance numbers amid surrealistic backdrops but they were viewed through the considerably unknowing eyes of Sarandon and Bostwick's characters. Decadence and innocence. Both contained in a colorful, gothic and occasionally shocking musical bizarre fest. Oh, how it delivered immensely.

Sure, the whole film is pure outlandishness just for the sake of it, but with Charles Gray's (by the way, he has played both an ally and a villain in the James Bond franchise) semi-profound statements, mostly told in intervals, about the emotional capacity of human beings only meagerly connected to the quick peripherals of persuasion (which Frank-N-Furter took advantage of), the film has also tread something other than music and choreography.

Sure, these can be nothing but cynic cliches commonly heard from many films dealing with pessimistic outlooks about human existence, but it sure fired away to fully complement the immoral undercurrents of the film. We may succumb to LSS, singing "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?" and "Sweet Transvestite" at the back of our minds, but the film, as a cinematic entirety, exposes the emotional and sexual repression prevalent on many people dealing with the same situational predicament as in the film.

Tragic, fun, mischievous, even weirdly sexy, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is, after all these years, still a refreshing cinematic experience partly because of it's aghast-inspiring perspective about the futility of human control caught in the middle of an enticing prospect for dissipation. But also, quite simply, because the film is just so much fun to behold.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester)

The Fab Four.

"A Hard Day's Night" opened with the fab four being chased by their crazed fans. They stumble, they impersonate, they hide. But contrasting their attitude towards the mob to, say, Buster Keaton's in "Seven Chances", which he is helplessly chased by a hysterical crowd of unmarried women, is quite fitting. Unlike Keaton who ran for his life through bulging boulders and all, John, Paul George and Ringo ran for their lives just for the hell of it. They just wanted to be chased, make fun of the idea of it, and have a good time.

From those starts this energetic film that is part documentary, part quirky comedy film that cemented the, at the time, emergent phenomenon that is "The Beatles". As what the summary states, "A Hard Day's Night" puts into perspective a day in their exhausting, almost cyclic lives as music heartthrobs and recording artists. But just about when we are going to think that 'fame' is a thing pleasurable only in the start, the bumbling "Beatles" added their own peculiar twist into it, creating a refreshing milieu of the concept of 'celebrity' where constant tumbles, pressures and shows are nothing but snippets of fun and every troubles found along the way absorbed with carefree enthusiasm.

Before the band's journey into a more experimental style of music later in their careers with non-matching outfits and a more indifferent John Lennon, they have been an icon for their 'cool' fun and humorous, Liverpudlian antics, which "A Hard Day's Night", directed by Richard Lester (who also directed "Superman II & III") has captured with crisp black and white photography (by Gilbert Taylor) and a seemingly endless source of energy. The film was, as expected, virtually plotless, with countless vignettes and small adventures commonly caused by a person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong age: Paul Mccartney's 'other' grandfather, played irritatingly (I do not know if that is a complement) by Wilfrid Brambell.

Yes, the four are having a great time, playing pranks, drinking booze and having clean flirts with various girls, but it was further enhanced, with potentially consequential outcomes, by this old man with an insidious intent to steal scenes and demand attention. He is by no means the weak part of the film, as the entirety of it was written splendidly by Alun Owen with an unrelentingly contagious wit and fast pace (though with some ad-libs here and there). But the scenes specifically intended to be dominated by John, Paul, George and Ringo's showcase of their ensemble, spontaneous comedy were at times overshadowed by this pesky old-timer's countless attempt to act without accord.

Of course, "A Hard Day's Night" is a comically trivial deconstruction of "The Beatles'" larger-than-life fame, but the old man's numerous acts of idiocies should have been, at least for me, a separate film on its own. In all fairness, if ever the character was envisioned as very exasperating as what was materialized on screen, I think Wilfrid Brambell performed well and did it justice, but the character really just bothered me, just like what he did to John and company.

