Sunday, August 26, 2012

Futurefilm Retrospective: Immortel (Ad Vitam)

Yet another French produced film for our sci-fi retrospective: Immortel (Immortal), by Enki Bilal.

Immortel was an interesting film for its time: along with Casshern and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it was filmed with a digital backlot, meaning that all of the sets were in CGI. It worked really well with Casshern and it brought a nostalgic yet slightly retro-futuristic vibe in Sky Captain. Here... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The graphics were mostly done by Quantic Dream studios, who would later make the video game Heavy Rain. Although the CGI was fluid, this is 2004 CGI we are talking about, so some aspects look dated.

The most striking difference in visuals was from one thing this movie did that the other two movies tended to shy away from: the usage of CGI characters. In this film, most of the supporting cast is either pure CGI or a mix of CGI faces and real bodies. It's jarring and hits the uncanny valley a bit too much for my taste.

As for the plot, it's based on Bilal's comic of the same name, and it's a bit of a mess. It's 2095, and humanity has embraced improving himself through biotechnology and eugenics. Most people have replaced their organs with biotech replicas. For some reason, a large pyramid hangs over New York City. Within the pyramid, Egyptian gods (extraterrestrials?) condemn one of their own, Horus, to mortality. For some reason. Also for some reason, a man named Nikopol was arrested for some reason. And, for some reason, a lady with blue hair and white skin appears out of nowhere.

Note that I'm using the words 'for some reason' a lot. And that has a reason, which is one of the film's greatest weaknesses: none of this ever gets explained, ever. The plot, without any backstory at all, is a jumbled mess.

Horus wants to procreate and uses Nikopol as a host body, since he is free of biotech manipulation. This leads to some weird squicky scenes and technical rape (or surprise sex!) Also the lady with blue hair and white skin falls in love with Nikopol, despite the fact that she got raped by him, or Horus in his body.

For some reason. By this point I didn't care about the plot anymore. Other than what I revealed above, nothing else gets explained. The film seems to assume you already know.

So I was left to appreciate the movie with the visuals, which despite the datedness, is pretty decent. The music was partly done by Icelandic band Sigur Ros, but blink and you'd miss their contributions to the film. The acting was okay, but again the disparity between CGI images and real actors is quite jarring.

All in all the movie is deeply flawed. I really wouldn't recommend it; see the comic/graphic novels instead.

Cinemalaya Backlogs: Tribu (2007)

I have a lot of pending or unedited reviews for Cinemalaya films from the past six or so years, especially the 2008 festival. Here's one of the reviews I decided to finish up.

I managed to watch Tribu during its gala night premiere. Since then it has gained a lot of positive attention here and abroad. Now, having watched the movie again, I found a few new things about it that I wasn't able to catch on first glimpse. It still remains a great film after all these years.

Tribu is shot almost like a documentary, with its camera work and its use of non actors in many of the title roles. Jim Libiran grew up in Tondo and it shows, with lots of dynamic shots moving around the story from one scene to another. His actors sometimes go on set with their own weapons; other times they are shot or arrested in real life.

His movie is a violent slice of life, and at the same time it shows a Tondo that is dichotomous: during the day, the adults rule with their adult concerns, rumors and gossip. During the night, the street gangs prowl the streets like packs of wolves. The two sides seldom meet, and when questioned by their parents or by people in authority, the youth hide behind supposed innocence. During the day they might be your average kid next door; but as night comes you may see them knifing some guy to death.

This clash of cultures, the formation of the culture of gangs, stems from a lot of other things. The film tries to hint at this during the open dialogue. It is a deviant society borne from poverty, from ennui, from the youthful notions of invincibility and wanting to belong. It also comes from a disparity between generations, with neither side wanting (or willing) to understand the other, and with neither side as guilty or innocent as the other. This society comes across as violent, even barbaric. And yet, during a scene near the climax, we see that this society in the shadows has formed a culture of its own. The rap music flows like poetry throughout the film, and reaches its peak before the climax of the film.

