Friday, January 25, 2013

Amour (Michael Haneke)


Love stories on films are meant to make us feel a sense of sweetness within. Be it through chance encounters, tender reconciliations or mutual affections that extend through time, romance films are those extra sugar cubes that sweeten the occasional bitterness in our lives. But what if a film suddenly enters our collective consciousness, dare proclaiming that love, after all, is not really all about flowers and chocolates but, in its very essence, all about pain? "Amour", a most devastating film by Michael Haneke, may just be that very film, and trust me, if this won't add a much-needed depth to your outlook on love, then I believe nothing will. 
Although I sure do think, without a single doubt in my mind, that "Amour" is one of the absolute best films of the year (if not the very best), the film's style and execution, especially in its lack of musical scoring and often stagnant shots, may surely off-put some viewers. But for some who consider silence and subtlety as two of the most powerful tools in conveying emotions and whatnot, then "Amour" will surely impress. 
With two French screen legends in the form of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (with Isabelle Huppert on the side) joining emotional forces to tell us a tale that may very well be the most truthful love story there is, "Amour" has managed to be unforgettably tender and powerfully disquieting at the same time. With no formal narrative to guide the film save for the elderly couple's (played by Trintignant and Riva) confined everyday lives, "Amour" is that rare kind of film that gets its strength not from the plot basics but from the very essence of the characters that inhabit it, and we only have the aforementioned screen legends to thank for it. 
Trintignant, who I have first set my eyes upon (and loved) in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist", is honest, understated and very romantically proud as Georges, a retired music teacher who is suddenly faced with the biggest challenge of love when Anne (Riva), her wife, was suddenly rendered half-paralyzed by a surgery gone wrong. 
As naturally effortless as he is overwhelmingly moving, Trintignant's Georges goes through the debilitating burden of taking care of his ill-stricken spouse with a mountainous sense of dignity and individualism. Although Haneke has molded the character with an inscrutable sense of pride, we are nevertheless drawn to painfully empathize with his situation because it's all too real and also because, at one point or another, we'll just be like him. I, for one, slightly know how he feels. My great grandmother, in her dying days, was exactly just like Anne, and I had the privilege to take care of her through two sleepless nights.  
This therefore brings me to Emmanuelle Riva's unbelievably realistic performance as Georges' better half. Yes, Emmanuelle Riva, the very same, conflicted woman in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" whose beauty contrasts the said film's tumultuous romantic themes, now bedridden and merely speaking in tongues. As much as "Amour" is an honest evocation of the final frontiers of love, it's also a film that's knee-deep in demythologization, specifically in how Michael Haneke has reduced an immortal screen beauty like Emmanuelle Riva into nothing more than an old, dying woman pitifully confined within the four corners of a reclining bed. Riva's portrayal of Anne, for me, is not really a performance per se but more a bitter confrontation of both reality and mortality, and it's just quite stunning to behold. 
"Amour", Michael Haneke's most personal film (the events in "Amour" is based on his first-hand experiences of dealing with his disease-stricken aunt) and may also be the most truthful one in relation to who he really is as a filmmaker, is a clear-cut masterpiece. Once known for his violently polarizing films, Haneke has now made a film so romantically powerful that it makes you forget that the film, after all, stars two elderly people. 
Admittedly, there will come a point in our lives where we'll go all apprehensive about growing old and whether or not the hands we're holding on right now, as the best years of our lives slowly fade away, will still hold on tight. "Amour", a film that proves unto me that there will always be beauty in subtlety, reassures me that, yes, they definitely will. Faith in love: quite restored.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)


As far as back as I can remember, there's always that one 'Sundance' film that gets a token Oscar nod for 'Best Picture' every year. But naturally, it usually does not have any chance of winning despite the fact that it is often far superior to half of its competition. For me, that's the Oscars subtly telling the independent film scene that "that's as far as you can go". Such is the case for "Beasts of the Southern Wild", a quasi-fantasy, coming-of-age film that really isn't (based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar). 
With some sheds of "Pan's Labyrinth" in how it has seamlessly enjoined both fantasy and reality in a single continuum, the film is certainly quite refreshing and original. Being a film that's really quite hard to describe, just imagine this: What if a less cynical Werner Herzog and a less abstract Terrence Malick decide to team up and co-direct a children's film? Can you picture it? It's with a kind of profound narration and transcendental music, right? Yeah, that's pretty much how "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks and feels like. 
For a film whose visuals rely heavily on images of poverty and semi-submerged squalor, "Beasts of the Southern Wilds" surprisingly lacks any embedded social messages. Instead, what the film has done is substitute a potentially pedestrian tackling of poverty with a completely unique exploration of innocence and pride that's finely fitted within an engrossing, quasi-magical atmosphere. 
Throughout the film, there's a relatively fascinating establishment of the return of the aurochs, an ancient group of giant wild boars that has lived millions of years ago, presumably for a kind of reckoning. But to first set the record straight, aurochs are actually direct ancestors of the modern cattle and not of wild boars, which is quite puzzling to me as to why the makers of the film did not fully rename the creature instead. But at this point, we do not care anymore because one, the film is utterly justified in this aspect because it is structured within a reality of its own, and two, because the film has a far more important angle to cover, and that is the roller coaster relationship between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and his hot-headed father Wink (Dwight Henry). 
Together, both characters, thanks to Benh Zietlin's involving direction and both actors' heart-aching performances (Dwight Henry should have received an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Am I asking for too much?), dance in the rhythm of great dramatic chemistry without really trying hard to do so, all while the film's more fantastical nature unravels quite masterfully on the side. But then again, the very same 'fantasy elements' that have been laid down piece by piece with such care is the very same aspect that has quite disappointed me. For a person who has expected an equal distribution of both fantasy and reality, I ended up asking for more from the former. But if you come to think of it, the presence of the aurochs in the film is never intended to be quite literal just like how Aslan in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is. What it actually is, at least in my view, is a mountainously symbolic representation of Hushpuppy's ultimate 'test' before she can actually, as what the plot summary states, 'learn the way of courage and love', and it's quite effective because it gives the film a heightened sense of mythological resonance. 
"Beasts of the Southern Wild", an uncommon film of visual and thematic grace, is forged out of a unique cinematic spirit and genuine human warmth. The people of Baththub (that's what the film's water-surrounded town is called), although burdened by their difficult and relatively uncivilized way of life and are constantly being antagonized by welfare workers trying to get them out of there, is certainly a proud lot, and Hushpuppy, a girl that knows and feels more than the average kid, is slowly learning that pride, after all, is not that of a bad thing. While Wink, his father, has learned that crying is not a sign of emasculation but a vital proof of life. Indeed, the characters have learned something throughout the course of the film, and so have I.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)