"A Hard Day's Night" is the testament of the band's career's highest peak, and after many years, although some may find the jokes a bit dated, it is still a potent time capsule of a film that brings us into an era where mindless fan adoration is purely and outwardly reciprocated with substantial artistry. Nowadays, the first will always be somewhere out there waiting to be unleashed on the sight of a new celebrity phenomenon, but the latter may just really be nearing the gutters.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodovar)

A gunslinging woman on one side, a Gazpacho-wielding one on the other.

Women reign in this unstoppably comic romantic farce directed by famous Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. I do not know, but Spanish actresses really have a very unique way of conveying cinematic energy. Maybe it's their relentless native language or the contrast of their seemingly ordinary, straight-laced feminine features with unfitting comedy that has able to pull it off. They inhabit the screen with deadpan hysteria and overwhelming desperation that they never seem to bother with any kind of consciousness with how they look or act.

Do you reckon how some actresses act on a comedy film obviously aware that they're in on it anticipating every punchlines and absurdly crude behaviors? "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" came wallowing in the opposite, making its characters squeeze out stupefying humor from the odds of their internalized romances than the jokes concerning them. It's a pure comedy film parodying the maddening residues of a romance and the secretive yet strangely amusing life of 'lovers' than real 'couples'. It's never a rom-com romp. Yes, the film's comic foibles is at play, but the idea of romance is so far away.

The film's visual composition is very impressive considering that it's more concerned with its characters than its surroundings (its various settings are treated merely as narrative 'addresses' than truly involving set pieces). And accompanying the far-fetched reality of the whole plot, the film is uniquely exuberant in its colors (especially in Pepa's (the beautifully, dryly humorous Carmen Maura) scenes in her apartment), depicting quite subtly, although with vibrant hues, the colorfully crazy nuances of a mistress' life.

Yet with its overwhelming, intricately written female characters that show the likes of a squeamish woman involved with Shiite terrorists, one who faked her sanity to get out of a mental institution and a woman whose facial features resemble a Picasso painting losing her virginity in a dream, which director Almodovar may have injected some feminist empowerment into, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is never a film mainly concerned about feminism. Above all, I think it's more inclined with destroying the foundations of chauvinism and the romantic narcissism of men. Hell, we even see our women characters at the peak of emotional vulnerability after their devotions to their 'loving' men spiral out of their control. Is that purely feminist? No, I do not think so. I think the film is more of a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the overall sloppiness of modernist love; quick and easy, passionate yet dire.

There's a scene in the film where the main object of affection, Ivan (a namesake of mine), Pepa's ex-lover, Lucia's (classy madness by Julieta Serrano) ex-husband, and Paulina's (Kiti Manver) current flame, is shown dubbing a Hollywood film with his Spanish language. The actor in the film within the film, Sterling Hayden, is commanding Joan Crawford to repeat what he says ("Lie to me. Tell me you've always loved me. Tell me you would have died without me."), but her mouth, although spouting words, never lets out any sounds. It was all silence on her part.

Yes, in the film's immediate reality, Joan Crawford's dubber (who is Pepa) is not yet present. But Almodovar, through that subtle scene, may have expressed his particular stance to what women must do in times when men's affectionately 'hollow' words pervade itself and when their romantic authoritarianism takes over: Shut up. Think. Wait.

Well, Pepa certainly didn't, and in the next scene, as she hears Sterling Hayden's words dubbed by Ivan through her headset, she fainted. Stung by the flowery words of an aging 'Don Juan', she was. But then there's always a time for sobriety.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Lola (Brillante Mendoza)

Anita Linda as Lola Sepa.

