Monday, April 24, 2006

Predictably Stupid

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code. I may or may not watch its film adaptation when it comes out in a few weeks. For reasons I cannot entirely explain, I am not all that keen on catching it in theaters. In fact, my interest in watching it is minimal, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard notwithstanding.

That said, I find myself gagging over the idiots who are calling for the movie to be banned from exhibition in the Philippines. Apparently, people in this country are getting stupider by the day.

The rest of the world is shaking its head at the narrowmindedness of several members of the Islamic community that has reacted quite violently to the publication of several Danish cartoons defamatory of the prophet Muhammad. A lot of Christians like to think that they are above such tantrums, simply because they aren't protesting in the streets or burning flags. I'd like to think that's true as well, but the gaggle of fools, including priests, no less demanding that the MTRCB bar The Da Vinci Code from exhibition even before they've previewed it make me think twice about having such confidence.

For all of these people I have four words, one of which is actually a contraction: IT'S. JUST. A. MOVIE.

By calling for the suppression of this work of FICTION, these people who fancy themselves defenders of the faith will effectively be doing Christianity, as well as the faithful, a huge disservice. It's tantamount to their saying that this supposed affront to the Christian faith (and all its various denominations) should not be shown, lest it pollute the minds of those that watch it. It's the same argument against pornography, basically.

The problem is that when the subject matter of a film is religion, specifically an "alternative viewpoint," to suppress a film creates the distinct impression that one is afraid of it and its effects. Do these people really think so little of the Catholic faithful that they are certain they can be swayed by a mere movie? One adapted by a hack like Akiva Goldsman?

I'm just glad a lot of very responsible Christian leaders, including members of the Opus Dei, who take the biggest hits from the movie, are calling for sobriety and saying that if the movie should spark anything, it should be discussion and not attempts towards suppression.

Still, it really, really doesn't speak well of all the idiots in this country and in the others that have yelled and screamed for the suppression of this film. They seem to learn nothing from history and its lessons on suppressing the freedom of expression.

Let the movie and its controversy ride its course, I say. Intelligent, informed discussion is more likely to kill all the so-called issues raised in this movie more effectively than strident calls to have it banned. Come on, people, let's show the world that Christians deal with challenges to their faith intelligently.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dated Movies (not Date Movies)

There is something truly comical about watching movies that are supposed to be set in particular times and places far removed from the years in which they were actually made and spotting various cultural landmarks which inevitably tie them to such years. This happened a lot in Hollywood's earlier days, obviously, right up until late last century, but this was largely due to issues of technology. These days, such movies still pop up on the grid periodically, but this comes down to just bad storytelling. Of course, contemporary films don't really count, seeing as how the filmmaker has no choice but to adopt conventions of the time to tell a believable story.

There are some movies that absolutely scream "I was made in 1985!" even though they may actually be set in the 1930s. As odd a choice as it may seem "Star Wars, Episode IV" or the very first Star Wars movie is actually a pretty good example of a movie that feels dated. Issues of technology aside, the film is permanently marked by its actors' shaggy hairdos and Mark Hammill's "gee-whiz" line delivery. The funny part is that no matter how many times Lucas intercalates new digital features every few years the movie still feels stuck in the seventies, and everything else just feels like add-ons. James Cameron's Titanic is similarly quagmired due to Leonardo DiCaprio's unmistakably 90s long-bangs haircut, as well as some really bad dialogue.

Another thing that tends to date movies which would otherwise seem ageless is the music with which the film is scored. Titanic tops the list of such films with all of the synthesized undertones and Enya-like, new-age vocalizing with which composer James Horner saturated his music. The Passion of the Christ, for all of Mel Gibson's directorial prowess, may one day feel dated because of John Debney's use of some fairly contemporary instruments as accompaniment to the traditional orchestra and choir. For the record, I like and own both soundtracks, but they just don't strike me as timeless.

Probably the most glaring example of a movie that will, in a couple of years, sound really anachronistic is the first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia. Howard Shore achieved timelessness (at least to my mind) with his sweeping orchestra and majestic choral and solo vocalists when he did the Lord of the Rings films, so I don't really understand why Narnia composer Harry Gregson-Williams felt he had to go contemporary and take the viewer out of the story, which, when it wasn't set in Narnia was set in 1940s England. (Of course, it's not like the film didn't have other problems).