Certainly the most visually stunning film of the year, "Les Misérables" is no doubt a musical picture of epic proportions that's passionately held together by numerous powerful performances. Running close to 3 hours, the film is indeed a cinematic dream come true for musical fans, but may also prove to be quite an extensive chore to watch for non-musical lovers. In a way, the song numbers may often tend to delay the film's otherwise smooth narrative progression, which is truly a proof of how musicals are more focused on prioritizing moods, emotions and internal turbulence rather than the stories themselves. As a song number ends and another one begins, I can't help but notice the audience's numerous laughs of disbelief as they uncomfortably twitch and readjust in their seats. "Les Misérables", despite its all-star cast and visual spectacle, is indeed not for everyone. But nonetheless, it's still powerful stuff, with Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman leading the way. 
Peter Greenaway, a visionary independent filmmaker, has once suggested that film adaptations (specifically Jane Austen's) are nothing but wastes of time. This statement may prove to be quite apt to this recent cinematic incarnation of "Les Misérables", but there's something in this Tom Hooper-directed version that is just quite transcendent to behold. One of them, quite naturally, is the performances, which were all elevated by a sense of both larger-than-life romanticism and subtle humanity. But the one who has really moved me close to tears is Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine. Enhanced by the film's stylistic preference of capturing the song numbers in stark close-up shots (quite reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc") rather than in flowing camera movements, Ms. Hathaway has delivered what may be the best performance of the year and the greatest of her career so far. Honestly, her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is just so emotionally perfect and devastatingly heart-breaking that even at this very moment while writing this review, I'm still having some goose bumps. With echoes of Maria Falconetti in her performance, Anne Hathaway, despite her short screen time, has proven that although Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) path to redemption is the real focus of "Les Misérables", it was her Fantine that is the anchoring soul of the film. I'm not exaggerating here or anything, but I do think that Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" scene is already worth the price of admission alone. 
But as expected, Hugh Jackman, whose resume boasts of a Tony award, is also pitch perfect in the role of Jean Valjean, who's just effortless in his embodiment of the character's rapid emotional transitions, usually from emotional fury to silent gentility and then back again. But let's not also forget Russell Crowe in the very complex role of Javert, who is very believable in his portrayal of the said character's adherence to both blind justice and pure conviction. Although his voice, as what other people complain about, quite lacks the power and range needed for such a crucial character, his facial expressions and imposing presence more than makes up for it. There's also the film's sleeper performance in the form of Samantha Barks' Eponine, who just shined in the role, especially in her "On My Own" number. On the other hand, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, although in their usual element, never quite did it for me because, well, they're just too humorously ho-hum in their roles. 
Admittedly, "Les Misérables" is a film that's quite dated in its themes and very derivative in its revolutionary spirit. But nonetheless, it was still able to connect with me on a very nationalistic level specifically because of its numerous parallels with Jose Rizal's (Philippines' National Hero) "Noli Me Tangere" and "El Filibusterismo". As the film reaches its final crescendo and as the screen goes to black, it's as if I've watched an actual West End production, but this time with all of "Les Misérables'" 'sound and fury' magnified a hundredfold. "Les Misérables", an emotionally overwhelming musical film, is a textbook example of how stunning the marriage of stage and film can be when done right.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Argo (Ben Affleck)

Rescue 101: The Hollywood Way.

First, he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And then, he went on to direct a fine adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, which was then followed by a tense, Boston-set crime thriller. But despite all those, many are still quite unsure as to whether or not Ben Affleck is really more than just a pretty face and if he really is a capable filmmaker and screenwriter. This perception of him, of course, can mainly be attributed to cinematic abominations such as "Gigli" and "Pearl Harbor", both of which he had unfortunately starred in. Here then enters "Argo", a gripping thriller that may surely turn even the most extreme Affleck skeptics into instant believers. Well, although I won't completely go out of my way as to call Affleck a bad filmmaker, I'm honestly not that deeply awed of his directorial body of work prior to this film. Intrigued by what he can do, maybe, but not that much. But this time around, count me in as one of them converts; "Argo" is indeed an insanely great film.
Being a regular inhabitant at Cracked (a very intelligent comedy website), I was able to constantly scan through numerous well-written humor articles that tackle relatively obscure historical/political facts and stories. One of them, obviously, is the very story of "Argo" itself, which has fascinated me (and made me laugh at some point, naturally) to high heavens when I first read it. Yet weird enough, when "Argo" was released, I haven't the slightest idea that it is indeed about the said 'Cracked' article. Instead, what I thought the film will be is something akin to a mere stylistic copy of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer". But boy was I wrong.
Packed with just the right amount of endearing characterization, tense sequences and moments of genuine humor, "Argo" is easily one of the best films of the year specifically because of how it has managed to be both politically compelling and entertaining at the same time, with great supporting performances by Alan Arkin and John Goodman (as the legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers) to boot. As for Affleck's performance itself, it is, in no way, very memorable, especially when he's in scenes alongside Walter White, er, Bryan Cranston, who's just perfect in that bureaucratic CIA role. But even though Affleck's acting is not much of a revelation (his first choice for the role was not himself but Brad Pitt), the real star in this film is his inspired directorial effort; that and the beauty of 'science fiction' itself, which the film was able to subtly highlight.
Of course, with "Argo" being a politically-charged film, its closeness to the truth is surely a great question, especially in its depiction of the Iranian populace and the real role of Canada in the accomplishment of the rescue mission. But for me, "Argo" is really not much about politics. Instead, what I think the film is actually all about is how seemingly contradictory forces (the Hollywood and the Government; Canada and the USA) can do an almost miraculous difference, all with the help of a make-believe planet and some storyboard aliens.
Like 2011's "Hugo", "Argo", although very sublimely at that, is a tribute to the power of movies, and how it's not just a medium where we're able to discover the intricacies of life, but one which can also save some. And who would have thought that it will be some cheaply-imagined science fiction tale that can do such? "Argo", despite its heavily political nature, is an understated celebration of the imagination.
For the longest time, the science fiction genre has been widely considered as the ultimate form of 'escape'. Indeed, in many cases, it actually is, what with its abundance of colorful interplanetary creatures, silver-clad heroes and interstellar adventures. But let's not forget that, for once, it was also instrumental for actually pulling off quite a literal one. "Argo", a stunningly inspired sleeper of a film, will forever remind us of that fact.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

