Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Attack on Titan 2: End of the World

At the end of the first Attack on Titan I wondered how they would resolve all of the hanging plot threads. Any qualms about it being a faithful adaptation were more or less non existent as this point, as I expected the movie to be almost completely original.

Well, I got my answer when I watched the movie last Wednesday. Did End of the World solve all of the hanging plot threads? Nope.

The movie very loosely adapts (and this is an understatement) the second half of the Battle of Trost from the anime and manga. Eren is now under custody after the events of the first film. The gaping hole in the Wall form the first part is still there, and our protagonists have to seal it up.

After a few moments that are supposed to be suspenseful but end up dragging, our heroes find themselves on the road to do exactly that. The film then goes into a little bit of character development, especially with Mikasa and Eren, but apart from a few very short flashbacks we get nothing from the others. Shikishima and Jean both remain jerks, Axe Guy (whose name, as I came to learn, is Sannagi) gets a few nice moments but still gets reduced screen time, Sasha no longer eats potatoes but is inexplicably romantically linked to Armin, and Armin... does smarty pants stuff.

The first thirty or so minutes is just a setup for the meat of the whole two part series, and that is an extended series of fight scenes as Eren tries to seal the wall and they face not one but two new titan adversaries who are just the same as he is. And like other multiple part series whose final part is mostly climax (like what happened to The Hobbit), this film feels like it could be a part of the previous film had it been paced better. In this case, most of End of the World is an extended climax and almost nothing else.

Those attracted by the horror feel of the first movie will likely be disappointed as there aren't any scenes of carnage like what happened in the first film, and the normal creepy titans barely make any appearances. The film does a few interesting things, such as the very B-movie-esque sequence detailing the origin of the titans, and the action sequence at the end is impressive. But all in all the film fails to tie everything together.

While End of the World concludes the immediate story arc, it leaves open the possibility of a continuation since it leaves a lot of things unresolved, and the end credits scene shows a Maze Runner - like notion that our protagonists (and antagonists) are players in a bigger story. But looking at these two installments, I don't really see a reason to watch the continuation. I'm sticking with the anime and manga instead.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A look back at Heneral Luna

(the first of two parts)

It's a bit early to start looking back, I know. But the curious phenomenon that is Heneral Luna is fascinating to me. In this internet age, and with our cinematic culture as it is, what happened to this film is nothing short of a miracle.

A lot of discussion has sprung up about the film with film writers, film enthusiasts, and regular moviegoers weighing in on their experience. Their opinions are varied and interesting.

So in this two part series, let's take a look at various things about the film and what it did to the moviegoing public. First, let's talk about some things I noticed after seeing the film a couple more times. In this case I will leave discussions about the film's aesthetics and its texture to more experienced writers than myself, and talk about the movie's themes and significance.

The Historical Luna and the Cinematic Luna

I think the movie made it clear, having put disclaimers on twice (one at the very beginning of the movie, and one during the end credits) that this is a work of fiction based on historical fact. Like the fictional character of Ysabel is composited from various women in Luna's life, the cinematic Luna comes from letters and accounts from the historical Luna and others. The movie has been dramatized in some parts to serve its narrative and its central thesis, which will inevitably cause some history purists to balk at the idea. This movie is not a history lesson, it's a fable of sorts that helps us examine our own situation as a country and as a people (more on that later.)

We have a knack of trying to emulate historical figures that we try to glorify through films and other media. What makes this film so appealing is its notion that they are not perfect, and that we should learn from their mistakes instead of repeating them. If I were to take something to admire from either the cinematic or the historical Luna, it wouldn't be his temper or his brashness, but his love for country. There is no reason for me or anyone else to emulate Luna's negative traits and go around randomly shouting at people and threatening to kill them to solve problems. It's ridiculous.

Difficulties of Waging War

One of the stranger criticisms leveled at the film is at Luna's character in the film. There is a sense from these criticisms that this is another case of a class struggle, that is, between an elite (an Illustrado or a well off citizen like Luna) and the lower classes (the soldiers, the civilians, and so on.) The ruler and his subjects. Authoritarianism. An empire of our own design. I see it as over-reading a very simple message.

