Friday, June 29, 2007

You Are the One (2006)

You Are the One (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2006)

I caught this one on cable television. I've heard some good stuff about this rom-com, but easily dismissed it as part of the hype machinery Star Cinema (or any other Filipino film studio, for that matter) utilizes to quickly recoup investments (yes, film studios are getting very creative in promotions as the film industry here is on the verge of extinction from cutthroat competition by Hollywood). Surprise surprise! The film is actually quite good.

The plot is simple enough: Will (toothpaste model-turned-reality television star-turned-matinée idol Sam Milby) is an employee in the American embassy in Manila who denied the visa application of Sally (singer-turned-host-turned-film star Toni Gonzaga), an employee of the local statistics office. It turns out the Will is also looking for his biological parents who gave him up when he was a baby. The tides turn when Will is now under the whims of Sally's office when the former starts searching for his birth certificate. From the census office, to the slums of Tondo, to the buried towns in Pampanga, the two start a romantic relationship that gets tested by their own individual dilemmas.

It's not the formulaic plot that gets the film going, but Cathy Garcia-Molina's astute direction. She finds whimsical in dire situations. While the late Lino Brocka, and his successors, would've made grave drama about the living conditions of Tondo, Garcia-Molina finds gems of human ingenuity. The rooftop of a squalid apartment becomes filled with colorful tents and bright umbrellas that shield gamblers and afternoon drunkards from the gaze of the sun; two buildings are connected by a string that allows laundry to be brought to and fro; women drag their children like a hen dragging her set of chicks. It is that unexplainable cosmos of survivors and their survival techniques that the Americans (in this case, Will) would never understand; and that's what Garcia-Molina forwards so wonderfully.

The film's romantic getaway happens in Pampanga, the province that was buried by a mixture of ash and mad (called lahar) by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. While other filmmakers squeeze the melodramatics of tragedy created by that natural catastrophe (like Mel Chionglo's Lahar (1996) or more recently, Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006)), Garcia-Molina paints the buried towns with gratifying color, turning them into one grandiose carnival. The setting is beautiful enough to be the central set piece for Will and Sally's blossoming love affair, as cued by the titular song heard in the background as the couple swoon in the rain.

Garcia-Molina distinguishes the clear-cut yet dull lifestyle of Will from the seductive chaos of Sally's life (complete with her two best friends: a standard gay sidekick (Gio Alvarez) and lovelorn internet dater (Eugene Domingo)). Their workplaces spell out bureaucracy but the professionally boring straightness of the U.S. Embassy feels very clinical as compared to the crowd-infested yet always pleasant (something I wish were true in real life) madness of the statistics office. It is that allure that tempts Will to re-discover himself and open up to the possibilities of taking part in it.

That run-of-the-mill ending of all romantic comedies wherein the male lover chases after his female lover (or vice versa) which is always against time, circumstance, or calamity is pumped up by Garcia-Molina and her team of imaginative writers, made distinctly Filipino by an adherence to exaggeration and over-the-top histrionics. This time, it works mostly because Garcia-Molina has consistently made it work ever since the first scene where time-tied Sally hilariously un-knots a traffic jam to the real, from ridiculous and enjoyable party-poverty in Tondo to the half-buried yet still habitable houses of Pampanga. It's a string of fascinating sequences and all of them are genuinely enjoyable. I do not kid.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bug (2006)

Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)

A sweeping view of nowhere, America opens William Friedkin's terrifying Bug. Acres and acres of fallow land with the Rustic Hotel, a dilapidated highway-side abode, serving as the only recognizable landmark. One of the rooms of the hotel serves as the residence of Agnes (Ashley Judd), a waitress in a lesbian bar, and the primary setting for this claustrophobic pic. Random prank calls describe Agnes' nights ever since her husband (Harry Connick Jr.) was release from jail on parole. Her meager earnings (several coins and single dollar bills from tips) are spent on canned peas and bottles of vodka --- she's desperately lonely; and it seems that her loneliness pushes her to be subdued by men (first, her violent husband; and second, a weird newcomer with an quasi-innocent charm that consumes her curiosity).

The sweeping view will, little by little, be transformed as the film's atmosphere becomes delegated inside that motel room. Many things are happening. First, the mundane --- Agnes' husband's threats and unwelcomed visits, Agnes' traumatic loss of her son. Then, the unexplainable --- that uninhibited yet sure attraction towards Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a mysterious drifter and war veteran; the imagined (or perhaps, real) invasion by microscopic blood-sucking aphids; the government experiments and conspiracy theories. It sucks you in into the mysteries that are piled to the point of unrecognition. By film's end, you forget the fallow land or that the room is part of that distant hotel in a slice of land in middle America; all that is real is the room, covered with aluminum foil. It's an implosion of everything that is wrong in America in that little room and within the frightening dynamics of the two main characters.

Friedkin gets it right this time. While the rest of the world are still caught in shock by Linda Blair's revolving head and spider walk in The Exorcist (1973), it is the thought-provoking, the less visceral that pumps up the intellectual horror of Bug. The film keeps itself in the undefinable middle between real and unreal. When Peter rambles about bug egg sacs and parasites with more than adequate knowledge, you fear for his sanity the way you distrust Norman Bates' infantile yet dangerous gestures; but it gets weirder, as the volatile Agnes joins in the game. Is it the bug infection that is contageous, or the paranoia itself?

The film's climax wherein Agnes cooks up a theory worthy of a Shyamalan twist (only in this case, it isn't what makes the film but what makes the horror much more twistedly palatable) while Peter excitedly welcomes an affirmation to the madness. Before the very flammable conclusion, Friedkin allows us to peek into his subjects once more --- this time, with very discomforting intimacy. He reveals these two specimens (Agnes and Peter start to resemble insects in a way that their paranoia breeds violence and fear, the same way cockroaches would pounce or run at an instance of any movement) bursting into self-destruction. It is damningly horrifying; but Friedkin makes it clearly theatrical as the over-the-top dramatics and production design erupt into clear and visceral insanity. He successfully creates a cinematic equal of death to avoid irritation, a voluntary shut-down for the levity against the world's worries.

Bug is a proper film in a contemporary society that feeds off films like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or Sicko (2007) for entertainment. It thrives in the post-9/11 world of isolation against the growing sense of connectivity brought about by technological advances. It is that paradox that nurtures nuts that devise theories and discontent that springs from exaggerated versions of the present corrupt reality. Just think about it, Peter and Agnes may be your everyday computer nerd exploring the net for verifications of pumped-up tales; and in so doing, amasses an army of like-minded followers. Now, that is horror.

But I'm probably overthinking. As it is, this is impeccable cinema, a near flawless translation of a successful play into a downright disturbing exploration of two persons whose destiny is to fall into insanity together. It's a choking experience the way everything is packed inside the walls of an ever-changing room, and the way the characters delegate their consciousness to bugs. The only breath of fresh air we get is that helicopter overview of the vast land that surrounds the motel; and thereafter, everything shrinks into that minuscule aluminum-covered cell and discussions of government-initiated plans to control the world.

Kuroneko (1968)

Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindô, 1968)
English Title: Black Cat From the Grove

With Kuroneko (Black Cat From the Grove), director Kaneto Shindô dissects the divide that separates the classes in medieval Japan. The opening scene shows a solitary hut that is enveloped by a bamboo forest. Hordes of samurai warriors appear from the forest, slowly walking towards the hut. Inside the hut are two peasant women quietly eating their lunch. The warriors start grabbing their rice, and unsated, start raping the two women in horrid succession. The warriors leave the two unconscious women and the hut burning.

It's a disquieting introduction. Shindô doesn't emboss the sequence with any musical score, as we only hear the crickets chirping, the stream running, and the few shrieks and grunts by the women and the invading horde. It reinforces the feeling that the samurais arrived, pillaged, and disappeared with hardly anybody noticing and anyone really caring. Later in the film, the samurai leader would defend his class by stating that it is the powerful that rule over the weak; that there's no rationale in hating the samurai class. His statement is of course pure folly as we have witnessed with immense efficiency how the samurai and war can directly affect the comman folk.

Kuroneko is of course a kaidan (ghost story) and the two women resurface as vengeful spirits who roam the night to lure wandering samurai into their abode. After seducing the samurai with gratitude, flattery, cups of warm sake, and sex, the two would finish him off with a violent bite in the neck --- the same way a tame black cat would pounce on his master. The treachery keeps them alive; and it fuels their vendetta against the warmongers who ruined their lives in an unnoticed heartbeat.

The warriors would of course retaliate. Several mighty samurais have died and the samurai lord orders Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), fresh from an unexpected victory against a formidable fighter, to investigate and destroy the spirits. Gintoki turns out to be the husband and the son of the murdered women; yet the twist is that Gintoki is no longer a peasant but a samurai, and thus an appropriate victim to the wraiths' murderous plans. The blurring of these roles are treated with unabashed tenderness --- Gintoki and his wife (Kiwaki Taichi) would thereafter spend several days in romantic bliss, unmindful of each other's missions to destroy each other.