The end of the road.

It is official. Kathryn Bigelow has done the meagerly impossible, and that is to top his Best Picture winner that is "The Hurt Locker". Far more ambitious, dense and a tad more entertaining, "Zero Dark Thirty" is the 'War on Terror' film to end all 'War on Terror' films; quite funny, really, because the film does not even feature any scenes of actual warfare at all. And quite funnier, still, is the fact that the film was initially offered to Kathryn Bigelow's ex-flame James Cameron, who then declined the offer stating that he'd rather stick with his blue Pandora natives. Suddenly, I can imagine Bigelow, like Tura Satana in a Russ Meyer film, standing tall, stating "Look who's laughing yet again!?"
"Zero Dark Thirty", in simple description, is an intense reenactment of what might be the most important 'cat-and-mouse' chase of the 21st century, and perhaps also the most controversial and polarizing, all thanks to one man (Osama bin Laden) and his merry band of terrorists (the whole of Al-Qaeda). Alright, granted, there was that little Saddam Hussein sideshow which has populated news media while this bin Laden search is commencing. But what separates Osama Bin Laden's case from that of Saddam's, although very similar in nature, is the former's almost mythical quality. Is bin Laden a real person? Is he still alive? Where in the world is he hiding? (Morgan Spurlock comes to mind) These are the questions which constantly boggle our minds for years as we go on with our everyday lives. At one time, I have even seen a news item on TV (Or have I read it somewhere? My memory regarding the matter is much too hazy) stating that Osama bin Laden, the most notoriously feared person this side of the world, has finally died of Tuberculosis. Damn, I thought, that would have been very anticlimactic for a man who has lived a life of constant danger and, for a lack of a better term, adventure. But alas, the news item, as it turns out, is not true. Indeed, Osama bin Laden is that little Boogeyman in our sleep that not even our brave teddy bears can fend off.
For years, we have lived in both fear and fantasy. All of us, in one way or another, have dreamt of scenarios which involve us, bin Laden himself, and some apt armaments. If my memory serves me well, there's a viral computer game way back that's mainly focused on realizing just that. In the game, you are a terrorist hunter (If I'm not mistaken!) trying to take down bin Laden with a pistol, who was revealed to be hiding inside a liquor store located in the very heart of mainland America (!). Oh and there's also that 'Miniclip' game which finds George W. Bush himself under attack by terrorist forces inside none other than the White House itself! As expected, we play as the M-16-armed Bush as he goes all "Harrison Ford" against the, presumably, Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Indeed, we have lived this life of utter, teeth-gnashing fantasy of finally putting an end to the path of carnage and destruction that these terror bringers are leaving. Hell, even "South Park" had such a wet dream (See "Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants" episode). And now, finally seeing "Zero Dark Thirty", I personally have arrived to a satisfying denouement. No more flash games and no more South Park parodies. We have finally come to a conclusion, and this time, it's very real. The absence of the cadaver's picture irks the little 'Conspiracy Keanu' in me, but still, it's quite a sigh of relief that the Time Magazine's 'Man of the Decade' (in a twisted alternative universe) has finally met his demise.  
For a film with a running time of close to 3 hours, "Zero Dark Thirty" has steadily maintained both the abundance of tension and interest in the narrative mainly because of the film's visual realism, heart-thumping suspense and a central character that we actually quite care about. For the latter aspect, I have to thank Jessica Chastain for giving a commanding yet ultimately affecting performance as Maya, a young CIA agent who may have just arrived at a lead that may bring them to bin Laden himself. And better yet, with his pants down. By way of Chastain's character, Bigelow has just proven that she has indeed mastered the essence of politically-charged thrillers, which is the combination of tension and humanity. In my opinion, she is in no way an action movie director. Instead, she merely filters the action through the eyes of her central characters, and how it unfolds in a way that affects their very beings. For that matter, I think that Kathryn Bigelow is more apt to be labeled as an 'action dramatist'.    
No opening credits and not even a proper title card, the film, like a politician who immediately cuts to the chase by stating "Just vote for me, you sons of bitches," brings us immediately into the heart of the action, which involves the brutally persuasive art of interrogation. These scenes, as we all know, have left some people in utter outrage and adamant defense.
"Those (the interrogation techniques used in the film) are highly inaccurate and are nothing but pure movie-making mash," says the CIA. "This film advocates torture and should be boycotted," says one A.M.P.A.S. member. As for me, the interrogation details are highly irrelevant to "Zero Dark Thirty's" quality as a film; in the context of a purely accurate film maybe, but not as a riveting thriller, because it has lots to boast of in terms of that. Maybe those commenting against the film should watch a different one altogether; maybe they’ll fancy "Taxi to the Dark Side" more, which is a powerful documentary, by the way, that will, in many ways, nicely complement "Zero Dark Thirty".
It's just some mere hours ago since I've watched the film, and believe me, there's a distinct kind of lasting sensation that goes home with you way after the film is over. Was it satisfaction? Perhaps it is. But I need a better term. Oh, 'catharsis' maybe, about the idea that finally, our world is one evil, bearded man less. But that's also where I'm a bit apprehensive. That after all, Osama bin Laden is just one man; just a thin metal piece in the whole industrial-sized umbrella. Suddenly, I'm a terrorist hunter in a liquor store again.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty)


