Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pink Flamingos (John Waters)


I knew it. I just knew it. Those two times when I just can't continue on watching the film is a foreboding all on its own. Sure, films like "Salo" and "Cannibal Holocaust" have disturbed me to the fullest, but it's only during "Pink Flamingos" that I have looked away from the screen several times simply because I just can't take what the film is showing me anymore. This, I believe, is trash American cinema at its most deprived, disturbed and relentlessly absurd. Damn New York Magazine for nonsensically comparing this to Luis Buñuel's "An Andalusian Dog". Buñuel's short classic is pure silent art; "Pink Flamingos" is a radical piece of noisy trash. But hell, there's such a thing we call 'junk art'. Perhaps "Pink Flamingos" belongs to that category. 

A film about the filthiest person alive (played by late drag legend Divine), one can't really expect a film with such subject matter to be an exercise in elegance and good taste. In fact, John Waters seemed to have seen that 'filthy' little branding as a challenge to visually top himself in every sequence, shock factor-wise. From cannibalism to castration, Waters has thrown everything into the film but the kitchen sink, and the result may just be the most appalling piece of trash ever made. That is a compliment, by the way. 

But the film, as crazy as it may be, is still a story rooted in familial bond. Divine, although an extremely disturbed person, is still family-oriented. And beneath her heavily made-up, genuinely intimidating exterior is a truly caring daughter to a mentally ill, egg-loving mother (Edith Massey) and a consistently encouraging mother to a mentally unstable son (Danny Mills). 

But still, do not be misled by the ostensibly tender characterization. Personally, I still think that Divine is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening characters in all of movie history. The only difference is unlike most movie killers who prefer to murder alone, Divine prefers company and an audience, but she only does so when there's enough justification. And in her case, the word 'justification' means fending off some hacks who want to seize from her the title of 'the filthiest person alive'. Referencing a clichéd action film tagline, "God help those who come his/her way". 

But in the end, no matter how deprived and murderous Divine may be, she may just ultimately prefer to cook her dear mother some eggs all day (and maybe eat some excremental droppings from dogs on the way) rather than to murder for fun. But then again, you may never know. This Divine is one unpredictable fella to deal with. But so is John Waters, the same man who has declared "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" as the best film ever made. 

As an auteur, Waters is commendable for making the film look as cheap as possible while also feeding it with enough acts of deprivations and cruelty to make it even more shockingly antithetic to what makes a film acceptable at the least. But ultimately, what Waters has achieved is something stylistically noteworthy. By integrating songs into scenes while rendering the dialogue mute, he was able to consistently create an ironically fun-loving atmosphere. 

Take the scene where Raymond (David Lochary) and Connie Marble (Mink Stole), the scheming couple who wants to dethrone Divine from her filthy throne, is about to deliver a birthday gift to Divine as an example. We know that the content of the gift is something unspeakably dubious to say the least (okay, a fecal matter's what's inside the gift box), but Waters, despite of the disgusting nature of the gift, has chosen to insert the very pristine "Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby" song by 'The Tune Weavers' to accentuate the mockery that accompanies the sequence. Amid all the nonsense, John Waters has indeed forged his own style. He has ensured that "Pink Flamingos" will be a tough act to follow. Until now, I believe it still is. This film persists. 

'An Exercise in Poor Taste," the tagline says. Yes, it sure is, but one can't also deny the fact that "Pink Flamingos" is a trash film worthy to be deemed as truly influential. We can at least safely say that if there's no "Pink Flamingos", there will be no such films as Harmony Korine's "Gummo" or even Rob Zombie's more recent "The Devil's Rejects". And also maybe without "Pink Flamingos", exploitation cinema would have been a lot tamer. 

Honestly, no other films have disturbed me as much. For me, films like this are stuff nightmares are made of. To admire this film's true aesthetic value is quite hard but it is not really impossible. But to find enough motivation to rewatch the film will surely be an intense scatological dig. Well, at least for me.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman)


Not fortunate enough to have a copy of Bergman's "Winter Light", I immediately jumped into this aptly-titled film of his that's also the final film in his "Silence of God" trilogy. If "Through a Glass Darkly" is a religiously probing yet spiritually reassuring film, "The Silence", in a way, is its brooding half-brother. Expecting something reflectively eloquent, "The Silence" has instead caught me off-guard with its coldness. With minimal dialogue and the recurring sound of a ticking clock, this film may just be Ingmar Bergman's most emotionally distant and alienating film. 

With a plot that's very elliptical in nature and with characters that seem to act in vague, incomprehensible ways, it's a film that's quite difficult to grasp and be emotionally involved in. Yet strangely, its dark sexual spell, devastating performances (specifically by Ingrid Thulin) and Bergman's maestro-like handling of the profound landscapes of the human face makes "The Silence" a masterful mood piece that's definitely hard not to admire. 

The story, forged in simplicity, is about two sisters, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin), and their complex relationship that teeters between affection and downright contempt. In the middle is Anna's son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), whose naivety makes him the perfect observer in the film. 

