Thursday, April 28, 2011

Scene of the crime

Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" (2003) is the film that put him on the map internationally. His later hits, mainly the creature-feature "The Host" (2006), would make him part of Asian mainstream worldwide. Entertaining as "The Host" was, it's got nothing on the grim, tightening hold of "Memories of Murder". The film plays out like a Korean version of David Fincher's "Zodiac" (2007), a police procedural where viewer frustration is closely aligned with the frustration experienced by the police as they try to catch a serial killer in rural South Korea in 1986.

Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung and Kim Roe-ha star as the investigating detectives. One is boorish and clumsy, with flexible ethical standards; the other is out-and-out physically intimidating; the third is from Seoul and seems more sophisticated than his colleagues, though it's unclear how long this sophistication will last. Inspired by real life events, the plot seems simple: we meet the main characters and follow them in their investigation. Seeing as this is first and foremost a character driven film, we find the characters unravelling as their search keeps turning up false leads and invalid conclusions, and it is this frustration of intent and expectation that creates the film's tension. Also to this film's credit is its constant awareness of what was politically happening in Korea during the 1980s, and how the police was forced to cope without the high-end technological advances that were already available elsewhere in the world.

"Memories of Murder" is compelling. It juxtaposes brutal death with rural tranquility, a motif that comes full circle with the film's powerful and moving ending. We are made to think that sometimes we see the killer, but we cannot be sure since we're only privy to what the detectives know. Once, we are shown the killer for certain, his face blurred and in the distance as he hides in the lush, tall grass. Bong makes the most of the tension derived from contrasting human threat and beautiful nature by putting the one in the other.

More "Zodiac" than "Seven" (Fincher, 1995), the film's even pacing and character focus is on par with that of under appreciated, quiet thriller "Citizen X" (Chris Gerolmo, 1995) where the Soviet government effectively undermined the search for a serial killer because they refused to believe that such evil was possible in their country. In "Memories", it is, in the end, not so much the lack of resources and cooperation that sabotage the murder investigation as the humanity and fragility of the detectives.

Monday, April 25, 2011

He may be in the elevator, but he's not in the details

Going down?
(Image: Filmonic)
Five people become trapped in an elevator. This is not a random event; those trapped in the lift are there for a reason, just as there is a reason why there is a specific audience - mainly detective Bowden (Chris Messina) - to witness what happens through a security camera. One of the people trapped in the lift is the devil. The devil is on earth, we are told, and sometimes he assumes human form to torment souls before claiming them for eternity.

That's the high-concept premise for John Erick Dowdle's "Devil" (2010), a horror feature developed by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself as the first installment of his Night Chronicles, which deal with tales of urban occurrences of the supernatural. After establishing the premise, it becomes shockingly clear that now that everyone's trapped in the elevator with the devil, the film has nowhere to go. By "nowhere", I mean that the film is a terrible attempt at horror that suffers from badly drawn characters, overexplanationitis, unintentionally laughable dialogue ("I need you to stop telling campfire stories and get your head in the game!") and, worst of all, utter predictability. You'll be able to figure out the reason - sorry, Reason - for the events right from the film's opening scene. The 'reveal' where the film finally announces who the devil is will come as no surprise to anyone who's seen similar genre movies or read Agatha Christie's famous works.  

The film starts ominous enough, as the Philadelphia cityscape is flipped upside down and a suicide opens the way for the devil to start the proceedings. But from that point onward, there is no tension, and nothing to be scared of. Earlier in his career Shyamalan nearly perfected the use of off-screen space to evoke a sense of doom and danger. For some reason, "Devil" thinks it can do better, and now everything interesting happens in the dark. Usually I'd commend movies that invite the imagination to co-construct what's happening on screen, but in "Devil's" case, it's plain lazy. The film's idea of the devil is tired as well; the idea never crosses from absurdity into something cinematically convincing.

As a moderately budgeted, ambitious American horror, I judge "Devil" by the standards I expect from mediocre Hollywood hokum, and it fails miserably. It is a contender for the year's most tedious film. The devil isn't scary when he's a lame plot mechanism, especially since the idea has been so thoroughly secularised it cannot be taken seriously. Fortunately, there's nothing like a little "Drag Me To Hell" to wash the bad taste of the "Devil" out of your mouth.

[Please note: the comments below contain major spoilers.]