While watching "Nanook of the North", I sure can sense the fact that some of the scenes were staged. But after finding out that the film was indeed not a hundred percent spontaneous and unscripted, "Nanook of the North", for me, has still lost none of its power. So what if the film isn't particularly authentic through and through? Let's take Werner Herzog's documentaries as great cases in point. Like "Lessons of Darkness" and the even more experimental "The Wild Blue Yonder", Herzog's documentaries were filled with actual footage only made metaphysically adventurous by half-cryptic, half-poetic narrations, which forge otherworldly narratives in the process. In Robert J. Flaherty's case, his main intent has none of Herzog's maddening grandiosity. Instead, his only goal is to plainly highlight, with honest anthropological eyes, the plight and bittersweet adventures of the Eskimos in the northernmost part of America, but with an anchoring main character to cohesively hold the film together. 
For me, the issue of non-authenticity in "Nanook of the North" is unimportant because as long as a story compels and drags you in a world previously unseen, then that, I think, is more than enough. And what about the hardships endured by Flaherty's crew themselves during the film's extraneous shoot? Isn't that an amazing feat in its own right? I do think so. "Nanook of the North", even for that reason alone, is worthy of all the recognition that it has gotten across time. But aside from that, I do think that the film itself is also a great example of cinematic determination at its infancy, but that does not make it any smaller compared to the hardships of today's industry. Let's just say that Robert J. Flaherty, even before Werner 'The Mad German Genius' Herzog was born, was already going all "Fitzcarraldo" in the deep arctic way before it was cool (pun not intended, by the way). 
The film, about the titular Eskimo and their everyday Exodus towards one simple goal (food), is a bittersweet documentation of what goes on in a place where technology and civilization is all but absent and where Walrus meat are one of the very few luxuries. Nanook (Allakariallak), the patriarch, is an experienced hunter who literally goes through thick and thin just to provide food and shelter for his family, complete with an almost irremovable smile on his face. For a film that is fully bent on visually tackling the turbulent topography of the arctic, "Nanook of the North" is also filled with countless scenes of tear-inducing poignancy, candidness, and awe-inspiring naivety, some of them being scenes involving Nanook and his son. 
In one scene, we even see Nanook, after trading goods with the so-called 'white man' trader in exchange for meager articles (money, after all, is immaterial to them), listens, with profound wonderment, to the quasi-magical sound coming from a phonograph. After doing so, Nanook, after being handed a vinyl record by the white man, first puts it near his ear, and then his mouth. The next thing we know, he is biting on it just like how we see 'Tarzan-like' characters do so in many movies.  
As a viewer, one can't help but to laugh at his utter ignorance. But in a way, one can also feel how enviable people like Nanook really are, especially when their tender innocence and their advantage of not knowing much evokes a sense of pure joy commonly unseen among highly civilized and decorum-following folks. As the old adage goes, sometimes, "ignorance is bliss." 
But apart from "Nanook of the North's" heart-thumping poignancy, the film is also chock-full of scenes which showcase Nanook and company's excellent craftsmanship, despite of the fact that they are miles removed from actual civilization. There's a moment in the film where Nanook, after building an igloo along with his family, picks up a glassy block of ice which he then proceeds to incorporate into their make-shift shelter. As it turns out, Nanook has turned it into a glass window perfect for their igloo. After that, Nanook then puts an additional block of ice beside it; this, as it appears to be, will serve as a sunlight reflector so that the interior of their igloo will be sufficiently lighted. 
So with that, we will go back to the initial inquiry as to whether or not scenes like the ones mentioned above were indeed authentic or merely staged. For me, the question of whether the film really deserves to be labeled as the first documentary film in cinematographic history is highly insignificant because "Nanook of the North", scripted or not, improvisational or otherwise, is nevertheless a film that intensely channels both the spirit of adventure and the resilience of the human body amid the constant prospect of an icy death. Flaherty, in this film, may not be a documentarian in the purest sense of the word, but he has sure attained a level of cinematic humanism still untouched at the time. 
Personally, Flaherty's constant capturing of Nanook's smile, which automatically spreads across his face almost immediately after his close brushes with certain death, just reminds me of the fact that both happiness and contentment have no geographical limits or ends. Ironically, I never expected that it is in the chilling coldness of the deep arctic that I shall find and relish what may be the most flawless documentation of human warmth there is. Until now, I can't remove Nanook's smile off my mind; so pure, so human and so true.


Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni)

Free love.

