Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog)

Herzog and Kinski.

"My Best Fiend" is Werner Herzog's love letter of a documentary film to his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski. It also chronicles their turbulent relationship through strange anecdotes and firsthand stories on set. But aside from this notion of reliving Kinski's eccentricity and enigma in a very reflective fashion, this documentary film also serves as a chance for Herzog to analyze and interpret what has been going on inside Kinski's mind all throughout their troubled film collaborations that were often marred by the latter's lengthy diatribes and temperamental unpredictability.
Armed with an eloquence that's both strangely moving and profound, Herzog probes deep into his professional and personal relationship with Klaus Kinski not just to feed our minds with how things have occurred between them but also as a form of myth-making on his part. In the end, he just wants to eternalize Herzog not as a restless madman but as a serene friend; not as a difficult eccentric but someone that could have easily been him in a parallel lifetime. "That makes two of us!" Herzog blurted out when Kinski accused him of being a megalomaniac. This is not your ordinary actor-director relationship. This is mania matched with mania. This is artistic narcissism matched with mad ambition. This is a bomb waiting to explode. This is friendship at its most reluctant. This is their uneasy story.
Returning to the locations of their two most heralded collaborations, "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo", and even a brief visit to the location where "Woyzeck'" was shot (with a reflective interview with star Eva Mattes), Herzog retraces the path of their insane acts of mutual artistry that's both appalling and fascinatingly magnetic. We are even granted a peek into some rare footages that shows Kinski both at his unstoppably worst (as he verbally assaults a production manager) and at his subtly caring best (as he tends to a wounded cameraman). We also see one of the extras in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" whose head still bears the scar where Kinski has once hit him with a sword. He also shared a little anecdote involving Kinski, some 45 movie extras and a Winchester Rifle. Judging from Kinski's demeanor, you already have a clue of what has transpired.
But despite of these shenanigans, Werner Herzog, with his all too personal analysis of Kinski's psyche in relation to his own, is subtly elegiac about the whole thing. He is fully guilty of the fact that he once threatened Kinski with a gun just to prevent him from leaving the still unfinished production of "Fitzcarraldo". He's also quite repentant that, at one time, he once meditated in 'firebombing' Kinski's house.
With these admissions, Herzog knows that even though he claims that he is 'clinically sane' so to speak, Kinski is the only man that can bring out the madman in him. But at the same time, it's not only madness that they have extracted from each other; they have also brought out the best within the both of them. Their monolithic collaborative films can speak for themselves, and "My Best Fiend" may serve as the quiet immortalization of their friendship and film partnership that has made these pictures possible.
It's a shame that Kinski died too soon. It's quite interesting to hear his part of the story. But seeing him in the film, tranquil and all, with a pretty little butterfly flying around him is quite enough. In that footage, there's calm in his eyes and certain quietness to his soul; the ideal image that Herzog wants to remember Kinski with. Perhaps Herzog appreciates great irony.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)

When initial news came out that a fourth 'Bourne' film is in the works, my reaction was that of apathy and surprise. Why squeeze out something from a franchise that's already been concluded. Oh, and then there's also another infuriating fact: It will be called "The Bourne Legacy" but without Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. What the hell was that all about? It's like producing a seventh Rocky film (which I wouldn't completely say as completely far-fetched) without Rocky Balboa or making a James Bond film without 007 himself. But then something came up: it was revealed that part of the film will be shot here in the Philippines. 
From surprised apathy, my feeling towards the film first became one of curiosity and then of grave anticipation. Add up the fact that rising star Jeremy Renner will replace the shoes worn by Damon and he will be supported by acting stalwarts Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz; now we have here a film of genuine potential. 
Forget the fact that either Damon or Paul Greengrass won't be returning, "The Bourne Legacy", with "Michael Clayton" director Tony Gilroy taking on the directorial helm (he has also written the screenplays for the three previous ‘Bourne’ films), is armed with all the right pieces for commercial and critical success. Hell, I even thought that it will be the sleeper hit of the year. Well, I guess my hunch missed the mark this time. 
Not only is "The Bourne Legacy" an unnecessary little sequel, it's also a film of questionable significance to the whole 'Bourne' mythology. In slight boxing terminologies, the film felt like an overlong 'undercard' bout taking place at the same instance as that of the big main event. It's quite interesting, yes, but you just can't help but wonder why they would bother for a sequel that wouldn't even further the ideas presented by the three previous installments. 
The film's timeline, for the sake of everyone's enlightenment, occurs while the whole 'Bourne' situation is nearing its shattering climax (see "The Bourne Ultimatum"). "The Bourne Legacy", as it turns out, is the unseen sideshow feebly playing in the shadows of Jason Bourne's action-packed, larger-than-life search for his identity. Indeed it is truly intriguing to know that, as per the tagline, 'there was never just one'. That Jason Bourne was never alone, that there was also one Aaron Cross (Renner), and that there's also a whole lot of other fistfights and revelations this side of the whole story. But instead of taking advantage of the fact that it can render the Bourne series' universe fresh once again, "The Bourne Legacy" has sadly settled for less. Instead of conjuring up bigger ideas, the film has lethargically decided to merely ride the series' recurring gimmicks of dizzying cinematography and globe-trotting tendencies. 
With the shaky-cam style very much withstanding, the film swerved to the wrong direction of just following the previous installments' blueprint when, in actuality, it could have easily headed to the right one. The characters, although performed well by the principal players, are merely functioning within the limitations of the plot. Norton's character, being the heartless bureaucrat that he is, shouts orders and that's that. Rachel Weisz, the reluctant heroine, evades continuous assassination attempts and certain death and that's it. Renner's Aaron Cross jumps shanties and constantly saves the often distressed Weisz and it's a dead end after that. The way they were written is just so frustratingly suppressed that the performances given by the three do not deserve the characters to which they were designated. Even the narrative itself is very much a rehash of the previous three, only this time it was more simplified and with a more science fiction feel with all those talks about performance-enhancing super drugs. 
Oh, and then there's the chase scene in the outskirts of Manila. Another famed running gimmick all throughout the whole franchise, it has always been imperative for each 'Bourne' film to include vehicular chase scenes to serve as nerve-wracking exclamation points to the whole shebang. "The Bourne Legacy" is, of course, not exempted from it. 
Granted, the chase scene in this film was, in a miraculous harmony of technical execution and scheduling, pulled off rather excellently, what with all the constant traffic jams in Manila and the perennial 'rush hour' mentality prevalent among Filipino drivers. The flaw of the film's climactic chase scene, however, is not technical but very much contextual. The whole set piece felt very much forced to the point that the entire chase scene played out merely as a showcase of stunt choreography and nothing more.   
Now despite of all its flaws, "The Bourne Legacy" is still adequately enjoyable. But based on the three previous films' great reputation, this fourth installment felt short on every level both as a 'Bourne' film and as a potent action movie. It lacks narrative urgency and also of inspiration. It seems like the people who have said that this film won't work were quite right. They could have easily forewarned the creators, Jack Nicholson-style.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Irene Jacob as Weronika and Véronique.

