September 21, 2008

Entries on Wayne Wang.

I have two entries on the director Wayne Wang on my American Pop blog. One is called The Saga of Wayne Wang and will probably inaugurate a whole series of reviews (if not a full-on retrospective) of his work to date on my movie blog. The second is an interview with Wang himself, called Insider / Outsider: An Interview with Wayne Wang.

And on film, eyeballs, brain, I have reviews of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:44 AM

August 17, 2008

New Blog!

I was playing with WordPress this morning and thought I'd repost my longer blog entries on movies into a new site. (The category page was getting too unwieldy to load anyhow.)

So: three entries will be uploaded a day until the old posts run out, which will probably be a month. I won't be editing any of them (regardless of how wrong they might sound to me now), just reposting them as I go.

It's interesting to see that, in the 11 years or so I've been blogging, my writing has actually changed -- for the better, I think. Whether it's an improvement in style (debatable), an acquisition of both writing and cinematic vocabularies, or a genuine attempt in taking the stuff more seriously, it's a reflection of an ongoing, immersive, giddy education in consuming movies. Or, perhaps more aptly, being consumed by them. I can't think of any other art form that has given me as much pleasure.

It should be clear that this cinematic "education" is not formal at all; when it comes to movies I'm a total amateur -- and yes, in the older sense of the word too. (And I should add that despite the mention of Tarkovsky and Kubrick -- and that screen capture from Last Year in Marienbad, which will change from time to time -- I'll still be mostly writing about flicks you can find at your local multiplex.)

The name of the WordPress blog -- Film, Eyeballs, Brain -- partly comes from an essay in The New Yorker by Jonathan Lethem called "The Beards". An excerpt from the piece is reproduced in a sidebar, and it should be self-explanatory. (However, I've actually taken it a bit out of context. It may be best not to reproduce the succeeding paragraphs as they're probably a little too revealing -- not of Lethem, but of myself. You can find it in anthologized in Lethem's essay collection The Disappointment Artist, but he rewrote the passage I quote.)

Please add me to your feedreader, link to me on your blogroll, tell friends, and most of all: please leave comments! (And please don't tell me that the url looks like it's four separate words ("Film, Eye, Balls, Brain") -- I know that already.

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:04 PM

July 25, 2008

From the Wiretaps.

A sampling of topics from my e-mail and IM conversations of the last seven days:

- the Joker as the ‹bermensch

- Gotham = Baghdad

- "Is Batman a Jack Bauer-like Republican vigilante figure, who takes the hatred of the world upon himself to do the necessary work of getting rid of terrorism, or a slightly-more-liberal figure who represents the moral gray zones surrounding every good action?" [quoting my friend Eleanor here without permission]

- "I was just watching Les Miserables... here was the symptom of postmodernity if there ever was one -- a musical phenomenon that hit the world globally as the... faith in revolution declined. Now that there ain't large metanarratives, all we're left with is Harvey Dent..." [quoting my friend Kiko here, also without permission]

- Alfred as servant and father figure

- the burning of currency and postmodern chaos

- Bruce Wayne is to Harvey Dent what the Batman is to the Joker -- or a different configuration altogether?

- Does power still lie in the hands of "the people" (including, paradoxically, the incarcerated), and do they ultimately correct the extralegal excesses of the state?

- The Dark Knight, the new iPhone, queues, obsessive consumer mentality, and the demise of national ritual, secular and otherwise

- IMAX and the aesthetics of scale

- Christopher Nolan quoting Michael Caine in Entertainment Weekly: "Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America."

- and Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero"

I haven't responded yet to Gladys' comments, on female identification and Wanted -- it's over at my American Pop entry -- but more food for thought: according to EW, 48 percent of the audience at The Dark Knight were women. (I can hear your answer already, though: "Christian Bale, duh.")

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:20 AM

July 18, 2008

Two Movies That Actually Have Something To Do With Each Other: Hellboy 2 / The Dark Knight.

Almost five hours of movies (Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight) and four hours of sleep later, I find that I can barely string together a coherent review. (This is also a break from my usual Two Movies That Have Nothing To Do With Each Other series, because they're pretty similar.) I'll leave the real reviews up to Barb, who (we're such nerds) just posted hers within minutes of my posting this [WARNING: SPOILERS in her entry!] and Oscar, so here are some random notes instead. I tried keeping this under 1000 words, but no dice:

1. As great as Hellboy 2 was, The Dark Knight blows the 2008 summer movie lineup out of the water. Easily one of the best films I've seen this year. I missed seeing Iron Man and Hancock, and sure, that X-Files movie won't be out for another week or so, but The Dark Knight was simply fantastic. Leave work early, find babysitters, cancel unnecessary meetings, even promise to see Mamma Mia or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 as a trade -- just go.

2. The guy at Jack London Square Cinemas told me last night that 600 people were coming to the midnight show. People were lined up before 10 pm, so strategize!

3. Selma Selma Selma, lovely as ever. (My friend Jane once said, "Selma Blair?? Ugh! She looks like some Comp Lit major from Radcliffe!", or words to that effect, to which I answered, "Exactly.")

4. What The Dark Knight "lacks" in terms of visual variety -- it's practically a uniform palette of washed-out blue and gunmetal -- Hellboy 2 delivers in spades. The surreality of Pan's Labyrinth (a film I didn't care for very much, actually) runs gloriously riot in Hellboy 2: carnivorous tooth fairies spilling out of the woodwork, caverns with enormous cog wheels, a truly frightening Angel of Death, and an entire bestiary seen only in bad dreams. (Thank goodness they're del Toro's and Mike Mignola's dreams, not mine.)

5. And three reasons to go early: previews for Quantum of Solace, Terminator: Survival (Christian Bale as John Connor!), and a third, shiver-inducing preview, which you may have heard about already, but here's a hint about what that movie is: "This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face."

6. The Dark Knight wins the prize for best casting, a prize made sweeter by the fact that the infinitely cooler Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced Mrs. Tom Cruise this time around. And it's great to see Eric Roberts, Keith Szarabajka, and Anthony Michael Hall on the big screen.

7. What left me somewhat cold in del Toro's film was that the stakes didn't seem terribly high -- not cinematically, but in terms of the film's narrative. Perhaps the most stunning sequence has to do with an Elemental, a cross between Alec Holland and Cthulhu (and at the conclusion of the scene, more reminiscent of those forest giants in Princess Mononoke) -- and then it's unexpectedly dropped. Mignola and del Toro hint at an epic backstory, in an opening storytelling scene right out of Pan's Labyrinth, but what happens between then and 2008 is tossed aside.

8. The Dark Knight is surprisingly violent (I was shocked to discover that it was only PG-13), and references film noir more directly than any of the previous Batman movies. In fact, it's probably best seen not as a "comic book film" -- del Toro's movie is closer in spirit to the comics -- but as an urban policier, complete with a whole series of crosses and double-crosses, of unmaskings and deceptions, and a suffocating sense of an irresoluble moral impasse.

9. And lots of explosions. God, the things they blow up in these two movies.

10. Heath Ledger's Joker isn't just some buffoonish criminal mastermind like Jack Nicholson's Joker; his Joker feels genuinely psychotic and unhinged, and he's not the sort of sadistic villain that easily inspires any identification from the audience. As Barb will probably point out, Heath Ledger doesn't exactly deliver an Oscar-worthy performance. It's too one-note, on the level of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, but it hints, sadly, at an untapped talent cut short. As Oscar will probably point out, the heavy lifting is performed here by Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent: unctuous, ambitious, charming, and blinded by rage in the course of the film.

11. I now have no doubt that The Hobbit will be fucking awesome.

12. Hellboy 2 was genuinely heartwarming, even if these feelings were mostly earned by an unexpectedly sweet use of a Barry Manilow song. (And yes, it's a love story too, though as written above, the choices made in Hellboy 2 are nowhere near as consequential as the decisions in The Dark Knight.) It also has more of the humor of Mignola's books, though it's a little more forced here.

13. There's no similar exhilaration in The Dark Knight as you walk out of the theater, simply because it's almost relentlessly bleak; you're sitting at the edge of your seat almost the entire time, for starters, and the cumulative effect of two hours and forty minutes of this leaves you feeling bruised.

14. Though there's a nighttime scene of Batman flying over Hong Kong which is just marvelous.

15. Finally: two new movies, set in Manhattan, set in two major American cities, that no longer reference 9/11. (EDIT: Thanks, Eleanor from Urbana-Champaign, for the Gotham/Chicago correction.)

16. As with many good superhero movies, the protagonist struggles with the duality of her or his concealments, the split between public and private, the thin line between criminality and order, the meaning of heroism and the divided life, whether you're a lumbering, cigar-chomping spawn of the devil with a liking for six-packs of Tecate (and Ron Perlman is excellent here, his best role since I saw him last in Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter) or an asshole billionaire with a big R&D budget (and Christian Bale is also very good).

17. But in Hellboy 2 this struggle comes too late and undeveloped. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is sworn to protect humanity from rogue supernatural elements, but the B.P.R.D. is composed of "freaks" themselves. (In fact, the word "freak" gets mentioned a lot in both films.) And thus, Hellboy's dilemma: he's there to eradicate one of his own, but he entertains this doubt for maybe a full minute.

18. In contrast, the struggle is front and center in The Dark Knight. I don't think I've seen a genre movie in a while -- maybe Ben Affleck's very fine Gone Baby Gone? -- that has explicitly foregrounded these questions regarding morality, and the consequences of one's actions, as this one.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:54 PM

July 03, 2008

New American Pop Entry: Cool Stupid.

My summer class got cancelled (long story having to do with new job opportunities in combination with low enrollment), so I guess I get to watch summer movies instead.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:26 AM

June 24, 2008

Xavier Gens' Frontier(s).

Horror movies, as any Comp Lit freshman would tell you, are often allegories of something or other. They can, on occasion, be a little more direct and literal in their targets, as seen in works like George Romero's Land of the Dead (2005) or Joe Dante's Homecoming (2005), The first is a thinly-veiled call to smash the oligarchy; the second, an anti-war film about zombie soldiers and elections and the war in Iraq, with no veils at all. The French director Xavier Gens' unremittingly nasty Frontière(s)(2007), a refreshing breath of dungeon-dank air, doesn't quite fall in the same category -- it takes too much pleasure in tormenting its characters for it to be taken seriously as political contestation -- but there is, at least, an intriguing undercurrent of criticism to the entire grotty mess.

The setup should be vaguely familiar: two groups of young bank-robbing Parisian Arabs fleeing from the police -- and also running away from suburban rioters, in the wake of a right-wing election triumph -- make a wrong turn and end up at a bed-and-breakfast run by (youll never guess) a neo-Nazi cannibal family. The first two men arrive and are greeted by two suspiciously friendly women; they have sex, and -- well, it's obviously too good to be true. By the time the second pair -- an estranged couple, the woman a few months pregnant -- gets to the inn, the mayhem has already begun.

The dysfunctional family members range from two brothers with hair-trigger tempers, to a couple of sullen silent women, to a gun-toting blonde straight out of an Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS movie. But the most frightening of all is the grand old patriarch, looking spiffy in his brown shirt, played by Jean-Pierre Jorris, who delivers speeches on the virtues of racial purity.

There are no Leatherfaces in this family, but the movie's gore ancestors are clear: Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1976), and Eli Roth's Hostel (2005). Like these three films, Frontier(s) specifically emerges from a particular historical moment filled with state-sponsored violence, but at the same time frolics in the puddles of blood.

And frolic it does: fans of violent horror (and I count myself among them) would undoubtedly relish all the hijinks with the meathooks and a huge bolt cutter. There's a moment when one of the antagonists flips on the switch to a table saw, and one can practically feel the delicious, anticipatory collective thrill ripple inside the theater. Gens has a good feel for pacing, even if we've seen this narrative structure played out many times.

The reader is correct if you think all this gore overwhelms any kind of meaningful critique of Sarkozy's immigration policies. But Gens clearly wants to utilize his film as a way of violently intruding into the recent debate, as the notion of frontiers and their political significance resonates throughout the movie. One of Gens' interesting points made here is that even the extreme right -- at least before revenge by butcher implements is exacted against them -- would have to make concessions to immigrants in order to literally survive.

But the fact that France has long claimed a coterie of luminaries like Emile Zola, Marie Curie, Maurice Ravel, Charles Aznavour, Isabelle Adjani, and Serge Gainsbourg -- of Italian, Polish, Swiss, Armenian, Algerian, and Russian descent, respectively -- as quintessentially French optimistically points to a kind of pluralism historically embedded in the French national character.

Or this long list of foreigners may be seen, alternatively, as evidence of the assimilation of immigrants into le peuple franc -- but in the case of this film, assimilation in a disgustingly literal fashion.

In any case, it seems somewhat hypocritical on Gens' part to gesture towards political critique as a tasteless way of adding depth to what is otherwise torture-porn. For instance, one of the final scenes in the movie shows the gaunt and traumatized heroine -- all a-tremble, shuffling numbly into the sunlight, her hair crudely shorn, drenched in blood and pig filth -- and it looks as if she's staggering out of Buchenwald in 1945.

The title Frontier(s)is generically, perhaps deliberately vague, as it could mean nothing and everything; "frontiers" could be applied to a science-fiction TV series, a medical documentary, or even gauzy erotica. In this case, it refers to the borders of both nation and good taste -- as if everything that came before it didn't cross those lines already.

(Thanks to Rumsey Taylor for some of the revisions!)

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:45 PM

May 09, 2008

SFIFF Note #4.

Jia Zhangke's brilliant new film is no ghost story, but it's nevertheless filled with figures of the walking dead. It's titled Still Life, perhaps an apt title for a movie filled with movement and travel, but towards an imminent entropy.

The setting is Fengjie, the province with the most people affected by China's Three Gorges Dam project. The movie follows Sanming, who has come to town to look for his wife and daughter, who he has not seen in 16 years. An unscrupulous motorcycle rider takes him for a ride to see them at their last-known address, and he discovers that this is now under water, flooded by the dammed river. "Haven't you heard of the Three Gorges Dam?" the driver asks him, incredulously. Sanming barely responds.

It's tempting to dismiss him as merely being some slightly dimwitted yokel, but his slow, deadpan reactions are more likely integral to his acting, as it sets the tone for the film. Sanming shuffles numbly in and out of the frame, mostly disengaged from the swirl around him, as if he (and indeed, the others around him) are perpetually in a state of shock.

It is an apt reaction to what will apparently be four million people displaced (some, if not many, forcibly) from their homes. There is no better visual metaphor for the impending devastation than the gutted insides of apartment buildings, held together only by their near-crumbling frames of concrete, or workers with sledgehammers slowly rendering bricks into dust. The words of apocalypse – "186 m. water level" – painted on the walls, or “OK for demolition” on houses, are constant reminders of the coming flood.

Jia, at least in the three films of his that I've seen so far, is clearly fascinated by the contradictions of modernity as seen in present-day China, and of people swept up in national and global currents well beyond their control. But I place "contradictions" in quotation marks because it's not always clear that they are seen by his characters as such. (There's a bit of a running joke in this vein, where Zhao Tao's character is drinking water in practically every scene.)

In this film, and in The World, for instance, there's a lot of business with cell phones as a medium for communication. But it doesn't change the fact that families are constantly separated and estranged due to the demands of capital. The cell phones, as symbols of progress, can barely assuage the psychological and emotional wounds of labor migration. No technological marvel -- Mao's dream, which entranced him so much that he wrote a poem about it -- could make up for the human and environmental ruin, and Jia's movie intelligently records this sense of 21st-century dislocation.

(Saw the movie with Ben, Jun-dai and Lucia.)

-----

It hardly seems fair to compare Yung Chang's excellent debut documentary, Up the Yangtze, with work by a master filmmaker like Jia, but the comparison is inevitable: Chang's movie is set further downstream, in Fengdu province. His documentary focuses on the tourist trade, as it follows a girl who works in the kitchen of a cruise boat on the Yangtze ferrying Western tourists -- the apparently willing believers of official government discourse. Yu Shui, renamed Cindy for easier pronunciation, also happens to come from a dirt-poor family of peasant farmers whose riverbank shack is about to be inundated.

Chang has such a remarkable sense of drama and rhythm, for the elegant ebb and flow of the parade of ordinary images before the camera -- so much so that it feels less and less a documentary than a narrative feature. It may not have the desolate poetry of Jia's images, but Up the Yangtze proves there is nothing more gripping or painful than the reality of desolation itself.

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:17 PM

May 05, 2008

SFIFF Note #3.

Alexander Sokurov's latest film, Alexandra, derives its understated humor from its narrative premise: an elderly woman from St. Petersburg visits her grandson, an officer stationed in an army base in Chechnya. This, in and of itself, is already humorous in its faintly comic juxtapositions, as we see her barrelling stubbornly through the barracks, handling an AK-47, clambering in and out of tanks, complaining about how the soldiers don't wash. One touching element is how it seems all the soldiers -- all boys, really -- are eyeing her almost hungrily; it's a hunger, all right, but not for generic female contact, but a precisely maternal one.

And so it continues in this quietly funny vein, until there's a jarring scene of the grandmother walking alongside the occupying army's rumbling tanks, and shots of apartment buildings with the ceilings caved in from bombing, and you realize there is a good chunk of the world for which this is normal. At any rate, the film slowly builds up to its inevitable anti-war message, but it's a complicated and ambiguous one like its characters. Alexandra herself is part of the occupation, after all, and even if she feels a kindred sisterly spirit with the Chechen women, she neither receives nor demands absolution -- not from the viewer, in any case.


Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy is an uncommonly fine film, and easily one of the best I've seen this year so far. Indie romances don't always sit well with me, probably even well before Natalie Portman gave Zach Braff her headphones, precisely because they follow such a well-worn formula. But Jenkins gets the formula -- for his debut film! -- absolutely right (and more): a kick-ass soundtrack (follow the link and you'll see what I mean), two attractive leads, and a beautiful city.

Halfway through the movie, it didn't seem that this seemingly shaky combination of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Rebecca Solnit's "Hollow City" would work. But it's to Jenkins' credit that Medicine for Melancholy -- essentially a "Sunday morning after the Saturday one-night stand" movie -- pulls this off beautifully. (Visually there are some standout scenes as well, like a rapturous carousel ride, and an extended wordless dance sequence at The Knockout.)

On paper it seems iffy: two hungover twenty-somethings stumble out of bed, have the most uncomfortable breakfast afterwards, and go their separate ways -- the girl ("Angela") to the Marina, the boy (Micah) to the Tenderloin. We know they'll inevitably meet up, and they do, and threaded through all this are earnest discussions on race and class. It seems like an academic treatise, and at times it does (notably, in a visit to the Museum of the African Diaspora), but once it becomes clear that Micah's anger is inextricably tied to place, to a city that has increasingly pushed people of color out in another diaspora of its own (particularly African Americans, a frighteningly tiny 7 percent of San Francisco's population), then the film coheres satisfyingly, in ways deeper and more meaningful than indie romantic comedies usually do.

Oh, and did I mention that it's a love story? And no, I'm not talking about the two leads -- Medicine for Melancholy is a rapturous, bittersweet love letter to San Francisco as well.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:41 AM

May 03, 2008

SFIFF Note #2.

There's a tiny whiff of the exotic about Lance Hammer's powerful debut film Ballast -- a drama set in the Mississippi Delta, with a non-professional cast -- but that fact works in its favor. Otherwise, the story's nothing we haven't seen before, including the way it's structured: the slow accumulation of details, then some (expected) emotional outbursts two-thirds of the way in that fill out some of the back story. But the way Hammer patiently lets the relationships between people unfold is a welcome change from the way characters are quickly sketched out in American movies.

Nonetheless, the movie -- about a convenience store owner devastated by his brother's suicide (and already I feel I'm revealing too much) -- could probably have taken place anywhere, except that the ghostly blue light of a Mississippi winter plays a central role. This shade of blue colors the sky, the mud, the bare tree branches, the burnt-out trailers, and its haunted characters alike, the latter rendered immobile by their grief, the crippling burden of the rural economy, and the emotional weight of things left unsaid.

Speaking of immobility, Bela Tarr's latest film, The Man from London, is also worth seeing, but good god, it's slow -- slow even for Bela Tarr. The movie has a classic noir setup: ordinary station guard witnesses a crime, comes into possession of a large sum of money, and ponders what to do with it as various characters (the police, the money's true owners, the thief's wife) slowly arrive at the seaside village. But The Man from London an even more spare take on the genre, as if Tarr had hollowed it out, leaving only skeletons and gestures to remain.

Everything I love about Tarr is here: the rumbling ambient sounds, the long back-and-forth pans inside rooms, the almost-constant drinking, a bunch of familiar folks from Satantango, the excruciating repetition of musical motifs -- and yes, a surreal dancing scene with an accordion and balancing things on foreheads! -- but all in all it feels too patently an experiment in form. The (almost) all-Hungarian cast's French and English, it seems, is overdubbed (including Tilda Swinton's French) -- a nice touch to foreground the artificiality of the entire venture, as if no one truly fit their role -- but it seems forced. (It's like the reverse of Eastern Promises, another film masquerading as noir, where you had all these non-Russians playing Russians.) I hate to say this: for fans only. I'd see it again, but beginners should treat themselves to his earlier films instead.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:15 PM

April 28, 2008

SFIFF Note #1.

I struck gold with my Movie #2* of the San Francisco International Film Fest yesterday with Roy Andersson's queasily funny comedy You, the Living (Du Levande), a film I'm already anxious to see again. There is no narrative (although the movie does begin and end with two pieces of a story): just a barely-connected series of almost-frozen tableaus in pea soup-green living rooms, offices, kitchens and bars (and an execution chamber), the camera in one corner dispassionately eyeing, the surreally ordinary lives of urban dwellers. (One review I read afterwards said that the camera moves exactly twice; too bad I missed one of those scenes!). There are a few recurring characters, most notably the disparate members of a brass band, but otherwise we catch people for the single minute they're on screen, and then they're gone, their escaping feet already licked by Lethe's ice-cold wave. I'll be writing more about this movie at the end of the year, I'm sure.

*Movie #1 was Fernando Solanas' latest documentary, Latent Argentina (Argentina Latente), which I think is closer to "Dormant Argentina" -- about the privatization of companies, concessions to multinational firms, and the vast economic inequalities within the country -- had promised to be less dry than the subject matter only because it was by Solanas, but no such luck. Nonetheless it was quite stimulating, if only because I kept thinking of the Philippines the entire time. (It's wonderful how the last time I heard the phrase "el patrimonio nacional" was in a Spanish class reading Claro M. Recto -- something worth thinking about there.) Visually, Solanas gets some beautiful images of the landscape, but this grandeur is dissipated once we get to the second half and we're treated to shots of laboratory after laboratory. (They're not contrasted ironically either, as they're both classified under resources meant to be used.) One treat for Pacific Film Archive viewers: the one time the documentary leaves Argentina is to visit, of all places, Berkeley, and an interview with an Argentinean professor takes place right outside the lobby, a few feet behind where we were watching.

Posted by the wily filipino at 02:51 PM

April 09, 2008

The SF Film Fest: What I'm Watching.

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival is coming up soon, and this year I've taken the unusually restrictive step of watching only films screened at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Last year -- and I write this without embarrassment -- I lived inside the Kabuki in San Francisco for almost a whole day, beginning with Bunuel's Belle du Jour at noon and finishing up with an Icelandic horror film that let out at 1:30 in the morning, popcorn and nachos for lunch and dinner and a side trip to Playground for a carafe or two of soju, and three rotating groups of friends with myself as the common denominator. But my move to the East Bay has made it easier for me to watch films on different evenings (and, conversely, more difficult for me to watch movies in SF).

This means I miss out on the lone Filipino film in the festival this year -- Sanchez's The Woven Stories of the Other -- which I probably won't be seeing. I was hoping for the latest films by Auraeus Solito, John Santos, Khavn de la Cruz, or Lav Diaz, but no such luck. (I'm rather happy with the Brillante Mendoza films from the recently-concluded Asian American film fest though.)

I'm also missing out on other potentially interesting movies like Du's Umbrella (documentary on Chinese umbrella factories, which sounds fantastic), Ferrara's Go Go Tales (this happens to be the third Asia Argento film in the entire fest, along with flicks by Breillat and Asia's dad), Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (I'm thinking this is probably minor Rohmer, but who am I to say), and Akbari's 10+4 (a sequel of sorts to Kiarostami's Ten, probably a painful film to watch).

I'd love to write a preview like the one on Evening Class, but all I can really do is provide links. Anyhow, here are the films I'm watching, in alphabetical order:

1. Andersson, You, the Living

- Review in the Observer.

I actually don't know much about this film except for a lengthy interview with the director in Cinema Scope.


2. Assarat, Wonderful Town

The critical buzz seems quite high on this one (including a Tiger award at Rotterdam), except for an abysmal review in Slant. I'm on a big Thai film kick right now, so I really want to watch this.