At the height of the American counterculture scene, a certain auteur named Michelangelo Antonioni, because of contractual obligations with producer Carlo Ponti and MGM, has set out to create "Zabriskie Point", an anti-consumerist film about the tattered fabrics of late '60s Americana. As we all know, the film, after being a critical and commercial disaster upon its initial release, has since amassed, among viewers, a silent cult following.
For a film about counterculture (or, to a certain extent, even entirely counter-American), such 360-degree turn in terms of audience perception is just rebelliously perfect. In a way, it's as if the film, after being initially misunderstood, has emerged victorious against an improbable adversary. Antonioni, an artistic outsider merely dipping his fingers in a culture he does not fully understand, is an image of elegant audacity. But because of his perennially indifferent approach to emotions and a tad too reserved an execution, "Zabriskie Point" does not quite reach the utmost potential it most certainly has.
Nevertheless, the film, for what it is worth both in the context of American culture and in the context of Antonioni's pulse as a filmmaker, is still quite a unique triumph. In a tumultuous time when demonstrations and cries of protests were brash and recklessly loud, "Zabriskie Point" is a film of quiet anger. And in the pages of Antonioni's cinematic play book, this is a most definitive approach.
Depending highly on symbolic visual manifestations (the imagined mass orgy representing sexual liberation; the film's destruction of consumerist products captured in slow-motion) rather than on obvious imagery and contrived scenarios, the film feels fresh and, typical to Antonioni, alien.
For the record, "Zabriskie Point" is never the definitive, all-American counterculture film. Instead, what the film actually represents, on Antonioni's part, is something personal and culturally detached. This is, after all, Antonioni's sarcastic love poem to America. By often framing his characters in front of commercial billboards displaying sandwich spread products and corporation names, Michaelangelo Antonioni was able to enforce his critique of the American 'way' without looking forced and too satirical. So "Zabriskie Point", in a way, is less a film than it is a state of mind.
Typical to Antonioni's thematic style, the film wallows less on the nuances of humanity but more on why people are slowly losing it. In this film's case, 'capitalism' and 'mass consumerism' are the main culprits. But before everything goes too far, I do not think that the film is entirely political or even completely radical. If anything else, "Zabriskie Point" purely wallows on the futility of activism. That after all, making an anti-establishment film is just like writing an anti-glacier book (kudos to Kurt Vonnegut). Alas, Antonioni's indifferent brand of cinema, which has earned him both fans and detractors alike throughout the years, has worked yet again, and quite fascinating at that. Through the use of on-screen movements rather than words and dialogues, he was able to convincingly capture the essence of 'free love' during the time.
The great example for this is the scene when our two protagonists, one a beautiful anthropology student (riding a car) and the other a rebellious young man (riding a small plane), show their subtle endearment to each other by way of "North by Northwest-esque" aerial communication. As touching as it is strange, Antonioni has made use of two very American manufactured products (the car and the plane) and turned them into objects that bridge human connection. And then of course, there's that famous orgy scene, performed with dream-like abandon by the Open Theatre and beautified by Pink Floyd's transcendental music. Moreover, the film, by highlighting both the barren landscapes of the empty, titular part of Death Valley and the hustle and bustle life within the product-emblazoned corners of mainstream America, is also a textbook exercise in great visual contrast.
Generally speaking, "Zabriskie Point's" reputation was indeed highly damaged by the notoriety of its initial reception. For the film's producer and distributor, such failure spiels apocalyptic repercussions. But for a director like Antonioni, a man who is never new to countless boos and walk-outs (the Cannes screening of "L'avventura" comes to mind), such reaction is not a blemish to his ego nor his career but a mere solidification of his utterly divisive and infuriating power as a filmmaker.
For some directors, a picture of "Zabriskie Point's" quality can already be considered as a pinnacle. But for Antonioni, it's a mere frolic within the western movie system that he despises the most, and the joke's on them.


Friday, January 11, 2013

L'Age d'Or (Luis Buñuel)


A year after their aesthetically shocking "An Andalusian Dog", Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, two of the most subversive minds in all of modern art, return to form with something that's infinitely more scandalous, blasphemous and, to the eyes of many during the time, even close to pornographic. In a way, "An Andalusian Dog", a boldly offensive film in its own right, is their comparatively tamer (and saner, even) dress rehearsal for this little bad boy, an epic (yes, I think so) 60-minute dissection of societal putrescence.
Although the film is comprised of surrealistic images that may or may not ultimately add up to one coherent message, the individual intrigue that the images were able to evoke are truly unnerving. In my personal view, the film's visuals, in all its take-no-prisoners lunacy, is one of the most spot-on recapturing of the social, psychological and romantic insanities of our times.  So yes, despite of the film's highly blasphemous thematic texture, "L'Age d'Or" can be ironically considered as a 'miraculous' achievement in modern cinema, especially considering the fact that both Buñuel and Dali, at the time, were not that acquainted to the rigors of filmmaking.
In simple description, the film, at least on surface level, is the story of how two lovers, because of numerous hindrances and disruptions, can't seem to consummate their sexual and romantic longings just like how the bourgeoisie people in "The Exterminating Angel" can't seem to get out of the room they're in or how they can't even seem to eat their meals in "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". Ultimately, it is in the middle of this kind of futility (specifically this film's two main characters and their misfiring attempts to be with one another) that both Buñuel and Dali were able to paint the landscapes of their film's masterful social probe. By penetrating the rotting core of what founds the pillars of religion, modern society and love itself, these two surrealistic bad boys were able to unearth, with unapologetic humor and shocking images, the intense perversity of human nature and its devastating consequences.
Often merely described as a surrealistic satire, I think that "L'Age d'Or" should be more aptly labeled as an anti-religious social nightmare that will make even the most apathetic member of the social populace cringe. Hell, more than 80 years have passed and I still think that this film is not for the faint of heart. After all, what do you expect if you merge the minds of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, an elegant costume drama? This film, just like the scorpions in its opening scene, may be too small in stature and short in length, but it sure profoundly stings.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger)

Opening scene.