Just when I thought that Brillante Mendoza will not get out of his trend of sexual and disturbingly putrid depictions of the modern downsides of Philippine society, here he comes bringing "Lola", a painful, yet at times comic, observation of two striving grandmothers on opposite sides of a situation (one whose grandson is the victim and the other, the suspect) trying to cope up with the tragic trails, including financial shortcomings, brought forth by an uneasy crime. Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio, both past their physical primes, may have just given their more-than-impressive swan songs. Director Mendoza, who is not that much known on squeezing out pure performances from his actors/actresses (as his characters usually just blend in into the realistic palette of the surroundings), handled may be the two most astounding ones from aged performers.

In some ways, it's almost a miraculous feat on his part (and cinematographer Odyssey Flores) in terms of enhancing Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio's natural and honest evocation of suppressed sufferings and prolonged sacrifices as impoverished grandparents through a panoramic view of the present social state of those inflicted with destitution. But the real highlight is of course from the two brave, nagging, and at times, swindling heroines who will do just about anything not just to resolve their numerous woes, mostly involving money, but also to unconsciously prove their 'worth'. Throughout the film, as the camera follows them both, we see them express stern authority to younger people, ask for directions and assistance like one, and show extreme determination like middle-aged fellows.

They embody the three stages of life based on the entirety of their characteristics. Their bodies show the tweaks of aging, but when, as they say, push comes to shove, their minds does not.

But in one specific sequence that is arguably the most resonant in the film, our protagonists engage in a very subtle, open and realistic conversation about the simple realities of old age. Many times, I have overheard old people talking. No, they do not talk about transcendent and elegiac things such as existence and life affirmations. Instead, they talk about the most trivial of things such as aching bodies, rheumatism and efficascent oils.

Brillante Mendoza captured the sequence with lightness and sheer minimalism. Amid the laborious small journeys here and there, this scene is their break. They do not reflect upon paradoxical things about their hardships but merely talk with a sense of common likeness. Although being the opposites in a tragedy, they share the beauty of human 'connection'.

At times visually and thematically similar with Nagisa Oshima (based especially on his explicitly unrelenting "Serbis" and "Kinatay"), Brillante Mendoza departed from the comparison to simply tell a poignant story. And what makes "Lola" even more fascinating albeit at times being emotionally painful is its underlying tenderness that treats these aged heroines of life not as urban sufferers but as rare triumphants.

Mendoza has already channeled the polarizing alternatives of cinema, but with "Lola", he may have glanced on some of De Sica and Ozu's brushstrokes and created an absorbing and empathetic film about human struggles and tribulations. Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio's performances made it all the more affecting.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo)


I have watched enough 'pacifist' war films in the past, but I can safely say that "Johnny Got His Gun" is the most emotionally penetrating of the bunch that also extracts tenacious hope out of despair. What makes this film, masterfully directed by Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo (who won for penning the great romantic film "Roman Holiday"), very effective in what it tries to impart to its audience's sensibilities about the inhumanities of war is its pure focus and sheer devotion to its main character.

In other films dealing with the same underlying sentiments, the message and emotions are too widely distributed to a variety of characters that they sometimes appear to be too far-fetched, hence meager in overall effect. But in "Johnny Got His Gun", which beautifully reigns on the longings and memories of the titular character and wholly explores the landscapes of his entirety, Dalton Trumbo maximized the whole film and merged Johnny's personal struggles as an extreme amputee with his flinching anti-war sentiments. It ultimately came out as a spell-binding commentary not just pertaining to the sheer senselessness of conflicts, but also regarding the endurance of the soul.

Timothy Bottoms portrays the quadruple amputee Johnny with his trademark sad eyes and deadpan energy. Through his flashbacks and overlaps of fantasies and retained memories, he leads us through an unforgettably cerebral journey inside the psyche of an ordinary man who, as told to him even by his father (great performance by Jason Robards), is nothing 'unusual'. This is not a soldier whose life is filled with overachieving decorations or countless belligerence in the battlefield. He is a simple man with the same existential woes like other people usually have. But what separates him among others is his sense of 'hope'.