We see the movie through the eyes of a child, who drifts in between the warring factions. He is an observer, both of the youth corrupted by crime and the adults who are no better. In the end, everyone looks out for themselves, and the kid is no exception.

I heard that because of their work with the film the actual gang members have formed a peace with each other. That was five years ago; hopefully it will last. And Libiran himself has continued his love letter for his home town: his succeeding film, Happyland, is also set in Tondo, albeit with a different story to tell.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Futurefilm Retrospective: Renaissance

The moment I saw the previews for this film I had to get a copy of this. Now with a copy in hand, here are my impressions of Christian Volckman's animated CGI film, Renaissance.

It's the year 2054 and Paris is an amalgamation of old technologies and new. Avalon is a huge  megacorporation that advertises longevity treatments (although their actual process is not shown on film.) The film begins as one of Avalon's researchers, Ilona Tasuiev, is kidnapped by unknown individuals. Karas, a hardboiled policeman, is ordered to take on the case. As he gets deeper and deeper into the case, he finds that the kidnapping is far more complicated than it seems.

Renaissance is cyberpunk back at its roots: while set in the 'near' future, it takes lots of influences from the Film Noir genre. There's the female lead (Ilona's older sister,) the gloomy and oppressive environment, and the 'protagonist against the world' vibe that leads into the film's second half.

The plot is standard noir, and offers nothing new. It unfortunately does not delve much into the philosophical consequences stemming from the actions of some of the characters in the film. There is so much story potential that can be taken from the central themes of the movie: life and death. I'd also have wanted a little more character development between the two leads, but it ends up a little shallow.

The visuals makes up for that in spades. Done in motion-captured CGI, then treated to a kind of cel shaded black and white effect, it's a visual treat. It's worth seeing the movie just for the visuals. Contrasts of light and shadow really enhance the overall noir feel of the movie. It's a futuristic Paris bathed in shadow during night, and in clear white during the day.

The soundtrack can get a little too bombastic at times, but it's okay overall. Having watched the English version of the movie, the performances are decent enough. You really get into Karas (Daniel Craig) and sympathize for his character.

Renaissance is a one in a kind visual feast. While the plot may largely be uninspired, it's still worth a watch.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cinemalaya Backlogs: Ligo na U, Lapit na Me (2011)

This was a film I wanted to watch last year but didn't (every place was sold out.) But thanks to the magic of local distribution via Regal films, I was able to watch this.

In the time between last year's festival and the time when I watched this film, I managed to read the original novel by Eros Atalia. It's a fun read, with the basic storyline plus lots of internal monologue about... anything in particular. The Filipino was conversational and not too formal like other novels I've read, making it easy for anyone to read. It reminded me a bit of Bob Ong's books, to be honest. The film eschews much of the Bob Ong-esque dialogue and the cursing and pares the movie down to a tighter, more focused story.

And the story is: Karl Vladimir Lennon Villalobos, a.k.a. Intoy (Edgar Allan Guzman), is a college student. He's all about facades, making himself out to be a tough guy. He meets Jen (Mercedes Cabral) who is the prettiest girl on campus. She approaches him and offers him to be friends with benefits. Yup, this is just like that film Friends With Benefits... no, just kidding. In the end, Intoy is left to review his view on life and being 'tigasin.'

The story focuses on Intoy, but the character of Jen is also a draw. Intoy, despite his macho demeanor, is just a kid learning to walk in the dark as he goes through life. Jen is an enigma. Her motivations for seeking out Intoy are never really explained, and her erratic, even random actions leave us as confused as Intoy is. But the nice thing about that is, it's all really compelling.

I'm going to spoil the movie a bit here so stop reading if you don't want to get spoiled. The normal review continues after this paragraph. Another theme that the novel touches upon, especially during the second half, is moving on. It's touched upon in the film but not as heavily as it was in the novel. As anyone who has experienced a broken heart can tell you, the most devastating breakups are from relationships without closure, or relationships that weren't as concrete as both parties would like. So this is for all the "forever alone" people out there - sometimes you just have to live one day at a time.