Let us not forget that Luna was waging a war against the Americans, who were better disciplined, better trained, and much larger in number than our own revolutionary army. If ANY member of the Kawit brigade in the film did in the present day armed forces what they did to Luna back then (meaning: desertion, lack of discipline and insubordination,) a court martial would be the very least of their worries. Luna wasn't made the commander in chief of the army because he was rich; he was made commander in chief of the army because Aguinaldo wanted men with military experience, and Luna had it.

Luna both in the movie and in history wanted to have a capably trained, well disciplined army but egos inflated by victories in the Philippine-Spanish war and their own regional loyalties kept in the way. Sequestering a train to bring troops - necessary for quick troop movements - was done in the service of waging the war. Luna did not drive the soldier's relatives out of the train to spite them. He did it because he needed the train to transport troops, where the troops would not be tired from walking or riding on horseback to the site of the battle, to prevent catching diseases from some of the civilians (some of the relatives reportedly had smallpox), and to entrench themselves in their positions before the Americans had time to ambush them.

And yet, as the 'coffin' scene in Guagua shows, Luna was not immune to being influenced by his own temper. In this case, while he battles foes from outside and within his own country, he battles with himself as well - and such a battle is exhausting for any man. In giving way to his temper, he made a costly mistake that led to the Philippine forces retreating. His temper also led him to practice his shooting with a poor civilian's chicken (who to be fair, he had no intention of killing.) This only gave conspirators against him fuel to stoke the fires of a possible coup.

Luna was a disciplinarian, a sort of leader that anyone with military training has encountered in their lives. He wasn't running a sari-sari store or teaching in a university where you could quit or drop the class any time you wanted. And any man or woman who has undergone training from such a man know that when you are given orders by a superior officer to do something in the service of the country, you better damn well follow.

A Multifaceted Aguinaldo

Many are quick to rush to the conclusion that Aguinaldo was an evil mastermind who plotted Luna's assassination. But I think Aguinaldo is NOT the villain of this film. I think that he's not actually a villain at all. Whether he was responsible for the assassination or not, in the film he was clearly haunted by what happened, repeating his praise for the General over and over like a mantra: si Luna ang aking pinaka-mahusay na heneral. Mon Confiado brings these conflicted emotions out in his performance of the revolutionary leader.

I'm inclined to believe given the subjects of the next planned installments of the trilogy that 1) Aguinaldo's arc in this cinematic universe is not yet finished and that 2) the completion of his arc will probably paint him as someone not unlike Luna, a man whose heart is in the right place, but was swept along the waves of history. To misjudge him is like misjudging TJ Trinidad's character in Sana Dati - there is clearly more to him than what we see superficially.

History and A Sense of Country

History is a strange thing. It is, for lack of a better word, a story. We often see history as truth, but history is often told via historians, eyewitness accounts, notes, and so on. In the process, the story is often distorted by the storyteller - even the most objective historian will end up inserting their biases into their work; rarely do two eyewitnesses tell the same story, and notes can withhold intentions, thought processes, and deception.

That's why I'm happy that people are actually asking questions about the film and about its historical basis, even if the questions are as inane as 'why doesn't Mabini stand up during the film.' People are turning back and reading their history books, and they are starting to read these books critically, and not taking the facts given to them at face value. My daily conversations with friends, family and in social media has started to fill up with discussions and posts about Philippine history, and perhaps for that alone, this film has triumphed.

Back in my review of the film I quoted that the aim of historical films is to help us look at the past through the cinematic lens, with film helping us self-examine through its narrative. Heneral Luna, if anything, helps us look not only at our past, but also our present and future, and that's part of where the magic comes from.

And finally, even the film's sense of nationality has been criticized. Too much patriotism is indeed dangerous - look at the pasts of Germany and Japan for example - but there is nothing wrong in believing in a spirit of solidarity with our people. Without it, there would not be a Philippines, only a bunch of islands with a collective name. The film does not tell us to abandon our uniqueness; instead, it exhorts us to look beyond that and to use our unique talents to serve something that is greater than ourselves, or family, or culture.