This film could have easily drifted into an unfathomable territory of pity and despair. But with Dalton Trumbo's attention to emotional balance, while enhanced by Jules Brenner's cinematography, "Johnny Got His Gun" surprisingly tiptoes between sets of spirited humor amidst its pessimistic undertones. But aside from all of these, the film is also quite articulate in its seemingly elegiac approach to religious 'faith'.

Eccentrically surrealist as it may seem to be, Donald Sutherland's 'Christ' is not shown as an omniscient observer but as a man of wisdom capable to immerse. He gambles with the soldiers, he fancies carpentry and he also signs checks. This can simply be a visual injection by Luis Bunuel who did an uncredited screenplay contribution to the film, but it is still subtly affecting in its approach.

"Johnny Got His Gun" fully suggests that in times of chaos, especially those created and prolonged by the follies of men, God does not merely watch from above but guides in close contact. But also as what the film's theme suggests, he is also imperfect in his own right.

There's a significant exchange in the film where the military doctor asks the priest to convince Johnny to put his faith in God. The priest, after seeing the poor condition of Johnny's physical predicament, tells the astute military doctor that he will not risk testing Johnny's faith against his (the doctor) stupidity. Johnny is a product of the military doctor's profession, after all. It's a conversation rooted out from situational desperation but it's quite obvious that the failure of the military doctor to reply to the priest's indirect accusation alludes to his acceptance of the generalized mistakes created by his occupation.

The film, although has raised some potent promises regarding the condition of men of duty like Johnny, is a bleak observation of casualties and the secretive tendencies of 'war' and its officials. And as if out of nowhere, it is evenly contrasted with the demonstrativeness of a 'freak show' on a traveling carnival. The latter may exploit, but it does not, in any way, take lives so relentlessly as the first.

Many films have shown emotional desensitization in the middle of violence and carnage. But "Johnny Got His Gun" does not put itself along those lines that may just evoke mindless, machismo-filled indifference; the film is, after all has been said, a liberating study of the maddening physical limitations of a man nowhere to retreat but his collective dreams and his conscious mind. It tells of the imminence of hopelessness yet it struggles for life. Dalton Trumbo and Johnny. They prefer the 'carnival' more.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

'He' and a 'Hailstorm'.

"Antichrist" is, beyond Lars von Trier's titular allusion to religion, a harsh, denigrating and sadomasochistic exploration of the psycho-sexual landscape. At certain points, as far as descriptive cliches are concerned, this film is like a combination of Raimi's solitary horror (as displayed in "Evil Dead") and some gutsy bits of de Sade. It's relentless in its graphic nature, uninhibited in its sexuality, yet particularly hopeful in its catharsis.

Lars von Trier, who recently stated that he'll never make another film with a happy ending, convincingly pulled off a satisfying conclusion to such a crazy, debauchery-filled film such as "Antichrist". It's Dante's Inferno all over again, filled with ambiguously disturbing psychological insights that may not translate well into reality (it's a bizarre fantasy, after all), but still a balanced approach to human nature's unpredictability.

The film opened with a slow-motion, black-and-white, 'perfume commercial'-like sequence of 'He' and 'She's' lovemaking. Unbeknown to them, their infant son is already climbing into a table and reaching into a window. The child then accidentally falls into his death. Through this ironic juxtaposition, von Trier has captured it with a sense of hypocritical artistry. As 'He' and 'She' are engaging in a charged, 'not-a-care-in-the-world' intercourse, it was accompanied by a beautiful heavenly music. While on the other hand, 'death' is happening in the other room, with the child symbolically shoving the figures of the three beggars (representing 'grief', 'pain', and 'despair') atop the table down to the floor.

The lack of care was highlighted as the two characters' sexual vigor completely engulfs their care for their child. Is it a pitiful tragedy on their part or not? For 'She', it was unbearable, so the couple went into their cabin in the woods for some reflection and, hopefully, to cleanse off the tragic residues and heal emotional wounds.

