Monday, December 28, 2009
Listened on NPR and they talked about how people see racist themes in Avatar.
Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe harumphed and said it was very 'limiting' to think of the movie in those terms (how so? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say we've uncovered yet another subtext to the picture's script, one Cameron possibly didn't even know about?). He added that the characters are 'so rich'--I had to laugh at that remark. I've sounded just like that when I'm trying to defend a film I like that had serious problems.
I don't know about racist, but the picture's not exactly what you'd call culturally sensitive. Why DOES it take some white guy to switch sides, be black (in this case blue), and fight for the helpless blacks--sorry, Native Americans--sorry, Na'vi?
This is where Cameron's use of classic storylines runs into problems--he's channeling old movies but he's channeling old attitudes too, and the old, old whiff of racial condescension seeps through the channels he's using.
(Might as well point out here that the idea of human minds being implanted into alien brains is nothing new--Poul Anderson wrote about it in a short story "Call Me Joe." And that Joss Whedon has a darker and more sophisticated take on mind imprinting in his new Dollhouse TV series)
To be fair, it's no Apocalypto; it's not the product of a raging Anti-Semite and homophobe. But still...
Could he have done a better job? Sure. He could have given the Na'vi their due, could have fully honored their culture by writing a better script, one with a more plausible psychology for both the Na'vi and the human military, and managed a more consistent integration of the cultures he borrowed from to make his aliens (as is, it's a grab-bag of Native American, South American, African and, yes, Iraqi ethnic traits--the overall impression is more of opportunism than of any real affection for his creations).
Frankly, if you're going to watch a white man go native and fight for their freedom, I'd rather see Richard Harris drive hooks into his chest in Irvin Kershner's The Return of the Man Called Horse (1976). Does not transcend its pulpy origins, but it's so well and simply done, so lyrical and passionate in its filmmaking, I can give it a pass. That could be my creed: anything lyrical and passionately done, it's easy to give a pass--or at least appreciate, despite the flaws.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Yep, I'm just brimming with Christmas spirit, and if you ever, ever suggest that I'm too much of a Scrooge and therefore should lighten up, you can take your partridge-infested pear tree and stuff it up where Santa would be afraid to go.
All that said, there are times in this accursed season when I find myself actually thankful for something--this is one of those times. A DVD release, in effect--two of them: Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) and Lino Brocka's Bona (1980).
Both feature Filipina film actess Nora Aunor at her very finest; both represent the two filmmakers at their very best--represent, in my opinion, Filipino cinema at its very best.
Mind you, I haven't actually seen these DVDs: can't vouch for the video transfer quality, or the quality of the source material. I don't know if there are any extra features (probably not), or subtitles (most likely not)--but this is mainly nit-picking; the DVDs are out and I for one am grateful.
Here are articles I wrote, for Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and for Bona respectively. Enjoy!
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Saw James Cameron's Avatar some days back and--well, it's definitely big; huge, even. Two hundred million dollar production budget; digital effects and filmmaking equipment developed exclusively for the picture; some fifteen years (think about it, an adolescent's lifespan) in the making; epic (and with Cameron, I mean epic) action sequences; an entire world conjured up and realized to the smallest detail (many of which have been fact-checked by a reputed scientist, no less); huge boxoffice business; the love of almost every film critic this side of the Pacific Ocean.
Big fat hairy deal.
What I see in this movie is what I've been seeing from Cameron ever since Aliens (1986)--a lust for bigger, louder, more expensive spectacle, balanced with a perfunctory attempt at 'story'--mostly boy meets girl type, though one attempt at something different slipstreamed into misogyny (True Lies, 1994), another had the input of science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (The Abyss, 1989), yet another (Aliens, 1986) took off from an earlier script by Dan O' Bannon (incorporating ideas inspired from the work of A.E. Van Vogt). The Terminator (1984), arguably Cameron's best work to date, takes its premise from two Philip K. Dick short stories: "Second Variety" (killer machines cast in human form for infiltration purposes) and "Jon's World" (traveling back in time to retrokill a menace) Seems to me it take a Dick to twist Cameron's narratives into interesting shapes; otherwise, the man thinks in a strictly linear fashion.
Case in point: Cameron's Pandora is chock full of flora and fauna, some interestingly designed, some startlingly reflexed, nearly all painted in Day-Glo colors (the mystery astrophysicist in the article I linked to above thinks this makes sense, since the planet spends days in the shadow of a gas giant, but hoo boy--calling attention to oneself much? What's the survival value of tree branches that light up like Christmas lights when you step on them?).
And what kind of creature design are we talking about? Blue skin, multiple eyes, nostrils at the clavicle, so on and so forth. All I see are physical details, physical exoticism. Don't creatures other than the Na'vi (the native sentient humanoids) have any kind of social organization, and don't these organizations interact? I'm thinking of what Hayao Miyazaki achieved with his Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997)--different species representing different factions with differing (sometimes conflicting) interests, sometimes working with each other, sometimes against each other, sometimes forming alliances of convenience, sometimes even betraying one another in a fit of perverse pique (a far cry from the usual 'humans-vs-the world' conflict Cameron cooks up).
Perhaps the Pandorians' most interesting ability is to connect with one another through a kind of biological World Wide Web, using a cilia'ed tentacle to plug in (something David Cronenberg worked into his 1999 film Existenz, and that Miyazaki gave his Ohmus in Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984)); this is echoed by the humans, who climb into hi-tech coffins that project their consciousness into half-human, half-Na'vi bodies. When Cronenberg used his virtual reality device, though, it was to dive in and out of various levels of reality, all the while questioning our grasp of the same; the Pandorians use it for far simpler tasks, as a stress reliever, conference caller, all-around distress signal to Eywa, the planet's global consciousness: "Humans too powerful. Send help!"
A similar appeal is made in Mononoke Hime, only the response of the Shihigami (Miyazaki's equivalent of the Eywa) is more complex--the Shishigami stays silent, not because it's planning some kind of cunningly timed counterstrike or because it doesn't care but because taking sides is literally against its nature. "He takes life as well as gives life?" someone exclaims when the Shishigami lovingly kills a creature. Miyazaki gives you the full implications of how life processes work, the sacrificial as well as symbiotic relationships, the tragedy, reality, grandeur.