We as Filipinos are still trying to find our national identity. Personally I think we haven't found it yet. But realizations stemming from films like these are baby steps towards the achievement of one Philippines, one that is not bound by regional territories or labels.

In the next part of this piece, let's talk about the unusual phenomenon that led to this film packing cinemas, and the positive critical and audience reception that led to us submitting the film for the best foreign film Oscar.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Resureksyon



Mara (Isabelle Daza) and Aila (Jasmine Curtis) are sisters who are very close. Their parents died when they were children and they have no one else to turn to but each other. To be able to support her sister and her sickly son, Miggs, Mara decides to become an OFW. This turns out to be a bad choice as she turns up dead after some time. Her body is brought home but, during the wake, she miraculously comes back from the dead.

The first 15 or so minutes of horror movie Resureksyon seems like it's going for a slow paced, atmospheric thriller. It quickly abandons this for most of the rest of the film, going for a weird patchwork of ideas in the style of a Shake Rattle and Roll episode - and not the good kind, either.

NOTE: SPOILERS.

The main fault of the movie seems to be its awkward script as the balance of funny moments and serious moments is so way off that it's hard to take the movie seriously. The script also suffers from numerous plot holes: the antagonist comes back to life at a very conspicuous event and no one is the least bit suspicious about it. This is despite the fact that the character has been dead for at least a few weeks, having been transported to her home in a coffin. Despite ominous warnings written on top of the coffin Aila fails to connect the two and takes care of her sister despite this extremely weird series of events and ignores the fact that her sister does not speak, has ashen skin and is catatonic. Mara's motivations defy logic as she apparently does what she does, including creating more vampire followers, to cure her son by making him an undead vampire. Killing someone to cure them, that's logical, right?

The situation seems contained to a small segment of the town, as Mara manages to infect only a few police officers, and four family members, but Aila later makes an announcement to the whole town, implying that Mara has been wreaking havoc all over town. There are no scenes of Mara taking victims in the town before this. All you get is an implication since her victims seem to increase towards the end of the movie. It's as if none of the characters have any grasp of reality, and by extension, the script as well.

Resureksyon's vampires are an unconventional cross between Vampires and Zombies, as many seem to walk around mindlessly, attracted to potential victims. The Vampire curse is spread via bites (killing the victim is sort of implied, but applying this to the victims makes it a bit inconsistent - i.e. the doctor.) The origin of the vampires is a bit convoluted as well, involving being bit by a family of Serbian (or European in any case) vampires who live in Myanmar (wtf?)

I'm not a fan of the editing choices as well - most of the vampire attacks are rendered either in a stuttery slow motion style or through shaky handheld shots - so much so that it's hard to make out what is happening. The worst display of this is in the hospital scenes, where everything is bathed in red light and is even harder to see than normal.

The actors are capable, but the script does them no favors. This is kind of disappointing based on the acting talent this movie has within it. Ultimately, Resureksyon had an interesting premise, but in this case I think they kinda blew it. Fans of any kind of serious horror will probably be disappointed or turned off. Fans of the actors/actresses involved should have no problem watching, though.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Silong

The closing film for this year's Cinemalaya was Silong, directed by musician and actor Jeffrey Hidalgo. Although I didn't catch the film in its initial run, I vowed to catch in during its commercial run.

Silong (lit. 'shelter') takes on different meanings as the movie goes on. At first, it seems to refer to the shelter both main characters find in each other's loneliness: Miguel, a doctor who is still reeling from the death of his wife, finds a bloodied woman on a country road. They seem to bond as the woman, Valerie, begins to acclimate herself in Miguel's home.

Of course, nothing is so simple. There is a pervading sense that something is ever so slightly off and the film is generous in giving small clues here and there. It is when these clues come to fruition where "silong" takes a darker meaning.

the film's deliberate pace may be a turn off to some; personally its in finding these little clues that brought me the most satisfaction. The two leads turn in decent performances; Piolo is restrained but no so much as to be morose; Rhian Ramos starts strong as well, although her later performance can be polarizing (I didn't mind it except for that rap scene, and no I didn't misspell 'rap.')