The casting is spot on, and both leads portray their characters naturally. Technically the movie is sound, but the soundtrack comes off as largely uninspired, save for a few great songs at the end. At times the soundtrack made the movie feel like a cheap comedy show on TV, and that's not a good thing.

It's a worthy film in the 2011 Cinemalaya lineup, but I'd say it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. But all in all, it's a good adaptation that manages to avoid the pitfalls of straying too much from a strong plot.

Extra notes: Viewers may notice a connection to this novel/film and Eros Atalia's other novel, Intoy Syokoy ng Kalye Marino (incidentally adapted in the 2012 edition of Cinemalaya.) In fact, Ligo Na U... kind of serves as a spiritual sequel to that one. Also notable is the release of the sequel to the novel, entitled It's Not That Complicated: Bakit Hindi Pa Sasakupin Ng Mga Alien Ang Daigdig Sa 2012. I'll be watching out for a film adaptation of that one too. Maybe in 2013?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Futurefilm Retrospective: the Oshii Ghost in the Shell Films

In this edition of the Futurefilm Retrospective I'll be talking about Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell films, Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

1996 saw the release of Ghost in the Shell, a very influential anime film based on the manga by Shirow Masamune. The first time I saw it I was entranced by the traditional Japanese chant that came along with the creation of a cyborg (it turns out that the song is a wedding chant!) the philosophy and the futuristic setting. Not long after I managed to get a copy of the original manga and compared the two. Both works are philosophical and consider the same concepts, but as always the anime trims down most of the subplots to focus the story.

There are a lot of biblical references in the narrative, most notably the passage that our protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, utters in the halfway point of the film, continued in the last part of the film. I think it's from Corinthians, also a source of other cultural references in the film.

Culture is another thing that is discussed in both films, although subtly. Despite (or perhaps because?) of the major technological advances in human manipulation, cultures have begun to meld together without being wiped out. The setting of the series, Newport City, is not confirmed to be in Japan at all; in fact most of the signage and rituals point to a Chinese origin, despite the fact that the main characters are working for the Japanese government.

Masamune is a weapons otaku and it shows in the manga - each weapon is given a lovingly detailed description, with notes on ammo capacity, rate of fire, penetrating power and so on. In the films, weapon sounds and recoil are researched thoroughly, although the explanations are not as prominent. One notable omission in the anime is the inclusion of the sentient battle tanks known as Fuchikoma. Their story is expanded in the anime series where they gain a collective consciousness and are retired due to that fact.

The films continue with Innocence, released in 2004 at the Cannes Film Festival. Although a sequel to the film, it is not based on either of the manga sequels, Human-Error Processor or Man Machine Interface. Instead, it is loosely based on a chapter from the first manga series. This film explores the concepts of identity and having a soul even further than the first one. It's a bit hard to discuss it without spoiling anything so I'll just leave it at that.

In both films the dog is a major symbolic reference. In some mythologies they are regarded as guards over the next plane of existence. In particular, the Basset Hound that we see in his other films are here (even more so in Innocence) as an anchor to reality. A major motif in the second film is the doll and its symbolic comparison to the cyborgs and androids that we see in the film.

The original film was reworked and released as Ghost in the Shell 2.0. It uses advanced CGI sequences and cleans up most of the shots in the movie. There are some major changes that have been a point of controversy (the Puppet Master's voice has been changed from an effectively jarring male to a female) making it a work that stands on its own. Your mileage may vary on which version you think is better.

Ghost in the Shell is a must see work that has to be seen at all levels. I also recommend the anime series, Stand Alone Complex, which expands most of the cyberpunk and sci fi themes from the manga to a remarkable work on its own.