3. Chang, Up the Yangtze

- Interview with Chang on indieWIRE.

See Jia below.


4. Gianvito, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

- Interview in Cinema Scope.

Some of you Pinoys might recognize John Gianvito's name from an email circulating a couple of years ago looking for contacts / resource persons for his next film on the U.S. military bases and environmental toxic waste in the Philippines. (The synopsis of Profit Motive reminds me of a talk given by Benedict Anderson back in 1991 or so called "My Own Private Ilocos" (I think), accompanied by a slideshow of neglected statues and grave sites, Rizal in his overcoat in countless elementary schools. I'm thinking infinite reproducibility, nationally-generated amnesia...)

5. Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy

- Interview in Premiere.

I don't know anything about this movie except that it looks interesting and that it's about sex in the city I used to live in.

6. Jia, Still Life

- David Denby's review in The New Yorker.

Any movie made by the director of Platform will be well worth seeing. This should be a good companion to Chang's Up the Yangtze above.


7. Maddin, My Winnipeg

- Interview in Cinema Scope.

Maddin's first documentary, though I suspect it'll be a "documentary" in the same way that, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon was a documentary.


8. Sokurov, Alexandra

- J. Hoberman's review in the Village Voice.

Promises to be dreary and slow, which is right up my alley. See also Tarr below.


9. Solanas, Latent Argentina

I've never seen anything by him (this is Fernando, not Valerie -- though the latter would be very cool). Here's my chance.


10. Tajima-Pena, Calavera Highway

That's two decades of groundbreaking documentaries under her belt -- including the classroom favorite Who Killed Vincent Chin? and the very good My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha -- and this one promises to be excellent as well.


11. Tarr, The Man from London

- Review in Reverse Shot.

Promises to be dreary and slow, which is right up my alley. See also Sokurov above. Plus Tilda Swinton is in it!

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:49 PM

March 18, 2008

Wayne Wang, "The Princess of Nebraska" (A Review, Kind Of).

There's a scene about halfway through Wayne Wang's 2007 film The Princess of Nebraska that's the complete stylistic opposite of the ending of his 1982 masterpiece, Chan Is Missing. You'll be forgiven if it reminded you of those Christopher Doyle-filmed handheld scenes in Chungking Express, and maybe it's even done on purpose: the scene is all a blurred swath of neon and Chinese characters, at once both immediately recognizable and illegible. (The man messing with the camera is Richard Wong, the talented director of Colma: The Musical.)

In contrast, the conclusion of Chan Is Missing consists of unmoving black-and-white scenes of Chinatown, of its residents walking with their groceries and waiting for the bus, of store facades and empty sidewalks reminiscent of Atget's Paris, while "Grant Avenue" from Flower Drum Song plays semi-ironically on the soundtrack. (Most people seem to remember the preceding scene as the conclusion -- a Harry Callahan-like image of gray ocean ripples, while our accidental detective "summarizes" the case on the voiceover -- but that's not the real ending.)

These two scenes -- shot in the same location, a little over twenty-five years apart -- exemplify not only a cinematic difference. They also invoke two different Chinas, the filmic embodiments of the vast cultural and socioeconomic differences produced in that short quarter-century. As with Jia Zhangke's film The World, this conjured homeland is awash with unequally distributed capital, with twittering cellphones and designer clothes.

But the China in this particular film is both absent and perpetually present, therefore mirroring the dislocation in the film as a whole. The new China seems incomprehensible to and utterly removed from Chinatown, but the main character is constantly connected to that China electronically. Even if her messages and videos do not seem to require or elicit a response.

The Princess of Nebraska has a fragile shell of a plot: Sasha (newcomer Ling Li), a 16-year old Chinese college student, is not in Nebraska anymore (the first shot, after all, is of her red shoes), but has arrived, by way of the Oakland airport, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I won't reveal the reasons for her arrival (though any internet search will tell you, unfortunately), but it probably doesn't matter: plot is decidedly subservient to mood and image here, the background to the narrative only barely hinted at.

Sasha stands in for a new Chinese generation, born way too long after the Great Leap Forward. When asked about Tienanmen, Sasha simply answers, "I heard about it from my grandmother." Whether her answer is given out of pique, boredom, or honesty is irrelevant; the point is that she and her generation (to echo the new American turn-of-phrase Sasha learns) has "moved on".

Despite the superficial quality of her interactions with other people (and I think this is deliberate) -- her friends chattering about going to parties to meet hot men, reading other people's letters never sent, engaging in aimless theft, wandering the city streets as a dazed flâneuse -- the film masks a deeper discontent. These interactions can also be seen in contrast to Chan Is Missing, which, despite its improvised meanderings, is full of discussions about identity without them being specifically denoted as such. (I'm also reminded of two recent movies -- Lost in Translation and Cafe Lumiere -- which feature women navigating through foreign cities alone.)

Sasha's world is almost constantly mediated by the cellphone videos she takes: confessional fragments, snatched from the swirl of life around her, crammed into a small screen. The Princess of Nebraska skims across surfaces, and Wong's camera catches glimpses of Sasha obscured through dirty glass, half-hidden behind walls, or captured in smeared reflections. (There's a sound cue employed throughout the film that sounds like the whooshing of a BART train, suggesting perpetual transit.) These filmic gestures serve to heighten a sense of restless desperation on Sasha's part: a need to relate, to simply connect, to actually hook up in an existential manner -- to find anything that makes any sort of sense -- in order to save herself, a woman adrift between allegiances and continents.

Ultimately, however, the film is something of a weaker effort, as wispy as the skirt Sasha wears in her After Hours odyssey through San Francisco. It's certainly comparatively insubstantial in the context of Wang's oeuvre. This assessment, however, is unfair because Chan Is Missing is in my top ten films of all time; if we're only talking about Asian American films, then Chan Is Missing is without a doubt the greatest of them all -- an impossibly high standard in my book, to say the least. But The Princess of Nebraska is nonetheless a fascinating, beautifully filmed work.

During the Q&A portion, Ling Li joked that there was "no ending". But of course there was one. It isn't as magnificently sublime as the last four minutes of Chan Is Missing -- this one's about four minutes and a half, precisely choreographed to an achingly beautiful Antony and The Johnsons song -- but it's haunting and shiveringly enigmatic all the same. I don't want to spoil it for future viewers -- I'll just say that I think it's about infancy and the struggle to speak the inarticulable -- but who knows what the scene is really about? It's still the equivalent of those floating, bobbing, shifting waves of meaning at the end of Chan Is Missing, and with that Wayne Wang comes back full circle to Chinatown and his own cinematic ambiguities.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:40 AM

March 16, 2008

Ashamed Again.

Where: outside of the Clay Theater, Fillmore Street, San Francisco, at the premiere of Richard Wong's Option 3.

Who: Richard Wong, H.P. Mendoza, and one excited fanboy who's hung up on his friend over the cell phone once he saw Wong and Mendoza outside the theater (me).

Me [walks over to the two who are deep in conversation]: Hi -- I'm gonna interrupt and be a total fanboy and just wanted to say I really really loved Colma.

Both: Thanks, thanks.

Me: And I'm really looking forward to the new movie.

Both: Thanks, thanks, we hope you like it.

Me [to Mendoza]: You actually posted on my blog once.

Mendoza [glimmer of recognition]: Yeah, I was shaming you into seeing it!

Wong: Oh, I saw that. You were going to a concert.

Me: Yeah, I couldn't go to the premiere because I had a Belle and Sebastian concert that evening.

Mendoza: [bigger glimmer of recognition]: You're the Wily Filipino!

Me [big toothy grin]: Yes!

Wong: We have a Colma: The Musical singalong tomorrow, you should go.

Me: I know! I can't make it though.

Mendoza: You have a concert.

Me [ashamed]: Um. Yes. I have a concert. [slinks away]

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:06 PM

February 28, 2008

Two Movies with Nothing to Do with Each Other, #10.

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007) and Ivan Reitman's Juno (2007).

It's something of a paradox to state that Daniel Day-Lewis' towering, fiery oil derrick of a performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's undeniably brilliant There Will Be Blood is both the best and worst thing about this film. His acting, as oilman Daniel Plainview, is amazing, both subtly nuanced and overpowering -- so much of the latter, really, that it tends to swallow the entire epic whole. Plainview is also impenetrably amoral, a man of few sympathies, and consequently the viewer has none in return for his character. It's a tough hook to hang an entire movie on, but the film succeeds despite of it.

We see Daniel Plainview first as a gold and silver prospector (and not a very successful one) in a nearly wordless 20-minute opening sequence. Toting along his cherubic adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Plainview begins to buy up land, practically for pennies, from under unknowing farmers' feet. It's not a pleasant sight, and it is testimony to the power of Anderson's movie that we find ourselves cheering, at least in the first half, for this robber baron. By 1911 Plainview has become one of the most successful oilmen in the region, though (in a crucial distinction) significantly small fry in relation to the big oil companies.

Plainview is approached by Paul Sunday (played by an excellent Paul Dano), who offers not oil, but information: his family's farm in Little Boston, California, is floating on an "ocean of oil", and would he be interested in scoping it out? Father and son, pretending to hunt for quail, arrive at the Sunday ranch and find not only oil seeping from the ground, but Paul's twin brother Eli Sunday (also played by Dano), a young, charismatic preacher and faith healer, against whom Plainview wrestles for Little Boston's soul. (Full confession: when my friend Eloise and I saw this the other night, we completely missed the point about the twin brother.)

It's clear early on in the film that Plainview and Sunday's different brands of hucksterism run on parallel railroad tracks. But Anderson seems to lack the confidence in his audience to appreciate what little subtleties there are in this presentation and chooses to bludgeon us with this obviousness. The abrupt tonal shift in the last twenty minutes, as Plainview descends into Charles Foster Kane madness, simply seems different from what came before; let's just say that "There Will Be Blood" isn't just the title, but a promise as well.

There's little in Anderson's previous work that suggests the heft of There Will Be Blood, unless you count the Old Testament metaphors made flesh in Magnolia, or the scams in Hard Eight, or Tom Cruise's penis-evangelist in Magnolia. The movie is beautifully photographed, lingering over the fires of hell spurting uncontrollably from the earth, or the sere, rocky ground out of which such black bounty must be forced (and on which Jonny Greenwood's Ligeti-like score falls like rain). It's the visual antithesis, in more ways than one, to Days of Heaven.

This will be the film that Anderson will probably be most remembered for -- for its epic breadth; the conflict between God and Mammon, or of fathers and sons; the invocation of Welles, Polanski, and Huston, or of West and Sinclair; the way it has Great American Movie written all over it. But if you ask me for a favorite Anderson film, I wouldn't hesitate to name the brilliant but flawed Magnolia; despite its stylistic cleverness (and "clever" isn't necessarily a compliment), vague spirituality, and full-on ripoff of / homage to Short Cuts, there was at least something questing, something more vitally human, about Magnolia and its ruined characters. It's certainly more alive than the cold, dead heart in Daniel Plainview.

----------

In the last week alone, at least four people who don't know each other have been sending me links to the Stuff White People Like blog. (Did it suddenly get Dugg last week or something?) I figure that Ivan Reitman's wonderful film Juno -- with its Kimya Dawson / Belle & Sebastian soundtrack*, the Sherman-Palladino & Palladino-style banter**, the Andersonian eccentricities (Wes, not Paul Thomas), plus two (count 'em! two!) cast members from "Arrested Development" -- would certainly be on that list. [Note: as I was writing this, Ver posted a comment on my blog saying it was already on their list. That damn White People blogger!]

None of the above are necessarily characteristics of some sort of White indie-cinema aesthetic, of course. (The idea is as ridiculous as, say, a Black indie-cinema aesthetic, which would be one that encompasses both Tyler Perry and Charles Burnett.) But these are elements that perhaps resonate, even if indirectly, with White liberal middle-class audiences, as strands of some primordial genetic affinity with Whole Foods and L.L. Bean. (As a cultural anthropologist, I'm kidding here.)

But back to Juno. You probably know about the film already: a feisty 16-year old (in indie films the girls are almost always "spunky" or "feisty" -- or Feisty, even) gets knocked up, and she decides to give the baby up for adoption. But -- and I'm about to go out on a limb here because I can't quite articulate this -- the nature of the cinematic fantasy in Juno seems to be discursively White. But after all it's a White world -- a stereotyped world of charmingly kooky middle-classness and sterile (here, in two senses of the word) gated communities -- in which Juno is located.*** (There are a couple of Asian kids though, one of whom protests outside an abortion clinic and yells "All babies want to be borned.")

Juno is unreal in an odd white liberal wish-fulfillment sort of way, surely even by white working-class standards (Juno's father and mother are air-conditioning repairman and "nail technician," respectively). It's a total fantasy, really, because parents aren't generally so forgiving or practical, and such willing adoptive parents aren't found the same week, and accidental fathers probably end up facing the barrel of a shotgun at some point, and health insurance isn't a problem, and her pregnancy allows Juno to not have to drop out of school or flunk her exams. (Young women of color, especially poor and lower middle-class ones, wouldn't be off the hook so easily, as the odds against them rise exponentially.)

But back to Juno again. So can I tell you folks that I really, really loved Juno, even if I'm not white, and despite all the political iffiness? That I loved the breathless, canny dialogue; the giddy intertextuality sprouting cultural parentheses and asterisks everywhere; the musical nerdiness; the nuggets of vulnerable truth; the painstakingly cluttered production design; the glib linguistic archness -- all crammed, sometimes a little queasily, in the first fifteen minutes.

Thankfully, the film settles down after that (though I laughed really hard anyway). All the caffeinated, superficial quirkiness is peeled off to reveal a surprising, empathic depth -- not just with Juno and Bleeker and her parents, but also the adoptive couple played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. The movie really belongs to Ellen Page; it's a performance that projects a perfectly calibrated smartass vulnerability. But Michael Cera -- who, once again, is just excellent in communicating that mix of cluelessness and discomfort -- and a great ensemble cast (including Allison Janney, Bateman, and a very good Garner) should also share the honors in this hilarious, very sweet film. Even if I'm not white.

*Though a person who counts the Stooges, Patti Smith, and the Runaways as her favorite groups of all time wouldn't really use the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack about her life, would she? (I'm listening to the soundtrack right now and I'm deciding I'm allergic to this.)

**I mean, doesn't Kimya Dawson essentially serve the same function as Sam Phillips' "la la las" on "Gilmore Girls" -- as appropriate / ironic commentaries on the scene? (In fact, it's easy to see Juno's musical debates on 1977 vs. 1993 (i.e., what was the best year for rock and roll) as taking place in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Remember that episode of "Gilmore Girls" where Lane (okay, she's Asian) was vinyl-shopping her way through that copy of the Mojo Collection? What indiegeekgirl hotness.)

***Come to think of it, Cloverfield was set in a rather White Manhattan as well, but that was probably because all the people of color were smart enough to get the fuck outta there.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:58 AM | Comments (3)

February 21, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition, Part 5: Hong Sang-Soo's "Woman on the Beach".

Hong Sang-Soo's Woman on the Beach (2006) is a beautifully crafted, minutely observed gem of a film, and I'm at a loss for words, even after a second viewing, to tell you what it's about. I can tell you that it's refreshing to see a film about relationships that isn't an unreal romantic comedy or a lacerating Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deathmatch.

I can tell you about Woman on the Beach's perfect cinematic architecture: a triangle, turning into a dyad, then to another pairing that's a cracked reflection of the one that came before, then to another triangle, and finally, the image of the heroine driving off into the horizon. There's a wonderful visual symmetry and repetition at work in Hong's film, from one character's encounter with three trees to another's nighttime plunge into the thick woods, to the similar pa jun and soju meals (and there are unbelievable quantities of the latter consumed) that are eaten at crucial junctures in the narrative.

Not much happens in Hong's film, but the small shifts in the relationship dynamics (and the narrative focal point, for that matter) are crucial, if slow, in the context of the movie: a director (Joongrae), a production designer (Changwook) and the production designer's mistress (Moonsook, played by the utterly lovely Ko Hyun-jeong) go to the beach for the weekend and work on a screenplay. She's a composer and a fan of the director's work (he's constantly called "Director Kim" throughout the film), the screenwriter's actually married, and the relationships between them aren't exactly as they seem.

Early in the film, Joongrae tells the married Changwook that he admires the latter's courage -- and trust in the director's discretion -- to bring his girlfriend along for the weekend. (It's not immediately clear whether Joongrae -- played by an excellent Seung-woo Kim -- is saying this in a "Damn, dawg!" male-solidarity sort of way, or deliberately trying to elicit more information, and it's this constant ambiguity of intention, in all of the characters, that underlies the narrative.)

"By the way, he's not my boyfriend," Moonsook adds.

"Come on! Do we have to have sex to be boyfriend and girlfriend?" asks Changwook, surprised.

"Of course there has to be sex," says Moonsook, then turns to Joongrae and asks, "Don't you agree, Director Kim?" (Joongrae laughs and says, "I love this," and so do we.)

"We're just friends, you and I," she continues calmly, addressing Changwook.

"Do friends kiss?" asks the screenwriter, aghast.

"We kissed once," she reminds him, annoyed. "Big deal."

It's both painful and funny and truthful and shot through with ambiguity all at the same time, and Hong lets all this unspool with a careful patience. (His camera framing is absolutely precise; you can almost tell, depending on the words spoken, when the camera will zoom in to isolate two people in the frame and shut out the third.) There's no real contest in this triangle, though; Director Kim, who is (seemingly) more intelligent and more charming than Changwook, starts asking more probing and seriously disarming questions, and manages to steal Moonsook away.

He turns out, in any case, to be something of a cad and a serial philanderer, as we see him two days later, prowling the same seaside town, ostensibly looking for a woman to interview for a casting project. He picks out Sunhee, a divorcee vacationing at the beach, because she reminds him of a character he's working on. But we are told, at least according to one of the restaurant owners, that Sunhee resembles Moonsook (though not really). We can't tell what this means for sure: is this the director's usual casting-couch method, or has he, in fact, been pierced, Jimmy Stewart-style, by Moonsook's absence, and therefore doomed to obsessive repetition?) And all goes well until... Moonsook returns, for reasons which are, again, not entirely clear.

It's this flirtatious resistance to explanation, the refusal to pin down the characters' motives, and the way words hang expectantly in the air, that makes for fascinating viewing. (In fact this sense of in-betweenness is also reflected in the setting: indeed, we hardly ever see the ocean in all of the actual scenes on the beach -- just people gingerly skirting the edges -- and the weather is this constant cloudy gray, like San Francisco's Ocean Beach in the summer.)

If there's anything the movie is "about" thematically, it's probably about the temporary nature of love and solace, male helplessness and immaturity, and (this is explicitly voiced in the film) female choice. But there's a particularly illustrative scene, which for me sums up the film better: in a subtly comical scene on the beach, when one of the couples kiss for the first time, Moonsook has time to break away from his embrace and put her hand to her forehead in embarrassment.

Woman on the Beach is also about sudden vulnerabilities, calculated confidences, occasional silences, white lies and how they work (or not), moments of discomfort, awkward pauses, or the small, cutting things people say unconsciously (or not), the ways in which people sit or stand, or look at each other, the moment when one touches the other, accidentally or purposefully, or brushes the other's sleeve meaningfully (or not), how people are often accurate or inaccurate readers of character, of stolen embraces in stolen rooms. The gestures of the mating ritual are imbued here, in one of my favorite films of the year, with a heightened, shimmering significance.

Posted by the wily filipino at 05:15 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition, Part 4: Carl-Theodor Dreyer's "Ordet".

I thought it might be fruitless to write about a film that thousands of other people have written about in the past five decades, particularly one which for some reason left me cold the first time. But it was only last year when, after repeated viewings -- to use a quote from Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955) in a different context -- "something snapped inside me."

Ordet seems, in an odd way, to unfold outside of time, but of course its concerns are as bound to time and place as any other: the action happens in a windswept Danish farmhouse in the fall of 1925. It's a cramped but cozy interior, and probably something of a hothouse for the disappointments, large and small, harbored by the patriarch, Morten Borgen. These inner hurts are revealed slowly, indeed very slowly -- "the nearest thing to immobility that the screen has thus far achieved," Richard Hatch apparently wrote dismissively in The Nation, which is so blastedly wrong in many respects. But the snail's pace also lets the minute, warm intimacies between the family members blossom, and the unfussy camera, in the inimitable Dreyer fashion, patiently records the family dynamics as they move into their respective halos of Dreyer's light. (I say cramped interiors because there's an obvious contrast to the luminous exteriors, with feathers of light descending upon waves of grass.)

The family's characters feel like they're roughly carved directly from Catholic doctrine, i.e., everyone seems to represent something, but I'm not actually sure Dreyer meant to trouble his audiences with doctrinal differences (as explained below). Morten has three sons: there is Mikkel, the agnostic, who is married to the angelic Inger, about to give birth. The youngest son, Anders, is in love with the tailor's daughter, but she is of a different sect -- and those differences are, tellingly, never really spelled out by Dreyer, probably because they do not matter -- and therefore their partnership can never be.

And finally, there is Johannes, the gaunt, bearded son who has gone unblinkingly insane -- how exactly I don't want to reveal, only to point out that it provokes a laugh in a sometimes dryly funny film -- and believes he is Jesus Christ. He is the key figure in this film for different reasons, yet his presence is confined to a perhaps deliberately alienating physical acting: he pops into rooms unannounced to deliver his judgments, shuffling in a trance (like all the main characters), his rapt attention almost always focused on something just off to the audience's side, an ear cocked toward the divine whisperings in his head.

Dreyer opens up Kaj Munk's play with exteriors (and in the final scene the interior is opened up radically), but chooses to leave the theatrical sight-lines intact; people twist away oddly from each other, just like the inquisitors in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or are staring off into space. It is by no means a filmed play, but it's a strangely constrictive move; people have entire conversations without once looking at each other. But it is no less peculiar than, for instance, Johannes' performance, or the surreally casual conversation about death between Johannes and Inger's daughter. (The camera movements aren't stagey, however, as the frame almost always expands in anticipation of new characters entering on either side.)

Perhaps there is little, especially in an explicitly religious film, to appeal to an apostate like myself grown intolerant of Christian piety. When Inger talks reassuringly about God performing small, secret miracles every day, there's something almost cloying in this sentiment. But then why, even on later viewings, was I already sobbing, tears flowing down my face, by the time one of the characters appears at the door in the final scene?

Structurally, artistically, the sheer jawdropping impossibility of Dreyer's ending transmutes itself, especially with repeated viewings, into something so right, so necessary, that it is difficult to see the film culminating in any other way. (One could even argue that it is necessary for the audience's disbelief to make the ending, and the film itself, actually work; you have to make that leap.) Which therefore accounted for my emotional reaction: just knowing what was going to happen next attested, somehow, to the inevitability of amazing grace. Ordet, a genuine miracle of cinema, is simply, stunningly, perfect in every way, inexhaustible in its mysteries.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:47 AM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition, Part 3: Philip Gröning's "Into Great Silence".

(Reposted from April 2007.)

There's little I can add to the rapturous reviews of Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence (2005) -- an almost three-hour documentary on a Carthusian monastery in France and its monks who have taken a vow to live their lives as silently as possible. It's not nearly as forbidding as it sounds, even if there is no voiceover narration, or hardly any subtitles -- there is no need for them for the most part -- or no artificial light. (Some of the most beautiful passages in the film are set at Vespers, sometimes lit only by a lone candle.)

The monks do speak, for starters, and the part Gröning chooses to show is their rather funny quibbling about certain rituals. But immediately, at the beginning of the film, the audience is already drawn into contemplation: we watch a monk, barely discernible in the dim light, kneeling in prayer, for about half a minute; he stands, adjusts the heater in his bare room, and kneels again.

The theme of the eternal present is movingly raised by an elderly blind monk, testifying joyfully about his blindness and his peaceful embrace of his mortality. There are no distinctions between past or present with God, the monk says; only the present prevails, and when He sees us, he always sees our entire life. In contrast, the ineluctable passage of time is seen outside the monastery: seasons follow one another, the snows end and the blooms appear. (Gröning also presents the monks not as timeless, ahistorical figures: one monk puzzles over bills on an IBM Thinkpad, another practices his singing on a small keyboard, airplanes fly overhead.)

The cinematography, both intimate and grand, is something else: some high-definition video shots echo the Old Masters in their composition; we see, in painstaking detail, new leaves peeking through still-frosted stems, or the slow drop of water from a bucket. (Indeed, the swarming motes in the grainy Super-8 footage -- sometimes, of nothing but blue sky or gray cloud -- suggest a perpetual movement in what is ostensibly still.) Gröning also gets a lot of mileage from close-ups of shaved heads, the camera peering over monks' shoulders as they read or pray, inviting the audience to imagine the secrets inside their skulls, to wonder about what inspires such devotion.