Compared to "Through a Glass Darkly", "The Silence's" spiritual and religious allusions are more inconspicuous, which makes it even harder to absorb and analyze on the basis of the trilogy's theme that is God's silence. 

With Bergman being a filmmaker that's more artistically inclined in capturing his actors' performances on silent, relatively empty locations, "The Silence" is a genuine challenge for him and cinematographer Sven Nykvist because they are compelled to shoot numerous scenes in busy street corners. But as expected, the film still came out to be visually stunning. 

Setting-wise, "The Silence" is primarily split into three locations: the hotel room where the three characters are currently staying at, the finely-carpeted hotel corridors and the streets. Tricky as it may seem to be, Bergman was able to convey the personalities of Anna, Ester and Johan by placing them in specific locations that reflect them as characters. 

Anna, the confused younger sister, is placed mainly on the busy streets to highlight her passively carefree attitude. Ester, the ill, emotionally tormented older sister, is perennially situated within the hotel room to emphasize her physical and emotional limitations. Johan, on the other hand, is constantly placed on the corridors to underline the fact that he is in the 'middle' of it all. Notice how he was never shown roaming the streets along with her mother. Look at how every time Anna is inside the hotel room with Ester and Johan, tension ensues. Despite of their familial ties, Bergman may have been suggesting that God seems to have given the three of them their respective planes of existence (the hotel room, the corridors and the streets) so that balance can be observed. But by integrating the concept of 'God is love' that's also present in "Through a Glass Darkly", Bergman complicates things again. 

In one key scene, he has suggestively shown that Ester is 'romantically' invested to her sister Anna. Clearly, her love for her younger sister transcends sibling affection. This therefore distorts things even more and again, the question of whether or not god and love being one and the same is truly a positive thing enters the scene. 

If God is love and love is what Ester is feeling towards Anna, then why is the former still under pain and suffering? If God embodies love, then why is it that the relationship between Ester and Anna angst-ridden, ambiguous and confused? Where is the guiding light? 

Amid all of these questions, Bergman's thematic God merely looks at the ultimate unraveling in deep silence. Perhaps Ester's love is invalid and wrong. Well, if that is the case, then God, as far as "The Silence" is concerned, is not really love in every sense of the word. The film seems to suggest that, to be more exact, it should not be 'God is love' but 'God is love...with some exceptions'. 

Arguably, Bergman is at his most emotionally nihilistic in this film. He took the concept of 'God is love' and smashed it right in front of us like some useless ornamental vase. "The Silence" is that shard in the shattered mess that cuts so deep it leaves quite a beautiful scar.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer)

Tura Satana as the vicious Varla.

Call it dated, silly and extremely campy, but still, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" is classic exploitation fun that brings us back in a time where the deadly combination of femme fatales and some high-octane machinery equals to titillation. This, I think, is one of those films that have definitely made men salivate back then. Cars, violence and sexy women, what more can you ask for? Yet despite of its superficial display of violence, sexual innuendos and car chases, there's no doubt that this film, directed by Russ Meyer (who has also produced and co-written it), still has something much to say than meets the eye. 

Is it a film about women empowerment? Well, definitely a big no. In fact, this is the kind of film that will definitely make feminists shake their head in disgust and disappointment. This was never how they envision women to be. It portrays women as unpredictably murderous low-lives and nothing more. To make it even worse, the heroines of the film (if you can call them that) are a bunch of go-go dancers, which is not exactly the most ideal job for the female populace. So, if it's not a film that empowers women, then what is it all about? 

Personally, I think that it's merely a film about power. Director Russ Meyer, with an intention to exploit and entertain, was successful in putting into the screen the things (sexy women, cars and violence) that sway men into complete submission and reduce them into libidinous losers. In a way, it's not the female characters' sexual force that dominates the film but Russ Meyer's power as a director. In a way, he reflects, by way of this film, the ultimate male fetishes of the time while also relishing in it himself. Now, imagine what kind of film would be made of today's male fixations? What kind of 'pussycat' will we see at this point in time? Oh, well, enough of that before it gets all too... sleazy. 

Back to the subject at hand, this is a film that's undeniably sexy and spell-binding. It is a fun little film that has since been one of the genre's cornerstones. Yet at the end of the day, it's also considered as trash. Yes, the kind of trash that has inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to create "Grindhouse". With that given, why then, despite of the fact that the film was made specifically for its own era (the 1960s) and nothing further, has it become timeless? Well, I think the answer lies in the very execution itself. Buried somewhere in the middle of the curvy presences of Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) is a quick-witted script and a fast-paced plot. 