Boy wizard faces first part of final challenge

Harry and Hermione contemplate the future in "Deathly Hallows, Part I"
(Image: Cinenthusiast)
I cannot emphasise enough my relief that the latest and penultimate "Harry Potter" installment, "Deathly Hallows, Part I", is a resounding success. Instead of chopping the book up and discarding key scenes and events, director David Yates and company opted to rather tell as much of the full story as possible and to split the final film into two parts. I concede that the economic imperative at play was a certain factor in this decision, but at least it's a decision to the benefit of the franchise's fans, among whom I count myself.

As an avowed fan who suffered disappointment with the abbreviated "Order of the Phoenix" and felt only marginal improvement with "Half Blood Prince", I am relieved that "Deathly Hallows, Part I" is the best boy wizard adventure since Cuaron's near definitive "Prisoner of Azkaban" years ago. It's as if Yates had taken the best storytelling techniques of the previous titles and added it all to "Deathly Hallows". Consider the breathtaking sequence where Hermione reads a classic story from "The Tales of Beedle the Bard", and, in a possible nod to Del Toro, the whole story comes to life in vividly stylised animation.  

It's become a bit of a cliche to call serious-minded adventure and fantasy movies "dark", but it's an ideal and accurate adjective for this film on all levels. The characters have matured a lot, which provides their trials with greater emotional depth, and as the events in the story took a turn for the serious, the film became visually darker and scarier. "Deathly Hallows, Part I" is the darkest Potter yet, and not a bit of it feels forced. If you've read this far, you don't really need me to tell you what happens in this seventh film. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), assisted by his longtime friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are up against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who is gradually taking control of the wizarding world. They face numerous challenges, not least the dangers to loved ones.

The film's tagline is "Nowhere is Safe", and indeed, there is but a single throwaway reference to Hogwarts. Gone are the hallways and corridors, the shifting stairways and vocal paintings; the absence of the comforts of the familiar are felt by the characters and the viewers. The air of innocence and excitement established by Chris Columbus in the first two films has made way for tangible threat and danger. To amplify the general feeling of distress that pervades the film, "Deathly Hallows, Part I" is book-ended by notions of death and demise.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I" feels much shorter than its 140 minutes, and I'd love to eventually watch it back to back with "Part II". The boy may have lived, but triumph will not follow without sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Immigration politics, the Trejo way

"You just f*cked with the wrong Mexican."

The titular character faces off with B-movie thesp Seagal
Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" started life as a fake trailer that played with the "Grindhouse" double bill a few years ago, "Planet Terror" (also by Rodriguez) and "Death Proof" (Tarantino). It showed an insane series of images of Rodriquez regular Danny Trejo dispatching of many villains in various bloody ways. So popular was the trailer (some critics preferred it to both "Planet" and "Proof") that Rodriguez developed a feature film based on the concept, and here is the result: "Machete", a semi-grindhouse quasi-exploitation-cum-political-commentary flick. It's moderately successful as exploitation (if you're into that kind of thing), and superficially successful as socio-political commentary ("Immigrants are People Too!")

In addition to cult figure Trejo, a former convict turned actor, the film features a rather bland Jessica Alba, a brief Lindsey Lohan, and Michelle Rodriguez in a gendered spin on a certain Latin American revolutionary. In addition to these, there's also Steven Seagal as the big baddie, Torrez; a mostly silhouetted Don Johnson as a corrupt cop; Robert de Niro as a twisted congressman; and Jeff Fahey, the original "Lawnmower Man" and almost-star of one-time TV hit "The Marshall", as a political schemer, Booth, who compels Machete to action.

Years ago, Mexican federale Machete suffered a great personal tragedy during a bust gone wrong. Now, the near legendary former lawman is a part-time manual labourer. Things change when Fahey spots Machete in a fight, and pays him a lot of money to assassinate a local congressman. Things do not go as planned, and Machete finds himself betrayed, on the run and with a need for vengeance that seems driven more by functionality (vengeance is inevitable) than passion. Vengeance is cold, brutal and caked in blood, and "Machete" commits to a hyperviolence so far beyond the real that it crosses into that area where moral disgust dissipates into a technicality. I cannot go into too much details, but there's a scene where Machete improvises a hospital escape that gives new meaning to notions of inner strength.

The film capitalises optimally on Trejo's unique screen presence, and when he says "Machete don't text", you believe him. The film is called "Machete". I don't have anything more to add.