Viewers will come away with different things. For me it was the effortless way in which the deeply ordinary was invested with a deep, spiritual gravity; they shovel snow, feed cats, saw wood, sing, and kneel in prayer, and somehow the divine is felt as a trace, lingering in all their labors. There is a scene, for instance, in which a monk repairs a shoe, and his simple act of blowing on the glue to dry it becomes, in the world of Into Great Silence, the seeming exhalation of a prayer. The less generous will wonder about the political implications of a retreat from all the sorrows of the world. But many will surely remark upon the temporary transformation of the movie theater into an extension of the monastery; indeed, the hush follows you outside into the night as you leave.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:01 AM | Comments (2)

February 18, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition, Part 2: Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host".

Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, in their book Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots, write that South Korea's relationship with the United States, much like that of the U.S. and the Philippines, vacillates on the love-hate continuum. "Through military and civilian contacts," they write, "the United States became at once an object of material longing and materialistic scorn, a heroic savior and a reactionary intruder. Material desire and moral approbation, longing and disdain, have been twin responses to many of the trappings of American culture...."

One wonders what they would have thought of Bong Joon-Ho's The Host (2005), one of the finest movies I saw last year. (Come to think of it, it shouldn't be too difficult to ask.) Monster movies are said to be symbolic of anxieties burbling up from the depths of a murky id, writ large: postwar fears of a rampant industrialism (Gojira), nuclear annihilation (also Gojira), the savage Other (King Kong), Communism (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), untrammeled adolescent sexuality (The Exorcist), or the simple money-driven compulsion to destroy New York City again (Cloverfield). The Host needs no metaphor to hide this fear of the "reactionary intruder": the monster here is a paranoid, militarized American chauvinism gone awry, the teratological result of the deliberate dumping of formaldehyde bottles into the Han river. (Something also happens to the protagonist three-quarters of the way through the movie, which I can't reveal, but how much of him (and what is done to him) represents the Korean body politic is not clear.)

The Host is Bong's third feature film, if I'm counting correctly, and like the first two, he takes a well-worn genre (the police procedural, the urban yuppie comedy) and injects it with unsettling social critique. (Memories of Murder is actually a finer, more nuanced work, but I saw it the year before last. Incidentally, practically the entire cast of Memories appears in The Host in various configurations, which, I swear, already feels like a full third of the entire Korean film industry.) But Bong's forte is the way these films slip uncomfortably into different emotional registers: thus the incongruity of a perfectly-timed pratfall (there are two), or the slapstick of a grief-stricken family collapsing clumsily to the ground and hounded by camera-bearing reporters.

But enough about analysis. The Host is genuinely frightening, and Bong knows how to deliver the thrills in the classic monster movie tradition. The second time I saw the film, grown men in the theater were screaming like little girls. (On my third viewing, I was still holding my breath during an entire sequence -- let's just say it involves a girl, a boy, and a tail.) It's also grimly funny -- with visual gags involving squids here and there -- but it's not funny in the same, schlocky way that American (or British, or Australian) horror-comedies are. Bong has a way of undercutting the sober scenes with humor -- if only to make the genuinely horrific scenes even starker.

But the personal, as they say, is also about the political, and Bong's decision to focus on a family unit (rather than, say, a group of attractive college students on vacation) is a wise one, as it adds an emotional heft to the movie. (Contrast this, for instance, with the young interchangeable heroes' inexplicable decision to return to midtown Manhattan in Cloverfield, to save some woman I barely remember.) Our protagonist -- the perpetually sleeping owner of a food stand, portrayed by the always good Song Kang-ho as something of a simpleton -- is motivated by nothing less than the rescue of his daughter, whom he has witnessed being abducted into the water by the monster. Despite its horror movie trappings, the emotional core of the film, seen most eloquently in its quiet scenes, is a simple family reunification. There's one such scene right in the center of the film: a quiet, haunting, one-minute scene that says more about grief than words could express.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:46 AM | Comments (2)

February 17, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition, Part 1: Richard Wong's "Colma: The Musical".

Richard Wong's exhilarating movie Colma: The Musical (2006) is set in a town south of San Francisco most famous for its cemeteries and the fact that it has more dead residents than there are alive. Colma's writer and actor, the ridiculously talented H.P. Mendoza, who plays Rodel, gets a lot of mileage from this central metaphor. The suburban deadness that infects the characters -- fresh high school graduates with nary a clue about what to do with themselves -- is only a little more vital than the graveyards all around them.

Colma revolves around the lives of three characters: an aspiring actor working "the highest-paying shit job" he can find at the mall, an aspiring writer thrown out of his house by his homophobic father, and a woman -- well, it's not really clear what she does, but as the emotional center of the film, the lovely Maribel (L.A. Renigen) does have the best monologue (and taste in interiors, for that matter).

What elevates this from your run-of-the-mill comedy is the fact that it's a musical, perhaps the most cinematic of forms, the combination of its general grounding in reality -- in the case of Colma: The Musical, the enervating flatness of suburbia -- and the unreal compulsion to burst into song. This unaccustomed exteriorization of the characters' emotions, erupting into the narrative, is part of the technique; the viewer is always aware that she or he is watching a movie. But Colma is also quite conscious, and not just in a mocking way, of the absurdity of the genre. (The digs at regional musical theater, for instance, are particularly funny.) The mawkish, sometimes unbearable honesty that accompanies teen angst is lovingly recontextualized here.

"We are so mature for our age," Billy (Jake Moreno) sings to himself after kissing his brand new girlfriend-to-be for the first time. It's something of a joke in the context of the movie: a kind of late-adolescent inflated sense of self, made funnier by the emotional immaturity constantly on display. One has the growing awareness that the way they torment each other, sometimes affectionately (or, in some cases, rail against the shallowness around them), is proof of a couple of things: 1) that there really isn't much of anything else to do in the burbs anyway, and 2) that it reflects their chafing at the bit at the lot that the suburban deities have dealt them.

Colma: The Musical shows Mendoza to be a prodigious wit, both profanely funny and incisively smart, if a little too reliant on a synthesizer, probably recorded in a basement. (This may indeed have been the case.) Lyrically, the easiest comparison that comes to mind is Ben Folds. The writing, in any case, is sharp and all too real, from the stern immigrant father to the cluelessly hilarious way Renigen says the N-word with too much relish. It's hard to pick a favorite scene: the eight-minute uninterrupted camera shot orchestrated by Wong at a drunken college party (ostensibly, a bunch of SF State hipsters), the cheerfully vicious sing-along in a bar, the unexpectedly poignant dance sequence in a cemetery, or even the goofy montage that introduces the movie.

Yes, it's a first film, and it looks like one, and if my mention of that fact makes it sound like a disclaimer, it's not. Wong has a surer, more deft hand here than many other veteran filmmakers. A weaker comedy would have cast "a lovable pack of misfits" -- or if this were a drama, a group of Abercrombie & Fitch models -- so it's quite refreshing to see normal-looking people in this movie. Sometimes they're not entirely lovable, sometimes they sing off-key, but I'd take this over any new Hollywood musical any day.

(If I do have one minor quibble, it's the way the screenplay takes liberties with the geography. Sure, it's fine to pass off The Bitter End or Java On Ocean as being in Colma -- though that's not necessarily implied in the film -- but Serramonte Mall and Westmoor High and all those fogged-out little boxes are in Daly fuckin' City! Plus the cast should have fought to have their real butts on the DVD cover.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:17 AM | Comments (2)

February 16, 2008

The Best Movies I Saw All Year, 2007 Edition.

Wave Swinger.

I'm picking five this year: one from 1955, one from 2005, and three from 2006, to be posted in five parts in alphabetical order.

In case you were wondering what happened to 2007, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep was the best thing I saw on the big screen last year, but I already listed it a couple of years ago, so it doesn't count. I also really liked Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but it didn't quite make the cut. Plus I couldn't get out most of December to see any of the Oscar nominees or other films that dominated the critics lists -- actually, I don't even know what they were. People liked Juno, I'm told.)

These films have nothing in common, either. They're from all over the place (two from Korea, one from Germany, one from Denmark, one from the U.S.), and from totally different genres (one horror film, one documentary, one romantic comedy (kind of), one musical, and one Miracle Play).

At any rate, I'll be posting the entries slowly over the next few days.

The 2006 list.

The 2005 list.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:08 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2008

Two Movies with Nothing to Do with Each Other, #9.

Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948) and George Lucas's Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).

So Barb emails me and asks me for my review of Drunken Angel. There's little I can add to what Barb has already said so well, except to note that the real highlight of the evening was culinary rather than cinematic. (Barb, let me tell you that that was the best arroz caldo I have ever had in my life, scout's honor.)

But back to Drunken Angel. The excitement here is seeing a very young Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimizu -- Mifune, in particular, looking oddly like an even more dissolute Bryan Ferry circa 1982 -- gain each other's wary trust. Shimizu is a doctor who lives in the slums not out of any commitment to the downtrodden; it's because he is downtrodden, reeling in a drunken haze most of the day and with no one to call family except for a former gun moll / bar girl he is harboring in his house. That is, until Mifune arrives, as a similarly dissipated Yakuza gangster who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

It has all the elements of noir, and it's filmed that way, with oblique shadows and pinstripe suits. In his pre-color films, Kurosawa seems to have a visual fascination for soiled squalor, suggesting the indignity of the proceedings, and there's a knock-down, dragged-out fight scene in spilled white paint, the equivalent of all that mud in Stray Dog and The Seven Samurai.

Drunken Angel has the muscularity of a "character study" film from the '70s -- you can almost imagine an alcoholic Paul Newman or Jeff Bridges (or Nick Nolte, later), gargling with vodka in the morning and flailing around in impotent rage the rest of the day -- and if it sounds somewhat hackneyed, it kind of is. Shimizu, in his inexplicable eagerness to save the dying gangster, will inevitably save himself in the process as well, and he does. In the end, it's probably lesser Kurosawa, which -- considering his body of work -- means that it's better than ninety percent of the films out there. Especially the one below.

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It took me all of three evenings to try to finish Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, one of the more unwatchable movies I've seen in a while. More like "Revenge of the Shit", actually.

It's a shame because this is the one episode of the series that had the most potential in terms of character development, because it's not just get-the-Princess-to-the-Hidden-Fortress, but about a psychological and emotional turning point in the series, i.e., how Darth Vader came to be. (In fact it could have been easily subtitled "The Seduction of Anakin Skywalker", and that just might have been a far more interesting film.)

Instead, the last temptation of Christensen is dealt with in a couple of dispensable scenes, dripping with fake, obvious portent, and with many sideways glances IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN: "This Jedi had the power to prevent death NUDGE NUDGE." "You can learn that power, but not from a Jedi WINK WINK." And so on.

We are at least rewarded with the little thrill of recognition at the end: "Look, there's the Death Star!" "Look, it's the dark helmet!" "Listen, it's that heavy breathing!", but, like love, it's fleeting, and takes up only a sixteenth of the screen time accorded to an increasingly ludicrous lightsaber fight on some collapsing big iron thingie at some planet that looks completely uninhabitable because it's, like, made of fire, and at this point I can't even remember why Anakin went here in the first place, and how Obi-Wan managed to track him down, and later on they still manage not to behead each other with their lightsabers or get burned despite the thin clothes they are wearing or slip into the lava or fall off those tiny scraps of metal they're actually surfing on or get beaned by any of the countless hurtling balls of fire, probably because they're not just any kind of Jedi, they're Jedi Masters, except one is Lawful Good and the other is slowly turning into Chaotic Evil, which probably explains why one turns into Alec Guinness and the other into barbecue at the beach.

The acting is uniformly terrible, and it's indicative of the film's level of acting that Yoda is the most humanly expressive of the characters. If this were a different film, the actors' delivery might be called "mannered" -- but the context of this film obviates such magnanimity. The humorless, artless dialogue lands with the proverbial thud, and those bleeps you hear in the background is the sound of ATM buttons being pushed, as a group of generally able actors -- MacGregor, Portman, Smits -- deposit their paychecks. Even the beloved Samuel L. Jackson is reduced here to further a plot twist we knew was going to happen anyway. Couldn't George Lucas have at least let him get away with saying something like, "You're Darth Motherfuckin' Vader?" That would have made me happy.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:13 AM | Comments (5)

December 26, 2007

Two Movies with Nothing to Do with Each Other, #8.

Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf (2007) and Kenny Ortega's High School Musical (2006).

Eloise: I never thought I'd have Angelina Jolie's butt that close to my face.
Me: I never thought I'd have Anthony Hopkins' butt that close to my face.

Which just about sums up Beowulf, really: a relentlessly puerile cartoon aimed directly at 12-year old boys and savvily hitting the ceiling of a PG-13. (I can't believe Neil Gaiman (and Roger Avary) were partly responsible for this crud, which, acting- and writing-wise, is only a few degrees removed from a videogame's cutscene. Actually, that's what it is: a videogame on the big screen, complete with different quests and big bosses at the end of every level.)

Still, it's worth seeing the film on the big screen for one reason alone. My friend Eloise and I saw it in 3-D and on an Imax screen, and ten minutes into the film -- and that includes the Paramount logo -- my 12-year old mind was screaming HOLY BEJEEZUS EVERY MOVIE EVER MADE FROM NOW ON HAS TO BE IN 3-D!!! To have spears, bodies, rocks, arrows, and boobs all flying at you within inches of your face is absolutely thrilling, and there aren't very many real-life situations that would let you have that experience. (I mean all at the same time.)

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Don't knock it till you've actually seen it, they said. It's really not that bad. Well, I've finally gone and seen High School Musical, and they're right: it's really not that bad, but that's saying very little. The melodies are fairly catchy, but the lyrics are irredeemably awful, as if the writers put words like "free", "brave", "believe", "fly", "you", "me", and "together" into a blender and figured out how many variations they could come up with. Despite its "Up with People" blandness and plot schematics right out of "Clifford the Big Red Dog", High School Musical is charming, and there's something to be said about young people who can act, dance, and sing. And there's a sweet chemistry here, particularly in the first scene when the two young leads tentatively discover themselves (and each other) during an impromptu karaoke session.

Every decade needs its Grease or Dirty Dancing, and this is the 2K version. (I must confess a general dislike for musicals, and the fact that I'm not the target audience for HSM probably renders my complaints pointless. But Richard Wong's Colma: The Musical was one of my favorite films this year, and Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is probably in my top 50 of all time. So there.)

Interestingly, there's a way for the movie to be read as a Coming Out narrative, but I won't bother. I guess it's also pointless for me to say that it's a happily sanitized vision of high school, with no drugs or concealed weapons or teenage pregnancies or No Child Left Behind to menace the students. It's perfectly harmless and inoffensive, which, I suppose, is better than a lot of girl-oriented merch (the impossibly thin Barbie, the slutty liplinered Bratz, the disempowered Disney Princesses). If anything, what's most disturbing is Disney's aggressive marketing to pre-tweeners. If there's any real upside here, it has to do with introducing different standards of beauty for little kids out there, especially for my Chinese Pinay daughter: perhaps my favorite part of the movie was Vanessa Anne Hudgens' beautiful, beautiful, Chinese Pinay nose.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:21 PM | Comments (1)

November 27, 2007

In Vino Veritas.

Setting: Express checkout lane, Safeway.

Woman at register [eyeing my bottle of 2006 Coppola Pinot Noir]: Now, sir, are you buying that because you like drinking it, or just to taste it?

Me: I've never had it.

Woman: How do you pronounce that? Cop-PO-la?

Me: Well, he pronounces it COP-pola, but back in Italy they probably pronounce it Cop-PO-la.

Woman [smiles]: That's what I said! So why this bottle?

Me: Oh, me and a couple of friends of mine are watching a movie about him tomorrow night.

Woman: About his wine?

Me: No, about a movie he made.

Woman: He's a winemaker and a director??

Me: Yup.

Woman [shakes her head]: Man. Sounds like someone oughta make up his mind.

Posted by the wily filipino at 06:31 PM | Comments (4)

November 09, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other, #7.

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) and Teppei Kishida's MONO: The Sky Remains The Same As Ever (2007).

(Some mild spoilers follow.)

Like Neil Marshall's The Crying Game, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises is all about the penis. (Actually, come to think of it, so is Cronenberg's adaptation of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.) Or at least that's how friends, co-workers, and the non-movie critic media characterize the film, especially since the said penis is attached to one Viggo Mortensen. (Actually, come to think of it, vaginas, or substitutes thereof, play supporting roles in Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Crash as well. Plus there's a talking anal sphincter in Naked Lunch, but that doesn't count.)

Okay, I'm just kidding about the penis. Featuring easily the best naked male wrestling scene since Larry Charles' Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Eastern Promises is, on its surface, a fairly conventional thriller, in much the same way that Mortensen seems like a fairly conventional Russian gangster. You probably already know the story: an underused Naomi Watts stumbles upon a child prostitution ring run by the Russian Mafia after a young pregnant woman dies on her operating table. (The temptation here is to call it the structural (but not thematic) inverse of Cronenberg's A History of Violence -- same director, same lead actor -- but I won't reveal any plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that, like the Asian American Studies grad class I taught for four years or so, it's about Family and Identity.)

Critics (okay, David Denby, the only review I've read so far) have singled out the gore in Eastern Promises -- and how it simultaneously detracts from the film's seriousness, as well as confirming Cronenberg's more lurid impulses -- but I'm wondering whether that may be part of the point. What's odd about the film is that the gore doesn't seem real somehow, and I wonder, again, whether it's deliberate. There are a couple of throat slashings in Eastern Promises that look like they came right out of a Herschell Gordon Lewis film -- in other words, patently, stupidly, fake -- and then there's the eyeball-stabbing scene, which results in a rather chaste (and cinematically classic) pool of blood growing underneath the victim's body. (The way the throat cuttings are shot -- front, center, and very slowly -- don't help but foreground their artificiality.)

Contrast this with the oeuvre of another North American director who makes "serious" films but similarly traffics in gore -- see Casino, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gangs of New York -- and you'll see what I mean; Scorsese clearly enjoys this stuff, and makes sure to pummel us with its nauseating realism. Compare this again with Cronenberg's earlier splatter-filled work in Videodrome, The Dead Zone, and Scanners; despite their horror / fantasy-based context, the scenes of violence in those films are excruciatingly detailed.

But more instructively, compare the odd fakery of Eastern Promises to A History of Violence, which is itself bookended by a kind of staging of the fake: the wholesomeness of Small Town America that, upon a second viewing, takes on a surreality that borders on Blue Velvet; the John Woo-stylings of the cartoonish bloodbath at the end. Eastern Promises also seems set in a London that (deliberately?) doesn't look like the moviegoer's London (but probably familiar to its residents); the fact that the film is populated by a cast and crew (Cronenberg, Mortensen, Watts, Cassel, Mueller-Stahl, Cusack) that seems like they're from pretty much everywhere *except* Russia or London -- well, I don't know where this is going. Maybe some grad student can figure this out.

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I've never been particularly taken with concert films: they inevitably pale in comparison to the experience of being at a live venue, and the cinematography usually runs the gamut from queasy oblique shots to cameras zooming in and out while sitting on tripods. Teppei Kishida's MONO: The Sky Remains The Same As Ever sidesteps the usual cliches for a largely impressionistic and immersive experience into MONO's European tour and on stage.

Instead of the usual shots of the musicians setting up their gear (or generally static shots of the lead singer, interspersed with shots of the lead guitarist as she or he goes into the solo), Kishida's fluid camera swoops unobtrusively over the proceedings, lingering over the tangles of wires on scuffed floors, the blur of the hi-hat, the top of the guitarists' heads as they hunch over their guitars. (MONO is an instrumental band, which naturally diffuses any focus on any single member of the band.) Perhaps most interesting (at least from a cinematic point of view) is the way the director pointedly includes the audience in the film during the performances: people drumming on the monitors, a couple swaying with their eyes closed -- an acknowledgment, perhaps, that they matter just as much as the music itself.

But this is all at the expense of any kind of insight into the Japanese post-rock quartet's impenetrable (or completely opaque, depending on your views) music: we vaguely hear interviewers asking questions on a voiceover track, but they aren't exactly answered. There's an inconsequential piece of footage with Steve Albini at the mixing desk, and another short scene while they rehearse with a string section, but there's nothing else about the creation of the music. The hyperbole on the MONO website doesn't exactly deliver, and maybe that's a good thing. The suitably moody, beautifully shot scenes of wintry landscapes, the sun's glare through leaves, freeways through rain-spangled windshields perhaps illustrate the emotional pull of their music best.

I realize that the words "for fans only" sounds like I'm panning the film, but it won't necessarily make a convert of the casual listener; the best way to do that is to take your friend for a drive outside of the city and put "Yearning" on really loud. In the end, the viewer gets what should have been promised in the first place: a solid and fascinatingly filmed visual souvenir of their concerts. Everything is thrillingly here: the ritualistic swaying, Taka's wall-of-sound freakouts, the 10-minute monolith of pure feedback in the middle of "Lost Snow."

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:32 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other, #6.

Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate (2007)

I'm a little puzzled about Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff. A much-anticipated viewing at Barb and Oscar's left me cold, and I wonder if it's a reflection of the high expectations that always attend Films That Are Supposed To Be Good For You. (Jean Vigo's L'Atalante was one of those, but I should probably watch it a second time.) Or perhaps it's one of those films that make more sense after an accretion of various elements (life experience, "wisdom", a more expanded filmic vocabulary), like L'Avventura, but I'm not sure about that either. It makes me wonder, then, about the film's critical reception in the West upon its initial release, and whether its entry into the Canon had extra-cinematic reasons beyond my ken, but who am I to question this, really?

I recall reading a list compiled by Errol Morris in some magazine recently where he rather fatuously proclaims something to the effect that there were no such things as great movies, only great scenes. (The Thin Blue Line was a great movie however.) There are certainly a number of great scenes: the parallel crane shots that show the siblings gathering wood, the painful finale on a seaweed-strewn beach. (Foremost in my mind, though, is the scene when the indentured daughter, Anju, violently separated from her mother years before, hears a newly-arrived slave singing a song about Anju and her brother -- singing her life with her words, essentially -- and realizing it must have been learned from her long-missing mother, mourning for her children over the miles and years.) But I'm not convinced that Sansho the Bailiff is a great movie.

I think Mizoguchi's much-vaunted "feminism" is perhaps lost in translation here, especially due to the passage of time. There may, of course, be something completely deliberate here on Mizoguchi's part. The men in the film, when they're not being malicious (and the titular character himself is only a slightly bigger honcho than others, but not by much), are merely ineffectual. The brother is shown to be capable of abusing his power once he starts working for Sansho, but then foolishly squanders that power when it comes to his family. The bailiff's son is depicted as clearly possessing a sense of righteousness, and Mizoguchi sets him up as a potential savior and hero -- only to have him literally walk out of the film. The governor (and father of Anju) is exiled precisely because he has shown too much compassion for the peasants of his prefecture -- but chooses, even as he upholds his principles, to abandon his wife and children. Unlike the more stately Life of Oharu, where the dignified courtesan of the title faces her suffering with something that could even be called "empowerment", the women characters of Sansho the Bailiff are grimly handed over to abuse and suicide. Perhaps Mizoguchi's films should be called "female-centered" instead -- centered, anyway, on the fates of women and the cruelty they receive at the hands of men.

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About 20 minutes into the annoying Boarding Gate, I was wishing Olivier Assayas had made something like Hal Hartley's Fay Grim instead. The two films really aren't all that dissimilar, working within the form and generally limited grammar of the crime / thriller genre. (Assayas did tell the audience, before the film started, that he wanted to make a B-movie with a "French independent movie budget". I'm sure the French have different conceptions of what a B-movie is like, though.) All the right elements are intact in Assayas' film -- the gun in the handbag, international airports, the shadowy company that traffics in vague semi-legalities, the package of drugs hidden in the furniture, a chase that involves scurrying through the warrens of a restaurant's kitchen -- and, most important, "a woman in trouble", as David Lynch would put it. (The said girl in peril comes in the form of a disappointingly greasy-looking Asia Argento, who looks sleep-deprived for most of the film.)

But while Hartley (and Assayas' fellow countryman Godard) understood the inherent narrative silliness of the genre, Assayas overcooks Boarding Gate, immersing it in a queasy sordidness that fools the audience into thinking that there's a grander, more serious undercurrent behind its vacuity, that there's something larger at stake. There isn't. And if the sleaze was indeed the point, it misses its mark; it's not even enjoyable sleaze. (Some guy was talking angrily with another in the Pacific Film Archives bathroom after the movie, shouting, "Abel Ferrara makes ten of these films and nobody gives a shit!")