It is obvious that Shindô admires this class-less happiness. He shoots the couple's scenes together in an eroticically gorgeous manner; quite different from the wife's previous seductions wherein the men are ravenous for flesh. The sequence is poignant; coupled with the mother (Nobuko Otowa)'s painful dance (again, different from the more rabid dance performed during their murderous sessions) and the couples' incandescent lovemaking, there's no denying that the class-crossing dilemma is the ultimate heart of the film.

Shindô tells the story with a dutiful eye for detail --- the bamboo grove is made eerie by the fog; the wardrobe and the make-up applied to the two wraiths; the intricate detail that surfaces the amusing stereotypes (the mustache and the body hair of the samurai leader, the transformation of Gintoki from filthy peasant to titled samurai by several buckets of warm water); the perfect lighting (especially inside the wraiths' abode). Kuroneko is simply wonderful cinema. It is scary not because of jarring sound effects or sudden visual stimuli, but because it draws you in into the hapless drama, and the irrevocable damage caused by war and the men whose fortunes are rooted from it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

You can definitely predict the spectacle, that beneath the horrid bandages and the sunglasses is nothing. However, when Claude Rains starts unraveling his face, there's always that jolting effect no matter how many times you've correctly predicted the spectacle. It probably stems from James Whale's apt opening, with the heavily covered man walking past the snowstorm, arriving at a jolly little inn with jolly people. His physical predisposition and his unlikable aura counters the warmth of the inn where he intends to stay. He chooses to keep himself a mystery and when egged on by the innkeeper, he finally reveals himself and goes about on a rampage of petty and more serious crimes.

If anything, the invisible man's criminal activities are, during it's time, quite alarming, and his motivations are not really based on rationality. There's always an element of surprise in his malevolence and his concept of power is downright disturbing. Whale commits his crimes into celluloid with unassuming spontaneity. They're almost designed like comedic set pieces, as when the invisible man dons a pair of trousers and scares a woman away while singing a limerick; or when he throws a bald man's hat into the creek. However, Whale doesn't hold back when the invisible man commits his graver offenses, as when the invisible man makes two men fall down a cliff, or steals a box full of money from the bank, or derails a train, with the same alarming spontaneity of his lesser crimes. That indifference makes him more ferocious; his invisibility makes him all-powerful.

It's not that the invisible man is pure evil. You can always still sense his humanity: the way he pleads for more time from the innkeeper just so he can find a remedy for his invisibility; or when his voice softens when he learns that Flora (Gloria Stewart) is on her way. Actually, that is what makes the film so irresistibly interesting, the same way Frankenstein (1930) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are outstanding horror pictures. Whale would always posit a lurking humanity beneath the monstrous exterior or lack of exterior, in this case.

The metaphor of invisibility is apt. It is power that shields the man from impunity but with the aftereffect of completely removing the possessor's identity and his whole place in this world. There are only traces of his former life, but the controlling facet is his invisibility. That skews his reason. His noble purposes are tainted with evil motivations. There dividing line between good and evil are dimmed.

It is for that reason that the film's ending, despite its questionably syrupy circumstance, is very appropriate. While in his deathbed, the invisible man is suddenly revealed, bit per bit, until we see his face, completely peaceful and at ease. We understand his plight as power is indeed tempting and damning. We also understand that despite the horrifying crimes he has committed, the illogical rationale still stems from his position of disadvantage, that his case conditions his mindset for such circumstances and that the help of science and the mysterious chemical he added in his invisibility serum are not the main causes for his insanity, but his human condition. He cannot get his life's love or his peers' approval because he was so poor to begin with, leading him to be jealous and destined to be continuously betrayed.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Tatarin (2001)

Tatarin (Tikoy Aguiluz, 2001)
English Title: Summer Solstice

Don Paeng (Edu Manzano) and Lupe (Dina Bonnevie) Moreta are trapped in a difficult wedding; at least for Lupe who starts to feel her subservient role in the household. We first see them in bed; Paeng on top while a bored Lupe suffers through the mechanical thrusts of her husband. The couple's morning lovemaking coincides with a woman's fervent prayer for a child (followed by a steamy scene of self-stimulation), and the couple's household helps' rabid humping; with the woman (played by Rica Paralejo) erupting into an illucid trance that would define the feast day of St. John the Baptist, which also coincides with the pagan ritual of tatarin (which in English refers to chopping).

The wedding vows aren't tested due to infidelity or a lack of love, but because of the skewed sense of inequality between the sexes. Paeng's conservative views force Lupe to stand by his side. You can see the effects of that patriarchal sternness: Lupe would always look with approving eyes before trying to do anything like watching the passing parade through their manor's balcony. It is the same patriarchal reign that Paeng would like his eldest son to inherit; that women are subservient to the man's concept of order.

The tatarin ritual is an affront to that patriarchal state which the Philippines has inherited from its Western colonizers. Guido (Carlos Morales), Paeng's cousin who relocates from Europe to take part in the pagan rituals, relates that women have always been powerful; that before there were kings, there were queens; that before there were priests, there were pagan priestesses; and that the sun bows down to the moon (which symbolizes femininity). You see Lupe's surprise of her undiscovered power upon hearing those words and while her legs are fondled by the very masculine Guido while her husband peeks through their balcony.

Director Tikoy Aguiluz carefully maps Lupe's transformation leading to that final tatarin procession where she overtly disobeys her husband. His adaptation of Nick Joaquin's short story may be viewed as gratuitously perverted (the way Paralejo's breasts are lighted with erotic tenderness, and other young starlets are casted to gyrate for presumably, tittilation). However, the visually portrayed sexual energy serves an appropriate purpose. It delivers a shameful light to the subtle cruelty of Paeng's controlling nature and his mechanical sexuality. It places points of extremes in a film that is basically about the jarring battles of the two sexes --- it spells out the differences between sensual and formal, freedom and restraint, female and male.

Set in the 1920's, Aguiluz makes sure that every detail is accomplished perfectly. The meticulousness shows. The wardrobe, the setting, the props are carefully conceived to match the era. It's all wonderful, the way Micaela (Ces Quesada) and her daughter (a tepid Maui Taylor who is unused in the department wherein she could've shined) steps out of their polished antique car; or the interiors of a provincial manor with its lovingly constructed furniture and its walls adorned with Catholic paintings; or the methodology in making the noodles the Moretas' factory is producing.

More interesting is the actual tatarin procession where women (all obviously choreographed) dance and gyrate in delirious drumming, and the men (who are celebrating St. John the Baptist's festival --- a Catholic feast which figures, since Catholicism espouses patriarchal society) who strut alongside the women. It is quite easy to get lost in the orgy, and the sequence is pungent with sweat and saliva. The men fall under the spell of the women and are revealed as equal, if not weaker (especially in that scene wherein Guido stumbles into tears when Lupe abruptly ends their lovemaking, thus, revealing Guido's past in Europe wherein he wails the name of a woman he presumably loved and lost).

The final scene ends the transformation. Under the glow of a full moon, Lupe finally gets what she wants and becomes on top (sexually and emotionally) of her husband. The mechanical nature of their sexual consummation is abandoned when Paeng reveals his emotions and steps out of the formalities dictated by the patriarchal society they live in. Paeng follows the whims of his wife; and disobeys the commands of the Church (which approves of only one sexual position) while he gets consumed by the spirit he has, in his entire lifetime, rejected.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (1978)

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (Lino Brocka, 1978)
English Title: My Father, My Mother

Lino Brocka's Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother) is such a delightful film. Sure, it engrosses itself with several melodramatic turns and its representation of homosexuality is limited to the loud transvestite types. However, there's something about the film that strikes you as adamantly sincere (as compared to popcorn fare like Mrs. Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993) or other gender-bender tearjerkers released lately).

During its closing sequences wherein Coring (played with a pitch-perfect sense of both comedy and drama by Dolphy), dressed as Ms. Spain in a low-budget gay-version of an international beauty pageant (again, a testament to Philippine ingenuity), answers a question by the pageant host. Brocka's camera then lingers to Dolphy's exaggeratedly painted face; and Dolphy owns the close-up, delivering his lines with subtle emotionality and tender grace. His manner of answering felt like his character bore the aches of the entire Philippine gay community on his shoulders, and you can easily feel for him. Just when you are drawn to his character's poignant soliloquy, Dolphy snaps out of the mood with a joke, and you laugh, although still teary-eyed.

The plot itself is nothing special. Coring, a gay beautician, is left with a baby by his former ward, Dennis (Philip Salvador). The baby grows up (the boy is played by a very young Niño Muhlach) thinking that Coring is his real father. Everything seems to be smooth until the kid's mother (Marissa Delgado) suddenly shows up to claim her son.