Being one of the more truly divisive films that have since become cult classics, "Scorpio Rising" has always been a curiosity for me, despite of its slightly icky homosexual theme. Indeed, after watching the film in its 28-minute entirety, I can definitely see where numerous film enthusiasts are coming from when they hail the film as an influential piece of underground cinema. Sure, with its psychedelic amalgamation of religious iconography, Nazism and the rising 'rebel' culture of the '60s, "Scorpio Rising" is quite effective in terms of pushing forth a distorted state of mind. But for me, the film lacks the ultimate gut-punch, which Kenneth Anger, its director, could have easily pulled off, especially with the often understated power of terseness on his side.
As an experimental film, the film surely has some intriguing moments (the church scene is one of those), but ultimately, I was left quite unsure about the film's focus and where it truly resides. Yes, it is a given that Kenneth Anger is seemingly trying to assert the fact that riders consider their hobby as nothing short of a religion just like how Christians herald Christianity and Nazis highly regard Nazism. But hell, I haven't felt the sense of cohesion needed for such a potentially compelling commentary on hobbyist obsession. And why add the fictitious aspect of homosexuality in the film? For me, whatever the context of this aspect may be, I think it was just injected so that, you know, the film can take on a new layer of pseudo-complexity.
Constructively speaking, instead of making the film a befuddling experimental/mood piece just like what it is, Anger could have potentially made "Scorpio Rising" a full-fledged anthropological film about the motorists' alternative lifestyle and whether or not they can bode well with the fabric of mainstream Americana. With that, I think the film could have easily expressed what "Easy Rider" has powerfully done so just 5 years after it. I did enjoy the soundtrack, though. Honestly, I could listen to the songs at any given time.
At the end of the day, it's quite easy to see the film's encompassing visual influence on other filmmakers, notably Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. But what is quite difficult now to make sense of is why the film is considered 'great'. If you remove the stock footage from "The Living Bible: Last Journey to Jerusalem" short and half of the film's music, what we're merely left with is a plodding little film that has its sights on nothing but tires and leather boots and its destination to nowhere but the directionless path to pretense.


Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)

On the run and going wild.

With the last Jean-Luc Godard film that I have watched (which is "Weekend") tracing back about 3 years ago, that of which I also vividly remember of not liking that much, it's genuinely reinvigorating to watch some of his earlier, more beloved works that are, undoubtedly, the patented heart and soul of the French New Wave. In this instance, it is "Pierrot le Fou", a masterful adventure film about love, self-discovery and, ultimately, self-destruction. But with Godard on the helm, nothing is particularly absolute.  
Starring the charismatic yet mischievous-looking Jean-Paul Belmondo and the enticingly energetic Anna Karina, the film, about two star-crossed, perennially on-the-run lovers, is packed with immense intellectual energy and colorful playfulness characteristic of the aforementioned film movement.
Although the film sure has a conventional story that's quite easy to follow, it's never the main priority. Instead, "Pierrot le Fou" is a film that follows the impulse not of its surface narrative but of the transgressive potentials the film medium has. In short, "Pierrot le Fou" is a half-comic, half-poetic intimation of cinema itself, and there's never a more perfect filmmaker to handle it than Godard himself.
Personally, the key to enjoy "Pierrot le Fou" more is not to be too conscious and reliant of the plot because if you'll be, the film has numerous elements that can surely and gravely deviate from its focus. One of them, of course, is the seemingly disjointed, pseudo-romantic yet nonetheless poetic utterances by Belmondo's titular character. Another is the film's inclusion of random, millisecond appearances of numerous neon signs, some of which read the words 'cinema' and 'life'.
These minute details, obviously, are nothing but sheer experimental frolic on Godard's part, which, admittedly, has nonetheless added an additional spark of uniqueness to the film's entirety.
"Film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word: emotions," said Samuel Fuller, who appeared in "Pierrot le Fou" as himself. In a way, this cameo by the said filmmaker is a deliberate embrace of irony on Godard's part, who, from what I think, believes that cinema is so much more than emotions. Sure, they (the emotions) may slightly further a storyline, motivate some characters and justify some scenes, but ultimately, what Godard is more concerned about is his audience's intellectual and subtly didactic journey through the heart and pulse of cinema itself. Or, to be more exact, 'his' own vision of cinema: a vision where anything goes, where obscure music and high-brow literature fit nicely in mundanely immature conversations and situations, and where blood and violence seem highly inconsequential. Hell, even highway accidents have never looked more picturesque and unearthly than in "Pierrot le Fou" (but then again, there's that epic tracking shot in "Weekend").
"It's not really a film, it's an attempt at cinema," Godard once said about "Pierrot le Fou". Well, if "Pierrot le Fou" is not, in its basic essence, a film, then perhaps Belmondo's Pierrot (oh sorry, his name is Ferdinand) and Karina's Marianne are not much characters themselves than they are mere devices for Godard to kick-start a necessary road trip and to make his ultimate goal, which is to explore the then-unchartered frontiers of postmodern cinema, as humanly and tangibly flawed as possible. And alas, he has pulled it off.
Indeed, "Pierrot le Fou" is a film that's worthy of many future revisits. For me, the film has definitely achieved what many art films haven't, and that is to be thematically dense and genuinely enjoyable at the same breath. Plus, amidst its pop-intellectual discourse about nothing and everything, it has also raised quite a compelling outlook on existence; that after all is said and done', 'we are just dead men on parole.' 


Monday, January 7, 2013

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway)

A gourmet parable.