It's silly to suppose that anyone can make a truly timeless piece. Some people have come fairly close over the last few years, like Spielberg with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan and Peter Jackson with the aforementioned Rings films, but the thing about such cultural markers is that they tend to spoil a viewing experience and, as I said earlier, take a reader out of a story. There are a number of films that, while not necessarily timeless, don't really feel dated, and maybe I'll make a list of them next time.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Whatever Happened to GMA Films

I am not a regular patron of Filipino films. I do not say this with either pride or shame, but only as a statement of fact. I would like to think, however, that the few films I have seen (at least dating back to late adolescence onward) are of a reasonable level of quality.

Back in the late 90s to the year 2000, there was one studio that produced movies which I religiously followed, three years in a row: GMA Films. I unfortunately missed the acclaimed Sa Pusod ng Dagat, but I caught Marilou Diaz-Abaya's next two movies, Jose Rizal and Muro Ami almost as soon as they came out. The next year, I watched Joel Lamangan's Death Row. While neither Lamangan's direction nor his visual sense was anywhere near as refined as Diaz-Abaya's, the commitment to quality storytelling was still there, albeit diminished.

And then...nothing. In 2001, Diaz-Abaya moved to rival Star Cinema, where she made Bagong Buwan for them (a film I have unfortunately yet to see) and Noon at Ngayon (a film which, I unfortunately, did see). Not only did GMA Films lose their star player, but apparently they also left the game altogether.

A few years later, GMA Films broke their silence with...teeny-bopper love stories? Starring Richard Gutierrez, a guy who only has about two facial expressions in his entire acting repertoire, the pout and the smile? What the hell is going on here?

All right, I understand that the Filipino movie industry is in somewhat dire straits right now. I understand filmmakers are adopting a number of strategies to keep it afloat, ranging from adopting digital technology to save on shooting costs to sticking to relatively safe storytelling formulas, such as casting young and popular stars in romantic films.

To this argument, I have this to say in response: people responded to those early offerings of GMA films, particularly, the movies of Diaz-Abaya. Rizal reportedly grossed over a hundred million pesos back in 1998, which was quite a feat for a local film. Granted, a lot of that came from students who were required by their high school and grade school teachers to watch the film, but I for one watched it without need of any such compulsion, and I'm certain a lot of other people did as well. As if to prove a point, the following year's Muro-Ami, while not quite the moneymaker, reportedly raked in about seventy-four percent of Rizal's box-office take. These films somehow tapped into the public's need for quality Philippine cinema, and didn't even need the backing of Imelda Marcos (like many of the experimental flicks in the 1980s). Why they vanished like thieves in the night, instead of inspiring a whole new wave of great Filipino movies, I really cannot imagine.

Lately, the film outfit Unitel seems to be following GMA Films' lead by producing films that go against the grain, but have not had any breakout success thus far. It's truly frustrating.

I challenge GMA: rediscover that vibe, that commitment to greatness that made you the undisputed cinematic kings of 1998 and 1999. Filipino moviegoers everywhere deserve it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

CG Cartoon Glut

Last week, I watched Ice Age 2 with my son and my half-brother. I definitely felt that the movie suffered from "sequelitis," which is the natural tendency of a sequel to be less of a movie than the original. Still, I liked it. Ninety minutes later, however, I left the movie theater feeling a little perturbed, and not because of the movie I had just watched.

Before the movie even began, I saw, or should I say, was subjected to trailers for FIVE computer-generated imagery (CGI) cartoons. In no particular order, they were Cars, The Wild, Happy Feet, The Ant Bully and Open Season. I'm just glad I was spared having to watch the trailer for Over the Hedge, Dreamworks' Animation's latest offering, for the nth time.

Competition is usually a good thing, especially in a creative environment, where lack of any real rivals tends to result in stagnation.

Walt Disney's animation studio was a good example. Back when Disney had a monopoly on quality animated feature-length films (in the days of the hand-drawn cartoon), the company churned out several decades' worth of classics, up until the dawn of the new millenium, when they seemed to lose their touch, around which time their partner Pixar started producing the next wave of animated classics under the Mickey Mouse banner. Disney's last hand-drawn hit, 2002's Lilo and Stitch, played a lot more like an extended Saturday morning cartoon than gems like Aladdin or even Tarzan.