Fresh from a blockbuster overload after watching “The Dark Knight Rises” a couple of times (and “The Amazing Spider-Man” before that), it’s a bit off for me to immediately jump back to my more esoteric inclinations. Now, here’s Krzysztof Kieslowski’s enigmatic “The Double Life of Veronique”, a film that, like the movements of the marionettes shown in the film, unveils its story with a certain hypnotic vibe. Honestly, I’m not quite sure if what I have seen is really something deeply meditative or merely a pretentious piece, but it is nonetheless an artful ride. 
Just like a typical Kieslowski film, “The Double Life of Veronique” appears as if little to nothing is going to happen and as if the main characters’ feelings are operating within the confines of an emotional plane alien to ordinary viewers like us. But with the Kieslowki’s usual sleight-of-hand at play here, and with that I mean his penchant for integrating deeply affecting concepts about love and identity within the visual limitations of a subtle drama film, “The Double Life of Veronique” is quite successful in a handful of levels. 
First, it is a well-crafted cinematic amalgamation of music and imagery (thanks to Kieslowski’s frequent collaborators Zbigniew Preisner and Slawomir Idziak). Second, it is a film particularly memorable because of Irene Jacob’s natural, iridescent charm and quietly devastating performance. And third, well, this is where the more ambiguous things come in. As an abstract film both in emotions and meaning, it is meritorious in just letting its own visual and auditory mood take over the reins of telling the film’s story (or the reins of justifying the lack thereof). But unlike your usually plotless art film, “The Double Life of Veronique” has an involving narrative working to its own advantage. 
Well, the story is quite simplistic. It concerns two women who look very much alike: Weronika, who lives in Poland, and Veronique, who lives in Paris. Both characters are played by Irene Jacob. From the hair to their dressing preference, they are the spitting images of one another. Hell, they’re not even related. 
Not aware of each other’s existence, the film’s metaphysical powers are slowly creating a bridge; slowly, we are seeing the connection between them. But Kieslowski, arguably at his subtlest, won’t let his film be tarnished by some clichéd chance encounters or life-affirming vis a vis between the two. Instead, Kieslowski has spatially set both characters apart from each other to first let their independent stories be told. Weronika, a considerably free-spirited young woman, is just inches away from attaining success in the world of opera singing. Veronique, on the other hand, is a music teacher in search of a meaningful love. From these simple stories of existence, the film is quite surprising in how it slowly widens its conceptual plane as it progresses. From simply being a drama film about two look-alikes, “The Double Life of Veronique” slowly turns into a meditation about distant duality and the spiritual and emotional connection between two people created in the same physical mould.
So, maybe this is where God enters this little humanist circus. Does Kieslowski perceive God as a playful master creator? An omniscient being that brings dead ringers into existence, intentionally integrates them into the stream of life and then watch the sparks fly? Is there some sort of energy that these two share that when one of them dies, the other gets weaker and emptier inside? Kieslowski’s vision for this picture is just too far-reaching and, at the same time, so wonderfully ambiguous that its idea just won’t end where this film already has. Take “Another Earth” as an ideal example. I believe that the said film is “The Double Life of Veronique” all over again. 
Adding a sci-fi element by incorporating a ‘mirror’ earth that is said to be inhabited by parallel versions of ourselves, “Another Earth” just took this film’s whole concept and made it a notch more complicated but a notch less fascinating. But do not get me wrong, I think that “Another Earth”, as a film, has its own merits. But at the end of the day, I very much prefer Kieslowski’s masterly stroke of using nothing as his ultimate explanation to everything. Though this might be considered as a pretentious cop-out on his part, leaving everything unanswered has made the film even more compelling and reflective than it should have been. Although we all have different takes on it, we do not hold the key to what it’s really all about. Perhaps life itself does, and we just aren’t looking closely.


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