What's special is how Brocka and writer Orlando Nadres pumped up the story with themes dealing with the difficulty and sensitivity in the rearing of a boy by a gay parent. There's a detailed attention on how Coring tries to shield the boy from his homosexuality. A touching sequence shows the boy using Coring's lipstick on himself so he looks like the Indian from a picture book. When Coring sees the boy using lipstick on himself, he scolds the boy out of fear of him turning into a homosexual. When the boy explains that he was only trying to emulate the Indian from the picture book, Coring's fears are waived and he lovingly hugs the boy.

It is that underlying theme that ultimately unites the film, more than the tearjerking story. There are two scenes in the film that adequately resolves the issue of identity. The first one is when the boy catches his father donning a dress in a fashion show. He point-blank asks Coring whether or not he is ashamed of the way he looks. Coring, before answering, wipes the make-up from his face and removes the wig from his head, and gives a reliable excuse. The ending of the film offers a similar scenario. The boy again catches Coring, who just got home from a beauty contest. There were no more questions asked and Coring didn't even bother removing the make-up from his face or the wig from his head; they just hugged. The bonds of fatherhood withstood the demands of society or Coring's own shame of showing himself as a homosexual in front of his adopted son.

This makes the film, with all its stereotypes and conventional narrative arcs, as timely now, as it was decades ago when it was released. It is a gay-themed film that is ultimately rewarding beyond its genre. It preaches acceptance, not mere tolerance. It proposes homosexuality as a non-issue in parental love and affection. Straight or gay, there's something to be gained from watching the film --- a handful of chuckles, a cupful of tears, and most importantly, a whole lot of heart.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Jose Rizal (1998)

Jose Rizal (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1998)

Coinciding with the centennial celebration of Philippine independence from Spain, Jose Rizal was during its time the most expensive Philippine film made (Erik Matti's Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (2005) overtook it by a few millions of pesos). Behind the project are notable figures in Philippine cinema: screenwriter Ricky Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jun Lana and Peter Ong Lim) is one of the country' most respected (although hardly consistent in his works) screenwriters; director Marilou Diaz-Abaya has a few films (Brutal (1980), Moral (1982) and Karnal (Carnal, 1983)) that have been regarded as masterpieces; Rody Lacap lensed some of the most beautiful Philippine films ever made (including Mike de Leon's Itim (The Rites of May, 1976) and Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1982), and Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982)). This biopic of the country's national hero may be described as a collective work by the cinematic elite (directors like Gallaga, Chito Rono, and Joel Lamangan, and the some of country's best actors and actresses would play various roles).

The more eccentric filmmakers made their own Rizal films, of course. There is Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, 1997), which concentrated on Rizal's exile in the provincial barrio. There is Mike de Leon's Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000), which is an intriguing look into the mysteries that surround the hero. Mario O'Hara's low-budget Sisa (1999) is proclaimed by critic Noel Vera as probably the best Rizal film ever made (it's quite unfortunate that a copy of the film is nowhere to be found commercially). Of course, Gerry de Leon also has adapted Rizal's two novels (Noli me Tangere (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962)). However, these films were more concentrated art forms, nowhere near the expansive and all-encompassing nature of Diaz-Abaya's ambitious epic.

The ambition and the pedigree doesn't quite match the results. Jose Rizal is a three-hour, short for bloated, lesson in Philippine history. Everything that can be gleaned from the film can be achieved with much more accuracy and probably, with more of the interesting bits and details on Rizal's more devious escapades, from textbooks with none of the uninteresting tastefulness that is attributed to Rizal's sanctification. It is glossy from the start; and it begins with operatic fashion and exaggeration: a naked woman, with her breasts in proud display, is bedded by a hedonistic Spanish priest. It opens with an announcement of the state of affairs during the Spanish regime. The rest of the film is fashioned the same way, as hundreds of recruited extras (both Filipino and Caucasian) recite lines on cue while the more prominent actors are given the lines that are pumped up with historical pomp and nationalistic self-importance.

The film is structured in a way that is uncharacteristic for a film that targets the Philippine masses as its audience. Although narratively straightforward, Jose Rizal is complexed by flashbacks, short allusions to Rizal's novels, fastforwards, and other narrative conceits. The result is ultimately confusing and without any background on the important events in Rizal's life, it would be very easy to get lost. The flashbacks are initiated by Rizal's two confidantes: the first one is a young prison servant (Jhong Hilario), to whom Rizal recounts his growing-up years; the more prominent one is Taviel (Jaime Fabregas), Rizal's defense counsel who slowly befriends the hero while postulating several questions regarding his motives.

Rizal is played by Cesar Montano with obvious reverence to the national hero. Lines are delivered with gospel-like fervor. The more silent and contemplative moments will have Montano daze thoughtfully into space, hoping to elicit some sort of solemn grandeur. While Montano succeeds in depicting the hero as should be done in this type of biopic, there is no question that he is upstaged by more seasoned thespians who are more creative in maximizing the meager roles that are written for them. Fabregas transforms his Taviel from mere attorney into a friend with believable ease and tenderness. Joel Torre , who plays Chrisostomo Ibarra, the main character in Rizal's novel, is both tragic and fearsome. Pen Medina plays Paciano, Rizal's elder brother, with adequate conviction. Sadly, the film is inconsistent in the acting department: Gardo Verzosa's Andres Bonifacio is an unconvincing romantic wreck, written as a cardboard cutout of blind idolatry, although the brash hero is more independent-thinking in real life; Gloria Diaz's Teodora Alonzo, Rizal's mother, falters with her miscarriage of melodramatic quips and mannerisms.

The problem with Jose Rizal is that it concentrates on historical accuracy rather than artistic contribution. The film, as mentioned, is basically a history book adapted to film. I am unable to discern any individual offering by the artists involved in the endeavor. Diaz-Abaya has made some good films that showcase her personality as a director. Lee was more interesting when he was writing under the threat of imprisonment. Lacap works better with less budget since the visuals here are too glossily perfect for my taste. It takes the nature of a commissioned work, without the gusto that could have injected some sort of discernible personality to the film. The film will satisfy the academe, or those who seek to learn the life of Rizal in a matter of three hours but that's basically it. Squeeze it for what it's worth, and all you'll get are a few glamorized phrases that show little of who what the Philippines is as a nation, what we have become with Rizal as national hero, and the hero's lasting contribution to the Philippine psyche.

This post is my contribution to This Savage Art: The Ambitious Failure Blog-A-Thon.

Babae sa Breakwater (2004)

Babae sa Breakwater (Mario O'Hara, 2004)
English Title: Woman of the Breakwater

Yoyoy Villame is one of the most underappreciated musicians in the Philippines. While the elite members of society are dictating to the masses the dictum of culture and good taste (mostly Western inspired orchestrations or indigenous melodies), Villame rebelled and came up with songs whose melodies are simple enough to be sung by the tone-deaf, and whose lyrics are memorable enough to be memorized by the simpleminded. His songs are considered novelty, yet the term itself is an anomaly as Villame's songs talk about real life, both its joys and pains, distilled by his jovial beats and uplifting attitude. In fact, in film, his songs are utilized to describe the state of Philippine society --- like in Aureaus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) which began with a song where Villame sings "this is my country, the Philippines..." while the camera displays garbage piling up in a creek.

Villame died a month ago, leaving a legacy of songs immortalized by the millions of Filipinos who can hum them in a heartbeat. Probably his most lasting mark on film is in Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater) where he played a street side entertainer singing songs he made famous decades ago.

Babae sa Breakwater is a film about a man Basilio (Kristoffer King), who escapes from provincial Leyte to the slums of Manila with his younger brother Buboy (Alcris Galura). Residing in the makeshift tenements beneath the tourist-infested breakwater of Manila, Basilio falls in love with a prostitute Paquita (Katherine Luna). Their relationship is troubled by the apparent poverty and the more impending threat of the slums' jealous protector, ex-cop Dave (Gardo Versoza). This tragic tale is alleviated by the ditties of Villame, providing a biting sense of irony to the plot and an accurate summary of the unpredictability, the chaotic colors, and the dizzying bevy of emotions that surround Manila life.

O'Hara's film, by itself and without the help of Villame's songs, is quite good. There's an undescribed underlying mythology that sits quietly; to disavow of such mythology or religiosity would spell out a disbelief in many of the film's supervening events. The film begins with what seems to be a religious ritual. Men in masks are about to sacrifice a person; that event causes a eunuch priestess to be murdered causing more acts of vengeance which will ultimately affect the young Basilio and Buboy. It's sort of a seaside cult --- the monster child of Catholicism and paganism, with statues of the Virgin Mary or pagan gods jotting out of the seawater.

The sea in O'Hara's film is the domicile of god; it provides as much as it takes away. Basilio and Buboy respect and appreciate its role. Despite the garbage and filth in Manila Bay, the brothers pay their respects to the unnamed deity by submerging their faces (supposedly conversing to their father --- murdered in the introductory religious vendetta). When humanity betrays Basilio (as when he gets pickpocketed or he is removed from work), it is the sea that magically provides.