I had high hopes for the second half of the film, when Argento's character slips bloodily from the sweaty clutches of a fleshy Michael Madsen (in the sort of role that Mickey Rourke would have played twenty years ago) and ends up lost and disoriented in Hong Kong, but no such luck; Boarding Gate remains a cold and humorless genre exercise.* (It's even more disappointing considering the fact that the last time I saw Assayas in the flesh was for a Q&A session after his magnificent Irma Vep. Plus he had Maggie Cheung standing next to him. I remember very little about the Q&A, actually, except my thoughts at the time: OH MY GOD I'M BREATHING THE SAME AIR AS MAGGIE CHEUNG.)

*Actually I take "humorless" back: the one funny moment in the film comes when Kim Gordon makes a cameo appearance, stomping angrily into the movie and barking orders in Cantonese. But if you didn't recognize Kim Gordon, or didn't know who she was -- oh well.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:23 AM | Comments (2)

August 31, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other, #5.

Abbas Kiarostami's Five and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times.

There isn't a single boring moment in Abbas Kiarostami's Five, but it's difficult to convince people of this when the "protagonists" of the film are, in order of appearance, a piece of driftwood, the crashing surf and a railing, sunbathing dogs silhouetted against a glaringly bright sea, a platoon of ducks walking one way and then the other, and finally, the moon reflected in a pond just before a rainstorm. (After giving her this synopsis, my friend Jane paused for a beat, then said, "You really need to start dating again.")

I write "in order of appearance" because this merely pertains to the visual elements of the film; the sounds of waves crashing and frogs croaking are as essential to the comprehension of the movie as what the audience sees. (In short, the film enacts a re-privileging of the sense of hearing, which perpetually plays second fiddle to the gaze. If people talk about sound in cinema nowadays it's always about THX vs Dolby Digital.)

Five's secondary title is "5 Long Takes Dedicated To Ozu", but I haven't seen enough Ozu to see the similarities, I'm afraid (and I'm not familiar with the whole transcendentalism thing either). And I won't attempt to philosophize over the meaning of the piece of wood being buffeted by waves and the odd dramatic tension when it disappears from the camera and returns, a few minutes later, already (tragically?) swept out to sea. Or the ducks, intent on waddling to a destination off-screen, only to return en masse to the other direction.

It's a little easier to write about particular segments and how they work. My favorite is the fifth: a barely visible reflection of the full moon on a pond, with an oppressively loud chorus of frogs (and a lone barking dog, followed later by crowing roosters) croaking on cue. The otherwise perfect circle of the moon is stretched, sliced, and chopped by the ripples on the water; it's hard not to think of the instability of light and chemicals on celluloid in this scene. Sometimes the turbulence, and clouds across the moon, render the light into a milky gray. When the rain comes down, only the intermittent lightning on raindrops is left to illuminate the scene. It's an impressive aesthetic minimalism -- cinema literally reduced to nothing but sound and flicker -- and all the more conceptually interesting in its technology because Kiarostami relies only on the vicissitudes of nature to prove his point.

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And (in keeping with the blog entry title), a few hastily-scribbled notes (to J-Lu, on e-mail) on Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times, which I saw perhaps two years ago, and little of which I remember. The film could be seen as a kind of career retrospective, that is, the three segments clearly refer to Hou's own cinematic arcs, in terms of style. An exercise, perhaps, in seeing whether he could film three phases of his career in miniature: A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millennium Mambo. (Like any good band, Hou has three distinct periods, and here he charts three moments in a century of Taiwan history.)

The first part, set in the mid-'60s, was oddly straightforward (I didn't expect anything so narratively pat, if a little less linear) but also just gorgeous, the second I'd quite frankly seen before in Flowers of Shanghai, right down to Lee Ping-Bin's cinematography (though radically changed here by the fact that intertitles are substituted for dialogue), and the third... well, Shu Qi is a babe and a half (and a quick Google Image search for "Hsu Chi" will result in all of her NSFW softcore pics prior to becoming Hou's cinematic muse), but even her presence can't carry the aimlessness of the segment. But lesser Hou is better than most anything out there; the first segment alone, featuring the most rapturously beautiful shots of beautiful people playing pool, is well worth watching.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:19 AM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other, #4.

In Ten, Abbas Kiarostami provides the viewer with the most spartan of setups: one car, one woman, two camera angles, ten dialogues. We -- by way of the lone camera mounted on the dashboard -- follow a beautiful divorcee driving in a car. She picks up ten passengers, one after the other, in ten different vignettes -- a prostitute, a jilted friend, her sister, a stranger on her way to a mausoleum, and her precocious, frighteningly articulate son -- and takes the audience along for a ride through the streets of Tehran.

The shallowest thing to appreciate about the film (too superficial an observation, really) is that it gives voices to people not usually heard from. It's also a valuable corrective to the recent emergence of civilizing discourse about Iran -- "They drive cars in Iran??" and the like. But there is no easy female identification to fall back on, even if their concerns sometimes seem to coincide with those of Marin County housewives.

There is much to admire about the compactness of Kiarostami's formal rigor; it's like Flowers of Shanghai in an economy car. Actually, the Hou reference isn't entirely inappropriate, because the vehicle slips easily into its role as the, um, driving metaphor for the film: women similarly imprisoned in the confines of their surroundings while the world swirls around them. At least in Ten there's a dusty windshield that lets you look outside.

But the dialogues themselves are not necessarily meaningful; they are just steeped in the ordinary, which is just fine by me. Much of the film depends on the fascination inherent (at least for me) in hearing the thrusts and parries of arguments, or in seeing how the more passive labors of driving and riding almost naturally elicits talk. Lots of talk. It is ironic, then, that perhaps the most weighted (and, at the same time, most banal) conversations were not about a sisterly solidarity, but between the mother and her pre-adolescent son, the only male physically present in the film: a seemingly endless, circumlocutory series of bickering that echoes the tangled, but not aimless, driving through the Tehran traffic.

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Not much to say about Greg Mottola's Superbad, which stars one of the funniest comic trios I've seen in a while, trying to lose their virginities before they go off to college. The casting is just perfect: Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the hapless "McLovin", Jonah Hill (who looks like a young Chris Penn), and Michael Cera (who is excellent as George-Michael Bluth in "Arrested Development"), plus more dick jokes than you can shake a stick at. It's the latest film in a series of vaguely sweet and romance-affirming but generally raunchy sex comedies to which guys can take their girl dates -- kind of like couples-porn for the multiplexes, if there were such a thing.

Because of all the vulgarities, Superbad is obviously meant as a big filmic nose-thumbing, but it pulls off something slightly more subversive: it's really a tribute to the kind of affection straight dudes have for each other. You might as well see it because your annoying coworker will be talking about "the funny thing about my back" for a while.

Posted by the wily filipino at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other, #3.

There's nothing like a sci-fi film in space: the impossibility of giant tin cans floating in the void and the people stuck in them. Danny Boyle's Sunshine is the latest addition to the genre. It's a visually stunning film, first of all: spaceship interiors floodlit and bleached orange by the sun, golden shields rotating in space, creepy subliminal flashes, plus a damn good-looking cast (Michelle Yeoh! Rose Byrne! Cillian Murphy!). The sun is apparently dying, and an intrepid (of course they're intrepid) multicultural (of course they're multicultural) team of astronauts are burdened with dreams of the apocalypse (of course they're burdened with dreams of the apocalypse) and a bomb the size of Manhattan, which they plan to drop on the sun to create a new star. (My students, who apparently know better, told me it wouldn't work.) Alas, all this agreeable tension gets ejected into space after the introduction of a total wild card in the third act, which subsequently turns the film into something it shouldn't be. (Plus you don't put Michelle Yeoh in a film and not have her kick some ass.)

Jaume Balagueró's Fragile is a more than competent horror film with the requisite elements: a creaky children's hospital with a boarded-up second floor, ailing children who see things, and the tough heroine with the fragile exterior. The said protagonist happens to be Calista Flockhart minus the short skirts, and she plays the replacement night nurse -- her predecessor got spooked and left -- who then witnesses what the kids repeatedly warned her about. Fairly gripping and atmospheric all in all, though marred by an ending that seemed too much of a Street Fighter-like showdown.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:37 PM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other #2.

There's no meat in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later -- well, there's a lot of it, actually (chewed up, mangled by helicopter blade, torn to shreds by machine gun fire, incinerated by flame thrower) but the stripped-down narrative is strictly about getting people from Point A to Point B and wondering which member of the team gets eaten alive in the process. I think I'm all alone in giving this a must-see recommendation (fans and critics both hated it, probably because it jettisons the political allegory of Danny Boyle's first film), but the action sequences have an appealing, telegraphic visual style to them that reminds me of the ending of Richard Linklater's Slacker: throw a running camera in the air and see what gets caught on film.

Auraeus Solito's Tuli is a disappointment coming after the heels of his brilliant debut Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. But it's a very good sophomore slump nonetheless: a town circumciser (played by Bembol Roco, who I haven't seen on the big screen in ages), his daughter, and her best friend, and the relationship between the three. (The copy I saw at the SF Film Fest, probably not really meant to be projected on a huge screen, was in not-so-great DV.) The screenplay is a little schematic in the way it sets up indigenous traditions versus Catholic practices (and the enforcement of morality wielded by the latter) -- quite in contrast to the slowly-unfolding, delicious ambiguities of Solito's first film.

Posted by the wily filipino at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2007

Two Movies With Nothing To Do With Each Other #1.

I stopped calling movies slow a long time ago, but Ato Bautista's Blackout is sloooow. A psychological thriller about an alcoholic landlord (nicely played by Robin Padilla, complete with greasy hair and ugly glasses) prone to blackouts, the film could use faster pacing to communicate the main character's rising panic -- either that, or the turgidity is meant to represent Padilla's alcohol-addled mind. In any case, it's a bit of a slog, and Bautista squanders the opportunity to mess with the audience's heads: there's some promising scenery-fiddling early in the film that I thought would lead to a good "Can You Spot the Difference?" game, but unfortunately not. Instead we get a more conventional "Is This Alcoholic Delirium, Or Is This Really Happening?"

Lee Yoon-Ki's Ad Lib Night was easily the best film I'd seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival (after Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth). It's a rather moving character study, but I was caught off guard by the initial almost-comic premise: a young woman is stopped in the street by two strange men who ask her to do a favor -- pretend to be the estranged daughter of an old man at his deathbed. Surprisingly, she agrees, and off the film goes, as it segues imperceptibly from an emphasis on the impenetrable protagonist to the harder work of familial mourning and squabbling.

Posted by the wily filipino at 03:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2007

Random Movie-Related Stuff.

1. No time to write a real write-up, but Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse is up there with Bong Joon-ho's The Host (and Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence) as one of my favorites this year so far.

(And in case anyone wanted to know: QT's was better than RR's. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and say that Eli Roth's "preview" for Thanksgiving was better than Planet Terror. And indeed I'll go out on another limb and say that Death Proof is probably Tarantino's best work since Pulp Fiction. It's a structural marvel, plus Tarantino lets his characters simply luxuriate in the pleasures of the rhythm of simple conversation. Words, speed and metal -- yeah.)

2. Great roundtable in the L.A. Weekly -- though it's mostly Tarantino yapping -- between various grindhouse auteurs.

I love the shout-out at the end to The Siege of Firebase Gloria, on which a cousin of mine was a producer; that was also when I found myself sitting at my kitchen table with R. Lee Ermey!

3. Reading the latest issue of Cinema Scope. The Rotterdam film fest has all the Filipino films I want to see! (We in SF have only one, and it's not the ones at Rotterdam. It's the latest Auraeus Solito film though.)

4. Plus two missed cinema-related opportunities just about a month ago:

I was out of town (in Austin for the weekend), so I totally missed the Apichatpong Weerasethakul fest in Berkeley, which comprised a showing of his latest film and a shot-by-shot director commentary accompanying Tropical Malady. If that wasn't bad enough, an email arrives on Thursday, inviting me to a small reception for the director. Drat. At least I can console myself with my last moment of director-fanboy interaction a couple of months ago, i.e., holding the bathroom door open for Bong Joon-Ho and stammering about how much I enjoyed Memories of Murder, and he smiled and said "thanks" and ran in, clearly needing to use the facilities.

So back to Austin: I step off the plane and to the Advantage car rental counter and the clerks there (all women) are all excited about something.

Me: What's going on?
Clerk: Oh -- you should have been here ten minutes ago!
Me: What do you mean?
Clerk: Just ten minutes ago, Rosario Dawson was standing right where you are.
Me: Are you serious?
Clerk: Yes, she just left! She was soooo nice.
Other clerk [in a whisper]: And she was stacked.

I figure I would have stammered about how much I enjoyed watching her in Clerks 2, and she would have smiled and said "thanks" and ran off to get her car anyway.

5. Saw Samuel Fuller's White Dog on the big screen. (For those of you who don't know it, it's Fuller's unreleased movie about a German shepherd specifically trained to attack black people.) I still don't know what to make of it -- a somewhat ham-fisted if certainly original attempt to address racism (though movies like Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon were much worse), terrible acting from Kristy McNichol, dialogue (co-written by Curtis Hanson) that's really unable to transcend its pulpy origins -- but there's something about the movie that gets under your skin. (This mainly has to do with the anti-racist dog de-trainer played by Paul Winfield, whose nobility of intentions places him on the continuum of Noble African American Men of Hollywood, but it's a compelling role nonetheless.)

6. Takeshi Furusawa's Ghost Train: sorry -- just dull all around.

7. Hirokazu Kore-eda's superb Hana is that rarest of things: a samurai comedy. Junichi Okada from V6 has sworn to avenge the death of his father -- except that he's something of an incompetent samurai, and prefers teaching the local kids how to write. Romance, drama, legacies passed on from father to son, the theater, the meaning of revenge -- they're all here in this excellent film (although it's not Afterlife, for sure).

8. Ray Lawrence's Jindabyne boasts an excellent ensemble cast -- it's hard to beat Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne -- and this adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story (also borrowed for Robert Altman's Short Cuts, i.e., the unnecessarily misogynist Huey-Lewis-pissing-into-a-river segment) does a fine job of illustrating the domestic frustrations that erupt to the surface when basic human decency is tested. But god almighty, is it ruined by a red herring of a subplot that thankfully goes nowhere and one of the most appallingly mawkish endings I've seen in a while.

9. Unfortunately I popped a Benadryl (my allergies are really awful these days) just before seeing Pedro Costa's exquisite Colossal Youth, which was the movie I was most excited to see during the SF Film Festival. Not good, because Costa stretches his long takes to the absolute breaking point (though I probably only drifted off for only a few seconds each time). Hey, at least I happily stayed through the whole thing; people were leaving in droves!

(I didn't "get it," though I stopped having that reaction to a film a long time ago.) What was certainly most memorable was the rigorously composed frame, mostly with the tall, dazed lead character -- Costa gets a lot of mileage from dressing him in all black -- cutting obliquely across the screen. What a movie though: ghosts refusing to quit haunting burnt-out shells of buildings, shuffling in stained and chipped hallways, reciting letters never sent, standing in ruined pools of light.

Posted by the wily filipino at 03:15 AM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2007

Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence.

There's little I can add to the rapturous reviews of Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence -- an almost three-hour documentary on a Carthusian monastery in France and its monks who have taken a vow to live their lives as silently as possible. It's not nearly as forbidding as it sounds, even if there is no voiceover narration, or hardly any subtitles -- there is no need for them for the most part -- or no artificial light. (Some of the most beautiful passages in the film are set at Vespers, sometimes lit only by a lone candle.)

The monks do speak, for starters, and the part Gröning chooses to show is their rather funny quibbling about certain rituals. But immediately, at the beginning of the film, the audience is already drawn into contemplation: we watch a monk, barely discernible in the dim light, kneeling in prayer, for about half a minute; he stands, adjusts the heater in his bare room, and kneels again.

The theme of the eternal present is movingly raised by an elderly blind monk, testifying joyfully about his blindness and his peaceful embrace of his mortality. There are no distinctions between past or present with God, the monk says; only the present prevails, and when He sees us, he always sees our entire life. In contrast, the ineluctable passage of time is seen outside the monastery: seasons follow one another, the snows end and the blooms appear. (Gröning also presents the monks not as timeless, ahistorical figures: one monk puzzles over bills on an IBM Thinkpad, another practices his singing on a small keyboard, airplanes fly overhead.)

The cinematography, both intimate and grand, is something else: some high-definition video shots echo the Old Masters in their composition; we see, in painstaking detail, new leaves peeking through still-frosted stems, or the slow drop of water from a bucket. (Indeed, the swarming motes in the grainy Super-8 footage -- sometimes, of nothing but blue sky or gray cloud -- suggest a perpetual movement in what is ostensibly still.) Gröning also gets a lot of mileage from close-ups of shaved heads, the camera peering over monks' shoulders as they read or pray, inviting the audience to imagine the secrets inside their skulls, to wonder about what inspires such devotion.

Viewers will come away with different things. For me it was the effortless way in which the deeply ordinary was invested with a deep, spiritual gravity; they shovel snow, feed cats, saw wood, sing, and kneel in prayer, and somehow the divine is felt as a trace, lingering in all their labors. There is a scene, for instance, in which a monk repairs a shoe, and his simple act of blowing on the glue to dry it becomes, in the world of Into Great Silence, the seeming exhalation of a prayer. The less generous will wonder about the political implications of a retreat from all the sorrows of the world. But many will surely remark upon the temporary transformation of the movie theater into an extension of the monastery; indeed, the hush follows you outside into the night as you leave.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:55 PM | Comments (3)

April 06, 2007

SF Film Fans, Start Your Engines.

11 movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year:

- Bush, Bruckner and Gentry's The Signal
- Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth
- Takeshi Furusawa's Ghost Train
- Michael Glawogger's Slumming
- Hal Hartley's Fay Grim
- Kon Satoshi's Paprika
- Hirokazu Kore-eda's Hana
- Ray Lawrence's Jindabyne
- Lee Yoon-Ki's Ad Lib Night
- Aureaus Solito's Tuli
- Roar Uthaug's Cold Prey

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:17 AM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2007

Killer of Sheep.

A couple of years ago I finally managed to catch Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) -- a lo-res, muffled-dialogue, torrented version -- but which captivated me so much that it ended up as one of my favorite films that year.

And now Milestone is not only releasing a DVD box set, it's also showing up at a U.S. city near you from March to August. Just watching the trailer is giving me the chills; I can't wait to see it on the big screen.

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:31 AM | Comments (3)

February 20, 2007

Walter Sparrow, Pet Detective.

The Number 23 isn't unwatchable by any means, but its particular brand of awfulness deserves a little explanation. Directed by affable hack Joel Schumacher, the movie is part of what I'd call the post-Memento film, featuring unreliable narrators, plots that twist upon each other, suitably grimy production design that screams "I must be insane because I wrote all over the walls," and the pleasures of the readerly text. Its saving grace is that it doesn't constantly tease you -- "constantly" being the operative term here -- with "Was that real, or did he just dream that?" At least the whole thing is wrapped up neatly with a bow at the end, which is the least one can demand after having to sit through this.

Tonally, the film is all wrong, too. The pulpy novel that propels Walter Sparrow into his Downward Spiral Into Madness is meant to be badly-written hardboiled dialogue -- actually, most of it is badly written period -- but Schumacher seems to take it fairly seriously. Instead we get Jim Carrey doing his best brooding Colin Farrell impersonation; it's a problem when the audience isn't sure whether to interpret this as camp. (To his credit, the writer makes Carrey's character a dog catcher; this can only be deliberate, considering one of Carrey's most famous roles, but some sequences -- particularly when Sparrow is pursued by the Hound of Heaven -- are inadvertently funny.)

In short, the best thing about the movie is Virginia Madsen's cheekbones, and they're not reason enough to watch it.

(And to Mr. Schumacher: when your oeuvre contains the infamous "Fi' cent" scene from Falling Down, it's not very cool to start with an elaborate, unfunny joke that ends with the punchline "In China, people eat dogs.")

(And to the woman at the Metreon free sneak preview who demanded to take the seats that I saved for my friends who merely got up to go to the bathroom, and who loudly pronounced, "I can do whatever I want" and tried to take my jacket off the seats anyway: you suck.)

p.s. The fact that I apparently posted this entry at 2323 hours is a total coincidence. (I'm writing this section much later, at 1:15 am.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:23 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2007

The SFIAAFF.

Woo-hoo! The SF International Asian American Film Festival is here once again; all hail Chi-hui!

I'm busy most of the week (though the list below doesn't look like it, but unfortunately I'll be missing the new Lin / Byler / Weesethakul films), but I'm certainly checking these out:

Ato Bautista's Blackout:



Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese:



Hong Sang-soo's Woman on the Beach:



Romeo Candido's Ang Pamana:



and maybe Johnnie To's Exiled:



Posted by the wily filipino at 12:09 PM | Comments (5)

February 07, 2007

The Best Movies I Saw in 2006.

As usual, these include (older) films I got to see only in 2006.

In alphabetical order:

- The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall, England, 2005)
- Linda Linda Linda (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan, 2005)
- Tropical Malady (dir. Apichatpong Weesethakul, Thailand, 2004)
- Workingman's Death (dir. Michael Glawogger, Austria, 2005)

And three runners-up:

- Cavite (dir. Neill dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, U.S.A., 2006)
- High Tension (dir. Alexandre Aja, France, 2003)
- Platform (dir. Jia Zhangke, China, 2000)

"The language of cinema is universal." This is Landmark Cinema's introduction to its movies -- a contradiction, however, to how much of the American public seems to like its movie-watching. "Like" is a guess on my part; Jonathan Rosenbaum argues, in essence, that the weekly charts of top ten highest-grossing movies are more of a reflection of how producers, marketers and distributors view the American movie-going public. There's no reason, for instance, that Park Chan-Wook's satisfying but disturbing revenge flick Oldboy would not have cashed in at the box office -- except for the fact that it has subtitles and, most importantly, was relegated only to limited film-festival or one-week runs in North America. (Okay, there are various acts of mutilation and torture, and an animal gets eaten alive -- but surely Jackass Number Two had similar scenes, no?)

While we cultural anthropologists generally dislike so-called "cultural universals," there are surely certain cinematic codes and conventions familiar to the movie-going middle class everywhere. Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda, a film about Japanese high school girls who form a band, is an excellent exemplification of that "universal language," and therefore runs the risk of an American remake. Hollywood's remaking of Japanese horror movies, for instance -- perhaps testifying to its relentlessly acquisitive nature or its history of appropriating things in its own image -- consistently removes the specific cultural context from which the film emerges, almost as if the American public needed to be shielded from hearing foreign languages or different cultures.

Let me illustrate this dynamic by posing something opposite. I encounter something similar in my introductory sociocultural anthropology classes, where a student would invariably say at the end of the semester that they learned a lot because they could "relate to the readings," or that they could "see themselves in the situations," or, my favorite, that they "learned more about themselves." But my standards in this cinematic case are somewhat different: These lessons are absolutely commendable, but there is something to be said about a perceptual lens that enables one to recognize, appreciate, and understand difference, rather than simply projecting oneself onto the ethnographies. Surely film audiences can do the same, at the same time using those codes of the "universal language" to guard against archaic exoticisms.

(The fact that the band in Linda Linda Linda, called "PARANMAUM" -- Korean, apparently, for "Blue Hearts," the name of the '80s Japanese band whose songs they cover -- is led by a Korean singer who can only speak halting Japanese, her second language, nicely entwines the twin themes of the possibility of intercultural communication with a nostalgia that cannot be shared; "Linda Linda" is not a song from the lead singer's childhood, and despite this (or because of this) by the end she inhabits it and makes it fully her own.)

Linda Linda Linda isn't perfect; it traffics in the usual stereotypes, none of them very deeply fleshed out -- the tough one, the one with a crush, the hesitant outsider (played wonderfully here by my new favorite actress Bae Doo-Na). But unlike, say, Joan Freeman's Satisfaction (terrible) or Alan Parker's The Commitments (better -- it's based on a Roddy Doyle novel after all), there's no anticipation of a big break, no big club date or audience, just a high school basketball court performance on a rainy afternoon. In this respect the dilemmas are charmingly small, but massive in its adolescent context: will they find a place to rehearse? Will they make it to the concert on time? Will they ever get those opening notes right? This is where Yamashita's direction shines; when they finally get to sing their song, the crowd-pleasing scenes at the conclusion are genuinely earned.

It is in the film's series of final frames -- almost-still shots of empty courtyards and hallways -- that the film acquires a particular gravity. With the mystic guitar chords of memory ringing in the background, the film tells us that the high school -- surely one of the more emotionally charged locales, however one might repress it, in a typical viewer's life -- will always be there, even if its temporary residents will inevitably come and go. Spaces only become places once they are animated by the lives and recollections passing through it. The film works in the same way, a testament to the uncanny power of music to anchor the hearer in a fleeting temporal space through a brief, bittersweet burst of nostalgia.