The filmmaker, one might add, puts forth a fully formed point of view in his films; a decidedly eco-centric one, but no less complex or nuanced than that of any other great artist. Like Cameron he has developed his own alien worlds; in the case of, say, Nausicaa you can see a consistent, rigorously thought-out rationale for the way that world looks or works (Basically a reversal of scale, where tiny creatures like flies, grubs and centipedes take on monstrous size (almost as if in response to our relentless abuse), and the world is so polluted that the cleansing of poisons takes precedence over humanity's survival), and in fact the secret behind the way Miyazaki's world works is key to the film's plot. Cameron's eco-stance as evidenced in Avatar pretty much boils down to: "You military, you bad man"--plenty of feeling, I'm sure, but not a lot of thought or science, much less philosophy.
Maybe my biggest gripe about Cameron's chuckleheaded naturefest is the nature of the antagonists fighting on the opposing side. Judging from his previous films, Cameron is no stranger to the military; he knows how they talk, how they think, how most of all they fight--why are the military characters he's created for this particular picture so mentally retarded? His humans profess to be trying to 'win the hearts and minds of the natives' yet bulldoze trees behind the natives' backs; they attack the natives with righteous fury, but just what is the source of their righteousness? Cameron attempts to draw parallels between his movie and the Iraq War, but one must remember that no matter how wrongheaded or misinformed the military's leaders were in starting that war, they did have a perfectly understandable (if not perhaps absolutely justifiable) cause: the World Trade Center attack.
What's this movie's 9/11--a wrecked tank camera? I sat there watching the military's assault with an appalled expression on my face, just like everyone else's, but I was probably appalled for a different reason--not that the military would go to war on such piss-poor grounds, but that Cameron was too lazy to think of a more convincing excuse (even George Bush Jr. had to dream up--sorry, drum up--Weapons of Mass Destruction). The military mind has its flaws, but it's not outrageously stupid; I'm no fan, but even I wouldn't grant my worst enemy that kind of sloppy, unthinking contempt.
As for the digital effects--yeah, they look okay. No, I haven't seen anything quite like them before. Yes, Cameron has pushed the edge of the envelope, techonologywise. Every time I hear talk of cutting edge effects in movies, I can't help but think of The Jazz Singer (1929), which ushered in the age of synchronized sound. No one can possibly understate the significance of that development; no other technological advance can compare to that film's impact--not color, not widescreen, not 3-D, not even Cameron's much-ballyhooed digital revolution. Synchronized sound changed the nature of cinema, introduced the aural effect as complementary if not equal companion to the moving image.
Thing is, The Jazz Singer isn't a very good film--melodramatic and not a little racist. Tech innovations do not guarantee a good film (much less a great one); often it's the third or fourth film along that is the narrative as well as visual stunner. Don't know why this happens--I'm guessing the director is often too focused on his inventions to bother with story and acting (y'know, the human element, what Cameron and director George Lucas among others seem to keep trying to weed out of their pictures). Hence: Willis O'Brien's King Kong (1933) wasn't his first but actually seventh or eighth film using stop-motion animation; Disney's Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first Technicolored short and a big hit, but color and colored sequences had been around since at least 1916. What Cameron basically developed is the quarter of a billion dollar equivalent of a brand-new paintbrush; all we need to do is sit and wait for a real artist to come along and use it.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
Yang Ik Joon's Ddongpari (Breathless, 2009) does, at times, induce that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by also writing the film's script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (his moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.
This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time.
Yang tries to go a step further--tries to explain Sang and Yeon's personalities by showing either their past or home life. These scenes seem trite and sentimental; seem like the kind of melodrama Sang and Yeon would rather laugh at than accept as their respective back stories. It's a measure of their appeal that we would prefer to take Sang and Yeon as they are--straight, no chaser, no sympathy or psychotherapy or any such syrupy nonsense.
Yuri Nomura's eatrip (2009) is a lovely documentary but no less substantial for being beautifully shot and lit--witness the sequence at the Tsukiji fish market where a seller talks about the lightness of tuna in spring, and how much richer the flesh is in winter when the fish eats fattier foods, then in a sudden change of tone notes how the supply of fish is dwindling all the time. It's a sobering moment, balanced by the woman who grows her own produce theorizing that it's best to eat root vegetables during the new moon, when all energy is drawn downwards, and best to eat leaf and fruit during the full moon, when all energy is drawn upwards.
The central section depicts a tea ceremony, where the tea master explains that "water and mountain are the essence of the Earth and of Buddha...what is Buddhism? It's all living things. Therefore all living things are a part of Buddha!" He's far more persuasive when explaining that a light blue sweet on a plate represents the Earth, with the translucent blue outer dough representing water, and the bright green bean center representing solid ground. "Eat the sweet first," he explains. Eating the sweet first, apparently, prepares tongue and throat for the tea, allows one to taste the tea's best flavors, instead of only its bitterness.
The film ends with a visually ravishing meal--light brown chicken poached in a green broth; what look like sauteed gizzards mixed with grain which are then steamed above the poaching chicken, picking up the flavor of both chicken and broth; a plate full of sliced radishes is lightly seasoned, is topped with gorgeous slices of raw whitefish; is in turn topped with a bowl of bright red strawberries--easily one of the most beautiful dishes I've ever seen. Does the film have some kind of overarching plan, a coherent point to make? I don't know; I suspect not. It rambles here and there, picking up other people's voices and opinions, at times pausing to show us how something is made. Much like the best dinner conversations, come to think of it.
Ann Hui's Tin shui wai dik ye yu mo (Night and Fog, 2009) was the rare festival film that I didn't like. Hui this time takes on wife-beaters, and like her Filipino contemporary Marilou Diaz-Abaya she goes about dealing with the subject in an impassioned, rather heavy-handed manner. These films are more about script and acting than about visual style, which is unremarkably competent--the script scrupulously goes about building the case against the husband (Simon Yam), closing along the way all avenues of escape for the girl (Zhang Jingchu). It's a case of city boy resents country girl, constantly putting her down, constantly undercutting her sense of security, and of self.
Mind you, it's not an especially bad film; it goes about its business with brisk efficiency and in its best and most moving moments gives us a glimpse of the kind of happiness the pair had (a quiet scene, for one, where Yam washes Zhang's hair) before everything goes horribly wrong. When they do go wrong though Hui pulls out all the stops, and you can feel the film slipping swiftly out of her control: Yam's angry husband becomes a teeth baring-monster, and Zhang can only gasp in humiliation and pain. We wince as well--partly in sympathy for Zhang (and what her director puts her through), partly in embarrassment for Hui. Subtlety like this belongs more in a Rob Zombie flick.