The story is simple enough: three go-go dancers, after a day's work, found themselves in a contagious mood for reckless fun. Enter a young, harmless couple who have obliviously joined the unpredictable triumvirate in a picnic of sorts. A little trouble occurs and the male half of the couple was killed by one of them crazy ladies. This is where the carnage starts. From here, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" picks up the steam like there's no tomorrow. With the female heroines increasingly becoming more and more dangerous, so do the male characters in the film, particularly the crippled whacko (Stuart Lancaster) and his 'all brawns no brain' son (Dennis Busch). There's also the other son named Kirk (Paul Trinka), who may or may not be your usual decent Southerner. 

In a way, I occasionally found the script, with all those wonderfully-placed puns and whatnot, to be even more fascinating than the narrative itself. I also found the performances to be even more engaging than the characters themselves. Although I can see where the logic of the characters are coming from and what motivates them to do what, I still can't help but be more smitten by how these actors and actresses have gotten themselves in the spirit of camp even though there's this brooding sense of futility in what they are doing. They are, after all, merely acting in a cheap exploitation film. Why should they give their all, right? Well, energy and passion indeed perform mysterious wonders to people. 

What the actors and actresses lack in talent, they make up for intensity. Acting more like cartoon characters than actual people, there's this comedic feeling that, inevitably, there will be an Acme box that will fall from the sky and hit one of them in the head, resulting in an explosion of unearthly proportions and a bump of mountainous heights. It's a laughable thought, really, but this is also the very reason why the film is so much fun. You just can't help but picture the surprise appearance of a carrot-eating, wise-cracking bunny in there somewhere, or perhaps an arrogant, constantly salivating duck suddenly coming out from one of them desert shrubs. 

Ultimately, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", unlike the curvaceous wholeness of the three lady characters in the film, proved to be less than the sum of its parts. But still, that does not take anything away from the film's wildly alternative vision of America; a vision where liberated women are given free reins to do whatever they want in the middle of the desert, with men ironically at their mercy and the revving of car engines as their symbol of authority. Ladies and gentlemen, what we've got here is a new wild west.


Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)


Ingmar Bergman, bar none one of the best filmmakers who have ever lived, has just proved here in "Through a Glass Darkly" that one does not need a complex set-up to convey something powerfully meditative. Merely utilizing the sterile landscapes of the island of Faro in Sweden, he, with the aid of the more than able hands of legendary cinematographer and frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist, has made a film that deeply questions religion yet also explores the painful beauty (yes, you read that right) of insanity. 

If John Cassavetes' 1974 film "A Woman Under the Influence" has presented insanity as something akin to a suburban necessity by showing how it can keep a family together in the most trying of times, "Through a Glass Darkly" depicts it as something that seems to border on the artistic. Bergman, by equal amounts probing and observant in his approach, portrays insanity not as a terrible mental disease but as a symphonic descent into the unknown. This, I think, is the only film that I have seen concerning mental illness in which I do not really pity the character's psychological condition but instead, in a strangely perverse way, envies it. What is she seeing that we don't? 

The film, a true landmark in simple yet reflective storytelling, is about a small family living on a quiet island and how their lives and own states of mind are being drastically affected by the only woman in the family's troubling mental health. Her name is Karin (Harriet Andersson), daughter to Martin (Gunnar Björnstrand), sister to Minus (Lars Passgård) and wife to Martin (Max Von Sydow). At times a seemingly naïve lass but more often a behaviorally mercurial woman who, as if summoned by a mysterious voice, waits so eagerly for the arrival of what he thinks is 'God' himself, her unpredictability causes general alarm to the family members. What is it that she is waiting for that they are all oblivious about? 

Through this simple dichotomy of insanity and the otherwise, Bergman is able to construct, in true auteur fashion, a philosophical statement about both the futility of religion and the intrinsic role of love in human existence. 

"Through a Glass Darkly", though not necessarily a film that's conspicuous in its optimism, still offers a subtly positive outlook. Despite of the film's increasingly despairing situation as Karin careens into psychological oblivion and as she finally finds out the true, beastly nature of the 'God' whose arrival she so patiently awaits, "Through a Glass Darkly" was still able to find light by utilizing some logical fallacies that solidifies Bergman's faith in human faith itself. 

There's this scene in the end where Minus and his father David, while contemplating Karin's fate, unexpectedly swerves into a melancholic conversation about the true connection between 'God' and 'love'. David, the classic image of a jaded yet hopeful human being, blurts out his belief that God and love is the same thing, and being equipped with that comforting idea makes him feel less empty inside. 

But with that, Minus, on the other hand the classic image of a naïvely confused young man, asks his father back that if God is love, then Karin, his mentally unstable sister, is surrounded by God because they all love her so much. With that thought, Minus then asks his father: "Can that help her?" (pertaining to Karin's condition) 

Bergman, at that moment the classic representation of an artist questioning the extent of God's power, initially may have intended to leave some of the film's doors relatively open. It could have ended right at that very moment but Bergman, immediately shifting gears from skepticism to enlightened assurance, made the father answer his son with the line "I believe so". 