Music runs through Jia Zhangke's Platform as well, and it would probably be in my top four if I had had the chance to rewatch it. At once both intimate and epic in its observation of a traveling rural Chinese theater troupe, the film is also in its way an illustration of how music unsettles and moves people. There's a feeling here of unbounded potential, of China at the brink of its exciting dance with capital. But the way Jia both makes minute observations as well as portrays the characters swept up in larger forces -- combined with how the settings vary from the hugeness of barren mountains to the smallness of cramped lodgings -- betrays a clear ambivalence about what the changes will entail. But the final scene -- involving a teakettle with a whistle that sounds like a train -- is perhaps easy to interpret: the sadness of a generation left behind.

Apichatpong Weesethakul's Tropical Malady, about the budding love affair between a Thai soldier and a country bumpkin, doesn't exactly confound interpretation, as befuddled critics and audiences -- including Quentin Tarantino, who spearheaded the Cannes jury that handed it the "Un Certain Regard" award that year -- seemed to assert. The audiences at Cannes would be familiar with this sort of magic realism as it were -- if not in their own national cinema, then at least through viewings of Hongkong martial-arts/fantasy films, or Japanese ghost stories that have been the staple of recent popular Asian cinema.

What I thought was most jarring is this magic-realist combination with his fiddling around with narrative: the oneiric presentation of events in the first half, and the sudden split in the center. (I liked the plunge into darkness in the middle, as it was reminiscent of my early movie-viewing days at the Agrix Cinema in Los Banos, when the projectionist would take his sweet time switching the reels.) The romance of the first half gives way to… well, the same romance, though pitched on a dream-like mythological level, or retold on an allegorical plane. (Though as I type this, the words "though pitched on a dream-like mythological level, or retold on an allegorical plane" may in fact be erroneous, as the second half may be seen simply as a literal continuation of the earlier narrative.) There's something genuinely risky with what Weesethakul accomplishes here, especially since the plot itself is almost nonexistent, but the viewer's patience will be richly rewarded.

Tropical Malady is undoubtedly a Thai film, though one financed with French money. Cavite is undoubtedly an American film, but one that's quite literally "transnational" in scope. Here's what I wrote about Cavite earlier.

(Cavite deserves a longer blog post addressing previous comments -- one by Darren, who wrote that it was "the best Asian American film since Terminal U.S.A.," and one by my last.fm friend Ardee, who wrote a stinging tirade against the filmmakers regarding art -- and I have more to write about that ending.)

Transnationality is even more expanded in Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death, about which I wrote previously.
And finally, two horror movies, about which needs no translation.

Here's what I wrote earlier on Neil Marshall's The Descent.

(It's worth noting that American audiences were also "protected" from the ambiguities of the original UK version -- via some trimmed seconds from the ending and throughout -- which dared posit a metaphorical descent as well.)

And finally, a shout-out to Alexandre Aja's High Tension, an absolutely nerve-wracking, taut thriller machine, told with minimal dialogue and an impressive narrative economy. It also boasts of one of the more malevolent villains in recent film history and surely the most gloriously horrific use of a rotary chainsaw in a film. Unfortunately it's marred by a frankly insulting twist at the conclusion and appalling sexual politics. (Even more so, Aja's gift for gore is squandered in his second film, an unnecessary remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 10:54 AM | Comments (1)

December 23, 2006

Maximo / Cavite.

I love the fact that two Filipino and Filipino American films -- Auraeus Solito's The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's Cavite -- show up in the top twenty "Best First Film" category in this year's indieWIRE Critics Poll (the old Village Voice poll). Time for me to come up with my lame list soon...

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2006

Hostel.

I'm clearly warped. I didn't expect to enjoy Eli Roth's Hostel; part of my refusal to see it when it first came out was the fact that international debates on torture were going on at the time, and to derive entertainment from what is essentially snuff-porn seemed politically reprehensible, and still does. But I did like Roth's previous film, Cabin Fever, and so, still coming down from my Descent / horror-movie fix, I thought I'd check it out.

You probably already know what it's about: Three louts, boozing and whoring throughout Europe, fall prey to an urban legend come true, all set in an Eastern Europe veering close to parody (bad disco, rows of drab cars, a bombed-out urban landscape, cops with comb-overs and leather-jacketed heavies straight from central casting). The film itself is an homage to the stylized sadism of '70s and '80s giallo, and the nastiness of recent Japanese gore cinema (notably the work of Takashi Miike, who graces Hostel with a cameo, but also Toshiharu Ikeda's Evil Dead Trap).

It's horror, all right, but there's a way in which you can read the film as a comedy. (Like Miike's Audition, the film starts out as a different movie altogether -- in this case, Eurotrip, which I never saw, but can only imagine what it's like -- and then detours shockingly into genuine, unblinking violence.) A triphoppy version of "Willow's Song" playing while the protagonists are having sex? Funny! The running gag about the street kids who kick ass and chew bubblegum? Even funnier! The two best scenes -- the ones where I'm embarrassed to say I laughed out loud -- are delivered with perfect comic timing, complete with a pause and an even funnier follow-up. You can think of the infamous eyeball scene as formally similar to, say, the moment before Rob Schneider is forced to do something nasty, which is pretty much every movie he stars in.

Perhaps Hostel works best not as a horror film, or a suspense thriller, but as a gratuitously vile, extremely dark comedy about -- I'm totally serious here -- the nature of extralegal commodities and the circulation of global capital. The lads, clearly firm believers in the myth of the free market, liberally and unthinkingly invest their American dollars in increasingly illicit activities, and are promptly pimpslapped hard by the invisible hand. The joke, of course, is that in real life, torture is already outsourced, and that's no laughing matter.

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:57 PM | Comments (2)

August 23, 2006

The Descent.

So is Neil Marshall's The Descent the best horror film (I've seen) since Sadako crawled out of a TV in 1998? It may very well be. Wonderfully simple in its setup (and narrative: six women in a cave, and they're not alone), The Descent is a masterpiece of unrelieved tension and claustrophobia. (The fact that the viewer is plunged in almost total darkness during three-quarters of the film helps.)

To people who don't usually watch horror films -- and unfortunately, I have a number of friends who simply bypass the genre altogether -- it's hard to push other people to view it. The other night I was having dinner with friends and I was babbling on and on about how great a film it was and that I had seen it twice and wanted to see it again, and that I highly recommend it, etc., etc.:

Gladys: I don't like horror movies. Is there something else I would get out of it?

me [too quickly]: Not really.

Gladys: Oh.

me [scrambling]: Well... there's a subtext of feminist empowerment in the film.

At this point Oscar jumps in with "You're working this table!" and the spell, if it was woven at all, was broken. (Oscar and I were the only guys.) But as fatuous as that may sound, the sight of strong women kicking ass -- with the unofficial leader, a Pinay, at that -- looked pretty good on screen.

----------

If I were pressed to pick, these would be my top five favorite "horror" films in chronological order (how odd that three of them came out the same year):

- Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963)
- William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973)
- Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)
- Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973)
- Hideo Nakata's The Ring (1998)

(Runners-up, in no order: E. Elias Merhige's Begotten, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Tod Browning's Freaks, and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 08:14 PM | Comments (6)

August 18, 2006

SoaP.

Your flight crew would like to make the following ten helpful suggestions and observations for your maximum enjoyment of Snakes on a Plane:

1. Take the rowdiest crowd -- one who would line up at least 100-people deep an hour before the film begins -- and fill the theater with it.

2. Bring rubber snakes. Toss them into the air whenever someone dies a grisly death or does something heroic. (It was literally raining snakes at the Metreon earlier this evening.)

3. Have the crowd be drunk.

4. Consuming two or three pints yourself doesn't hurt either.

5. Cheer and hoot whenever Samuel L. Jackson says something vaguely tough / funny / menacing. (Actually, cheer when the previews begin, cheer when the movie itself begins, cheer when you see the first shot of Honolulu International Airport, and cheer when you see the plane take off. That'll get you all excited.)

6. A closeup of pus oozing from a snakebite wound provokes much cringing and laughing.

7. So does a snake crawling up a woman's skirt.

8. And a guy having his penis bitten by a snake.

9. Hiss loudly whenever it's quiet or one of the characters on screen goes somewhere they shouldn't.

10. Yell "Snakes!" whenever it's semantically appropriate.

I don't think I've ever emerged from a movie hoarse before. Two words, folks: see it.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:41 AM | Comments (5)

July 22, 2006

Higher Power.

From Manohla Dargis's review of M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, in the New York Times:

Apparently those who live in the water now roam the earth trying to make us listen, though initially it’s rather foggy as to what precisely we are supposed to hear — the crash of the waves, the songs of the sirens, the voice of God — until we realize that of course we’re meant to cup our ear to an even higher power: Mr. Shyamalan.
I still want to see the film -- I always subscribe to the motto that I'd probably enjoy a film I've been wanting to see despite colossally bad reviews -- but Ms. Dargis! I wrote it first! =)
Posted by the wily filipino at 01:36 PM | Comments (4)

June 20, 2006

Cavite.

In Ian Ganazon and Neill dela Llana's terrific thriller, Cavite, the Filipino American filmmakers take the tired cliches of the genre and craft an exceptional film. The plot isn't anything you haven't seen before, from Cellular to Red Eye (the only one I've seen of the four) to Nick of Time to Phone Booth: a man receives a call on a cellphone from a kidnapper, telling him that his mother and sister has been kidnapped and that he has to follow all the kidnapper's demands or they die. The result is a surprisingly politically complex and gripping suspense movie, made even more interesting for its being set in the Philippines.

What Cavite will also be remembered for is the astonishing constraints under which the film was made: an overall budget of less than $7,000, cameras resold on eBay to pay for editing (which was done completely on a home computer), a practically two-man cast and crew. (Two weeks before they were to fly to the Philippines, they still couldn't find a lead actress who wanted to accompany them, so they rewrote the script so that Ganazon could play the protagonist, with dela Llana holding the camera the whole time.)

Formally, the film is a marvel in its economy -- actor, disembodied voice, circling camera -- and the narrative is structured in the classic three-act fashion. Cavite is also clearly more than just a jittery travelogue. As the taunting kidnapper orders Adam to walk through twisted alleyways, crowded markets, squatter camps, and rivers choking with festering garbage, it is clear that he (and the audience) is receiving a political education as well.

The film, however, provides little historical or economic context for the poverty that Adam witnesses, and it is presented as almost being "endemic" to the area. A later scene where the kidnapper gives him a history lesson on the gross injustices experienced by Muslim Filipinos isn't exactly germane to what Adam sees in Cavite. (We get a possible glimpse of this in two clever digressions from the taut narrative: the camera breaks away momentarily to follow a boy buying a McDonald's meal for his grandmother, but one of these scenes ingeniously happens at a point when filming may have been impossible.) But we begin to understand, at least, the process of radicalization for the Muslim kidnapper, as we find out halfway through the film that he is a member of the Abu Sayyaf (I'm not spoiling anything here, as this is telegraphed in the opening credits).

Cavite could also be read as quite intelligently following the stereotypical plot as seen in your average Pilipino Cultural Night -- confused Filipino American in search of self, "returns" to the Philippines, and discovers one's self. What further animates this thriller, and elevates it from the genre, is the interweaving of the theme of cultural discovery. (Indeed, the movie could be seen as a suspense-thriller twist on the ethnic-identity film genre, and not the other way around.) Filipino American youth -- perhaps like the filmmakers themselves -- would no doubt find familiar tropes here, tweaked and heightened: the dizzying confusion, the humidity, the shock of the misery of the Third World, the bewilderment of a half-understood foreign/native language, the balut offered up as a kind of culinary litmus test. The filmmakers make perfect use of the staring bystanders; Adam's incongruity as he trudges through Cavite City is perhaps only a little less jarring than the presence of the two filmmakers themselves.

In the end, it is significant that the action takes place in the province of Cavite, where Emilio Aguinaldo first proclaimed the independence of the Philippine Republic from Spain. The Muslims of the Philippines, however, failed to receive, and continue to do so, the benefits and rights of any form of independence, and the events in Mindanao of the last three decades certainly bear witness to this.

(What makes the film rather politically problematic, on a couple of different levels, is the decision the protagonist makes, and the way the kidnapper is portrayed. Arguably, however, the filmmakers shroud this in moral ambiguity, depending on how one interprets the opening shot. But unfortunately, any further discussion would spoil the film for you folks, so perhaps any spoilers should be mentioned -- and explicitly designated so! -- in the comments, if any of you readers have seen the film...)

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:49 PM | Comments (7)

June 15, 2006

End Make D Parflays Dance.

Courtesy of Boyong and the V-Monster (looks like Bryanboy beat me to the link again), comes the funniest thing I've seen all month: brand-new Pinoy internet celebrity Alyssa Alano, with her incomparable version of Sixpence None The Richer's "Kiss Me" (or rather, "Keys Me"). And hats off to the genius who supplied the brutally funny videoke subtitles. (You may need the real lyrics to figure out what she's singing.)

Watch her YouTube video here; thank me later.

p.s. On a slightly more serious note: Ian Gamazon and Neill dela Llana's Cavite is one hell of a terrific film, and if you're living in the SF Bay Area or San Diego, please do make plans to see it. I'll be posting a longer entry later, but take my word for it: it's very good. (Yes, we can talk about the politically problematic parts later.)

Dennis Lim's review for the Voice is here.

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:51 PM | Comments (3)

June 13, 2006

Cavite, Opening This Friday.

CAVITE

A film by Ian Gamazon and Neill dela Llana opens June 16, 2006 in the Bay Area

A Filipino-American suspense thriller


Landmark’s Lumiere Theatre - 1572 California St., San Francisco, (415) 352-0821

Showtimes (valid 6/16-22): shows Fri-Sun at 2:30 5:00 7:30 9:45; Mon-Thu at 5:00 7:30 9:45

On Fri 6/16 discussion after the 7:30pm show
moderated by Benito M. Vergara, Jr.,
of SF State University Asian American Studies

Advance ticket purchase at: www.moviefone.com

Tickets are $9.75 for general admission and $7.75 seniors and children


Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas – 2230 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, (510) 464-5980

Showtimes (valid 6/16-22): shows daily at 1:30 3:30 5:30 7:30 9:30

Advance ticket purchase at: www.moviefone.com

Tickets are $9.50 for general admission, $7.50 seniors and children

http://www.landmarktheatres.com

Official film site: http://www.cavitemovie.com/


Message from CAVITE filmmakers:

Dear Friends,

How often is it that a movie is released in theaters where Filipino-Americans can watch a representation of their generation up onscreen? Not often enough. Cavite opens May 26 in New York and Los Angeles and three weeks later in San Diego and San Francisco, with dates in Seattle to follow. It’s easy for us to ask all of you to come and support so we can continue our careers as filmmakers. But what we ask is so much more than that.

Cavite has been called “a landmark in diaspora cinema” and it could not be more true. It represents a journey back to our homeland that not only we, as a generation of Filipino-Americans, but audiences outside our culture have responded to as well. And it’s that idea of Cavite traveling beyond the lines of the Fil-Am boundaries that we should celebrate on this occasion. Now we have a chance to show people of all cultures and races a slice of the Filipino-American experience told in a manner that anyone, no matter what your heritage, can appreciate.

And it’s in that thought that we urge you and your friends to come see Cavite. It will thrill and it will educate, it will present a side of a spectacular world rarely seen in cinema today. But most of all, if people see this movie on the weekend of its release -- and let’s not kid ourselves, attendance will be key -- it will allow all of us as filmmakers or storytellers to make more films that our generation, and future generations can be proud of.

In conclusion, what we ask for is a celebration -- a celebration of a movie born out of a desire to represent who we are and what we can do. So let’s rejoice, go see the movie, tell anyone that will listen, and not wait another minute to watch a representation of Filipino-American filmmaking up onscreen.

Sincerely,

Ian Gamazon/ Neill dela Llana

co-directors, CAVITE


The San Francisco Chronicle calls the Filipino-American suspense story an “exploration of identity…what it means to be a Filipino, an American and a Muslim.” Read the full article on: http://www.sfgate.com

“CAVITE ingeniously turns a Hollywood action movie premise into a report on the Philippines and the social and religious divisions that continue to roil the country. Directors Gamazon and Dela Llana get into locations not seen in the West since Lino Brocka’s provocative, politicized films of the 70’s and 80’s….Among the most striking American independent movies of the year.” –The New York Times

“CAVITE is a brilliantly resourceful film with sensational camerawork…A landmark in diaspora cinema.” –The Village Voice

“An intimate political thriller that’s fresh and compelling to the end.” --Los Angeles Times

“CAVITE is a breathless, jugular thriller” –LA Weekly

“A must see!” –Justin Wu, Asianweek

AWARDS:

Someone to Watch Award, Independent Spirit Awards 2006

SXSW (South by Southwest), Special Jury Prize 2005

SFIAAFF (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) Special Jury Award 2005

Golden Maille Award, Best Picture, Hawaii International Film Festival 2005

Maverick Award, Woodstock Film Festival 2005

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:06 PM | Comments (1)

May 01, 2006

Workingman's Death.

"I hope you don't think this film is about hell on earth," Michael Glawogger told the audience before the screening of his 2005 documentary Workingman's Death. It's hard to see why not: his film -- easily the best I've seen so far at the San Francisco Film Festival -- is a headlong journey into the world of manual labor where, for the most part, workers' lives are irrevocably yoked with potentially fatal peril. It sure looks like hell, too, whether it's the unworldly yellow clouds of sulfur from a volcano in Indonesia, or a butcher's market awash with crimson in Nigeria.

The film has five different episodes: the first, on illegal coal miners in the Ukraine (where, lying flat on their backs in a space 16 inches high, they hammer out blocks of coal); the second, on sulfur miners in Indonesia (weightlifting is then exposed for the bourgeois activity that it is, in this segment that looks like a Sebastiao Salgado photograph come to life); the third, on cow and goat slaughterers in Nigeria ("Life is graphic," Glawogger explained. "You eat meat. Its preparation is just hidden from you."); the fourth, on Pashtun ship disassemblers in Pakistan (there's something simply majestic about the sight of 250-feet tall pieces of metal collapse to the sea); and the last, on Chinese foundry workers and a German foundry converted into a theme park. Except for the weaker final episode, all are equally compelling. Glawogger manages to capture the ordinary in succinct ways: Ukrainian miners talking about feeding their goats, a conversation between two miners about Bon Jovi in Indonesia, a souvenir photographer in the shipyard, taking pictures for the workers to send to their families.

There is real poetry to the images and sounds that Workingman's Death displays: the creaking sound of baskets with about 150 pounds of sulfur slabs, the ripple of cow skin pulled over rocks, the gravelly crunch of coal dragged through a shaft, the disturbingly childlike cries of goats as their necks are slit open, the dazzle of arc welder sparks hurtling down a shaft or to the ocean. For this alone the film achieves a gritty, sensual transcendence.

Like extreme sports, there is perhaps something of the "extreme" in what Glawogger documents. (One can imagine that capturing this on camera constituted a kind of "extreme filmmaking" as well, and there was more than a hint of romanticization in his answers at the Q&A session.) My initial reaction was that the deeply ordinary could be equally fraught with similar danger and/or nastiness, until I realized that these kinds of occupations in the film -- some without the benefit of machines, and all of which were surely barely regulated according to any safety standards -- were indeed "deeply ordinary" mostly outside of the First World (or willfully ignored here).

I'd like to think, though, that Glawogger meant more for the film than simply to portray the universal dignity of manual labor, even if, as he reiterated, it was not about "hell on earth." Speaking as an anthropologist, I would have loved to have seen more of a context: the salaries these workers are making and what these wages can buy, how they view their labor (or what it means exactly when the man who considers himself the fastest cleaner of the roasted goat carcasses says that he is proud of the skill that God has given him), who is making a profit off of it, the families (if any) who are being supported, what Glawogger means by "well off" when he says the Ukrainian miners were "well off," and so on.

His refusal to place the film in a larger cultural / economic context by providing some sort of a "narrative" somewhat defangs the documentary, as it were, by allowing the viewers to simply focus on the images. (Indeed, his response to someone asking this question at the Q&A session was something of a cop-out: "It's because I'm a filmmaker. If I wanted to do that, I would have written an essay.") But these criticisms are somewhat unfair. In some instances the workers themselves provide a critique of their own social conditions, though these are quickly smoothened over. In a couple of scenes where the interviewees talk about why they like their jobs, their answers are clearly meant to be sarcastic.

No matter: Claustrophobic, vertiginous, grim, and sometimes oddly exhilarating, Workingman's Death is a fantastic achievement. It's certainly the best film I've seen all year (and it's only May!).

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:22 AM | Comments (0)

March 31, 2006

The SF Film Fest Is Upon Us!

It's San Francisco Film Fest time again, and I already have my lineup, in alphabetical order (by director):

Ahmad's Gubra

Glawogger's Workingman's Death

Hou's Three Times

Martin's A Short Film about the Indio Nacional

Solito's The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

Suwa's A Perfect Couple

Suzuki's Princess Raccoon

Plus more vying for my attention:

- Maddin's "The Heart of Guy Maddin" (because he's actually going to be there)
- Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential"
- Solanas' "The Dignity of the Nobodies"
- Garrel's "Regular Lovers"
- Kobayashi's "Bashing"
- Sokurov's "The Sun"
- Herzog's "The Wild Blue Yonder"
- Ruiz's "The Lost Domain"
- Smith's "Heaven and Earth Magic," with Deerhoof playing live
- Tsai's "The Wayward Cloud" (which, after seeing bits and pieces of the infamous last 5 minutes of the film, I'm probably going to detest, especially after I told M, right before What Time Is It There? began, that the film would probably start with a shot of a guy smoking a cigarette for five minutes, and sure enough...)

But I thought I'd put a little plug for Neil Marshall's The Descent, a nicely effective horror flick about, well, six women in a cave. Contrary to the synopsis on the SF Film Society page, there are actually cheap shocks and gratuitous violence galore -- lots of jumping out from shadows, eye-gougings, and eviscerations, etc. -- but that isn't a bad thing. (I think I like Marshall's earlier film, Dog Soldiers, better; that film was six men in the woods instead.) But it helps, it really does, to have a beautiful, kick-ass Pinay (Natalie Mendoza) as one of the female leads.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:35 AM | Comments (4)

March 06, 2006

The SFIAAFF / J-Town.

So here are the films I'll be watching (or think you folks should check out) at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, given my limited time in SF (I have to be in Atlanta for a conference):





Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Cafe Lumiere (2004).

My friend Jack's Mom said, "Isn't that that Taiwanese filmmaker who made that really really slow movie?" and proceeded to describe Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time Is It There? No, I said, that's another really really slow Taiwanese filmmaker. (I don't mind slow, honest.) It's going to be awesome, though; I'll be watching Tokyo Story again for this one.




Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda (2005).

Read that synopsis! How could you not want to watch it? (I'll be pulling out my Blue Hearts CDs for that one!)




Richard Wong's Colma: The Musical (2005).

And my apologies to H.P. Mendoza, writer, musician and actor who has publicly shamed me, ha ha, for forsaking Colma: The Musical for the Belle and Sebastian / New Pornographers concert that same night, though he apparently skipped his mom's funeral for a Ben Folds Five concert. I honestly hope it was worth hearing "The Battle of Who Could Care Less" live. And my apologies in advance to L.A. Renigen, whom I think I've never met or been in contact with, but whose cousin is currently a student in my class and has asked me whether I'm watching her cousin's movie. I'm sorry, I said with a wince, realizing that this was at least the second time I had to explain myself after a colleague hassled me about not watching the film especially since I actually work on Daly City. But... but... Belle and Sebastian!




Jeff Adachi's The Slanted Screen (2005).

The director, Jeff Adachi, came by the office last week with a stack of flyers to promote the film. It sure sounded great (he came by the same week I had just shown Deborah Gee's 1988 documentary Slaying the Dragon for the 431st time, not that that's a bad thing). (I also did a double-take, because I recognized his name and face but figured there was no way he was that same Jeff Adachi I was thinking of. He was.)

Speaking of people wandering into my office, Aaron Kitashima (who is one of our majors, who did indeed wander into my office, and, who I just realized, is the grandson of Sox Kitashima!) has been circulating an online petition on the sale of properties in San Francisco's Japantown, which is currently nearing 15,000 signatures. More signatures will help; more information through an SF Bay Guardian article, here.

Posted by the wily filipino at 05:35 PM | Comments (3)

January 18, 2006

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Peter Jackson's King Kong is grand entertainment in the swashbuckling Saturday matinee B-movie style (not that I saw any of those growing up). It's also a film that perhaps more explicitly foregrounds the colonial, with knowing nods to Conrad and the historical cinematic / anthropological apparatus. (A poster for Cooper and Schoedsack's 1927 film Chang appears prominently in the background in an early scene.)