Manoel de Oliveira's Singularidades de uma Rapariga de Loura (Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl 2009) shows the filmmaker celebrating his 100th birthday still in full control of his faculties. A little over an hour long, the film is a masterpiece of economical and graceful storytelling--not a single wasted image or gesture. The very first shot shows us a conductor punching tickets; the camera following left to right, right to left, as if asking us to guess who this story will be about, with the conductor presenting each candidate for our inspection. We finally settle on Macario (Riccado Trepa), who tells his sad story to a fellow passenger (Leonor Silveira). He is an accountant working for his uncle, and looking out the balcony of his office one day he sees in the balcony of the opposing building a blond girl (Catarina Wallenstein) playing with her fan.
That's all it takes: two balconies, a girl, her fan. Macario falls madly in love with her, of course, and for most of the film's running time Oliveira toys with the image framed by the two doorways and the space between the two balconies, the way fate toys with Macario's life. The opposite balcony is always tantalizingly close--you feel as if you can reach over and grasp the railing--yet Oliveira keeps us constantly aware of the gulf between them, as of the obstacles that must always be put in the way of two lovers in all romantic comedies (this one more dryly comic than most). At one point we listen to the girl reading Macario's love letter as across the way a different accountant occupies Macario's former office--Oliveira mocks her with the image of someone other than Macario sitting in his accustomed place; she keeps faith by facing pointedly away, reading the words of his letter aloud to herself.
The ending, of course, is purest irony (the script was based on a story by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, a nineteenth century writer oft called the Flaubert of Portugal), with the film's final image possibly being Oliveira's best jest: The train pulling away from the camera, a joke on the joke Hitchcock pulled in the final image of North by Northwest (1959). Instead of cinema's longest penetration shot we have cinema's longest withdrawal shot, receding rapidly towards the horizon. Talk about onscreen lovers that feel blue, Macario possibly has the bluest pair of anyone I can remember.
Finally--not because it was in the festival but only because I just saw it again--Celso Ad Castillo's Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara (1974), about a dead woman's determination to wreak unholy vengeance on her poor sister, is not a perfect film, not even a particularly good film, certainly not the finest of Ad Castillo's work (which at worst can politely be described as 'inconsistent,' at best goes beyond the reach of any other filmmaker in the Philippines, perhaps the world). Rosanna Ortiz's Ruth is the very definition of overwrought; Ad Castillo dwells over her jealous hysteria the way a sadistic police officer might over a criminal's interrogation, pressing foot to miscreant's neck and grinding his face into the dirt (we feel as if our face were being ground into Ms. Ortiz's). Some of the horror effects seem ludicrous today--the doll with glowing Eveready eyes, the rather monotonous 'twanging' sound indicating evil is afoot (if it's on foot, why would it twang?).
After all the bloodletting and screaming and buried corpses, one remembers Barbara declaring to Ruth (rough translation): “yes I love Fritz, but never at the cost of your happiness! Our love was a quiet love, a tender love, giving, self-sacrificing, concerned for the other's welfare. It was not based on anger, or hate, or jealousy! It was not based on vengeance!” The film's true horror lies in Ruth's all-consuming jealousy towards her sister, how she must possess everything Barbara has on her own terms even if it cost her everything, even if it costs her her life.
(poster from Video48)
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The Ecch Files
Planet 51 is basically your standard-issue brightly colored mostly flavorless computer animated 3-D feature. Its one semi-clever conceit: instead of an alien lost in a human world (can you say 'Spielberg' quickly twenty times without gagging?) we have human astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) lost in a world of vaguely green men.
Half a point to the writers for originality; two extra bonus points to whoever in the audience points out that the idea is actually not that original--Charlton Heston's arrogant, self-absorbed astronaut found himself lost in a world of non-humans in Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968). Come to think of it, the earlier picture was a lot funnier--not as much slapstick but a keener sense of satire, not to mention it spawned a film series that brought the story full circle, with a hyperintelligent chimpanzee growing up in a world of hostile humans.
Tim Burton remade Schaffner's film in 2001 and while a lot of critics were not a fan, I think it's very much underrated--not only does it have a lush color palette, it takes Schaffner's ode to persecuted paranoia and transforms it into a sonnet for interspecies sensuality. As for this picture, I can't see it spawning any sequel, much less a remake, much less a franchise that would bring anything to a full anything else.
So far so not funny. Once the initial joke has worn off we're left with the tired plot of the wise father figure teaching insecure teen hero how to puff up the chest and pick up girls (for the record, Baker's technique deserves a slap across the face for sheer cheesiness). Some gags make one want to scratch one's head (Baker convinces two dim soldiers he's taken over their minds); some are mildly amusing (the villainous general (Gary Oldman) assigns every soldier a soldier to shoot in case the human takes over their minds). None are offensively stupid, though I'd have appreciated something sexist or racist or tasteless or whatever--to tee me off enough that I could stay awake.
As in the tradition of second-class computer animated pictures like Ice Age or Bolt or this, the supporting characters upstage the main. Ice Age had its superdetermined squirrel, Bolt its superpowerful gerbil; this picture has two--a wheeled robot named “Rover” that acts like a dog (if they really wanted it to act like a dog, it should hump someone's leg), and a leashed pet that resembles H.R. Giger's alien (pees acid, too). Not saying these two creatures are actually interesting (I prefer my Rover in the shape of a large, semi-inflated beach ball), but sitting there in the dark for so long like a helpless convict you have to have something to focus on, help pass the time.
Man on the loose, man hunted down, man alone in a world out to get him--one can do so many things with the subject, one in fact remembers so many examples in noir or science fiction one wonders what on earth the filmmakers were thinking. What made them look upon the genre and say “Hm. This could use yet another computer-animated family comedy”? One wants the loneliness, the terror of being chased, of having no friends, family resources, of being the only difference in a world of homogeneity. Having Dwayne Johnson clown around and flash shiny teeth at a club full of blue-haired aliens does not inspire terror, or laughter, or much of anything--a mild queasiness, at most.
More than this picture, more than Franklin J. Schaffner's adaptation of Pierre Boulle's classic (or Burton's remake of the same), there is one science-fiction novel that perfectly encapsulates the man-against-the-world predicament: Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, where one man (Robert Neville) survives a pandemic that has turned everyone else into vampires. Talk about loneliness, or terror--Matheson dwells on Neville's endless supplies of canned and stored food, his countless weapons and security measures, all the better to emphasize the hopelessness of his situation: he's the last man on Earth. When he goes, that's it, game over, the end.