With the main 'woods' setting simply labeled as "Eden", and the two characters solely called as 'He' and 'She' (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in such unrestricted performances), von Trier is seemingly up to no good. With too many thematic possibilities out there to tread, he chose to mercilessly destroy the idea of the thousand-year parable of "Genesis". But in the film's context, it's not the fruit that has turned the two characters into sinners but the raw fragility of the mind. He (von Trier) snobs the cliches that 'dreams' are the catalysts of psychology and goes straight into abstraction; he blended reality with the subconscious materialization of the psyche, resulting in a bluntly caustic depiction of a gender-dictated netherworld of phobias and fantasies that even went into the extremes of gynocidal fanaticism.

"Antichrist" is not your typical 'horror' film or 'psychological thriller' (IMDb being clever and knowing enough not to label it as 'horror'), it's way more than that. At certain moments, it even tackled the pathetic consequences of misled fatalism. The film is such a thematically layered piece of auteur work that just happens to be masquerading as a show-off of 'shock-a-minute' senselessness.

"Antichrist" is never biblical nor a religious challenge to the higher echelons of Christianity. And though admittedly blasphemous at times, it never ridicules the idea of it. Von Trier and his film is too consummately drawn into the powerful magnet of dark psychological stirs and its toll on the rationality of man that it dared not to look back.

To the detractors, you may ask, "why is this film even in contention to win the Palme d'Or in 2009?" To be honest, upon my initial look into this film, I also asked myself the same. But after looking thoroughly deep enough into what this film has got to say, the question has since faded. "Antichrist" is truly gut-churning as it is an exercise of strange cinematic eloquence.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)


Adolescent sexuality. It's a theme too sensitive and downright naive to really expose in such a raw, disturbing and depressing light. Yet that's actually what director Catherine Breillat has done in "Fat Girl": A thorough exploration of early sexual awakening, abstract sibling relationships and artificial promiscuity that ultimately leads into disintegration.

I really think that with a more light-handed filmmaker, the theme could have been made and executed as a bittersweet tale of gullible love seen through the eyes of a fertile and curious girl. But given that a sensible approach to the issues tackled by the film is much more preferable, "Fat Girl" neglected all of these and instead hovered around its characters with detached apathy. And putting an ambiguous, fantasizing, ennui-stricken female character in its center both as an observant and observed does not just complicate the matter, it also puts the film into a critical extremity.

Call it depressing, call it exploitative, but by all means, "Fat Girl" delivered what it has intended to, and also puts into exposition and emphasis those that should have been otherwise. And just like Gaspar Noe's works, the film has displayed uncommon bravery.

The film is chiefly about the relationship between 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her sister Anais (Anais Reboux in a very daring performance). The opening scene, after we heard Anais' haunting song and saw her dead set stare, we are introduced to the relational condition of the siblings. We hear the words 'fat slob' and 'loose morals' hurled at each other devoid of any verbal emotions. They walk shoulder to shoulder through the woods and into the streets but they're of the opposite looks and mindsets.

Anais, an overweight girl, states that first-time sex should be with anybody, while Elena, a beautiful 'Lolita-like' teenager, suggests the generalized importance and pleasures of 'sleeping' around with many. It's a conversation captured with such normality and spontaneity that it makes it more disquieting.

How did such girls at a tender age know too much and very opinionated about things they shouldn't be hearing about in the first place? Catherine Breillat brings us into an alternate reality of France where it's not all about the elegance of love and romance, but a washed-out place (both in color and moral fiber) where the idea of sex is messy and sudden while the concept of virginity is not about its preservation but to whom it must be lost and why.

"Fat Girl" also delves into sexuality to which physical carnality is endlessly fantasized while the context of true love contained within it is superficial at best. As I hear the narcissistic Fernando's (Libero De Rienzo) promises to Elena as he fondles her virginal body, it sickens me. Through that specific sequence, Breillat also gives out a statement about how sweetened, unfulfilled pledges is an easy way 'in' into cheap romances and also the easiest way out.