The premise is familiar to everyone: Jack Black plays Werner Herzog, who orders people around to lug his equipment deeper into the jungle -- oh wait. Jackson skillfully grounds the film during the Great Depression, with quickly sketched, if sanitized, scenes of hunger and unemployment. It's a nice contrast to the well-heeled denizens of New York who get swatted around in Times Square near the end of the film. Black and his crew (including the gorgeous Naomi Watts, wonderfully effective in an early scene where she channels her wide-eyed Mulholland Drive performance, plus Adrien Brody as a shanghaied Clifford Odets) head off somewhere in the direction of Indonesia, and end up in a jungly Mordor instead.

It's not a perfect movie, certainly. It's too long, for starters, and whatever emotional depth fostered while the cast is still on the ship (showing how everyone falls in love with Watts, basically) is squandered by the long illogical screaming rollercoaster ride in the center. (Illogical because hardly anyone gets injured after being flung, bitten, strangled, swallowed, crushed, machinegunned, dropped, slid, stampeded -- you name it. Once you're wounded, you're pretty much dead.) At least Jackson is clearly enjoying himself, as in the scenes where Gollum's head is swallowed by a giant pink leech (J-Lu had her hands over her eyes for that one), or when Kong plays with a Tyrannosaurus Rex's broken jaw. (Now that I think about it: it's actually a glimmer of the old Peter Jackson, of Bad Taste and Dead Alive, that we see here.)

In any case the film is a smart illustration, already surely argued elsewhere, of how King Kong was American national psychosexual anxiety writ large, the embodiment of the brute native inhabiting the wild, uncolonized interior. (In fact, we get two gleefully egregious depictions of ooga-booga natives: the first, kissing cousins of the Urok-hai; the second, a hilarious mishmash of just about every Savage in the popular repertoire.) In Jackson's film the narrative thrust (pardon the pun) is in two parallel directions: the cinematic capture of the unexplored frontier, and the fear -- or more precisely, the thrill -- of miscegenation.

Of course we know what happens: ape meets girl, girl meets ape, they fall in love, and things end badly. After an unexpectedly touching scene in Central Park (if you're not rooting for the couple at this point, there's something wrong with you), Kong and Watts end up climbing the Empire State Building. (It's significant that Jackson uses a smaller scale in the film; here, Kong is still dwarfed by the New York skyline.) Perilously perched on the phallus of Western capitalism, Kong suffers the consequence of his hubris and impossible love; he must be brought down, aided, in this case, by American military might. For a few tantalizing seconds, we see the devastated blonde hesitate at the precipice -- but is rescued by her "real" love. Order has returned.

Posted by the wily filipino at 01:25 AM | Comments (1)

January 02, 2006

Screenshot Answers.

Shot 1:

Chris and Paul Weitz's About a Boy (2002)


Shot 2:

Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960)


Shot 3:


Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973)


Shot 4:

Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1977)


Shot 5:

David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991)


Shot 6:


Jean Cocteau's Orphée [Orpheus] (1950)


Shot 7:


Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 (1998)


Shot 8:


Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004)


Shot 9:


Jonathan Hensleigh's The Punisher (2004)

Posted by the wily filipino at 10:10 PM | Comments (2)

December 30, 2005

Four Movies.

I didn't get to go out and see many movies this year, but here are four excellent ones:


Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Andersen's idiosyncratic love letter to Los Angeles, its ransacking by Hollywood, its architecture, and, when one least expects it, an incisive foray into social criticism, like a Mike Davis book brought to the big screen.


Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977)

I'd seen the excellent To Sleep with Anger before, but little from it prepared me for the gritty neo-Realist poetry of the deeply moving Killer of Sheep, about the existential longings of a slaughterhouse worker in South Central, circa the early '70s. (Plus it features the best use of an Earth, Wind & Fire song in a film, period.)


Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) (2004)

More details here -- speaking of neo-Realism (though I'm probably misusing the term), here it is stretched to the grandest possible scale. My humble wish is to see it at least one more time.


Marco Tullio Giordana's La Meglio Gioventý (The Best of Youth) (2003)

I'm not as thrilled with the way in which all the members of the extended family end up, supposedly coincidentally, representing the pillars of the modern state and other constitutive elements (medicine, industry, law enforcement, economics, art, the judiciary, etc.). But no matter: it's a modern-day epic on four tumultuous decades of Italian history, both intimate and sweeping.

Posted by the wily filipino at 06:24 PM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2005

Last of the Screen Shots.

[Answers above.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:47 PM | Comments (2)

September 09, 2005

The Director Who Films My Life.

Just e-mailed to me by the Poeta (what is all this online dating stuff though?) -- no matter that it completely ignores auteur theory, it's fun, if a little troubling in my case:

Sofia Coppola
Your film will be 63% romantic, 13% comedy, 23% complex plot, and a $ 35 million budget.
Relatively inexperienced (The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation) as a director, but already highly respected and connected -- her dad, Francis, directed all The Godfather movies, Apocolypse Now. Also, at last word she's dating Quentin Tarantino, so I'm sure he'll have some input into the substance of your film. Sofia's good at making the romantic drama that is your life. Who didn't have at least a lump in the throat at the end of Lost In Translation? She's already won one Academy Award for her writing, now she'll be the first woman to receive one for directing -- YOUR FILM!



My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 87% on action-romance
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 0% on humor
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 3% on complexity
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 56% on budget
Link: The Director Who Films Your Life Test written by bingomosquito
Gawd -- my life better not be Lost in Translation!
Posted by the wily filipino at 01:53 PM | Comments (2)

August 26, 2005

2046 / Broken Flowers.


Or, a lesser film by one of my favorite directors, shot by one of my favorite cinematographers, featuring a disaffected emotional cipher of a Don Juan who is unable to truly connect with people around him and is on a quest for something he is not entirely sure about, with laconic dialogue, strict attention to interior detail, and a series of stunning women who drift in and out of his life, all more interestingly wrought than the lead character.

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:31 AM | Comments (3)

August 17, 2005

Soundtrack.

soundtrack

One night last week a mysterious woman gave me a DVD. "This is really creepy," she said as she slipped the disc into my hands. Almost with trepidation, I watched it the next evening, steeling myself for the weirdness to come.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly a mysterious woman (it was J-Lu, who's actually rather mysterious herself), but the film, Ken Nikai's 2001 film Soundtrack, is itself a real oddity, a visually gorgeous and disturbing nightmare of a movie.

The movie begins with the words "The darkest hour is before the dawn" superimposed on a painting of a wintry landscape; the carnival figures in the painting come to life and walk towards the camera: the tale has begun. Soundtrack is supposed to work as a fable, a dreamy evocation of something primal -- in this case, European (Punch and Judy, the Brothers Grimm). It's the story of two siblings, Sion (played by Sugizo, apparently a musician in one of those bizarre androgynous J-rock bands) and Misa (played by the beautiful Kou Shibasaki, who -- especially after her performance in Kinji Fukusaku's Battle Royale -- clearly plays unhinged just a little too well). He, decked in deliberately tattered couture, plays the violin; she illustrates books about the moon and ice cream.

What differentiates the movie from, say, The Princess Bride is the surprising amount of mutilation and dismemberment. There is an outlandish and visually interesting scene, for instance, when a female warrior of sorts, brandishing a sword, weaves through blobs of blood suspended in mid-air after she has calmly decapitated a couple of victims. There are kids in it -- and they are drenched in blood before too long -- and so the movie's definitely not for kids.

In some respects, the film can be argued to be no more than a glorified music video for Sugizo (though J-Lu reminds me that it's his movie, after all). Since Shibasaki's character is mute, she does little more, at least initially, than smile, draw and scream; Sugizo himself is practically silent as well. There is very little actually spelled out in terms of plot -- not that there's much of one in any case -- and because a good amount of the film is focused on watching Sugizo play his music (one pivotal scene is practically a perverse re-enactment of Nero fiddling while Rome burns), the music video comparisons can't be helped. The director's visual aesthetic is part Dave McKean, part Evanescence video -- all gauzy CGI goodness, with an unrelieved palette of sickly greens and purples and insouciantly rumpled hair and clothes.

But it's actually a more interesting film, if only the execution was a little less… indulgent, I suppose. There are, for instance, all these nakedly Freudian symbols on display -- the giant nest in which the two siblings sleep, the constant reappearance of ice-cream cones, the cleft in the tree from which handwritten notes spew forth, the red pregnant Moon-planet in the sky.

And while the almost-interminable looped shots of Sugizo playing the same violin riff over and over could be interpreted as the work of a lazy filmmaker, it's also an excellent cinematic analogue to his scarred memories; the recurring motifs and scenes suggest, as befitting the nature of trauma, an uncontrollable, compulsive repetition. (The editing throughout the movie -- flashing forward, then backward, with few cues for the audience -- signals this same lack of control over the frightening images.) Like the music soundtrack, Sion (and, by extension, the film itself) is stuck in a groove from which he cannot escape -- at least, until another form of doubling, right out of Vertigo, occurs halfway through the film.

In the end, however, the lavish production design doesn't quite save the movie from being something of a self-indulgent if visually unique and interesting mess; not knowing anything about the movie certainly heightened the mystery for me.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:40 AM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2005

DVD Tag.

Tagged by DBD, so here we go:

Total Number of Films I Own on DVD And Video:

A lot. The number of DVDs I have that are still in shrinkwrap is embarrassing.

The Last Film I Bought:

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear. My justification was that the Criterion edition just went out of print. (This wasn't as extravagant a transaction as the Poeta's purchase yesterday of that Kurosawa Criterion box set.)

Five Films Which I Watch a Lot / Mean a Lot to Me:
This is a hard one, because they're two separate categories, but the first one is easier to figure out:

- Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
Regular readers of this blog would know that I write about the film often; it still can't let me go.

- Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro
Because it's one of Izzy's favorite films, I've seen it more times than I can count, but that's not the only reason it's on my list; I can't think of any other film that communicates childlike wonder, the realities of adulthood, and the connectedness of life on earth in such a simple, funny and spiritually transcendent fashion. In fact, I'd go out on a limb here and say that Tonari no Totoro is just about perfect.

- Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now
While I could write that it's a haunting meditation on loss and memory, blah blah blah, Roeg's film is a genuinely unsettling, brilliantly edited horror flick that just happens to star two great performers -- Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie -- and is ostensibly about a serial killer in Venice. (Only Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock comes close in terms of evoking similar feelings of dread.)

- Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love
At Angkor Wat they sell rubbings of the many intricate temple carvings for tourists. Wong's film functions in the same way: it's comprised of visual and aural traces and wisps of an affair, in one of the most palpably gorgeous and ethereal films I've ever seen. (The crumbling majesty of the temple complex figures prominently in a scene that almost makes me misty-eyed every time I watch it.) I set aside time to watch the movie once a year, and it's probably not enough.

- John Woo's The Killer
Blood and guns in slow-motion, a body count probably in the hundreds, and loyalty and death writ large in all its terrifying beauty -- what more do you want?

(Three) People I'm Passing the Baton to:
Three Bay Area cities: Fremont (enough of this Oaktown stuff), Albany, and Daly City.

Posted by the wily filipino at 03:24 PM | Comments (5)

July 21, 2005

Eye Candy.

wonka

I figure I must have read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 1981, and so, while watching Tim Burton's new film, I realized I'd completely forgotten the gleeful, childlike perversity in which Willy Wonka dispatches the children to their bloated, slimed, filthy and taffy-pulled fates. It's nothing new: it's an element that's both in Burton -- see Henry Selick's The Nightmare before Christmas, or Burton's second-best film, Edward Scissorhands -- and certainly in Dahl's work as well. (His almost cheerful introductions to the episodes of Tales of the Unexpected, mostly based on his short stories, belied the cruel twists that would happen at the end.)

Once you get used to this particular mindset, it's a little easier to enjoy the nastiness that Burton unwraps for us. (The audience, however, was unusually quiet throughout, even during a fantastic sequence where the Salts are whisked off to their doom by a battalion of trained Fordist squirrels. I imagine such a Gashlycrumb end was a little too traumatic for Berkeley parents; the Poeta and I were laughing out loud though.)

One of the members of a mailing list I'm on (rightly) guessed that the film would be visually beautiful but completely lacking in warmth and soul. I'm happy to report that the first half hour, at least, is rather touching, with its portrayal of the good-hearted Bucket family. But Burton milks this whole nobility-of-poverty theme for all its worth; it's seemingly earnest, but their suffering clearly borders on caricature, as does most everything else.

"Visually beautiful" is what one inevitably gets in a Burton film, and viewers expecting eye candy will not be disappointed: the psychedelic rivers of chocolate, candy machines designed by Rube Goldberg, the incongruous homage to Kubrick close to the finale, the snow-blasted dreariness of Northern England (or wherever it's supposed to be). Some would probably argue that Johnny Depp is the most "visually beautiful" element in the film, but here he's reduced to cheekbones and unnaturally straight and white teeth -- with his large sunglasses, he looks like a cross between Bono and Dr. Caligari, with a dash of Freddie Mercury thrown in for good measure.

This is where the film squanders the sweetness earned at the beginning, once the focus of the screenplay moves from Charlie to Willy Wonka. (There's little narrative suspense in any case, even for the kids in the audience. The simple morality of Dahl's tale is set up so that the odds are totally stacked against the other children, who are practically embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins; the enjoyment in the film comes from seeing the factory interior and waiting for the children to be eliminated, a la Battle Royale.) Depp, who is probably one of the best actors of his generation, draws from some well in outer space for his Wonka, and the result is off-putting. His Keith Richards impersonation in Pirates of the Caribbean garnered him critical acclaim, but at least he was endearing there; here, it's a series of stoned non sequiturs and unnatural grimaces.* Funny, yes, but Paul Reubens probably did it best for Burton over two decades ago.**

pee-wee herman

*The equivalent, if you will, of those squeals and hiccups everytime that other manchild, with his arrested adolescence, pancake-makeup face and proprietor of a similar fantasy world, would sing.

**I would also have been happier watching the film if the lone Oompa-Loompa wasn't played by a South Asian man, which therefore raised the specter of the extraction of labor from colonized, colored people. But Deep Roy's role is actually more interesting -- as the Poeta pointed out, he's the Greek chorus, after all, singing Danny Elfman's songs -- and he has a couple of surprise appearances that complicate his apparent servitude.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:02 AM | Comments (1)

July 14, 2005

Movie Quiz #7: The Answers.

Shot 1:

I guess I thought people would recognize the final scene of Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (1959), but I was wrong.

Shot 2:

And I thought people would recognize that scene in John Woo's The Killer (1989) when Danny Lee figures out how Chow Yun-Fat massacred those assassins, but I was wrong too.


Shot 3:

And I thought that people would recognize Hanna Schygulla's back -- there was a big clue there! -- in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), but I was wrong again.


Shot 4:

And I thought that people would recognize the last image of that incredible shot in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) -- that's Ingrid Bergman's hand with the cellar key -- but I was, once again, way wrong.


Shot 5:

And finally, Danny Lloyd (I think it's kind of cool that his first name really is Danny) pedals through the hallways of the Overlook and stops by room 237, in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980).

Boyong Valencia -- a high scorer from the days when I still had my Pinoy Trivia Quiz, almost a decade ago -- was the first to give me the lone correct answer. You folks will get an easier one, one of these days...

Posted by the wily filipino at 03:23 PM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2005

Batman Really Begins.

oldman

(Image stolen from Beyazperde.)

Not much about Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins either: people have said it's the best of the Batman franchise -- followed almost always by "Which isn't saying much," although in this case it is. It's an excellent popcorn movie, and there's real visual pleasure to be had at the glorious mess of metal and fire and steam at the end (the Poeta kept calling that part "sexy," and I think I know what she means).

The bad thing about "origin" movies is that the audience knows what happens next; the good thing about it is the leisurely way by which Batman's persona and surrounding trappings -- the bats, the cave, the Batmobile -- is slowly revealed to the audience and Bruce Wayne himself. In this respect the farfetched plot, involving a water vaporizer that makes little logical sense, is mere window dressing; the real story is Wayne coming to grips with his own identity and past (kind of like Guy Pearce in Nolan's Memento).

Christian Bale isn't half bad -- he's certainly better than any of his predecessors, and he has a mean, inscrutable look to his face that fits the Dark Knight persona -- and he is surrounded by an impeccable cast, after all, with at least a couple of Oscars between them. (Except for Katie Holmes, who looks all of nineteen, as an assistant D.A.; the fact that Christian Bale looked, at certain angles, like Risky Business-era Tom Cruise did not help at all. I'm trying to restrain myself from reproducing the whole Tom - Rob - Scarlett - Jessica - Lindsay - Katie story here, but it's easy enough to Google.)

But the best of the cast was an almost unrecognizable, Bill Macy-ish Gary Oldman, as a (then) Sgt. Gordon, making Batman Begins my favorite Oldman movie since Peter Medak's Romeo Is Bleeding. (I was going to write that Oldman's rumpled, lived-in character nicely anchors the film in some sort of external reality, but Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman perform this function as well.) At least it's good to see Oldman not play the kind of sweaty psycho role that used to go to the far less talented Dennis Hopper.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:34 AM | Comments (8)

July 10, 2005

Some Words on Howl.

howl

(Image stolen from Le Quotidien du Cinema.)

There's not much I can write about Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle that The Former Makeweight hasn't already written, in a series of finely detailed (and, as she herself claims, obsessive -- I mean that in jest, of course) entries, on her blog Getaway.

As usual, Miyazaki's visual sense is exquisite, with the castle itself looking like a living, breathing creature (and, as always, no one does flying scenes like Miyazaki does, which we see in a triumphant early scene). It's also probably his most surreal film to date, what with a jumping scarecrow, a fire demon with the voice of Billy Crystal (not as severely miscast as others have mentioned), a young wizard with a huge magic beard, and a Howl that kept reminding me, unfortunately (particularly when we see him in his overstuffed, toy-littered bedroom, agonizing over his beauty), of Michael Jackson. The narrative is also this loosely connected sprawl -- at some point the Poeta turned to me and asked, "Am I the only one who finds this all incomprehensible?" -- though a kind of dream logic kicks in during the last half-hour or so and one simply has to sit back and drink up the images. Worth watching, definitely, though it doesn't have the epic sweep of Princess Mononoke or the eloquent simplicity of My Neighbor Totoro (probably my favorite Miyazaki film).

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:35 AM | Comments (7)

July 08, 2005

Questions on Lancelot.

Some random thoughts -- actually, questions -- which I wrote right after seeing Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac last week:

It was a choice between Mean Girls and Lancelot du Lac, and the latter won. (I was also trying to console myself for not seeing "Spamalot" last week with Bulletproof Vest.) I'm still trying to wrap my head around it (I don't know anything about the film, and it's my first Bresson, which is probably not the first Bresson to start with, and I just finished the DVD a few minutes ago) -- in particular, the constant, abstracted waist-level camera shots of legs (and later, gloves and lances and swords) of both men and horses. As if they were interchangeable somehow.

Is Bresson trying to say that the results of those limbs' actions are oddly separated from the characters? Or does violence -- almost all of which happens offscreen -- separate these tangible, physical extensions of humanity from the humanness of the people themselves? (At some point Guinevere offers her heart and soul to Lancelot, and he responds with "It's your body I want." There aren't any heroes here except probably for the poor deluded Gawain.)

Indeed, close to the end, we only have those differently-colored tights to tell people apart, and in the last scene, Bresson chooses to remove that as well.

And what is up with the soundtrack? That same chirp, that same horn, that same whinny, the consistent sound of clinking armor that is finally silenced in the last shot... (In that almost interminable jousting scene, we see the same shot of the musician looped over and over.) That war and violence, like the sonic elements of the film, are condemned to repeat eternally? Or -- as Brandon on the Pivotal Film mailing list put it -- just bad sound design?

And the first minute of the film... which came first, this film or Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:05 AM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2005

Movie Quiz #7.

[Answers to be posted soon.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:03 AM | Comments (0)

June 30, 2005

Movie Quiz #6: The Answers.

Shot 1:

I can't reveal the significance of the unicorn, though that's been fought over by countless movie fans, sci-fi geeks, and comp-lit grad students. From Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

Shot 2:

Takeshi Kaneshiro finishes 30 cans of Dole sliced pineapples, the significance of which I can't reveal either, in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (1994).


Shot 3:

"These are the leads. These are the Glengarry leads." One of my favorite films from the nineties: James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), from the David Mamet play. (Alec Baldwin's character, whose hands you see in the picture -- that's Kevin Spacey in the background -- is not originally in the play, but his character provides something of an extra, if somewhat unnecessary, impetus for the salesmen's increasingly desperate behavior.


Shot 4:

The boulder in the pool is a portent of bad things to come -- in this case, Ben Kingsley, in his portrayal of a coiled cobra -- in Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast (2001).


Shot 5:

It's not just a plot (or hair) twist; it's also a visual analogue to James Stewart's spiraling descent into obsession and madness, in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

The quiz forms server messed up and I received several blank entries, unfortunately; hopefully it won't happen next time. Two people guessed four movies correctly: Pat Padua and Brandon.

One person complained about there not being any people in this quiz, so up next: people.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:01 AM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2005

Movie Quiz #6.

[Quiz is over; answers are already up.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:01 AM | Comments (1)

June 05, 2005

Movie Quiz #5: The Answers.

Shot 1:

"Got me a movie, I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs oh ho ho ho." It's Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929), of course.

Shot 2:

In one of the coolest director cameos in recent cinematic history, Roman Polanski slices up Jack Nicholson's nose in his film Chinatown (1974).


Shot 3:

Doh! If you're a monk trying to protect yourself from evil spirits by painting your entire body with sutras, don't forget your ears! From Masako Kobayashi's tetralogy of horror, Kwaidan (1964). (Most popular wrong guess: Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book.)


Shot 4:

More ear violence courtesy of Virginia Madsen's big brother Michael, in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992).


Shot 5:

Woman alone at home + the undead + big nasty splinter on the door = really really really really really really really bad combination. Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979) (or Zombi 2) is, thankfully, not as misogynistic as his other films, but the splinter-in-the-eye scene is up there with the drill-in-the-head scene from City of the Living Dead. (His homage to Bunuel, above, in the unspeakably nasty New York Ripper doesn't really count.) (On the DVD commentary, David Hemmings' stunned reaction is priceless.) Zombie, however, is my favorite Fulci flick if only for the incredible zombie-vs-shark fight scene. No, really. (Most popular wrong guess: some Argento flick. My favorite guess, from Rebecca Maglanque: "Stephen King Presents Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head.)

The enigmatically named "mshoe" was the only person to get all five films correctly.

Up next: "things."

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:17 AM | Comments (1)

May 20, 2005

Movie Quiz #5.

[Answers posted.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:18 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

Movie Quiz #4: The Answers.

Shot 1:

The philosophical detective Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine -- what a cool name) walks by a naked woman in a vitrine, in Jean Luc-Godard's pulp sci-fi noir Alphaville (1965).

Shot 2:

Egbert Sousè (W.C. Fields) discovers the perks of his new job as a detective for the Bank of Lompoc -- a free calendar. Edward F. Cline's The Bank Dick (1940) is not necessarily Fields' funniest film -- the honor goes to It's A Gift -- but his prodigious gift for misanthropic, drunken verbal repartee is on full display here. The madcap car chase sequence at the end is a minor miracle.

Shot 3:

The titular character of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1972) gets it on with slumming coeds -- from Columbia or NYU, I can't remember which. The callow, wise-ass Fritz isn't the reason to watch the rather dated and puerile film; it's the set-pieces built around "ethnic" dialogue, that are probably the most interesting.

Shot 4:

Penises are instrinsically funny, as Brian (the late Graham Chapman) discovers to his dismay in Terry Jones's Monty Python's The Life of Brian (1979).

Shot 5:

In one of the most controversial (and fascinatingly unwatchable) films ever, a group of beautiful youths are trapped in a palazzo in the last days of Mussolini's Fascist regime. Pier Paolo Pasolini's gorgeously vile Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1976) is, thankfully, one of a kind, and one designed -- its attention to visual complicity on the part of the audience perhaps makes this clear -- to be seen only once. (Be thankful I'm not using this film for the next quiz's theme.)

Four people got all five films correctly: Chris Bales, Brandon, Greg Levrault, and Rolf Riebig. Congratulate them for being able to identify five movies with naked people in it.

Quiz 5: we've done nudity, so violence is up next…

Posted by the wily filipino at 07:26 PM | Comments (1)

May 06, 2005

Movie Quiz #4.

[Answers and a new quiz coming up...]

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:05 AM | Comments (0)

May 05, 2005

Movie Quiz #3: The Answers.

As I wrote before, a character -- or, in the case of Shot #2, every character -- sings the song:

Shot 1:


Larry Fishburne (oops, he's Laurence Fishburne now), who must have been all of 16 when Francis Ford Coppola filmed Apocalypse Now (1979), sings along to the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." (I think a shot of Sam Bottoms on a surfboard would have been an easier vidcap.) Probably my favorite film of all time, as I've mentioned on this blog over and over.

Shot 2:


Paul Thomas Anderson has pretty much the entire cast -- including Tom Cruise -- of Magnolia (1999) -- sing along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up." It's a wonderfully risky scene, but it works.