None of the film adaptations have properly adapted the novel, though Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's 1964 The Last Man on Earth comes closest with its eerie atmosphere and moody black-and-white cinematography, especially in the early scenes. All versions have fudged the novel's ending, when Neville realizes his true position in relation to the planet and the new society inhabiting it, and the full meaning of the book's title comes out. That kind of realization, that complete and utter inversion of one's complacent way of thinking, that leading the reader (or viewer) carefully, step by logical step, to the crucial conceptual breakthrough, that's what real science fiction is all about. This on the other hand is mainly proof that yes, even Spanish filmmakers (in this case,Jorge Blanco and Javier Abad) are perfectly capable of creating a ninety-minute, nondescript, Hollywood-style pain in the rear.
First published in Businessworld, 12.04.09
Monday, December 07, 2009
Violence is a part of the Filipino political landscape no matter who is president, no matter what political system is in place; the Maguindanao Massacre (or Ampatuan Massacre, as it is alternatively known) is just the most recent and arguably most horrifying confirmation of this ugly fact.
Filipino films have on occasion reflected this reality. One of the earliest and most powerful examples would be Gerardo De Leon's The Moises Padilla Story (1961), about an honest man running for mayor who is kidnapped, tortured, and killed for his aspirations. Even today the film is capable of disturbing one's complacency as much for the violence (at one point the man is brutally blinded) as for De Leon's visual subtext, presenting Padilla as a kind of suffering Christ figure (think Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ only done with subtlety and a kind of horrifying grace), with former president Joseph Estrada playing an equally tormented Judas (Esrada's greatest tragic role, I submit, with his presidency being a kind of late, great tragicomic performance).
During the '80s, possibly no one has recorded government and military abuses with as much persistent thoroughness as Jose 'Pete' Lacaba--his scripts for Mike De Leon, Lino Brocka and Chito Rono managed to force three seemingly disparate Filipino filmmakers to conform to his strong auteurial voice. Sister Stella L. (1984), script realized by Mike De Leon, contains a scene which unblinkingly depicts the torture and 'salvaging' (the then-popular term for extralegal executions) of a political activist during the waning years of the Marcos administration. Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), script helmed by Lino Brocka, went a step further, showing us the beating, rape, and murder of political activists during the Aquino administration. At one point, a character declares that Aquino was "worse than Marcos," that her lack of control over the paramilitary groups roaming the countryside created more corruption, more chaos, more occasion for atrocities, than was possible under Marcos' dictatorship--a brave statement, considering how popular Ms. Aquino was at the time. Eskapo (1995), script executed by Chito Rono, acted as a kind of prequel depicting the early days of Marcos' swiftly imposed Martial Law, when even the powerful political elite were easily taken prisoner, when Marcos' grip was terrifyingly absolute, when flight was the only sane response.
Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) depicts atrocities done by the Negros military in alternately lyrical, historical, and supernatural terms. Seen through the eyes of children, the military is a nebulous creature hiding in the surrounding enchanted forests; growing up, these same children recognize the figures stepping out of their fabled past as all-too-real human monsters with a policy of (not to mention taste for) violent response (the atrocities depicted here, including a true one involving a man dropped from a helicopter, are some of the most baroque and sadistic I've ever seen). In the film's last act, the children finally realize that the monsters are inescapably inside them, inescapably themselves, and the only possible response to this bitter epiphany is a kind of agonized poetic cry.
Lav Diaz has done more than his share to depict political violence in the Filipino landscape, in films such as Batang West Side (2001), Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (2002), and Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2006).
Encantos might serve as a prelude to Lav's latest, Melancholia (2008)--where in the former it is hinted that military persecution was at the heart of the protagonist's anguish, here it is front and center the film's very theme. Three survivors of a military operation attempt to deal with the trauma of their ordeal and the experience of losing of their loved ones by staging a kind of psychodrama, where the three live in a provincial town (the beautiful Northern community of Sagada) under radically new identities.
One isn't sure exactly how this form of therapy might work, or even if it will work, but the conceit has its emotionally wrenching moments (one survivor's act of psychological cruelty towards the other two) and odd tender ones (an encounter between two women that develops into a profound friendship); it takes its eponymous mood and sustains it for the entire eight-hour running time, ringing slight variations in emotional tone by switching setting (from indoors to the wide outdoors; from bohemian to middle-class to desaparecidos; from Sagada to Manila to the unspecified forest in which the military hunt their leftist prey) and voice (from third-person impersonal to memory to nightmare fantasy) and time (from present to extended flashback to a kind of eternal present). The effect across generations is touched upon--one character is the child of disappeared parents, and her life and personality has been warped accordingly; another, the mother of one of the survivors, simply cannot comprehend the enormity of change in her daughter.
Perhaps Diaz's greatest tribute to his fallen comrades and all who have suffered and survived is the very existence of this film--the fact that it takes eight hours of intense lyrical storytelling to do the subject at least partial justice.There is no attempt at humor; there are few moments when the sense of loss does not hang heavy in the air; there is little possibility (nor does Diaz offer any hope otherwise) that this can ever be relieved. This may be Diaz's angriest, most anguished work yet, and the fact that it speaks with volume pitched barely above a whisper serves to intensify that anger, that anguish--like a blowtorch whose flame has been turned down from roaring yellow to an intense blue it hisses its absolute fury.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
A motion-captured Christmas
Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (2009) opens with a beautifully textured leatherbound book, a watercolor illustration that morphs slowly into a horrifyingly textured image of the deceased Marley, cloth binding his jaw shut, pennies covering his eyes.
Enter Scrooge (Jim Carrey), checking Marley for signs of life. When the undertakers put out an outstretched hand for tips, Carrey plays up Scrooge's tightfistedness to the hilt; you would think he was extracting a back molar from out of his jaw the way his fingers trembled, as he extracted coins out of his purse. There's an even better bit later when Scrooge encounters a band of singing carolers--they continue singing as he passes, albeit at a softer key.