Yet the essence of the sisters' relationship does not start and end on sexual commentaries. We are also compelled to notice the sisters' 'love-hate' connection. One sequence, we see them throw dry insults at each other as if they have a scorned relational void rotten by time. But in the next, they suddenly hug each other. Insult, hate, laugh, laugh, hate, insult.

It's their cycle, but is there an absolute? What is the true weather of their bond? "Fat Girl" presented it with such disfigured profundity (highlighted by how Elena and Anais recalled their childhood
and how they compare themselves in front of a mirror) that it seems futile to look deep enough and as if both of them locked up the answers and covered it up with their one-bit fantasies.

Graphic and at times, emotionally disorienting, this is the antithesis to shallow teenage films talking about 'cute guys' and 'first dates', "Fat Girl" rests upon a dark truth within adolescent existence; 'truth' which do not just come like a gentle revelation, but one bent on shattering the windshields of escapism to present us with certain uncomfortable notions, but those that are ultimately in touch with reality.

The film is widely known to have a very 'controversial' and 'shocking' ending. I do not like hype, but "Fat Girl's" final sequence lives up to its notoriety. Quite ironic considering that it's about victory.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

Thor and a lesson in humility.

Now, I'm aware of how everyone was so shocked and so surprised when Kenneth Branagh was chosen to direct this film. Branagh, known to be not that fully acquainted with blockbuster films (although he has starred in a "Harry Potter" installment), has inspired countless speculators as to the reason why he has accepted such a directorial venture. Why would Branagh direct a Marvel film? Why is a Marvel film directed by a Shakespere-inclined actor with little to no experience with action-oriented movies? They asked.

Well, for me, the question should be the other way around: Does this film deserve its director? With that in mind, I watched the film, and in the final run, as I weigh on both the film's pros and cons, I have concluded that the film ultimately did. As for Branagh, well, he capably pulled it off. No sweat.

Chris Hemsworth, which on first impression may seem stiff, played the titular character with surprising effectiveness, comic arrogance, and romantic tenderness. Just his first innocently brusque sequences in the realms of Earth (in New Mexico to be precise) filled with uneasy flamboyance and Viking-like behaviors make his performance very special. Anthony Hopkins, playing King Odin, is your typical noble but strict patriarch. While Tom Hiddleston, the film's most surprising revelation, is quite effective as the chief antagonist and Thor's adoptive brother Loki.

For the human characters, Kat Denning's portrayal of Darcy tried some comic reliefs with all her references to current 'Generation Y' fads just so, you know, she can connect with the younger demographics' funny bones, but she failed. Gladly, she has shut up in the film's second-half. Stellan Skarsgard, always the capable character actor, is here acting within mere stereotypes.

Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is the typical brainy damsel who found some romantic connection with the powerful Norse God and has also been one of the reasons why Thor decided to protect the mortal world.

Now, we've already seen director Branagh play with the wonders of exquisite production design in his rendition of "Hamlet". But this time, he plays with the complicated and chaotic beauty of CGI. Scene after scene, it seems as if he is merely testing his ability to execute every digitally-altered shots that at times, except the establishing shots of Asgard and Jotunheim (where the Frost Giants live), the fast-paced action sequences all seem sketchy, sudden and a bit too shaky and dark. Even the climactic struggle in the Bifrost Bridge, although colorful, majestic, spectacularly surreal and emotionally critical all at the same time, is filled with physically lackluster series of weapon jousting.

In one scene, we see Thor racing against time, flying with his hammer in hand, to confront his mischievous  brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It's from moments like this that superheroes of his kind have, time and time again, made names out of. Add up some intense music, battle-face expressions and fragile surroundings and we've got ourselves one perfect superhero situation.

But then the next scene shows Thor landing at the scene with obvious detachment. It could have been a 'great' moment right there, but the whole emotional atmosphere where Branagh could have invested much ultimately lacked the immediacy. In this scene, Thor seems lethargic and confused. What the hell happened?