Shot 3:


"Don't you never sleep?" asks Billy Chapin to himself when he hears Robert Mitchum on the horizon, singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955) is one of the greatest American movies ever made.

Shot 4:


In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), Uma Thurman dances to an Urge Overkill cover of a Neil Diamond song: "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." Most everyone got this correctly.

Shot 5:


Keir Dullea unplugs HAL 9000 -- who, in a last attempt at communication before his death, sings "Daisy" (the original title, though, is "Daisy Bell" from 1892!) -- in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Our highest scorer for this quiz is Steve Spence from New Mexico, with 9 points; Pat Padua, Pete Culley and Eric Braden all got 8 points each as well.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:16 AM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2005

Ingmar Bergman's "Saraband."

The other night I saw Ingmar Bergman's sequel to Scenes from a Marriage, and I must say, at least initially, I'm somewhat dissatisfied; for all my high expectations, Saraband turns out to be -- not that that's such a terrible thing -- just another Bergman film.

(Spoilers follow.)

The film is not really about Johan and Marianne, for starters, and seems to squander the economy of the original: a series of verbal dances and jousts in airless rooms. In Saraband Johan has moved to a life of relative isolation in the wilderness, and Marianne has come to visit. But the film is really more about Johan and his relationship to his middle-aged son Henrik, and for those like me who wanted more of the same, opening up the film this way -- there's Henrik's daughter, the absent fifth character (Henrik's deceased wife Anna), and the audience, who Marianne addresses directly at the beginning and end of the film -- seemed to include people who shouldn't have been invited to the dance.

There are also plot revelations that seem terribly... lazy, I guess, is the right word -- the kind that you're probably told to avoid in screenwriting classes. Saraband also seems -- and this may ultimately be a half-empty / half-full glass situation -- frighteningly pessimistic.

Part of the many pleasures of Scenes from a Marriage was the spectacle of language unfettered, how it gushed out in torrents, even as it concealed and deceived, even as words were the manifestation of a perhaps unnecessary honesty, where language was used both as weapon and, crucially, as salve. The former film -- especially as seen in the last act -- focuses more on the giddy bond of intimacy; even if they couldn't stay together, they were at least open to each other. Even within their confined spaces, and in the joyless context of separation and divorce, their words had a liberating, even transcendent, effect. Even if they were alone "in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world," they at least had each other, and at least they were talking.

In Saraband, it's the corrosive power of distance, of isolation, of non-communication that concerns Bergman. (We see glimpses of the woods and the lake outside, but the film is even more stifling than its predecessor.) One of the little shocks (at least for me) in the film is when the audience discovers that the couple has not spoken in thirty years. Perhaps the vision of Johan and Marianne cheerfully cheating on their new respective spouses for the next three decades was too much of a fantasy for the audience after all, and maybe Bergman meant it this way. The irony is that Scenes from a Marriage, while about divorce, is the film that's more about openness; one expected Saraband to explore the further deepening of Johan and Marianne's relationship, but is in fact about its exact opposite.

One of the other shocks, at least for me, was the sight of Erland Josephson's right hand shaking involuntarily; indeed, I almost lost it when he struggles to get up from his chair to give Liv Ullmann a hug. Actually, there's only really one deliberately tearjerking moment which comes fairly early in the film; seen in the context of all five hours of Scenes from a Marriage, the pathos is well-earned. (But it was no surprise to see Liv Ullmann still look like, well, Liv Ullmann.)

But Saraband is also about how hate festers and is distilled. Johan's charm and wit (even as he was being the "pitiable" philanderer) in the first film has been boiled away, as it were, since he has been transformed into the stereotypically crotchety (and here, venomous) sad old man. Ultimately, the film is about love in its destructive forms, with the characters held up to a (perversely?) impossible, saint-like ideal as embodied by the absent Anna.

Towards the end, Johan is afflicted, in the middle of the night, by "mental diarrhea" trying to escape out of his body through every pore, terrified by (an unspoken) fear of death. The scene is capped by a lazy (for Bergman) visual metaphor: Johan takes off his clothes and stands naked in the doorway. But together his and Marianne's nakedness is merely superficial: they are naked, if not before each other, then at least to the world or an ostensibly pitying God, but the possibility for human communication is still stymied. Or maybe not: perhaps it is what unspoken between them that is, at this juncture, most eloquent.

Repeatedly Marianne is asked by each character why she has come to visit, and she responds, almost every single time, that she does not know. I think it is crucial that we take her answer at face value: the soul searches, but for what and which reason is never really clear. The film seems to be ultimately about, if one can reduce it so primitively, connection (or, that old Scenes from a Marriage word again, intimacy), our many failed attempts at it, and the impossibility of achieving it altogether -- but that maybe, even in our clumsy, inarticulate ways, we sometimes get it right.

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2005

Claire Denis' "The Intruder."

When the film festival programmer herself introduces the film as "frustrating" and "resists interpretation," well, consider yourself warned. And while I usually relish a fun mindbender of a film, there's little pleasure (at least right now) to be derived from this exercise, especially since one is teased -- constantly -- with the possibility that some form of coherence is just a few minutes away, just another plot twist around the corner. (The images are indeed beautiful -- the wintry French landscape, the colored ribbons at the christening of a Korean ship, the purple sky behind Tahitian coconut trees -- and so is the music, by Stuart Staples from the Tindersticks.)

We follow the travels of Michel Subor, the recipient of a seemingly illegal heart transplant, from France to Korea to Tahiti, where he is, ostensibly, looking for his son. Or something like that. He may be a retired secret agent. Or not. Throughout there are quick intimations of violence, as if the film is threatening to become a spy flick. (I think the nods to the thriller genre were what threw me off; had it been a film about, for instance, a grieving couple wandering the streets of Hiroshima, I would have been more receptive to the cinematic logic.)

But one by one, the little plot threads are dropped: the foreign passports, the heart in the snow, money from a Swiss bank, the Russian agent following him. It is as if what passes for narrative convention is slowly stripped off, layer by layer, until we are left with nothing but the ocean (perhaps as much a symbol of eternal longing here as it is in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). (There is a semblance of circularity toward the end -- I can't spoil it -- but logically, at least in terms of physical logic, it makes little sense.)

Maybe some dreamwork tonight will help me figure it out, but for now... I am indeed frustrated, as the festival programmer rightly predicted. Especially frustrated, since there was a Puffy Amiyumi concert just next door.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:21 AM | Comments (2)

April 16, 2005

Movie Quiz #3.

[Quiz done; answers already posted.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:11 AM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2005

Movie Quiz #2: The Answers.

Because of the unprecedented number of submissions for the last movie quiz (I'm being sarcastic), the next quiz will be way easier.

Here are the answers (they're all part of the Criterion Collection, by the way):

Shot 1:

In Mark Rosman's The House on Sorority Row -- just kidding. Vera Clouzot faints when she discovers that something that should be in the pool isn't, in Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 film Diabolique. Simone Signoret (standing off to one side) is probably more celebrated as the steely mistress, but Clouzot's performance as the nervous teacher is the better of the two. (I was only partly kidding about The House on Sorority Row: the slasher flick borrows this whole plot twist. Rosman would later go on to direct Hilary Duff in a couple of features.)

Shot 2:

The Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) wanders through a ballroom (in a riveting hour-long scene) in Luchino Visconti's magnificent The Leopard (1963). (I was initially hesitant to use this shot, figuring that it was too small to recognize Lancaster -- I was going to go with a vidcap of Lancaster and the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale dancing -- but people got it.)

Shot 3:

Serial killer and pedophile Peter Lorre is stuck, in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M. (There's the title, written on his back!)

Shot 4:

Nicolas Cage waves off the oncoming F-18s, in Michael Bay's The Rock (1996). It's big, dumb, loud, and a hell of a lot of fun. Almost everyone got this; maybe I should have used this pretty one instead.

Shot 5:

Homayon Ershadi drives around the outskirts of Teheran in his Range Rover, looking for someone to rescue him or bury him, in Abbas Kiarostami's 1988 film Taste of Cherry. Absolutely sublime (the hairs on my arm are standing up, just thinking about it).

Two people identified all five films correctly, but one person sent their answer in earlier (sorry Brandon). Congratulations to thick pigeon, who wrote, "Thank goodness for 3rd world piracy!" I suppose that means pirates have good taste, but poor Abbas...

A new quiz, with a musical twist, appears tomorrow.

Posted by the wily filipino at 03:27 PM | Comments (0)

April 02, 2005

Movie Quiz #2.

[Quiz is done; answers to be posted.]

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:40 AM | Comments (4)

April 01, 2005

Movie Quiz #1: The Answers.

Shot 1:


"Kiri kiri kiri kiri," Eihi Shiina coos as she plays with needles, in Takashi Miike's Audition (1999).

Shot 2:


See what happens when you disobey your teacher? From Kinji Fukusaku's Battle Royale (2000). Most everyone guessed the first two correctly, even if they hadn't seen it.

Shot 3:


This was the hardest one to identify. The scene occurs during the opening credits: the beautiful Meiko Kaji, bound up in prison, sharpening a spoon into a deadly weapon by scraping it against the cold stone floor, in Shunya Ito's Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972). The film in shot #5 borrows shamelessly from it (the theme song, for starters). Yeah, yeah, it's supposedly an homage, but still...

Shot 4:


C3PO and R2D2 -- sorry, two peasants named Tahei and Matakishi -- clamber up over a rocky hill only to find, to their chagrin, that Toshiro Mifune got there well before them, in Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Shot 5:


Sonny Chiba figures out who Uma Thurman is using the Hattori Hanzo sword for, but dare not say his name, so he writes it instead, from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003).

Shot 6:


While it's her ass that occupies the opening credits, it's a bored Scarlet Johanssen's knee that we see here overlooking Tokyo, from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003).

Shot 7:


A few seconds after seeing this image, the video will end, and the phone will ring, and you will die in seven days, from Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998).

Shot 8:


From the concluding nightclub shootout (one of many) in Seijun Suzuki's eye-popping, ultra-stylish gangster thriller Tokyo Drifter (1966). My friend Boyong thought it was something from the set of the Spandau Ballet video for "True."

Shot 9:


Two elderly parents, Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama, visit their children, but who are simply too busy to spend time with them. They are summarily shipped off to a resort, where they are kept awake by all the drunken carousing (and the heat), in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). If there's one movie you should see on this list, make it this one.

Congratulations to Bull Schanen from New Zealand, who guessed 8 out of 9. He wins -- okay, "wins" -- the privilege to name the theme for the next series of mp3 downloads. And lots of bragging rights, of course!

A new quiz begins tomorrow.

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:35 AM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2005

Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family.

"Hindi tayo pamilya nang mga baliw (We are not a family of lunatics)," characters keep repeating in Lav Diaz's raw, transcendent, monumental, extraordinary masterpiece, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family), but if they aren't, it's only because the world around them has already gone mad. It's a genuine epic, not in the grand Hollywood sense, but in terms of sheer scale; efforts to compare it with other media -- an Andreas Gursky photograph, a Morton Feldman composition -- don't quite work. It isn't sweeping in the sense of a John Sayles film either, where every sector of society (or, in his last few films, every stereotype) is represented; Diaz's film is a closeup shot (though there are no closeups) of a small handful of Filipinos buffeted both directly and indirectly by fifteen years of political turmoil.

The fact that the film is 630 minutes long -- no, that isn't a typo, it really is ten and a half hours long -- may explain why my attempts to see it with friends failed, as they started dropping like flies (or indeed, may have had better fish to fry). But everyone I talked to would joke about bringing baon, and, a little more nervously, about cups to pee in. In short, it was cinema not just as event, but as experience, and, bladder jokes aside, it was more fulfilling and profoundly moving than any cinematic experience I've had in a long time.

The movie takes place in unspecified locations mostly in the rural Philippines -- though the end credits later reveal the locales to be Benguet, Tarlac and Marikina -- and it is filmed in a way that it could be most anywhere on Luzon. The film follows the lives of two families (though there's a reason for having only one family in the title), none of whom are "nuclear" in the traditional kinship sense: nephews, grandchildren, and orphans assembled or thrown together either by violence, necessity or love. The political events in Manila -- signaled primarily by incorporated footage of the EDSA Uprising, or Aquino's assassination, or Marcos' declaration of Martial Law -- while seemingly remote, affect the families in quite direct ways, even if they are not fully aware of it.

It is a quite still movie -- which makes the moments of violence all the more shocking (some real, in the case of footage from the massacre of farmers at Mendiola) -- with long takes shot with fairly rigorous formality: the natural landscape as proscenium, with the actors entering from stage right or left (or the background), then the cut, a beat after the last character exits. (The fact that it's filmed in black and white serves to blunt the abundance of foliage in the film, at least in the Benguet scenes; people are almost literally swallowed up by the landscape.) The camera very rarely takes any of the characters' points of view -- and when it does it's jarring -- and usually sits a respectful distance from the actors.

People walk a lot in this film, and my initial attempt to interpret this as symbolizing a kind of weary futility was deflated by Diaz in the Q&A session as his way of portraying the literal: that the rural poor do indeed walk for great distances. (They also wait, seemingly endlessly, for the sun to come down lower on the horizon, so they can keep working or walking.) Diaz takes an almost ethnographic interest in everyday life: we see characters make coffee, pack food, plant rice seedlings, eat dinner, and so on, almost in real time.

Such naturalism is somewhat offset by his use of digital video. The flashbacks to the '70s are filmed, it seems, on (deliberately?) degraded video, as if it were a fourth-generation bootleg, rendering daytime a somewhat nauseous blur and nighttime a pixelled abstraction. Many of the scenes set in Quezon City are shot in blinding white light; in a later scene when a character collapses to the ground, he is seen to seemingly disappear in the overexposed, white void. (Imagine my chagrin when Diaz later explained the overexposure as the fault of the projector. "We haven't graded the film," he said. "It was fine in Rotterdam when we showed it there, but obviously, not here.")

The night scenes in particular have a Dogme '95 feel to them, with hardly any sources of ambient light except a guttering torch or a miner's headlamp. Practically half the movie is set in close to total darkness, so much so that it becomes effectively and palpably oppressive to the viewer; Diaz later explained that this was literal, as many of the poor, in the absence of electrification, lived their lives in such a manner. But the effect of this is, like the film's duration, a new viewing experience at least for me: in some scenes we are left watching bobbing flashlights or a single candle flame, and it has the effect of reducing cinema to its purest essentials: light and sound.

This may make the movie sound forbidding, but really, it's not; the narrative is riveting at many parts, and there are some scenes of such quiet poignance (a prisoner singing Rey Valera's "Kung Kailangan Mo Ako (If You Need Me)" off-key to a roomful of sleeping, half-naked men in jail, the grandmother kissing old photographs, or her telling her eldest granddaughter about her plans to send her to college -- the acting, by the way, is consistently superb) that it offsets the seemingly audience-unfriendly sections.

We are, after all, invited to compare it to a soap opera, and there's a certain familiar melodramatic shape to the tragedies that occur to the family. Some of the most brilliant sequences in the film are these running scenes between families huddled around a radio, a constant motif, intercut with voice actors performing a radio drama in a sound booth, as if to underscore perhaps, the artifice of both radio and cinema, or the materiality of labor that the film depicts in such obsessive detail. The movie places itself (perhaps boldly) squarely in a literary and filmic (okay: by now, Filipino-mythic) canon: there's the Sisa character, from Noli Me Tangere, clearly embodied in the insane Tita Hilda, and Kadyo's search in Quezon City for his nephew deliberately echoes Maynila Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. (A later seemingly bizarre subplot involving the director Lino Brocka is a slight misstep, if only because it's such a politically self-aware blip in the narrative, but it also self-consciously sets up the film in its entirety as a bid for a different Filipino cinema.)

If there are any shortcomings, it's the overall humorlessness, except for a few instances (like when a man on a train plays "Bikining Itim" on a harmonica). Indeed, the funniest scene in the movie quickly sours: the radio performers are rehearsing an attempted rape and the subsequent beating of the victim, but it is literally an auditory distancing from a rape that occurred offscreen a couple of hours earlier; the effect is amplified by having the grandmother relate the story to her daughter later.

But perhaps the largest question would still revolve around duration; the day before, I was talking to someone who talked about Diaz's "refusal to edit" (though admittedly he hadn't seen the film). Was it really necessary to take ten and a half hours to tell what Diaz wanted to tell? And indeed, there were times when my attention span was almost stretched to the breaking point. Still, many of the establishing scenes, for instance, contained bits of essential information: the tire tracks in the foreground as the farmers and their carabaos wended their way across a field, the faint sound of a chainsaw in an otherwise idyllic landscape -- indeed, this latter scene prefigured a long slow-motion sequence of logs falling into a river about ten hours later.

And sometimes the sequences aren't long enough. There is, for instance, a devastating scene in the seventh hour that consisted of (it seemed) a twelve-minute (could it have been fifteen?) uninterrupted tracking shot of one of the characters walking. (I was reminded, later on, of the famous scene in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia, when the Andrei character walks with a lighted candle across the drained pool.) Even after the audience had cumulatively seen perhaps an hour's worth of walking, the effect was, at least for me, the exact opposite; I was willing the character (indeed, maybe even saying a silent prayer) to keep going.

In Lav Diaz's film, time and duration, for the character and for the audience, ceases to matter after a while. Towards the end, one sister asks the other about what would happen if their grandmother died, and if their missing relatives never returned. The other answers simply, "Tayo, mabubuhay pa rin (We'll continue living)." So will the Filipinos, Diaz seems to be telling us, and, in a life-affirming, cinematic gesture to the audience who has just vicariously lived these characters' lives, so will you. So will his characters, for those lucky enough to have seen the film. Some people may call the film to be a product of self-indulgence; I can only call it an act of pure, brilliant generosity.

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:44 PM | Comments (5)

February 23, 2005

Film, Eyeballs, Brain.

Attempting to burrow and disappear into the admiration of certain works of art, I tried to make such deep and pure identification that my integrity as a human self would become optional, a vestige of my relationship to the art. I wanted to submit and submerge, even to die a little. I developed a preference, among others, for art that required endurance, that mimicked a galactic endlessness and wore out the nonbelievers. By ignoring my hunger or my need to use the bathroom during a three-hour movie by Kubrick or Tarkovsky, I'd voted against my body, with its undeniable pangs and griefs, in favor of a self composed of eyeballs and brain, floating in the void of pure art.
- from Jonathan Lethem, in "The Beards"
Posted by the wily filipino at 10:37 PM | Comments (2)

February 12, 2005

Joel David Makes A List.

Poking around on Sight and Sound's most recent critics/directors poll (from 2002), I somehow missed the lone Filipino critic Joel David's top ten:

Salò (Pasolini)
Manila by Night; City after Dark (Bernal)
Khalnayak (Ghai)
The Opening of Misty Beethoven (Metzger)
Hour of the Furnaces (Solanas)
La Règle du jeu (Renoir)
God Told Me To (Cohen)
La Région centrale (Snow)
Olympiad Berlin 1936 (Riefenstahl)
The Devil in Miss Jones (Damiano)

It's something of a shitstirrer of a list -- indeed, even folks like, say, Bruce LaBruce, John Waters and Roger Corman had fairly conservative choices. None of the usual suspects are here except for Renoir and Reifenstahl. Otherwise, David's list has:

- two films almost impossible for plebes like me to see (Snow and Solanas),

- one Bollywood film (and the description sounds somewhat ludicrous, but what do I know),

- one movie from the director of some favorites from my youth, The Stuff and Q (haven't seen it, but I have it on this cheapo horror anthology packaged with Pieces and Satan's School for Girls),

- two porn films (one, incidentally, enthusiastically reviewed by Roger Ebert upon its release),

- one Filipino film (not Brocka's Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag or De Leon's Sister Stella L. or (my semi-obnoxious favorite) Tahimik's Bakit Dilaw Ang Gitna Nang Bahaghari?),

- and one designed, as it were, to be seen only once (also selected by, surprise, Catherine Breillat and Michael Haneke). (My pervy friend Jane was looking for a copy of Salò on DVD because, as she put it, "the sex was really hot.")

But I do agree, kind of, with David's concluding comments:

So are American porn films better than Citizen Kane? Almost all of them aren't, but a precious handful are... I already found Kane too whiney-white-guy precious the first time I saw it, 20-odd years ago.
As fantastic as Citizen Kane is, I'd probably take Touch of Evil over it any day -- no "whiney-white-guy" preciousness there.
Posted by the wily filipino at 06:58 PM | Comments (5)

December 21, 2004

Movies!

- Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill
Finally got to see both parts in one sitting, and it was well worth the wait. It isn't Reservoir Dogs, but it's certainly his most entertaining film so far, with no apologies for his film-geekery. But now I'd like to see his next flick be a little more original.

- Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face
Seen this amazing movie a couple of times before, and the newly-minted Criterion edition blows the murky video version (from Kino?) out of the water. (The scene when the nurse looks up to see the plane in the cloudy night sky is finally clearer, and I still don't know what it means.) As for extras, there's the surreally beautiful The Blood of Beasts, but I can't imagine seeing it more than once: it's a documentary about abattoirs in post-World War II Paris. The gorgeous shots of the city rival Atget's (but the shots of decapitated lambs, well...).

- Ji-woon Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters
I really really wanted to like this, but its fractured narrative -- yes, I know, it makes total sense in the context of the film -- makes it difficult to like. Great acting (especially by the older sister), and a lush production design (the house, like the boarding school in Suspiria -- another disjointed horror film -- is practically another character). I couldn't tell, though, whether the Ringu / Ju-on references were tips of the hat or ripoffs...

- Stephen Hillenburg's Spongebob Squarepants the Movie
I actually rather enjoyed this -- no major departure from the 11-minute shorts, thank goodness. Still, I wonder what the kiddies of America get out of it, as the humor always seems to have an adult subtext. (Whether or not you find David Hasselhoff's breasts inherently funny is up to you.)

- Peter Davis's Hearts and Minds
Excellent -- so good I want my own copy. Amazing footage and interviews, particularly of Westmoreland and Ellsberg. It isn't a perfect documentary -- Davis makes some juxtapositions that could strike one as being somewhat intellectually dishonest unless the audience is given more historical context (which he doesn't). But the fact that this was made contemporaneously gives it a richer, more relevant dimension, i.e., without the benefit of hindsight (and its similarities with the current war makes it all the more fascinating -- and tragic).

- Ed Adlum's Invasion of the Blood Farmers
The possibilities are endless given the plot: hick farmers in upstate New York are actually part of an ancient cult of blood-worshipping druids. Some hilarious parts, and the gore is actually rather effective, even if it's made on the super-cheap, but it's still no comparison to Adlum's masterpiece of my boyhood, Shriek of the Mutilated.

- Joel Reed's Bloodsucking Freaks
Call me sick, but I thought this movie was excellent: a loving homage, I think, to Herschell Gordon Lewis. Nasty and hilarious.

- Shunya Ito's Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
Wow. Possibly the greatest women-in-prison movie ever made. While it's still pretty firmly in the exploitation genre, there are some elements -- a touch of Jodorowsky-like surrealism here, Masaki Kobayashi there -- that make it well worth seeing. No wonder Tarantino loved this shit.

- Takashi Ishii's Freeze Me
Unpleasant and pointless.

- Wong Kar-Wai's 2046
This was just about my most anticipated movie of the year, so I can't help but be a little disappointed with the results. It's essentially a sequel -- though in a more formal sense, it's really a remake -- of In the Mood for Love, and so all the familiar elements are here: the cramped hallways, an apartment building, the lush textures, the melancholy soundtrack, doors opening and closing, Nat King Cole, loving shots of cigarettes being smoked. But there are differences: it's a lot more claustrophobic, for starters (Wong literally uses only a third of the frame for a good amount of the film: people are half-obscured by backs, or curtains, or walls.). There's sex. There's Zhang Ziyi in an endless array of high-collared qipao dresses. And Maggie Cheung. And Gong Li. And Faye Wong. And -- there are androids. And futuristic bullet trains. And a set straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And a city straight out of "Blade Runner." And costumes straight out of Liquid Sky.

And, it should be said, a narrative that is, at least initially, almost as disjointed as Ashes of Time. If anything, the film is about different permutations of loss and memory, but it's a mood -- and in a way, it's the mechanism around which the film operates: an evocation, not an elucidation -- that's difficult to sustain for over two hours.

- Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express
I'm always a sucker for movies that deal, even if only tangentially, with questions of belief and faith; therefore, anything from Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice to Shyamalan's Signs is worth a look. I haven't read the children's book on which the film is based, but I can tell you that the belief part occurs only in the first and last ten minutes of the film, and in between is an hour-long rollercoaster ride designed, really, to show off the wonders of technology. There's a jawdropping sequence involving a ticket; otherwise, this is the most soulless Christmas film I've ever seen.