The film actually describes man's relationship with the sea (or in this case, God as represented by the sea). Manila, in the film's point of view, has raped the sea --- abused it and polluted it. The city itself is crowded with abusive people and dregs of society; children are addicted to rugby and will fight for leftover food; men urinate in the streets; the characters' pasts (both Paquita and Dave) showcase a depletion of morality within the citizenry, which continues to their present lives; another character steals to escape from the Breakwater but only succeeds in maintaining the habit. Basilio comes from a land where the sea is pure, and within the film, he maintains that purity and is able to reform Paquita, despite the temptations and the treachery of the city. O'Hara succeeds in driving that point, and fantastically, within the context of the tired genre of melodrama about the provincial who gets lost in the big city.

In a way, Babae sa Breakwater is a modified retelling of the Orpheus myth, with Basilio playing the tragic Greek hero and Paquita as Euridyce who is trapped in the underworld. Basilio manages to uplift Paquita from the hedonism of the city (as properly depicted in Dave's character --- an impotent, disabled boss who works through his muscled bodyguard and delights in alternative pleasures). On his way, tragic events ensue yet the end result, the ultimate goal, is to bring Paquita back to Leyte where the sea is clean.

O'Hara's filmmaking and the familiarity of Villame's melodics turn Babae sa Breakwater into a modest yet sublime artwork. At first, the film's simplicity may disarm you into thinking that it is in equal rank to the oft-produced socially-relevant melodramas of the past recent years. However, the film is certainly different as it is ripe with contexts and meanings; all of such are dutifully wrapped up in this fascinating work by two of the country's most brilliant artists.

This post is my contribution to Windmills of My Mind: Film Music Blog-A-Thon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time (2006)

Time (Kim Ki-duk, 2006)
Korean Title: Shi gan

Kim Ki-duk's thirteenth film Time opens with a montage of nearly unwatchable footages of an ongoing plastic surgery. The face is literally mangled, punctured, and mashed; fat flows from the tubes that pass through the inanimate body. It is the same video that is shown to a distraught Seh-hee (Park Yi-geon) before she finally decided to commit to plastic surgery and changing her appearance permanently. The pre-credit sequence takes a form of a caution both to the eager plastic surgery customer and also to Kim's audience. The film, while serving a perfunctory role as a scathing commentary on Korea's fetishism with plastic surgery, suggests something deeper, something more universal.

It starts out like a parable with Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) and his girlfriend for two years Seh-hee. Seh-hee feels that Ji-woo is getting bored with her; to the point that she orders Ji-woo to think of another woman just to get him aroused enough to sleep with her. One day, Seh-hee disappears without telling Ji-woo. We know that she has opted to change her face, but in Ji-woo's mind, she just left her. Episodic sequences reveal to us Ji-woo's unsuccessful attempts to find love. A rather memorable attempt involves an unattractive lady Ji-woo hooks up with in a blind date; the end of the date is so poignantly conceived furthering Kim's angry accusations of the Korean male population's inability to see beauty within.

Ji-woo does manage to hook up with a new girl, See-hee (Seong Hyeon-a), the new waitress in his favorite coffee shop. His unresolved romance with Seh-hee pervades this new interest; and despite the fact that Seh-hee and See-hee are one and the same person, the sudden change in physical attributes allude to a difference in persona. This may come off as utterly fantastical, as plastic surgery can only change so much and it also invites factual inconsistencies such as lovers of two straight years would have something more to discern each other than mere hand sizes and former pictures. Yet, this is a Kim Ki-duk film and it is also widely recognizable that Kim expands reality the way he makes a man disappear in 3-Iron (2004), or an arrow fly high to the heavens in The Bow (2005), or the self-inflicted violence in The Isle (2000), or the hurtful misogynism in Bad Guy (2001). In Time, Kim suggests plastic surgery as more than just physical change; such modifies the human core that all that is left from the past life are mere symbols and signifiers.

However, Time feels very different from Kim's later films (beginning with Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... Spring (2003) to The Bow). It doesn't dabble in existentialist subtleties or Orientalist philosophies. The film is as blunt as a sledgehammer and is as obvious as your favorite fairy tale. It takes its cautionary tale to excessive lengths, that it hurts Kim's more elusive attempts to say something deeper. I'm one of those who has an affinity with Kim's more silent features. There's always a sense that Kim's attempt to go back to his pre-Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... Spring ouvre can't really be definitely distinguished from the artist he has become. Time stands midway being dragged by Kim's opposite goals of provocation and meditation.

There were sequences which I thought were utterly sublime and consistent with Kim's ability to expand the natural dimensions of reality to propose something poetic --- Ji-woo and Seh-hee's lovemaking scene near the beginning where the latter forced the former to think of another girl (it's as painfully emotional to see lovemaking delegated as mere satisfaction); the breathtaking scenes in the sculpture park (the magnificent statues depict time in its most destructive and rejuvinating way, with the tide burying most of the statues in seawater only to reappear new yet the same --- as opposed to the characters' will to stop time by completely modifying their physical attributes); See-hee's desperate attempts to search for Ji-woo (the Cinderella twist to the runaway lover as the crystal shoe is replaced by the perfect hand).

However, all the episodes I liked are drowned by the inconsistent sentimentality and questionable resulting decisions by the main characters (and Kim): the sudden decision for what seems to be a pay-back by Ji-woo (he begs the plastic surgeon to take over his mental faculties and decide for him); the questionable inability for confrontation (it seems that love is as facile as their physical modifications, thus turning their relationship into a hide and seek game); and the overachieving conclusion that unsuccessfully suggests the continuum of the misfortunes from these neverending adventures to the plastic surgeon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nostalghia (1983)

Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

Removed from his native Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky creates his penultimate film Nostalghia in Italy. Not surprisingly, the film echoes Tarkovsky's longing for his homeland, shown in the beginning as a scene captured from inside a structure through a glassy window pane in sepia tones. These sepia-toned sequences are interspersed throughout the feature, presumably detailing a fading sense of home --- no longer distinct memories but mere emotions, nostalgia. The length of time away from Russia, the overpowering cultural influences of Italy --- all these turn images of home into murky and amorphous visualizations of the Russian countryside which is very distinct from the geometric precision of Italy's vistas, with its grandiose cathedrals and architectural structures.

Tarkovsky lays out the film in simplistic fashion. There are no narrative nuances or dramatic arcs that forward the plot. It seems that his cinema breathes from the gorgeous tableaus he creates and the evocative lingering of his camera that slowly reveals emotional lines in the faces or the quiet gestures that were previously hidden. It is dense with spiritual and thematic weight; and it feels like Tarkovsky can talk about so many things simultaneously using his infallible imagery and symbolisms. Ever-present are his persistent representations of rain, of fire, of birds and dogs, and his troubled male protagonist with an aching desire of profound nature. We can barely scrape the surface of Tarkovsky's art yet even with the meager and incomplete appreciation of Tarkovsky's masterpiece, hungers are satisfied.

Andrei (Oleg Yankovsky) is a poet who is traveling through Italy to retrace the life of Sosnovsky, a composer who became famous in Italy but decided to repatriate to become a serf in his country. His only companion is Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), his translator. Tarkovsky initiates the film in a barren field wherein a car drives past the frame, only to reveal in the foreground. Eugenia appears and invites Andrei to see a famous painting of the Madonna; the latter refuses the offer saying that he is tired of seeing all these beautiful things. The sequence inside the chapel gives us a quiet glimpse of Eugenia's character. Formidably juxtaposed with the pious women and the the idolized Mary, she questions an old man why it is mostly women who pray in the chapel. The old man declares his simplicity and proclaims the duties of women as mothers. Before leaving the chapel, she witnesses a little miracle, of Mary's statue opening up to reveal dozens of birds in flight.

A subtle romance can be observed between Andrei and Eugenia. In their hotel's lobby, they discuss of poetry and music. Andrei nonchalantly challenges Eugenia's admiration for Arseni Tarkovsky's poetry which according to him cannot be appreciated in its translated form; he goes on proclaiming that national barriers should be removed. Andrei is reluctant and obviously separated from the world. His knowledge of Italian is enough but insists on using a translator to converse with people, until he meets Domenico (Erland Josephson), the town's madman who is reported to have trapped his family in his home in order to save them from the apocalypse. His need for Eugenia no longer persists and Eugenia can no longer stand the man Andrei is becoming --- closer to the laughing stock Domenico is, with his amazement with the vagueness of religion and faith.

In a scene wherein Eugenia confronts Andrei, she reveals her breast, taunting Andrei to admit that that is all he wants in her. Although extrinsically, the confrontation connotes a sexual linkage between the two individuals, a more apt interpretation can be given. Looking back, we witness Eugenia's reluctance to appreciate motherhood as a woman's primary aspect. Upon defeat by Domenico, she reluctantly compromises and offers just exactly that, a breast, the symbol for motherhood.

Domenico then requests Andrei to complete his mission: to cross the sulfuric baths with a lighted candle. Away from Eugenia, Andrei succumbs to soulsearching --- images of Russia are slowly intermixed with that of Rome, both in sepia, presumably both forming a part of Andrei's spiritual ache. Little bits and pieces of his homeland appear --- the gorgeously lighted greens of Russia take centerstage in Domenico's unkempt lair, murky mossy puddle water floods a ruined church, Domenico's dog is also very prominent in Andrei's own dreams. It is during these moments that Andrei feels most human, most susceptible to contact.

