Friday, March 28, 2008

3:10 to Yuma

It's a wonderful thing to begin watching a movie with absolutely no expectations and be pleasantly surprised. That is, to watch a movie and not have a clue about the story, the genre, the critic's reviews, not even a clue as to what the title means. That's how I experienced 3:10 to Yuma, and I was more than just pleasantly surprised.

3:10 to Yuma is good. I mean, like, really good. As in, I was blown away.

As it turns out, the movie's title refers to a train. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) heads to town to clear up issues concerning his land when he witnesses a stagecoach robbery lead by famous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Wade is soon arrested and Evans volunteers on a dangerous mission to escort Wade to the 3:10 to Yuma train in the town of Contention for a $200 reward.

Aside from needing the reward money to save his land, Evans' quest to take Wade to the station also is part of his struggle to be more than a bit of a naive loser in the eyes of his family, especially his brash son William. Towards the beginning of the film Dan tells his son "Someday, William, you walk in my shoes, you might understand". To which William retorts "I ain't ever walkin' in your shoes". Later on when his wife tried to dissuade him from taking on the dangerous mission, she says no one will think less of him if he changes his mind-- he replies that no one can think less of him. One of the things that would motivate any man to do the irrational is to sense that his own family has stopped believing in him.

Evans isn't really a loser, it's just that he's a guy who hasn't won very much in his life. He's earnest, works hard for his family, and believes in the rule of law. The world would be a better place if more people would get into that mindset. Trouble is when you're dealt the misfortune of associating with people who don't believe in the rule of law. Naivety which is the result of a wrong mixture of idealism, humility, and a splash of bad luck.

Ben Wade, on the other hand, seems on the surface to be the polar opposite of a naive but honest man. He's the confident and charming head of an infamous band of outlaws, striding in and out of towns untouched. Oh, he's been captured and sent to jail a few times, but he just escapes all over again. Yet there's something about him-- a sort of boredom in the way he effortlessly commands his band of crooks. He has an intelligence that pours forth naturally in his words, and you know that a guy with this level of depth can't be all bad.

The great thing about how these personalities play out in the movie is that it isn't spelled out for you, and it doesn't have to be. The characters are painted gradually, in delicate strokes that reveal themselves through the deliciously crafted dialogue, and the beautifully shaded performances from two of the best actors in the world.

The events that transpire in the movie's climactic ending, which I will not give away, present a conclusion that seems a mixture of both happy or sad, but really transcends both. It's unexpected, thought provoking, and, at least to me, ultimately satisfying.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

10,000 B.C.

Roland Emmerich has built up a reputation for being critic-proof. That is, he makes these big-budget movies that are totally panned by critics but do well at the box-office anyway. In an recent interview he said "For me, it's more important that the audience enjoys it and embraces it, anyway. You get something that does well, but is criticized. So you say, 'OK, they just didn't get it. There's 1% or 2% who didn't like it. But there's 98% who did.'"

In a lot of ways that train of thought makes sense, and I agree with him to an extent. I liked his Independence Day. I enjoyed his Godzilla. I even came out of The Day After Tomorrow feeling it was time well spent. But 10,000 B.C. digs in deep and reaches an all new unforgivable and inexcusable realm of crapitude.

Presumably set in the year 10,000 B.C., the film follows the story of a young mammoth hunter from the Yagahl tribe named D'Leh who sets off on a journey to the ends of the earth after his girlfriend Evolet is kidnapped by a band of slave traders. During the quest, D'Leh and his companion tribesmen battle prehistoric beasts, hostile tribes, and the harshness of the elements before finally arriving at their journey's end -- an advanced civilization featuring huge towering pyramids in the desert.

This much-simplified summary actually does the film a service by making the plot sound more sensible than it actually is. In reality it feels like the story is being amateurly made up as you go along. At one point a villain whips Evolet's hand as punishment, and later on they see the resulting scar and discover that the specks of blood match a constellation of stars in the sky, which somehow connects things to a murky prophecy had never been mentioned up to this point. Or maybe it had been mentioned, but the entire narrative absurdity of it had turned me off from paying attention. In fact, a whole lot of the movie's plot is dependent on shady prophecies and legends that escape even the bounds of Hollywood movie logic.

At times the plot is ridiculous to the point of hilarity. At the movie's climax (which prolongs the agony by being presented in slow motion for extended periods), Evolet is shot in the back with an arrow and killed. However, a passing woolly mammoth turns its head to look at her, something magical happens, and she comes back to life. I amuse myself with the thought that her body was filled with the soul of a mammoth, who went on to marry D'Leh and live out the rest of their lives in a strange human-mammoth union. If someone can explain what really went on in that scene, please do tell me. Please.