Moments like these make you want to pull for Zemeckis' adaptation; when he uses 3-D in these opening scenes he uses it chastely, as a way to add depth to digitally rendered animation (things stick out at you from the screen, but not intrusively). One can see the advantage of combining the two techniques: 3-D gives the images roundedness and solidity, the images give the 3-D rendering emotionally evocative material to incarnate. Even the Marley doorknob is vividly realized, with its hair wavering about in an eerie green glow, like floating seaweed; one completely understands Scrooge's trepidation at approaching the thing.
About the time when Marley's ghost appears the animation starts going wrong. Marley swings his chained cashboxes like some superstrong comic-book hero; when he howls it's not the howl of the eternally damned but of the digitally enhanced--you don't feel the otherworldliness of the specter, only the coolness of the effect. What's missing, what has just been lost, is the stillness, the airlessness, the sense of things trapped for years in stone tombs--what we have instead is your standard-issue CGI apparition, leaping at the camera and doing its level best to scare the daylights out of viewers. I could barely keep from walking out, myself.
Why do adapters of Dickens' classic short story always stumble into this pitfall? Why don't they ever realize that “A Christmas Carol” is a triumph of prose more than narrative (a simple allegory, told in three parts (five if you include the introduction and aftermath), that it is the tone and atmosphere that sells this story, more than the occasional supernatural shenanigans? Ghost tales are a dime a dozen; what makes the “Carol” immortal is the sense of creeping dread you feel as Dickens plays you with all the expertise of a flutist, his fingers running up and down your spine. Then there's Scrooge--a monster with a frozen heart, the heat of the supernatural gradually thawing his frozen features into some semblance of a human face.
In a sense, the “Carol” is the worse possible choice for Zemeckis--he's a master of the quick sight gag, the elaborate pan with tiny jokes tucked away in the corners, the difficult stunt pulled off with energy and drive, if not grace. He seems permanently enamored of the motion-capture process, and he's constantly trying to sell it either as an artistic alternative (a brawny, ultraviolent (and to my mind ludicrous) version of “Beowulf”) or as a possible commercial draw (“the Polar Express,” this movie). “Beowulf” barely made its $150 million budget back; this picture is struggling to recover its $200 million budget, though one imagines it can be (god forbid) a holiday perennial, much like Tim Burton's (far more textured, far more visually inventive) A Nightmare Before Christmas.
Jim Carrey, by the way, makes for a tolerable Scrooge--he doesn't really mug, Carrey-style, or at least he doesn't go too far in his mugging (in a way that's a pity; I still remember the impression he once made--like sticking a finger in a power socket--with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Zemeckis manages to safely encapsulate Carrey's antics inside the character's parameters, more or less shunting aside his usual excesses towards some of the more outrageous personas Carry happens to play (the various ghosts). Gary Oldman fares better as both the hapless Bob Cratchit and the freakish Marley.
I'd love to see the “Carol” properly done, as a Gothic ghost story with a quietly celebratory ending (no heavenly choirs, please!). If the Muppets can turn the tale into a comedy musical and Zemeckis into a CGI extravaganza, then Kurosawa Kiyoshi can turn it into a seasonal J-horror classic (maybe Hideo Nakata--he's more of a narrative traditionalist). One can imagine a terribly patient Ghost of Christmas Past shambling forth out of the video screen, its long hair hanging forward, its stumbling gait inevitable, inescapable.
In the meantime we have this--not too bad (the “Carol” has strength enough to survive any number of undignified adaptations), but nothing to shout from the housetops, either. Have yourselves a mumblety-mumble Christmas and a harumph-hmph New Year, folks.
First published in Businessworld 11.27.09
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Johnny Delgado, 1948 - 2009
Juan Marasigan Feleo was born on February 29, a leap-year child, the son of director Ben Feleo and Victorina Marasigan. He had taken up banking and finance in the University of Santo Tomas; his first acting role was in his father's Sa Manlulupig, Di Ka Pasisiil (Never to invaders shall you surrender, 1967). He tried lead roles for a while (One-Man Army, same year; Machinegun Johnny and the Sexy Queen, 1970), then made the decision--a smart one, in retrospect--to shift his attention to character roles.
One remembers his anguished husband in the classic Salome (1981, directed by his wife Laurice Guillen), the shame, guilt, anger and humiliation at caring for a sexually ravenous, mentally erratic wife culminates in an act of punishment so cruel one finds oneself shrinking away from him. Delgado had that kind of fearlessness, the ability to play the role whatever it takes, unafraid to completely lose the audience' sympathy. Or rather, confident that whatever he does will only add to the character's complexity, ultimately lead to the audiences' sustained fascination.
Villains came easy to him; he had a strong, chiseled face, and a beard that framed that strength with what seemed like bestial fur, and when he stared at you with those huge eyes he gave the impression of a wild man barely in control, ready to tear into you with his hands, perhaps fangs. Yet even a cartoon portrayal like the Pinoy Grandmaster of the Japanese smuggling ring in Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will your heart beat faster? 1980) is precisely calibrated never to lose its sense of humor--when he's shot (and in a delightful touch De Leon has animated bubbles and stars popping like an unexpected belch out of the wound), he throws you a hateful glare that should shatter the camera lenses, but there's just this extra something, this slight exaggeration of gesture, that lets you know this is his King Kong moment, and he means to make the most of it. The expression, in effect, is unutterably tragic, but your reaction is hopelessly, exuberantly cathartic.
Then there's the fraternity physician in Mike De Leon's Batch '81--and here it must be noted that for a filmmaker others claim to be so bizarre and cut off from people, De Leon is able to elicit all these radically different yet rigorously naturalistic performances, even from the same actor--anyway, this physician is the very height of Socratic professionalism while examining Sid Lucero (Mark Gil). He gently touches one of Sid's bruises, chides the frat masters for beating the boy too harshly, and--oh, so casually--applies a surgical clamp on the boy's bluish skin.
More clamps follow; Sid's skin and face are visibly turning red from the pain (this is a very difficult scene to watch), and all the while Delgado's soothing, calm, professional voice drones on, and on, spinning the scene quietly into nightmare.
Late in life Delgado played more dramatic roles--the first to grab attention was his award-winning performance as the moody brother in Guillen's Tanging Yaman (2000), an otherwise feel-good, somewhat fuzzy family reunion of a movie; whatever edge or sense of genuine pain found in the film came from his ever-unsettling, never-lazy performance. In Guillen's underrated Santa Santita (2004), he helps write the script, plays the relatively small role of Fr. Tony and, in a scene where he's required to do nothing more than sit and listen to Angelica Panganiban, walks away with the scene tucked snugly in his pocket. As the family patriarch in Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2007), he is again an unreservedly hateful presence, a tyrant whose will is never defied, much less questioned, by his three daughters.