The film ends the same way Solaris ends, with an image as haunting or uplifting as it is sublime. Andrei sits comfortably in a pastoral landscape --- the same cabin which appears in his murky memories are in the background. Tarkovsky's camera zooms out to reveal a masterful surprise --- the landscape becomes sheltered within the structure of a ruined cathedral. Droplets of rain start pouring and at once, we are confounded with the repercussions of that phantasmagoric last scene. Yet it's not totally out of place as it appears in sepia; not as an imagery as real as his arguments with Eugenia or Domenico's tragic speeches in Rome, it's equal to the feelings of longing, of nostalgia he has for his homeland. It certainly feels that with the last scene, as preceded by his sacrifice (a long take featuring Andrei's fulfillment of Domenico's mission), connotes a satisfaction for his craving to be home, despite being in another land.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mirror (1975)

Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
Russian Title: Zerkalo

A young man (Ignat Daniltsev) turns on the television set; the program shows a stutteter being cured through hypnotism. Straightly, the stutterer proclaims "I can speak." Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror was suspended from filming by the Russian government thus allowing Tarkovsky to film Solaris (1972) instead. Tarkovsky's international acclaim forced the Russian government to finally allow him to film Mirror, interestingly a film that is emancipated from any political adventurism. Instead, the film is extremely personal --- composed of vignettes of Tarkovsky's recreated memories, dreams, and other visual compositions.

The next scene follows a lady (Margarita Terekhova) sitting atop a wooden fence. An unseen voice (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) narrates while a doctor appears from the grass fields to talk to the woman. It's an incandescent sequence; one that retains a poetic quality from the voiceover's luminous baritone to an eye-catching visual movement that ends with a cabin in flames and a downpour of rain at the same time. It's a gorgeous portrayal of a childhood memory. It doesn't seek to force reality from the unsure edges of reminiscence, but instead swoons into dreaminess and tackles symbolisms and spirituality alongside the aches of nostalgia.

Tarkovsky spans from a pastoral past, nightmarish reconstructions of personal and national history, and a vague yet fatalist representation of the present. The present concerns the unseen voiceover in his deathbed. We grasp glimpses of more recent events, all bearing the same weight of loss and a sense of connected sadness that drapes the events of the past. The man's wife (also played by Terekhova) argues with him regarding the custody of their child, Ignat (played by Daniltsev). The argument morphs into something nastier; accusations being hurled about his present fate being caused by being brought up by the mother; segued by conversations by Spanish tenants regarding bullfighting and more specific cultural nuances.

It's a work that is defined by its expansive world. While Tarkovsky's methods stir the individual soul, the film discusses more than the director's personal aches and demons. In one particularly well-directed sequence, Ignat is left alone by his mother in the apartment. He is called by a mysterious old woman who asks her to read from a diary; the passage is spoken with the naive confusion of a young boy but the words are meaningful and its depth concerns national identity. He finishes and answers the door. When he returns, the old woman is gone --- her only remnant is the dampness caused by the cup of tea she was sipping. Even that disappeared in a matter of captured seconds; the same way the remnants of history disappear in a matter of generations.

The images in the film are so beautiful, they're haunting. A kid stares at the image of himself in a horizontal mirror as the lamp flames die slowly. A burst of wind defines the leaving of a visiting doctor through a vast grassy field. In slow motion, a strong breeze topples a piece of rock and other ornaments atop an outdoor table.

The film shifts from lush colors to sepia; it doesn't matter, it always looks sublime. When Tarkovsky attempts for dreaminess, he succeeds in heaps. The wife sleeping and levitating; her hand caressed lovingly by the husband --- the effect is poignant. The dying man (his face is never revealed), the same way, caresses a bird and before the reel ends, throws the bird to flight. Tarkovsky's images, although they have amorphous definitions, are all pregnant with erupting beauty and power. You neglect logic and just flow and be affected with his artwork.

By the film's end, nothing is assuredly defined. The narrative still floats in an air of uncertainty. However, the little details Tarkovsky allows us to view are all tremendous. His personal history which also involves spiritual and familial battles, and his allusions to Russian history are all scraped deeply. Despite not being a complete picture, Tarkovsky allows us enough peepholes to see what boils underneath his creative head; and yes, finally, he can speak.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sicko (2007)

Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007)

Michael Moore, ever the provocateur, defines his documentaries with stunts that hammer his agenda with blunt, questionable yet entertaining spectacle. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore enters the mansion of Charlton Heston to interrogate the celebrity of his gun-loving ways, turning his mood from cordiality to outright coldness. In Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Moore goes around Capitol Hill parading the picture of a young soldier killed in Iraq, and interviewing lawmakers whether they'd allow their own sons and daughters to personally join the war in Iraq.

Moore's latest, Sicko, has a stunt that tops anything he's done before. He fills up three speedboats with ill Americans, transporting them from Florida to Guantanamo Bay to seek healthcare (which is provided for terrorists detained there). These sick Americans end up in Cuba where they are provided with proper medical attention and cheap pills; something that elicited tears, words of gratitude, and deep respect from Moore's subjects. The stunt may be considered manipulative or that it doesn't reveal the entire story or the methods Moore used to successfully drive his machinations. However, one can't deny that Moore, again, has successfully forwarded his agenda. There's no more denying the fact that despite Moore's love-him-or-hate-him personality and dubious filmmaking methods, he makes films that will make enough noise to matter.

Instead of rooting America's healthcare problem to specific politics, Moore goes for another method of attacking what America has become. True, Moore starts the film with Dubya speaking (in a presidential campaign, I suppose) about how healthcare is so important; then cutting to subjects relaying their specific healthcare woes (in escalating dramatics; beginning with a man who had to choose between the middle finger and the ring finger to a couple forced to bankruptcy by their medical troubles).

Moore also relays how Hillary Clinton, who championed socialized healthcare during her husband's administration, has become a paid puppet by the HMO's and pharmaceuticals when she became senator. All these are mere extraneous evidence for Moore since his attack this time varies. He doesn't go against the Bush administration directly by raising discovered anomalies or questionable legislation and presidential correspondence, as he did in Fahrenheit 9/11. This time, Moore gets more creative. He travels around the globe to stamp an ugly face on the American healthcare system; and in turn, shows how ugly America has become with its concern for rising economy and its citizenry's respective personal intents.

He travels to America's northern neighbor Canada, to Great Britain, to France, to show how America's privatized healthcare system is so wrong. He does seem to present those nations in utopian light but this is Moore, we really can't expect him to reveal full truths; he shows just enough to rouse anger, envy, and disgust. Surely, Moore's methods this time doesn't go for quasi-trials by presenting hard-hitting pieces of evidence and papertrails. Sicko goes for every logical fallacy in the book, but that's what makes it a far more satisfactory pic. While pushing for an agenda, Moore also pushes for the melodrama, the reality, and the absurdist comedy of these different stories of healthcare woes (including one by Moore's so-called greatest critic who becomes a recipient of the documentary filmmaker's charity --- the question of sincerity lingers, but it still shows how America's healthcare is an outright sham).

Sicko may be Moore's most important and best-made documentary to date. Unlike his previous works which I thought polarized viewers because of its highly political content, Sicko should unite audiences since the topic fairly belongs to one that does not discern political sides, race, or nationality. If Moore's filmmaking and his capability of twisting the truth to attain his goals still bother you, his latest will absolutely draw numerous queries and moments of disbelief. As for me, I'm just glad Moore brought this topic up with the force of a speeding ten-wheeler truck; now let's see America's presidentiables dodge this issue.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007)

I've had the misfortune of watching Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005) when it was released in theaters. I literally felt thousands of my precious brain cells threatening me of suicide unless I leave the theater for the comfort of some sort of entertainment that is less demeaning to my intellect. However, I am not one who walks out on films and I sat through the miserable mess despite my neurons' violent rebellion. The horrendous experience made me vow never to watch another Fantastic Four film, unless perhaps a more interesting director decides to take charge.

Two years after, the world is again under threat of apocalyptic destruction. Yes, another Fantastic Four film is released entitled Rise of the Silver Surfer. Like a pesky fly attracted to dung, hack Tim Story again attaches to the project. Using the same actors, same mind-numbingly dull gimmickry, and the same computer-generated spectacle of the first film, Story manages to outdo himself in selling to the world second-rate entertainment in glossy celluloid.

Of course, I can only blame myself for having self-inflicted this horror of horrors. After all, I already vowed not to take part in this widespread extortion of hard-earned cash by the evil Hollywood machine. Let me defend myself though --- the free popcorn, free healthy California Maki wrap, free coffee, and free movie tickets were all too tempting to ignore. And now let me ask forgiveness for being so weak and as penance, I offer this review of the film, at least to forewarn anybody who might be put in the same situation as I have.