Futurefilm Retrospective: Avalon

Mamoru Oshii's films have always challenged our perceptions of the world around us, and his 2001 joint production with Poland, Avalon, is no exception. Set in a near future world where everyone plays a mysterious role-playing game called Avalon (patterned after Wizardry) the story focuses on Ash, a player with top level skills. She mostly escapes into the world of Avalon, earning money from the game. Her life 'outside' the game is plain and uneventful, with the drab setting and the sepia tones of the visuals accentuating this fact.

However, certain events lead to her knowledge of a secret level in Avalon - a level that many have tried to reach and failed. And there is the presence of the 'unreturned,' players who were unable to log off from the game and have remained catatonic outside of the game. She then sets off to reach this goal and perhaps... finish the game.

Avalon deals with our perceptions of reality itself. Oftentimes we are led to believe that none of the worlds featured in the film are real. But the argument that Avalon may trying to say is that reality is whatever we choose it to be, and in a way, that is all that matters.

Many of Oshii's motifs from his previous films pop up here. Quite evident is his use of dogs, primarily Basset Hounds, as a measure of one's grip on reality (astute viewers of his more popular Ghost in the Shell movies, which we will review later, will be able to see them.) The virtual game concept, a battle simulation where players gun down artificial enemies and each other, is featured in his latest film, Assault Girls (it may even be the same game; unfortunately it lacks much of the introspection of this film.)

Of note is the setting of the movie. Oshii picked the Eastern European look of Poland for this film as it fit his vision for the movie. Thus, to Japanese audiences this would have seemed even more alien. While most of the movie is in sepia, giving it yet another layer of 'disreality' from the viewer, the last third turns it all around, making the viewer contemplate the relative reality of the characters involved. This is complimented by a soundtrack by longtime Oshii collaborator, Kenji Kawai.

Comparing contemporary MMORPGs and the game of Avalon, there are certain things that caught my attention. While the immersion is not as deep as in this movie, people have been known to get hopelessly addicted to their games (video game addiction has been proposed as an inclusion in the handbook of psychiatric disorders, the DSM V.) Some may even use the games as their source of income.

Avalon will haunt you with questions long after it ends. It's the kind of movie that invites discussion and doesn't coddle the viewer with simple answers. I recommend it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Futurefilm Retrospective - AKIRA

Here's a no-brainer for this retrospective: a rewatching of Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece AKIRA. For this one, I'm going to talk a bit about the seminal anime that any decent anime fan must know, and the epic manga it is based upon.

AKIRA is the story of Kaneda, an adolescent biker who leads a gang of 'like minded individuals', and Tetsuo, his close friend and fellow biker gang member. The year is 2019 (2031 in the manga,) decades after a cataclysmic explosion destroys much of old Tokyo. Neo Tokyo, built over the corpse of the old, is a futuristic city that borrows lots of elements from classic cyberpunk: a degenerating society run by an inept bureaucracy, run down and populated by dissatisfied residents, disillusioned youth, and various other malcontents.

Tetsuo then gets into an accident and gets involved with a secret government program that aims to control latent psychic powers that are present in all people. Tetsuo's powers begin to manifest themselves in an accelerated manner; meanwhile Kaneda, aided by a resistance fighter named Kei pries into the secrets behind the government program and the mysterious Akira.

The anime film is based on the first half of the manga, which at more than 2000 pages is an epic read in itself. While they have similar themes and characters, the two works diverge wildly in terms of plot: the manga deals with foreign intervention, has more characters and little subplots, and ends in a slightly different way. The anime removes a lot of the supporting cast and recasts some in other roles.

For the 1980's the animation is unusually well animated. Even now some of the scenes in this film blow me away. The music is excellent, mostly with themes of traditional Japanese music.

The manga is an evolution on previous stories on psychics made by Otomo, most notably Domu, where a old man in an apartment complex and a young girl engage in psychic combat. Akira ups the scale of the destruction to eleven, with cities destroyed in the blink of an eye.

