Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon)


Perhaps one of the horror genre's more enduring and uniquely humorous classics, "Re-Animator" is kind of like a respectful bastardization of H.P. Lovecraft's short story (entitled "Herbert West: Reanimator"), and may also be seen as a mock ode to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". It is intentionally campy in its set-up and fittingly goofy in some of its over-the-top gore, not to mention that Jeffrey Combs' insanely cult performance is a genuine thing of 'slapstick horror' legend. Sure, the film may not have aged that particularly well especially in moments when it actually tries to scare the bejeezus out of us viewers, but it still holds up quite nicely as an absurdist effort to squeeze out something fresh and conceptually new from the seemingly exhaustive world of the undead. Suddenly, at least through director Stuart Gordon's outrageously horrific playfulness, hospital morgues aren't that monastically creepy anymore, and medical schools not much hives of bright minds but of psychotic lobotomists and of future Josef Mengeles. 

Indeed, it's a twisted and perverted world that the characters of "Re-Animator" live in; add up Jeffrey Combs' Herbert West, the 'roommate from hell'/'mad medical student' who has ingeniously created a serum that can bring dead people back to life, into the mix and you've got one hell of a, well, hell ride into the bloody corners of human anatomy and back. The film may not be as smooth as the "Evil Dead" trilogy in terms of blood-drenched shtick, but at least, it can boast of an iconic image long-time fans of the horror genre can very well recognize: and that is of Herbert West looking somewhere near the camera, pointy-lipped and all, armed and ready with his serum-filled syringe. He may not be as romantically heroic as Lionel in "Braindead", as slick as Ash in "Evil Dead II", or as manly as MacReady in "The Thing", but his persistent madness oozes a kind of detached, ironically magnetic charm that, despite being despicable by default, still makes him very easy to root for. It's also quite nice to see the Dan Cain character (played by Bruce Abbott), a medical student who becomes West's roommate, unusually serving as both confidant and foil to West's loony bin aspirations at the same time. Even David Gale, playing the villainous Dr. Carl Hill, is also quite enjoyable to watch even though his performance screams 'poor man's Christopher Lee' all over. 

The special effects, although indelibly cartoonish even if you try to convince yourself that this is a serious horror picture, are top-notch and hard to look away from, but in a very humorously implausible kind of way. But be that as it may, "Re-Animator" is still a thoroughly entertaining picture with enough obligatory gore, quotable one-liners, and even an apt exposure of flesh, to satisfy the red-blooded cravings of an average horror fan. Though I must admit that the film's climax is probably better on paper than when it was finally executed by Stuart Gordon and company on-screen, the film is still tons of fun, thanks of course to its dreadful kind of energy, tongue-in-cheek execution, and a dose of wit that's even sharper than the hypodermic needle on Herbert West's big-ass syringe. The only problem, though, is that it has every right to go out with an unprecedented kind of vomit-inducing bang, but has instead chosen not to. And is that an iteration of Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" score?

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Transit (Hannah Espia)

Israeli dreamin'.

There's this highly popular and overly-heeded phrase in "The Wizard of Oz" which states that there's no place like home. I, for one, can nonchalantly and confidently say that, indeed, there's no other country that can compare to the Philippines' awe-inspiring, sun-baking, and smoke-belching glory. But here in "Transit", a film directed by Hannah Espia and is shot mostly in Israel, the states of mind of Filipinos who were forced by circumstances to assume a foreign country as their homeland are explored, and the end result is something that validates the claim that Philippine cinema is, yet again, relatively on the rise. 

Edited in a highly non-linear fashion that's quite reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's films and whose story was told in a way that makes it a distant kin to Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation", "Transit" effortlessly crisscrosses between its otherwise all-encompassing and sensitive subject matter (religion, politics, race) and its smaller, more observant drama without losing a sense of balance. The film, about the Israeli government's decision to deport the children of immigrant workers, could have easily descended into the typical and highly mechanical territories of a cinematic thriller. After all, "Transit's" story is ripe with racial tension and international intrigue; two themes that most politically-charged thrillers commonly tread. Even the title, honestly, has steered my guts into expecting a relatively tense arthouse film. 

Surprisingly, what I got instead, along with all the others who were lucky enough to see the film for free, is a painfully realistic, impressively assured, and unexpectedly lyrical look at the plight of those affected by the said implementation. And as much as the film is about the consequences of politics, "Transit", in terms of characterization and story, is evidently more focused on its human elements rather than the bureaucratic technicalities that truncate them. Even the Israeli characters in the film, which, if we consider Espia's potential bias as a Filipino filmmaker, could have easily been transitory and completely one-dimensional, were fleshed out and were also given their respective hearts. 

Jasmine Curtis, once known in Philippine showbiz merely as, quote unquote, "Anne Curtis' pretty little sister", has developed into a full-fledged actress, thanks of course to Espia's impressive direction. Reliable character actors Ping Medina, Irma Adlawan, and indie nymph Mercedes Cabral, on the other hand, were almost unrecognizable in their roles. Be it through how Medina intentionally 'carabaos' the way he speaks English, how Adlawan, even without doing anything, evokes, through her gestures, facial expressions, and even her slightly hunched posture, the hardships of a typical OFW, or even how Cabral uses her eyes so effectively that they seem to have lives and characters of their own, the cast successfully makes use of dramatic subtlety to finely complement the film's effectively simplistic cinematography (by Ber Cruz and Lyle Sacris). But then again, the emotional center of the film is Marc Justine Alvarez as Joshua: the kid that's in danger of being deported back to the Philippines. 

Personally, I can sometimes tell that a film is finely-directed by way of how the kids in it act. And here, Alvarez' naturalistic acting just goes to show how promising Hannah Espia really is (I forgot to mention that this is her debut feature) both as a nuanced filmmaker and as an actor's director. And though there will always be, at least for a local filmmaker, the temptation to turn a film like this, which was shot in a foreign country, into a travelogue of sorts (eherm, Star Cinema, eherm), Espia never succumbed to it. Instead, she has utilized Israel's quaint beauty and religious traditions to further a sense of cultural insight into the so-called Holy land, to validate the characters' genuine attachment to the place, and to answer just why, aside from financial needs, it's just really hard for them to go. 

Of course, Dorothy was right when she happily exclaimed that "there's no place like home", but would the meaning of this very naive phrase still apply to people (like the ones in the film) who adhere themselves to the concept of home not because of sentimental or nationalistic reasons but of simple necessity? "Transit" quietly shakes its head and takes the statement with a grain of salt (Dead Sea pun intended). The way I see it, the film is a highly resonant reminder to the independent film industry here in the Philippines that 'poverty' is not the only topic there is, nor squatter areas and non-redemptive lowlives the only ones that deserve attention from filmmakers. Sometimes, we need to peek outside of our immediate realities and snoop on our more affluent neighbors because, who knows? One of our family members may be hopelessly lost in there, and who are in dire need of help and also of a voice.

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