With that dialogue, Bergman seems to put his own way of religious thinking in perspective. Not that sure, not that certain, but definitely adhering to some kind of light and hope, that line highlights what "Through a Glass Darkly", at least for me, is all about. Despite of Karin's description of the 'God' that she has seen as something akin to a monstrous spider, David, with his final answer to Minus' inquiry about the whole 'God is love' thing, is a testament of faith, however futile, amid weighing questions. "Through a Glass Darkly", religious-wise, is a film that raises doubts yet also enlightens. Only a few filmmakers can do that. Well, maybe only Ingmar Bergman can.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Mistress (Olivia M. Lamasan)

Keeping up with Star Cinema's seemingly non-exhaustive obsession with infidelity and anything extramarital, "The Mistress" is the said film production company's latest offering which revolves around some mature issues (yet again) about love. For romantic tandem John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo, this is their much-awaited jump towards true dramatic maturity, and for Olivia M. Lamasan, this is a great chance for her to prove that Star Cinema has something more to offer other than some frequently rehashed plots and cheap sentimentality. 

Although I found the film's screenplay (by Vanessa R. Valdez) to be quite strong, I thought that the way the film itself was executed, especially in how the film's ending was decided, is very, very frustrating to the point that I really have given up all my hopes that Star Cinema may one day give us a film that's purely worthy of the commercial successes ("Praybeyt Benjamin", anyone?) that the company itself often undeservedly enjoy. 

But with that statement, I don't mean to say that "The Mistress" is a bad film. It is, as far as I'm concerned, one of Star Cinema's better offerings, but that is mainly because of the performances. The ever-luminescent Hilda Koronel, after being absent in the local film scene for about 6 years or so, is very good in her comeback role as Ronaldo Valdez's wife. While both Bea Alonzo and John Lloyd Cruz, arguably the only romantic tandem in the country right now that is able to surpass that shallow 'love team' branding by constantly improving their respective dramatic range throughout all these years, have finely highlighted their characters' emotionally incendiary arcs by delivering what may be the most mature performances of their careers. 

On the other hand, the film's story, about the emotional struggles of a mistress as she criss-crosses between necessary romance (with Ronaldo Valdez's 'benefactor' character) and true love (with John Lloyd Cruz's), is sort of a non-event. Although the film is held together by its own dramatic sophistication mainly because of the cast, the plot suffers because of its predictable familiarity. How many times have we seen that sequence where the mistress, together with her benefactor, gets caught in a restaurant by none other than the benefactor's emotionally on-the-edge wife? How many times have we seen a relatively old character succumbing to a heart attack after a crucial argument? How many times have we seen that awkward confrontation between the mistress and the legitimate wife with a killer dialogue on the side ("Layuan mo ang asawa ko. Tagalog 'yan para maintindihan mo.")? At the end of the day, the real, more generalizing question is this: How often have we seen films like this? Well, the answer is 'all the freaking time'. 

"The Mistress", a film that's heavily sappy in nature, is surprisingly crisp and articulate about its statements about the nuances of love. It's also an entirely flawed commercial work made fine by the cast's dramatic consistency. Its cinematography is also commendable especially on how it evokes the visuals of an old-fashioned melodrama. Just do not get me started with that opening and final scene. 

Yes, if you've already seen the film, I'm talking about the opening 'rain' sequence set within the vicinity of a National Book Store branch. But what's even more saddening is the fact that the film must resort to that illusory 'wedding' sequence in its final scene just to make its audience feel better. So what if the characters don't end up together? Get over it and just move on. No need for that unnecessary 'what could have been' scenario. 

On a final note, if both John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo have indeed taken a big step towards 'maturity' (as actors) by way of this film, then I think Star Cinema (as a movie studio), in its complete lack of faith on how its audience may react to a less comforting ending by adding that sparkly wedding fantasy, still has a long way to go.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This Is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi.

What do you think will happen when you put a prolific filmmaker under house arrest? "This Is Not a Film", a sad portrait of how freedom of expression can sometimes be looked upon as nothing short of a political transgression, answers that question with both simplicity and ingenuity courtesy of director Jafar Panahi, whose socially realistic films have brought him a tad too close to the fire. 

Shot entirely inside his apartment using only one professional camera (and Panahi's camera phone), the film chronicles his house imprisonment and how boredom and frustration slowly plague his every waking day. For filmmakers and even aspiring ones like me, it's a truly depressing thing to behold because it shows someone like Panahi, a director at the peak of expressive strengths, suddenly pulled down to a creative standstill. 

With one of his restrictions being to carry a video camera and record things with it, Panahi's body is literally trapped and his mind figuratively shackled. For a filmmaker, nothing is more painful than that yet Jafar Panahi, with a demeanor that is surprisingly exuberant and pure even amid his situation, has thought of something: If it's illegal for him to tell a story through film, then maybe he can tell a story by way of spoken words, a hanging screenplay, and some masking tape. 

Acting and moving as if always out of breath, Panahi, in relative detail and great imagination, was able to make us and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (the man holding the camera) visualize the set (by putting tapes on the floor to serve as the various settings' walls and dimensions), the preferred shots (by description) and the emotional context of each and every scene that comprise the aforementioned screenplay that he is supposed to direct into a feature film. 