Silong thrives in its atmosphere, and your appreciation of the film will depend on how much you will invest yourself in it, and in its characters. If anything, it's a sign that Filipino filmmakers are capable of making a wide variety of films such as this psychological thriller. With this film, a historical film like Heneral Luna and a social drama like Taklub (which also has a commercial run starting this week,) this has been one of the most varied months in Philippine cinema in terms of output in recent memory.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ex With Benefits

In the closing moments of Ex With Benefits, our protagonist talks about pain and how pain is not something to be avoided, but to be confronted. Pain tells us that we are injured; pain helps us heal. That may be the only relevant thing anyone says in the film, as this movie was a bit painful to watch.

The "Ex" in Ex With Benefits refers to the couple of Adam (Derek Ramsay) and Arki (Colleen Garcia), two med students who break up due to a misunderstanding and a gross lack of communication. They meet up ten years later, with Adam turning into a hotshot sports doctor and Colleen turning into a Med Rep.

Therein lies one of Ex With Benefits' largest flaws: it is predicated on a huge conflict of interest, as Colleen tries to gain favor with her product by sleeping around. She unceremoniously tries this on Adam, with varying results. The film has an opportunity to break the genre and present this as an unconventional relationship, but the movie plays it straight rom-com, which makes the whole thing feel disturbing. (Even more disturbing is that the audience didn't care about the situation at all; at this point I thought someone could probably make a rom com about serial philanderers who eat babies and the audience will pretty much lap it up as long as it stars the right people.) The movie even ends with a transition from one ethical breach (doctor and med rep) to another ethical breach (teacher and student) and treats it as a happy end.

Aside from this, Ex With Benefits has no shortage of unlikable characters, a trend I've noticed ever since The Animals. Of the main characters, the most sympathetic is Adam, whose faults we can mostly attribute to honest misunderstandings. Arki's character is chaotic and I don't understand most of her decisions. Most of her early problems could easily be solved by a few honest conversations. I've found it really hard to empathize with even a single character from either The Animals, #Y or this film. I don't blame Santos for this, as he makes otherwise technically proficient films. If anything, it's the screenwriter who wrote for all three films that I'd point to as the cause.

There was an issue raised among Med Reps who call the film an insult to their profession, as on the surface the two Med Rep characters sleep around to sell their product. In defense of the film, this is not the case at all, as a scene in the end categorically depicts this practice as wrong. If anything, it throws shade at the doctors who don't get a similar scene, and none of the doctors in the film are penalized for the unethical things they do in the film.

I'm not insulted, though. As a doctor, personally, I have heard of a bunch of doctors that are for all intents and purposes as corrupt and amoral as the ones depicted here. I'm personally more miffed at the family of one of the other characters, Scarlet, who bandy around the phrase "saving lives" as some sort of mantra, but actually come off as insufferable and arrogant pricks who use these noble principles as a pissing contest.

In terms of medical facts the film gets a lot of things right, and some things wrong (how can either Etoricoxib and Mefenamic Acid be called "100% Herbal?" What?) Technically the film is proficient enough, and both leads are decent actors and have good chemistry when they are together, but with this script, you can only do so much.

As the film ended I couldn't help but wonder if this was deliberate, that we are supposed to hate these people and the movie is actually a subversion of the romantic comedy genre that I thought was having a creative resurgence in recent months. In that respect, this film is genius. Then again, I may be giving these people too much credit.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Boruto: Naruto for a New Generation

It's been less than a year since the Naruto manga finished, yet material from the franchise is still coming out on a regular basis. There was The Last: Naruto the Movie which came out last year in Japan, various manga one shots and a ten chapter miniseries, a series of light novels and the glacially paced anime, who has rewarded its loyal viewers with EVEN MORE FILLER. Naruto is a cash cow, and the people behind the series look to milk this cow for all its worth.

The recent miniseries, Naruto Gaiden, gave us a look at the next generation of characters in the Naruto universe. The culmination of all the next generation stories is the latest Naruto movie, simply entitled Boruto: Naruto the Movie. Long story short, I believe this is the best out of all the Naruto movies, simply because it tries not to be a Naruto movie.