Story practically uses the same recipe for the follow-up. The different personalities of the four molecularly modified superheroes jive in an annoying aria of half-baked jokes, dull remarks, and torturous moralisms. The ambiguous Silver Surfer (played by Doug Jones, who's done better work as the suspicious faun and the creepy pale monster in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)) joins the fun when he glides over landscapes causing oceans to freeze, rivers to dry up, and huge craters to appear out of nowhere. It is the task of the four superheroes to discover the rationale behind the surfer's widespread destruction.

It is not the film's source which drives me rabid with disappointment. I understand that these superheroes are results of Stan Lee's creative juices --- a mixture of childish gusto and imagination. These superheroes are basic units --- their powers aren't all that awe-inspiring (invisibility, stretchability, super-strength, fire; Spider-man's webslinging is far more creative than that) and their respective personalities are treated with light concern. If anything, the first film's tangential concern with the four superheroes sudden change in life (The Thing's misfortune of losing a loved one along with his human identity) made it a little bit watchable. In Rise of the Silver Surfer's case, those personal concerns are replaced by inconsequential domestic squabbles; most of it too mundane and too insignificantly belittled to arouse interest.

Story directs with negligible passion. Dialogues are thrown with discomforting abandon; the actors aren't probably concerned whether the jokes will work or not, or whether they are making any sense at all. The computer graphics are exactly that --- artificial and disposable; they may cause momentary spectacle but the bad taste of bad filmmaking lingers like a bitter pill. It's all a huge waste as most comic book films made something truly lasting and worthwhile out of their source materials, whether successful or not. Fantastic Four only wishes to be entertaining and even in that regard, it still fails.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blackout (2007)

Blackout (Ato Bautista, 2007)

Twenty-somthing year old Ato Bautista follows-up his Sa Aking Pagkagising Mula Sa Kamulatan (My Awakening From Consciousness, 2005) with something less sprawling and more focused. Blackout reinforces the fact that Bautista might be one of the most interesting young directors to have come out of the recent cinematic baby boom in the Philippines. On the strength of his first film (flawed but distinctly resonating in its harsh grittiness), Bautista was adopted by Unitel who provided him with funds and technical help to realize his sophomore feature.

Blackout concerns Gil (Robin Padilla), an alcoholic who frequently blacks-out due to a combination of overdrinking and emotional stress. Left by his wife, Gil takes care of his son Nino (John Michael Reyes). The film begins with Gil waking up in his car. He notices his car's backlights broken with traces of blood all over. Bautista then cuts to Gil again waking up, but this time inside his small apartment's bathroom --- we see traces of vomit (probably from an entire night's worth of drinking) inside the toilet. Nino wakes his father and the latter starts religiously doing the daily routine of preparing his kid for school.

Bautista trusts his audience enough to not reveal everything. In fact, Bautista plays his audience. He purposely lets us into the world of Gil which is uncomfortably unfamiliar. Images burst in and out; hazy memories are shown with a warning that they can't exactly be trusted; even reality should be taken with a dash of caution. On top of that, Bautista populates his film with characters who don't exactly exist to forward the narrative, but merely to contribute to the atmosphere of claustrophobia, guilt and dread --- a tenant walks with a suspicious limp and dons tattoos of wide-opened eyes; Belen, Gil's next door neighbor (Iza Calzado) keeps her daughter, who is prone to car accidents, under close discomforting watch.

When Gil does end up killing the young girl by accident, he becomes torn with guilt, suspicion, and confusion. Momentary rays of hope are provided --- Gil ends up calling his wife and offering promises of change and reconciliation, and starts boiling water for Nino's morning baths and preparing fresh socks for school. However, Bautista merely teases you to that possibility of a happy ending; that the crime by negligence has been successfully covered up and is in fact that impetus for Gil to change. Weirder things start happening. The confusion, the little bits and pieces of information offered, the astounding and effective atmosphere created --- all these intertwine to render a conclusion that despite its being completely revelatory, is satisfactory.

Interestingly, Bautista's two feature films are very similar with each other with regards to its overall theme. There's a sense that Bautista's films presents a world that is treacherous and completely unsafe. In Sa Aking Pagkagising Mula Sa Kamulatan, society breeds angst and violence and all the film's intertwining stories end up with some sort of betrayal, culminating in a final act that ultimately surprises.

In Blackout, the treachery is even more intimate; it arises from the self, from the people you trust, from concepts of reality and memory. Such treachery culminates in an ending that resonates with overt remorse. The film's postscript details a conclusion that is somewhat hopeful, somewhat manages to alleviate the bitter taste of tragedy. However, knowing Bautista, there's more than meets the eye and in Gil's case, certainty is practically impossible.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Paris, Je T'aime (2006)

Paris, Je T'aime (Olivier Assayas, Frédéric Auburtin, Emmanuel Benbihy, Gurinder Chadha, Sylvain Chomet, Ethan & Joel Coen, Isabel Coixet, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuarón, Gerard Depardieu, Christopher Doyle, Richard LaGravanese, Vincenzo Natali, Alexander Payne, Bruno Podalydès, Walter Salles, Oliver Schmitz, Nobuhiro Suwa, Daniela Thomas, Tom Tykwer, Gus Van Sant, 2006)
English Title: Paris, I Love You

Watching through Paris, Je T'aime is like eating through a box of mixed chocolate truffles. The eighteen five-minute shorts are all undemandingly commercial; a few touch on more relevant issues but most maintain an atmosphere of pure saccharine joy. Like those expensive chocolates comfortably sitting in a box, the short films come in different shapes and sizes, with different fillings and tastes --- sometimes the effort reveals a surprisingly satisfying delicacy; other times, it comes out as bland or just indescribably bad.

The omnibus starts with Bruno Podalydès Montmartre (the eighteen films' titles are derived from the different districts of Paris), where an adult man struggles to find a parking space only to end up with a woman who serendipitously faints beside his car. Most of the short films aren't complete tales. They are mostly beginnings or ends, with the other parts inconveniently left out for the imaginations of the viewers. Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine, about a young man who falls for a Muslim woman, and Gus Van Sant's Le Marais, about a guy who attempts to hook up with another guy he meets in a shop, can be described as starting stories for blossoming relationships. They directly address the city's ability to spark romance, even against cultural barriers.

Some of the films are anecdotes like Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Loin du 16e, a sentimental look at an immigrant who during the early morning, placates her baby by singing a native lullaby, and spends the rest of the day earning her keep by taking care of the baby of a more affluent mom. South African Oliver Schmitz mixes the cruelty of romantic destiny and the plight of African immigrants through his Place des Fêtes. Christopher Doyle playfully experiments while addressing the difficulty in communication between Chinese immigrants and Parisians with the largely absurd, mostly confusing Porte de Choisy.

More touching are the short films that hint of closure. The aforementioned Place des Fêtes details a relationship that ended before it even began. Isabel Coixet's Bastille narrates a break-up that goes awry when a cheating husband suddenly learns of his wife's cancer. Richard LaGravanese's Pigalle delivers a quasi-romantic wrap-up to a partnership that has aged through time. Most satisfying is Frédéric Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu's Quartier Latin which inflicts dry humor to a cordial yet painful divorce settlement. Nobuhiro Suwa's Place des Victoires portraits a heartbreaking closure for a mother mourning over the death of his son.

Alfonso Cuarón misfires with his Parc Monceau, a conversation between an old man and a younger woman walking in the streets of Paris with a not-so-insightful revelation in the end. Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis unsuccessfully breezes through the ups and downs of a relationship between a blind man and an aspiring actress. Opposite Tykwer's meager attempt is Olivier Assayas' more daring Quartier des Enfants Rouges which similarly discusses a relationship between an actress and a drug peddler, although aborted by their respective addictions. Unique yet disappointing is Vincenzo Natali's Quartier de la Madeleine, which puts a vampire twist in the oft-used trope of Paris being the city of lovers.

The Coen Brothers' play a prank on American tourist (wonderfully played by Steve Buscemi) in Tuileries, while Wes Craven declares that a little bit of Oscar Wilde (imagined or not) can put any rocky relationship at ease with his hilarious Père-Lachaise. Magical however is Sylvain Chomet's Tour Eiffel. The short film details the story of a Parisian mime who unintentionally wreaks havoc in Paris, and meets the love of his life in prison. Chomet, who magnifies the mundane as he has done in The Triplets of Belleville (2003), colors the already colorful streets of Paris with the imaginative antics of a less-than-charming mime artist.

Wrapping Paris, Je T'aime is Alexander Payne's 14e Arrondissement which summarizes the directors' efforts through the surprising wisdom of a middle-aged, middle-income and oversized American woman who spends her savings to stay a few days in Paris. Narrated by the American in poorly rendered French, we witness Paris in its least magical (stripped away of all the drama, the comedy, the tragedy, the romanticism and the enchantment of the short films previously shown), where food is the same as in America (burgers and faux Chinese food), the parks are the same as in America, and the people are the same as everywhere else. Yet despite its ordinariness, it still listens and speaks and accepts and gives out love proposals, as experienced (depicted with wry and typically Payne humor) by that faceless American.