In these moments, one can really feel and see how Panahi suddenly transforms from a silently frustrated political prisoner into a spirited man of both grace and energy. To see him very eager to tell a story, even in the most limiting of conditions, is truly encouraging yet at the same time also saddening. Why must a country like Iran reach a point where its filmmakers, who all got something to say that's worth listening to, are prevented to do what they do best? And does a video camera impose the same kind of risk to Iranian authorities in much the same way a high-powered gun does? Or is it just the fact that their government is afraid of it the same way an authoritarian state is wary of rightful revolutionaries?

"This Is Not a Film", although a piece of work that's solely focused on Panahi's predicament, is also a subtly incising political commentary about the crumbling state of Iranian cinema. With a title that seems to inform both the audience and authorities in advance, as if in cautious defense, that 'this is not a film', ironically, it's still a thoroughly radical work. Smuggled out of Iran inside a cake so that it may reach a wider audience, "This Is Not a Film", both in content and context, is a work not just of political defiance but also of cinematic resilience.


Monday, September 17, 2012

La Jetée (The Pier) (Chris Marker)

The moment.

If pictures can paint a thousand words, then "La Jetée", directed by the late Chris Marker, has solidly proven that putting them in succession can also tell a story that's way ahead of time and can also impart a futuristic idea that's both thematically transcendent and deeply human. Let Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" serve as the main testament of the film's far-reaching influence. 
Composed only of black and white stills and a moody narration (by Jean Négroni), "La Jetée" is a surprising proof of the power of cinematic narrative even when there are no literal movements on screen. It's also a film that treads the territories of hard science fiction, the elliptical tendencies of time and some probing existentialism. Although the narration was structured like that of a poem, it has not fallen in the clutches of vagueness. 
The use of the photographs has also fascinated me because it has given the film an otherworldly feel, a sense of ironic calm (even amid its apocalyptic premise) and its own distinct identity as an art piece. Even with the utter simplicity of its execution, the film was still very successful in telling a complex story of humanity trapped within the cycle of life and death, memories and time. Well, maybe we will never see a film quite like "La Jetée" again.


The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)

The cabin.

Now this is a big surprise. "The Cabin in the Woods", a film with zero hype, has unexpectedly turned out to be the best horror film that I have seen in a relatively long time because of the fact that it was not afraid to satirically articulate the numerous shortcomings of the horror genre while still being damn disturbing at the same time. I was highly impressed. 

The film, directed by Drew Goddard and written by Joss Whedon, is a true breath of fresh air in terms of vision and is also a tongue-in-cheek descent into the inner workings of the horror genre. Though some may be frustrated by the film's unconventionality, utter preposterousness and satirical intent, "The Cabin in the Woods", no matter where you may look at it, is pure horror entertainment. It's a half-serious genre pastiche directed towards the cliché-infested, 'more miss than hit' genre, but no one can deny the fact that it's also a glimmering tribute to its bloody wonders. Right now, I think it's fair for me to say that my faith in modern horror films, as of the moment, is once again restored. 
On top the film's cast of relative unknowns is actor Chris Hemsworth of "Thor" fame, whose character in the film, as far as horror movies are concerned, is that of the quintessential sports jock. To complete the line-up, we also have the dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison), the well-intentioned scholar (Jesse Williams), the comic stoner (Fran Kranz) and finally, the virginal heroine (Kristen Connolly). There's also Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, whose roles as the fun-loving and highly desensitized technicians of the so-called 'system' are particularly memorable and also humorously potent. 
By making these five (the jock, the blonde, the scholar, the stoner and the virgin) act in a way that's irritatingly and irrationally familiar (their questionable preference to have sex deep within the woods in the middle of the night, for example), Goddard and Whedon were able to poke fun at the stereotypical character blueprints of a usual horror film (specifically the 'slashers') and were also able to express their take as to why it's always the jocks and the blondes et al. who are always on the receiving end of anything sharp and fatal. You'll definitely be surprised.  
Disguised as something disgustingly clichéd almost until the halfway mark, "The Cabin in the Woods" then suddenly lambasts you (and unapologetic at that) with the true nature of its narrative and, in the end, the beauty of its entertainingly theoretical take on why horror films seem to have a recurring blueprint. This is imagination at the height of bizarre audacity and vision at its wildest. You just have to see it for yourself. 
But aside from that, "The Cabin in the Woods", with its ambition and exaggerated vision, is also a testament of ingenious writing. Initially, I thought that nothing would ever come out of the horror genre ever again that hasn't been done before. I also thought that however original a horror film may strive to be, it will still come back to its formulaic roots one way or another. Well, I guess I was wrong. 
Writer Joss Whedon, although he has already proven his worth by directing that little film called "The Avengers", has shown here in "The Cabin in the Woods" that his capabilities both as a writer and director extend far beyond the trappings of costumed superheroes and whatnot. By way of this film, he has solidified himself as a pure creative force comparable to the earlier, more mischievous days of both Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson.   
"The Cabin in the Woods", a true sleeper hit, is one of the best and most entertaining horror films to come out for quite a while. It's a self-conscious horror masterwork in the same fashion as that of Wes Craven's "New Nightmare" and as gut-churning as Vincenzo Natali's "Cube". Who would have thought that a film mainly about a cabin, some Latin spells and a bunch of disposable lads and lasses would be able to encompass the horror genre's whole thematic plateau in such a way that's both thought-provoking and fun? The creators of "The Cabin in the Woods" have, and the result is an ingenious horror film that's surely destined to be a cult classic.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)