Boruto is the son of the ninja we all know (and probably love), Naruto Uzumaki. Time has passed after the events of the end of the Naruto manga, and the ninja world is united and relatively at peace. While Naruto may be the strongest ninja alive at the time of the story, he is more or less an absentee father. Boruto resents him for this, and this has obviously created a rift between father and son.

And that's what makes this movie really shine, in my opinion. One of the biggest reasons I consider  Naruto: Road to Ninja (2012) to be one of the best Naruto movies is because it was more a character study of Naruto and less of a generic shonen actioner like all the other previous Naruto movies. Here, Naruto mangaka Masashi Kishimoto and company take it a step further. Boruto is a family drama about a father and son who have trouble connecting. They really can't help it sometimes, either: Naruto didn't have the luxury of having parents as a child, and understandably has trouble being one. Boruto is hungry for his father's attention, but doesn't know how to express it. He craves it so much that any kind of attention - even a scolding - would mean something to him.

It's only when the two understand each other's situation that they resolve their familial problems. Aside from this, there is also the film's aesop, which deals with what it means to be strong. Naruto the manga has always emphasized the value of hard work- that is, hard work can beat talent if one tries hard enough - Naruto himself is the epitome of that. In the movie, Boruto is tempted with using shortcuts in the form of a ninja tool that can cast jutsu without the need for chakra. On the other hand, his training with Sasuke and his team leader Konohamaru to master one single jutsu is hard and laborious. Again, it works well within the story.

This movie would have been perfect, but a few things drag it down. Firstly, there is a lack of exposition for the non-fans, which limits its audience. It's highly recommended that one reads both the last arc of the manga and the Naruto Gaiden miniseries to better understand what's going on. The novelization of the movie (currently being given a fan translation) reveals a lot of exposition left out of the film, especially with regards to its two antagonists. Without the benefit of the light novels, the antagonists' backstories and motivations are never fully explored.

That's one of the movie's major flaws - its antagonists. They feel contrived and shoehorned into the plot, serving as plot points to facilitate a shonen manga-esque climax, much like the previous Naruto movies. I honestly think the movie didn't need to, as the movie was doing just fine by itself. The climactic fight scene is gorgeously animated, however, and I haven't seen this quality of animation in any animated iteration of Naruto since Part 1 of the anime.

Boruto is very much a baton pass from the old generation to the new, and it's best seen in one particularly moving scene in the film as Boruto himself dons his father's old costume and something else from Sasuke.  The main manga may have ended, but the Naruto franchise still has a lot of stories to tell. I see this movie as a story in the right direction. I just hope that Kishimoto and the anime directors realize that you don't really need to follow formula to make a movie work.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Heneral Luna

I've often overlooked Antonio Luna when I studied history during my childhood. Compared to his much more popular brother Juan and other historical figures from our past, he tends to get lost in the noise.

Often I find myself disappointed with Filipino historical films; sometimes they serve as a glorification of their subject matter, with their stars trying hard to equate their machismo with the said figure's heroism. We often treat these figures with reverence; real life superheroes from our own past. (Raymond Red's 1993 film Sakay, for me, remains an exception). However, Jerrold Tarog's latest film, Heneral Luna, manages to avoid that, and it is a film that ends up shedding light on the life of this remarkable man. It also asks us the hard questions about our country right now and our responsibilities as its citizens.

Heneral Luna takes us into the middle of the Filipino-American War, fresh from our liberation from centuries of Spanish occupation. General Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) tries to manage the conflict, but two wildly differing sides are clashing; one side prefers compromise with the Americans; while the other, led by Luna (John Arcilla) wants to keep fighting the technologically superior American forces via guerrilla tactics and a planned fortified stronghold to the north.

While much of the war is fought in the trenches, another, equally important war is waged inside meeting rooms and safehouses as the leaders of the revolutionary government make crucial decisions regarding their stance on the war.

Arcilla does not glamorize his role nor portray Luna as some sort of saint; while history sees him as a consummate soldier, a tactical genius, an accomplished writer and scientist, considered as the Philippines' best and only true general, history also sees him as an irascible, at times belligerent man whose inflexible style was not a match for his army. In a career defining role, Arcilla paints the picture of a multifaceted man whose fierce patriotism is a flaming heart in the right place. In contrast, the revolutionary army, which is, for all intents and purposes a militia group of untrained, undisciplined men and women, balk at his command style, still tied to clan or regional loyalties and their own egos. 