Both the film and the manga tackle the complex issues of self and the evolution of man. In a way it's a treatise on man vs. technology. When man is given the means to improve himself in ways that he cannot handle, he will not grow, he will only become something like an amoeba: something that exists to grow and consume. This is made more evident in the film where a cult leader espouses the dangers of civilization on the universe itself.

So does the the film and manga have a point? Only the future will tell.

Futurefilm Retrospective - Technotise: Edit and I

The next series of reviews on the blog will be about films about the future, mostly cyberpunk, post cyberpunk and general sci-fi works, because I believe the genre hasn't been explored in depth that much in most other blogs.

We begin with a Serbian film (no, not that Serbian film. Seriously, don't watch it) from 2009 called Technotise: Edit and I. It's based on a graphic novel by Aleksa Gajic and Darko Grkinic. It's about an art student named Edit, who lives in the futuristic Belgrade of 2074. The city itself sports a mix of traditional buildings from that region in Europe and futuristic buildings and architecture.

Edit takes care of a genius who has discovered an 'equation of everything,' that has rendered the genius silent. After seeing a visualization of the equation itself, she notices that something strange has happened to her body: thanks to a series of fortuitous events another being is growing inside her...

The society depicted in Technotise is not unlike the one we see today: the young adults of society are wandering aimlessly, looking for their place in life and engaging in hedonistic behavior and thrill seeking. The government, unlike the crumbling bureaucratic beast that we see in classic cyberpunk, is mostly relegated to the side, an invisible force that still manages to make society prod along. People still do drugs, have casual sex here and there (the introduction of artificial pleasure bots called 'plastics' helps) and do crazy stuff.

Taking influence from anime, Technotise is fully animated using both 2D and 3D animation.While not as fluid as the animation you see from Hollywood productions, the film is still pretty impressive. The fact that we see this quality of animation from the unlikeliest of sources (come on, how many Serbian animated films can you name?) makes me smile inside.

The story itself draws us slowly into the world of Technotise for the first half hour before getting down to business. There are a few weird scenes that I could have done without (there's a love scene in the middle that came out of nowhere) but luckily things don't stray too far. The plot for me was resolved too hastily in some parts, and I would have wanted to see more character development between Edit and her new 'friend.'

This is a unique addition to sci-fi animation, and one that I recommend. If you can find a copy, go and check it out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thoughts on Cinemalaya

I like movies.

I've never been enrolled in any sort of formal school or institution teaching film. My teacher has always been the movies I've watched. I've enjoyed some, I've hated some, and I've ignored a lot more. I've seen them in all shapes and sizes, tackling all kinds of subject matter (and in some cases, nothing at all.) So all these words come from an average moviegoer who likes to watch movies - a member of the moviegoing masses.

Recent events have led me to think about true freedom in filmmaking. I am left to ask about what it means for filmmaking to be a collaborative process, and how much power the producers and the director of the film (if you believe in auteur theory) have over the final product. But as a member of the audience, the bottom line for me is, I want to see the finished film. What is art without an audience, even if created to speak for itself?

Also, I'm happy that there are other fresh perspectives being offered in this year's festival. I've always thought that a wide variety of viewpoints about Philippine life is one of the strengths of any film festival.

I stumble across things like this sometimes. While as valid a piece of film criticism as any, I paused at the last few words:

Sa aking palagay, walang tunay na independent na pananaw ito sa isang iniluwal ng “indie cinema.”  Napapanahon na rin sigurong ibuyanyang kung tunay nga bang independent ang namamayagpag na indie cinema sa kasalukuyan.
(In my view, there is no true independent perspective for [this film] to something from "indie cinema." It may be time to perhaps show if contemporary indie cinema is truly independent. -paraphrased)

I want to believe that independent cinema means that anyone can make a film, regardless of who they are. I want to believe that it means you can make a film about whatever you want. And I want to believe that it means it can easily reach people who want to watch films. People like me. Independent cinema is freedom, and that in my opinion is the only thing that can be attached to it. There are no labels you can attach as to its theme or what it should or should not depict. That's pretentious.