Even before I became a full-fledged cinephile, I was already more than aware of the "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" notoriety as a taboo-breaking motion picture that navigates around the question of whether or not films with such abhorring themes can really pass as adequate art. For films like this, audience polarization is all but given. But with the history of cinema itself to finely attest and creations like "Pink Flamingos" and "Last Tango in Paris" as lasting proofs, only time can really tell if whether or not thematically questionable films may dwindle into obscurity or shine ever brighter. In "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" case and the two other aforementioned films, it's definitely the latter. Personally, only a few films have simultaneously left me in both revolting disgust and stunning awe; count this great, great film as one of the handfuls.
Directed by the subversive British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" is a poetic shock tale about infidelity, ruthlessness and revenge with a gourmet twist. Anchored by Michael Gambon's intensely frightening (yet also comedic) performance as the gangster cum restaurant owner Albert Spica and Helen Mirren's understated turn as his wife Georgina, the film often takes on a very stagy quality fitting of its highly surrealistic tone. Together, they have both showcased what I think are the best performances that I've seen in quite a while.
Right now, fresh from seeing Michael Gambon's wicked portrayal as Mr. Spica, it's really just quite hard to imagine that the very same actor has also more than convincingly played the post-Richard Harris Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series. The same goes for Helen Mirren, who has just disappeared into the role of the very sensual Georgina that it's quite a tricky mind exercise to muster the fact that she still has enough acting skills (and insane at that) left to pull off the Queen of England herself in an Oscar-winning turn many years later.
But aside from the performances, that which also includes Alan Howard's realistic portrayal of Georgina's mild-mannered lover and Richard Bohringer's symbolic embodiment of the defiant chef, much is to be lovingly observed and deliciously absorbed in this film. One of them, although some may see it as a mere production foot note, is the exquisitely transitional costume design (done by Jean Paul Gaultier, whom, weird enough, I have first heard about in "American Psycho"), whose color-coded elegance contrasts with the film's visual and thematic depiction of decay. Oh and there's also the set design, which greatly detaches the film from the organic nature of reality, and the cinematography, an aspect that exceptionally characterizes the film with an ironic degree of formalism albeit its relentless display of grotesqueries.
In a nutshell, I think "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" can be simply sufficed as an operatic comedy of bizarre proportions. Yet on one hand, I think it can also be labeled as a humorously dramatic disembowelment of the superficiality of modern manners. But then, there's also, as what many has claimed, the film's supposedly metaphorical attack on Margaret Thatcher's politics. Though I am sadly quite ignorant of Thatcherism (but I do know of its strict adherence towards privatization among others), it is really not that hard to look beyond the surface of the film and unearth its underlying sociopolitical layer, what with its disturbingly symbolic depiction of the 'ruler' (Albert) and the 'ruled' (Georgina, the chef and all the other characters).
"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", despite of its satirical attack on Britain's political milieu at the time of its release, is still a timeless achievement in niche filmmaking, especially in how it has made the bizarre look tasteful and vice versa. Also, this is the first time that I have seen a film where infidelity was depicted as if justified, and its perpetrators not as advantageous offenders but as romantic heroes. Now, if only I can see this on the big screen…


Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)


Widely heralded as one of the most historically significant films of all time, watching "The Battle of Algiers" is like watching a riveting, 2-hour newsreel footage, complete with all those 'blink and you'll miss it' moments of candid power. But more importantly, what makes "The Battle of Algiers" a fine film is its incredibly unbiased and objective depiction of the Algerian revolution; a quite tricky feat perhaps, considering the fact that for films like this, it's quite difficult not to choose sides. But by choosing not to be emotionally partisan, "The Battle of Algiers" was able to realistically reconstruct the events and make them flow in an intensely natural way.
On one side, there's the radical group called the National Liberation Front (FLN), whose tactics border on outright terrorism. While on the other, there are the French paratroopers, whose interrogation methods and counter military acts border on the atrociously inhumane.  Gillo Pontecorvo, the film's director, is quite adamant in highlighting the fact that in the bigger picture, none of them (the FLN and the French military) are completely righteous nor utterly justified in what they do and that the film's real protagonist is not the French's Colonel Matthieu (played by Jean Martin) or the FLN's Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Hadjadj) but the Algerian people themselves. Ultimately, "The Battle of Algiers" succeeds as a film that deals with the universal language of revolution and as a stunning portrayal of an otherwise obscure fragment of history.
Speaking as a citizen who is born and raised in a country (the Philippines) that had its fair share of political uprisings, I can easily connect with the Algerian revolutionaries' fevered sentiment towards freedom and colonial deliverance. But what I cannot particularly embrace in the Algerian Revolution is the unnecessary bloodshed, which was starkly captured by the film's black and white photography (by Marcello Gatti) and was intensified by Ennio Morricone's iconic musical score.
Personally, I did not enjoy "The Battle of Algiers" that much because, after all, there's no way that the film is an entertaining one to watch. It's never a film that wholly glorifies the Algerian Revolution and carelessly trivializes the violence involved in it. Instead, the film shows the titular conflict merely as one thing: a bloody footnote in human history. And for this, I praise the Algerian government, which has commissioned the film's creation, for not peppering it with spirited propaganda. With a faceless crowd as the protagonist and with no sides taken, "The Battle of Algiers" is a clear-cut proof of how neutrality can make a cinematic difference.

(Note: In 2003, the film was screened in the Pentagon to highlight the pressing problems faced by the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Quite ironic, isn't it?)


Friday, January 4, 2013

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)