Delgado's dead, and I suppose it's a truism to say that doesn't mean he's completely dead, that he lives on in his performances, preserved (more or less) on celluloid and in our memories--but calling the idea a truism and repeating it for the nth time doesn't make it any less true. He was a wonderful actor, by all accounts a wonderful man, he had a wonderful run of performances, and while we love and remember him he will never die.
Up, up, and away
Jeff Balsmeyer's Danny Deckchair (2003) rings one unusual variation on the meet-cute rom-com routine--instead of bumping into each other, or entangling each others' dog leashes, or finding each other through the internet, Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans) by means of an accident flies through the air on a lawn chair lifted by a series of large helium balloons tied to said chair. It takes two of his friends to hold the chair down while they watch a game on TV, during a back yard barbie; when one of them jumps up in his excitement Danny launches into the sky, travels hundreds of miles thanks to a passing storm, falls to earth thanks to some ill-timed fireworks, and lands almost on the lap of Glenda (Miranda Otto), a lonely, spinster-ish young woman whose day job is issuing parking tickets.
Other than that Mythbusters-style bit of engineering (possibly members of that show saw this movie, or was it vice-versa?), it's pretty much paint-by-numbers: Danny sees his mishap as a chance to start a new life (reason why he'd been tying balloons to his chair was because he'd caught his wife Trudy riding in a car with another man). Danny flirts with every girl in this strange new town; catches the attention of a local political figure; organizes pancake breakfasts; stops talk at every party attended; pretty much finds himself running for office, at the brink of winning it all, having it all.
Of course it's going to have a happy ending; of course the path to perfect happiness runs rough, at least temporarily (some kids find the abandoned chair hanging from a tree, and inform the authorities); of course the attraction Danny and Glenda sense simmering behind each others' eyes blooms into a full romance, which is sorely tested--Balsmeyer, with the help of Tim Gooding and Lizzie Bryant, isn't re-inventing the deck chair, just adding some padding and a touch of paint to make the furniture look fresher. One either finds the movie tired and limp, hardly a worthy successor to the cinema of Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, or one finds it familiar and comforting, the Aussie equivalent of warm chicken soup.
Rom-coms live or die on their casting, and luckily for this bowl of broth Ifans and Otto generate enough heat to hold our attention. Ifans is the kind of actor that (without the luck of a major hit) can develop a following, popping up in small roles in this picture or that; his wide smile and sleepy eyes are matched by Otto's wider smile and lovely, faintly oriental eyes--eyes with the ability to look upon a man, any man (including, most memorably, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn son of Arathorn, in the Lord of the Rings movies), and convince us she's totally besotted. It's not so much sexual frisson they display as it is a kind of dreamy intimacy, a sense that they share a fantasy life no one else suspect exists--possibly the crucial scene here is that of the two lovers sitting on Glenda's motorcycle, sparking her recollection of how her parents would ride about the countryside together, a pair of adventurers. One only has to look at the two looking at nothing in particular to realize that these two are made for each other.
It's--cute. Understand how some people would take a liking to this, and it's difficult to begrudge them the chance to lean back, relax for about a hundred minutes, dream of a life where a gorgeous woman is available just a balloon ride away.
My problem is this: I remember dreaming of a vast continent Down Under where mutant punks race monster vehicles and a steel boomerang whistles high overhead; I remember a party of young girls vanishing on a field trip, their ultimate fate a metaphysical mystery; I remember a doomed young soldier alone on a battlefield, running as if his life depended on it (it didn't, but he ran anyway); I remember two soldiers seated before a firing squad, sun rising on the vast landscape around them, gloriously calm even if they are guilty of monstrous crimes.
I remember a young girl standing against a similarly vast landscape, determined to achieve her dreams of becoming a writer even at the expense of love or a happy life (I'd like to see her give Glenda a good talking-to); I remember a Catholic monk refusing to even touch his students, being tormented in his deepest nightmares by the sensuous caresses of nymphs; I remember an anguished aborigine wielding an ax, slaughtering every white man, woman and child he knew.
It's a cinema of extraordinary depth and grandeur, playing out against an endless rolling horizon filled with bush and game. We get a glimpse of that grandeur in Danny Deckchair--when his chair takes flight, when we get some sense of the depth of feeling between Danny and Glenda. Otherwise, I'm very much missing what use to make this cinema great.
First published in Businessworld, 11.13.09
Saturday, November 14, 2009
It's instructive, I think, to look at Dick's masterpiece: Japan and Germany have won the war and split the United States in two, with everything from the East Coast to the Midwest going to Germany and the entire West Coast (on the balance generally recognized to be the more desirable piece of real estate (I disagree, but what do I know?)) going to Japan. Germany promptly establishes a totalitarian state where the genocidal extermination of Jews is well underway (as for black people, you don't want to know what they are up to in the continent of Africa); Japan creates a relatively pollution-free semi-utopia where electric cars and dirigibles ply road and sky, Americans are treated with subtle condescension (but otherwise enjoy most of their civil rights), and American pop curios are sold in specialty boutique stores. In this topsy-turvy world, supporters of Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich struggle to control the Reich; a Japanese bureaucrat named Mr. Tagomi attempts to foil an assassination plot, with the future of the Japanese Empire hanging in the balance; and shopkeeper Robert Childan pleads for the value of indigenous American art.
First published in Businessworld, 11.06.09
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Did I mention that almost nobody I talked to in the festival liked Kore-eda's Air Doll, not even David Bordwell, who's an admirer of the director?
Ah well. Bordwell finds the execution "overcute" and "underdeveloped," but what's "overcute," anyway? The film plays into male notions of female fantasy figures, the same time it offers some kind of critique (the doll herself finds her owner's attentions distasteful, preferring the company of a gentler, geekier video store clerk), and there is something faintly prurient about the early scenes of Nozomi (Du-na Bae, in a courageously unselfconscious performance) standing in her (squeaky clean, rather breathtaking) altogether, totally vulnerable and defenseless, because the idea of putting on clothes doesn't even begin to occur to her.