Really though, how can you made a coherent mainstream movie set in a time before the dawn of civilization? Surely it must be possible if molded by the right hands, but watching 10,000 B.C. does not inspire optimism. With historical records being non-existent, so many of the decisions regarding the setting are left to the director's imagination, which results in a world so distant and unconvincing that the movie may as well have been set on another planet (that might have been better, actually).

It pains me to be so negative, but finding something positive to say about this movie is proving to be a bit of a challenge. Even the special effects aren't that great. It makes me wonder, with the movie using all unknown actors, what the film's budget of $140 million actually went to. Maybe Roland Emmerich has grown so confident in the ability of his movies to make money that he felt no need to spend prudently. At the very least, I can credit him for mustering the sheer audacity of making this movie. He certainly is audacious. Unfortunately it takes more than audacity to redeem this dunderheaded mess. What a waste.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Enforcing the law

AA BBQ along Salinas Drive in Cebu City was a favorite for people who wanted good food at a very affordable price. Customers would pick out fresh seafood or meat, put it on a tray and pass it on to the staff for cooking, then proceed to take a seat at a table and order rice. The trouble is that the restaurant's facade hugged the edge of the road, hardly giving up any space for a sidewalk, much less any space for parking. Customers with vehicles were forced to park their cars along the curb, completely ignoring the "No stopping" signs and obstructing an entire lane of the 4-lane road.

In early February, the city government served a closure order to AA BBQ (along with three other nearby restaurants) for failing to provide parking spaces as required by the city's zoning ordinance. It seems that a few months earlier a "concerned taxpayer" had complained to the city government's website about the traffic in the area.

Almost immediately after the restaurant was ordered shut down, work got started on renovating the restaurant, tearing down the building's facade and moving it back to accomodate parking. Construction was impressively fast... I passed by the place yesterday, and it looks like it's just about ready to open any day now.

What I like about this is how everyone did their part, as they should, to get the problem solved. There was a business violating the city's zoning ordinances, a concerned citizen calling the government's attention, the government taking action on the problem, and the offending business correcting its violation. This is the way it should be done, and everyone is better off because of it. It's a happy ending for everyone involved. Isn't it nice when things just work?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Chaos as usual

"I call on the people now to disassociate itself from supporting an administration that has lost its trust and respect. [...] This President seeks not to lead us into the enlightened political responsibility, social stability and prosperity of the next millennium. He seeks rather to lead us back into the dark ages of pre-martial law political dynasties, warlordism, corruption, sham democracy and debilitating poverty."

Sound familiar? No, that isn't a quote ripped from today's newspaper. That was Jaime Cardinal Sin, ten years ago, talking about President Fidel Ramos.

Of course, given the gift of perspective, nobody thinks of Ramos with such toxicity these days. Quite the opposite, even. His time is remembered for its relative peace and stability, healthy economic growth, and respect for the democratic process. In hindsight his term seems just about the closest to normal the country has ever been.

But at the time, the atmosphere was so laden with venom. One of those silly seasons where people start saying just about anything. Jeers laced with unabashed hyperbole spewed from across the political landscape: "Warlord... dictator... dark ages... selfish and immoral... tentacles of evil... a mad dog gone berserk."

One month after Cardinal Sin made those remarks, he and Cory Aquino led an anti-Ramos rally at Luneta that attracted 200,000 people. (For those of you keeping score, that's around 10 times the number of people at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas last Friday). After the rally, Ramos issued a statement defending himself, which concluded by saying "So, let us go back to work and move on!". Business as usual. That would be nice, wouldn't it.

A friend told me he has been waiting for me to weigh in with my political opinion-- which is actually something I could do every day, but consciously (and often unsuccessfully) try to keep to a minimum. I'd just be another voice adding to a noise I wish would quiet down. The sensationalism, the hypocritical piety, the holier-than-thou speeches... it all contributes to these recurring episodes we have where all the characters stop thinking rationally. Like a movie where the earnest protagonist goes "No no, wait, you don't understand, let me explain--!", and his frantic romantic interest cuts him off saying "Stop it, you know what, I don't want to hear it!" and walks out the door.

My point is not to tear down Ramos or to canonize Arroyo. It's just that every once in a while the drama takes over and people stop putting things into perspective. Things start getting sensationalized, and people's reactions get detached from the facts and reality of the situation. It's the same attitude today as it was 10 years ago.

I've said before that I wish for a return to times when Filipinos can find hope in the people they vote into office, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt in the absence of full evidence against them. But it's likely there never was such a time, and I'm homesick for a place that never existed. Filipinos will continue to be mired in cynicism and believe in the worst of their country. Business as usual.