The omnibus is concluded with a love song to Paris playing side by side with the resolutions of each depicted tale. Expectedly, I was on a sugar-rush. The high inflicted by the eighteen whimsical tales will soon be drowned and forgotten. What remains is that permanent desire to experience a Parisian anecdote of my own.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tales From Earthsea (2006)

Tales From Earthsea (Goro Miyazaki, 2006)
Japanese Title: Goro Senki

This tale from Earthsea (a fantasy world created by author Ursula Le Guin) starts with a seafaring ship under threat by a violent storm. The darkened skies divide to reveal feuding dragons who masterfully glide over the troubled ship. The film cuts to the capital city where the king is discussing the problems of the land with his ministers. The world seems to be losing its balance, as proved by the appearance of dragons who reside in another plane; the imbalance is the effect of the use of dark magic. The king goes to his chambers and is suddenly stabbed by his son Prince Arren, who steals his magic sword and escapes.

The murder of the king by Arren is of sensational importance, as the director Goro Miyazaki was disallowed by his legendary father, Hayao, from directing films. The younger Miyazaki proved to be insistent in his wishes and helms this adaptation of Le Guin's famous novels. Tales From Earthsea, although a Ghibli production, feels very alien to the animation studio's filmography. In a sense, it smells of subtle rebellion of the younger Miyazaki against his famous patriarch with themes that discuss estrangement between father and son, to the point of overt violence. The film's more pertinent themes are enveloped by this observable conflict, it draws away the interest from Le Guin's original material to the director's subconsciously volunteered personal stakes on his art.

As a stand-alone film, Tales From Earthsea is far from great. It badly needs the assured lightheartedness or the whimsicality of the works of Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. The material itself is burdened with settled narrative arcs and themes, that it is quite difficult to artistically divert from what is already written and loved by countless of Earthsea fans. It possesses a persistent somber mood that can be likened to dullness or impractical seriousness.

Consistent with the somber quality of the film are the characters: Arren is blank and impenetrable throughout the film, obviously torn between the forces of good and evil; his mentor and travelling companion Haitaka is torn between his mission as an arch-mage and the calling of a simple and mundane life with an ex-witch Tenar; Theru, a mysterious girl adopted by kind-hearted Tenar is also torn between her violent past life and her peaceful life with Tenar. The film lacks a catchy supporting characters (which populates Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata's feature films like Calcifer in Howl's Moving Castle (2004), No-Face in Spirited Away (2001), or Totoro in My Neighbor Totoro (1988)). Instead, Goro Miyazaki settles with the drab personalities as is; mostly insufficiently complemented by the slapstick comedy of the cowardly guard leader.

Visually, the film is stunning. Goro Miyazaki has a gift for details. The metropolis visited by Arren and Haitaku is populated with diverse citizenry --- slaves, dishonest merchants, addicts, and mischievous peddlers. Interestingly, Tales of Earthsea looks more similar to the early works of Isao Takahata than Hayao Miyazaki. An early battle between Arren and a pack of wolves is borrowed from Takahata's pre-Ghibli film The Little Norse Prince (1968), which Miyazaki admits as his most favorite film. The animation here isn't as meticulously crafted as Ghibli's more recent features, but as it is, it is still quite magnificent. The hand-crafted scenery, from the gorgeous vistas, the castles, and the city landscapes, are all exquisite. It mostly reinforces the film's epic scope and unfortunately forces the focus to the flatness of the narrative and the characterization.

Despite its multiple problems, Tales From Earthsea is still a worthwhile picture. Its conflicted roots, Miyazaki's obvious learning curve (he is really not an animator, but a director of the Ghibli Museum, and trained in landscape), and the artistic limits of adaptation, are all ingredients of an interesting and utterly personal film. As mentioned, the film subtly fronts themes of father-son relationships (Arren and his father, Arren with surrogate father Haitaka). The covered yet more pertinent Earthsea themes of balance, the values of life and death, power, and immortality aren't as spelled out as wanted (to author Le Guin's disappointment who admits her books are better, and that Hayao Miyazaki's films are far greater).

Tales From Earthsea isn't the great addition to Ghibli Studio's illustrious filmography. What it is is an interesting start for Goro Miyazaki, who I presume will forever be haunted by his father's grand career. While I think that his decision to make his debut film with an adaptation of a popular novel is unwise, Goro Miyazaki has still provided us with an intriguing film, apparently flawed yet indisputably beautiful.

This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (2005)

Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (Mes de Guzman, 2005)
English Title: The Road to Kalimugtong

The pre-credit sequence shows the geographic route and the mundane daily routine of two children to the elementary school located in the barrio of Kalimugtong. Their day starts with a freshly-heated pot of coffee (the staple breakfast for the people of Benguet in Northern Philippines), which is followed by an arduous trek through the forest, the farms, past a rocky stream, until they stop to change into their school clothes. Intermittent sounds of rebel gunfire are heard through the trees. They arrive safely and just in time for the chiming of the school bell. The kids are greeted by their teacher who initiates their morning lesson.

The physical road to the barrio of Kalimugtong is already arduous and seemingly unfair for the frail bodies and the juvenile minds of the youngsters. However, director Mes de Guzman is far more interested in that metaphorical road to Kalimugtong --- the one that involves the troubles and conflicts of the kids and the people surrounding them. In that sense, the metaphorical road lacks the constancy and the predictability of the kids' daily trek to school. The lessons they learn in their passage feels far more important than the academic nuggets of knowledge learned in school.

Made with a meager budget and with a small crew, Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (The Road to Kalimugtong) succeeds because of the inherent sincerity in its creation. There are few false notes in the film, but these are mostly negligible. There's very little dramatization, but the two actors (Analyn Bangsil and Rhenuel Ordono) succeed in carrying the film through their natural charm and innocence. The elder non-professional actors do not fare as well but are still very competent given their very limited roles. It is when De Guzman strays from the realism that the film reveals its flaws. It is when the actors opt to act and perform that the film falls a notch lower in believability.

But that's mere nitpicking as the film, as a whole, is quite good. While it doesn't have the subtle mechanics of Jeffrey Jeturian's Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006) or Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong succeeds in detailing the blatant ills of the Philippines' educational system and its surrounding issues on poverty without too overt in its advocacy. The film is narrated and is shown through the point of view of the children and as such, the presentation of the issues are filtered by their inherent naivety and innocence, making the exercise a lot more palatable and doubly poignant.

The incapacity of the public school teachers is dealt with compassion as the children's teacher is seen as a second mother rather than the culprit for the children's mal-education (the teacher is shown to have failed the teacher's board exams thrice, and despite that, is being allowed to teach the kids). The kids' eldest brother's pilfering of a few vegetables in the market is softened by the idea that in the point of view of the kids, such pilfering spells out survival. The kid's other brother's chronic lying is treated with humor rather than as a narrative arc for melodramatics. It is quite good that de Guzman belittles these character faults in the purview of the bigger issue of society's faults. In the end, de Guzman succeeds in transforming these film characters into real human beings: breathing, working, and dreaming in an impoverished community.

Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong is an exposé of a portion of Philippine society that seldom gets reasonable attention. It doesn't degrade itself by pointing fingers at people but instead spells out the aches and burdens of survival without sacrificing the familial bonds that have remained intact notwithstanding the poverty dealt upon them. It is a heartfelt film, alarming enough to inflict awareness of the virtues that survive the difficulty of traversing the road to the depicted characters' respective Kalimugtongs.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Rosetta (1999)

Rosetta (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 1999)

Midway through the film, Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) recites a personal prayer before heading to bed. Previous to that, she was befriended by a waffle stand salesperson (Fabrizio Rongione) who takes her in into his apartment; feeding her French waffles; allowing her to listen to his amateur drum recordings; and teaches her (although quite unsuccessfully) to dance. It is that state of normalcy that Rosetta has longed for --- to live in an urban flat, instead of the trailer camp where she and her mother resides in; to have a normal relationship with a concerned friend, instead of keeping every bit of concern alone; to have a stable job, instead of spending days getting fired and subsequently looking for employment in vain. Her prayer is like a routinary mantra that keeps her surviving through the inequality of society, but like most prayers or mottos, fails to materialize.

The following day, Rosetta is replaced in her work by her employer's lazy son. Her life falls once again in that perpetual limbo of uncertainty; and the only thing stable are the little peculiarities that surround her everyday life. Her daily breakfast of waffles and tap water, her shortcuts through the forest that surrounds her trailer camp, her daily means of catching fishes through a home-made fish trap, her eternal suffering because of stomach cramps made bearable by home-made cures of a pill and a glass of water and the sound and vibrations of a hair dryer --- these are the things that characterize Rosetta aside from the fact that she's in a continuous state of rage and discontent.