In the days of the hand-drawn cartoon, particularly its renaissance in the 90s, a lot of studios tried to ape the success of Beauty and the Beast by churning out cheaper, shoddier cartoons like Ferngully, The Magic Sword, and similar excrement. The good news is that these turkeys faded quickly into the night, and were few and far between. The bad news is that Disney, with no real competition in sight, ended up producing crappy movies.

But with the dawn of Pixar, it seemed that the decline of Disney's hand-drawn fortunes didn't matter as they seemed to have a new way to monopolize the success of the cartoon feature: make CGI movies!

Sadly for them, this didn't happen as more than one studio was able to offer some pretty stiff competition. In 2001, Dreamworks' Shrek thrashed Pixar's Monsters, Inc., both in terms of box-office and awards, going on to win the first ever Academy Award for an animated feature. In 2002, 20th Century Fox and their partner, Blue Sky studios, came up with the first Ice Age movie, which was the biggest animated film of 2002 in terms of box-office grosses. Granted, Disney/Pixar still came up with rock-solid flicks like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but it was clear they were not the rulers of the roost, especially considering that Shrek 2 was the top-grossing film of 2004, outgrossing The Incredibles by nearly $200 million. The myth of Disney's invincibility was shattered. The field was now open, and one would think that with such thriving competition, the players would strive to do their best.

The problem, however, was that suddenly, every idiot with a PC and the appropriate software suddenly believed he could come up with a CGI blockbuster, with no real regard to quality control. While the Shrek movies have been a blast, everything that the Dreamworks Animation studios have produced since (which, incidentally, does not include Wallace and Gromit, which they only distributed) has been quite puerile. Last year's Madagascar was shite, as was A Shark Tale the year before. The idiots seem to think that by stuffing a movie with superstar comedians and peppering their scripts with pop-culture references they automatically have on their hands works of art. Unfortunately, their formula has translated into box-office success.

Even a Pixar-less Disney took a shot at the CGI genre with last year's Chicken Little, which is easily the worst CGI film I have ever seen, and probably one of the worst movies I've ever seen as well. With its cardboard characterizations and its thoroughly irritating soundtrack the movie wasn't even up to par with most Saturday morning cartoons. While they managed a hit, its success was nowhere near that of their Pixar stuff, which should tell them something. Happily, their latest effort without Pixar, a Madagascar ripoff entitled The Wild, looks like it's stalling right out of the gate. At least that looks like it'll be nipped in the bud.

Joining the fray are Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures, which appear to be hastily shoving together animation divisions. WB is producing TWO movies, Happy Feet and The Ant Bully, and while the former shows off some spectacular camerawork and slick animation technique, they both seem pretty flaccid scriptwise, at least if the jokes cracked in their trailers are any indication. Sony Pictures' Open Season just looks putrid, from the amateurish way the digital characters are rendered to the lines they spew out. They should just stick to making Spider-Man movies.

What made hits like the Pixar movies, the Shrek films, and even the first Ice Age movie extra special cinematic outings were, at the very heart, well-crafted scripts with thoroughly fleshed out characters and truly clever jokes. As much as I loved the animation of The Incredibles, it's the lines I find myself going back to again and again. The studios out to ape their success should also take this important fact into consideration: most of these films take two to three years to make, and are as much labors of love as they are commercial enterprises. The latest software and camerawork do not an animated classic make. Robert Zemeckis has the right idea, even though 2004's Polar Express was not terribly well-written; his latest CGI/performance capture opus, Beowulf, is currently in gestation and won't hit cinemas till late 2007 or mid-2008. AND it will feature a script by acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman. THAT'S the kind of quality these people should aspire to invest in their features.

I make an impassioned plea to the general public. Don't take your kids to see animated movies just because they're CGI or because they have some McDonald's tie-in. I, for one, refuse to take my kid to see The Wild, which will be out soon. I'm similarly hesitant about every other movie except for Pixar's Cars. As the paying public, only we can get across to these creeps in their business suits that the only movies we want our kids to see are the GREAT ones.