But I submit that Kore-eda avoids excessive preciousness by focusing on the details--the latex squeal when her hands rub against objects, the occasional moments when she can't help but notice her translucency (either her shadow isn't dark enough or the gases flowing within her fingers are visible), the running gag about another woman's pantyhose lines, which she mistakes for latex mold lines. If one can imagine an American remake (and god knows, the idea of an inflatable sex doll come to life is asking for just such a catastrophe), one can imagine these details being simultaneously sanitized ("not so much nudity, please, and no shots of her cleaning out her removable vagina") and pumped up for slapstick content, with Jim Carrey mugging his face off to plenty of loud music cuing audience laughter.
Bordwell compares the ending to that of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. Truth to tell, Oshima's ending left me cold (as I think Oshima intended); Kore-eda's comes off more as a tragic misunderstanding, the kind found in doomed romances or tragedies. Kore-eda's film attempts, as does Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence, to evoke the pathos of the unanimated--how, we imagine, they might be helpless to determine their own fate, and how, we imagine, they would suffer accordingly (beyond that, I think , is an attempt to evoke the pathos one feels when empathizing with inanimate objects--when, at one time or another in our lives, we ourselves feel helpless to determine our fates). Between Spielberg and Kore-eda, though, I think the lighter (and hence more effective) touch is Kore-eda's.
After Air Doll I decided to hell with it and attended a midnight screening, which can often be fun; the crowd is rowdy, the movie usually of the lowbrow, grindhouse persuasion--in this case Kevin Hamedani's ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. Easy to say Hamedani is no George Romero, and that his zombie picture is too clunky to gracefully shoulder the weight of political metaphor and satire that it is meant to bear, and that anyway the zombie effects are second-rate (owing to a presumably low budget), but zombie flicks are judged more by their gut impact than their subtlety (until we come to the more recent fast-moving remakes, in which case I go all medieval on them). But the picture burns with the fire of a filmmaker out to prove a point, and easily the movie's most unsettling image isn't of the beheadings or flesh-eating or the swinging zombie guts, but of a half-crazed (all-crazed?) man threatening to hammer a young Iranian girl's foot to the floor if she doesn't confess to being involved in some evil Middle-Eastern plot to convert all Americans into zombies.
Hong Sang-soo's Like You Know It All is his second feature on HD, and am I imagining this or has Hong become more ostensibly funny? The film tells the story of a director named Koo Gyung-nam (Kim Tae-woo) invited to sit in as jury member at the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival. It adds something if you've ever been to a film festival before, or served as jury in one--the ubiquitous shoulder bags filled with goodies, the neverending round of polite greetings, the endless catalogs and promotional handouts and calling cards--Hong gets every detail right (Jecheon as depicted onscreen seems like a modest-sized festival, though it could have grown since, or maybe Hong didn't have the budget or inclination to use bigger sets). Add attractive, eccentric, possibly insane festival programmer Kong Yun-hee (Uhm Ji-won) into the mix, and Hong in effect puts poor Koo through the metaphorical and literal wringer, with women alternately enticing and rejecting him, men either inviting or threatening him, fans at times praising, at times humiliating him, and Koo himself wondering just what he had done the night before when he was drunk to deserve this kind of treatment.
Add to this the unmistakable hint of melancholy (Koo is always finding something to regret in either the recent or distant past in his relationships with women (with concurrent repercussions on his relationships with men)), and one might say Hong has executed a light but satisfying omelet of a film--deceptively simple, but flavorsome.
Programmer Shelley Kraicer made it clear (on the Vancouver catalog and when he spoke to me) that he regarded Tsai Ming Liang's Face, about a film crew attempting to stage a film version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, a masterpiece; everyone else, apparently, begs to differ. I wanted to like it, I really did, but where the pacing in Tsai's previous films was leisurely and uncompromising here it felt soporifically slow; where his storytelling was deadpan unpredictable here it felt obtuse and nonsensical. I wondered what made the difference and someone offered this explanation: "He's cut himself off. Where before he was full of angst towards his life and sexuality, now it's all about his love for French cinema. Moreau, Baye, Ardant, Leaud, references to Truffaut--it's all magic and new to him where we've been familiar with all this Francophilia for years, even decades. It's killing his films."
Possibly--all I know is that something's seriously missing in this picture whatever it is. To be fair the imagery is often heartstoppingly beautiful, and there is one sequence--Salome kissing the dead head of John the Baptist--that's incredible, even great (don't want to say too much about it except that instead of using dramatic music or even music of any kind, Tsai employs the ambient sounds found in a deserted abattoir to terrible, unforgettable effect).
Samuel Moaz's Lebanon might be described in the catalog as a "cross between Waltz with Bashir and Das Boot;" I would call it a transposition of Kevin Reynolds' The Beast to Lebanon, albeit with a greater intensity and claustrophobia--much of the film takes place inside a tank, and any contact we have of the outside world comes through the driver's tiny periscope, or through the upper hatch, a moon-shaped aperture through which authority (an Israeli troop commander who seems to have all the answers (at least for a while)) and terror (a Christian Phalangist full of unreliable information and even less certain loyalty) enter from the outside world. One might see the tank as a steel womb inside of which the men overstay their welcome (their gestation period?), wallowing in their own increasingly unbearable filth and refusing to leave the safety of their armored uterus.
Moaz captures the stench of waging war inside a tank--the ever-rising level of rancid water on the vehicle's floor, complete with a flotilla of cigarette butts and paper wrappers floating about its oily surface; the ever-thickening layer of grime and sweat covering the tank men's wide-eyed faces like so much makeup; the increasingly congealed gluey mess dripping from the interior walls (an explosion had sent foodstuff (Matzoh meal?) flying everywhere, and in the film's one hilarious running gag (and, come to think of it, politically weighted line of dialogue) the troop commander keeps demanding that the men "clean up this mess").
One festival viewer had hesitated to go see Lebanon; he said he didn't want to watch Israeli propaganda. I can see it being propaganda all right, but aimed at whom I'm not quite sure--the Israeli commanders order the use of illegal phosphorus shells and order the tank to fire on innocent civilians; the men inside the tank are frightened and barely know what's going on. We know only as much or less, because Moaz has made sure that everything we see and hear are what they see and hear; the experience is a harrowing one.