For the record, this is the first time that I have watched an Andrei Tarkovsky film and I must say that it was quite a spellbinding first encounter. Both confusing and enthralling at the same time, "Stalker" is a timeless meditation on beliefs that contradict what's empirically perceived and is also a deep exploration of intellectual apprehension. Part-fantasy, part-science fiction and, in some ways, a quasi-religious discourse, this film is unique not just because of the otherworldly concepts that has established the film's visual texture but also because of the density of what it speaks of. 
Although painfully slow in its pacing, "Stalker" is never boring because of the quite stunning ideas that it presents. The film, about two tormented intellectuals and how they are guided by the titular character towards the 'Zone' (a place that is said to have the ability to grant wishes), is an adventure of immense consequences. It is a soul-searching trek towards a proverbial 'end of a rainbow' yet it is also a melancholic journey made infinitely more compelling by the characters' constant polemics. 
At times, I even found the conversations and arguments between the three characters to be even more fascinating than what their mission awaits them. This, I think, is the thing that makes auteurs like Tarkovsky very, very exceptional. Aside from their command of the visuals, they are also in control of which language their films would speak. And in "Stalker's" case, Tarkovsky mainly chose the language of metaphysics to further the film's profound abstraction. 
With the film mainly concerned about the unanswerable inquiries about the meaning of life and the anxiety of both knowing and feeling too much (represented by the two intellectuals, one a writer and the other a physicist), it was quite obvious at certain times that the characters' utterances are personal musings coming from Tarkovsky himself. At one point, the film has even discoursed about the unselfishness of art and the shallowness of technology (the writer character claimed that technology is nothing but an 'artificial limb' which makes people work less and eat more); with Tarkovsky the auteur at the helm, that particular statement is obviously all too personal that it seem out of place in a film that deals with monolithic ideas about life in the context of despair. But nonetheless, it's also all too refreshing. This is why true auteurs and no one else can best capture intimate artistry both at its most divine and at its most turbulent; they just know it all too well. 
Now if there's a term that would best describe the feat of creating this film, then I think it would be 'miraculous'. A convergence of imagery and content, "Stalker" is masterful not just because of the technical craftsmanship that comes with it or the weight of its ideas but because of the equal distribution of both and the patience of how they were balanced.  And then there are also the locations that have made the film even more special. With the 'Zone' seemingly taking on a life and character of its own as the film progresses, the way the place was visually presented is quite impressive because of how three-dimensional it was. With a naturally pervading sense of unpredictability, acute danger and, ultimately, of spiritual transcendence, the 'Zone' has been the strong backbone of the film. 
Shooting in ruins, dank tunnels and dark sewers, Tarkovsky and company has molded the reality (or unreality) of the 'Zone' in a way that's mystical yet also consistently dystopian. Also, there were some great performances in it too, particularly that of Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy as the 'stalker' himself. 
In some ways, the film's final minutes, at least for me, seems to be a subtle commentary regarding the irrationality of religion (with that enduring image of one of the characters wearing a crown of thorns on his head as if emulating Christ) and the outlandish belief towards both the unknown and the unseen. But despite of the film's flowing cynicism, "Stalker" still echoes hope even at its subtlest. Amid the film's overwhelming sense of intellectualism, it has at least succeeded to be emotionally eloquent. Though the film has left many questions in its wake, it offers closure on an emotional level. That, for me, is what's more important.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais)