- Joe D'Amato's Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals
The best cannibal films have anthropologists in them, and this film delivers: not only does it have an anthropologist, it also feature loads of cannibal sleaze and, best of all, Emmanuelle schlock. Someone goes full frontal every 8 minutes or so -- not even the nun is spared -- and this of course includes the stunning Laura Gemser, "famous reporter," who can't act her way out of a paper bag, but is featured in at least half the couplings (which involve almost everyone that has a speaking part). Everything about the film is suitably atrocious, and there's not much plot to speak of -- you sit back and wait for people to be converted into raw meat -- but at least it's great trash.

- Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
Speaking of raw meat: previously on my blog I alluded to a past life in evangelical Christianity, and so I was probably a lot more receptive to this film -- or at least the possibility of some sort of spiritual experience watching it. My parents in the Philippines would report that their friends, and friends of friends, would, after seeing the film, repent and promise never to drink or cheat on their wives, etc., etc., so I was looking forward to giving something up. (I guess the fact that I was drinking a beer while I was watching it didn't help, though I did wonder whether it was appropriate.) The film is, in any case, a bloody exercise in torment; we see Jesus writhing in Gethsemane at the very start of the film, and only catch the quickest glimmers of the charismatic, gentle, wise, rebel leader -- the Christ I loved and worshipped. Not this Son of God being reduced to a side of raw beef, with every Station of the Cross signalled in tender slo-mo, and a soundtrack sounding suspiciously ripped off from Peter Gabriel.

There is very little for the actors to do except scream and weep; the most complex character is the Roman consul, who turns out to be a much nicer guy than those Jews, who mostly glower. Gibson misses the boat by not filming the coolest scene in the book -- the moment when Satan tempts Jesus in the garden is positively psychedelic -- but he adds a great, memorable one of his own: the Head Glowering Jew tosses the bag of coins to Judas... except that, unexpectedly, he throws it at the camera instead. Almost as good as those binocular shots at the end of Salo.

Posted by the wily filipino at 10:48 PM | Comments (2)

March 15, 2004

Sinema.

My favorite new website is called CINEMA, a Philippine-based website that stands for "Catholic INitiative for Enlightened Movie Appreciation."

It should be clear, once you get to their website, what this is all about: it's a movie review site where films are judged on "the basis of their TECHNICAL and MORAL strength and weaknesses." A handy-dandy "moral assessment" legend on the left-hand column, ranking movies from "abhorrent" to "exemplary," provides the viewers information as to whether to leave the kids at home or to watch it late at night -- or rather, not to watch it at all.

What it inadvertently provides, though, is a guide for skin fans, as it tells you most of the naughty bits. There's something oddly funny about how it's described in Tagalog, too -- here's a description of a segment in Mel Chionglo's Xerex:

Sa "O" naman ay malapit ng ikasal si Marge (Aubrey Miles) na naguguluhan kung siya ay tutuloy pa sa pagpapakasal sapagkat hindi niya naranasan sa lalaking kanyang pakakasalan ang rurok ng ligaya o orgasm. Naranasan niya ito sa isang estranghero (Kalani Ferreira) na kanyang nakaniig ng limang magkakasunod na araw. Ito ang lalong nagpalala ng kanyang pagkalito.
In Armando Reyes's Tumitibok... Kumikirot -- jeez, you'd think they'd know that their moral assessment would be "disturbing" from the title alone -- the reviewer takes pains to say something good:
Bagama't may mabuting saloobin ang pelikula ukol sa pagmamahal at pagpapatawad, hindi maitatangging higit nangingibabaw ang mga nakababahala nitong mensahe sa mga manonood. Una'y malinaw na karamihan sa mga eksena ng hubaran at pagtatalik ay ginawa hindi dahil sa mahalaga ito sa kuwento kundi upang pukawin lamang ang makalaman na pagnanasa ng mga manonood. Pangalawa'y naging napakasimple ng pagtrato ng pelikula sa buhay may-asawa na umiikot lamang sa dalawang bagay: pagtatalik at pag-aaway.
The Tagalog has such a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

And their review of Joven Tan's Eskandalosa -- which they brand as "abhorrent" and "not for public viewing" -- makes you want to put it on your wantlist right away:

Ang Eskandalosa ay namumutiktik sa sex at pilit na ginawang creative art pero bastos pa rin ang dating! Totoo namang napakaganda ang mga piniling tanawin para sa setting at maganda ang inilapat na musika, pero ang editing ay nakaka-dismaya. Nasunod na naman ang gusto ng prodyuser na busugin sa eksenang sex ang pelikula para maibenta ito!
It's two hours, they write, full of nothing but "sex; hubaran, bawal na pagtatalik sa iba't-ibang lugar, pang-aakit na makamundo ang dahilan, at lahat ng bagay na may kinalaman sa tawag ng laman." (Yeah!)

(By the way, while there's the clear temptation to snicker at the descriptions, it's also a very comprehensive website, with capsule reviews of a good slew of films released in the Philippines. To their credit, the reviewers never turn preachy, and instead have a wholesome open-mindedness about the films, unlike U.S.-based fundamentalists.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:16 AM | Comments (3)

March 12, 2004

On Imelda.

On Imelda.

Saw Ramona Diaz's Imelda with Barb last night, and my head is still reeling. It is a fine, fine documentary, and I am glad that there will be a theatrical release in the U.S. at some point this year; more people should see it (though a DVD is apparently coming out in 2005).

The film's chief virtue -- and there are many, from Grace Nono's soundtrack to the careful editing (more about this in a second) -- is the fact that Diaz lets Imelda talk on and on. We are treated to what seems like a severely delusional Imelda, completely in denial of reality -- or so we are led to think.

Imelda starts off portraying Imelda as a charming, witty woman who, even in her current, less glamorous state, exudes a faded, almost regal presence. The charm is absolutely critical to understanding Imelda and, most important, her large retinue of hangers-on and thousands of Leyte residents who voted her back into office. But very slowly, the film darkens -- martial law couldn't be portrayed as anything but, though certainly the Marcos government tried hard to -- and Imelda's fantasies about representing the people become, at turns, laughable and horrible.

There is some amazing film footage as well, from '70s propaganda reels to shots of Imelda dancing with Kissinger, or George Hamilton singing. (The end credits alone -- where you see Bongbong and Imee dancing to Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" -- are priceless.) One scene -- a little tendentious, but very effective -- juxtaposes Imelda's maids airing out an entire rack of her ternos, with squatters living by a railway.

Perhaps my only real quibble with the film is this. Okay, there were some omissions -- no Dovie Beams, no mention of Mindanao, despite some tantalizing footage of a dance troupe dancing the singkil and the infamous Tripoli meeting with Qaddafi -- but perhaps understandable given the limitations of the length. (Diaz explained later that she didn't include events that couldn't be verified independently, but it doesn't excuse the oddly Manilacentric view of things.)

Okay, back to my personal quibble, which isn't really one as you'll see in a second: The viewer is initially seduced, but not necessarily repulsed. That is, one comes out of the theater with a vision of a wacky but charming woman, but not of one that was deeply corrupt and responsible (if indirectly) for human rights violations. Perhaps the fact that the film would never have been made without Imelda's consent explains this. (Diaz did say during the Q&A session that Imelda had to leave the room a couple of times so as not to answer questions -- whether they were confrontational or embarrassing or "too emotional" was not clear.) You come out shaking your head, but not necessarily your fist.

The film takes a fairly even keel throughout, but it is only sympathetic to her in the sense that we hear Imelda explain her side of the story. Imelda doesn't shy from showing her and her tacky extravagance in a bad light; the camera lingers on her face in moments of self-doubt, and slows down the film to somewhat crudely emphasize this point. Events are indeed placed in the proper historical context -- we see Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon talk about being tortured -- but the audience is oddly distanced from this (as was, in her own way, Imelda). But there is no mourning, few tears, no talking head explicitly reminding the audience that we are watching a criminal. (To her credit, maybe Diaz felt little need to beat the audience over the head with it.) But there is little sense of outrage; one comes away with the feeling that the enormity of her crimes are still not so keenly presented.

And perhaps this is also the other great virtue of this excellent, must-see documentary: that the enormity of her crimes are not so keenly felt in any case. The screaming, adulatory crowds of people that greet her at every campaign stop, the landslide election victories of her son and daughter -- Diaz never poses the question "Why are they even back?" Instead, she, in her filmic wisdom, lets the film speak for itself, and one is faced with the horrible answer: Perhaps one feels no real outrage in the film because, as should be clear by now, an unfortunately large number of Filipinos didn't either.

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:52 AM | Comments (5)

February 25, 2004

On Christianity, Mel Gibson, and the Battle with Evil.

Barbara's pissed. She's referring to a discussion on the Flips list where one poster referred to -- and I can't remember the exact phrase -- Christian basket cases. (I had a sarcastic response to her offlist, so I may very well be one of those name-callers.) This prompted various responses, of which Barbara's measured, sober post is one.

I'm not really in any position to criticize Catholicism -- I was raised in a Protestant, United Church of Christ-affiliated household -- but I do clearly see Barbara's point. There is little room, it seems, for such a thing as the critical Filipino Catholic (or even generic Christian) to exist; the operative animal metaphor constantly used is that of sheep. (In anthropology, there is a somewhat parallel tendency to try to keep "explaining" religious behavior -- giving rise to the implication that belief in the seemingly irrational is a philosophical/cultural "problem" to begin with, without having to take religious experience very seriously.) And as someone who was quite active in the church during high school and college -- yes, Campus Crusade got their paws on me, but more about that later -- I fully recognize and understand the deep, rational significance of religion in daily life. And there's no need to remind readers of the importance of liberation theology to the progressive movement in the Philippines.

Having written that, I share Leny's concern with how Mel Gibson's film could be easily appropriated by the U.S. rightwing -- and you all know how I feel about the right. Leny writes:

Whereas it is possible to interpret the movie as a call to Christians to embark on an inner spiritual journey, they might substitute a historical event-turned-Hollywood movie, as further license to tell people to take up the cause of the religious right in the arena of politics and culture. There is a fear of the "other" – the one who is not a conservative Christian, who is not white, who is an immigrant, who is poor, who is not straight – that turns that fear into the creation of an undesirable enemy who needs to be either converted or annihilated.
Her words (which, quite honestly, sounded alarmist at first) echo in my head as I read Michael J. Brown's article for Spirit Daily entitled "Gibson Saw 'Big Dark, Palpable, Force' While Filming The Passion," forwarded to the Flips list -- and I'm afraid I can't quote it in full, and I can't find it online either -- but hopefully you folks would find it enlightening. The article begins:
This is not just the story of a movie. If it were, we wouldn't be covering it so regularly. No, this matter with Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ and the extraordinary hoopla is a religious event that can be classed only as major spiritual warfare.

It comes at a time when there is an infusion of grace and also a step-up in the battle with evil.

I hardly need to connect the dots for you folks to recognize the implications of that statement.

Brown peppers his essay with loaded references, calling the New York Times as "no great friend to Catholicism" and Hollywood as "the belly of the beast" -- two institutions long talked about as being "run by Jews." But Brown himself would argue that the enemy here is really none other than Satan (and his minions, who happen to be...?):

Soon, some Jewish organizations (by no means all) were screaming that in portraying the role of Jews in the Crucifixion... Gibson was acting in a way that was anti-Semitic.

Chalk that up as another spiritual attack. The hallmarks of Satan include confusion, division, fear, and the devil's specialty of false accusation.

Later he writes: "There was the unfortunate flap over whether the Pope had endorsed it. The devil used this in an effort to besmirch both the Vatican and Gibson." Brown's cold, for-us-or-against-us, no-questions-asked rhetoric is obviously reminiscent of, well, one of my Great Satans.

(Some of you may be amused by Brown's words elsewhere:

We all have gone through runs of "bad luck" -- from time to time we all find ourselves under a cloud -- and often it's difficult to discern why this occurs. Sometimes it's simply a period of testing (again, think Job!). At other times it's our own fault because we've allowed dark forces to infiltrate. This can happen when someone brings occult or pornographic books into a home, views the wrong kind of videos, dabbles in things like astrology, or associates too closely with people who are carrying darkness -- sinfulness, the demonic -- around with them. [Emphasis his.]
You'll need to see the entire article to put the quote in context, though.)

In any case, I feel no need to give any more money to Gibson. Yes, I know, I know, I haven't seen it and I should see it before I make any judgements, and it may indeed be a spiritually transcendent experience -- but I know my cash will be funding something unsavory in the long run. It's already become one of those films that one feels pressure to see precisely because discourse is already exhausted prior to its being shown. Besides, wouldn't you rather see Starsky and Hutch instead?


Posted by the wily filipino at 10:40 AM | Comments (6)

February 22, 2004

Leny Strobel's Passion.

Leny -- forgive me for the title -- has a great, great post on why she's not watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

I'm still a bit speechless; our religious experiences have some scary similarities, so now I'm inspired to write something as well -- but I know it won't be as well-written as Leny's.

Posted by the wily filipino at 02:10 PM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2003

Apocalypse, Again.

The dominant discourse about the Vietnam War (and Apocalypse Now), particularly in terms of its incorporation into the American Narrative, is that it's the Great American Trauma, unhealed like Maya Lin's black scar cut into the earth. While this is true to a certain extent -- there is no denying the fact that working-class kids of all colors were sacrificed for the defense of freedom and Western civilization -- it's also accompanied by much bleating about America's supposed loss of innocence. The ghosts of the war still loom over every foreign policy decision since; it is perhaps unfortunate that they don't haunt American politicians more persistently.

This discourse, however, is essentially egocentric: it's still all about America, and only about America. Whether Apocalypse Now wittingly or unwittingly reproduces this discourse is another thing altogether; Jean reminds us that the film is also about Francis Ford Coppola. (Nowadays the only specters allowed to haunt Americans aren't even the 58,000 dead soldiers, but the POW/M.I.A.s; even their ghosts, as it were, are unsettled.) There is little talk about Vietnamese, since the U.S. has already done its part in its clearly anti-Communist War refugee policies.

The biggest joke of all, I think, is the truism that this was a war that the United States lost; I think it should be clear that the Vietnamese people were the real losers here.

As for our obsession with the film, Frank Chin writes: "We have to be able to accept Conrad and Coppola's works as the white racist works they are and still recognize them as great white lit and film. And I think most writers from non-white peoples can and have been reading racist white lit and recognizing it as great lit."

I love the film because it's great to think about. Coppola makes a brave connection between colonialism and the Vietnam war through his use of Conrad, and even up to now that lesson on American imperialism and the war on Iraq has not been learned. Despite the film's obvious flaws, which we've discussed in previous posts, it's also a antidote to earlier rah-rah films like The Green Berets. The critical acclaim which Oliver Stone later received for Platoon should at least be recognized as part of a rewriting of that Vietnam War narrative even if it's still ethnocentric in essence; this would be rewritten again, however, in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Missing in Action.

(Hey, did I write that parts of Platoon was filmed on Mt. Makiling during my high school graduation in 1986? I'm kind of tickled by the fact that a very young Johnny Depp was wandering around somewhere in my hometown of Los Banos.)

There's also the fact that Apocalypse Now is simply a flat-out fantastic film, with amazing performances throughout (even if it does drag in the latter fifth). I get a chill every time I hear the whocka-whocka of the helicopter blades at the beginning; the horrific, hallucinatory glory of the first few minutes alone already marks the film as a work of genius.

It's too bad that Coppola, after making four of my Top 100 films of all time (including The Godfather, The Godfather 2, and The Conversation -- the latter being one of the three greatest films ever set in San Francisco, including Vertigo and Chan Is Missing), never made anything remotely close again. (I always used to joke that The Virgin Suicides was the best Coppola film since Apocalypse Now.)

Posted by the wily filipino at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2003

More on Apocalypse Now.

Barbara writes:

i think i am still figuring out the part where eleanor coppola's notes book and hearts of darkness documentary come in (i have yet to read and view these) and examine the irony and even hypocrisy of the movie's making (and intention). ugly americanism on camera and its mirror off camera. that just like marlow and kurtz in heart of darkness, and just like willard and kurtz in apocalypse now, coppola, sheen, brando lose their civilization the longer and farther away they are from their known world. i wonder if these things eclipse the greatness of the movie for me or simply reconfirm the film's message.
I'm not sure whether this was deliberate on John Milius's and Coppola's part -- I doubt it was, considering Coppola's famous words at Cannes ("This film is not about Vietnam. The film is Vietnam," or words to that effect) -- but the absence of Vietnamese in the film somewhat supports your notion, both in the context of the film's narrative and Hollywood / colonialism. Aside from the Vietnamese woman with the puppy, the Vietnamese are essentially disembodied, spectral figures (whether represented as arrows flying out of the jungle green, or as an unseen soldier yelling "Fuck you G.I.!"); this is further reinforced by the appearance of the ghostly and silent Montagnards towards the end.

One could argue that this was a function of the screenplay; Willard, after all, is sent upstream not to deal with the Vietnamese, but to "terminate [Kurtz's] command." But it's an example as well of what Tzvetan Todorov (in The Conquest of America) and Mary Louise Pratt (in Imperial Eyes) have written about before, namely, the absence of "the native" in the colonizer's sweeping gaze.

To Sheen's "credit," I distinctly remember an interview with him in a Christian inspirational magazine called Guideposts (my mom had a gift subscription, in case you were wondering) where he cites his near-fatal heart attack in the Philippines as the reason for his spiritual and political awakening.

Any chance of posting more of that old paper you wrote, Barbara, or are you saving that for a bigger project?

(I can't believe you haven't seen Hearts of Darkness yet, Barbara! It's a great documentary on the creative process (and hubris and a colonialism of sorts, reminiscent of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank's Burden of Dreams). I should have you over and we can do an AN/HOD doubleheader and do an adobo cook-off -- or forget that and watch all the extras on The Two Towers DVD instead, which Madeline and I haven't seen yet.)

Finally, a couple of hollers to two fellow bloggers who may or may not be reading this:

Jean is obviously the expert on Filipinos and American war flicks; any thoughts, Jean?

And one for Eileen: you wouldn't happen to know Francis and Eleanor personally, would you?

Posted by the wily filipino at 12:08 AM | Comments (1)

April 24, 2003

Ebert on the First Amendment.

Swiped from MetaFilter : an excellent interview with Roger Ebert:

The right really wants to punish you for having an opinion. And I think both the left and the right should celebrate people who have different opinions, and disagree with them, and argue with them, and differ with them, but don't just try to shut them up. The right really dominates radio, and it's amazing how much energy the right spends telling us that the press is slanted to the left when it really isn't. They want to shut other people up. They really don't understand the First Amendment.
Plus: more from Ebert on Michael Moore, Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, theocracy, the repeal of the estate tax, and Do The Right Thing.
Posted by the wily filipino at 02:00 PM | Comments (3)

March 23, 2003

The Oscars.

Where Nicole Kidman rambled on, Adrien Brody showed he was a total lech (Halle, you should have slapped him!), Dustin Hoffman quavered, Susan Sarandon pulled her punches, Julianne Moore shone, Gael Garcia Bernal spoke very eloquently against the war, and Michael Moore, in the highlight of the ceremony, said the following in his acceptance speech (as the orchestra tried to drown him out):

We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man who's sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts.

We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.

Posted by the wily filipino at 10:29 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2003

American Splendor

This I have to see: a film based on Harvey Pekar's American Splendor just won the grand jury prize at Sundance...

Posted by the wily filipino at 09:07 AM | Comments (1)

November 10, 2002

Really Old Review #3: Lost Highway

David Lynch's latest mindscramble of a movie, "Lost Highway," starts off quite unlike the rest of the film: there's a jittery shot of headlights zooming into the darkness of a two-lane blacktop, while an equally twitchy jungle-ified David Bowie sings on the soundtrack. Then the film switches into negative gear for its brilliant first half, an exploration of light and shadow and the chill of domesticity. Bill Pullman is the musician, Patricia Arquette is his wife, and someone's been inside their house; at least the videotapes, which keep popping up on their doorstep every morning with the paper, say so. But it's the visual and aural style that's the showcase here: a barely audible hum fills the gaping silences (there's hardly any dialogue), so much that a whisper sounds like a scream. The hallway in the couple's Southern California home is a literal black hole, absent of light, into which Pullman disappears. (And you thought "Seven" was barely lit.) Everything, including their sex, is performed in this "2001"-like somnolent state -- a perfect metaphor for the sleepwalking in their relationship.

Then "Lost Highway" makes a dreadfully wrong turn into real fucked-up shit territory; too bad Lynch had to pick a hackneyed noir subplot to carry it. And all of it replete with Lynch's trademark barely-disguised misogyny, to boot. Pullman, who by the middle of the movie has somehow been convicted of Arquette's murder, suddenly transforms into Balthazar Getty; Arquette then reappears with a blond wig, playing a gangster's moll. (Another transformation occurs near the end, but by that point it's clear that the audience really isn't supposed to figure anything out.) Suffice it to say that we've also seen this before explored better in "Blue Velvet," except that it's all open to more wild-eyed interpretation: is it all a dream? A meditation on reality and memory? A psychotic fugue? No matter. "Lost Highway" is a great half-baked film.

Posted by the wily filipino at 08:51 PM | Comments (0)

Really Old Review #2: Donnie Brasco

"Donnie Brasco" is a tragedy, and the opening credits alone tell us this: the keening violins, the somber blank-and white photography, the close-up of Al Pacino's eyes. It's a far cry from films like "Pulp Fiction," which mined similar territory by focusing on a gang of criminal lowlifes. But one of the funnier scenes in Mike Newell's excellent film comes just after a particularly brutal beating, Scorsese-style (people kicking someone on the ground, just like De Niro always does): we see Pacino trying to hammer a parking meter open, trying to get at the quarters. But they're not just a bunch of amateur robbers; they're part of the Mob, after all, which means we get to kick around meatier themes like honesty and betrayal and honor, et cetera. (I guess Newell did explore similar themes in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but I'm moving off track here.)

Which brings us to the movie title: "Donnie Brasco" is the alias of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, played with such clenched-jaw determination by Johnny Depp that it's easy to forget he was once just the baby-faced cop on TV's "21 Jump Street." (In this film he reminds the viewer that his acting abilities long outstripped such similar pretty boys as Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke.) Pacino plays Lefty Ruggiero, one of the film's middle-aged losers, who unknowingly takes Brasco under his wiseguy wing. The audience knows, of course, that the son would have to betray the father, and it's this tension, along with Brasco's inner torment, the close attention to garish Ď70s detail and a fully fleshed-out subplot about the Pistone family, which fuels the screenplay, written by Paul Attanasio, creator of "Homicide: Life on the Streets". (There are two other "Homicide" regulars in "Donnie Brasco.") There's a lot of visual humor, too, suffusing the scenes when the gang flies down to Florida, and behave (and dress) badly.

My friend Madeline has this theory about Al Pacino: that he tends to overact when his fellow cast members are bad actors. Case in point: Chris O'Donnell in the awful "Scent of a Woman." But this time Pacino gives a marvelously understated performance -- one of his best -- instead of booming out his lines. Not a single "hoohah" uttered, folks. And he gets bonus points, too, for actually daring to wear an ugly red warm-up suit.

Posted by the wily filipino at 08:50 PM | Comments (0)

Really Old Review #1: Absolute Power

One may not agree with Clint Eastwood's politics, but he could have at least entertained me with "Absolute Power." Despite its being a gleefully anti-liberal tract, "Dirty Harry" still kept me rooting for Clint's wronged cop who has no choice but to go outside the law. In "Absolute Power," he's still looking in; he plays a master thief who breaks into a mansion only to be witness to a crime committed by the philandering President of the United States (Gene Hackman). Somehow the Chief of Staff (Judy Davis) is on the premises and starts a coverup, leaving Clint as the unreliable whistle-blower.

It should have all worked, despite the ludicrous screenplay written by a disappointing William Goldman: the cast, for starters, also includes Ed Harris as the investigator and Laura Linney as the thief's daughter. Given this, it's difficult to see why the film became such an absolute waste of talent. But no one seemed to be having fun, and neither was I; the supposedly nailbiting scenes (the public rendezvous, surrounded by assassins; the murder attempt at the hospital -- sound familiar?) had a tired feel to them, as if the filmmakers knew we had seen them before in countless other flicks and couldn't be bothered to add a little spice. For all his supposed absolute power, Hackman isn't given much material to strut his stuff with, and he remains an unconvincing opponent. Given all the plot's numerous cliches, Eastwood could have at least let all his cast members chew a bit of the scenery, but no such luck. Much of the film can be distilled to a scene early on as Eastwood witnesses the crime: the camera focuses on his great, craggy face, and throughout the whole scene, his eyebrows knot -- just once -- and he remains impassive, as does the rest of the film. Perhaps Eastwood thought his wrinkles alone could carry the movie, but no.

Posted by the wily filipino at 08:49 PM | Comments (0)