Managed to see Brillante Mendoza's Serbis, about a day in the life of a provincial movie theater, where they show uncut versions of softcore porn movies and the action in the darker corners of the auditorium are far more interesting than what's happening onscreen. In terms of hygiene the theater can give the tank in Lebanon a run for the money; it's almost as claustrophobic (a dark cavernous space surrounded by an intricate network of rooms and stairways), it has its share of rank sewer water, and people have terrifyingly red and swollen boils growing out of their behinds (come to think of it the relative darkness in the tank made the mess there a touch more tolerable). There's graphic sex aplenty and fellatio plunked front and center for those who appreciate that kind of action, and there's the slapstick interlude of a thief running up and down the theater's stairways seeking escape (if he got lost I don't blame him).
One less-then-enchanted viewer told me "I can tolerate the sex, the boil, the endless stair-climbing. What I can't stand is the goat--why is there a goat in the theater? I don't understand the goat."
I sympathize. But anyone who's actually attended a screening in one of these brokedown movie palaces knows that the occasional non-biped often wanders into its reassuringly shadowy interior--I've heard birds fluttering about in these places, even the occasional bat, and once in a while you hear a cat meowing for leftovers. Plenty of odd things can happen in a Filipino grindhouse, including a patron urinating into an empty soda cup beside you (apparently he couldn't be bothered--or didn't dare--to look for the men's room).
Should we understand the goat? I think these places are beyond understanding, just as I suppose Filipino life can be beyond understanding--like the theater it's full of lust and filth, and everyone's too demoralized to bother trying to keep it fully, continuously clean (the moment when the men's room is flooded is strangely the single most moving moment for me with its silent despair, its patient mop sweeper standing ankle-deep in dark water). The script by Armando Lao--who I used to call the Philippines' most underrated scriptwriter, now less underrated (and thankfully more active)--seems shapeless, lackadaisical, and Mendoza directs his script with a general lethargy, punctuated by the occasional surge of energy (a bursting boil, a bout of oral sex, a thief dangling from a balcony). But Lao and Mendoza (with the help of a wonderfully unglamorous cast that includes Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz and Gina Pareno) have carefully attained that lethargy, it's the kind of everyday rhythm fellow Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz strives for and achieves in his hours-long epics, set in the countryside.
Call this then, like Lebanon, an elaborate womb metaphor, with the people trapped inside too self-absorbed and terrified to seek escape, only too happy to wallow in their own waste and fester. If there's anything at all compensatory in these less-than-ideal conditions, it's that the theater snack food seem tastier than the cardboard pap found in most movie theaters, with hot meals over rice, pork rinds sprinkled with spicy vinegar, and boiled duck egg (complete with feathery, days-old fetus for a protein surprise) available at the lobby. Just don't use the men's room afterward.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
King of pain
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has been called the best film yet made about the war in Iraq, and one can see where they’re coming from--it’s crude yet coherent, understated yet intense, and it knows that first and foremost, before you even deal with the politics of war, you portray its head rush, the ‘drug’ mentioned in the film’s opening titles.
Bigelow’s eminently qualified. A woman successfully working in what’s basically a man’s world, she’s done one action film after another in various genres, and managed to give them an unapologetically distinct visual design--the chilly metallic look of Blue Steel, the dreamy twilight feel of Near Dark (arguably her best work), the headlong rush of Strange Days. Her editing is precise and swift, but she’s also a long-take fan, perfectly capable of going against the grain of today’s chop-suey editing and shaky handheld cameras.
If she has a weakness, it’s her scripts--Blue Steel had its moments, but Ron Silver’s psychopathic killer-lover was ultimately too silly to be truly disturbing; Strange Days started out strong but ended up underutilizing its fin-de-siecle scenario; even Near Dark had its narrative implausibilities (is vampirism that easy to cure?).
Hurt Locker seems different; its scenario doesn’t indulge in fantastic flights of fancy (narrativewise, I mean), and it doesn’t strive for glaringly unearned dramatic moments. The story is of a piece--basically, the life of an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) squad, counting down days of active duty; in its way are seven scenarios, six involving bombs of escalating degrees of complexity, that it must survive to go home.
At the film’s center, breathing harshly like a Kubrickian spaceman in his bomb disposal suit (a heavy-duty affair of armor blast plating, Kevlar, fire retardant polymers and ballistic nylon) with matching helmet (visor made of hardened acrylic/polycarbonate laminate) stands Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a daredevil disposal expert who likes to keep souvenirs of the bombs he’s dismantled in a box (“this is shit from Radio Shack, man” a fellow soldier finally tells him). Funny, but there it is: a movie about a man who only lives when he’s in danger of dying.
James is the film’s wildly beating heart and biggest problem. As Renner (who bears an unsettling resemblance to thirty-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with “fuck you” attitude to match), plays him he’s a deadpan gambler willing and able to stake his life (and his fellow soldiers') on the possibility he’s right. He pulls up bomb wires with casual aplomb; he rips open car seats and carpeting with evident gusto. It’s as if dismantling bombs were a child’s game where he pretends that he reads his opponent’s playbook with complete clarity, even if he doesn’t (he doesn’t, not always, definitely not with the final device).
James’ bravado makes him cool and ultimately lends this movie much of its seductiveness. And seductive it is--the bombs are, as that soldier put it, “Radio Shack;” not the gleaming hi-tech bombs of movie villains past, but the product of ingenious minds with limited budget and resources. Their designs have an ingenious logic, a logic James follows with unbridled glee--if you wire a 155 mm round to detonate, would you use just one? If you want to hide a bomb, where's the ideal hiding place? If you want to fashion the ultimate undefuseable bomb--the last one that James, late in the film, deals with --just how would you do it? Bigelow stages and Renner plays each sequence with absolute conviction; you can’t think clearly, what with all the tension onscreen.
It’s when you’ve left the theater and the tension’s gone that you realize how big a con job this is, how much the character of James has been cribbed from louder, sillier antecedents like Lethal Weapon, only with Renner doing a far more persuasive job with far less than Mel Gibson ever did (Gibson at least had a wife long dead). Does the film say anything about the absurdity of the Iraq war? Only incidentally, in the background--in the way the Iraqis gaze at James with his bombs, as if this were an example of performance art with lives only incidentally at stake. That's an entire world into which he’s intruding, suit and bombs and all, and the onlookers may or may not have an interest in his safety. They deserve a more complex, less contrived view of the war and its causes and its effects.
No, the film doesn’t have anything profound to say about the war; it’s a skein of macho clichés linking together a series of bomb defusing sequences, admittedly superb. Thanks to those sequences, this may be the best film to date about the Iraq war; I just don’t think that means as much as we’d like.
First published in Businessworld, 10.23.09