"Last Year at Marienbad", certainly one of the most enigmatic motion pictures in all of cinema history, is an exhilarating piece of art whose main intent is not to tell a coherent story but to evoke a multitude of moods, feelings and states of mind. Its director, Alain Resnais, is not much concerned with narratives of any kind but on the utmost potential of film as an art form when there's little to none. His earlier film, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", has a slight semblance of a story but instead capitalizes on the emotional landscapes of the characters. This one on the other hand, a pure masterpiece of modern cinema, is a journey of shifting moods and of the ever-changing nature of memory wrapped in the poetic repetitiveness of a love story that may or may not have been.
Set within the confines of a lavish chateau populated by high society people luxuriating in certain stagnant joys (card games and endless drinks), "Last Year at Marienbad" is about two people, a man ('X') and a woman ('A'), and their struggle to remember a romantic affair that they, according to the man, might have had 'last year at Marienbad'. Oh, and there's also another character ('M'), the man that may or may not be the woman's husband/lover. Mysteriously code-named like parts of a mathematical equation, these three characters are involved in an emotionally treacherous attempt to make sense of events that are eye-deep in abstraction. Can they even arrive at something akin to certainty?
Through the use of exquisite editing, "Last Year at Marienbad" was able to channel a hauntingly cerebral texture, which makes the film even more mysterious than it already is. And by merging flashbacks (or are they?) with the inferred reality of the film (or is it?), the film was able to take on a very dream-like feel which ultimately speaks of the utter unreliability of memory and the consequences of not having remembered much.
As with all avant-garde films, "Last Year at Marienbad" is a highly divisive picture that may either be branded as a stunning masterpiece or merely as a highly-ornamented piece of pretentious gunk. For one, it is clearly understandable for some viewers to categorize the film in the latter, with the film's lack of narrative being one of the primary culprits why it can easily be labeled as nothing but a pseudo-profound waste of time. But still, no one can deny the film's powerful simulation of what goes on inside a person's mind when love (especially a forbidden one) is painfully involved.
But then again, "Last Year at Marienbad" may really not be about love just like how "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is not simply about a happenstance romance. At least for me, the film's lasting effect is not really about how memories twist reality but about how love twists life itself. And in this elliptical masterpiece that is "Last Year at Marienbad", the ultimate victim is the mind.
Alain Resnais, one of the seminal movers of the French New Wave (although indirectly at that), has created his ultimate masterpiece in the form of this film, a hauntingly nightmarish depiction of the fragility of memory, of a love affair that really wasn't, and of a reality that betrays. "Last Year at Marienbad" is, at least for me, a profoundly anomalous take on how the phrase 'last year' could have easily been 'last month', 'last week' or even 'last hour or so'; it plays a bitter puzzle game on its three main characters and, ultimately, on us, the viewers. How did we come to participate on it? I have the slightest bit of clue. Perhaps the game just ceased to be.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)

To live.

"This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story," says a narrator, who's pertaining to an x-ray image of a stomach obviously ripe with cancerous complications. And so begins "Ikiru", a meditative film of quiet power that tackles mortality and life's purpose yet also dips its fingers on issues concerning the cons of bureaucracy. The film's protagonist is Kanji Watanabe, an old man who seems to be no more alive than a dysfunctional machine.
In many ways, films like "Scent of a Woman" and "About Schmidt" derive from "Ikiru's" main emotional drive, which is as timeless as it is life-affirming. As what the film suggests, maybe it is only in the face of death and mortal desperation will we muster change and find true significance; indeed, life is brief. In the words of the narrator in "Fight Club": "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time".
Takashi Shimura, who has previously played the woodcutter in "Rashomon" and who will later play, after this film, the noble Kambei in "Seven Samurai", plays Watanabe, a bureaucrat who, for the longest time, has led an uneventful life drained of all meaning or worth. Making his living by stamping insignificant papers for approval, he is as mechanized and emotionless as he can be. But in one ill-fated day, he is diagnosed with stomach cancer. According to the doctor, he has around six months to live. 
Devastated, Watanabe has never felt more strangely detached from the land of the living. His already hunched posture even becoming more contorted and his already fragmented articulation of words becoming even more so, Watanabe, as maybe what Kurosawa has intended, is the defining image of a modern man who has nothing to say about his life other than the painful fact that he has merely 'lived'. 
Going home, Watanabe then pitifully tries to tell his son about his terminal illness but is discouraged by the latter's coldness. Finding no sense of belongingness either in his own home (with his son being mainly concerned not with his father's well-being but with his pension) or in his work, he suddenly had this craving to just lash out. Guided by a struggling novelist, Watanabe then tries to navigate the busy, booze-laden nightlife of '50s Japan to find out whether or not it can make up for his final days. As it turns out, it does not. 
After his bar-hopping misfire, he then gets closer to a young woman named Toyo, an office subordinate of his who has recently tendered her resignation in Watanabe's office in favor of working in a toy factory, and whose exuberant and pure love for life leaves Watanabe in utter awe and in disgruntled fascination.
Miki Odagiri, who plays Toyo, has this distinct kind of energy that finely balances out Takashi Shimura's seemingly stagnant and doomed presence. By often framing Shimura's Watanabe, hunched, blank-eyed and ever-brooding, in the foreground and Odagiri's Toyo in the not-so-distant background, Kurosawa was constantly able to highlight the two characters' contrasting traits, behaviors and overall existence within the spatial landscapes of the film.     
"…In other words, why are you so incredibly alive?" Watanabe blurts out to Toyo, who innocently mistakes his desperate need to understand his own existence as romantic advances. Toyo answered him that all she does is work and eat. She then gets a toy rabbit from her bag, one of the many products being made in the toy factory where she's employed; "Making them (the toy rabbits), I feel like I'm playing with every baby in Japan," Kimura then said. 
Seemingly refreshed from Toyo's all-too-naïve yet honest response, Watanabe then sets out to do something that may hopefully make him matter. In a stunning turn of events, Watanabe transforms from an old nobody to a defiant spirit reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith determined to will through the lethargic incompetency of the city hall officials so that he can convince them to turn a mosquito-laden cesspool into a children's park.     
Much like "Rashomon", we then get to see another epistemological discourse on Kurosawa's part, this time not about the truth (or the lack thereof) behind a mysterious murder but about the legacy of a man who everybody never expected to have left one. And by piecing together some fragmentary moments in Watanabe's life as witnessed by his co-workers, from his brave persistence to stand up for the children's park to his starry-eyed admiration of the sunset, we then finally arrive at what Watanabe is looking for all his life: meaning and self-worth. 
"Ikiru", which literally means "To Live", is a an affecting film that explores man's search for existential meaning not through philosophically sophisticated means that may alienate viewers but realistically through an old man's eyes who just want to be at peace with those around him and, more importantly, with himself. Despite of "Ikiru's" apparent and sometimes much too overwhelming commentary on political bureaucracy, I'd rather remember it as an honest and reflective film about mortality and the often undermined beauty of life; simple as that. This then reminds me of a quote by Monty Python's Michael Palin: "Don't talk about living, just live".


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