Bleak, moody and scarred, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is a film of uncommon power that treads both the emotional trauma of love and the ravages of war. Amid post-war Hiroshima, the film has maintained a deeply soulful dialogue between two lost people desperately trying to feel, to fall in love overnight, and to understand. But this isn't "Before Sunrise" here. 
"Hiroshima Mon Amour" is just one of those legendary films whose allure can never be easily diminished. Yes, it is a truly impressive exercise in innovative filmmaking technique (it is the film that has deeply influenced the French New Wave), but buried deep within all its picturesque framings and compositions is a beating heart and a crying soul. 
With a quietly affectionate screenplay written by Marguerite Duras that contains stream of consciousness dialogues that’s as romantically longing as they are emotionally detached, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" conveys its power through its two main characters' internal articulacy. They speak in a manner that transcends the limitations of the tongue. They speak as if their feelings overlap their vocabularies. They converse as if they see through each other's hearts. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada): the two of them represent the confusion we call love and the despairing post-romantic reality we call pain. They both know that they want each other but they just can't admit it to themselves. 
In the film's early scenes, we see how happy the French actress is when she's with the architect (shot in effective close-ups). But slowly and effectively, director Alain Resnais was able to construct her ironically fractured past by way of fragmentary flashbacks in Nevers, France that's as dream-like as the cityscapes of post-war Hiroshima. Sporting a haircut like that of Maria Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in the past, the French actress, just like the aforementioned saint, is a martyr, but not in the context of religion but of love. 
Resnais has highlighted the fact that, like all women, the French actress just wants to feel love more than anything else but is deeply scarred to try yet again. She consummates the meager sexual pleasures with the architect but she's too afraid to go beyond that. She wants to feel once more. She wants to erase the past, forget and fall in love again but just can't because she knows that she won't be ready yet. 
There's this powerful scene in the film where the actress is telling the architect the story of how she once loved a German soldier back in Nevers, France when suddenly, the architect seems to take on the identity of the deceased German lover as he identifies more and more with the story. The actress, on the other hand, lost in her own romantic recollection, unconsciously talks back to the architect as if she's talking to the German himself. Despite of her new-found connection with the Japanese gentleman, she still struggles to see herself together with other men other than her tragic lover. She's a captive of her own painful memories.
With a slightly upbeat musical score that seems to mock the utter desperation in the French actress and the Japanese architect's happenstance romance, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is a film that does not scoff at the idea of love outside marriage but instead seems to mourn the idea as to why should this limitation exist. Although that's just a mere observation from yours truly, I just can't help but feel that aside from the French actress' inescapably scarred past, what may also be holding them back is the simple fact that they are both married. 
There's this scene in the film where both of them, standing quietly across each other in a living room, straightforwardly expressed their utmost admiration for their respective husband and wife. Sure, for some reasons explainable only by the heart, they want to be with each other, but they are also aware of the fact that their marriages are too good to be on the losing end of their intended romantic transgression. 
In another key scene, notice how the architect is chasing the actress through the streets of Hiroshima yet the latter keeps on moving and the former, uncharacteristic for a person who wants to catch up with someone, merely preferred to trail her. They want to hold each other yet they also want distance and space. "You're destroying me. You're good for me," the actress told the architect while they are presumably making love in the earlier moments of the film; there's the paradox of their romance right there. 
"Hiroshima Mon Amour", aside from being a landmark film that has launched an entire cinematic movement, is an unforgettable love story not of two people but of two longing souls who, because of circumstances, just can't be together. "You saw nothing in Hiroshima," the Japanese architect said to the actress in the film's early scenes. Maybe that's what they need to believe in to properly move on.


Red Dragon (Brett Ratner)

Dr. Lecter.

For some utterly unknown reasons, I have never really been that eager to watch this film despite of the fact that it has Hannibal Lecter in it (and we all know how magnetic the murderous bastard is). With Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" merely teetering between mediocrity and good in terms of quality, seeing "Red Dragon" has never been a recurring priority for yours truly mainly because I have locked myself up with the fact that "The Silence of the Lambs" is more than enough for me. But now that I have seen "Red Dragon" in its entirety (I've tried to see it once before; the damn DVD copy stopped halfway through the beginning), I can now safely say that I was very, very wrong by not seeing it any sooner. 
Not only has it recaptured the psychological complexity of "The Silence of the Lambs", it has also channeled the darkly rhythmic feel of a well-made '80s thriller. Oh, and did I mention that "Red Dragon" has a heavyweight cast? With prime actors Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Hopkins leading the way (with Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson on the side), do you really expect this film to fail? Well, if the script is weak, it surely will, but screenwriter Ted Tally has adapted Thomas Harris' novel of the same name with narrative patience and an otherworldly sense of dread (aided by Danny Elfman's escalating musical score) that it has made the film both frightening and mesmerizing. But surprisingly, the spine-tingling sensation that I have felt while watching the film is not because of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter but because of Ralph Fiennes' part-sympathetic, part-monstrous turn as the 'Tooth Fairy' killer. 
It has always been argued that although Hannibal Lecter is the spine of the franchise and is, bar none, one of the most nightmarishly intimidating characters in film history, the plot-demanded 'other' killers are the ones that often steal the show. And by 'other' killers, I mean "The Silence of the Lambs'" Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine), "Hannibal's" Mason Verger (played by Gary Oldman) and now, "Red Dragon's" 'Tooth Fairy' killer. 
Of course, this perspective about the whole franchise has always been 'relative' and 'arguable', but in this film, I personally think that Ralph Fiennes has truly outshined Mr. Hopkins partly due to the fact that, at this point, we just know Hannibal Lecter too well. Though he is unpredictable, the danger that Lecter imposes to the audience is now, for a lack of a better term, all too cinematic. On the other hand, the way Fiennes' 'Tooth Fairy' unfolds and takes command of the screen is way more psychologically unsettling because it is insanity at its rawest and lowest form; personally, I find him to be more fascinating and disturbing because he can be as real as the next fellow. The likes of John Wayne Gacy can attest to that. 
I also liked the fact that 'Tooth Fairy's' M.O. is kept as ambiguous as possible and was made even more bizarre by some far-fetched mythological hints (the killer's symbolic association with a 'dragon' based on a William Blake painting) that further his preposterous delusions. This madness is, of course, carried out very well by Fiennes through his limiting facial expressions that suggest internal suppression. Here is a killer who knows the consequences of his murderous deeds yet cannot stop from doing them because of some misplaced sense of grandiosity (with him thinking that he is a 'dragon' incarnate) and superficial self-importance. 
On the other side of the spectrum, there's Will Graham (Edward Norton), a retired FBI agent who has been called back to duty (Aren't they all?) because of the 'Tooth Fairy' killings. He is also the one responsible for capturing Hannibal Lecter years before. A gifted forensic man, Graham sees projections not commonly seen by the ordinary eye yet repels the idea that he is special, which makes him the perfect counterpoint to Lecter's intellectual vanity. Unlike the complex relationship between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs", Julianne Moore in "Hannibal") in the previous films, Will Graham's affiliation with Dr. Lecter is more simplified to the point that their relationship seems to be dictated by the plot and not by their characters' respective personalities. 
All in all, I have to commend Brett Ratner in how he has surprised yours truly (and maybe everyone else) by successfully pulling off a complex psychological thriller. From a man whose most famous films include the "Rush Hour" trilogy and "X-Men: The Last Stand", Ratner has achieved to surprise us with the relative intricacy of "Red Dragon". Although it is not necessarily a great film, it is a highly enjoyable and intriguing one. And realizing that this is a prequel to one of the only three films that have won every major Academy Award back in 1991, this was a tall task that was took on with enough focus, style and unflinching psychological mystery. Let's have some Chianti, shall we?


Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

The couple.

Again, after a long hiatus in film reviewing mainly due to countless school works and some love sickness, yours truly is back with a take on "A Separation" on his sleeves. Bar none, this film is indeed one of the best of the year on different levels. It's not just a film made good because of a couple of excellent performances or a film made exceptional by a good story. "A Separation", an Iranian film that has won a record of three bears in the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, is a socio-religious morality play that combines a compelling narrative with stirring performances. And in this mixture, one can easily see the flawlessness of it all. Its Academy Award is more than deserved. 
Directed by Asghar Farhadi, what also makes "A Separation" a notch more special is how it has seemingly made all the complex issues within it flow quite effortlessly. On one side, the film is about the utter devotion to Islamic faith and how doubt can shake things up for the worst. On the other, it's also a penetrating study of class conflict and the fragility of truth. Watching "A Separation", I can't help but be reminded of both "12 Angry Men" and "Rashomon" in terms of how it has also finely explored the subjectivity of truth based on perception and biases and also of a local independent film here in the Philippines entitled "Last Supper No. 3" in terms of the film's realistic portrayal of the legal system. 
But then again, "A Separation" has too much going on with it that it can't just be merely branded as a meditation on truth. It is, after all, a film about a couple's (played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) separation and how this can cause a definite ripple effect to other people, specifically a pregnant helper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and her husband (Shahab Hosseini). 
Partly seen through the eyes of the pre-adolescent daughter named Termeh (played by Sarina Farhadi), the film is an observation not of a crumbling marriage but of the domino principle that comes with it and how it affects those around them. There were even no questions raised regarding whose side (husband or wife) are you on. Instead, the deeply moral questions are raised not mainly to us but to the daughter herself, which leads to one of the most quietly powerful endings in recent memory. 
As the film patiently unfolds, one can easily see how "A Separation" could have also worked quite beautifully on stage. It has the right amount of intensity, complexity and spontaneity; ingredients of an effectively modern theater play. It's also populated with characters that are both realistic and fascinating thanks to the natural performances of the actors involved, which makes me to think that this may also be the most powerfully-acted film of the year. 
For me, what makes a film powerful, aside from the weight of the things that it wants to say and how they are said, is not being conscious of its strengths. This is the case for "A Separation". It definitely knows what it wants to say but does not preach it. It has a very beautiful material but does not flaunt it. Its drama is powerful enough to explore far-reaching themes of immense societal relevance but does not impose it. Instead, the film just went its way to use the universal language of marriage, separation and religion within the confines of the equally universal language of cinema and tell what needs to be told. 
What resulted is a film of disquieting power and truth that echoes far beyond its country of origin. Although I would occasionally fawn over an incoherent art film or two, I believe that films like "A Separation" are the ones that we really need today. In a contemporary world where failure of communication is a widespread occurrence, the role of cinema has never been more important. "A Separation" has just exercised the core reason of the medium's very existence.


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