Border patrol

Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is dead. His friend, partner and surrogate father, ranch operator Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), is devastated by Estrada's death. Perkins undertakes to find the killer, with or without the cooperation of Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam). Meanwhile, we see Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his wife (January Jones) ride into town. He's there to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, and the film is quick to show us how (in)effective he is at his job. These characters, as well as Rachel (Melissa Leo) who runs the local diner with her husband Bob, are all linked to each other in ways carefully designed gently revealed to us by Arriaga. Estrada's death is the event that brings these characters closer or drives them apart. Despite what the DVD back cover might say, "Three Burials" is not about Pete avenging Estrada's death. It is about what happens when Pete finds the killer, which makes for a more rewarding thematic experience.        

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005), directed by and starring stone-faced Tommy Lee Jones, is clearly written by Guillermo Arriaga, he of other structural filmic adventures: "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel". The film's first two acts (or the "First Burial" and "Second Burial", as we are told) follow a disjointed plot that makes complete sense only once we're well into the film. Showing the events in this way, Jones and Arriaga add weight to the death of the titular character, making it more than just a plot development. The film is a Western set in the present day, and the genre, as seemingly unfashionable as it may be, is clear from the opening establishing shot of the uninhabited American landscape. The Western landscape instills awe and fear at the same time. We know that both death and salvation reside there.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" belongs to the recent wave of revisionist, sometimes elegiac Westerns. Jones would appear in the monumental "No Country for Old Men" two years after this film, and Pepper would face Jeff Bridges in "True Grit" (2011). Thematically, "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) belongs to the same type of film. These new Westerns would not necessarily be set in the Old West but have similar character types and address similar themes. Where earlier Westerns commented on the fading of the "old ways" of the West due to industrialisation, for example, these new Westerns highlight the demise and reconstruction of the genre itself. "Estrada" contrasts the inviting and foreboding Western landscape with the mundane and equally deadly urbanity of Texas life, showing how one can kill physically while the other may murder the soul. A key theme underscoring the film is that of communication; there's a sex scene devoid of the usual audio-visual sexual cues that highlights physical intimacy as act of non-communication, while a blind man listens to a radio program he cannot understand since it's in Spanish.    

To discuss more would take us to deep into spoiler territory, since so much of the film covers the aftermath of Pete finding the killer and doing with this person what he must. What I can finally comment on is how the film takes a brave step towards its end, somewhat reframing Perkins while confirming what we might have expected all along. Subsequently, the film's last line resonates with sadness.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" won Best Sceenplay and Best Actor at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Scott Pilgrim" vs The Indifferent Public

Slam evil! 
The Indifferent Public won. "Scott Pilgrim vs The World" was a labour of love for filmmaker Edgar Wright, who bases the film on a popular graphic novel of the same name. Despite mostly glowing reviews, the film tanked and failed to recuperate its budget Stateside. In brief, protagonist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cena) falls in love with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but needs to fight her seven evil ex-es in order to pursue a romantic relationship with her. Meanwhile, Scott's own former flame, Knives Chau (a luminous Ellen Wong), is struggling to deal with their break-up. There to deliver unrequited assistance to the sometimes socially insecure Scott is gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), who has the film's best dialogue.

The movie is quite clever and visually interesting, if superficially so. Not only is it structured like a video game, where the hero levels up moving from one fight to the next until he eventually faces the big boss, but the movie also inserts icons and images from earlier gaming animation. (The film's opener, featuring a rendering of the famous Universal Pictures logo, is one of the film's best moments.) This structure also points to the film's problem: there is a certain monotony to narratives based on "leveling up", both in games and in movies informed by games.

The film "Doom" (Barthkowiak 2005), based on the popular video game set on Mars and detailing what happens when the gates of hell are inadvertently opened, used another gaming convention, that of the first-person view in first person shooters (FPS), to provide a unique P.O.V. in action cinema. This apparent "innovation" wasn't unique (film has always played with point of view) and added little to a predictable SF-horror. Borrowing from gaming does not automatically signify something better or advanced; it's simply borrowing to (a) address so-called 'geek culture' directly and (b) claim visual innovation where there is none.

Back to "Pilgrim". When Scott punches someone and the word "BAM!" appears overhead in swirly white letters, I had to wonder whether the film was attempting above approaches (a) and (b). For all the claims that this is part of what makes the film original, didn't Ang Lee do something at least conceptually similar in "The Hulk"? And wasn't it superficial there, too?