But like freedom in general, no one is truly free. But I'd like to think that art should be free. Fuck me, right?

Any kind of "superiority" gleaned by a film just because it tackles subjects from a particular societal viewpoint is imaginary. As long as a film can convey its basic themes and emotions, it's valid. Everyone can love, cry, grieve, or hate. Hell, we loved ET and WALL-E, and those things weren't even human.

Besides, this is Cinemalaya, not "Shet Ang Hirap Hirap Ko The Film Festival."

I made this in five minutes using paint. Don't judge me. FUCK YOU GUYS.

In closing, I'd like to end with this piece by Patricia Evangelista. I may not agree with all of it, but her point is, films are films. In the end, regardless of how they are made, we can choose to enjoy them or not. Sometimes I may want to think about my place in life, or my status as a member of society. Or sometimes I just want to watch a movie about an insane dude fapping to Yua Aida on a deserted island.

I'd fap to Yua Aida too, to be perfectly honest.

I'm still going to be watching films after I post this, until I can't. Bite me.

See you guys next year!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Hands on a Hard Body

no, it's not porn.

I recently watched this very fascinating documentary about a contest where 24 people compete to win a truck. Of course, this isn't as simple as you think. The rules are: they have to have at least one hand on the truck, never lean on it, never sleep, wear gloves at all times, and have regular breaks and mandatory drug tests.

As the film goes on, the film then becomes a slice of the American Dream. For every Texan, one person says, the truck is kinda rooted in their blood or something. It's like a horse to the figurative cowboy. We then see the motivations behind some of the contestants and why they want that ultimate prize.

As the hours tick on and sleep deprivation sets in, a lot of people are disoriented, behave strangely, or convulse in uncontrollable laughter. But each one of the contestants wants that truck. Whether it's fueled by materialism or something else, we are left to decide for ourselves.

The film looks like an old home video (it was shot in Hi-8 and converted to 16mm) but it's the people and the story that matters. By the last third, you don't really care about the video quality anymore. The story itself pulls you in deep.

Robert Altman was reportedly making a movie version of this, and a broadway version (!) has already been shown. One can only wonder how that turned out.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The (Live) Power of Rock and Roll

Beck was a great manga/anime series, so much so that I decided to write about it. When I heard that they were going to reimagine the series as a live action film, I was quite the excited moviegoer. Was it as good as advertised? Yes, actually.

For those not in the know, Beck is the story of a normal boy, Yukio "Koyuki" Tanaka, who by chance gets involved in a rock band, discovering himself and life and love in the process. Add in a legendary guitar, murderous music producers and all kinds of ridiculous but entertaining elements and you have this anime.

The movie adaptation loses a lot of elements from both the anime and manga, and that's not really surprising given the movie's limited running time. They do keep a lot of the basic stuff, such as the whole Lucille thing, the days Koyuki spends in school (although there is no Beatles awesomeness) and the whole crazy rock festival at the end. There is one element I'd like to discuss about the movie, however.

In the manga, Yukio is said to have an amazing singing voice. The anime depicts this by using an actual rock singer sing the songs in Beck in sometimes ridiculous Engrish. The movie however takes this to a different extreme: it does not feature Yukio singing AT ALL. Instead we see reaction shots of people mesmerized by his mindblowing singing. I'm not gonna lie, I don't like that decision one bit. I guess it's cheaper than recording a song and hiring a decent guy to sing a song.

Ray and Maho are portrayed by Hiro Mizushima and Shiori Kutsuna respectively; both are surprisingly fluent English speakers, but there's a bit of a problem. While Mizushima speaks mostly unaccented English (he learned the language as a child in an international school in Europe) Shiori Kutsuna grew up in Australia and has an obvious Aussie accent. To non-English speakers this is fine, but to someone like me... (._.)

It's an OK movie, but it's nothing I'd really recommend unless you are a fan of the series. In fact, see the anime and the manga (which has recently finished!) instead.