As expected from someone with an impressive body of work, the technical aspects of the film are sound. Excellent camerawork and an engaging soundtrack work. Heneral Luna is peppered with haunting images of reminiscence and bloodshed: an expertly done flashback sequence done in one take reflects a stream of consciousness, while other scenes of brutality shock and imprint themselves, notably one scene obviously paying visual tribute to Juan Luna's most famous work, the Spoliarium. While Arcilla carries the film on his shoulders, it is balanced by effective performances from the rest of the cast, many of them veterans from Tarog's previous films. Special mentions go out to Mon Confiado's controlled take on Aguinaldo, Joem Bascon and Archie Alemania as Luna's subordinates, and Epi Quizon as Apolinario Mabini. And thankfully the movie is not relentessly bleak; the movie has some light moments to balance out scenes depicting the brutality of war and its human toll.

In historian Robert Rosenstone's piece The Historical Film as Real History, he writes:

"Our sense of the past is shaped and limited by the possibilities and practices of the medium in which that past is conveyed, be it the printed page, the spoken word, the painting, the photograph, the moving image. Which means that whatever historical understanding the mainstream film can provide will be shaped and limited by the conventions of the closed story, the notion of progress, the emphasis on individuals, the single interpretation, the heightening of emotional states, the focus on surfaces."

It is also important for us to realize how historical films (and media) shape our own understanding of the past. My views on our Filipino heroes rarely wavered in my childhood; it was only through a  deeper understanding and investigation of the facts that I realized the glossy truth we are presented as children is often embellished. Perhaps it is important not to view our national heroes as godmen, as saints, bur rather as mortal men beset with the same follies and flaws as any of us.

In the same piece, Rosenstone notes that many mainstream historical films give us a sense that despite this traumatic and hellish past, things are often better now. Films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) among others, give us a sense that now, things are better, and that the people depicted in these films have fought for something.

Tarog, however, subverts this; as the Revolutionary government falls, it is not just because of the American forces, it is because of our own in-fighting and crab mentality. It is clear that the same problems that plagued Luna and his contemporaries in the past still haunt our society today. Patronage politics (or politicking of any kind), lack of discipline, blind obedience to authority, and an individualistic approach to things are still deeply rooted in our culture. Every time you see the government (or rogue branches thereof) kill its own citizens and members of indigenous tribes, every time you see people blindly follow a random seedy politician or ersatz religious figure like zombies, every time you see us voting the wrong people into office, you know: things haven't gotten better, they've gotten worse.

Heneral Luna asks us a question that Enzo Williams' Bonifacio (2014) asks, though not as effectively: what can you do for your country? And, is whatever you are doing truly for your country or for yourself? It also gives us a mirror with which we view ourselves, and by this self reflection, a call to change ourselves and our society for the better.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Cult Cinema Part 2: Masters and Horror

While documentaries present cults as they are: sometimes terrifying, sometimes not, a good number of fictional films use cults in the context of horror. There is something terrifying to the outsider about the very idea of them - or the idea of being forced to partake in them - that disturbs our notions of individuality. The feeling of otherness which is a staple of horror is multiplied if it's a group instead of one person, especially if that 'other' can be anyone.

That's probably why a lot of horror films use cults as the boogeyman or the antagonist, such as the classic Children of the Corn (1984), or Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977).


Film movements have also used the cult as a plot device. Recently the French New Extremity has the 2008 film Martyrs as an example. Martyrs is not only a brutal and disturbing horror movie, it is also an examination of extreme faith and martyrdom in general, as well as an examination of higher states of consciousness. Its ambiguous ending leaves a lot to speculation, but most importantly it leaves questions on faith to us.

It's about a pair of women who fall victim to a secret society that abducts people, usually young women, and inflict all sorts of bodily torture on them. The first half is conventional horror, but as the second half starts it evolves into something completely different as the remaining captive crosses an invisible line from victim to 'martyr.'