I'm not at all slaying "Scott Pilgrim". I liked the film well enough, but I have to wonder: "Scott Pilgrim" is loaded with pop culture references. Many reviewers seemed to celebrate the film's cultural "knowingness", as when the well known Seinfeld 'pop' plays when Scott barges into the room a la Kramer. Surely though, simply including such references cannot stand as criteria for quality? If you were to remove half the references in the film, would it make it a lesser film? I understand that it can create context and give the movie a certain 'feel', but are all references indeed warranted? If you have to consult the IMDb's trivia section to explain all the oh-so-cool references, what does that say about the film?

"Scott Pilgrim" reminded me a lot of another film that used violence, an awareness of its own artifice and pop culture references (see above) to tell an unconventional love story between young people trying to define themselves in a dynamic universe. I am, of course, talking about Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994). "NBK" is still, especially considering when it was made, more visually inventive than this film, and has greater cultural staying power since there was some biting social commentary in Stone's film. "Scott Pilgrim" does not comment on anything, really, so happy is it to be contained its own world. ("NBK" itself is far from perfect, but that's another discussion.)

Now, the argument can be made that simply providing commentary about something also does not stand as a criterion of quality. This is valid, as "Caligula" (Brass and Guccione 1979) demonstrated. Yes, there's some socio-political commentary, but who cares about that if the commentary is without impact and you get to see Helen Mirren naked? But what was so visibly absent from "Scott Pilgrim" was commentary of any tangible kind, even though the opportunity was there to parody and/or problematise 'geek culture'.

In the end, I guess, "Scott Pilgrim" is surprisingly conservative. Here I am talking about missed opportunities, not about the film's characters and content only. And don't be fooled by the term "evil ex-es". There's no conception of "evil" in this film; the ex-es can be described as misguided or egocentric at worst. There's no real threat of any kind. Also, since the film is kind of a game as well, we understand that no-one, least of all our hero, is ever in any real danger. This is far removed from the equally fantastical "Kick-Ass" whose heroes were convincingly vulnerable, which added dramatic weight to the absurdity of some of the proceedings.

I expected short term fun from "Scott Pilgrim vs The World", and I got that. I just feel let down that the film didn't give me anything more than that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Family values, lies and a cat

At least there's no severed ear
"Dogtooth", by Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos, gives us one of the most dysfunctional families I've ever seen on screen. The film started out as frustrating and pretentious, but the minimalist imagery won me over eventually and I was riveted. Unencumbered by traditional notions of setting, plot and context, Lanthimos presents us with a family trapped in a bizarre capsule-like existence. Here, when an airplane flies overhead, the mother throws a toy plane from behind a shrub and then watches the three children - all moving through or beyond their teenage years - fight for ownership of the fallen object.

Forgive me, for I think I've just given something away; not a plot twist or anything that changes one's perception of the film, but how the film plays with the viewer, keeping you in the dark on how exactly the family works. Some things are hinted at through the film and then unexpectedly a flashback (which is not signaled as a flashback) appears to clarify what's going on. It's in this that the domestic cat gains great significance, and I will say no more on the matter. The mother teaches the children language and vocabulary that fail to correspond to what we know about the words used to signify things. A daughter asks for the phone while seated at the dinner table, and the mother hands her what we'd refer to as "salt". If language constructs reality, then take a deep breath.    

Oh, the story. Best to keep it simple. An upper middle class family - mother, father, two daughters and a son, who's the oldest - live in a house that seems to be geographically isolated from the rest of the world. They could be anywhere. There's nothing concrete or manifest to keep everyone inside, but the children have been told from very young that they cannot exit the gate or a dark fate will befall them (or something like that). So, they don't leave the premises. The mother and father are perfectly aware of what they are doing, and while mom stays home, dad goes out every morning to the factory he owns (he has to fund the fantasy somehow).

How can he leave home while the children cannot? He does so in a car. Such is the logic of the world constructed and controlled by the parents. Even sexual behaviour is controlled; if the son cannot find a suitable woman to relieve his needs, why, he has two sisters, hasn't he?  

"Dogtooth" excels at alienation. The family imposes some sense of exile, while the film's language - static lingering shots, limited editing - avoids an emotional connection to any character. Nothing is sensationalised; we are simply shown what happens through a detached lens. Lanthimos does not give us a single character to align with; one character that does serve as a kind of entry point into this bizarre setup has her own needs, desires and whatnot to tend to, and does not stay very long. Much like the children, we are trapped in the movie with people we do not know, and we don't necessarily want to be there.