Rosetta is the second film made by the Dardenne Brothers and their first film to win the much-coveted Golden Palm in the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It is uncompromising and bleak. The camera mostly focuses on the face of the titular character; concentrating the viewers' attention to the nuances of Dequenne's performance. From the first scene when we see her storming along the hallway to the factory where she confronts a co-worker and her boss on her being fired, we immediately sense desperation and fear. It certainly feels that employment for Rosetta is her state of normalcy, her proof of humanity. Without it, she is drowned with her mundane yet unique routines and her larger-than-life domestic problems, including taking care of her alcoholic mom who succumbs to whoring herself for a few bottles of alcohol.

The pervading atmosphere of desperation and futility overcomes the entire film, that the moments wherein Rosetta allows herself a momentary feeling of glee, sadness, or any other emotion other than anger feels rather awkward. It is that misogynistic quality of the Dardenne Brothers' film which I dislike. It is that quality that purposely limits the titular character to situations of suffering and cutthroat moral choices that strips any sense of lingering humanity to the film, and thus gives the final product an unlikable aftertaste despite its redeeming social commentaries on unemployment and inequality. We only see Rosetta as an unwavering force of negative energy, irreversible yet depletable; never as a human being with valid needs and a bevy of emotions.

Imprisoned by poverty, Rosetta's fate seems trapped in her earthbound hell. The Dardenne Brothers play their cruellest trick on their heroine by preventing her from escaping that prison through the easiest way out. The final few minutes of the film seemed taken out of a magician's hat; wherein the desperation that pervades and fluctuates undramatically is concluded by a final act of futility, only to be stopped by their own poverty (the gas tank becomes empty before completely suffocating her and her mother). She purchases a new gas tank from the camp caretaker and carries it off to her trailer. Her former friend, consumed by anger because of her treachery, makes her task even more difficult by covering her path with his motorcycle. She gives up, falls on her knees and cries, with the final scene showing her former friend picking her up from that defeated stance.

The question arises as to the directors' motives. They create a character who has fallen from grace because of her poverty and her family's state in life, only to experiment with her or toy with her by enlarging her burden. That final scene where Rosetta finally cries and whimpers concludes the experiment, pleasing the directors curiosity as to the limits of Rosetta's conditions --- when will she succumb to the fact that even death has given up on her, when can we truly say that she's fallen and needs a helping hand to rise again? That also concludes my appreciation for the film as that moment has assured me that the Dardennes Brothers have inflicted on me an imaginary concern for their experimentation, rather than genuine pathos for a human individual.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006)

Dasepo Naughty Girls (Lee Je-yong, 2006)
Korean Title: Dasepo sonyo

A teacher walks in on a class composed of uniformed and attractive students, excusing himself as a replacement for their teacher who got an STD, allegedly for sleeping with teen prostitutes. The teacher tells a chubby student to have herself checked for the STD; the student replies that she doesn't sleep with teachers. The substitute quickly replies that their professor's STD is syphillis (which I believe can be transmitted through oral sex). The student excuses herself, followed by another, and another, and another, and another until one is left --- Cyclops (Lee Kyeon), who really has only one eye. The pre-credit gag segues to pink-attired female dancers performing the film's upbeat song accompanied by a bevy of kitsch, camp, and colorful zaniness.

Dasepo Naughty Girls is a film that has an exterior of a wacky sexy romp. It is episodic with each episode mostly consisting of gags, jokes, and bloopers --- all of which are inconsistently fleshed out; some are quite hilarious while the rest are tiring and confusing. It is unceasing in its irreverence and political incorrectness with characters ranging from a poor girl (Kim Ok-bin, she is by herself a walking, talking stereotype) who supports her single mom (Im Hye-jin, who absent-mindedly sells pyramids for a pyramid scheme, haha) and little brother, a rich exchange student (Park Jin-woo) who suddenly questions his sexuality when he falls for a beautiful lady who turns out to be a pre-operation trannie, a thug boss (Lee Weon-jong) who gets a kick out of wearing teen girl's uniforms, the aforementioned single-eyed and lone virgin of the film's high school, among other weirdos.

Director Lee Je-yong (or E J-young, his cooler, hipper name), whose previous feature was the ultra-serious and uber-sexy Korean remake of Dangerous Liaisons entitled Untold Scandal (2003), infuses the film with enough artistry and intelligence to keep the film from sinking in gag show and sitcom tedium. There are clever touches --- overt metaphors that somewhat matches the film's consistently un-subtle means of reaching into its audiences brains and subconscious. There's that doll named poverty hanging from poor girl's shoulders; there's the diversity of religions being taught in "No Use" high school; there's those pyramids for sale in the pyramid-ing scheme; and a whole lot more.

The film is a kaleidoscope of dumb sex jokes, visual humor, directorial statements (successfully or unsuccessfully relayed), and storylines bursting out of sheer absurdity. These storylines include a principal possessed by a mythical monster who espouses the virtue of virginity to the students of the high school, an underground cult that kidnaps virgins for the purpose of releasing potential erotic energy, and more. The film's lack of structure, its glaring and voluntary ineptitude, its rebellious nature are both its success and its failure.

It's irreverent, but not enough to force you to re-think adopted norms and ideals. It is indeed campy fun when it doesn't make sense and just streams along in wild fanciful abandon. Yet, whenever it starts to slow down to deliver a coherent thought, it fluctuates and becomes an utter boredom. So how does one enjoy a film like Dasepo Naughty Girls? It's quite simple, I thought. Just treat it like a movie caught accidentally one lazy Sunday morning. It's quite intelligently made but none of the intelligence can pass through that force field of utter campiness, so the only thing to do left, is to sit back and enjoy this colorful and musical romp.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Lives of Others (2006)

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
German Title: Das Leben der Anderen

The critics of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's very successful first film The Lives of Others attack it for its historical inaccuracy or the sparseness of truthfulness behind the facts that envelope the entire film. This surprise Oscar winner (beating out Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)) tells the story of a member of East Germany's Secret Police (the feared Stasi) who becomes tasked to spy on a poet who is suspected of adhering to Western ideals. Glaring for most purist historians is how von Donnersmarck marks the film with humanist pathos for the privacy-interfering Stasi, to the point of plotting out a steady path to redemption.

In interviews, Von Donnersmarck defends his films' historical accuracy or possibility by citing out several examples of Stasi who reneged on their sleazy governmental duties. At times, I question the wisdom in defending his film through factual chronicles. Is the film's downfall its inability to grasp the realities of our world's past? Is Von Donnersmarck's intention to cleanse these mini-atrocities of Communist Germany by providing a shining example of the possibility for righteousness in a society dictated by bureaucratic crab mentality? I disagree. Above all, I thought The Lives of Others is a humanist masterpiece. It is a film wherein intrinsic goodness triumphs over the fragility of the human soul. I cannot find fault in that; not in these trying times wherein a film's quality is measured by its negativity and how accurately it portrays humanity's moral downfall.

The heart of the film is certainly Ulrich Mühe's portrayal of Captain Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi agent who we initially see as stoic and sure in his duties, unwavering in the inhumanity of his interrogation techniques, morally unaffected in imparting his methods' efficiencies to young students. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful poet, has become the target of a high-ranking official who fancies Dreyman's beautiful girlfriend and muse, stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler's surveillance expertise is recruited to find anything incriminating about Dreyman.

Wiesler's canvass is Dreyman's pad --- a constant meeting place for anti-Communist artists, and a love nest for Dreyman and Sieland. Wiesler's studio is the pad's darkened attic --- a pathetic setting characterized by his instruments for his trade (a bevy of surveillance equipment which is wired to each and every spot in Dreyman's pad), and at times a companion for a few minutes, his night shift replacement. Wiesler's nights aren't any different from his solitary stay above Dreyman's pad. He goes home, makes dinner for himself, at times, hires a government-sponsored prostitute who serves him properly given that he pays right and schedules an appointment. It's a routine he has learned to live with, but in a sudden burst of humanity, opts to reject; against the promises of a lucrative career within the mechanical bureaucracy.

The film's success hinges on the plausibility of Wiesler's turnabout. I thought the turnabout was satisfyingly gradual --- visually presented and paced well enough to evoke judicious amounts of pathos and vulnerability for the subject character. Von Donnersmarck aptly and gorgeously creates an atmosphere of deadened loneliness and futility against the palpable warmth of true affections and the even more engaging and rousing prospect of rebellion and freedom. It is that interconnection of Wiesler's drab and lifeless world with the one Dreyman is living in that forces Wiesler to re-think --- is his life's worth measured by what he has been tasked to do by his bureaucratic masters, or is there something more? That interconnection, although one way as it is effected through less than desirous means of discreetly invading on other people's businesses, becomes that spark that will consume him enough to change him.

The film ends rather beautifully, without the usual grandeur or narrative excesses of contemporary cinema. Wiesler, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, chances upon the newly-released book by his former surveillance subject. He opens the book and sees a lovely surprise --- finally, he is complete and has been acknowledged. He is no longer that lonely man quietly peering and listening in a darkened attic; he has become a part of the life of another.