Being from the French New Extremity, it's a difficult watch for the sensitive viewer as it elevates body horror to the maximum. Our hapless protagonists are tortured both physically and psychologically. But the cult perpetrating these actions do so for the sake of achieving something mysterious, perhaps something spiritual without the religious attachments. This comes into the second meaning of the word martyr, that of a witness for whatever state of being these poor souls experience.

***

One of the stranger horror entries that feature cults is the 1973 cult classic (no pun intended) The Wicker Man, starring English television actor Edward Woodward and horror legend Christopher Lee in one of his favorite roles.While it is definitely a horror movie, its presentation of the material is quite unlike anything we've seen.

Based on an English novel entitled Rituals, The Wicker Man is about a police officer (Woodward) who comes to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. His curiosity turns to bewilderment as the townspeople all deny the girl ever existed. During his investigation, he witnesses a number of strange practices that make him all the more certain that the townspeople are hiding something.

The Wicker Man contrasts the beliefs of the townspeople with the policeman's own Christian beliefs. He stubbornly holds on to them; in once scene, he makes his way to the local church, which has been abandoned by the townsfolk. He looks at one of the graves and makes a makeshift cross out of two pieces of wood, placing it on top of the gravestone. His stubbornness is only matched by that of the town leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee) who believes that his rituals are the one and only way to make the island prosperous once again.

It contrasts the mundane activities of the islandfolk, building up the tension between the policeman and the townsfolk, and their later actions, culminating with the climax of the film involving the wicker man pictured above. Since then filmmakers have tried unsuccessfully to replicate the film's effects with a hilariously bad 2005 remake starring Nicholas Cage, and a spiritual sequel, The Wicker Tree (2011), directed by Hardy himself and spouting similar concepts as the original.

The movie joins other, similar movies in a loosely defined genre of horror and native or folk traditions such as 1971's The Blood on Satan's Claw.

***

Auteurs have used the cult either as symbolism or framing device. Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre (1989) is one such surreal experience, with its patron saint being a woman with both arms and legs cut off. Others, like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) make the cult a background device for horrors far more sinister.

One very notable recent work is Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 work The Master, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Phoenix turns in a career-defining performance as Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran whose aimless, violent life intersects with that of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of a cult called the Cause. Dodd takes an interest in the man, and aims to change his life for the better.

The cult in The Master is merely a framing device for our main character's journey. Quell is a savage; a man at his basest, most animalistic, level. He exists in complete contrast to Lancaster Dodd, who fancies himself a man standing above all others. But Dodd isn't the true Master of the cult he has created; his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is the true power behind the man. Together, all three engage in a Freudian battle of Id, Ego and Superego.

Dodd's fascination with Quell may stem from the fact that deep down, both men are pretty much two sides of the same coin. It's just that Dodd yearns for the freedom Quell possesses, a freedom his life can never afford him. On the other hand, Quell shares some similarities to characters from Anderson's previous films. His emotional immaturity,  almost irrational loyalty and dogged determination reminds me of Adam Sandler's character in Punch Drunk Love.

The movie sports masterful cinematography. Although Anderson restrains himself in this movie compared to his other films and uses conventional framing techniques, there are some fantastic shots in the film, including one long uninterrupted shot of Quell boarding Dodd's boat that has to be seen to be believed. Anderson takes advantage of the gorgeous 65mm film format, giving the film an uncharacteristic sharpness, and combines that with a shallow depth of field to let the camera focus on his characters and create a strange dreamy look at the same time. How I wish I could have seen this film in a cinema with the right equipment and projector.

The Master's last frame is ambiguous, a coda to a similar scene in the first few moments of the film. In a way, the Master of Quell's life turns out not to be some cult leader or lost love, but Quell himself. Quell finds himself drawn forward by the currents of time, and to an extent his experience with Dodd's cult has enriched him in a way. But the ending is bittersweet; while he may have improved his life, deep down he is still the same person he was at the beginning of the film, and his dream for stability is just that - a dream. His dream may persist, but they are but fragile sandcastles crumbling by the sea.