But on a meritorious side, Kenneth Branagh, with the help of the hammer-clenching Avenger's expansive universe, created a wonderfully-prepared psychological conflict to put the idea of Thor's 'unconditional heroism' into a blurring test between his own kingdom's well-being, which he was born to love and to lead, and the mere mortal reality of Earth, where he learned to embrace the role of being a protector.

Is it his universe or the other? Is it Asgard or Earth? This film, for once, bravely responded without any certain cinematic answers. This is where Thor has succeeded. Throughout the endless showcase of might, magic, monsters and kings, "Thor" attained believability, at least in how a hero weighs in on what matters to him the most. In this case, Thor knows his priorities.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker)

'Oh well, goodbye then'.

I was quite weary before watching this film as I haven't been that familiar with the history of German division aside from the fall of Berlin Wall and well, Reagan's famous 'tear down this wall' speech. But "Good Bye, Lenin!", with a narrator (that's also the film's protagonist) that seem far too poetic at times but ultimately convincing, delivered the necessary information with a tone of mundane deliberateness to highlight the character's naturalism for audiences to follow the film's political background closely .

It's as if there's a far more important theme to tackle other than socialist intricacies. But of course, there is: An enduring story of a son's love to his mother devoid of any conditionals.

After his socialist mother (Katrin Sass in an impressive performance) has awakened from an 8-month comma due to a heart attack, Alex (played by Daniel Bruhl, whom you may recognize as Frederick Zoller in the later Tarantino film "Inglourious Basterds"), who have learned from the doctor that his mother shouldn't be shocked or hooked into excitement in any way whatsoever as it may result to complications, is eager to keep her home. But complications is never just a health dilemma. The Berlin Wall has fallen. It's now one Germany, and the stocks of Spreewald gherkins has cruised into scarcity. Her mother's reality has turned into a unified land filled with alien capitalism.

He faced the situation with a calm demeanor and absurdist resolute, and helped by his friend and aspirant filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas, who's like a cross between Robert Carlyle and a younger Ed Harris), decided to re-create GDR in ingenious kinds of ways as to prevent her mother from having the heart-thumping revelation of her life. A well-intended deception heightened by comedy. A 'comedy' that surely roots out from social idealism (the mother) suppressed by empirical determination.

Director Wolfgang Becker directed these sequences with uncommon energy and quirks that the first hour of the film flowed so effortlessly with quick pace, ease and story-telling delight. Yet from those elements mainly conceived from clever concepts and scenarios, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is still focused in its human drama.

It's less a politically-toned film than it is a penetrating study of connection (Alex's family), re-connection (the father sub-plot) and disconnection (from A horrid emotional past and the attachment to the GDR). Of course, from the point of view of a German who have experienced the social atmosphere of East/West Germany, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is mainly affecting due to the countless nostalgic references to olden times and the euphoric destruction of separatist sentiments. But from those way outside looking in (like me), what's very special with this film is its balance of happiness and melancholy by way of how it highlights the fun of liberty and the anguish of mistakes.

"Good Bye, Lenin!" is very eloquent on all sides, capturing the essential 'celebratory' mood of reunified Germany and the irony of the countless ruins and how it tries to accommodate its reverberated surroundings in desperate vain, especially how the wrecked Lenin statue hanging below a helicopter seems to communicate something to Alex's mother (one of the many great scenes in the film) as if asking for forgiveness or asking for her hand and saying, 'my child, my deeply socialist child, come with me'.

From its shifting pace to comic moments and times of tears, "Good Bye, Lenin!" has been strongly consistent with the entirety of its delivery and it has rendered a political reverie-turned reality into a convincing world of varied emotions and where euphemistic acceptance is a possibility. And moreover, departing from the complexities, the film is, simply put, a lasting love letter to all mothers who have loved their children unlike any other.


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