The film is the opposite of escapism. By showing us a world constructed around the avoidance of life as we know it, we are forced to reflect on what we know, especially about family dynamics. Power shifts from father to mother and back; theirs seems to be a functional partnership, with added sexual benefits. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a narrative turning point in the film. At the same time, it is exactly what we expect and not at all what we expect. This turning point even feeds into an ambiguous climactic moment, with a final shot suggesting that Schrodinger was right.

The film may be ambiguous about a lot of things, but it's far from inaccessible. There's no palm-to-the-head viewer reaction suggesting a eureka-like realisation, or a complete failure. On its own terms, within its own world, the film makes perfect sense. We've never seen a family drama like this.

Did I mention the cat?

Monday, April 4, 2011


I watched "Stoute Boudjies" because I had to. Let's leave it at that.

I approached the film with trepidation, as I usually avoid Willie Esterhuizen's movies due to their lower-than-lowest-common-denominator approach to comedy. The closest I usually get to this type of comedy is "Bakgat", which by comparison looks like Von Trier's latest filmic bombast. On a previous effort, "Poena is Koning", a friend commented how it's not just the sexism that's bad in his movies; it's also the blatant racism and fattism that get you. "Stoute Boudjies" features rampant sexism, as well as fattism (guess who's the perpetual loser?) and racism. (If an actor of colour willingly participates in a film like this for a paycheck, what do we do with the notion of racism?)

Some background: Esterhuizen was a successful showman who was responsible for two favourite Afrikaans sitcoms, "Orkney Snork Nie" (Woepsie-wapsie!) and later the lesser but still successful "Vetkoetpaleis". Nothing he's done since has reached the level of popularity that those shows obtained in the 1990s. As for his film work, it was his "Lipstiek Dipstiek" in the mid 1990s that made sex part of popular braaivleis discourse. It was OK to talk about genitals now, since it's funny; Seff Effrica would never be the same again. Given how conservative most of South African entertainment was until 1994, Esterhuizen did break some new ground, even if it was limited to how much naked flesh you could get away with on screen. It was "Last Tango in Joburg" for the Afrikaans adult comedy crowd, but without sophistication.

Afrikaans isn't a world language, and the lighter-skinned group of people who speak it constitutes a minority in South Africa. Yet some Afrikaans filmmakers, Esterhuizen among them, choose to give local audiences comedies that are vulgar for vulgarity's sake alone, regardless of the stereotypes perpetuated for the sake of a cheap laugh. Why marginalise a minority in this way, showing them to be incapable of nearly  everything, including sexual activity? Certainly, it seems as if many of the stereotypes and cliches are lifted from equally bad American teen comedies, but those seldom look as inept and on-the-fly as this film.

I got the following plot synopsis from the Nu Metro website:

HARDUS, is a third year computer sciences student who lives in Johannesburg with his divorcee mother, Madelet (played by Dorette Nel). Hardus has to find work for the varsity holiday to earn his keep, but at his age, he is more interested in losing his virginity than finding a job. "Madelet" rhymes with "slet", Afrikaans for "slut". I guess it's funny.

His best friend and comrade in arms, VAATJIE VISAGIE, played by Gerhard Odendaal, does little to help in the virginity stakes, but does provide an opportunity to work as a washer at Mr. De Vries's bakery. Mr. De Vries (played by actor Matt Stern) sends them on an errand that proves to be much more adventurous that any of them could have imagined. Here, Vaatjie (from "Vaatjies Sien Sy Gat") is an obesity-stereotype, while Matt Stern's De Vries is an effeminate annoyance. 

PETRO, played by the stunning Angelique Pretorius, (a former FHM model of the year) impacts hugely on Hardus's life. He not only finds himself totally besotted with her but when they end up in bed together, Hardus's world, gets turned upside down.
This is mainly because Petro's boyfriend, Harley Davidson biker OS, (played by macho man Asley Saunders), wants to break Hardus's neck for screwing his chick. The fact that she no longer happens to be his girl, does not deter OS from wanting to cause some grievous bodily harm to Hardus.

The film is a hilarious teen sex comedy
[it is not "hilarious" unless you're OS's mental cohort], targeted specifically for the young Afrikaans movie going audience [they must think we're idiots]. It is contemporary and truthful version of life in post world cup South Africa [yes, if "contemporary" means "recently released" and "truthful" means "as rubbish as most other teen sexcoms"; I do not see the relevance of the SWC reference]

"Stoute Boudjies" makes for depressing viewing. Between the wisecracks and ass-cracks, the film demonstrates there is a place somewhere underneath the bottom of the barrel.