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The last installment of this series will be about non-horror takes on the cult, which includes some award winning films, some lesser known obscurities and a few classics. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Cult Cinema Part 1: Documentaries

Cults are tied to our nature as a social animal. In my experience, the most successful cults always have these similar elements to them: they 1) have a charismatic leader that people think is worth following, 2) have a set of rules or doctrines that the cult member thinks is helping them personally and spiritually and 3) have large amounts of peer pressure to prevent dissent. Many are destructive, totally wrecking a person''s finances, well being and health, while a select few are benign. While most cults crash and burn after a while, there are some that prevail and grow strong even to this day.

For the next few posts, let's talk about movies featuring cults or new age movements.

The first few minutes of the documentary The Source Family shows us the face of Jim Baker, a.k.a. Father Yod, a.k.a. Ya Ho Wha, the leader of the Source Family. In some way Baker looks like most western depictions of god (or, maybe a hippie Santa Claus.)

The documentary then takes us on a journey through the Source Family's creation (they evolved from, of all things, a new age food restaurant) their rise and eventual fall. The Family was a movement created by the age it was forged in. It was a period where 'traditional' social norms were quickly being thrown out the window, and social upheavals were becoming the norm. In this period, a lost generation of youth, often estranged from their parents due to a cultural gap, struggled to find the solace of structure, a place to belong. New Age movements like the Source Family were natural refuges for youths like these.

Hours of footage and hundreds of pictures were used to tell this story, all meticulously recorded by one of the Source Family members. We also hear from people closely tied into the movement, especially Baker's first cult wife, Robin (he left at least one previous marriage before starting the Family). Many are still enthralled by Baker's teachings and practice them today, although tellingly many of them no longer wish to recreate those days. An outsider's perspective on the issue is lacking as well, as only a few people give their views on the movement.

What is most fascinating in the docu to me is the evolution of Baker himself. At first a man prone to violence, having allegedly committed at least two murders prior to changing his life, he became a student of various Yogis and spiritual teachers before becoming one himself. This builds up to the creation of his cult persona and delusions of godhood, before realizing at the end, after perhaps being disillusioned at what everything has brought him, of his own humanness and mortality.

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The definition of a cult is often nebulous; one's cult may be another's faith, and to reach the argument's logical extreme, any deviant religion or fanatical movement can be termed a cult. There are a slew of documentaries that tackle religious movements with uncharacteristic (even unhealthy) zeal, such as some evangelical movements in the US. Films like Children of God: Lost and Found (2007; not to be confused with other similarly named titles), Kidnapped for Christ (2014) and Jesus Camp (2006) detail various techniques of indoctrination and brainwashing that start from childhood. 

Often these religious movements take from longstanding religions like Christianity and their creators build upon them, often for their own personal or monetary gain. Few are probably as popular as Reverend Jim Jones, head of the People's Temple of the Disciples of Christ, who infamously committed suicide along with almost a thousand of his followers. Most of these followers drank cyanide laced Flavor Aid juice (often misidentified as Kool-Aid) to kill themselves, giving rise to the popular figure of speech.

The 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, is a look at the cult, its rise and inevitable demise. It's not an easy watch, as the ending shows the aftermath of the mass suicide, taken on video.

Jones' cult and his own personal life is examined through archival footage, interviews with Jones' family and interviews with former People's Temple members. Jones' life wasn't normal by any means, his early family life was tumultuous and he had an odd fascination with religion. He learned the ropes of preaching and began building his base.

What's most chilling to me, other than the footage of the Guyana plantation after the mass suicide - was that Jones' words to his followers made sense. And that's how many of these cults stay effective: they were something people thought they could genuinely believe in. That made the resulting brainwashing of his congregation more effective.

There's also the fact that many of Jones' followers were African-American, because Jones' teachings on racial equality were progressive for the time. There was also a tinge of Socalism in the way he taught things, perhaps a reflection on his own beliefs. But in the end, the man really wanted to rake in as many members (and rake in as much cash) as he can.

Ultimately Jones went off the deep end, losing the support of some of his members in the process (who were then prevented from leaving the cult by pressure or by illegal detention.) His paranoia increased to the point where his self destruction manifested itself-taking the lives of many of his followers with him.

On the next installment of this series, let's talk about live action movies featuring cults or new age movements.